Mr Prayat’s T-shirt said it all. It instructed me how to drive an elephant and reminded me how to speak elementary mahout.
“Pai!! (Forward). “Ben Kwa!” (Turn right), “Ben Sai! (Turn left) Toi Sock!” (Back). There is no elephantese for “Stop!” An elephant stops when it wants to. It rarely gives way and normally assumes it has the right of the way.
Together we walked under the kapok silk trees, river figs and elephant ears and elephant apple trees of north Thailand. Beside the River Ruak.
Overlooking Laos and Myanmar, the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort in Chiang Sean, Chiang Rei province, 500 miles north of Bangkok, is the only resort in Thailand offering elephant encounters on its own land and having its own elephant and mahout refugee camp. It is also the only place in the world where you can have an elephant sleepover.
People pay from £446 per person to sleep with and get up close and personal with an endangered species and £170 to wild roam in 160 acres of ancient jungle, interacting with the biggest brain in the animal kingdom and a culture under threat after four thousand years.
French General Manager Gauderic Haunang says:
“Our encounters offer a level of intimacy and privacy that you can’t find in any other institution with elephants in Thailand. Our transparent jungle bubbles are a world first and allow you to go to sleep and wake up surrounded by the elephants in their natural habitat.”
Anantura’s Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, which hosts the fund-raising annual Elephant River Festival every March in Bangkok, has similar conservation projects in Africa, Sri Lanka, the Middle East as well as south Asia. In Thailand, its elephant protection programme provides a home for twenty rescued working (domesticated) elephants and fifty people, their mahouts and families. Mahouts and their charges were made redundant when logging was banned in 1995. Many resorted to street begging.
British-born Director of Elephants, John Roberts who has worked in Texas, Australia and Nepal, says:
“A mahout’s welfare is as important as the elephants. A happy, well-educated mahout means a happy elephant. We collaborate with doctors, vets and scientists to drive research on elephants forward. What an elephant needs to be an elephant. Not a sideshow.
“Our aim is to help elephants and mahouts who can’t help themselves. To provide a safe, stable living space and a dignified, ethical working environment. We employ two English teachers. The kids get to go to school. And their mothers receive social upliftment and earn money from breeding silkworms and making scarves.”
At the 61-room ultra-luxurious Anatara Golden Triangle resort, there are no elephant rides, no humiliating circus stunts, no hula hooping, harmonica playing, painting, elephant polo matches or tug of war. No performances. The elephants are allowed to do their own thing and you pay to do it with them.
“It is the national animal of Thailand revered by royalty. They were war warriors. But recently our elephants have been abused and exploited,” says Pyat Dokmadua who has worked for the WWF and now walks with the walkers. “White elephants were considered sacred. March 13th is National Elephant Day”.
We watched 41 year old Beau bath in the river with 21 year-old Ma Noi and 28 year old Jathong. All had been rescued off the streets with their displaced owners. They dried off and put their sunscreen on with a dust bath watched by their mahouts and old friends, Berm, Singha and Jay.
As we walked with the giants, Miss Noey, an intern, told me that elephants were once a major export of the Siamese royal court, traded to Indian merchants for cotton for forestry work. She told me they forage eighteen hours a day on 150 species of vegetation. And that there are 6,000 elephants in Thailand, two-thirds of which are captive. The best mahouts are traditionally from the Kui and Karen Tribes.
The Thai royalty and government have elephant conservation projects to promote peaceful co-existence between human and elephants. Miss Noey also told me that Asian elephants can hear ten miles and have a smaller head and ears than African elephants as well as a finger in its trunk. An Asian elephant can lift 300kgs.
Beau trumpeted to warn off a water buffalo the other side of the river. She is very protective of her stomping-ground.
Our early morning walk had begun with safety instructions. Mr Prayat reminded me not to approach an elephant from behind. At all times to speak softly to them. To stroke and never pull or hug their trunks. To feed them with sugar cane and sunflower seeds. Bananas are fattening. I was advised never to try and crawl under an elephant. Our walk lasted an hour and a half. It ended with the elephants getting a pedicure.
The hotel’s spa offers a “Mahout Relaxation package” with “prai” facials and specially-targeted compresses and moringa oil massages. You can learn how to plant rice, get driven around the local sights in an Enfield motorbike and have dinner in a paddy field among an elephant herd. You can also say I do with elephants as your witnesses. The proceeds go to good causes, the employment of local staff as well as elephants.
The air-conned, elephant-proof bubbles are inflated with a running turbine so only one door can be opened at one time as the entrance is an airlock. It is five-star deluxe quarantine. The most luxurious self-isolation available.
“Self-distancing is hard for an elephant,” said Pryat. “They need company and constant stimulus.” Myanah birds twittered. Flower peckers hovered. The scorching sun rose higher. I thanked Beau and Berm for their time. In Thailand, mahout Mr Berm Wattana Salangam is a “kwan-chang”. He is 35.
“We are very lucky”, he smiled, pressing his palms together. “We were rescued and given a new home and a happy life. A future. Without the Foundation none of us would have survived. We would have starved. My wife is happy. My whole family is happy.”
The non-profit ‘Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation’ was founded in 2006 to help vulnerable captive elephants who had lost the means to feed themselves and their drivers/keepers/carers. It looks after 23 mahouts, their wives and three children.
Commenting on the hotel’s Opium Terrace, Roberts said:
“Unfortunately, all indications are that the current Corona crisis will hit the elephant community far harder than even SARS did, and we could easily be heading back to a time of street begging elephants. And slow starvation. We’re currently looking at ramping up our fundraising and have identified ensuring there is a veterinary safety net as one of the prime concerns. We haven’t ruled out having to go back to direct rescue again.
“We’ve tended to work with the Kuay people of Surin province who have an ancient tradition with its own quasi religion and language.”
Thanks to the work of Mexican animal trainer, Dr Gerardo Martinez, the mahouts receive targeted training techniques and are taught positive reinforcement rather than rely on punishment.
The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation cooperates with the Thai government and other organisations in ‘bigger picture’ conservation projects. It has helped to fund research and clinics using elephants in therapy sessions for children living with autism and Down’s Syndrome.
“Elephants make very good assistant therapists. We equipped the first elephant (“chang”) hospital in Krabi, southern Thailand with an ATV, and also donated to the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang, among other things, a purpose-built elephant ambulance and a gantry to help lame elephants stand. The foundation also built the world’s only facility to scientifically research elephant intelligence.”
The Foundation is also involved in community-based projects to help elephant conflict, facilitate and improve medical outreach and elephant monitoring watchtowers. As well as re-forestation initiatives.
“Our aim is to provide the mahouts and their elephants with a safe, sustainable and ethical environment where the mahout culture can be protected, preserved and flourish. We rent the elephants off the mahout. Buying has a negative impact on conservation. A baby elephant is two million in the pocket.”
The Foundation, whose major donor is ‘Minor Hotels’, funds four rangers to patrol the Koh Kong elephant corridor in Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains.
Tourism is the only source of revenue to keep elephants and mahouts healthy and well-fed.
“I’m most proud of how far we’ve come in elephant welfare attitude of our mahouts from the early rock’n’roll days when we were just happy to have elephants not on the streets compared to nowadays when they are all taking part in elephant friendly training and making suggestions for our environmental enrichment.
“We’ve turned what was ostensibly set up purely as a small tourist attraction into something that is helping elephants. We have rangers working against the bushmeat trade and literally keeping pangolins out of the pot.
“Mahout welfare is just as important as elephant welfare. If you don’t have a happy mahout, you won’t have a happy elephant. If you don’t take care of the mahout, they can’t take of their animals.”
Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort, 229, Moo 1, Chiang Saen, Chiang Rai 57150, Thailand.
Tel: +66 53 784 084
Anantara Golden Triangle is an hour from Chiang Rai airport which is an hour’s $150 one-way flight from Bangkok. You will be picked up at the airport and then driven to an awaiting speedboat. After a short river ride you will be greeted by elephants.
Type of Hotel: 5-Star Luxury Hotel & Resort
Number of Rooms: 71 rooms with complimentary Wi-Fi included.
Price Band: High, from £446 per person per night.
Insider Tip: Pace yourself if you have the banquet in the paddy field and make sure you do the motorbike ride and visit the Opium Museum up the road. It’s the only museum in the world where you will be the only visitor. Staff outnumber visitors even on a good day.
Reviewer’s Rating: 9/10
Kevin Pilley is a former professional cricketer and chief staff writer of PUNCH magazine. His humour, travel, food and drink work appears worldwide and he has been published in over 800 titles.
Photographs courtesy of Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort