Getting up on an elephant is no easy task, as the gal found at one of the world’s most unusual luxury resorts, Anantara Golden Triangle Thailand Resort & Spa. First, put on your mahout trousers, shapeless blue cotton things big enough for a sumo. They come with fixed ties. Put on, ties at back, wrap folds in front, bring the ties round and tie. There you are. Next, find an elephant, with a professional mahout to keep him or her in order. Your animal should be lying down. Step up on one of its knees and then heave-ho, over you go.
This is the home of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, founded in 2006 by the marvellous Anantara brand owner, Bill Heinecke, to take baby elephants off the streets where they were begging for their owners. Thailand’s elephants are Asian, much smaller than African elephants (memories of my last trip to Botswana). These are almost tamed, and they live in harmony with their owning mahouts and the mahouts’ families. The juveniles, up to about seven years, sleep, one leg chained, in stalls like stables next to the mahouts’ homes, which traditionally are wood and thatched, one floor and raised about 12 feet off the ground. There is a mahout village, with 25 elephants and 30 mahouts and their families, as part of the Anantara. The mahouts’ families get health insurance, and their kids are sent to school. Well done Bill.
Elephants cost from a million baht ($32,000) and they are generally owned by their mahout and assorted family members. The mahouts are with them by 7 a.m. That is when we went out, to collect the adults who had been wandering wild in the jungle – they all seem to gather together by that time anyway. Adults only sleep three to four hours a night, of which only one hour is lying down (I guess that, unlike humans, they will not fall over if they are sleeping standing up). They have some similarities with humans, like reproductivity between early teens and early 40s and a life-span to early 80s, but unlike most of us they eat non-stop, like about 250kg a day.
Every year Bill Heinecke’s Director of Elephants and Conservation Activities, John Roberts, has to find 70 more mahouts and 52 elephants to truck in to Hua Hin for the annual King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament, which this year is August 28 to September 1st. The 2013 sponsors include Audemars Piguet, Bangkok Bank, Casillero del Diablo, Johnnie Walker Blue Label and Mercedes Benz. All the teams pay handsomely to enter, and the final gala’s auction raises valuable funds for the Foundation. All those staying here, at Anantara Golden Triangle Thailand Resort & Spa, are on an extremely generous all-inclusive basis, which includes a donation to the Foundation.
Of course once up on my elephant, we did not exactly gallop. The command goy, slow down, just was not needed. This 41-year old was slowest of the seven in our convoy. A snail could have raced it with comfort. When eventually we got to one of the 160-acre resort’s ponds, I dismounted before my lovely steed went in for its bath, and a jolly good hard scrub with a real scrubbing brush. Elephants do not sweat and in this heat they need two to three baths a day. One trick is suddenly to snort out from their trunk, which sprays all over anyone standing near – the trunks are bone-free, but each has over 30,000 muscles.
John Roberts is based here, at this luxury hotel. How did he get to be elephant king? After graduating in engineering back in England he was a firefighter in the US before graduating to firelighting as conservation control in Australia. That led to studying tigers in Nepal, and the easiest way to do that safely is on elephant back… so here he is. He has a new assistant, Sophie from Melbourne, an elephant lover from Melbourne who found him via twitter. The only other non-Thai among the 180 who run this amazing place – of which more, tomorrow – is Marion Newell, a New Zealand accountant who needed a change after 17 years of dairy.