Inspiration Destinations Thailand Golden Treasures: Roadtripping Northern Thailand's Golden Triangle

Golden Treasures: Roadtripping Northern Thailand's Golden Triangle

February 19, 2024
Aerial view of Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort surrounded by lush forest which is one of the most outstanding stays in Thailand's golden triangle - Luxury Escapes

On a northern Thailand road trip, Paul Chai spends a memorable night in a “jungle bubble” in the Golden Triangle surrounded by elephants, gets blessed by a monk in Chiang Mai and visits a quirky modern temple with more bling than Vegas-era Elvis.

Resting on a fallen log in the Thai jungle, the air hefty with humidity, I feel Chok Petch, a four-year-old baby Asian elephant gently entwine his trunk around my forearm and tug me towards him.

Arm-in-trunk with the national animal of Thailand feels a bit like my Dian Fossey/Gorillas in the Mist moment, before the resident vet, Nissa Mututanont, brings me jolting back to the sodden tropical earth. I am about to become a man-sized pacifier.

“You might want to watch him, anything in his trunk tends to end up in his mouth,” Nissa says. I quickly unwind myself and the youngster returns to his previous preoccupation, poking and prodding me with this most versatile of appendages.

I am on a morning walk with Chok Petch, his aunt Beau and friend Boonma at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort. The camp was set up with the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) and it allows around 20 rescued elephants, mostly female, to roam free on 65 hectares of lush jungle along the Mekong and Ruak rivers that wind themselves around the borders of three countries – Thailand, Laos and Myanmar – all of which you can see from the resort.

Chok Petch has been the highlight of our sunrise stroll, trying to loot a motorbike for snacks, slapping us with his trunk and wandering off the path to amused shouts from his mahout (handler), who seems used to his shenanigans. When it comes time for a river bath, Boonma goes for a full-body mud mask, Beau flatly refuses to enter the water and Chok Petch dives in headfirst disappearing completely, his trunk
surfacing like a fleshy periscope, before being startled by a motorboat and nearly starting a three-elephant stampede.

Nissa says that one of the most rewarding things about working with the elephants, many of whom worked in the logging or tourism industries, is that they are all very different. “Beau is not the only elephant who does not like being told when to take a bath, each elephant is unique, with different personalities and differences in how they behave toward different people,” Nissa says. “It is enjoyable to watch them be the elephants that they are meant to be. Some are open-minded, some prefer their independence.”

These fascinating animals are at the heart of a visit to the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort. Checking in to the Three Country View Suite, the outlook across the three South-east Asian countries is peppered with elephants languidly collecting some of the 200kg of greenery needed to sustain them each day.

Inside the suite – a calming collection of polished teak, wooden sculptures and handwoven hill tribe textiles – there are elephant-shaped biscuits, books on the beasts and pachyderm silhouettes hewn
from banana leaf decorating the crisp white bedspread.

But this palatial room is just a place to drop bags on the first night because I am off to spend a very special evening sleeping even closer to the jungle flora and fauna. Anantara’s Jungle Bubble is a nocturnal
experience that sees guests transported deep into the rich green foliage to an incongruous, Jetsons-meets-Tarzan abode.

A collection of jungle bubbles in Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort surrounded by elephants which is one of the standout properties in northern Thailand's golden triangle - Luxury Escapes
Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort, Chiang Rai.

The two-bedroom “bubble lodge” is made up of a series of five clear globes: two bedrooms, a central sitting room and two ensuites cloaked for privacy, all made from high-tech polyester. The lodge sits on an
elevated wooden deck with a Jacuzzi, day beds and a long, wooden dinner table.

Greeting you as you arrive are your fellow guests for the evening; 31-year-old Jathong and 52-year-old Kummool, two more of the resort’s rescued elephants.

If you have never had elephants around for dinner, it is not for the misophonic (those people who hate eating sounds). In addition to the chirping of crickets and the wild whooping of the tokay gecko a pachyderm picnic sees you privy to the shattering snaps and long-suffering huffs of Jathong and Kummool as they devour sweet stems of fresh cane sugar.

Dinner for me consists of a private chef delivering an eight-course extravaganza. Seared tuna with roasted chilli paste and sour mango, sea bass in a tamarind and ginger broth and kao soi, a northern Thai favourite featuring crisp egg noodles in a yellow curry with chicken that can be eaten for dinner or breakfast – all with an ice-cold bottle of local white wine.

This is not my first pachyderm rodeo. I have bathed elephants in Thailand, fed them handmade banana tacos in Laos and spotted them at a national park in Sri Lanka. Now, sitting under the stars in my luxurious jungle bubble, this feels like a natural evolution of hands-off elephant tourism in Asia. I am there to be viewed by the elephants as they munch on dinner, and they remain unphased as I take a latenight plunge in the Jacuzzi or join them for breakfast with a hot coffee in hand.

The elephants have all been born into captivity and they lack the skills to thrive in the wild so they have a mahout to look after them, but they no longer perform tricks for tourists or carry heavy logs. Their days are their own. “The GTAEF was established to make sure that the mahouts and their elephants are given the opportunity to better their way of life,” says Nissa.

Travelling north

My journey to the Golden Triangle began at Anantara’s sister property in Chiang Mai. Like the northern resort, the Anantara Chiang Mai sits on a bend of the river but you swap the stillness of the jungle for the
clatter and clamber of city life.

Chiang Mai is the second-largest city in Thailand, a sprawling, low-rise metropolis whose heart is the 13th-century-old city that is still protected by a moat, though the walls that kept out invaders have
mostly been tumbled by time.

Water is a great way to see the city and on my first morning at the resort, after breakfast at the Bodhi Terrace under the imposing, fairy-light-strung namesake tree, I am taken upriver on the resort’s houseboat. Our destination is the 15th-century Wat Ket Karam, a colourful riverside temple with sparkling nagas (snake-like guardians), a brilliant white stupa and, inexplicably, a series of golden
dog statues wearing natty matching capes.

We are here for a blessing from the resident monk and bow before him offering our gift (soap and sundries organised by the resort); on our knees we are told to think of something positive we would like to manifest and the monk then performs a solemn chant to help carry our wish to the relevant deity’s ears.

If your wish is a Michelin-starred meal for under $2, it is granted at a small stall right next to Wat Ket Karam. The Michelin Guide only arrived in regional Thailand in 2023 and it quickly bestowed an award
on the khao kriab pak moh made at the Lung Khajohn Wat Ket stall. Barely-there batter is quickly steamed on a flat surface, then dollops of minced pork, coriander, peanuts, palm sugar and spices are added and folded into dumplings. The result is a sweet-cum-savoury snack eaten with coconut milk and lettuce, feather light and worth the Michelin attention.

Back on the boat we sail past regal portraits of Thai King Vajiralongkorn, riverside dining decks and locals trying their luck by throwing in a fishing line while sitting on overturned plastic buckets.

The Anantara Chiang Mai Resort is built around a 100-year-old heritage house, the top floor of which has been turned into the Service 1921 restaurant decked out with vintage watches, magnifying glasses and black-and-white portraits of military intelligence officers. The walls are lined with bookcases, one of which is a secret door that leads you to the Pirate Room, dominated by a huge map with string marking the historic sea routes of these terrors of the high sea. The lunch is opulent and Western with swimmer crab bisque and a grill menu with the odd local touch like Surat Thani tiger prawns in a piquant nam jim butter; a signature Fleming No. 7 (vodka, chamomile gin, Martini blanco and a lemon twist) caps off the On Her Majesty’s Secret Service vibes.

The view from an alfresco table setting at Anantara Chiang Mai Resort, one of the standout properties in northern Thailand's golden triangle - Luxury Escapes
Anantara Chiang Mai Resort, Chiang Mai.

Come evening the night market is just across the road from the resort where you can stroll the stalls for pungent trays of durian, find centipede and scorpion on a stick or barter for a colourful stuffed elephant. The yin and yang of the Chiang Mai and Golden Triangle resorts makes for a well-rounded northern Thai trip. After a busy city break climbing into the mountainous Golden Triangle region, the roadside jungle is verdant and seemingly impenetrable; at several points the thick canopy hangs over the traffic like a giant green wave threatening to crash down on the road below.

The trip is peppered with four-storey high golden Buddha statues, an even bigger depiction of Chinese deity Quan Yin and even colourful sculptures of Transformers and The Hulk guarding roadside stalls. The two essential stops on the journey north are the White Temple and the Blue Temple.

At Wat Rong Khun, or the White Temple, Thai artist Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat noticed that his local place of worship was rundown and lacking in visitors. His answer was to dress the temple up like Elvis in his Vegas years, bright white and bedazzled from head to toe. In the tropical midday sun, the temple is almost blinding as you walk past a sea of ceramic hands reaching up for you and pass an amazing array of mythical beasts.

Things get weirder still at the attached Cave of Art where you negotiate a cement corridor full of carvings from Pirates of the Caribbean to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that eventually leads you to a Buddha then back out into the unforgiving sunlight.

The Blue Temple in Chiang Rai, or Wat Rong Suea Ten, was designed by Putha Kabkaew who was a student of the White Temple creator. It has similarly anarchic design choices like walls of skulls, roaring
tigers and winged men with insane abs, and both make a big change from Chiang Mai’s more traditional places of worship.

Arriving at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort, you are met by lurid greens, misty mountains and Tuek, the resident water buffalo who roams the grounds and occasionally meets guests
outside reception. Unashamedly opulent, this resort also feels like it has settled into its jungle surrounds with mossy roof tiles, mercurial jungle pathways and dark-wood balconies where you can settle in for the tri-country view.

A reflective infinity pool at Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort which is one of the standout properties in northern Thailand's golden triangle - Luxury Escapes
Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort, Chiang Rai.

When my busy day with elephants and jungle bubbles comes to an end, I wind up in the Elephant Bar and Opium Terrace, a nod to the region’s rogue history. The wide couches covered in hill tribe fabrics and carved oak tables are scattered with binoculars for spotting the local wildlife. My farewell cocktail is an AI-YA-RA (King of Thai Elephants) that features ya-dong as its base, a local spirit infused with jungle herbs. Add in some sous-vide betel leaves, fresh pineapple, lime juice and citrus oil and you have a concoction worthy of the lofty title.

While the elephants may have loomed large over my northern Thai sojourn, so too has the feisty local food, the spirituality woven into all aspects of daily life and the wild setting where the jungle looks ready to claw back and envelop any manmade structure with the help of the next monsoon. It is a landscape perfectly suited to Chok Petch and his elephant family and thanks to the resort and the foundation he can grow and play here not work and toil. They say that elephants never forget, but holding hands with Chok Petch in the Thai jungle – even under threat of getting chomped – ranks as a travel experience I will remember for a very long time.

This article was originally featured in the third issue of Dream by Luxury Escapes magazine. Get your copy here.

About Paul Chai
Paul Chai has been a travel writer for over two decades. He has dived with great white sharks in South Australia, walked the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival and stuffed himself with enough food and wine working on the Good Food Guide to make his GP shake his head. Chai is currently managing editor of Dream by Luxury Escapes.

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