Viva Varun: In Thailand!

Answer to “Where am I?”: The Golden Triangle, Chiang Rai, Northern Thailand

Congratulations to everyone who answered correctly on the blog, Facebook and Twitter: J. Moredo, Roy, Alwyn, Jim, Gian, Chris, Bharat and William.

The Mekong River runs for just over 4,000 kilometres from Tibet down to the South China Sea. It winds through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. In the northern Thailand province of Chiang Rai, the river experiences a unique moment of sorts, with Laos to the east, Myanmar to the north and Thailand to the west. This modern interpretation of the term “Golden Triangle” has been adopted here.

In the past, the Golden Triangle referred to a fictitious area that marked out one of the largest areas of opium production in the world.

The ruling monarch, King Rama IX, in an attempt to stamp out the drug trade, introduced the Royal Project, which has helped opium farmers convert their skills into sturgeon, rainbow trout, Enoki mushrooms and tropical fruit farming.

In the past year I have been lucky to see both species of elephant – African in Botswana and South Africa and Asian in India and here in Thailand.

There are several differences between African and Asian elephants. The average adult African elephant, for instance, is larger and weighs more. An African elephant has a short rounded lip, whereas it’s long and tapered in Asia. The head shapes are different; the African elephant has just one dome on its head while the Asian elephant has two domes with a small scoop in the middle (an ideal cellphone and camera cradle). Also, African elephants have twenty one sets of ribs and in Asia it’s only twenty.

An important difference is that in Asia, the elephant is domesticated. It is still used as a crane, bulldozer and transport, as well as tiger tracker (in India – for tourists not hunters!).

Mahout means “elephant driver” and this week I got the chance to be a mahout and drive solo too!

My elephant was the beautiful, serene and gorgeous Yuki (“snow” in Japanese). She was once a model in Japan and the Philippines but was rescued by the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation and now spends her retirement at the Four Seasons Tented Camp. Not bad eh?

Step 1: I learnt a few key commands: Go forward – pai, turn – baen, stop – how, go backward – soak, to get on (lift leg) – song soong, to get off (leg lift) – hub soong, lower head – tag long, sit – map long, stand up – look, trunk up – bon soong, slow down (!) – goy and finally drink – bong!

Step 2: I shouted “song soong” and Yuki put her right leg out and I scrambled onto her neck.

Step 3: I sat astride her head with a leg tucked behind each ear.

Step 4: “pai, pai” and off I went

The real mahout guided us (on the ground) through the jungle to the River Mekong where Yuki and I shared a bath! You just can’t make this stuff up, you know.

Undoubtedly this is one of the greatest luxury travel experiences on earth and indeed a constant Leica moment.

-Varun Sharma

Varun Sharma is the host of Inside Luxury Travel – a television show that focuses on high-end travel. The show airs in over 169 countries, in 21 languages and is beamed into 1 billion homes worldwide. He has now stayed in nearly 700 luxury hotels & resorts … and has in the past couple of  years has flown in a fighter jet, gone diving – without a cage – in Tiger Shark infested-waters, had dinner with a dingo and has cooked with over 75 Michelin-starred chefs! His new venture Culinary Travels starts airing later this year. He likes nothing better than playing a round of golf with his pooch Gemima by his side, cigar in mouth and flask of single malt Scottish whisky to hand!