It took the longest travel day to get to the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort, in northern Thailand. My journey began by flying from New York to London on British Airways. During the six-hour layover, I took a shower in the club and had brunch at a nearby pub before flying 11 hours to Bangkok, where we had a four-hour layover; I highly recommend getting foot massages in the BKK airport. Then we flew one hour to Chiang Rai on Thai Smiles. We were in business class, which made the trip easy, but if I could do it all over again, I would have broken the trip up by spending a couple days both in London and in Bangkok.
A hotel representative greeted us at the CEI Airport and escorted us to the van for the hour-long drive to the hotel. I don’t remember much except that I was terribly excited to be back in Thailand and then I passed out from exhaustion. I do remember being offered fresh tropical fruit, drinks and cold towels by the driver, and I remember my colleague asking the driver to slow down (sometimes you just need to speak up). Ten minutes before arriving at the resort, I woke up and saw a huge Buddha statue, which put a smile on my face because I quickly realized I wasn’t dreaming.
The Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort is situated between Myanmar and Laos, which is why it’s called the Golden Triangle. The 77-room hotel used to be a Le Meridian when it was built 25 years ago. When Anantara took it over 10 years ago, they fully renovated it.
Anantara hotels and resorts have been around since 2001 and the company is owned by the Minor Hotel Group, which was founded by American-born Thai businessman William Heinecke. The company either owns or manages some of the best hotels in Asia and the Middle East including the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle (owns) and Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort (manages). FYI: The word ‘Anantara’ is derived from the ancient Sanskrit word meaning ‘borderless water.’ Therefore, the word is auspicious since water is associated with wealth and good fortune in many Asian cultures.
What I love about Anantara Hotels and Resorts is that they are always inspired by local architecture, are respectful of native cultures, and offer guests authentic experiences that pay homage to the people and landscape of the region. The property in the Golden Triangle is no exception.
Here are 10 reasons to stay at Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort:
The moment guests arrive, the resort’s elephants greet them. Once indoors, during the check-in process, guests get chilled lemongrass sweet tea, chilled towels and a five-minute neck and shoulder massage, which is brilliant in so many ways. Of course, one of the reasons this is such a great idea is that it encourages guests to sign up for a much longer massage, which I did immediately since it felt so good … especially after an extremely long journey. The only thing I didn’t like about arrival is that all visitors get a wristband, which makes it feel like a massive Cancun resort, which the hotel is nothing like.
The hotel has 165 employees, which is a lot, considering there are only 77 rooms. But everyone on the frontline seemed happy, though slow at times, and did a nice job. But then again, we were in the jungles of Thailand and no one’s ever in a real hurry.
Even though the hotel is nestled in Thailand’s northern jungles, the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort is an exotic escape that offers guests rustic yet elegant accommodations. The hotel was built solidly as I couldn’t hear any neighbors, hallway traffic or even the lashing rain. The rooms were clean, insect free for the most part and like every hotel in the jungle, came with a few harmless geckos. The WiFi was fast, the flat screen TV had plenty of cable channels, generous amounts of bottled water, and all natural bug spray.
Every guest would also appreciate the huge marble bathrooms and showers. For my wife’s take on the rooms, see her story on StyleAtHome.com.
Good to know: The rooms have European and U.S. style electrical sockets but remember in Asia they use a 220/240-volt which is twice the voltage coming from outlets in the U.S. Natalie forgot and blew her flat iron on the first day, which was an expensive lesson. But hopefully you can learn from her mistake.
I’m sure a good number of the 165 workers are dedicated to landscaping the property. They do an excellent job as everything was clean, well lit and made it feel like you weren’t in the jungle while you were walking to your room. The best part were the breathtaking vistas, which were comprised of three countries. It was mindboggling to me that I was looking out at Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar.
5. Traditional Thai decor
As my wife wrote in her article: “There’s no mistaking where you are when you first step foot into the lobby of the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort. Traditional Thai decorative details abound at every turn. There are copper plaques that pay tribute to goddesses, as well as dragons, etched into the surface. Gently lit by candlelight, the lobby sets the tone for any visitor’s stay in the Golden Triangle and the ambiance created is beautiful, authentic, and deeply atmospheric.” I couldn’t agree more. I loved walking into the lobby and the hotel’s main restaurants and each time, slowed down just to soak it all in.
Dining by Design is exactly what its name suggests: A program that allows guests to design their own dining experience. Whether you prefer to dine on the resort’s lower terrace and take in the views of the Mekong, in the bamboo forests near the resort’s friendly baby elephants or down in the lush rice paddies, the hotel can help you create an experience that’s not only completely unique but that allows you to fully immerse yourself in the region’s gorgeous landscape. Guests can choose from a selection of menus to enjoy the authentic flavors of Thailand in an equally authentic setting. My two favorite dishes from the hotel were: Guay Tiew Phad: stir-fried noodles with chicken, egg, white cabbage, carrot, and spring onions. 170 baht ($5.21) and Khao Soy Gai: Northern Thai dish. Fragrant light chicken curry with yellow egg noodles, coriander, and crisp red onion (190 baht = $5.83).
7. Cooking classes
If you love to cook and want to learn how to make some delicious Thai dishes, then sign up to the resort’s cooking class. Spice Spoons offers an interactive immersion in Thailand’s gastronomy, which is renowned for its artistry and unique four-flavor balance of salty, sweet, spicy, and pungent. Class begins with a guided tour of the local market. The market is about 10 minutes away and you will also visit a historic temple where you will have a breakfast picnic. Once back at the resort, you tour the herb and vegetable garden and then get a step-by-step class in their professional cooking school (located under Sala Mae Nam restaurant) and of course, you get to eat your creations for lunch. What you will make: Tod Man Pla (Thai fish cakes), Tom Kha Gai (coconut chicken soup), and Yam Mamuong Pla Krob (crispy fish with spicy mango salad).
8. Day Trip to Myanmar
My favorite excursion offered by Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort was a day trip to nearby Myanmar. Anantara can arrange for a certified guide and transportation to take you over the border, which is about a 30-minute drive from the hotel. Once you arrive at the Tachileik border, you will need to get out and walk across. To get in, you have to pay for a visa which costs 500 baht ($15) or a crisp $10 bill. I paid double since while I was in the office to get my passport stamped, a middle-aged Australian guy begged our group to “loan” him his entry fee so he could catch up with his party. I’m not sure if I got suckered or not but he seemed legit.
Once inside, we jumped on trishaws and cruised to a local market where they sell all kinds of crazy things (see photos here). Then we visited the large and gilded Shwedagon Paya, which is the main pagoda in town. The locals were friendly and the women all had thanakha cream painted on their cheeks, which is made from the bark of thanakha trees. According to this New York Times article, they wear it for its sunblock and aesthetic qualities. We also stopped off at a village to see how to locals live and then headed back. Two to three hours is all you really need to get a flavor and a passport stamp.
9. Anantara Golden Triangle Spa
One of my favorite things about going to Thailand is getting massages. I usually get $6 foot massages in some hole in the wall, in the back streets of Bangkok. But if you want to get pampered, then splurge on a massage in an upscale hotel. It will be cheaper than back in North America and will be memorable. Anantara Golden Triangle Spa’s treatments are designed to address full body, mind, and soul healing. They have five luxurious treatment rooms and a full range of Elemis spa and aromatherapy products.
I signed up for the for the 90-minute jetlag massage (3500 baht = $107 USD) and here are my notes: Leave shoes at door, grab slippers, walk downstairs, sit in one of the two high hanging day beds. Fill out short forms of your medical history, put a circle on the diagram of parts of body you want attention and X’s where you don’t. Choose type of pressure: relaxing, firm but relaxing, or deep tissue. Chilled towels and water are served. Meet your therapist who escorts you to a private room where there’s a closet, shower and bathroom. You shower first since they want you to keep the oil on for the rest of the day afterwards so you get its full healing affect. Put robe and disposable underwear on before getting feet washed. Afterwards, jump up on table and bang the gong when you are ready for therapist to come right in. Towels are long and soft. I snored.
Here’s a list of their treatments.
No doubt it will be hot outside (10-day weather forecast) and the best way to cool off or to relax is at the pool. The large infinity-edged pool is perched on a hilltop and overlooks the Mekong Valley below. You won’t have to wake up early to reserve a chair because there are plenty of loungers.
11. Elephant camp
Before learning all about Anantara’s elephant camp I had some serious issues with it. But after speaking with John Roberts, Director of Conservation at Anantara Hotels and especially the representatives of ThinkElephants a non-profit foundation incorporated in New York, I learned that Anantara is doing more good than harm and is responsible for rescuing 25 elephants from the streets of Thailand since 2003. It’s a long and complicated story but my colleague George Hobica did a great job tackling it. Here’s his insightful story: Thailand’s Tourism & the Elephant. George was with us at the hotel and at the 2014 King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament, which is sponsored by Anantara and held annually to raise funds to help provide medical care for elephants and keep them off the streets.
As you can see, Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort is a pretty remarkable place and not that expensive considering you can get a two-night package deal, which includes pretty much everything: airport transfers, food, drink, activities … for 28,000 baht ($859 USD).