CHIANG RAI, Thailand — I arrived in the polished teak lobby of Anantara Golden Triangle to hushed tones and excited whispers. There was a buzz in the jasmine-scented air, only barely audible above the bubbling, flower-filled fountains.
“You have arrived at the perfect time,” the manager said, barely able to contain his smile while I checked in.
“If you would like to come with me, I will show you a miracle,” he added, rather cryptically. We hopped in a hotel jeep and took off down a steep, winding road. The drive to the hotel along the well-paved highway from Chiang Rai had been uneventful, aside from some road sign confusion. Now, driving on the expansive hotel grounds, we turned a sharp corner and faced two large elephants out for a stroll. With no room to pass, the driver veered off-road, heading down a hill and into a clearing in the forest before rolling to a stop. We crept quietly into the forest, careful not to draw attention to ourselves.
There, in front of us, was Boon Jan, a 45-year-old Asian elephant. She haphazardly pulled groups of branches down from trees, snapping them beneath her large feet and then chewing them loudly. Huddled underneath her was a newborn calf. He fit perfectly under her belly like a Matryoshka doll. His new eyes were bright red and unfocused. He held onto his mother with his trunk and mimicked every slow movement she made as perfectly as his spindly, shaky legs would allow. His skin, covered in spiky hairs, hadn’t yet begun to wrinkle into tough elephant hide. Every time Boon Jan stepped forward, the baby squeaked and shuffled along blindly, feeling for her with his tiny trunk.
Nong Sam was only hours old, weighing 187 pounds and measuring 33 inches tall at the shoulder. He was the fourth calf born on the grounds of this elephant camp in northern Thailand, and the seventh raised on the property since it opened in 2003.
Seeing a baby elephant is a rare occurrence, but adult elephant encounters are an everyday part of life for guests and staff at Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort. This environmentally conscious luxury hotel shares its 160 acres of bamboo forest, rice paddies, and indigenous gardens with the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, a wildly successful charity fully funded by Anantara that seeks to improve the lives of rescued elephants.
The plight of elephants in Thailand is a complex, hot-button issue. Here in northern Thailand, farmers used elephants as work animals, mainly for pulling down trees. Some were captured from the wild, and some were bred. Faced with devastating levels of deforestation, the government banned logging in 1989. Roughly 50 percent of Thailand was forested before World War I; now it’s 6 percent.
Elephants have a similar life trajectory to humans: They can work from ages 16 to 60 and live well into their 80s. With logging banned, farmers had no use for their domesticated elephants and no money to keep them. They either turned them out or used them as tourist fodder to generate income through weeklong trekking camps or for photo ops. These “street elephants” were terribly abused, both physically and mentally. They developed illnesses from city pollution and working to the point of exhaustion, and were often forced to sleep in the underpasses of busy Bangkok.
John Roberts, Anantara’s director of elephants, encountered an unexpected problem when he attempted to set up a sanctuary: After selling Roberts their street elephants, many mahouts (handlers) would capture another wild elephant and repeat the cycle of abuse.
This issue required a unique social approach. The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation set up a traditional village on the Golden Triangle property. Mahouts and their families receive free housing, schooling, food, and medical insurance. The mahouts take care of the elephants, assist with street rescues, and do community outreach. The foundation “rents” each elephant from the mahout, which gives his family a steady income and encourages elephant conservation. The herd roams free most of the time, and the elephants get regular veterinary care. There are 22 elephants and 57 people living together in this sustainable, safe, and healthy environment.
Fittingly, this elephant preserve is in a visually stunning area of the world that has also seen its share of change. For centuries, the Golden Triangle was the nexus of trade from China, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand, making it a crucial crossroad in Southeast Asia. The 2,486-mile-long Mekong River runs through here, from its start in China to its entry into the South China Sea in Vietnam. From the 1920s to the 1980s, deceptively pretty poppies covered these mountains, solidifying the Golden Triangle’s position as an opium capital. That ended in 1988, when Thailand’s Princess Mother established crop substitution programs for poppy farmers.
The “mahout experience” program at Anantara echoes this train of thought by replacing fleeting, circus-like experiences in the name of tourism with the chance to get a unique, humane, hands-on point of view.
Several acres away from the hotel, I joined four other guests for mahout class. We marveled at five elephants sauntering toward us, out in the open. These particular pachyderms, born into domesticity and comfortable around humans, soon strolled across the grounds with us like we were old friends. In one morning, we learned everything from everyday mahout practices to each elephant’s personality.
As we trekked through the forest on the backs of the elephants, mine stopped frequently to break off sugarcane, which she always passed to another elephant in the group, said to be her best friend. Meanwhile, the mahouts gathered fallen bamboo and sugarcane for elephant snacks later. It was all very serene — until we came to the Ruak River.
“You swim?” the mahout asked me mischievously, while asking the elephants to “goy” or “slow down.” If I didn’t already know how much elephants loved water, the 10 flapping ears and 20 shuffling feet around me would have given it away.
The elephant lunged forward at the first sound of pai (“go ahead”), plunging us both into deep, cold water. The others quickly joined her, spraying water at each other through their trunks. Suddenly, the mahout frantically urged me to hold on to my elephant’s neck (no easy feat) as she dived and rolled in the water, fully submerging both of us. From the shore, the only proof of these giants in the lake were their trunks poking up through the water like snorkels. Once we were suitably soaked, mahout class was over and we trekked back to the hotel.
Anantara Golden Triangle extends to the Mekong, at the point where Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos meet. You can view all three countries from most places in the hotel, but a table of carefully arranged binoculars in the outdoor restaurant encourages a closer look.
My husband and I scanned the acres of trees in front of us over breakfast, before spotting a herd under a tree. A younger elephant, full of energy, goaded an adult with his trunk until she finally swatted him away.
Moments later, the sound of heavy pads taking slow, steady steps drifted across the patio. Every morning, a mahout brings one of the younger elephants into the building for a treat: a choice of tropical fruit from the buffet. When a guest handed him a banana, the elephant proceeded to drop it on the ground and carefully step on it, pushing it out of its peel before eating it. He bypassed a plate of dragon fruit and grabbed for a papaya before rejoining his herd back in the forest.Hillary Richard can be reached at email@example.com.