I’m on the back of an elephant straddling the Thai-Burmese border, which happens to be a river, and the elephant is submerged. Before I know it, a trunk is directed my way and I cop a face-full of mud-brown water. It’s a ridiculous feeling, yet fun, as I desperately avoid being dumped into the river. After a thorough drenching, we make our way back to camp, cutting through bamboo forest and emerald-green grassland.
Whether you choose to ride them or simply admire them from a distance, the elephants are the star attraction. Some people argue that riding elephants is wrong, but these majestic animals at the camp are all rescued from a life of hard labour and rehabilitated. Tourism provides income to their mahouts, or trainers, and funds habitat protection for elephants still in the wild. You know the operation is ethical, which can’t be said for many other outfits.
Unused to riding metre-wide beasts, my spa treatment can’t come soon enough. Relief takes the form of a mahout recovery treatment, specifically designed to soothe muscles you never knew you had until jumping on an elephant. A light breeze takes the edge off the afternoon heat at the open-air spa, and drowsiness descends, along with a slight dribble at the corner of my mouth.
The indulgence continues with a late afternoon bamboo raft cruise. Two boatmen guide the raft with their poles while I recline on cushions under the shade of a large parasol, and down the contents of a picnic basket and some sparkling wine. Rafting is followed by cocktail hour at the Burma Bar, a retro-chic sip spot where guests can watch the sun go down behind Thailand’s neighbour.
Come dinner time, I’m not especially hungry, but since meals as well as drinks and activities are included in the rate, it’d be rude not to partake. As befits its location, Nong Yau, the signature restaurant, serves an extensive range of Northern Thai, Burmese and Laotian fare, including khao soi noodles, sea bass soup, red curry of beef and pumpkin and wok-fried hill tribe kale. The food is good to very good, although spice levels are toned down to farang, or foreigner level. Western dishes such as pasta and steak are also available, but when in the Golden Triangle...
Next morning, we’re feeding elephants bananas at the breakfast table, and the morning after, we’re driven to a private thatched sala at the top of a hill, and served a sunrise breakfast of fruit, pastries and freshly cooked eggs benedict and fried rice from a makeshift kitchen. There’s lunch by the small but very lovely pool, and a candlelit wine dinner, served in the camp’s cellar.
Excursions are also offered to the heart of the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Burma and Laos meet at the intersection of the Mekong and Ruak Rivers, and visits to a local market and opium museum. Casinos are sensibly given a wide berth, but hey, money laundering, anyone?
Accommodation at the camp is in one of 15 open-plan air-conditioned tents on stilts, surrounded by dense bush, with each offering almost identical 54 sq m of interior space and an outdoor deck. Think vintage Thai meets jungle safari, with hardwood floors, timber furniture, ultra-comfy pillow-top bed, hand-hammered copper bath tub, double vanities, outdoor shower and canvas flaps that lift up to reveal forest, plains and river. Local accents include fabrics and soft-furnishings made by hill tribes.
Service is excellent, from pick-up at the airport and check-in, to the mahouts who accompany you on elephant rides. I’d mentioned in passing I like durian fruit and one of the staff went into the village to get me some for my return trip to the airport. I was delighted, though my driver was less than impressed by its evil stench.
Is this for everyone? Well, for starters, children under 10 years are not permitted. And people who dislike bugs and outdoor showers may struggle. You’ll pay through your nose for wines not included in the package. And the cost makes it very much a special occasion experience. But there’s really nothing else quite like it in Asia, and it’s ideal for those wanting soft adventure, wildlife experiences and a large dose of luxury.
Here’s cheers, big ears.