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Gentle giants: Walking with elephants in Thailand’s Golden Triangle

Anantara’s King’s Cup Elephant Polo in Thailand is a much anticipated event dedicated to elephant welfare. Corey Baudinette heads north to the Golden Triangle to learn more about these majestic pachyderms.

The far north of Thailand has inspired writers and artists for generations, and it’s easy to see why. The Golden Triangle — the borders between Thailand, Myanmar and Laos covered in jungle and separated only by the mighty Mekong — provides a stunning location to experience some of nature’s most impressive creatures.

Sublime setting

Arriving at Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort in the haze of Chiang Rai’s late afternoon sun is an experience in itself. The elegant mix of colonial and authentic Thai architecture creates a unique, safari-style ambience, and as I enter through the Elephant Bar and Opium Terrace, my gaze lifts to take in the magnificent vista across the infinity pool. I realise I’m in a very special place indeed.

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Accommodation is an outstanding example of contemporary Thai design, with teak floors, oversized terrazzo tubs and cooling, calming silks. My balcony doors open to reveal views across the valley and my first glimpse of elephants feeding by the banks of the Mekong — a sight that’s far from my last. Dinner the first evening is a ‘Dining by Design’ experience with a private chef, and it’s served on a bamboo platform floating above the rice paddies. We arrive at the lower terrace on board the resort’s vintage Jeep to discover three elephants patiently waiting at the edge of the bamboo forest for a feast of sugar cane and other treats, which we delight in feeding them. In just a few minutes, they devour their supper before leaving us for their bedtime.

We are soon enjoying a parade of treats of our own in the form of mouthwatering traditional dishes. Satiated and enchanted by the serene rural scene, we release a lantern into the starry night sky as we bid farewell to our first day in the jungles of Chiang Rai. The view across the smoky valleys at breakfast is nothing short of cinematic, and it isn’t long before I’m joined by a surprise visitor: a baby elephant. We pose for a photo but I don’t linger; this morning I’m off to discover more of the story behind these magnificent creatures and to meet the rest of the family at the Elephant Camp.

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The camp village is home to about 25 elephants. Each mahout and his family receives food, housing, medical insurance and schooling for his children, and 100 per cent of the profits from a traditional silk-weaving business on site. The Anantara brand is heavily supportive of this camp, and of elephant welfare across Thailand. Each March for the past 14 years it has hosted the King’s Cup Elephant Polo tournament in Bangkok, one of the biggest charitable events in South-East Asia, generating almost US$1 million for Thailand’s domestic elephant population.

Over the weekend, 10 teams of 40 players take to the field, including Thai celebrities, the New Zealand All Blacks and professional horse polo players. Players sit behind the elephants’ mahouts with long polo sticks at the ready, and there are three elephants to a side. The rules stipulate that elephants are not allowed to pick up the ball with their trunk, and lying down in front of the goal is a no-no.

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Fun fact: The first elephant polo games were played with a soccer ball, but these were quickly changed to standard polo balls after it was realised the elephants liked to pop the soccer balls by stamping on them! The celebration also involves providing food, veterinary checks and education for mahouts on long-term care, giving working elephants a respite and much needed support. The tournament has made a significant impact on the lives of hundreds of elephants, and much of it can be attributed to the work modelled by the camp here in the Golden Triangle.

Elephant friends

For a truly hands-on experience, the Mahout Training activity allows you to learn basic elephant commands, but my choice is an activity called ‘Walking with Giants’. I meet my elephant and mahout by the edge of the grasslands and we make our way across the fields to the river bank. As we walk the valley floor, my new mahout friend starts to sing to his pachyderm, low and melodious. With dragonflies buzzing overhead and the elephant playfully swinging his trunk in time, I am completely mesmerised by the magnificence of these creatures.

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After a quick bath in the river and some frolicking fun with their friends, it’s back to the resort for an afternoon spa treatment. The award-winning spa at Anantara has treatment rooms that overlook the valley, and as I indulge in the spa’s blissful signature treatment, I’m serenaded by the trumpeting of elephants in the distant jungle. Feeling like I’ve made at least a few lifelong pachyderm friends, I leave for Bangkok the next day. The opulent Anantara Siam Bangkok Hotel is in the centre of the city but has a relaxed atmosphere enhanced by a large, open internal garden. Like many of the experiences I’ve had during this trip, the final spa treatment I have here is practically life changing.

This article appeared in volume 22 f Signature Luxury Travel & Style Magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.

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