"Are you comfortable, Madam?” asked the masseuse as she pummeled the stiff muscles in my neck and shoulders. Ah, yes, I was comfortable as my aches dissolved.
There I was, in the far northern corner of Thailand, at a five-star resort. Stretched out nude on a massage table draped with fine cotton fabric, gazing down at bowl filled with rose petals in a room scented with lemon grass while an expert worked her magic on my sore muscles, I was so comfortable I kept falling asleep.
There’s nothing like a Thai massage, and they administer some of the best at the Anantara in the Golden Triangle. According to the resort, anantara means “endless waters without borders,” and from the windows I could see the confluence of the Mekong and Ruak rivers. To the left, Myanmar; to the right, Laos, and behind me, all of the ancient kingdom of Siam.
I was especially in need of a massage that afternoon, because I’d spent that morning in the resort’s elephant camp.
Back home, elephants are “no touch” animals, corralled by wide moats at the zoo and chained at a distance at the circus.
In Southeast Asia, however, they’re domesticated stock, no more off limits than horses. For eons elephants worked in the forests, hauling logs and doing construction chores. Now, with both forest depletion and machinery edging them out of a job, they’ve become a liability for their handlers.
Hence, elephant camp – in this instance, run by the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. It serves a triple purpose – wildlife conservation, preservation of a rural way of life and tourist activity. Each elephant has a handler/owner, called a mahout. Putting an elephant to work means a job for its human.
These aren’t wild elephants, really. They’re the descendants of generations of Asian pachyderms who have worked for a living and each has a specialty. “Some are good at carrying, and others excel at clearing trails,” says John Roberts, an Englishman with an unnatural passion for the beasts. He is Director of Elephants for Anantara and responsible for one of its most popular activities: mahout training.
Roberts says the elephants know about 70 commands by the time they’re 10 or 15 years old. The goal of mahout training is to teach the humans four or five of them.
Anantara’s camp includes four working elephants, a mother and 3-month-old baby plus three juveniles and a retired 63-year-old.
I’d arrived at the elephant camp at dawn with a handful of other trainees to see if we had the right stuff to join the elite cadre of certified elephant drivers.
First task? Find the elephants in the forest! The massive animals sleep little, and spend most of the night foraging – they consume some 650 pounds of food a day. These domesticated animals are tethered on a long chain, so they can’t wander off completely.
Once back in camp, the next lesson is elephant scrubbing. All the mud accumulated since the day before is hosed and brushed off (expect to get wet!). Learning how to mount the elephant and give rudimentary commands takes the rest of the morning.
A few short hours later, it was just me and the mahout up there on Janpen’s broad back, heading to breakfast at the Anantara Resort in the hills of northern Thailand.
Short black bristles were all I had to hold on to as the elephant ambled down the muddy track. No saddle, no bridle, no rope – just one fragile inch of keratin sprout-ing from the top of Janpen’s head provided the tactile assurance I needed that I wouldn’t end up on the ground beneath the four ton pachyderm’s feet.
After the lumbering ride back up the hill to the resort, my introduction to elephant driving was over. Others had signed up for the full three-day course. They’d earn mahout certificates to wow their friends back home while I carried away memories.
The Anantara Resort and Spa is located in the area long known as the Golden Triangle. This was once prime opium growing land, but government initiatives are working hard to switch the agricultural economy from poppies to other crops – plus tourism.
In nearby Chiang Mai province, one of the largest tourist attractions in the region opens Nov. 1 for a three-month run. To say that the Royal Flora Ratchaphruek 2006 is a flower show is not enough. It’s a floral extravaganza on the order of Keukenhof in the Netherlands. On more than 200 acres, some 30 countries are building gardens and other horticultural delights.
Thailand is a study in contrasts. In the cities, traffic is a constant cacophony and the bustling marketplaces offer goods from all over the world. In the countryside, birdsong provides the background noise amid lush vegetation.
Bangkok is the starting point for most trips to the kingdom. Taxis and hotel shuttles take visitors into town. Although estimated at 45 minutes, this is an often-grueling trip. On this visit, I was headed to the Sukhothai Hotel, and it took more than 2 hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic to get there.
Every tourist needs to visit the royal palace and adjacent temple complex, but look beyond the expected. I spend a delightful morning at the Rose Garden, which is much more than flowers and plants (although it’s that, too). You can ride an elephant, watch a show of traditional dance, dine in a riverside restaurant or spend the night. What started as a family’s country villa has developed into a luxury resort, complete with hotel, championship golf course and conference facilities.
Be sure to get tickets for the spectacular Siam Niramit show in Bangkok. This three-part performance tells the history of Thailand through music and art, then takes the audience through heaven and hell and finally into the earthly world of festivals and ceremonies.
Think Cirque du Soleil plus Italian grand opera and classical Thai dance dressed by Las Vegas costumers and staged by Hollywood. More than 150 cast members (including two elephants, six goats and countless chickens) march, dance, play musical instruments and swim: the stage boasts a river more than 12 feet wide. Angels soar overhead, monks are ordained and wars are fought while flames light the stage and fog rolls in from the sidelights.
Outside the theater there’s a Thai village complex with demonstrations of traditional crafts, a nice selection of shops and even a place to have dinner before the performance.