WATER FOR ELEPHANTS
Water For Elephants - Luxury Travel Magazine
Water For Elephants
|By Amanda Woodard, Issue 47 – Winter 11|
|Thailand, Anantara, Four Seasons, Peninsula Bangkok, Mahout|
|BEING BORNE ALOFT AN ELEPHANT IN THAILAND WAS TOO MUCH OF A TRAVEL CLICHÉ FOR AMANDA WOODARD SO SHE TOOK HER FAMILY TO A MAHOUT TRAINING CAMP NEAR CHIANG MAI WHERE THEY DID A LOT MORE THAN JUST RIDE THE ELEPHANTS.|
|There are three ways to mount an elephant. The first sees the elephant bending one front leg allowing you to stand on its knee, grab its ear and pull yourself up. For the second approach, the elephant puts its head to the ground and you leapfrog over the trunk onto its neck and then swivel round to face forward. The third and most heart-stopping, is when the elephant lies on its side and you lie down astride it, gripping on to the ears while it then hauls itself up. I know this because I’ve tried it – although I’m glad it was only my family who witnessed my ungainly attempts. Riding elephants in northern Thailand is almost a cliché, to be ticked off the tourist list of Things You Must Do and it was definitely top of my children’s itinerary on our month long trip. But simply being borne aloft on a seat, like some latter-day Maharaja, was not what I was after, so the mahout training camp at the Anantara resort in the Golden Triangle really caught my eye. |
Mahout are experts in rearing and training working elephants to shift lumber. But many mahout are forced onto the streets of Bangkok and Chiang Mai as there’s more money to be made hawking elephants to the tourists. Rescuing an elephant from these conditions simply deprives the mahout of their livelihood so at Anantara, a village has been built to accommodate not only the animals but the mahout and their families.
For guests at Anantara, learning how to handle and care for elephants is not only great fun, it helps to pay for the animals’ upkeep. In their village, the women operate a silkworm farm, weaving the silk on looms.
My son Theo, 10 and daughter, Ava, eight became fluent in Thai commands for forwards: “by”, backwards: “toy”, turn: “ben” and most importantly, stop: “how”. Riding an elephant bareback through the rainforest with no helmet probably breaks a hundred Australian health and safety rules but these are gentle giants and riding them like this, instead of on seats, is a real privilege. At the end of the day the elephants headed to the river for bathing and, still astride, we entered the water, scrubbing brushes in hand. Ava’s elephant rolled over dunking her in and making her scream with laughter while my husband had an elephant that filled its trunk and sprayed him repeatedly. If I hadn’t been laughing so hard I might have taken a more steady video.
Elated after our day, we watched the mist roll in across the plains of Laos and Burma, both countries visible from the rooms and terraces at Anantara. Part of the reason for our trip was that my husband and I have fond memories of visiting northern Thailand as backpackers more than 20 years ago. We wanted our children to experience all the exoticism of the culture. Even breakfast became an adventure, tasting strange fruits like dragon fruit, pink and lime-green rambutans and the evil-smelling durian. A relatively new crop to Thailand – coffee – has led to a profusion of much-welcome coffee shops and has gone a long way in replacing opium in the north. By contrast, rice has been planted here for millennia. The Lanna Kingdom or “land of a million rice fields” as it was known, was a state in what is now northern Thailand between the 13th and 18th centuries and the crop remains central to the culture and landscape.
Heading south to Chiang Mai, the Four Seasons resort has been landscaped entirely around paddy fields and offers the chance to learn more about rice planting. At first we could do no more than watch the gardeners from the luxury of a plunge pool outside our guest pavilion. The buildings’ steeply pitched wooden roofs and ornate latticework are complemented by towering teak trees and a profusion of flowering heliconias, orchids and passion flowers. Paradise is an overused word in travel articles but this resort truly merits the description. The time came for us to get our hands dirty in paradise though, so one morning I tore the children away from the swimming pool to don gumboots, loose denims and coolie hats as we followed two very indolent but decorous water buffalo – one black the other albino – down to the paddies. Up to our calves in sinking mud (the hardest part was moving through the paddy while trying not to fall over) we embed shoots of rice in straight rows. We also learned to thresh and sieve the grains, throwing them into the air and catching them using straw trays. I expect full marks if the children ever have to do a school project on rice! For anyone interested in learning to cook traditional Thai dishes, there’s an excellent cookery school on-site that uses fresh herbs and spices grown in the grounds.
Leaving this rural idyll behind, we returned to Bangkok by train. The flight from Chiang Mai to the capital takes little more than an hour but the overnight rail journey is more fun. We booked adjoining family cabins in first-class complete with en-suite sinks. The children enjoyed having dinner served in our cabin and seeing the porter transform their seating into sleeping compartments. After a good night’s sleep, we drew the curtains to watch Bangkok wake to another day. Many families live in makeshift homes built right up to the track, a sobering reminder that despite enjoying nearly four per cent growth, not everyone in Thailand is benefiting from the economic boom.
One example of Bangkok’s growth since I was last there in the 1990s is the number of glitzy shopping malls that have sprung up full of hip young Thais. At the elegant riverside Peninsula hotel, they offer a treat for all aspiring teens called Diva for a day. In stark contrast to all of our close encounters with nature, my very un-girlie daughter surprised me by saying this is what she’d really like. One chauffeur ride later and she was choosing nail colours for her toes and then it was onto the hairdressers where her straight bob was teased into curls. “We make you look (like) a Barbie,” the hairdresser told her rather off-puttingly. Pampered to within an inch of her life, what was the verdict? “I can’t wait to show my school friends…. but I’d rather be dunked by an elephant.”
ANANTARA GOLDEN TRIANGLE RESORT & SPA
|+66 53 784 084 |
RATES: the Mahout Discovery offer includes accommodation, breakfast and three-day mahout training course starting from THB 12,200 (about A$377) per night per person for a Deluxe (double) room. Children under 12 years of age sharing the parents’ room stay free of charge. An additional elephant for the package is THB14,245 (about A$440).
|FOUR SEASONS RESORT CHIANG MAI |
|+66 53 298 181 |
RATES: stay three nights for the price of two until 30 September in a Garden Pavilion from THB12,000 (about A$371) per person per night accommodation only (usually A$560 or $615 per person including American buffet breakfast). Includes daily rice planting lessons, a resort garden tour and introductory Thai language classes are complementary.
|PENINSULA BANGKOK |
|+66 2 861 2888 |
RATES: stay two nights for the price of one until 30 September in a Grand Deluxe room from THB15,600 (about A$483) including breakfast and spa certificate. Diva for a Day includes transport in a chauffeur driven Mercedes-Benz, refreshment and escort (beauty treatments paid by guest) for THB5,000 (about A$155).
|GETTING THERE |
Thai Airways flies to Chiang Mai via Bangkok daily from Sydney, Melbourne and Perth and five times a week from Brisbane. Return economy fares start from A$1,465 and business from A$3,683.
|The overnight train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok operates daily. First class start from A$290 one way and are available through Aviation and Tourism International in Sydney. |