The email landed in my inbox with what could have been the sound of trumpets. Come spend the night with elephants in Northern Thailand! Yes, please!
From the moment I’d heard about the overnight experience offered by Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort, spending the night with the incredible pachyderms of Southeast Asia had been at the top of my bucket list.
I replied with a resounding yes and headed to Northern Thailand for an adventure for the ages.
Dinner With Giants
My trip began with the resort’s Dining By Design, ensconced in a rice paddy in the middle of Thailand’s Golden Triangle. I could see the banks of Laos and Myanmar in the distance from my hotel room at the Anantara Golden Triangle, but down in the romantic tea pavilion in the midst of the verdant rice paddy, all I could see was the green of the surrounding jungle.
The chef waited with a cornucopia of delicious regional specialties, including tangy sa hua plee (banana blossom salad) with fresh mint and spicy chu chee goong (deep-fried Chiang Rai river shrimp in red curry).
But before I could sit down to eat, two of the dinner guests gobbled down the bananas, peel and all! Two elephants and their mahouts (Thai elephant handlers) had come to meet us in the remote clearing.
In possibly the greatest dinner experience of my life, I was encouraged to place a banana into the trunk of one of the 2-ton elephants while my human dinner companions fed the other elephant sugar cane. Both snacks seemed to be big hits with the elephants; they immediately shoveled the food into their mouths and then extended their long proboscises right back out so that we could hand off more treats.
The whole time, I couldn’t stop marveling at the fact that I was standing inches away from a massive Asian elephant, hand-feeding it dinner. The experience is part of The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation’s mission to rescue elephants from the streets of Thailand. All of the activities at the resort have been created so that guests can learn about the foundation’s conservation efforts. The resort is a safe and natural environment for the elephants to live in. It’s also a haven for the mahouts, who in most cases have cared for the pachyderms from birth.
As part of the foundation’s newest activity, I got to sleep alongside the elephants in the resort’s new Jungle Bubbles. That might have been the only experience to top my meal with the elephants.
Spending The Night In A Jungle Bubble
Anantara is the first resort in the world with transparent domes that allow guests to sleep near the elephants. From dusk until dawn, the Jungle Bubbles offer a 180-degree view that allows you to fully immerse yourself in the world of the elephants.
Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. Would the elephants come right up to the window and watch me sleep? Would I be on display all night under the plastic top?
Just past the rice paddy, the Bubbles rose out of the green bush. There were two of them set up on a teakwood platform separated by a tall bamboo fence. Each had a non-transparent bathroom attached. Three elephants spent the night in the adjoining jungle enclosure. The enclosure was surrounded by an electric fence, so the elephants couldn’t walk right up to the platform, but they still had plenty of room to eat, play, and wander around during the night.
The Jungle Bubbles are completely immersive and completely safe places to observe the elephants in their natural habitat. I felt safe in my little globe, but I still felt like I was in the middle of all the action. What’s more, the Bubbles are really and truly bubbles. I expected spherical glass or plastic structures, but they are inflated (if you don’t keep the doors shut, they will deflate!), eco-friendly, and completely collapsible so that they won’t leave a mark on the environment if the resort ever decides to move them.
Completely at ease in my surroundings, I watched the sun set and the elephants squish and squeak in a puddle of mud that quickly became a deep pool as they repeatedly belly flopped into the goop. I FaceTimed my mother back in New Jersey so that she could marvel along with me (the 12-hour time difference meant that it was early morning on the East Coast while the sun was setting in Thailand). Then I put my phone away and enjoyed the complete solitude and near silence, alone in the jungle with just the elephants for company.
There was something mesmerizing about the crunch of leaves and branches, and even the digestive noises became soothing background noise. (Asian elephants eat around 300 pounds of food each day, chomping up to 22 hours a day, so they’re in a constant state of digestion.)
I was happy that my dinner experience was hands-on, because I wasn’t permitted to feed or interact with the elephants on my own. (Although a picnic dinner is included with an overnight stay, the rice paddy Dining By Design experience is extra.)
I stayed awake as long as I could sitting outside on my private deck, but once I went inside, I could still spy my jungle mates through the dome. The stars were visible, too, and from my immensely comfortable bed I could see it all. Although I didn’t sleep soundly and dozed off and on throughout the night (elephants can get really loud -- their trumpeting woke me from a sound sleep more than once), I was completely relaxed and thrilled to be in the Bubble.
In the morning, I was truly sad to say goodbye to my bedtime buddies. Being able to observe them, undisturbed, for an entire night was an experience I’ll treasure for the rest of my life. But now that I know I can eat dinner with elephants -- not to mention have a sleepover with them -- I’m already planning another evening, hopefully this time with friends to share the adventure with so that we can relive the memories together long after we’ve returned home.
Getting To The Golden Triangle
The most challenging part of my visit was getting to Thailand. There are no direct flights from the United States to Bangkok, so all trips involve a layover. I’ve visited the country twice; the first time, I flew through Taipei, Taiwan, on EVA Air, and the second time, I traveled via Tokyo on Japan Airlines. Both options took around 22 hours with a layover of about 3 hours.
After you arrive in Bangkok, it’s roughly a 90-minute flight up to the Chiang Rai International Airport, and then an hour to get to the Golden Triangle. The last hour is by far the best part of the journey, since it involves a speedy long-tail boat ride along the Mekong River that offers fascinating views of the temples, livestock, and architecture of Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand.
When I arrived at the resort’s private dock, the elephants were waiting on the banks, and truthfully, I immediately forgot all about the arduous journey to get there.
What To Know Before You Go
To get the most out of your trip to the Golden Triangle, consider getting over your jet lag in Bangkok first. That way you’ll be wide awake and ready for your elephant adventures when you arrive up north.
Even though most of Thailand is warm (quite warm, actually -- I’ve never experienced temperatures cooler than 90 degrees in the cities), it gets chilly in the Golden Triangle at night, so bring a warm layer so that you can sit out in the evening and listen to the elephants chomp their way through the night.
Planning a trip to Thailand? Check out these eight things to know before you go, this guide to cultural etiquette in the country, and this list of the best things to see and do while you're there.