Tenting in Asia’s Golden Triangle
C. James Dale
CHIANG SAEN, THAILAND — The closest I’ve come to playing polo is wearing the shirts. Yet here I am in the middle of a scrubby patch of grass in northern Thailand, helmet on head, stick in hand, waiting for a chance to score.
Someone shoots the ball my way. I lean over, swing, and thwack! It rolls through a maze of mallets and animal legs and dribbles past the posts. One nil. The crowd goes … well, the crowd cheers politely. My teammates and I congratulate each other. Then I give credit where credit is due: to the roughly two-tonne elephant I’m sitting on and hermahout, or keeper.
“Khob khun krub,” I say to Hum, thanking him in Thai before slapping Nam Phun’s rubber-thick skin. It’s unlikely she notices.
Elephant polo, which sounds like a bastard child of colonialism, is the last thing I imagined myself doing on this trip, or even in this life. My match on this hot day in February capped off a weekend of firsts that included bathing with these gentle giants, tearing around a Myanmarese border town in a tuk-tuk, and downing shots of cobra whisky from Laos. And to think things started out so simply.
“Sawadee ka, welcome,” Kookkai and Beau say in unison when we arrive at the pier for the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle. My wife and I are a little groggy after the 12-hour journey from Tokyo, but excited to be in this storied part of the world, where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet, where farmers and various hill tribes once harvested the world’s largest supply of opium and heroin. The poppies are largely gone now, at least in Thai territory, replaced by tea and tobacco, coffee and pineapples.
We board a long-tail boat and speed down the cappuccino-coloured Ruak River, floating in a watery no man’s land that divides two countries, with the hills of a third in the distance. Rounding a bend, the first of the camp’s 15 tents appear up ahead, sitting serenely on a ridge and framed by bamboo. Once onshore, Kookkai leads us up a steep set of stairs
“We apologize there’s no gym,” she says over her shoulder. “We will keep you walking though.”
No joke. Over cool, lemon grass-infused drinks, the staff outline the packed itinerary: a day trip to markets and temples in northern Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos; a morning spent riding elephants; and an afternoon at the camp’s open-air spa to chase away aches and pains.
But first, sunset cocktails. After resting in our luxurious Asian-design-meets-African-safari tent – with its views of Myanmar’s southeastern flank – we head to the bar for a drink.
Spending time with elephants is the main reason people come to this secluded spot. Thais have relied on the animals for centuries to help them succeed at war and work, but a ban on logging in the late 1980s left thousands of mahouts without a way to feed their hungry charges. The Four Seasons and another hotel support the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, a conservation group that provides a living formahouts who would otherwise take their animals to urban areas to beg or work in entertainment. Now, the foundation’s 30 elephants spend their days digesting thousands of pounds of sugar cane, bamboo and bananas and lumbering through the jungle with tourists on their backs.
Before we get up close and personal with the pachyderms (for polo and other pursuits), we decide to visit the neighbours. A cool morning finds us motoring along the Mekong River to the Thai town of Chiang Saen, where our guide, Somkid, takes us to the local market. Outside, vendors sell barbecued fish and deep-fried chicken heads. Inside, tables are loaded with everything from lettuce and tomatoes to fresh rice noodles and meat. A woman sits crouched in one corner selling live frogs, bound into bunches of 10 by a thin piece of bamboo that’s woven through their legs. Next to her, someone hawks ant eggs.
“What do you do with those,” I ask Somkid, gesturing to what looks like a pile of tapioca.
“Sometimes you make a sauce,” he replies. “Make it a bit spicy or sour or sweet, and just mix the eggs inside, uncooked.”
The lunch we eat on the drive to Myanmar seems tame in comparison – sandwiches and vegetable fried rice. Fresh from a blessing by a monk at the Wat Chedi Luang, a 14th-century Buddhist temple, we’ve crossed the border and are now silently cheering on our tuk-tuk driver as he wills his sputtering, three-wheeled contraption uphill to the Tachilek Shwedagon Pagoda.
“This is a replica of the golden pagoda in Yangon,” Somkid tells us as we walk sock-footed around the 32-metre structure, built for the faithful who are unable to make the 1,100-kilometre trip to the former capital. Rubber trees dot the surrounding slopes. On the streets below, people navigate a bustling market on the hunt for CDs, DVDs, clothing, bags, jewellery and much more, the vast majority of the products knock-offs from China.
“Even the liquor is fake,” Somkid warns us.
Happy as we were to have seen a snapshot of Myanmar, we were happier to get back to our tent in the jungle, where our days began at dawn watching a curtain of mist rise to reveal the Myanmarese countryside and listening to the free-jazz soundtrack of birds, bugs and snorting, trumpeting elephants. Most guests rely on superlatives and hyperbole to describe their time here: beautiful, gorgeous, once-in-a-lifetime. Our experience wasn’t any different. It was thrilling to amble through the forest atop the elephants, beings only God, nature or George Lucas could have created. They would stop every so often to snake their trunks up trees to snag succulent leaves or snap off a branch. “Pai, pai,” the mahouts would say, urging them forward.
So slow and languid are their movements that few guess that they can actually run, which is why I’m surprised to find myself atop one of them, charging down a field after a small, white ball. We arranged the pickup game the night before after a round of Laotian cobra whisky shots – the snake still in the bottle, a scorpion in its mouth. A team of pros, led by millionaire Texas oilman Ed Story, played the first match of the morning. Then I took to the field with a ragtag bunch of amateurs that included a business consultant from Mexico, a model from the Netherlands and a fashion photographer from London.
“I’m coming for you, Ed,” I shout toward the sidelines, seconds after I score. But the euphoria soon wears off. When the final whistle blows, my team loses 2-1. Still, after dismounting, I hint I’ll be back in March to take part in the tournament marking Thailand’s Elephant Day. Ed Story, a fierce competitor, dashes my dreams. “You did well,” he says in his southern drawl. “But you had the best elephant and the best mahout.”
I agree with him. How could I not – he sponsored the match. But between you and me, I’m confident I’ve uncovered a hidden talent, one that will surely spice up my résumé. At least around these parts.
If you go
Air Canada travellers must connect to Bangkok through Tokyo, Shanghai or Hong Kong. Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways and AirAsia have daily flights from Bangkok to Chiang Rai. The drive to the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle takes about 90 minutes.
Where to stay
A two-night stay at the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle (66-0-53 910-200) in March costs $6,000. The price includes accommodation for two, all meals and drinks, elephant training, a Golden Triangle excursion, one spa appointment per person, and round-trip transfer to Chiang Rai International airport.
The Four Seasons is also offering a summer deal (April 11 to Sept. 30). Stay three nights at the Tented Camp and receive a free, two-night stay at another Four Seasons property in Thailand (Chiang Mai, Koh Samui or Bangkok). Nightly rates start at $1,950.
Many Tented Camp guests start or end their visit to northern Thailand at the lush, Lanna-style Four Seasons Chiang Mai (66-0-53-298-181). Two nights in March costs $1,795, including breakfast.
What to do
Along with elephant trek-king, Tented Camp guests can visit indigenous people who live in the surrounding hills, including the Karens, whose women traditionally elongate their necks with brass rings. Trips to the Hall of Opium museum can also be booked. In addition, the hotel arranges a three-country Golden Triangle excursion.
The sport is played in Thailand, Nepal, Sri Lanka and India. For more information on the rules, regulations, and history, visit the World Elephant Polo Association. Thailand’s Elephant Day is on March 13. The country’s King’s Cup will take place from Sept. 12 to 16 in Hua Hin. The event has been running since 2001 and has raised $500,000 (U.S.) for elephant conservation.
(Photo: Katie Van Camp)
ELEPHANT POLO, THAI STYLE
Chiang Saen, THAILAND – The closest I’ve come to playing polo is wearing the shirts, but nevertheless here I am in the middle of a scrubby patch of grass in northern Thailand, helmet on head, stick in hand, waiting for a chance to score.
Someone shoots the ball my way. I lean over, swing, and thwack! It rolls through a maze of mallets and animal legs and dribbles past the posts. One-nil. The crowd goes…well, the crowd cheers politely. My teammates and I congratulate each other. Then I give credit where credit is due: to the two tonne elephant I’m sitting on and her mahout, or keeper.
“Khob khun krub,” I say to Hum, thanking him in Thai before slapping Nam Phun on her right flank. It’s unlikely she notices.
I’d never heard of elephant polo until my recent trip to Thailand. I read about it in a book at the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle and dismissed the game as some bastard child of colonialism (it’s played in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand).
Then one night my wife, Katie, and I have some drinks at sunset with Four Seasons staffer Tak and he tells us Ed Story is at the resort. Story is a Texan who made his millions in the oil industry. He visits the Tented Camp more than a dozen times a year, according to Tak, and when he’s here, he’s here to play polo. A game is set for the next day.
“You have to let us come,” I beg Tak. He laughs nervously. Perhaps he wasn’t supposed to say anything. Later, I talk to the Tented Camp’s general manager, Yoni, and he confirms we’ll be able to go, maybe even play.
The next day, we rush through breakfast and head to the polo pitch, which is on the grounds of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. The conservation group provides a living for mahouts who would otherwise take their animals to urban areas to beg or work in entertainment. Now the foundation’s 30 elephants spend their days chomping through thousands of pounds of sugarcane, bamboo, and bananas, and lumbering through the jungle with guests from the Four Seasons and another hotel on their backs.
When we arrive, Ed Story and some other players are all dressed up in their polo gear and waiting around in the corner of the playing field on a wooden stand they use to get on their beasts. The elephants have chalk markings on their sides: A1, A2, A3, and B1, B2, B3. Three elephants per side, three players, and three mahouts to direct the elephants. On the sidelines, a small group has gathered under a tent. Gin, beer, and Pimm’s are on standby.
The referee blows his whistle. Game on. The elephants chase around the small white ball, and the players try to whack it with their mallets. The rules are the same as regular horse polo. The World Elephant Polo Association (WEPA) established them in 1982, although the game reportedly dates back to the 12th century. The field is three-quarters of the length of a standard polo pitch to make up for the slower speed of the elephants. The WEPA plays four elephants per side for two ten-minute halves. Thailand’s association calls for three elephants per side and two seven halves.
The object for both versions of the game is the same: put the ball in the net. Players switch elephants at the half, and only elephants of a certain age can play.
“You have to choose the right one,” says Kum Vee, one of the top players in Thailand (he’s on Story’s team). “I mean you have to choose the teenager ones, not the old ones. The tournament ones we use the fast one. Like 13 up to 18, 19.”
Even though the elephants are considered young, they still tend to labour and lumber up and down the pitch. The game feels slow. Once in a while, the elephants walk or run toward one of the nets. Some of them trumpet (no idea if in agony or ecstasy). The players manipulate their long sticks to try to hit the ball this way or that.
“Some of them, for things like polo, some of them don’t enjoy it. So we don’t make them play,” says John Roberts of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. “We have 30 elephants and we select the ones that are going to enjoy it the most. Of the six we have here, I think we have three that really enjoy running around. I’m not sure they understand the idea of getting the ball through the goals. But some of them can understand the idea of getting to the ball first. Anecdotally, I can say that some of them seem to get upset when the player misses the ball. So they may even understand it to a greater level than that. And then of the other six, we have three who happen to be hanging around in the outfield eating.”
At the half, I sidle up to Ed Story’s wife, Joey.
“The tournaments themselves are tremendous fun,” she says. “And we have two daughters that have a team. And it’s really fun ‘cause it’s a whole family thing. We all have a great time together. So it really is a lot of fun. And then he fools around on our Texas ranch with it. He has a little fake elephant.”
“He retrofitted a car or something,” I ask, referring to the Suzuki Story rigged with a seat on the roof so he could practice at home.
“Oh no, he retrofitted the car and cut his foot off when he did that,” she responds. “And it took him three years to rehabilitate from cutting off his foot.”
“His foot was actually cut off,” I ask.
“I got down to him and the foot was hanging on because he had on a Nike sock that kept it on. And we took him to the hospital and they reattached the foot. And they said he’d never be able to walk again. And so the six months later…they lifted him onto the elephant because he couldn’t walk to get on the elephant. So he was lifted onto it.”
“He wanted to play that badly,” I continue.
“Yeah. So to say he’s into it is an understatement,” she laughs.
After the game ends, and Story’s team wins, I take a minute to chat to the man himself. At 68 years old, he’s been playing elephant polo for five years
“What’s it like for you…being up there on the elephant and racing around,” I ask.
“It’s addictive, that’s all I can say. Ha ha I mean it just really is,” he says. “And it’s a way that we can raise some money and see something happen. Most of these elephants came off the street. This is certainly a better habitat than sleeping under freeways and that sort of thing in Bangkok.”
Story and other players support the annual elephant polo tournaments in Thailand (this year’s happens in mid-September, south of Bangkok). He says they’ve raised $500,000 U.S. in about five years.
Once in a while, Story is generous enough to let amateurs play. I take to the field with a rag-tag bunch of players that includes a fashion photographer, a model, and a business consultant from Mexico (the photographer and model were doing a shoot for Jan, a Dutch magazine). Early on in the first half, I score.
“I’m coming for you, Ed,” I shout toward the sidelines. But the euphoria soon wears off. After man and beast sweat it out for the two halves (and I hit my elephant in the face about three times…sorry Nam Phun!), my team loses 2-1. Still, once I dismount I hint I’ll be back in March to take part in a tournament to mark Thailand’s ‘Elephant Day.’ Story, a fierce competitor, dashes my dreams.
“You did well,” he says in his southern drawl. “But you had the best elephant and the best mahout.”
I agree with him. How could I not – he sponsored the match. But between you and me, I’m confident I’ve uncovered a hidden talent, one that will surely spice up my resume. At least around these parts.
MEET THAILAND’S PARADISE ISLAND
(Photo: Katie Van Camp)
C. James Dale
KOH KOOD, THAILAND — Day after day, I gazed with great interest at the action on Koh Kood’s long, dilapidated pier, which sticks out into the Gulf of Thailand like a damaged appendage, pointed toward Cambodia. In the morning, the ramshackle fishing boats rumbled in with their catch, followed closely by the trawlers providing daily provisions for this island in southeastern Thailand. Later, locals lugged coconuts under the hot afternoon sun to buyers who waited in boats bobbing out in the cool, turquoise water. Once in a while, a scooter carrying one, two, or three passengers — maybe a scraggly dog too — would zip down the structure, then back again. And sometimes, below all of this, Thai children would splash about and play games, either unaware or untroubled by a sign reading Danger! Damaged Structure! Don’t walk underneath!
The pier seemed an appropriate source of entertainment during my stay on Koh Kood, as simple and scaled down as the island itself. During my time there, I’d watch things unfold from a lounge chair as I sipped a freshly-blended watermelon shake or while I strolled aimlessly along the beach. Every couple of days, locals would set up tables and umbrellas on the crumbling concrete jetty, cooking seafood and socializing as the sun grew heavy and slowly sank into the water, the sky’s brilliant colour palette morphing from a delightful orange-red to a sombre purple-mauve before nightfall.
When I originally mentioned to friends I was traveling to Thailand in the New Year, most said, “Where are you going? Phuket? Koh Samui?” — the main tourist destinations. Only a few had heard of Koh Kood, the second biggest island in the Koh Chang archipelago. Despite not having direct airport access like Thailand’s hyper-developed hotspots, these islands have quietly made their way onto the international radar.
“My friend told me I had to come here,” Caroline Paré of Montreal said excitedly on the ferry ride over from the mainland city of Trat.
Before taking the boat to Koh Kood, my wife and I stopped on Koh Chang, the biggest of the more than 50 islands in this chain and, as I quickly found out, the most developed. Barely a metre of its western coast has been spared, with resort-after-resort rubbing elbows from the island’s tip to tail. The main road from the ferry landing is lined with restaurants, bars, open-air clothing shops, and a multitude of massage parlours (Viagara massage anyone?). Stray dogs wander about and elephants stand tied up, stoically waiting to work or carry tourists around on their backs. Sure, it feels like Thailand, but the Western influence is hard to miss: Buffalo Bill Steak House, Paddy’s Palms Irish Pub, Invito Italian Restaurant, 7-11.
Fortunately, none of this awaited us at our next stop.
“Koh Kood is more rustic. It’s further away from the mainland,” Samuel Yeo of Singapore pointed out after our speedboat left Koh Chang and nosed its way through the waves, racing past dozens of islands, some with idle, inviting beaches and others with caves and crevices cut into their jagged coastlines.
Koh Kood is home to about 30 resorts with names that play up the ‘escape’ angle: Captain Hook, Neverland, Away. Leading the pack is Shantaa, a former coconut and rubber plantation with 15 modest villas that stare seaward. We checked in one afternoon and then plunked ourselves down on a comfortable outdoor couch to sip cold lemongrass tea and survey our surroundings: the soft blue sky, the sea with its languid waves, the delicately curved coconut trees towering over well-manicured gardens. A few minutes and one hurried conversation later, I marched back to reception tacked an extra couple of nights onto our stay. We couldn’t imagine leaving.
“We want to make the people who come [here] have the same feeling we have,” Shantaa manager, Ms. F. Wattana, told me later. Her grandparents farmed this land more than fifty years ago, and in her youth she made the trek here from Bangkok during school holidays.
“This is our paradise. I just appreciate the way it is, and I don’t ask for more.”
And it’s a simple paradise, enjoyed by only a few dozen people at a time. Shantaa is a distraction-free zone, a sanctuary for anyone who yearns to tune out: no TVs, no Internet (save the communal laptop with the sluggish connection), no phones or clocks in the rooms, no jet skis, no nightlife. We woke each day after 7 a.m. to the nattering of birds and the grunts of geckos, and then spent time eating the resort’s fantastic food, reading, walking on the beach, kayaking, swimming, and then repeating all of that. During the day, some guests rented out scooters and explored Koh Kood, usually not coming across many other tourists.
“We went to the waterfall and there was no one there,” Londoner Mark Burrage exclaimed. “You don’t get that elsewhere in Thailand.” Burrage, who’s visited this country for nearly two decades, believes popular spots such as Koh Samui have been “ruined.”
It’s hard to imagine Koh Kood suffering a similar fate, but the grip of development has been tightening around this island, thanks in part to the arrival of Soneva Kiri, an expansive and expensive eco-resort run by the Six Senses group that can accommodate 140-160 guests. Those who can afford the $2,500 to $15,000 U.S. pricetag per night fly in on a private plane from Bangkok, touching down on a nearby island from where they’re whisked to Koh Kood aboard a slick speedboat. The resort has received mountains of glowing reviews in the international press, so I decided to book a tour to see what all the fuss was about.
“We’ll pick you up at 12:30 p.m. your time, ok?” manager Gary Henden said when I called.
“My time?” I asked. “Aren’t we in the same time zone?” I was only a couple of kilometres down the road after all.
“Six Senses resorts are an hour ahead of local time,” he replied. “To maximize sun time and reduce jet lag.”
A short while later, I was suspending my disbelief and holding tight to the side of a golf cart as Henden raced me around the sprawling resort, pointing out the various villas hidden among the trees. His dizzying show-and-tell also included stops at Soneva Kiri’s outdoor movie theatre, boutiques, restaurants, chocolate and ice cream shops, library, kids’ play room, beach bar, and fully-stocked wine cellar. So this is what Six Senses calls “intelligent luxury,” I thought as we sped along.
I was anxious to get a look at the eco-chic sleeping quarters, but after I watched Henden see off a group of guests, he promptly informed me the resort was fully booked and no villa was available for a look-see (perhaps he’d gotten the message from head office, who’d originally told me they’re not interested in reviews by Canadian publications because Canada isn’t their target market). To his credit, Henden did his best to talk up Soneva Kiri’s eco-initiatives, which include on-site drinking water and wastewater treatment, solar power, and plans for a hydroelectric project. At one point, our conversation drifted toward development on Koh Kood.
“The logistics are saving this place at the moment,” he said, referring to the difficulties of building on a remote island. “But it’s going to come. When there’s a spot of beach and someone’s going to make money…” At that point, his voice trailed off, either for dramatic effect or because he was bored with the conversation. Or maybe he realized how incongruous this statement sounded, coming as it did from the representative of a corporation that had just transformed a sizable spot of beach to benefit its bottom line, not some higher goal.
Back at the small, family-run Shantaa resort, I marveled at how the owners could have put in double the number of villas, but instead chose a “small-is-beautiful” philosophy that favours open space over profit. As a cool breeze from the sea diluted the hot afternoon air, I walked down to the beach and noticed the locals gathering along the pier to watch the end-of-day light show. Sitting on the rocks, ready to capture the sunset with my camera, I silently — and perhaps selfishly — hoped they believed in preserving their island’s charming simplicity, that the photos from this trip would resemble Koh Kood five years from now. The last thing Thailand needs is another paradise lost.
JUST THE FACTS
ARRIVING: Air Canada has daily flights to Bangkok that connect in Hong Kong. Once you arrive in the Thai capital, there are a number of airlines, including Bangkok Airways, that offer daily flights from Bangkok to Trat. Travelers need to take a ferry to Koh Chang or Koh Kood.
SLEEPING: Koh Chang Cliff Beach Resort, a rustic but slightly rundown retreat, has rooms in a jungle-like setting. Rates range from $142-$274 (includes breakfast).
Amari Emerald Cove, the island’s only five-star hotel, feels like a classic resort and has a huge pool. The average room rate is $175 per night (includes breakfast).
Shantaa has been welcoming guests for six years.
Rooms in peak season (Dec. 21 to Jan. 10) range from $135-$176, including breakfast. Rates in the high season (Jan. 11 to May 31) range from $119-$160.
Soneva Kiri has been open since December 2009. It is by far the most expensive resort on Koh Kood (and in Thailand). Rates for the end of February, ranged from $2,200 per night (three-night total is $8054.10) to $13,440 U.S. per night (three-night total is $49,069.44).
THE BUZZ ON COCKTAIL CULTURE
C. James Dale
Sleek bars high over Bangkok. Barcelona drinks that bellow and smoke like something out of Macbeth. And chic spots in New York and Tokyo. The world is increasingly filled with high-end bars with space-age ingredients and wild, “can you top this” décor. Here’s a look at some of what’s going on in a few of the world’s major cities.
Sky Bar, Hotel Lebua: One of the world’s highest open-air bars, it sits on the 63rd floor of the hotel, featured in the movie Hangover II. Sipping a mojito as a jazz band on a small stage hovered above the crowd like a trio of apparitions, you can lean cautiously against what seems like a flimsy barrier and marvel at the 360 degree view of Bangkok. The bar, with its skirt of pastel-neon lights, looks like a spaceship that had just touched down for the night. 1055 Silom Rd., 66 (0) 2 624-9555 www.lebua.com
Moon Bar, Banyan Tree Hotel: Before Sky Bar came along and took the crown, Moon Bar ruled as the tallest in the land. It’s still a giant, dominating the 61st floor of the Banyan Tree Hotel. The protective glass barriers help add to the feeling that you’re floating above Bangkok – or they’ll give you vertigo. 21/100 South Sathon Rd., 66 (0) 2 679-1200.www.banyantree.com/en/bangkok/dining/vertigo_and_moon_bar
Q Bar: If you can’t take heights, then cool drinks await at Q Bar, one of the hippest nightclubs in the Thai capital. Canadian Andrew Clark and his business partner, American David Jacobson, have been running it since 1999 and it’s said to have the largest selection of spirits and cocktails in Bangkok. QBar is where ex-pats and locals (men, women, and lady boys) mingle and make connections on the breezy, open-air terrace or the dark dance floor in the basement. It’s also a favourite destination for celebrities such as Owen Wilson and Matt Damon. 34 Soi 11 Sukhumvit Rd., 66 (0) 2 523-3274, qbarbangkok.com