Travel News

The elephants of Anantara

Standing knee-deep in a river between Thailand and Myanmar, surrounded by bathing elephants, is the definition of joy, writes Kendall Hill.

By Kendall Hill
It's not every day a baby elephant appears at the breakfast table. Meena is four and she greets me, mid-muesli, by squinching her trunk in my palm and making a happy squeal that sounds like a bunged-up bugle. She's so gorgeous I don't even mind that she's left a muddy, snotty smear up my arm.
In normal circumstances her appearance would have been a tremendous surprise, but lately I have come to expect elephants everywhere.
Seated on the balcony day-bed of my room, I can peer through the trees and watch huge grey beasts devour the jungle or bathe in a cloud of reddish dust. Just yesterday morning I rode a 36-year-old, 4000kg beauty called Boo Si into the Ruak River and gave her a good scrub. After our bath Boo Si and I lumbered along a forest track to a mahout village where I met eight-month-old Raimon. She was in a corral and when she saw that humans had come to play she started stampeding excitedly around the pen. Raimon ignored the banana I offered and instead wrapped her alarmingly powerful trunk around my arm, girded her ample loins and started hauling me towards her. It was a tug of war I knew I would lose - despite her tender age and the timber fence separating us - so I detached myself politely and leapt back to safety.
Rule number one: beware a baby elephant's invitation to play. They don't know their own strength.
Meena, Boo Si, Raimon and 27 other stunning creatures live among 65 hectares of forest and lush gardens at the Anantara Golden Triangle Resort & Spa, a five-star sanctuary in the far north of Thailand overlooking Myanmar and Laos. It is a jungle palace in the Lanna style with airy public spaces, a shimmering infinity pool, and 77 very comfortable rooms-with-a-view. Each is a cool, spacious sanctuary of teak wood, rich textiles and a deep Terrazzo bathtub with views over the Mekong River and surrounding jungle.
The property's remote location is a drawcard, and there are ample on-site amenities - two restaurants, an Anantara Spa, and convivial evening cocktails in the Elephant Bar - to keep guests entertained.
You may have heard of the resort; most years it hosts the King's Cup Elephant Polo Tournament in which eccentrics wielding two-metre mallets drive elephants around a field in a display of dubious athleticism.
The polo happened to be in full swing when I visited. It is a colourful sideshow of jodhpur-clad aristocrats - a colonel and an oil tycoon among them - that features lavish cocktail parties, a street parade of caparisoned and palanquinned elephants and the unforgettable novelty of mahouts urging their steeds to victory by manically jiggling their legs behind their elephant's ears. They look like midget equestrians with St Vitus' Dance.
The nine-year-old tournament is now one of Thailand's leading annual events, and while it attracts great publicity for the resort and the region, its overriding aims are to raise money for the National Elephant Institute in Lampang (south of Chiang Mai) and to spread the gospel of elephant conservation. The event is a shining example of corporate social responsibility, whereby companies channel a fraction of their profits into noble ventures in the name of positive PR. It's normal to be wary, even cynical, of such schemes, but after five days at Anantara's resort-cum-elephant camp, I am a convert.
The man who did most to convince me of the scheme's worth was Anantara's exquisitely titled director of elephants, John Roberts. A Briton who grew up wanting to escape his homeland, Roberts joined parks and wilderness services in the US and Australia (Keep River National Park in the Northern Territory and Moorrinya National Park in Queensland) before landing a job in Nepal's Royal Chitwan National Park, where he led rich tourists on jungle safaris by elephant. Eight years ago he was lured to Anantara to set up their elephant sanctuary, now known as the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation.
His passion is for the animals, not the polo, but he accepts the annual circus for the sake of fundraising.
"You know, my favourite time is when you people aren't here," he admits, "and I see the elephants just walking away into the forest. I love it best when it's just us and the elephants."
As director of said animals, he is responsible for ensuring the foundation works according to conservation and sustainability principles, and that it respects the traditional elephant owners. Plus there's fundraising, awareness-raising "and all the standard paperwork and office stuff". Still, it's a hell of a day job.
"I started off playing with elephants and managed to turn that into conservation of the domestic species," Roberts says. "I am not a passionate campaigner or anything, but I am here, and it's a good thing."
Money raised from the annual polo bash is used to rescue elephants and their owners (mahouts, or kwann chang in Thai) from a life of panhandling in the major tourist cities. In 2011, in collaboration with the National Elephant Institute, rescued elephants and mahouts will be retrained as therapists to teach autistic children communication and socialisation skills.
"Elephants are social animals," says Khun Prasop Thipprasert, noted elephant expert and one of the scheme's founders. "They have a very smart brain, they have language, they are emotional and they want to communicate with us."
The first elephant to arrive at the Golden Triangle camp was Pang Kam Sao. She used to ply her trade in Bangkok and Pattaya until her mahout, Khun Lord, reluctantly agreed in 2005 to a spell of clean country living. Khun Lord, his wife and his elephant still live at the camp and they seem happy with their change of fortune. "He is a conscientious mahout… but he really could think of no other alternative to look after an elephant to which he is very emotionally attached," Roberts says.
Today there are 30 elephants and 46 mahouts and their families living at the camp. The mahouts earn less here than they would touching up tourists, but there are consolations: their families are housed in a village of timber stilt homes, their elephants are insured and fed (by the resort), and Anantara has invested in mulberry trees, silkworms and looms so the mahouts' wives can make a living from weaving.
The arrangement is good for them but wonderful for hotel guests. Aside from surprise breakfast appearances and the unique pleasure of being woken each morning (and sometimes in the middle of the night) by the basso profundo of trumpeting trunks, guests can also join the student mahout program and bond with these magnificent animals.
Rule number two: you must love your elephant.
That's how I met Boo Si. She was one of a dozen elephants being brought out from the jungle to the Ruak River early one morning when my instructor, Khun Seng, asked if I'd like to hop aboard. Mad not to, I thought.
She knelt down graciously so I could clamber aboard then rose up to her full height of perhaps two and a half metres. I suddenly felt very vulnerable. Perhaps I'm just being romantic but I reckon Boo Si sensed my uncertainty; that's why she pulled her ears tight over my thighs to hold me firm before lumbering down the rugged riverbank into the water.
Travel writers can get a little jaded over time but the one sure cure for world-weariness is to stand knee-deep in a river between Thailand and Myanmar, surrounded by bathing elephants. It's the definition of joy.
Afterwards, freshly scrubbed and shiny wet, I rode Boo Si through the forest and got used to her elephantine rhythm (they have a very distinctive gait and an un­nerving habit of turning sideways to check what's behind them). My initial apprehension melted away and I did, indeed, learn to love my elephant. Especially when she responded so smartly to my commands to "pai" (go forwards), "baen" (turn) and "how" (stop).
By the time she dropped me off at the hotel entrance two hours later, I wanted to throw my arms around her trunk and give her a kiss on that scratchy, hairy, elongated upper lip of hers. But then I remembered...
Rule number three: never hug an elephant's trunk. Some of them hate it.
So I settled for a tickle behind the ears instead.
The polo attracts an eclectic, rather exotic community of people to Anantara. The most extraordinary are the elephant spirit men or shamans, tribal Suays from Surin near the Cambodian border. Dressed in sarongs with metal chains draped over their tattooed chests, these wizened souls come every year to bless the tournament before the first chukka commences.
There are only five of them left. They are the last of the elephant charmers, men credited with spiritual powers that allowed them to lure wild elephants from the jungle. Each animal would be sold into servitude for about nine chung, an obsolete currency now, but back then, one chung was enough to buy a cow.
Khun Miu Salangam is the most senior spirit man, not because he is 81 but because he caught the most elephants. Between the ages of 14 and 40, when he retired, he coaxed 60 animals from the jungle using a combination of ropes, nets, incantations and a talismanic sheet of dried buffalo skin.
"It was my duty to go and hunt elephants. The skills were handed down from father to son," Salangam explains. "Hunting elephants was the happiest time of my life. Sometimes we would see 50 to 60 elephants in one group, but the number of wild elephants is now dramatically reduced. Most of them were taken to the cities, so their numbers are now less and less."
Change was definitely emerging as a theme of the Golden Triangle. Even daily life in these infamous highlands has been rehabilitated in recent years, as I discovered during a visit to Doi Tung mountain, about an hour's drive from Anantara, near Mynamar's border.
Two decades ago when Srinagarindra, mother of the king of Thailand Bhumibol Adulyadej, arrived by helicopter at Doi Tung (the locals still call her Mae Fah Luang, "Royal Mother from the Sky"), she was angered to discover the tribespeople here were harvesting opium from the terraced fields. At least that's what my guide said, but it seems a stretch to think anyone (least of all the king's mum) would be shocked to find a thriving drug harvest in the heart of the notorious Golden Triangle.
Since the 1950s the region had been the engine room of an illegal opium trade controlled first by the Kuomintang then by Burmese warlord Khun Sa, whose militia forces ran the region's opium refineries between the 1960s and 1990s. Most of the annual opium harvest was grown in northern Myanmar, transported to the Thai border for refinement into heroin and then traded to fund Khun Sa's guerilla war against the Burmese junta.
Opium is still grown in the mountains today, particularly in Myanmar, but according to figures at the Hall of Opium Museum near Chiang Saen, the Thai harvest has halved from 1782 hectares in 1990 to 820 hectares in 2006. A good deal of the credit for this turnaround is given to Srinagarindra, who decided to kick the locals' opium habit, and to live out her days in the cool mountain air of Doi Tung. By the time she died in 1995, she had achieved both goals.
Today her villa crowns the top of the mountain and is a quirky blend of Swiss chalet and Lanna architectural styles. Below the villa, on the site of a former rest stop for opium traffickers, is the Mae Fah Luang Garden. The four hectares of landscaped and perfumed grounds are the showpiece of the Doi Tung Development Project, a collection of industries pioneered by the royal mother to give ethnic tribespeople sustainable alternatives to opium growing. More than 11,000 people are involved in the project, which has macadamia plantations, mulberry paper and textile industries and a small coffee empire that does everything from grow the beans to sell lattes through a nationwide chain of fashionable cafés. Visitors can tour the royal villa and gardens and browse the boutique selling sophisticated products, including limited-edition Converse sneakers made with Doi Tung textiles. A notice in the shop from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime advises shoppers: "The sale of these products contributes to the achievement of a drug-free world." I doubt my purchase of a pair of Converse is going to bust a big hole in the global narcotics trade, but it's a start.
Back at Anantara, guests gather for a cocktail party on Sunset Hill with its marvellous views of the Mekong and Ruak rivers tracing the jigsaw pieces of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos. Buses ferry us almost to the summit but we walk the last 50 metres to get the glorious surprise of being greeted by three smiling elephants against a stunning jungle panorama. One of our giant greeters is baby Lynchee, who arrived at the camp a few months after she was born and has been best friends with John Roberts ever since. She still thinks he's an elephant.
"She hasn't quite worked out why my nose isn't the same size as hers, or my ears," he says. "But I secretly love it when she sucks my ear with her trunk."
Lynchee is a bit of a rehab success story. She's a little beacon of hope for the future.
  • undefined: Kendall Hill