Having already said that Anantara Resort and Spa Golden Triangle is one of the world’s unique luxury resorts, the gal needs to explain why. It is not only the elephants. It is the ambience – look at this, the view from 331, a deluxe room that is twice the size of standard rooms, hence a double balcony with two loungers to look down and out. Down are paddy fields and the raised salon that some choose to have private dining in – to the left, you might (if you have great eyesight or a magnifier) be able to see two elephants strolling past. Look out, past these fields, to Myanmar and, beyond, to Laos. This is the area that is indeed the Golden Triangle, where three nations meet.
I looked across at this view at breakfast. The 90-room hotel feeds its 25 elephants and their mahout families, and the 180 staff members, and the guests. Even when the hotel is full you hardly see others, even at breakfast. Some go out early, foraging at the local market for produce they will later cook, in a cooking class with chef Paitoon (yes, even cooking classes are free in the now-obligatory ‘all-inclusive’ plan, as is dining anywhere anytime, drinks that include a choice of wines and quality spirits, and elephant riding, and a spa treatment).
The food, by the way, is outstanding. Phaitoon has no problems with fresh produce – we are, after all, in the northern hill area where the Royal Project has for a couple of decades been encouraging farmers to turn away from opium to finest beans and tomatoes and everything else that healthy eating requires. Phaitoon gets other things from a supplier in Chiang Mai, four hours’ drive away. At breakfast there are fresh juices, buffets with anything you can think of, Chinese, international and Thai, and an egg chef stands right near the baby elephant who comes every morning for his own fare, namely bananas, whole, skin and all. What does he do at lunch, which is purely à la carte? I loved my Thai rice noodles, served in a cage of egg to look like a ball. Marion had her favourite Thai salad, in a pineapple shell.
That afternoon, it was time for my spa treatment (the spa is currently Travel + Leisure’s fourth best in the whole of Asia). Now obviously nowhere is going to do a better Thai massage than, well, Thailand and this exceeded my expectations. I put on floppy all-size pyjamas, and soon this tiny little lady showed she had the strength of an ox. Thai massage gets your limbs to do things you did not think were possible. At one point I was sitting cross-legged, arms to the side. Kneeling behind me, she linked her minute arms under my shoulders and flung me around as if I were pasta dough, from one side to the other. Unlike pasta in the making, however, my arms did not end up as spaghetti. Afterwards, I looked out at my room’s balcony, with its hot-tub.
Dusk fell, and we met up for Beefeater gin and tonics in the bar, which has a real log fire when required. Once again, it was food time. We were driven by Land Rover five minutes down hill for our chosen Dine By Design, in the Baby Elephant Camp cabin-on-stilts that I can see from room 331. Transformed with lights and linen cloths, it was elegance personified. There is a range of set menus, from traditional Thai through to experimental international, and I went for the modern Thai. We started with golden deep-fried vegetable spring rolls with sweet chilli sauce, went on to a clear soup with fresh shiitake mushroom, garlic and spring onion. Then came the thrill of cooking our own main course, Chinese hot-pot style. The cooker, in the middle of the table was heated by red-hot charcoals. Above this was a pan of water with hemispherical slatted dome atop, on which we put strips of chicken, pork and shrimp while boiling vegetables in the water. The finale, plated, was Thai sweet mango with coconut sticky rice and coconut sauce (we drank Concha y Toro Casillero del Diablo Cabernet Sauvignon 2011). As always, I slept like a log.
There is absolutely nothing more beautiful than waking up before dawn and, as it gets light, getting a 360-degree panorama of awe-inspiring greenery. The list is small – Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge in Peru; Savute Elephant Camp in the Okavango Delta, Vivanta by Taj Madikeri near Coorg. Add to it, now, waking up at the luxury hotel that is Anantara Resort and Spa Golden Triangle. Soon as I could, I borrowed one of the well-maintained mountain bikes for a quick cycle down to Chiang Saen, one time capital of the Lanna Kingdom – I photographed its Biggest Buddha, probably 90 feet high. This is now THE Golden Triangle and there is a border crossing, leading officially across the Mekong to Laos, but it seems that as long as you go in daylight restrictions are very lax. During the day, too, there are regular ships coming up and down from China, to one’s left – they take live buffalo there, from Laos, returning with fruit. Half an hour later I was back home, for a quick glance at the fabulous silk-covered bangles and necklaces in the hotel’s tasteful boutique, and then it was time to leave, to return to the real world. I will dream of elephants for many moons.