CHIANG RAI – Northern Thailand is largely overlooked by tourists in favor of the south, which is blessed with the kind of tropical beaches used as screensavers the world over.
But where the south is sandy and developed, the north offers vast, unsettled stretches of mountains and jungle, deeply veined rivers and wildlife. There are far fewer hotels in this part of the country and our first stop is the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle, located about an hourâ€™s drive north of the airport.
The Golden Triangle is so named because it is the meeting point of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar, which are separated by a narrow waterway. The area was once known primarily for its production of opium, and now attracts travelers because of its astounding natural beauty.
My husband and I settle into a four-wheel drive equipped with binoculars and start for the camp. The drive is through a rugged green landscape dotted with Buddhist temples on faraway hills. We pull up to a dock on the Mekong River and step carefully into a narrow boat, which motors us the final ten minutes to our destination.
The camp is built in the mode of a nineteenth century explorerâ€™s outpost, largely open air and well integrated into the surrounding jungle. The lodgings are fifteen canvas tents pitched on wooden platforms, fully plumbed and wired, with freestanding copper baths and writing desks.
The tents are spaced far enough apart to allow for privacy, and consequently they all have a slightly different view of the surroundings. Ours looks directly over the Ruak River and into the wilderness beyond. We develop a habit of taking our coffees outside at sunrise, and watching the mist burn off over Myanmar.
Activities at the camp are of an adventurous ilk. Many guests are drawn to the property because of its program for rehabilitated elephants, nearly all of whom have arrived in Chiang Rai following mistreatment elsewhere in the tourism industry.
The camp works in collaboration with the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, an elephant sanctuary, to support the rescued animals and their mahouts (caregivers). Guests can sign up for training in how to ethically interact with the elephants. The morning we spend bathing two muddy, playful elephants is easily the most memorable from our trip.
There are also excursions to hilltop villages, nature hikes, and guided tours over the border into Myanmar. On one day we ride a tuk-tuk to a vibrant local market selling everything from durian to live chickens; on another we climb up to the temple of Wat Pra That Pra Ngao to join the meditations. After a few outings have taken their toll, the camp spa offers outdoor treatments from two discreet pavilions in the middle of the jungle.
At around 5:00 p.m. each evening, ancient green SUVs begin ferrying guests to the bar, which operates out of a sumptuous thatched hut on the river. The interior is decorated with books, maps, and navigational equipment, and clusters of cushioned camp chairs.
My husband and I like to play chess, and after an inquiry on the first night the barman keeps a beautiful ceramic set behind the counter for us, which he delivers with our gin. People head to the open-air restaurant for dinner in drips and drabs, as there are no reservations, and settle into high backed armchairs arranged before a wood-burning fireplace. At night, domestic water buffalo wade into the river, and you can hear the bells around their necks ringing softly throughout supper.
The food at the camp is excellent and varied, a feat given the remote location. The cuisine is a mixture of regional specialties and Western mainstays. I stick with the former and most of the other guests appear to do the same. The curries, wok-fried noodles, and plates of sticky rice and mango are generously sized and fatally moreishâ€”itâ€™s fortunate that this is an active sort of holiday.
After a the better part of a week, we eat two last bowls of khao soi hor, a northern noodle soup, and heave ourselves into a car bound for Chiang Mai. A sister property, the Four Seasons Chiang Mai, is a four-hour drive south, and weâ€™re going for a brief look around before we fly back to England. The route passes through open countryside full of rice paddies and forests, a few small towns and finally the city of Chiang Mai, which is about an hour from the hotel. Typically, we arrive in time for dinner.
The property isnâ€™t as remote as the tented camp, but it has the feeling of a rural retreat. Rice fields are planted throughout the lovely grounds, which also feature pretty ornamental gardens and a small lake. The accommodations are spacious and serenely modern.
Where the prevailing sentiment in Chiang Rai is adventure, here it is relaxation. Early in the morning we walk down to the lake for an outdoor yoga class, followed by a tour of the rice fields. A local farmer demonstrates how to transplant the rice seedlings and we pull on tall rubber boots to join him in a squelchy pond. Our efforts have a distinctly wonky tilt that the instructor graciously overlooks.
We donâ€™t have much time to explore further afield, but there are good cycling paths into the Mae Rim Valleyâ€”an area known for farmingâ€”and an unsurprisingly superb spa. My Samunprai massage, which incorporates acupressure and hot poultices filled with herbs, is one of the best Iâ€™ve ever had. In the evening we walk over to the cooking school, a soaring semi-outdoor space dominated by a long teak dining table.
Each dish for our five-course supper is cooked in one of the surrounding teaching kitchens, and we chop turmeric and toss in galangal with gentle supervision. Itâ€™s an extended, casual meal, and a wonderful final evening in the region. As we yawn through a pre-dawn drive to the airport the next morning, the markets are already open, doing brisk business under florescent lights.
A group of monks in orange robes are collecting alms. We make a plan on the spot to come back.
By Jo Rodgers