Surrounded by fragrant gardens in the jungle hills of northern Thailand, elegantly rustic Chiang Rai hotel Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort has magical views of the Mekong River, Myanmar and Laos and an elephant camp on its doorstep.
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Airport pick-up by car and one Loi Krathong (floating lights) ceremony a booking; GoldSmiths will also be treated to guided elephant walk on arrival
Noon, but flexible (later check-outs are charged at a half-day rate). Check-in, 2pm.
Double rooms from £1058.00 (THB43,019), including tax at 17.7 per cent.
Rates include buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner, soft drinks and select alcoholic drinks; minibar; return transfers from Chiang Rai Airport; Opium Museum tickets, and your choice of daily activity (spa treatment, cooking class, tour or elephant camp).
Be prepared for impromptu visits from the local elephants at mealtimes. The big-eared gentle giants are everywhere at Anantara Golden Triangle: you can hear their trumpets in the morning, they appear throughout as design motifs, and they even grace the labels of Chang Beer, which is served in the bar. Staff are happy to share their knowledge of the region's fab fauna, flora, food and culture if you're keen to learn more.
At the hotel
Gym, spa, tennis/squash court, gardens, book, CD and DVD library, free WiFi throughout. In rooms: TV, CD/DVD player, espresso machine in suites, air-conditioning.
Our favourite rooms
Rooms offer vistas of the resort's gorgeous gardens or Thailand and neighbouring Myanmar and Laos across the Mekong River. Whether you bag a deluxe room or suite, we reckon the 'three countries' views are a must. All share the same Lanna-influenced design (inspired by a former kingdom in northern Thailand) with dark teak floors and elegant furniture, raw silks and local art and carvings. In case you’re wondering, the effect is sublime and sensual but not in the least bit cluttered. The bath is quite possibly one of the deepest you will ever dip into. Throw back the windows, recline on your balcony sofa and soak up those views.
The large, curvaceous deep-blue pool comes with a Jacuzzi, plentiful sunloungers and serene rural views.
Anantara’s Chiang Rai spa has five treatment rooms with private ensuite steam rooms and alfresco soaking tubs with Mekong valley views. Choose from a full range of Elemis spa and aromatherapy treatments, including massages, facials, body wraps and scrubs, or bliss out completely with a signature spa treatment, such as the Lanna Experience, which combines a revitalising ginger scrub, body wrap, massage and more.
This is the jungle, so light layers and insect repellent will protect you from bites. Bring outdoor gear you don't treasure for muddy hiking or mountain biking. It can be chilly between November and February, so layers are a must.
Smoking is allowed in outdoor areas and by request in dedicated rooms. Award-winning landscape architect Bill Bensley designed the gardens and reckons this is his most colourful project yet.
Brilliant for kids, who'll love the elephant camp. Free baby cots are provided and extra beds for older children cost from THB8,827.50. Babysitting with hotel staff is available for THB150 an hour (THB250 an hour after 10pm).
The resort is committed to recycling and uses solar panels for hot water. As well as employing local staff, it funds the elephant camp and conservation projects including native tree planting.
Opt for private Dining By Design to eat in atmospheric locations such as the gardens, rice paddies and elephant camp, by the pool or Mekong River, or on a hilltop. The sunset dinner with baby elephants is really special.
Despite the tropical setting, there's no need to don a safari suit! Relaxed and outdoorsy is perfectly acceptable.
Anantara Golden Triangle has two restaurants: the grand and airy Sala Mae Nam, which serves a hearty buffet breakfast and regional Thai dishes, and the crypt-like and intimate Baan Dahlia, which offers Italian fare and an excellent selection of wine from around the world. At the former, you must try the northern specialty kao soy, a delicious, rich curry soup with egg noodles.
English novelist Somerset Maugham didn’t quite make it to northern Thailand in the Twenties, but if he had, Anantara's evocatively named Elephant Bar and Opium Terrace would have been right up his street. Dark teak, low-slung chairs, whirring ceiling fans, faux animal-hide lamps and board games create a grandly colonial yet cosy atmosphere. There’s even an open fire for when the temperature drops in the cool season. Settle back inside or out on the terrace and order a signature Anantara Magic cocktail.
Dinner is served at the restaurants from 6pm to 8.30pm and mixologists whip up dreamy drinks at the bar until midnight.
The hotel is set in Thailand's northernmost province on the Thai side of the Golden Triangle near Chiang Rai in Chiang Saen, bordering the Mekong River and adjacent Myanmar and Laos.
In olden times you'd have had to arrive here by longtail river boat or elephant. These days there are several flights a day from Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport to Chiang Rai Airport (try Thai Airways, Air Asia or Orient Thai Airways). See www2.airporthai.co.th for Thai airport details (English language site available).
The Anantara is a one-hour drive from Chiang Rai Airport. Return car transfers are included in the room rate.
Boat transfers can be arranged from Chiang Saen pier to the hotel pier, taking about 15 minutes.
Worth getting out of bed for
Room rates here include a visit to the Opium Museum, as well as one daily activity from your choice of visiting the elephant camp, going on the Three Country Tour, taking a cooking class or enjoying a spa treatment.
Time at the elephant camp is a must: have a mahout teach you how to handle the enormous beasties, go on a trek by the river or through the forest, rice fields and bamboo groves, join in with elephant bathing time or discover tips for surviving in the forest from the mahouts. The camp is designed like a traditional mahout hill village and sits right beside the resort.
We also recommend the Three Country Tour – a longtail boat trip on the Mekong River, which calls in at the ancient walled city of Chiang Saen and other villages, and a visit to the excellent Hall of Opium Museum across the road from the resort, which charts the history of the region's infamous drug trade. Once those are ticked off your list, enjoy northern Thai cooking classes, yoga, hiking, mountain biking, and trips to Doi Tung mountain, local villages, markets and temples.
After all that adventure, treat yourself to some well-deserved pampering at the Anantara Spa, which includes serene teak treatment rooms with private ensuite showers and steam rooms, plus soothing views of the Mekong River, verdant Burmese valleys and the hills of Laos. Enjoy an exotic fruit peel, a herbal soak in a terrazzo tub on your own terrace or a signature four-hand massage in an outdoor sala refreshed by cooling breezes. You can even sip ginger tea in an oversized swing.
It’s breakfast time and Mr Smith is enjoying the attention of another woman. He jumps up from the table to get closer to the lovely young Mina as she leans in and plants sloppy kisses on his cheek. I feel a pang of jealousy, then indignation – ‘where’s my kiss?’ – but it’s short-lived as Mina quickly stretches over and smooches me, too.
Kissing in public is frowned upon in rural Thailand but these shameless PDAs are commonplace at Anantara Golden Triangle – especially at breakfast. The affectionate Mina is one of about six baby elephants who roam the resort’s expansive grounds, and a pachyderm pash in the morning isn’t the first of our elephant encounters.
To our delight, the distinctive silhouette of a long-nosed, mega-tonne mammal was the first thing Mr Smith and I spotted as our car pulled into the drive late the previous afternoon. As we clambered out, stately stone elephants greeted us at the entry and we were offered welcome drinks in the elegant Elephant Bar and Opium Terrace.
Exhausted by our journey from Bangkok to Chiang Rai in the country’s northernmost corner, we headed straight to our Anantara Suite to escape the tropical heat. Our fatigue vanished as soon as the door clicked closed, though, with Mr Smith scampering around our vast suite in search of the most comfortable spot to chill out. Would it be the plump sofa in the living room? The king-size bed laden with silk pillows or the luxurious day-bed on the balcony? The terrazzo tub big enough for two?
A girl always guided by her stomach, I descended upon the free minibar and rustled up a selection of salty snacks to accompany our evening drinks. With sunset approaching, the day-bed and its jaw-dropping valley vistas was confirmed by Mr Smith as the winner. Languishing with cold beers, we took in the spectacular views of tropical Thai jungle and the rolling hills of nearby Myanmar (aka Burma) and Laos.
Wonderfully relaxed the following morning, we decide to delay our date with the award-winning spa until late afternoon (treatments are included in room rates). It’s time to enjoy the outdoors. With hearts still aflutter from our earlier embrace with Mina, the elephant camp beckons.
About 25 elephants call Anantara Golden Triangle home. Its elephant camp is a special conservation effort designed to keep tame animals, that once cleared forests and made a living for their mahout owners, off the streets. This benevolent set-up both protects the animals and allows guests a unique chance to get up close and personal with their enormous fellow residents.
You can take an elephant trek, or learn the special commands of the mahouts, but Mr Smith and I choose to help bathe the babes. Our experience starts with an educational session where we hear that the rapid destruction of the nellies’ natural habitat has placed them prominently on the endangered list. We also learn that elephants are one of the few animals on earth, besides humans, who can recognise themselves in the mirror. It’s just one of the fascinating discoveries recently made by Anantara’s in-house researchers.
Zoology class over, Mr Smith leads us past the gorgeous sunlounger-lined infinity pool down the hillside to the junior jumbos. We round a bend into a clearing to find three of the biggest infants I have ever seen, eagerly waiting for us behind a trail of rope. A mountain of bananas and bamboo sits to one side, and we’re soon shovelling the sweet treats, skins and all, into the babies’ mouths.
With the food demolished in less than five minutes, it’s time for a swim. The mahouts speak no English but they direct us and the baby elephants in an unlikely parade to the river that snakes its way around the edge of the resort.
Elephants and mahouts wade in, trunks waving, and Mr Smith and I follow them gingerly. Within seconds we’re all splashing about, rubbing elephants’ tummies and scratching behind their flapping ears, as if they were oversized, hairless dogs. Cheekily the youngest sucks up a trunk full of water and sprays it all over me. Riotous laughter from Mr Smith, then the mahouts follow and we’re all soon in the midst of a mad water-fight.
Eventually someone calls time on our vigorous watersports and we drag ourselves begrudgingly from the river. Soaked to the core we make our way, arm in arm, back to the hotel, saddened that our pachy-playtime has come to an end. As he opens the door to our room Mr Smith looks me up and down mock-disapprovingly: ‘You smell like a wet elephant,’ he says. I glare at him but then my gaze falls on the terrazzo tub – surely the perfect antidote to my new fragrance.
As we slide into the bubble-bath, glasses of cold bubbles in hand, I can’t resist spraying a mouthful of water, trunk-style, at Mr Smith. Elephants never forget…
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