Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Chiang Saen -- two wheels, three countries, and tons of elephants

We left the markets of Mae Sai -- and Thailand's northern most point -- behind as we took the 1290 east to Chiang Saen, morning sun in our eyes. The road was under repair for most of its length, meaning it will be great in a few months when all the work's finally done.

Guests were still breakfasting leisurely when we arrived at the Anantara Golden Triangle Resort and Spa, nestled amid lush jungle with a perfect viewpoint over the junction of Thailand, Laos and Burma. The latter two countries are easily distinguished by their eye-sore casinos which poke incongrously from the misty wilderness.

Here the Mekong is a muddy brooding confluence.

The Anantara has its own jungle-adventure feeling about it, not for the least reason that it's home to the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. Here, nearly 30 elephants have been rescued and rehoused from major cities where they once plied the street begging for bananas, which their mahouts (owners) sold to tourists and locals alike.

Here, they get to live in the primeval jungle and forage on lush greenery -- up to 250kg of leaves and bananas per day. Each. Jing jing! And their mahouts and families get to live in the camp, while their elephants are effectively leased to the Foundation for a generous monthly rental.

The Foundation in turn enables tourists to experience elephant rides in the bush, and take 'crash courses' -- not literally I hope -- in being a mahout. I decide to sign up for a 3-day course (check back soon to see how I progress).

Now I've got a question for you: when you were growing up, most of us wanted to be firemen, pilots, that sort of thing, didn't we? Englishman John Williams has a business card which reads 'Director of Elephants'.

John overseas operations here and is an evangelist for conservation. (He previously worked in Nepal, in tiger conservation.) John has helped the local villagers develop a silk weaving operation, giving the womenfolk something productive to do. Within 18 months they are already shipping orders for handmade silk BlackBerry covers to Europe and the USA. Talk about traditional meets modern!

On the way back to our luxury lodgings, we take the time to sit on the grass and feed bananas to a baby elephant. The cute little Dumbo look-alike just needs a quick 20 or 30 kg snack to keep it going ...

And after the gourmet breakfast, lunch and amazing Italian dinner at the Anantara, I was doing a pretty good impression of Dumbo myself.

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