Journeys: Animal Rites

Song soong,” says a young mahout, urging an 8-foot-tall female to lift her leg off the ground. He taps the Asian elephant with a goad, and she responds, raising a foot as though kicking up her heel. The action creates a generous crook in her leg, a leathery curve from which the elephant’s keeper plans to boost me onto her backside.

I clench the mahout’s hand as I step into the crook and begin my ascent. Two more mahouts, who have been tending to other animals and riders in this jungle clearing in northern Thailand, come to my aid, and together the trio pushes my 110-pound frame to the nape of the three-ton mammal. Their next objective will be to teach me to care for, direct, and drive the animal, deeds at the core of a profession that dates to the domestication of Elephas maximums for the purposes of work, war, and ultimately companionship thousands of years ago.

My elephant’s name is Pang Tongkam, which, I am told, means “Golden.” Sitting astride her, my feet dangling like those of a small child on a pony, I survey the area where I will receive my mahout training. The site is part of the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle, a resort that opened in January in the mountains along the Ruak River. Our small group is on a grassy plain between the clay-colored tributary and the bamboo-covered hills to which the resort’s luxury tents cling. Within view, a white egret alights on a tree branch, boys pluck fish from handmade traps they had submerged in the river the day before, and the occasional small boat conveys an occupant or two on the tranquil Ruak, which serves as the border between Thailand and Myanmar (formerly Burma).

A ways downriver and out of sight, the Ruak meets the more imposing Mekong River. That intersection—the crossroads of the Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos borders—is the center of the infamous Golden Triangle, from which, I presume, my elephant takes her name.

I had arrived at this resort in the Golden Triangle two days earlier, having traveled about 30 hours from Los Angeles. The last segment of the journey, which began at Thailand’s airport in Chiang Mai (about 435 miles northwest of Bangkok), included a four-hour ride in a Range Rover that carried me past rice paddies, roadside markets, and hill-tribe villages before concluding at the north end of Chiang Rai province, beside a private dock on the Ruak.


Waiting at the pier to ferry me downriver to the Four Seasons was a gleaming wooden long tail boat, staffed by a driver and a guide. (When the tributary runs dry, which happens frequently during the inter monsoonal period, guests reach the resort on the backs of elephants.) The pair engaged me warmly with palms pressed together, heads bowed, and a greeting of sa-wàt dee kâ (hello). The boat’s motor hiccupped into a steady purr, and within a few minutes, the sailcloth canopies of the resort’s hillside tents—whitecaps in a sea of forest- and sage-green trees—were in sight.

My tent, one of 15 situated along a more-than-half-mile-long trail, was among the farthest from the resort’s main entry. Located across a suspension bridge, the air-conditioned accommodation was close to a thatch-roofed bar and the elephant camp, where, I was told, dinner with the pachyderms would be served at nightfall.

Two glasses of champagne instead of one, and I might not have trusted my eyes: In a gold light cast by the bonfires, against darkness that seemed to swallow the jungle, the elephants appeared otherworldly. They stood in a wide circle around two musicians playing traditional Thai songs and several white-linen-draped tables, where guests of the resort sat transfixed, unable to pay the cuisine—including a lemony-tasting snake fish—much mind.

“Each elephant eats about 250 kilos per day,” commented Jason Friedman, the general manager at the resort, which operates its pachyderm camp in conjunction with the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Thailand’s Lampang province, part of the National Elephant Institute. The organization gives medical treatment to ailing elephants and supports the endangered species’ involvement in ecotourism within its natural habitat and away from the cities, where some owners exploit the animals for profit. The center also offers a professional mahout training course, on which the resort’s educational program for guests is based.

In permanent residence at the camp are seven elephants that the Four Seasons has adopted from all over Thailand. Pang Yuki, the 19-year-old youth of the group, came to the camp after various stints, including one plugging Coca-Cola for a Japanese advertising agency. Pang Bounma, a female who was owned by a logging firm, was beaten and suffered a broken ear at the hands of her guardians. And the only male, Plai Boun Liang, suffered the abuse of an owner who overworked him and yanked out his tusks at the roots, where infections persist and require daily treatment.

Such instances are not the norm in Thailand, where for centuries the nation’s people have revered the elephant for its roles in the forestry industry (transporting logs), on the battlefield, as a Buddhist form, and as a symbol of royalty. Few appreciate the animals as much as their mahouts do, although this long-standing companionship may well be in jeopardy in Thailand: Trained elephants have been in relatively low demand since the country’s logging ban took effect nearly two decades ago. “Imagine cowboys with no cows to herd or grass to feed their horses,” wrote Eric Scigliano in his book Love, War, and Circuses: The Age-Old Relationship Between Elephants and Humans (Houghton Mifflin Co., 2002), “and you get an inkling of the plight of these hereditary elephant keepers, steeped in proud and ancient elephant magic.”

The elephant magic at the fireside dinner came to a close long before the final course, by which time the animals, at the behest of their mahouts, had retired for the evening. Elephants sleep standing up, save for an hour or so when they lie on their sides, a fact that I contemplated while awaking to an avian chorus at 5 am. The elephants, however, apparently had risen long before I did, for I could hear them coming.

Far below my tent’s expansive deck, the elephants approached. They walked single-file along the resort’s only access road, slowing now and again to wrap their agile trunks around the woody grasses beside the narrow route. The mahouts—some walking just ahead of their charges, others riding them—were singing salubriously. Interruption of their song came every so often in the form of a handler telling his elephant “Pae” (follow me) or “Pai” (go forward), the latter command coinciding with a light prod behind the animal’s ears.

Overnight, one of the elephants, Pang Kam Mool, had wandered across the Ruak into Myanmar, a nation governed by military regimes for more than four decades. (At press time, Thailand was newly under military rule following a bloodless coup in September. See “Visiting Thailand after the Coup” at the end of this article.) The animal’s disappearance was the morning news, discussed by staff and guests alike over coffee and kaew mungkorn (dragon fruit) at the open-air Nong Yao restaurant. Spotters with binoculars had been positioned on the hilltops and along the river to watch for movement in the tall grasses, and the resort had sent mahouts and local villagers into the neighboring country to track the elephant. After several hours, Pang Kam Mool had been found and brought back across the river to the camp.

“We have very little interaction with the Burmese,” resort general manager Friedman would later comment, “but what we do have is very friendly and cooperative. It’s a very friendly region.”

Friendly, perhaps, but also notorious. The opium trade once flourished in northern Thailand and is said to continue in parts of the Golden Triangle. “Opium trafficking is rumored to still go on on the [Ruak], as it’s the border,” says Friedman. “The main trafficking is to the west and then along the western border. There have been no reported activities in the direct vicinity of the camp . . . . Traffickers tend to avoid high-profile areas, such as international resorts that sit on the king’s land.”

After breakfast, accompanied by a driver and a guide, I boarded the resort’s long tail boat for a trip down the Ruak to the Mekong. Once on the Mekong, we switched to a larger craft, which carried us past a bare-bones fish market. A gold-painted Buddha statue some two or three stories high on the Thai side of the river appeared to protect the mighty waterway, while a red-tile-roofed casino on the Myanmar side (gambling houses are banned in Thailand) marked a getaway for vacationing Thais, explained the guide. Eventually she signaled to the driver to kill the engine, so that we could float at the epicenter of the Golden Triangle. She spoke of the river and its smuggling role in the narcotics trade, mentioning that travelers sometimes ask her if they can smoke opium during their visit to the country. “I say to them, ‘Only if you want to stay in Thailand for a very long time.’ ”

With my mahout training and elephant trekking scheduled for the next day, I was committed to staying in Thailand for at least another 24 hours.

The sparse but coarse hair on Pang Tongkam’s head feels like steel wool. Several other guests and I are riding bareback through thick bamboo forest, tentatively issuing the commands taught during the morning’s training program. “Baen,” I say to my elephant, urging her to turn. Pang Tongkam’s usual handler, who sits behind me on the animal’s ample posterior, reminds me with a motion of his hand to nudge the elephant’s ear. I do so, and she turns.

Just ahead of my elephant, a petite forty something from Manhattan sitting astride hers engages the head mahout, Koh, who is walking in front. “Do you have a girlfriend?” she asks playfully. Koh, a nimble young man with wit to spare, turns to face her. “No, I have five girlfriends: one, two, three, four, five,” he says, pointing to each of the elephants following his lead.

His girlfriends need a bath on this sticky-hot afternoon, so Koh guides our group out of the tall grass and toward the river’s edge. One by one, each elephant—with passengers on board—descends the embankment, which in this spot is about three feet above the water’s surface. It might as well be a double-black-diamond downhill. My inclination is to lean forward like a jockey, but Pang Tongkam is no racehorse—though she might be more graceful considering her size—and my co-mahout instructs me to sit back. Several steps later, Tongkam is submerging her head in the Ruak, and I am repeating one of the morning’s teachings as a mantra: If you fall off, swim away from the animal. Swim away.

After our dip, we drive the elephants through the jungle and back to the camp. It is nearing evening and the end of our training, so the mahouts ask us to dismount and stand in front and just to the side of our elephants. Descending from Tongkam involves steadying myself as she lowers her front quarters and brings me closer to the ground. Far from gracefully, I manage to land on my feet and receive the bundle of sugarcane that one of the mahouts presents to me.

My elephant’s eyes follow the sugarcane, which I am instructed to hand to her. Before I can put a stalk forth, she meets my gaze and extends her trunk toward the sweet bunch. I present the stalks one by one, and she stows each offering—rather than immediately eating it—in her trunk’s upper undulation. More than an act of agility and prudence, Tongkam’s acceptance seals, at least from her newly trained mahout’s perspective, the bond between human and elephant.

Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle



At press time for this issue of Robb Report, travel to and within Thailand appeared to have been largely unaffected by the bloodless military coup that ousted the constitutional monarchy’s Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in September. “Road traffic throughout the country continues to flow normally, although at reduced volumes,” reported the U.S. Department of State web site (www.travel.state.gov) in an announcement that was marked current as of mid-October. “Public transportation is in service and all airports and most border crossings appear to be operating as normal.” Still, the site listed certain border areas as potential trouble spots. “There have been reports of difficulty crossing the border with Burma at Mae Sot and Ranong,” according to the report. (The Department of State apparently still refers to Myanmar as Burma.)

The Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle, which opened earlier this year along the Ruak River—Thailand’s northern border with Myanmar—reported that it was open for business as usual, save for the resort’s use of the waterway. “The current [governing body] has closed all land border crossings, and as our river is the border, they have asked us to temporarily suspend the majority of our river use,” said Jason Friedman, the resort’s general manager, in late September. Instead of by riverboat, the resort was delivering guests to its remote site via an emergency road, although Friedman expected the ban on river use soon would be lifted.

In early October, the military group that staged the coup, the Council for Democratic Reform under the Constitutional Monarchy (CDRM), appointed 63-year-old retired army commander Surayud Chulanont as interim prime minister of Thailand. The CDRM also established an interim constitution that, according to an Associated Press article published in the Los Angeles Times, gave the governing body “the power to remove Surayud and his Cabinet, approve the selection of a National assembly speaker, and have final say on a 100-member committee that will write a new constitution.”

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