Parents’ Travel Guide: Elephant Trekking in the Golden Triangle
The Chiang Rai Province in northern Thailand is home to hill tribes and Asian elephants, offering an excellent opportunity for once-in-a-lifetime family adventures.
The storied Golden Triangle—where the borders of Burma, Laos and Thailand meet—is 75,300 square miles of lush terraced fields, tropical bamboo jungle, winding rivers and mountains wreathed in mist.
As your kids get older, each family vacation seems to become extra special; before you know it, they’ll be heading off to college. If you’re looking for a truly extraordinary family experience, Thailand’s Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle may be your spot. Open to kids 12 and older, the Tented Camp is comprised of 15 luxe tents tucked into the jungle along a river, and offers one-of-a-kind opportunities for jungle trekking and getting up close and personal with elephants and nature.
- Thai culture. The people you’ll meet in the Golden Triangle are warm, kind and gentle.
- A luxury tented resort à la Ralph Lauren, centered around an elephant camp.
- Rub elbows with hill tribes.
- Be an elephant researcher. With the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation and Think Elephants International, you and the kids can take part in important elephant intelligence research that aids conservation efforts for the remaining wild populations.
- Beautiful textiles, jewellery and silverware.
- Re-living history. A stay at Tented Camp lets you pretend you’re 19th-century explorers elephant trekking through the mountains.
- One for your Life List. Fans on TripAdvisor call the experience “an incredible adventure” and the “only one of this kind in my life.”
What the kids will love
- Elephants! They’ll get to feed them bananas and sunflower seeds; learn the ancient skills of elephant riding, including the key commands, from the mahout (a Hindi word meaning “person who rides elephants”); and ride bareback.
- Arriving at Tented Camp on a traditional longtail boat.
- Sleeping in the tent. Falling asleep beneath a canopy of stars and the sounds of the jungle is something they’ll never forget. (Tip: Download a smartphone app to help identify the constellations.)
- The food. Sample authentic local dishes such as khao soi hor (northern egg noodle curry with chicken and coconut milk), yum nua (Thai grilled beef salad) or larb gai (Laotian chicken salad with roasted chilies and herbs).
- The Camp’s free-form pool bordered by teak logs and granite boulders.
What you will love
- A private wine tasting in the Wine Cellar, a thatched-roof building built in the local style.
- Chiang Saen. Visit a temple and market with your private guide in this northern district, and shop for traditional handicrafts (silk hand-woven by women in nearby villages), silver jewellery, ceramics and locally grown coffee and tea.
- Cooking classes in the Camp’s organic garden.
- Bird watching in the jungle. More than 50 species of birds—including kingfishers, coucals, woodpeckers, white-rumped shamas, red-whiskered bulbuls, babblers, herons and sunbirds—call this area home.
- Your tent’s hand-hammered copper tub, outdoor shower, private hot tub and air-conditioning.
- The Spa. While the kids are visiting with the elephants, a romantic massage treatment for two. Or, try the Burmese Body Polish and Hair Mask, which uses fresh ginger, papaya and rice to refresh skin and hair.
Peace—enjoy a break from technology with no TV, DVD player or radio.
Burma Bar overlooks the Ruak River, an ideal setting for a sunset meal. Try the por pia thord (deep-fried spring rolls with plum sauce) washed down with your choice of mocktail: “Mae Khong Punch” (orange, passion fruit, and mango); “Elephant Cha Cha” (mango, orange and cranberry); and “Bamboo Leaves” (grapefruit, pineapple, mango and cream soda). Parents will also enjoy “The Golden Triangle of Beers”—a selection of local beer from three countries.
Nong Yao Restaurant is an open-air, thatched-roof venue with long tables for family-style dining and plenty of dishes the kids will enjoy. On the lunch menu: phad thai, khao phad (fried rice with crab, chicken or pork), spaghetti with fresh Carbonara or meat sauce and Parmesan cheese, or an Australian beef burger (a teen favourite). The bamboo cups, cutlery and drinking straws used onsite are hand-carved by Khun Uncle Bamboo, a local elderly gentleman.
Parents should also be sure to sample the local cuisine featured on the menu: phad thai, som tam poo nim (traditional young papaya salad with soft shell crab); khao soi hor (northern egg noodle curry with chicken and coconut milk); and yum nua (Thai grilled beef salad). You can try dishes from the neighbouring countries of Burma and Laos, too.
Because the Camp is tucked away in the hills, you’ll be doing all your dining on-site. That said, the camp can offer all sorts of special, private dining options, ranging from a torch-lit Elephant Camp Dinner at the west end of the property with glimpses of elephants nearby, to a sunrise breakfast at the Camp Peak or a jungle picnic. The Four Seasons team is ready with plenty of imaginative suggestions.
5 family to-dos
1. Cruise the river aboard a traditional longtail boat. Take an excursion along the Mekong River (seasonal water levels permitting), passing rustic villages and temples along the way.
2. Play games. No TV, no movies, no problem: choose from a selection of board games for an old-fashioned family game night.
3. Meet the locals. The mountainous area of Doi Mae Salong, also known as Santikhiri, is home to tea plantations settled by the Chinese who lived in Burma for a number of years following the Chinese Civil War before crossing the mountains into Thailand. A guided tour teaches about the fascinating history of the area, as well as the high-quality High Mountain Oolong tea cultivated here.
4. Become an elephant whisperer. Through a partnership with The Golden Triangle Elephant Research Foundation, the whole family gets a chance to help scientists learn more about elephant intelligence, and how these creatures view and interpret the world.
5. Adopt an elephant. An elephant trek is obviously the top activity here, but you might also want to help out one of the resident elephants, most of whom have been rescued from an arduous life on the streets in Thailand’s cities. Through a monthly sponsorship or a one-time donation, guests can aid the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation to get elephants and their mahouts off the city streets and placed in a caring natural environment. Contributions to the Foundation’s research programmes also go to better help elephants in the wild.