Let it be said that there's a perfectly accessible road that leads into my remote tented camp that's pitched right on the hot and steamy borderlands of Northern Thailand. Therefore there is no real necessity at all to arrive here by river.
But who could complain? From the vantage point of the long tail boat, powering along the Ruak River, a milky Ovaltine-tinged tributary of the adjacent mightier Mekong, en route to my accommodation for two nights, I am, after all, literally afloat between the geographic convergence of three countries.
To my immediate right, Myanmar is on the yonder grassy bank while northernmost Northern Thailand and its lush jungles stand tall on the other. Directly behind me are the peaks of Laos, visible in the distance through the chalky haze of an enervating day.
To complete this precious piece of well-orchestrated travel theatre, as I'm about to land at the camp's jetty, a duo of (strategically-positioned?) adult Asian elephants, feeding atop a raised bank, suddenly emerge between tangled thickets as we sweep around a bend of the river.
Every genuine bucket list destination deserves a grand arrival and here at the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle, it's delivered, well, by the bamboo bucketloads.
IT'S A JUNGLE OUT THERE
The guest lounge and deck area overlooking a bend of the Ruak River at the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle. Photo: Supplied
By all rights this lodge, designed by Bill Bensley, the acclaimed Bangkok-based, US-born hotel and resort architect and landscape designer, shouldn't even still exist, it being initially intended as a temporary camp, designed to only last for a decade or so but it lives on.
After opening in 2011, it proved such a success, lauded by the glossy US travel magazines, in the years leading up to the pandemic it established a blueprint for other eco-lodges around the world and, particularly in recent years, for animal welfare.
Bensley has other creations in the region, like Shinta Mani Wild, the zenith of the tented camp model in the jungles of Cambodia near Sihanoukville which opened about 10 years after its Chiang Rai counterpart. There guests can opt to arrive at the jungle lodge, Indiana Jones-style, via a zipline. I'll settle for a long-tail, thanks.
Even though the elephants can't help but be the star attraction at the five-star plus Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle, they're not the only reason for travelling all this way to a Thailand far removed from its glitzy idylls.
The 15 luxurious, traditionally thatched roof and canvas-clad tents are an attraction enough, each of them carefully arrayed and separated atop and along an extended ridge and overlooking the Ruak with panoramic views into Myanmar and Laos.
Here in the well-named Golden Triangle, that glittering upper vertice of an exotic geographic polygon, the tented accommodation features handcrafted teak doors that reveal a Thailand-via-Africa fantasy safari world, replete with rustic wooden furnishings, hardwood floors, faux buffalo horns for tapware, an outdoor shower overlooking the trio of states, and, yes, air-conditioning. Some tent.
TOUGH TIMES FOR THAILAND'S ELEPHANTS
It's difficult, nay impossible, not to be drawn back to the elephants during a stay here. It's an opportune time, in a sense, to visit this camp and not merely because, with the Thais having relaxed their travel bans, I'm among the first guests of Western origin to make it back here following the economically and socially painful pandemic hiatus.
A few years or more has elapsed, too, since a much-publicised campaign led to a halt in the riding of Asian elephants. Among other detriments, it caused discomfort and involved the use and misuse of controlling hooks and sticks.
Elephant football (and for that matter elephant polo), elephant painting and even elephant tightrope walking (not a joke) are now also forbidden practices for the responsible traveller. What were we thinking? Or unthinking?
While those campaigning efforts aided the welfare of Asian elephants, of which there are an estimated 30,000 to 52,000 in the wild - down from about 100,000 at the turn of the 20th century - with a further 15,000 in captivity, the pandemic saw pachyderm welfare troublingly regress.
If tourism, or certain irresponsible and exploitative aspects of it, is deleterious for elephants then the lack of tourism has proved worse, even to the point of crisis.
Many elephants, deprived of the continuous funds from overseas tourists that paid for their upkeep, have faced starvation with the owners even resorting to returning some animals to their original native tropical forest habitats.
But these habitats are themselves under siege. Thailand once was covered by 90 per cent forest; today that's down to about 25 per cent due to development, population growth and logging, in which elephants once played a long, central and highly controversial role. Indeed, habitat loss and human encroachment on what habitat still exists is a trend that's not being reversed.
Here at the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle, thanks to the financial support of the establishment's Western owner, its elephants, which can each consume the order of 200 to 300 kilograms of food per day, have remained put.
Except of course, for those which wander off into Myanmar on unannounced holidays in search of favourite agricultural foodstuffs such as corn which grows in abundance across the river border.
FROM CITY STREETS TO GOLDEN TRIANGLE
Photo: Anthony Dennis
The Tented Camp is a member of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, whose origins can be traced to the rescue of elephants from the streets of Bangkok for the perverse paying pleasure of mostly Western tourists as far back as nearly two decades ago.
I well remember years ago stumbling across the wholly incongruous and worrisome sight of a tourist elephant and its mahout, momentarily paused together before another foray into the foreigner-filled streets, in a darkened Bangkok laneway.
Bensley himself, in his most recent and hefty and lavishly-illustrated coffee table book, More Escapism, relates the plight of elephants in Thailand.
"When I first moved to Bangkok in 1984," he writes "I remember seeing elephants roaming the streets all the time. I clearly remember meeting one mahout and his beautiful bedraggled elephant…I paid the mahout a few baht for bananas to feed this lovely animal. I found out several weeks later that she was hit by a car on the chaotic streets of my new hometown."
Rather than buying elephants, therefore creating a trade in them, the foundation rents the elephants from their usually impoverished mahouts, arranging to transfer them, with their acquiescence, to the more elephant-friendly Golden Triangle.
"A traditional mahout with money and no elephant buys an elephant to continue the only way of life he has known," says John Roberts, director of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, of which the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle is a member along with a number of other leading Northern Thailand resorts.
"Once we came to the realisation that purchasing an elephant to take it off the streets only put another one there, we had to work a bit harder, dig into the mahout community and discover why they were on the streets and what it would take to bring them off them."
Well before the camp was ready to fully reopen to foreign guests post-pandemic, Roberts says it was clear that international public opinion had fundamentally rejected the idea of riding elephants.
For their rather hefty tariff, the human house (tent?), guests at the camp are able, under supervision, to feed the resident elephants at breakfast time, they can help bathe them and watch them be bathed in the river by their mahouts and they can walk beside and around the river with them.
Now the camp is also developing "observation only activities", designed for those elephants uncomfortable with walking or contact with human strangers.
"We know we need to do certain things to keep the elephants that live with us fit and enriched, mentally and physically, so we'll continue to design guest activities that fit in with that, thus ensuring we're able to continue to find the money to keep them and their mahout families fed and pampered."
The foundation doesn't support breeding in captivity, with policies in place to prevent it occurring on site as "there's no point in creating more elephants if you can't control how they'll live the next 60 or 70 years in captivity or have somewhere for them to live in the wild."
The demonstrable benefits provided by tourism extend to local village farmers who supply organic bananas, among other delights, with many villagers employed by the camp in all manner of roles. Daily fodder is also provided for the elephants as well as a forest environment home, shelter and veterinary care. Food, accommodation, health care and insurance are provided for the mahouts and their families.
WALKING AND BATHING WITH THE GIANTS
Early one morning, I chance upon an impromptu introduction to the elephants. Arriving too early at the post-dawn bathing activity site (long story), something akin to the pachyderm equivalent of signature hand car-wash, I traipse back to the dining pavilion for breakfast at the distant other end of the camp.
Later making my way back to the original meeting point at the correct time, halfway along, we serendipitously, spot the mahouts and their charges, in all their leathery glory, slowly but steadily on the move up from the river valley, en route to their ritual morning ablutions.
I join in this bonus procession along the main road between the tents and the river which leads in and out of the camp. "We've brought some friends to meet you," I announce to the other waiting guests near the bathing site.
With considerable splishing and splashing, this day spa for behemoths soon commences, and, yes, we all do carry a hose, as we're invited by the mahouts and a guide to join in the daily cleansing ritual, to the undeniable delight of the elephants spread out together in a shallow, suitably muddy purpose-built pool.
Hours later, in the more sweltering heat of the Golden Triangle afternoon, there's time to watch a few of the elephants bathed by their mahouts for a second time (yes, they get dirty, really dirty) in the waters of the Ruak and for another walk alongside them to and from the riverbank.
Our two lathered nellies don't seem disturbed by a gathering of local Burmese electrofishing further along the watercourse. To be sure they don't stray into Thailand, a little further up the Ruak, there's an elaboraten, elevated Thai border observation post.
IT'S A LONG WAY BACK
One of the luxurious guest tents at the Tented Camp.
The absence of international visitors to Thailand for more than two years has sadly proven the value of responsible tourism in its ability to support the country's genuine elephant welfare programs. Fortunately, the Golden Triangle Elephant Foundation has had the wherewithal to subsidise veterinary wages for practitioners previously employed by tourism camps during the pandemic.
Elsewhere in the kingdom, Roberts says that organisations like the Thai Elephant Alliance and the Southern Thai Elephant Foundation have had to form their own "self help-type networks" where elephant and camp owners would ask one another for help with feeding their elephants.
"It remains to be seen which organisations have survived and which have folded," he says. "We are still getting requests to take in COVID refugee elephants from camps going under, so I really have to up my game fund-raising to accommodate them."
"To me, these few months ahead are almost going to be the toughest part: it is good to see international faces now people can travel again, but a lot of our international donations have faded on that illusion of normality, while guest numbers are still lower than are needed to keep elephants and mahouts fed."
After a few days, it's time for me to reluctantly de-camp from the Tented Camp. This time I take the road out, not the river in, along the way passing a few of the elephants grazing in the jungle with their loyal mahouts as always nearby.
It's a little melancholic to say farewell to these magnificent animals (and you, too, mahouts) but after a rough few years there's the comfort of knowing that here at least they'll never need to return to the city streets, let alone a circus or worse.
Nearly four decades after his own wretched encounter with that bedraggled backstreet Bangkok pachyderm, Bensley expresses pride at what's been achieved at the camp where guests will find "no continuously wagging trunks, which is the mark of an unhappy elephant: they are healthy, happy and engage with guests in a best practices-only environment."
Indeed, one of the camp's elephants, Benz, who we meet during our visit, was rescued from a Thai circus, malnourished and with doubts about her survival prospects. Today, she's back to a healthy weight and, as far I can tell, happily engaging with the guests and her fellow elephants. It's not a perfect outcome but it will do for me.
Thai Airways and Qantas operate regular direct flights to Bangkok's main Suvarnabhumi Airport from Sydney and Melbourne with connections to other Thai ports. There are daily one hour and 20 minutes flights from Bangkok to Chiang Rai, the nearest city to the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle. From Chiang Rai International Airport guests are transferred by road to Ruak River for the boat ride to the camp. See thaiairways.com; qantas.com; thaismileair.com
A superior tent at the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle costs from THB60,000 ($2441) a night. Combine your visit with a stay at one or more of Four Seasons' other resorts and hotels in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Koh Samui. See fourseasons.com
Even if you don't visit the Tented Camp you can make a donation to the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation towards the welfare of the Asian elephants of Thailand at helpingelephants.org
Anthony Dennis stayed as a guest of Four Seasons.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO
LEARN THE ART OF TRADITIONAL FISHING
Fishing techniques along the Mekong have developed over thousands of years. Guests can try them for themselves on the Ruak River as well as observe fish trapping and bamboo fishing in the company of an expert fisherman from one of the villages near to the resort.
GO TEMPLE HOPPING IN CHIANG RAI
Founded in the late 13th century as the capital of the ancient Lanna Kingdom, nearby Chiang Rai is famed for its stunning temples, including the Chinese Temple (Wat Huay Pla Kung), White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) and Blue Temple (Wat Rong Suea Ten), all of which can be visited from the camp with a private guide.
DOWN SUNDOWNERS AT THE BURMA BAR
One of the most tantalising features of the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle are sunset cocktails at its bucolic Burma Bar, strategically positioned above a bend of the Ruak. From here, guests can watch the setting sun over the Golden Triangle, along with village boats returning from a day's fishing on the Mekong.
CRUISE THE MEKONG IN A TRADITIONAL BOAT
In the company of a guide from the camp, guests can explore the mighty Mekong River beyond the tributary beside the camp aboard a traditional long-tail boat and into the heart of the Golden Triangle, where three nations meet, with the journey continuing on land aboard local transports of delight.
TAKE A DETOUR TO THE ANCIENT CITY OF CHIANG MAI
Rather than flying straight back to Bangkok, extend a stay in beautiful Northern Thailand by taking the enjoyable three hour or so road trip to the delightful mountain city of Chiang Mai, founded in 1296, a complete cultural and physical contrast to the frenetic capital and where Four Seasons operates a sister resort.