Chiang Rai, Thailand: A luxury jungle retreat where you can get up close to elephants

Anyone who has struggled to get their child out of the bath will sympathise with the mahouts watching over Bleum and Beau. "Ma, ma!" (meaning come, come) the mahouts yell insistently from the muddy riverbank of the swirling river as it snakes its way to join the mighty Mekong River downstream. It's pouring with rain, we're soaked and splattered with mud, but there's no place we'd rather be.

The mahout's charges are not tired children who need to be put to bed, but two Asian elephants. Happily submerged in the latte-coloured river that flows down from China, the pair turn their backs on their handlers, Berm and Piak, and refuse to get out.

"You can't blame them," says my 10-year-old daughter, Ella, who, given half the chance, would be in the river with them.

The elephants, with much splashing and diving and with trunks lifted skyward, are taking a glorious river bath at the end of a Walk with Giants experience at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort. The experience is aptly named. We've walked behind, in front of and alongside the two giant female elephants (best friends) on a slow walk from the main camp to the river. Beau and Bleum amble like two children walking home from school; stopping every few metres to consume the bamboo grass that lines the muddy route – strong trunks stripping off the green leaves easily and stuffing them into their ever-hungry mouths.

It's ridiculously hot and muggy in a way that zaps you of energy. So, when the skies open with late monsoon rain, all of us – but particularly Ella and the elephants – are blissfully happy. Ella kicks off her shoes and instructs me to do likewise. "This is fun," she yells splashing through puddles, just like the two tonne beauties we're walking with.

The two elephant friends have not had the chance to take a bath together in quite some time as Bleum's mahout (handler) has been unwell and unable to join his elephant in the river. The danger of letting the elephants swim on their own is not so much they'll refuse to get out, but rather that they could easily take off to Myanmar, which is literally on the other side of the river. "It's a nightmare getting them back," explains Ou (pronounced You), Anantara's elephant camp manger. "Especially as elephants don't have passports," she adds.

It's our third day at the luxe jungle retreat, renowned for its pioneering elephant camp in the mist-shrouded jungle of Chiang Rai that borders Myanmar and Laos.

The camp was set up in 2003 as a traditional mahout village. To date more than 50 elephants have been rescued from Thailand's city streets and 22 live in the serene camp. This is about as close as these beautiful animals, captive their entire lives, can come to living in the wild.

The camp is one of the few places where guests can interact with elephants in an ethical way and it advocates experiences that don't involving riding.

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"There are 3470 elephants in captivity in Thailand. Even if it were possible to release them into the wild, there's simply not enough forest to do so – not to mention it's illegal," explains John Roberts, Anantara's group director of conservation and sustainability, and founder of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF). Roberts is a passionate conservationist and has long championed sustainable elephant tourism. The camp does not have a breeding program and leases instead of buys elephants, discouraging locals from capturing another animal in the hope of selling it for big money.

The camp is not only for elephants, but their entire mahout family who also receive English lessons, education and profits from the sale of garments from a traditional silkworm business. The hope is that future generations will choose a different profession rather than becoming mahouts.

Dr Nissa Mututanont is the head elephant veterinarian and works with the mahouts to ensure the elephants receive proper nutrition and medical attention. "Guests get the chance to witness the playful personality and character of these beautiful animals that I see every day and hopefully go home with a better understanding of what we are doing here at the foundation," she says.

Unfolding across 160 acres of Northern Thailand's ancient jungle, the 63-room Anantara Golden Triangle is perched on a hill overlooking the Mekong and Ruak rivers. The secluded and almost mythical setting looks out over the confluence of three countries. After arriving late under the cover of darkness, we pull open the blinds the next morning to see mist rising off the Mekong Valley across the infinity edge pool. Our smart Deluxe Three Country View Room is decorated with traditional Thai silks, has teak floors and boasts terrazzo tubs big enough to bathe, well, a baby elephant.

There's much to do in this mysterious and little-explored part of Thailand, once the epicentre of the country's poppy crops. The resort's new manager, Gauderic Harang, is keen to emphasise there's far more to Anantara Golden Triangle than its wonderful elephants. You can explore the 13th-century Lanna capital Chiang Saen, cross the border for an insight into local life in Laos and Myanmar, learn about Thai cuisine at the resort's cooking school Spice Spoons and visit the fascinating Hall of Opium Museum.

For us, that will have to wait for a return visit. With just two full days, we want as much time with the elephants as possible. .

After a breakfast of waffles in the wonderful open-air restaurant, Sala Mae Nam, where we can hear and see elephants roaming in the surrounding jungle, we're taken to meet Da and Pumpui. Once again, elephant expert Ou is our guide as we observe the behaviour and playful interaction of the rescued elephants. Ou studied biology in Australia and she's a big fan of Vegemite. While Pumpui, who was hit by a car while begging on the streets, is content after Ella feeds them both a bunch of bananas (elephants eat about 250 kilos of food a day), Da's appetite is insatiable.

As Ella and I sit on a high platform within trunk reach of the elephants, Da (a 16-year-old elephant) becomes convinced I am hiding food. Poking her trunk behind me, I feel her hot, desperate breath on my lower back. Realising there isn't food in my shorts, she makes a desperate grab for my bag, not letting go until Ou wrestles it from her strong grip. .

After watching the elephants in the intense heat of the afternoon, we take them for a much-deserved shower, Ella using a hose to fill up their trunks as if she were filling up a car with petrol. She sprays their enormous bodies from top to toe and gives them a scrub with a brush. The next thing, she's imploring Ou to hose her down, too. Standing between Da and Pumpui, her eyes are closed, she's completely soaked and just about the happiest I've ever seen her. We stay for more than an hour, in no hurry to go anywhere. Once you've walked and showered with elephants, the mere thought of riding them seems positively dull.

TRIP NOTES

Sheriden Rhodes was a guest of Anantara Hotels and Resorts.

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traveller.com.au/thailand

FLY

Thai Airways flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Chiang Rai via Bangkok with connections with Thai Smiles. Qantas flies the same route with connections to Chiang Rai with Bangkok Airways. The Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort is about 70 minutes' drive from Chiang Rai International Airport. See thaiairways.com qantas.com

STAY

The all-inclusive Golden Triangle Discovery Package starts from $1497 per night including luxury accommodation, all meals (inclusive of in-room dining), private round-trip transfers from Chiang Rai Airport, in-room minibar, beverages, Hall of Opium museum admission and one activity for every night of your stay. Activities include the Elephant Learning Program and Walking with Giants, Spice Spoons cooking school, guided Golden Triangle Discovery tour or a Spa Discovery package. See anantara.com

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