Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 20, 2022
Bookmark and Share

Trunk space

Learn to "drive" an elephant at a groundbreaking
and affordable Thai resort

"Peel me a grape, Beulah."

That old Mae West line sprang to mind while my wife Carol was giving her uncompromised attention to a domineering, two-tonne, 27-year-old female who preferred her lychees peeled.

Carol stripped the fruits of their outer husks. "Here, Lawann," she cooed. "I know they're more delicious this way."

Lawann was one of four female elephants employed at the Mahout Camp at the Anantara Resort on Thailand's Golden Triangle. A mahout is a professional elephant driver and you're there to learn to be one.

Anantara bills itself as "affordable luxury" -- a luxe resort in Chiang Rai province that has all the pleasures but at way lower-than-luxe prices (accommodations start at $US128 per night). The hotel's design won it a dazzling spread in last August's Architectural Digest.

Rooms are airy and spacious with treats like CD/ DVD players and terrazzo bathtubs built for two. From our balcony, we could see the blue ribbon of the Mekong, the misted mountains of Laos, the snaking Ruak River that separates Thailand and Myanmar, and a gambling casino which seemed to have dropped from the nether regions of outer space.

There is, of course, a spa -- the Mandara. It strives for romance with treatments for couples: one, unforgettably named the Royal Yonk, invites twosomes to double massage and a bath scented with tea crystals and scattered with flower petals, drawn by the resort's "bathmaster." The Body Symphony, also for two, is a four-hour blitz of herbal baths, aromatic massages, salt-glow exfoliation and facials.

Masochists will prefer the fully outfitted, air-conditioned gym. An infinity pool, surrounded by iridescent greens and tropical flowers, seemed more inviting to me.

Tusk and Musk
But what makes Anantara unique is the elephants. Traditionally, Thailand's elephants have been the toilers, luggers and pullers of the forest industry. Now the chainsaw and pickup truck have rendered them less than cost-effective. To make matters worse, elephants have become redundant at the very time deforestation threatens their habitat. Tourism may not be the whole answer to such a crisis, but it's clearly part of it.

The Anantara experiment is developing in conjunction with the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre at the National Elephant Institute. All save-the-elephant ideas are considered. Elephant polo is the kingdom's most exotic sport and the King's Cup Elephant Polo Tournament was held last September.

Elephants have also proven skilled in the arts: their paintings can fetch $US800 apiece on eBay. They've even played symphonies. "You have to see a four-tonne elephant on the xylophone," said Diana Moxon, the resort's director of Public Relations who is also a deeply committed elephant-lover. "They also play drums and mouth organs, who's is also a there's been a CD. And at the Elephant Centre, there's a workshop producing paper from elephant poo...."

The resort's mahout program is three days of elephant immersion in which guests are encouraged to bond with the pachyderms: hosing and scrubbing them down first thing in the morning, learning to "drive" with a series of commands, bathing them in the river in the afternoon, cuddling them. The concept has already proven so successful, Canada's Four Seasons is currently building its own elephant camp just over the hill.

They use only female elephants because they're sweeter-tempered than the males and they don't have the problem of musk (a pungent smelling secretion on their faces often paired with more aggressive dispositions).

In addition to Lawann "the flirt" -- the one elephant too young to have worked as a logger -- the elephants are gentle 60-year-old matriarch Yom, mischievous 44-year-old Tantawan and 47-year-old Champen. You don't need to anthropomorphize with the elephants. They're distinct characters in their own right.

"Our four elephants are like children. They just want to please their parents -- and you're the parents," said John Roberts, a Brit who came from Nepal to manage the Anantara camp. "We're shooting for a kind of imaginative tourism which makes it possible for villages that depend on elephants for a living to continue to do so. I'm happy with people just being around elephants; watching them and touching them breeds respect and admiration."


You Can't Make Me
At sunrise, the mist lifted, the lotuses were opening in the pond, morning glories unfolded on the vines and Lawann the elephant was lumbering down a muddy slope as gingerly as any human being. Twenty minutes later, in cascades of water, my wife Carol hosed her down and scrubbed away the night's lovingly acquired crust of mud.

Elephant instructions include pai (with nudge behind both ears) for "go forward", how (squeeze knees together) for "stop", map lung (tap the back) for "sit down" and the rarely used dum lung for "submerge your head in water." But compliance isn't automatic.

"You think, how am I going to get her do what I want?'" Carol explained after her first day. "Lawann made it very clear that she didn't have to follow my commands. It's her choice. The turning point came when I peeled the lychees. After that, I couldn't feed them to her fast enough. The friendship was established."

The morning bath completed, Lawann rose gracefully as her new human pal scrambled onto her neck. My wife offered stalks of sugarcane. The elephant's trunk swung into action, followed by a crunch like the sound of a giant eating popcorn. Off they went, best friends.

"When I was being photographed with her, I didn't nuzzle Lawann, she nuzzled me," Carol exclaimed. "It makes you realize how magnificent, how intelligent elephants are."

After the elephants retired for the day, we two-legged mammals found our way to Sala Mae Nam, the resort's northern Thai restaurant, for crackling spring rolls packed with spicy Chiang Mai sausage, pork curry to send you into spasms of delight and roast duck sauced in locally grown coffee. Later at Baan Dahlia, the Italian restaurant, we dined on pasta in a sauce of tomato, olives, capers, chilies and anchovies, and tender veal medallions with black mushrooms.

Head for the Hills
Local activities at Anantara range from trekking the hill-tribe country to day trips across the borders into neighbouring Laos and Myanmar. A trek, conducted by an Akha tribal guide, treats hikers to coffee and macadamia-nut plantations, rice paddies and steep jungled climbs. Long-tailed boats transport guests up and down the Mekong. You can, at a gallop, visit all three countries in a day.

The recent attraction is the multi-million-dollar Hall of Opium Museum, a short walk from the resort. It covers the 5000-year history of opium, including its production and trafficking here in the Triangle. Not so long ago, this was the hub of warlord Khun Sa's near-impenetrable opium empire and a deadly place to be. Now with Khun Sa retired and building pagodas in Myanmar to redeem his Buddhist soul, the area is safe and rife with discovery.

We spent a day crossing into Myanmar. Our four-wheel drive took us first to the Thai hill centre of Doi Tung, a community developed by the late, beloved Queen mother to improve the lives of hill tribes formerly dependent on opium production. Proceeds from locally made clothing, crafts, coffee and macadamia nuts go to this cause. We paused for Doi Tung cappuccinos. The surprise was Thai coffee: a full-flavoured, low-acid brew that made Starbucks seem like dishwater by comparison.

Steep, meandering roads took us into lush mountain country rising sharply out of the Hui Krai rice valley. We passed through an Akha village; it was the Day of the Dog, an auspicious day for marriages.

We crossed the border at Mae Sai, the northernmost point in Thailand. Passports were left with Thai authorities for a fee. Photocopies were submitted to Myanmar authorities for a fee. As long as we were back at the border by 6pm, we were free to go where we liked.

Our immediate destination was one of those "cultural villages" established for tourists and labelled a "zoo" by detractors. But it is also a Padaung or "giraffe women" village. This was a rare opportunity to see these people (their home territory is an out-of-bounds) with their elaborate costumes and elongated necks wrapped in brass rings.

The exchange may have been slight, but the Padaung appeared to understand that our interest was genuine, and the visit was good-natured. As we departed, the women returned to their weaving and the children back to their schoolbooks.

An amber dusk was settling around us as we returned to Anantara. I turned to my wife and pointed out fresh lychees in the orchards. She held up her hand, a human stop sign. "They're for Lawann," she said. "I'll peel them on tomorrow's ride..."

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.