I was in a debate with myself for 1 week on how I should start this story.
Do I begin with facts on elephants in captivity and the difference between the ones in the wild and the ones that I met? Should I start with the history of the golden triangle everlasting drug war of the highest production of illegal opium that started almost 60 years ago? Do I start with the beautiful luxury tented camps at The Four Seasons and my experience there?
the friends and heroes I met here at the camp?
All I know was that me being here was no accident or coincidence. When I heard about this place from a former Indiana Jones lady, I quickly agreed to go on this project and bring out the ‘Mogly’ in me!
Where is the Golden Triangle?
The Golden Triangle is the point in Northern Thailand that meets with Laos and Burma, where the Ruak and Mekong river joins.
In between the three lies the Mekong River, which is one of the longest waterways that passes through 6 countries and notorious for the endless drug war and the highest production of illegal opium and drug trade that started almost 60 years ago in the province of Chiang Rai.
I flew into Bangkok from Dubai and took a domestic flight to Chiang Rai in northern Thailand, drove one hour to the river bank at immigration where I had to leave my passport. I was unsure at first, but it seemed safe enough and procedures. From the docks, I slowly climbed onto an 8-minute boat (Dingy) ride along the borders of Burma and Laos to The Four Seasons Tented Camps.
The scenery was incredible. I would have Burma on my right and Thailand on my left and in between, the Ruak river, with no one but me, the dingy and the captain.
On arrival, I hit the gong three times on arrival for health, wealth and peace. It made a loud noise that you can hear from anywhere on camp.
Why did I come to the Four Seasons Tented Camp?
There are two sides to this story.
I found out about the third when I arrived at the tented camps.
I was on a research project to raise awareness on a subject in which I always write about, not exploiting animals for our entertainment such as circus acts, dolphin shows…
Let me take you a little way back in the ancient world where tribes in Asia and India used elephants to help fight wars, transporting goods or carriage.
In Thailand, elephants were also used to transport timber. However, with the cutbacks in teak foresting, elephants were no longer needed and became a burden to their owners. Being so expensive to keep, the owners resorted to taking their elephants into the major cities such as Bangkok, to get people to pay for photographs, feed or play with them and even put on a circus show for you. They go through brutal forces to do these tricks.
The Four Seasons Tented Camps with John Roberts, who is devoting his life to elephants and the foundation, work hand in hand with the golden triangle Asian elephant foundation offering guests the opportunity to help rescue elephants from the streets of Thailand and provide them with a loving home in a humane and most natural environment.
I had here come to learn about The Four Seasons Tented Camps, their mission, their purpose and the experience they offer guests for 10 years now. The owner had built a camp around a jungle, where elephants were free to roam with their mahouts and it is an experience of a lifetime.
The time with elephants
This article is close to my heart and I have to thank Reza, the camp manager and Four Seasons Tented Camps for having me and everyone I left back at camp that made my stay and experience an educational and memorable one and to Alvin who always answered my questions no matter what time of day it was.
Before you go on reading, you need to know this word that I will be using a lot…
A Ma’hout (Or Mahoot). It is the Indian word for an elephant rider, trainer or keeper.
I find it tough to contain my experience in a small story, so bare with me a little.
A good friend had warned me earlier that it would be difficult to sleep at night after the days I’ve had.
He was right.
Ultimately, I thought about what he said all night. I only wish he had also told me about how difficult it would be leaving and how to cope.
The only comforting feeling I have at the moment is my continuous support and work to grow the foundation and the reassuring fact that elephants never forget. So, when they see me again, it would be a real reunion.
I remember one night, I couldn’t get the faces of the elephants out of my head and I had to be up at 4:30 am, and there was no way Seng, the leader of the mahouts would allow me to get out there in the forest to see them.
I would try to reach him on the phone, “Sleep Kun Michelle, Meena will wait for you at 5:30 sharp.”
I would still try every night that followed after that. But it was a hopeless case, they manage the camp so tight and well, there is no room for error. I would fall asleep with my tent blinds open to catch the first light and was being amused by the different noises outside my tent. I would even hear the elephants sometimes calling for one another from far.
Originally from Thailand not too far away from here.
A natural born Mahout earned but not through generations. It was destiny or fate if you call it that brought him close to the elephants. He was very quiet at first and I was very talkative. He spent a lot of time with me. Teaching me the etiquettes on being a mahout. Showing me the ways of how confidence and trust are first established and built between an elephant and the mahout. Seng looked like the type of person that had all the answers to everything. I was intrigued by his stories and his stillness of mind.
I first met the elephants at breakfast. I was shy in the beginning, a plate of bananas was placed on a round table for them (with an incredible design of an elephant’s foot as a base) and for us to feel free to feed them as they come in with their mahouts.
I straightened my hand out with a bunch of bananas and with my eyes closed. I remember repeating to myself that it’s going to be ok. I sneaked a glimpse with one eye half opened and felt a quick vacuum grab out of my hand and them flirting for more. I opened my other eye, for a second, I found myself in between both elephants feeling like mogly!
I can do this. In 60 seconds, I was already a pro!
I dressed for my ‘day out with the elephants’ accordingly too. The hotel provided me with a pair of blue trousers and a blue button shirt with a belt for Seng to grab me in case I fall… and had to wear the awkward crocs that he insisted I wear… and yes, I had to wear the crazy black socks and so do you!
“They flap their ears when they are happy,” he tells me. After that, I was always looking for flapping ears to reassure myself that they were as happy as I was. I learned few things about the elephants as well… they sweat from their eyes and their feet. They can live to be over 70 years old and loves bananas and sugar cane and according to John Roberts, as many as 40,000 a year are being killed in Africa (40,000 incidentally is close to the total number of Asian elephants in existence) for their ivory – this has to stop. So please, don’t buy ivory!
At first, I was skeptical. Elephants are meant to be in the wild. Then I quickly learned the truth.
I learned how Meena was rescued from the streets when she was nine years old. I found out about Phuang Pet how she has the shortest trunk of them all. She’s 49 years old and arrived at camp when she was 38, sold by a mahout in the province because he could not afford her. She did not stop eating for three days and was super skinny when she arrived. I understood the term rescued. If it weren’t for the foundation, those elephants would have been on the streets, begging for money or food, being abused, being in chains and having selfies taken with tourist while they paint or do tricks for them.
I would bathe them, trek with them and even feed them when they allowed me to. I was in a world where elephants roamed and ruled.
The elephants are not the only ones rescued.
Their mahouts were brought in too and recruited so they no longer are on the streets trying to find ends meet to support themselves and the elephants.
Their purpose in life is their elephant. Most of them had their elephants passed on by their ancestors through generations.
In Thailand alone, there are 3,500 non-wild elephants. These elephants would never survive in the jungle either.
I was so glad I came here. Everything was right. I was in a happy place. So were the elephants. They were no longer in captivity.
My day would end at Burma Bar watching the sunset. My head felt the opposite of numb. In the realm of dreams, this felt very real. It’s almost as if the whole world was inside of me.
My story started when I left.
I knew of the bond humans can create with the animals. I never understood the emotional attachment that can consume a person’s mind and soul in this way though that can make one question their purpose.
It turns out, the elephants were not the only ones that needed rescuing. In my private thoughts, I was also saved.
When we fully understand what we are capable of, when we finally realize that we are not alone, everything moves. It’s almost as if the center of the universe in my story shifted. It’s a feeling that makes men and women better people. Better understanding and most of all sympathize with one another.
You can probably categorize this as a life-changing experience, without the drama and not in a magical way that I came back as changed person.
People in my mind don’t just change.
We grow out of things we once thought we needed. We grow out of things we thought was important.
It made me a calmer person. It made all the voices in my head quiet.
Now I only hear the sound of my heart and if I listen close… I almost listen to what it says.
There is not one day that goes by that I don’t remember my time spent at Four Seasons Tented Camps. The cooking class I’ve taken to make the perfect Thai dish at home or the first tree that is growing in the organic garden that has my name on it and even the 90-minute spa treatment I have taken in my tent outdoors, without the usual spa music just the sound of the jungle.
I’ve learned, to connect with someone is not necessarily a bond with a partner, a friend or a stranger, but can be the indefinable – perhaps the rarest and most precious thing in life to find at all.
We cannot only just live for ourselves, contrary to what some might believe.
I discovered how important it is to have the right people in your life and doing the right thing.
Before I got into the car and to the airport, Alvin took me by the small temple at the entrance and wrapped a white blessed rope bracelet on my right wrist and asked me to make a wish.
I had wished to always find my way back here.
They say, “Travel turns you into a storyteller ” This is one story I will not stop writing about and I hope you will always continue reading about it.
Stay three nights at Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle and receive a complimentary two-night stay at Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai or Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui.
Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle & the elephant foundation are always looking for donations. You can donate here .Stay tuned for our upcoming charity event that I will be hosting soon to raise awareness, money and a chance for one reader to visit Four Seasons Tented Camp with me!
Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle is recommended for adventure honeymooners, solo traveler and families with children above 10 years of age.
At Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle, you can also take a cooking class, tour the organic garden, take a road trip to Chiang Sean and discover the ancient city and the history it holds. Book a massage at sunset on your patio by your tent and make sure Paul takes you on a golden triangle excursion by boat to the borders of Myanmar and Laos where he will explain to you everything you need to know about the history and of the economy.