Get back to Mother Nature with these upscale options in Thailand chock-full of creature comforts.
WALKING WITH GIANTS
Looking out from the large terrace of my second-storey room, past the pool and Jacuzzi, I see a winding tributary of the Mekong River snaking through the fields with a panorama of smoke-blue mountains for a backdrop. From this perch up in the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meld, the only noise is birdsong.
Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort is a retreat that comes with all the creature comforts, such as fine teak furnishings, so guests can get back to nature without pitching a tent and cooking on a portable stove.
One of the resort’s prime attractions is its camp of 20-odd elephants. The care of these goliaths is the purview of the hotel’s altruistic arm, the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, dedicated to treating them in more humane ways and supporting other such projects like mobile vet clinics.
The elephant camp’s manager, Laddawan Yonthantham, leads the morning outings called Walking with Giants, while providing a running commentary on them and their mahouts. Seeing the elephants in their natural habitat, marvelling at their sheer enormity and the dexterity of their trunks, watching them swim and play together, is an experience worth more than watching 1,000 wildlife documentaries. On hand to lead the afternoon programme, Elephant Learning Experience, is the veterinarian Nissa
Mututanont, who shares her wealth of knowledge on everything from their medical issues to their evolutionary history and mating habits.
The luxury train cuts a swathe through some of Thailand and Malaysia’s most beautiful scenery which used to be lairs for tigers. Although both countries still have tigers in the wild, their populations have been decimated over the last century.
The Eastern and Oriental Express has teamed up with the international charity, Save Wild Tigers, to raise awareness of this apex predator that has become prey to human rapacity and deforestation. On the side of two carriages are fanciful murals of tigers designed by the renowned Chinese-British artist Jacky Tsai. Inside the carriages are photos of them that are bound to inspire awe and, hopefully, some stronger efforts to conserve them.
For Belmond, the hotel and leisure company that operates the train, the new campaign is fitting because the Eastern and Oriental Express’s logo features a tiger. The train’s wood furnishings, opulent trimmings, liveried waiters, gourmet food and a bar car with alive pianist playing old standards, makes the romantic fantasy of time travel seem all too real. Here’s a train that looks like it came hurtling out of the past that whisks passengers into a present made up of old- world charms that draw heavily from nature’s deck of attractions, with a few wild cards thrown in, like boat tours, cooking classes and cycling trips.
RESCUE CENTRE AND RESORT
For many animal lovers, zoos are penitentiaries where creatures that have committed no crimes live dull lives in grim enclosures. The Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT) is a different animal. Built as a shelter for orphaned and rescued elephants, bears, gibbons and turtles, the enormous centre hosts daily tram tours where visitors can learn more about Thailand’s wild kingdom and see hundreds of exotic birds and beasts living in a natural environment with better food and superior enrichments.
Some guests opt to stay at the homey and handsomely appointed I-Love-Phants Lodge, which looks out over an elephant enclosure. Around noon, the lodge is overrun with day-trippers during the lunch break in the restaurant. At night, however, the serenity is broken only by a percussion orchestra of frogs ratcheting and insects whirring with the occasional bugle blast from a distant elephant.
The WFFT’s founder, Edwin Wiek, an influential conservationist who works with the Thai government on wildlife matters, has even bigger and more luxurious plans in the pipeline. By next year he hopes to open a luxury lodge located above a massive tiger enclosure, where the titans of business can meet the kings of the jungle.