Postcards from Southeast Asia – Northern Thailand

Four Seasons Chiang Mai - Cooking School, Chef Pirun. Credit: Helen Kitti Smith

Tong Kam and I are in synch here at the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle in Chiang Rai where she resides. The mahouts or elephant trainers have paired us for my first-ever trek that I just learned is accomplished bareback. I am moving towards calm as I observe this 10,000-pound mammal. I do trust these mahouts who tell me that Tong Kam is very gentle, apart from her size. I practice new elephant commands in Thai: ‘Pai!’ – ‘Go forward!’ ; ‘Soak!’ – ‘Go Backward!’; and ‘How!’ -‘Stop.’ Armed for adventure, I am ready to head out.

Our trek moves at a languid, rhythmic pace. ‘Pai!’ And forward we go. It is exciting from such a height. I think about the colonials and families who trudged through the highland reaches where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet – now called ‘The Golden Triangle.’ But Tong Kam disrupts that reverie when she detours to snap and munch that branch there, not the accessible one here. ‘How!’ I cry – ‘Stop!’ She ignores my Thai command.

A warm rain trickles through the canopy. Light flirts between its drops. Tong Kam and I, are back in synch. We share this stunning moment. Then she steps towards the river, and interrupts our tranquility.

‘Soak! Soak!’ I say: ‘Go Back!’ And this very clever giant beast now, apparently, hears me in perfect English. She enters the water to drink, and to ‘Soak’ me.

In any language, the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle presents a unique travel experience that is a fabulous mix of luxury and first-rate rustic. It is ideal for the entertainment and escapism honeymooners seek, indeed for any high-end clientele where adventure and ‘that something unique’ are requested. This is a hideaway adventure that shares a rarified category with only a very few properties around the world.

The Flavor of the Four Seasons Tented Camp

Four Seasons Tented Camp. Credit: Helen Kitti Smith

On arrival I am dropped off at a secluded jetty along the Ruak River. A long-tail boat pulls up shortly to transport me to the Tented Camp. As the river bend widens, a lush curtain of green underbrush, interspersed in a wall of bamboo, perforates the water. A few cantilevered tents appear behind this green backdrop. Welcome to the Tented Camp! We dock and I am escorted to my tent, one of only 15 on property.

My tent’s décor is 19th century adventurer, tastefully outfitted with antiques, unique Northern Thai tribal art and elegantly functional mosquito netting that covers the linen-clad bed. Across the ample tent, the pièce de résistance beckons: a hand-hammered, copper bathtub for two with elephant trunk spigots, a tribute to the Tented Camp’s focus. More hammered copper at ‘his-and-her’ sinks feature handles made of horn, while it is situated to maximize the exquisite Ruak River view, as does the private outside shower. And privacy is the key here. Two lounge chairs and massage tables invite me to linger on the private patio – in the buff or clothed – with a view that encompasses the distant grazing elephants.

It is apparent how conservation-engaged the Four Seasons Tented Camp is when, at the breakfast buffet, we are interrupted by two baby rescues who have come to surprise guests. The Four Seasons Tented Camp partners with the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. Treks, riding and training are available by day – I did enjoy being a mahout that afternoon. Advanced reservations insure an elegant dinner in the elephant quarters by night. An option that further extends the unique experience for the intrepid luxury traveler to Chiang Rai. Then, I booked the sunrise elephant trek that is unforgettable at any time, and most spectacularly as an early morning experience.

Conducive to relaxing at the pool that overlooks the Ruak, to writing a memoir in the Buddha Bar, or simply to enjoying the massage facility while being pampered at this luxury all-inclusive property, the Four Seasons Tented Camp provides that get-away experience which rejuvenates the soul.

Sordid History to Stunning Present

This very land was once the notorious Golden Triangle – where the geographical meeting place of three countries served as mission control for the world’s opium production and distribution. It was not until Thailand’s Princess Mother introduced counternarcotic actions and poppy growing eradication in the 1990s that the push to transform this area was instituted. She encouraged climate-specific crop cultivation – coffee, strawberries, macadamia nuts and green veggies – to satisfy Northern Thailand’s cooler weather, while she revived interest and production in its unique ethnic arts. The Museum of Opium is a living homage to her work, recognizes the region’s rapid turnaround, and notably, serves as a testament to the hill-tribes who committed to make it happen. Located inland from the Tented Camp, The Museum of Opium must be included on any agenda in this region, and is one of several from the Tented Camp.

Four Seasons Chiang Mai

I proceed to an itinerary often followed by Four Seasons patrons, and head towards a different Northern Thai pampered reality: The Four Seasons Chiang Mai. This stunning hotel situated within the beautiful Mae Rim Valley, just outside Chiang Mai itself, is nestled against the Suthep Mountains. The property incorporates the visual elegance of terraced rice paddies, production from which supplies the hotel and local temples. The hotel fosters the gracious discipline of a small kingdom: demands of rigorous service and attention to detail are the staff’s barometer. This translates to delightful indulgences for its clientele. A kingdom unto itself, indeed!

This verdant backdrop frames the infinity-edge pool. The two-story, four-plex suites remind me of elegant tree-house residences. Historically, this area was once the Kingdom of Lanna, or ‘Land of a Million Rice Fields.’ As such, the Four Seasons Chiang Mai’s suites impart a sense of the palatial through generous vaulted ceilings, indigenous artifacts and polished teak flooring.

Classes in Thai cooking, held at the stunning outdoor kitchen facility, offer an entertaining morning that begins at the marketplace and ends in a rich tasting of the Northern Thai menu just learned. Classes in Thai kickboxing are available, but I opted for the cooking school – and worked to make sense of the Thai passion for hot chilis. Later, I headed towards the spa, which offered a variety of natural healing treatments – though I still pondered the Thai palate for chilis. It was a day of relaxation and learning, of pampering and therapy. A late swim brought sunset over the rice paddies, and the rice field workers’ trek home in their blue-clad uniforms at day’s end. It was truly a magical experience.

The Four Seasons Chiang Mai is an upscale retreat in this upland region. Its nurturing and healing shored me up to face Bangkok’s urban chaos with renewal and resilience.

At both the Four Seasons Tented Camp and the Four Seasons Chiang Mai, net rates are offered to selected tour operators who focus on luxury travel. Ten percent (10%) commission per room night is offered to licensed IATA agents.