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The Grace of Thailand’s Golden Triangle

Few places tickle the imagination more than Thailand’s Golden Triangle and for good reason. In Thailand’s most northern region, it’s where Thailand, Laos, and Burma/Myanmar converge along the banks of the mighty Mekong and Ruak Rivers. Historically of course, it was the fertile location of the world’s largest source of opium production and because of the geographical international trifecta, its trafficking.   

Today, the region instead cultivates its global visitors in search for an area off-the-beaten path. Driving north from Chiang Mai towards Chiang Rai, even before you get to Chiang Saen and the Triangle region, travelers will be rewarded beyond measure with some of the Thailand’s most exquisite and unusual temples, mind-boggling art, and inspired architectural genius in full array, coupled naturally with the north’s picturesque, mountainous countryside. (Guests can also fly directly into Chiang Rai, but as we wanted to stop en route, driving was the better option.) Three days in the Triangle area was, without doubt, the highlight of nearly three weeks on this Thailand sojourn. There was only one big regret, huge in fact: not staying here longer.

The Bed

Situated about an hour north of Chang Rai and minutes from Chiang Saen, the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort is located within a lush, remote jungle setting boasting magnificent views, every conceivable bell and whistle luxury travelers expect, and warm, hospitable service. 

We first stayed in a ‘Three Country View Suite’ containing 690 square feet of gleaming teak floors, a gorgeous teak daybed in the living room, oversized coffee table, intricate Thai art, and apropos of the camp, a wood-carved elephant hanging above the fabulously comfortable king-sized bed enveloped in high-count cotton sheets.

The large walk-in closet had a waist-level safe, and the bar area had a stocked fridge, hot pot, and Nespresso machine. The furnished balcony was far larger than my first east coast apartment, overlooked the enormous infinity pool and Jacuzzi, and just beyond, the confluence of Thailand, Burma/Myanmar, and Laos. 

The bathroom had environmentally friendly amenities, large walk-in shower, separate WC, and a massive, two-person stone bathtub blissfully filled for my arrival with rose petals. Following the long drive from Chiang Mai, I dove in with delight.

On the beautifully maintained grounds, there’s a fitness center with floor-to-ceiling windows and sauna, steam, and Jacuzzi. Also, a squash court, an outdoor Muay Thai boxing ring with classes taught by a pro, and yoga classes. After exercising you’ll want to head to the Anantara Spa. In an idyllic, three-story, open-air setting, the treatment rooms boast an outdoor patio with a round, oversized, Terrazzo bathtub overlooking the Triangle. Having a side-by-side massage in this environment is utterly Zen-inducing.

The Meals

Breakfasts at Anantara’s Sala Mae Nam were a delightful affair providing a mammoth array of both western and Asian fare, fresh fruits of every imaginable variety, fresh-squeezed juice station, charcuterie, cereals, fresh house made breads, and pastries, and if that were not enough, a made-to-order menu as well.

The dinner menu boasted an ‘Across the Mekong’ menu with delectable Burmese specialties, such as Yum Cha Mhang – a divine traditional dish of pickled tea leaves with roasted peanuts – and Kaeng Som Pla – a Laotian ruby fish sour soup with tamarind and lemon basil. There was also a traditional ‘Thai Heritage’ menu with yummy Yum Som-O – pomelo salad with chicken, quail eggs and coconut ­– Chiang Rai spicy pork, pad Thai, and wok-fried local beef with mushrooms and oyster sauce.

Also on the menu, a wide selection of international cuisine, including Japanese wagyu filet mignon, lobster linguini and gourmet pizzas. Following two weeks of delicious Asian cuisine I was thrilled to enjoy an excellent tuna tartare and a perfectly prepared grilled salmon.     

The Finds

En route to the Triangle, we stopped just outside Chiang Rai at the astoundingly eccentric Wat Rong Khun, also called The White Temple. Though it appears like a phantasma from an ancient, otherworldly, Lanna-like dream, it’s fairly new. Constructed by local artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, it opened in 1997 to much acclaim. After you’ve walked around the ethereal main temple and ancillary buildings, make sure and go into Ganesh Exhibition Hall for surrealist-style art from Kositpipat’s own collection of Ganesh paintings and sculptures. You’ll also see here perhaps the grandest gold public toilets in existence.

Travelers cannot miss the nearby Blue Temple, also called Wat Rong Suea Ten, as the deep azure covers its statues, walls, and roof. Ever the colorful standout, visitors will be in awe as most Thai temples are splashed in gold. Here contemporary design marries Thai architecture to Buddhist sensitivities. That it’s modern makes sense once one learns it was designed by Putha Kapkaew, one of Kositpipat’s students. Construction commenced in 2005 on these grounds where an ancient, abandoned temple once stood and was completed in 2016, though additional work continues.

Also nearby, the Baan Dam Museum, also called The Black House Museum pays homage to contemporary artist Thawan Duchanee. Inside the main pavilion are woodcarvings, furnishings reflecting a possible crocodile obsession, chairs constructed using massive bull horns, and folk art in multi-colored hues. Outside on nearly 40 acres is a collection of two dozen Thai and Lanna-style pavilions that house more of the artist’s work with intricate wood carvings, sculptures, and furnishings, some of which are downright odd. 

One afternoon we took Anantara’s delightful Royal Enfield Classic 500 Sidecar excursion that took us through the countryside passing Min Farm and sticky rice paddies. Driving on we perused the hilltop Golden Triangle Viewpoint where a large Buddha – Phra Buddha Wiri Trairath – was unveiled in 2014 to bless prosperity for the Triangle’s three nations. From here there are forever views including, sadly, a Chinese gambling city within a special economic zone across the river in Laos that includes the new and gargantuan Kings Roman Casino. We then drove to the local, white temple mini version, ending our delightful afternoon strolling through Chiang Saen to purchase local teas to take home.  

Two extraordinary experiences in the Triangle tied for first place. The first was Anantara’s ‘Walking with Giants’ elephant experience. A 10-minute jeep ride from the hotel, the camp runs along the Ruak River with Burma just 60 feet away. The camp has 19 elephants with only two males who are kept away from the females when in heat as natural birth control. There are 22 mahouts – Hindi for elephant caretaker – one for each elephant and three spare, all of whom have been with the foundation since its inception 17 years ago. We walked through the jungle alongside these happy, ear-flapping, pachyderms, sat down with them under a shady tree canopy, then walked with them down to the river so they could splash, play, and bathe.     

The second was staying overnight in a luxury, secluded, transparent Jungle Bubble. About 10-minutes from the hotel are two couple Bubbles and one family Bubble, all of which are private from each other. The air-conditioned Bubbles are raised and have massive, furnished outdoor viewing decks to enjoy the sunset, watch the elephants eat as you dine, and retire as you do. The Bubbles comfortable, roomy interiors have 225 square feet, with the same excellent king-size beds as the main hotel, have a separate seating area, and an attached mini-Bubble with vanity area, WC, and stall shower. The Bubble also had a stocked minibar, Nespresso maker, and hot pot. 

Equally marvelous, just after sunset, waiters arrived bearing a chilled bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, and a 10-course, traditional Thai dinner, including green papaya salad, pad Thai, shrimp stir-fry, pork chips, and bestow my heart, three dessert courses, including my favorite, mango sticky rice with coconut cream. Then the gentle giants just outside our Bubble who were themselves exhausted after completing their own mountainous buffet about the same time we did, laid down to slumber. We took their cue bidding bonne nuit to our humongous, ear-flapping elephant friends. Having led a very heavily travelled life, the Bubble experience is one of the rarest and most memorable.  

The Lessons Learned

Few places in the world contain as much art, architecture, and culture in a relatively small area as in Thailand’s Golden Triangle. Adding to this, the stellar and undeniably unique and luxurious accommodations coupled with the up-close-and-personal experiences with elephants that travelers to Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort can partake, make it a truly remarkable, at least, once-in-a-lifetime, epic journey. Happy Travels!

Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney, and the author of the award-winning memoir: “Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight.” Her work has appeared in several major publications around the world, including The LA Times, The SF Examiner, The Asia Times, The Jerusalem Post, and The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, among many others. She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com.

Julie L. Kessler

Written by Julie L. Kessler

Julie L. Kessler is Money Inc's Senior Travel & Luxury Editor and writes for several major media outlets in the U.S. and overseas. She is also an attorney and legal columnist and the author of the award-winning book "Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight." She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com

Read more posts by Julie L. Kessler

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