An inspiring resort reignites the therapeutic nature of human-animal synergy to enrich a spa-adventure holiday, writes Angela Goh
A SMALL lush green paddy field glistens in the afternoon sun. Beside it, a pond and a two-storey open-sided wooden pavilion stand in cool contrast. Here in this picturesque setting framed by thick bamboo jungle, I am seated cross-legged at the start of a yoga session.
It is a struggle to maintain this simple pose because I am in an elevated position ... perched on an elephant.
This is one of several activities for guests of Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort in Chiang Rai, Thailand, where I have come to take my yoga adventure to a “higher” level by incorporating animal therapy.
The Elephant and Yoga Experience is a private customised session accompanied by a pachyderm for inspiration.
The yoga poses mimic an elephant’s natural posture and behaviour.
“Elephants have long held a place in ancient ritual and meditation for in local Buddhist traditions for their calm nature, rhythmic pace and unhurried breath,” says Mutsa Munyaradzi, the Elephant Camp manager.
My yoga “companion” is Bo, a female Asian elephant with a sprightly personality.
At 38 years, Bo is a teenager in elephant years. “It is very playful and just loves to eat all day,” says Jutatip, spa manager and yoga instructor.
Indeed, Bo munches away at any opportunity, including the resort’s ornamental plants, much to the consternation of the gardeners.
I ride on her bare neck (her mahout following closely), meandering through a jungle path to the paddy field in a deeply meditative and sensory journey, further elevating the holistic nature of yoga.
After the initial cross-legged pose (only that pose is allowed on the animal to avoid injuring it), the rest of the session is conducted on the terrace in the pavilion.
While Jutatip leads me in meditation and hatha yoga, Bo observes before disappearing with her mahout for another feeding frenzy.
This inspiring resort rests on a hillside near where the mighty Mekong river glides pass to adjoin its narrow tributary, the Ruak river. As the rivers converge, so too the landmasses of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, to form the legendary Golden Triangle.
Designed in Lanna style, a wide walkway flanked by serene ponds on both sides leads to the main building. The grand and voluminous reception area is awash in traditional Lanna motifs in warm brown tones and subdued hues accentuated with ornate wood carvings.
Service is impressive from the start. From high-tech accessories (in-vehicle WiFi and use of a tablet) to low-tech amenities (newspapers, magazines and a rattan basket fashioned into a minibar containing soft drinks, almonds and cute elephant-shaped cookies), the hour-long journey from the airport to the resort is not at all laborious.
Followed with a short head and shoulder massage during check-in, you know you are in good hands.
Bo is among 21 rescue elephants living in comfort at the resort’s Elephant Camp designed as a traditional mahout (elephant keeper) village.
The camp works alongside the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation to perform street rescues, provide employment and a comfortable life for the elephants and mahout families. A veterinarian is on-site and the elephants look well-fed and cared for.
For guests, it is a chance to understand, appreciate and interact with these gentle giants in activities such as learn to “drive” an elephant as a “mahout”, observe them or accompany them on their daily walk, as well as having them as yoga companions.
THREE-COUNTRY VIEW ROOMS
Guestrooms span two wings with one facing the Mekong river.
I stay at the other which offers a better view as it overlooks a scrubland where elephants roam and rest. Beyond it is a grassy spit of land in Myanmar territory. In the backdrop is a range of hills belonging to Laos.
Scent of lemongrass wafts into the capacious room lined with hardwood floor and adorned with teakwood carvings and artwork.
A retractable wooden screen separates the living area and bathroom where the centrepiece is an oversized terrazzo bathtub cum shower stall. Other luxury touches include toiletries by UK spa brand Elemis and a soap menu of cedarwood, patchouli, vetiver and ginger flower.
The balcony has chairs, table and a day bed, from where a few of the resort’s endearing residents can be viewed as they shelter under trees or play.
I sit for hours watching their amusing antics. One, which is probably the playful Bo, waddles in a mud pool then gets up and saunters away. After a while, amid resounding trumpets, it runs back to the mud pool, repeating its cooling-off ritual multiple times.
This wing is also where the spa is located. Anantara is reputed for its highly skilled therapists who are trained in the company’s own academy.
I select the signature massage with poo loey or plai, a herb which flourishes in this area. Part of the ginger family, plai is a traditional treatment for inflammation and muscle aches. Under the expert hands of a senior therapist, the treatment is both soothing and relieving.
DINING AT ITS FINEST
The all-day dining Sala Mae Nam restaurant has for breakfast a wide spread of Southeast Asian dishes — from the hawker stall-designed noodle station, fried rice and noodle dishes to rice porridge, including several stir-fried dishes. These including western variety are served in earthen pots which add more appeal to the appetising fare.
To keep fresh and hygienic, fruit juices are prepared on demand at a juice station while cut fruit are covered, and cold cuts and salads are packed in jars.
But the biggest highlight at breakfast takes place at 8.30am when baby elephant Yingluck, 5, strolls to the terrace to greet guests, who pamper it with bananas.
The adorable youngster has a genteel side, eating bananas only after peeling them and then passing the peels to her trainer to clear.
In the evening, Baan Dhalia restaurant offers fine dining of Italian and Mediterranean cuisine in a cosy and romantic setting.
My main dish, Grilled Tiger Prawns (Tuscany-style marinated prawns on bed of vegetables, served with fresh basil, tomatoes and olives), is really something to shout about.
It delivers an astute balance of flavours from herbs, lime and a variety of peppers, which enhance rather than overwhelm the main ingredient. The four large prawns retain their freshness and burst with natural sweetness.
The most popular desert, the waiter tells me, is the Warm Chocolate Vesuvius served with vanilla ice-cream and I don’t wonder why. The cake is supremely smooth. Cut into it and the chocolate sauce inside oozes enticingly from the cake. Both erupt with the finest texture and taste combined. Simply heavenly.
Underscore that with an exotic Black Ivory coffee. This rare brew is from medium roast beans digested by the elephants before being deposited, handpicked, sundried and served at the laid back Elephant Bar.
But the rarest delight in this Anantara property is its incredibly curative pachydermic-led yoga.
ANANTARA GOLDEN TRIANGLE ELEPHANT CAMP AND RESORT
ADDRESS: 229 Moo 1, Chiang Saen, Chiang Rai, Thailand
TEL: +66 5378 4084
63 rooms and suites
Sala Mae Nam serves Thai cuisine, with a view, while Baan Dhalia offers fine Italian dining or select the bespoke Dining by Design.
The Hall of Opium Museum, opposite the hotel’s main entrance, provides an in-depth look at the infamous history of the Golden Triangle in the opium trade. Set out on a longtail boat trip on the Mekong and Ruak rivers. Visit Chiang Rai and the ancient town of Chiang Saen.
The onsite Elephant Camp offers interaction with the gentle giants. Learn as a mahout trainee to “drive” an elephant or join in their daily walks.
Away from urban amenities.