|Photo by Freeimages.com/Bianca Venter|
by Ben Ross, The Daily Telegraph, April 22, 2016
My wife, a veteran, vetoed the Khao San Road. Our boys could experience its dubious delights when they were a little older, she said. Instead, we would introduce them to Bangkok more decorously: rucksacks spiffed up into suitcases, creaking ceiling fans traded for aircon, sweaty sheets swapped for chilled hand towels. Hastily, I tucked my copy of Alex Garland’s backpacker classic The Beach back into the bookshelf. I love chilled hand towels.
The Anantara Riverside, located on the western bank of Chao Phraya river, is far enough from the hostels and bars of Khao San Road for you almost to forget that you’re in one of south-east Asia’s most hectic cities (and the chilled hand towels are great, too). It served as a gracious first stop on a two-week journey around Thailand designed to give Jamie, aged 13, and his younger brother Peter, 10, a taste of the world beyond Europe. My goal as a parent was shock and awe, a crash course in cultural dislocation. I wanted every experience to be new, from tuk-tuk rides to temples, monks to monkeys, lizards to lemongrass. But as far as the boys were concerned, it was always, always going to be about the elephants.
Drooping with jet lag, we took the hotel’s free river transfer to Saphan Taksin, from where a 40 baht fare (80p) on a passenger boat delivered us to Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace, Bangkok’s religious and cultural heart. The crowds here are immense, a throng that pushes you past the gaudy temples at a speed to be endured rather than enjoyed. The dress code, too, is strictly enforced. (“You, big boy! No short pants!” was how we were greeted at the entrance.)
Yet happily, despite their hastily donned long trousers, there were early signs that the children were prepared to be dazzled. Indeed, it’s almost impossible not to be impressed by the glittering spectacle: the choke of incense, the clatter of coins dropped into votive bowls, the emerald buddha in its niche. Just over the road at Wat Pho, the boys were first amazed by the 46m-long reclining buddha, then amused at the renovation work going on around its celebrated mother-of-pearl feet (“They’re saving his soles!”).
We soon got into the swing of things, overcoming that strange newcomer’s desire to eat Thai food in places which also serve pizza. Instead, we bought pork balls and noodle soup from street vendors, chewed on freshly diced pomegranate and supped on sweet pineapple slices delivered in plastic bags. Chinatown offered up a haphazard frenzy of monomaniacal stalls: hundreds of handbags available from one, car tyres in another, bathroom scales stacked dangerously high in a third. Smells, too: of drains, spices, rotten fruit and sweat.
Later, a day-trip to the ancient Thai capital of Ayutthaya – destroyed during a conflict with Burma in the 18th-century – was a chance for the grown-ups to gawp at ruined temples and for the boys to explore the grassy canal banks by rented bicycle. Much to their delight there was a first sight, too, of an elephant, albeit one pressed into what looked like rather dismal service next to a dusty roundabout.
From a tourist perspective, the treatment of elephants in Thailand was thrown into sharp relief in January with the news that a British visitor had been killed while riding an elephant on the tourist island of Koh Samui. Last year, too, a mahout was killed while trekking with a Chinese family near Chiang Mai. Animal rights groups cited overwork and stress as a likely cause of the elephants’ sudden aggression. Nevertheless, elephants were our primary focus at Anantara Golden Triangle, a spectacular retreat some 45 miles north of Chiang Rai at the convergence of Thailand, Burma and Laos. The property hosts 20 elephants and their mahouts on site, with most of the animals having been rescued from a life of street begging or illegal logging. Crucially, overwork and stress do not seem to be part of the picture here.
We attended an enthralling “elephant learning experience” run by Sophie Bergin, an Australian who arrived as a volunteer, stayed “to become an elephant girl” and is now the elephant camp manager. She quickly addressed the (metaphorical) elephant in the room. Her goal is for the animals to live in as wild a state as possible – there are currently around 4,000 domesticated elephants in the country, with just 2,500 in the wild. However, she is pragmatic: habitats for wild elephants are fragmented and hard to protect, and mahout culture requires elephants to earn their keep, as does the £12,000 annual price of keeping these hungry beasts healthy and well fed.
As a result, at Anantara Golden Triangle guests are allowed to ride elephants if they sign up for one of the resort’s “mahout experiences”. John Roberts, Anantara’s “director of elephants and conservation activities”, told me that he has seen “no evidence at all” that riding domesticated elephants bareback behind their ears (rather than using a saddle) harms them. More important, he says, is his policy of not breeding elephants in captivity, so that the next generation of elephants will not be forced to endure the brutal training that domestication entails. Roberts fears that western qualms about riding – groups such as World Animal Protection have called for the practice to be banned – will force elephants to work in trekking camps with poor welfare records.
I must confess that our experience was magical. We pottered for an hour or so through the jungle trails, our mounts stopping, unperturbed, to scoop up undergrowth in their trunks or suck up water. Then it was bath time in the river, during which the boys were also gleefully submerged.
Elephants are, of course, long-lived, intelligent animals, who in an ideal world would be getting on with their lives in the wilds of Asia without being asked to provide a taxi service to tourists. What might make sense in the rural surroundings of northern Thailand has a far crueler aspect in the high-density, high-stress environment in which elephant treks often take place elsewhere. It remains to be seen whether the pragmatic response offered by Bergin and Roberts is the one that prevails.
In an attempt to prise our offspring from the world of the pachyderm, we took a long-tail boat along the Mekong to Donxao island (officially part of Laos; there’s a 20 baht border fee), roaring over waters the colour of Willy Wonka’s chocolate river. We splashed around the resort’s exquisite infinity pool. We ate sublime Thai food in the elegant, pillared restaurant while lizards flickered up the walls. But the boys were not to be derailed: breakfast was continually interrupted by the need to feed Lynchee – one of the hotel’s smallest elephants – bits of watermelon. It was time for a change of scene.
From the Golden Triangle, we drove four hours south to Chiang Mai, via Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple, one of the most surreal places of worship I will ever see, a boggling mash-up between Salvador Dali and Stan Lee. Outside, a pool of alabaster hands reach up as if from hell; inside, the walls are coated in movie motifs: Yoda, X-Men, a Minion or two. Despite the pop art, this is a serious endeavour, a working buddhist temple designed by renowned Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. Kitsch doesn’t even come close.
Our base in Chiang Mai was the charming De Naga hotel, tucked away in a quiet alley near to the Tha Pae gate. We hired bikes to ride the perimeter of the old city, the bright green waters of the canal beside us, then made our way to a flower market displaying hundreds of near-identical marigold garlands.
Chiang Mai is a city that takes things easy, reawakening memories of my own (pre-parenthood) time as a backpacker. The weekend walking markets were a chance to immerse ourselves in the simmering heat of the evening, to barter with stall holders, then perch on packed trestle tables to scoff spring rolls and suck coconut water direct from the source. Our late-night tuk-tuk ride home was later revealed by the boys as a highlight of the trip.
Then it was south, for our second date with Asia’s largest land animal. As if to emphasise that there are no right answers when it comes to conservation, breeding captive elephants is allowed at Elephant Hills in Khao Sok National Park, but visitors are no longer allowed to ride the animals. This time our encounter involved preparing lunch for the elephants, washing them down using coconut fibre as a scrubbing brush and – yes – just watching them in their paddock. As Chris Kaiser, the property’s endlessly enthusiastic marketing manager, pointed out: “Staring at elephants is one of the most hypnotic things in the world.”
Elephant Hills is a delight. Marooned in the middle of the jungle, it’s a collection of luxury safari tents that offers a raft of activities for families keen on a bit of soft adventure. We took a gentle jungle trek along a swollen creek, then ventured further afield for a dramatic boat journey that ended with a swim in the warm waters of Cheow Larn lake (where a sister property, the Rainforest Camp, is set out on pontoons). A highlight was kayaking on the Sok river, lured by the flash of kingfisher, the plop of jungle frogs jumping into the water, and long-tailed macaques clambering through the trees.
Onwards, to the island of Phuket. Angsana Laguna Phuket, to be precise, part of an enclave of smart resort hotels set along one of a desirable stretch of beaches on the Andaman shore, far from the family-unfriendly fleshpots of Patong. By this point the boys had already tasted silkworm (like corn, we agreed), recoiled at the pungent durian fruit (fetid) and wolfed down plenty of rambutans (a piquant lychee flavour), so their palates were just about ready for a Thai cooking lesson. After assessing our attempts at yam talay (seafood salad) and massaman curry, the Angsana’s chef Wannee Kalasri judged them to have passed the taste test, with their grauy thod (banana fritters) of particular note. They were even given certificates to prove it.
Finally, we took a day trip to Phang Nga National Park, its karst islands forming part of that grin of limestone teeth which stretches from Ha Long Bay in Vietnam to Guilin in China. Among the jagged scenery, we kayaked among mangroves and explored stalactite-packed caves, and it was here – at a floating village moored at the base of one of those gigantic stone molars – that Peter bought his favourite souvenir from our trip: a tiny carved elephant. It now sits by his bed.
They say that elephants never forget. I hope my children never do, either.
Ben Ross and family travelled with Western & Oriental (020 3588 6130; westernoriental.com), which offers tailor-made holidays in Thailand. This itinerary costs from £11,998 based on two adults and two children (aged 11 and under) and includes a mixture of full board and bed and breakfast accommodation in the below hotels. This price also includes flights with Thai Airways and is based on travel in the second half of July 2016.
Where to stay
Anantara Riverside, Bangkok
A genuine 'resort in the city’, the Anantara Riverside offers a luxurious escape from Bangkok’s hectic bustle, yet also provides reasonable access to the main tourist attractions. The river views are a big selling point, as is the huge pool, set amid tropical gardens.
- Review: Anantara Riverside, Bangkok
Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort, Chiang Rai
A destination resort in the far north of Thailand where the big lure is the chance to interact with Asian elephants. The emphasis here is on the finer things in life, with tremendous Thai food, a top-notch spa, excellent service and balcony views that deliver three countries at a glance.
De Naga, Chaing Mai
De Naga, Chiang Mai
A friendly mid-range hotel set in the heart of Chiang Mai, with a great café-restaurant and comfortable rooms. De Naga provides an excellent base from which to explore the city’s many temples and markets.
- Review: De Naga, Chiang Mai
Elephant Hills, Khao Sok
Elephant Hills is a full-board tented camp set in the jungle of southern Thailand. As the name suggests, the chance to pamper pachyderms is the main lure, and the wide array of soft adventure activities on offer – from trekking to canoeing excursions – will appeal to all ages.
- Review: Elephant Hills, Khao Sok
Angsana Laguna, Phuket
A family-friendly resort on the western shore of Phuket Island, with fantastic beach access and plenty of dining options both in the hotel and in the wider resort complex. The pool will delight the children, while the XANA Beach Club offers more sophisticated diversions.
- Review: Angsana Laguna, Phuket
This article was written by Ben Ross from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.