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Giving thanks in Thailand

Walking with giants at Anantara resort teaches humility and calm

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com
Elephants walk the grounds at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort in the Chiang Rai province of Thailand. [Contributed by Anantara Hotels, Resorts & Spas]

The bruised blue bellies of cumulus clouds lurched toward the top of the shadowy hills on the horizon. A verdant tangle of jungle, rice paddies and fields tumbled toward the Ruak River, a tributary of the storied Mekong. The haze of mist blended with the setting of night for an ethereal palette that added intrigue to this mysterious place.

From the padded daybed of our balcony we could glimpse the Mekong River bordering Laos to our right; to the left lay Myanmar, and below our perch sat the northern tip of Thailand. We had trekked about 500 miles from Bangkok to Thailand’s Golden Triangle, but the luxury retreat nestled into the lush patchwork of hills and serpentine rivers made it feel like we had time-traveled.

As the countries’ borders muddled in our gaze, we sensed an almost imperceptible movement below us. Despite the intense quiet, the sense that we were not alone loomed. Of course, it was all right there in the name: Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort.

But until you first set your eyes on the majestic animals, it’s hard to believe you are sharing space with the resort’s permanent inhabitants. Our focus tightened in the waning light that first night in Chiang Rai province, and we could discern the silhouettes of several elephants grazing in the fields below us, unaware of or unconcerned about our existence. My gleeful eyes met my wife’s. I was reminded of the awe that shone across the faces of the characters in “Jurassic Park” when they first encountered that story’s prehistoric marvels.

The elephants transitioned from role of enigmatic greeters to the heartbeat of our experience over our next few days at Anantara. These noble animals were not there to entertain us as much as teach us. Some people travel to Africa or Asia in search of trophies, but we found animals that both awed and grounded us. All we wanted to take from them were lessons.

The nonprofit Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, which Anantara funds and supports with the neighboring Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle, saves these elephants from lives often marred by the indignation and dangers of life on the streets. The resort, which has locations from the Middle East to Japan, offers a sanctuary for the elephants to live peacefully and receive professional medical attention. Many of the giants are taken from lives of being street performers and are given a place, along with their human trainers and partners (called mahouts), to live in a safe environment surrounded by nature.

The elephants may appear on the balcony at your breakfast, surprising you during your morning meal in an open-air dining room suspended in the trees, and happily receive bananas before gingerly taking the staircase back to their territory in the fields beneath you, but at Anantara you generally meet these beautiful and calm creatures where they live.

While the animals provide a touch of exotic entertainment, "the welfare of the elephants comes first,” as the property’s chief veterinarian Dr. Nissa Mututanont explained to us on our first full day at the Golden Triangle resort located just a few miles north of the famed Buddhist temple that greets visitors to this part of the Chiang Rai province.

Mututanont introduced us to the animals at an hourlong education session adjacent to the modest quarters of the mahouts, who live on the property near the rice paddies where the elephants graze. These mahouts, who generally come from generations of people working with elephants, consider the 3,000-pound creatures family, and Mututanont explained the animals’ character and traits with reverence and joy.

The giants, about two dozen of which live on the property, will live for about 65 years in ideal conditions. And while they were once symbols of a family’s prosperity, they became sideshows and income-producing pieces of entertainment for the mahouts before Anantara plucked them from the streets and offered them sanctuary. One kind soul still shuddered at the sound of nearby automobiles after surviving a run-in with a car on the busy streets of developed Thailand.

During the information session, as the plant-loving elephants indulged in one of their approximately 14 daily hours of eating, Mututanont explained the history of elephants as work animals (the timber economy relied on the animals’ strength for years) along with their roles as ceremonial figures in parades and their biological uniqueness.

Despite their intimidating size, the elephants are gentle and approachable, happily allowing you to spray off the remains of their mud baths in between their hours of continual eating. The resort offers guests a chance to walk with a group of the elephants around the property, and the animals’ calmness and playful camaraderie (just don’t expect them to share their lunch) have a soothing effect. They aren’t billed as therapy animals, but there is something about their quiet nobility and kindness that feels grounding.

These animals, who have been protected and preserved by Anantara since 2005, may live in captivity, but the relief from their previous lives imbues the animals with a sense of freedom. When you see Dah, saved from a life of selling bananas and posing for photos on paved city streets, wandering aimlessly amidst the jungle as a companion to Pumpui, still skittish at the sound of cars following an accident more than a decade ago, you derive a deep appreciation for the healing nature of friendship. There is something so effortlessly beautiful in their soft nature and their empathy.

At a resort where manufactured opulence can be found at every turn, from marble bathtubs that could hold a baby elephant to an infinity pool with a view that extends to the edge of Laos, world-class cuisine and restorative spa treatments, the thing that feels the most unique and comforting about Anantara’s jungle paradise is that which is the most natural.

Two things in Thailand will likely leave the greatest impression on you: the people and the food. A happiness and friendliness permeated the people we met, from the streets of Bangkok to the rural areas of Chiang Rai. And the smells and flavors of the cuisine linger in my memory with an unmatched clarity.

The Spice Spoons program at Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort weds the two things we loved most about the country. The resort’s executive sous chef led us to a local market early one morning, where we perused everything from bitter melon to saw coriander. Proteins ranged from frogs to water buffalo and the aroma of spice mixtures wafted across the endless booths of merchants selling produce and bites of sticky rice dumplings plumped with coconut meat.

After purchasing the herbs and vegetables needed to prepare our lunch, and making a brief stop at a Buddhist temple to give thanks, we returned to a handsome teaching kitchen, which featured its own herb garden, from which we sourced Thai basil and mint.

With our mise en place neatly organized on our arrival, chef Surachai led us through the basics of slicing and dicing of herbs and roots (the perfume of galangal and lemongrass and the sweet embrace of coconut milk will forever transport me back to Thailand), we executed a spicy shrimp salad, steamed fish bundling vegetables and mushrooms, and a tom kha gai that rivals any I’ve eaten at Thai restaurants in America. There’s nothing quite like dining in Thailand. And nothing quite as rewarding as making the meal yourself.

Spice Spoons allows you to play chef

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