Becoming a Mahout in Chiang Rai

After three days of city exploration in Bangkok, our Thailand journey continued into the jungles of Chiang Rai. My inner adventurer was screaming out for the wilderness, wild animals and a touch of adrenaline. Chiang Rai was chosen for a reason. This is where the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle was.

Day By Day in Chiang Rai 

Day 1: Mid-morning arrival to Four Seasons Tented Camp
Day 2: Breakfast with Elephants, Elephant Jungle Trek, and Golden Triangle Exploration
Day 3: Opium Museum and Private Dinner with our Elephant Friends
Day 4: Goodbye Chiang Rai, off to Phuket

I can’t read. Take me to the pictures below. Jump to Gallery

I had been to this very place nine years ago. It had just opened then. My father planned an elaborate birthday trip through Asia, including Chiang Rai. I was 18 at the time. What an incredible experience. That was one of the earliest where I truly understood how travel is able to change your life, change how you think and change what you believe is possible.

Below is a picture from nine years ago.



Day 1: Welcome to Four Seasons Elephant Camp Golden Triangle

Queue our entrance.  The staff welcomed us with smiles and drinks. Awkwardly I would chime in with my floundering tongue spouting my most recent rendition of Sawadee Khrap (hello) and Kap Khun Krap (thank you). We began to go over our schedule for our stay. I had filled our schedule with camp activities. I’m the type of traveler that likes to experience as much as time permits. The team had our full attention the instant elephants were mentioned. Feeding them, riding them and befriending them sounded incredible.

Culinary Arts Tent

Each tent has a unique theme. Ours was Culinary Arts. The walls were artistically decorated with cultural cooking artifacts. Spoons, pans, knives. As odd as it sounds, it was quite beautiful and culturally immersive. The themed décor was complimentary to the beautiful layout of our Jungle hideaway. A four post bed faced tall clear flaps that led to the extended balcony. A large bathtub sat in the middle of the open plain bathroom. I would describe the scene as classically elegant. I wondered how they managed to get everything here.

In the tents were our Mahout outfits. Mahout is the term for an elephant trainer or rider, something we had to become. This was the real deal, no turning back. Our call to the wild was as loud as the blue colored uniforms themselves.  These outfits are to be worn during the elephant activities. I definitely wore mine more than necessary.

Kristen and I both spent a few frustrating minutes trying to figure out how to tie the pants. We then spent another few minutes doubting what we figured out was correct. Once on, they felt great – and I’ll be damned if I didn’t pull this outfit off. I was a born mahout.


Evening Cocktails at the Burma Bar

With an afternoon arrival, we spent our first afternoon exploring the room and relaxing on the veranda.  Each evening at 5PM, sundowners are served at the Burma Bar. A different cocktail is designed for each night. Naturally, we never missed happy hour – I mean, sunset. You think you know love until you have one (or six) of their lychee martinis.

The Burma Bar is perfectly located for an uninterrupted view of the sunset over the valleys and river. This also gave us the chance to meet some of the other guests. There are only 14 tents at the property. It’s a very intimate gathering.

We met a wonderful couple on a 42-day, round the world honeymoon. We knew it was an instant friendship when our eyes collectively lit up at the mention of a nightly wine and cheese tasting in the wine cellar. A unsupervised wine and cheese tasting. It was quickly time to continue this conversation in the company of a few hundred bottles of wine.

Our first elephant encounter happened shortly after. Halfway towards the the restaurant, we hit some jungle traffic. Two elephants and their mahouts were heading back. They stopped long enough for us to pet them and snap a few photos, eyes wide with amazement. We were literally sharing the walkway with elephants.

The food was phenomenal with a great selection. Kristen and I made it a point to only eat from the traditional Thai side for each meal. Except for one morning of Eggs Benney!

The nights were peaceful. The sounds of the jungle softly swayed us to sleep. Lights out.


Day 2: Elephant Breakfast

Each morning was spent drinking French pressed coffee while watching elephants graze along the Mekong River. Leaving such a scene felt like a crime. The sounds of the river, wildlife and jungle were composed into this serene symphony.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served at the Nong Yay Restaurant – a covered, but open air dining area naturally designed so that it feels as if it’s part of the jungle itself.

Halfway into our cappuccinos, we heard the trumpet of elephants. They were close by. About 100 bananas had been set out on a platter near restaurant entrance. These were not for the guests. Moments later, two giants arrived.  These beautiful creatures sauntered over for our breakfast date. We were the first two at breakfast that morning and rushed over. We got slightly carried away and fed them until the banana platter was empty. Luckily, banana platters were readily available.


Mahout Training and Elephant Riding

It was time for the highlight of Chiang Rai. It was our elephant activity morning. After breakfast, we were led towards the training ground to meet our new friends. The mahouts explained common commands and some safety tips. The biggest tip being not too fall off. Got it!

My elephant, Tah Khom and Kristen’s Boon Mah, were best friends. These two were almost inseparable.

Riding elephant back through the jungle shrubbery was something out of a movie. There were no seats or saddles, just you and this beautiful giant. Head in the trees as you slowly swayed back and forth with each giant step of the elephant.  We spent time in the training ground learning commands and riding techniques. We then trekked through the jungle and towards the River.

I did not ride the elephant into river last time. Too timid back then I guess. Pssh past Ian, not this time. Our Mahout trainers climbed on the back to make sure we did not go for an unscheduled swim, and then we forged into the river.

The camp has four elephants they care for. The foundation they work alongside has over twenty, almost all rescued. Out of the four camp elephants, I happened to be on the only one that has learned to spray water on their backs – and onto me. I learned this swiftly after my first (of many) facefull of Mekong River. Nearby, Kristen sat dry, atop her elephant laughing at the scene before her.

Luckily, we had a beautiful trek back to the camp that allowed me to dry.




Golden Triangle Exploration

After our elephant back adventure we took off to explore the Golden Triangle and surrounds. It started off in a small jet boat. Rain, our Mahout Captain and guide for our stay, took us to the center of the Golden Triangle. At one point, we were teetering on the borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. Three places at once. The cruise continued to the nearest city in Burma. Passports were required as we pulled up to the very non-official looking dock in Burma.

The markets were our first Burma stop. Flopping fish, fried bugs and a spectrum of foods I’m not used to seeing lined the market stalls. The market was busy. Rain convinced me not to eat a few questionable items I had my eye on (bugs, ant eggs, squid on a stick). We hopped into a tuk tuk and set off down the road. The rest of afternoon was spent exploring ancient temple ruins as well as the construction of newer ones.


Day 3: Hall of Opium

Our last morning activity was a tour through the Hall of Opium. Upon arrival it was quite clear that there wasn’t any actual opium in the museum- purely educational. Opium had become a massive strain on the region in the past. The climate and soil in Chiang Rai is ideal for growing Opium poppies. Colonization of the area spurred mass production. With that follow addiction, regional instability and crime.

Upon entering, an eerie tunnel with stone carved demons led us to the beginning of our self-guided tour. We progressed through the history of Opium in the region. Stories and legends of famous battles, notorious smugglers, and effects of the drug are displayed along the walls as interactive scenes. The emotions and sufferings of the region are portrayed in a striking and captivating way.


Elephant Camp Dinner

On our last night, I organized a private dinner under the stars. It started off with a short wander away from the camp to a secluded area overlooking the river. The sun was just starting to set, bouncing beautiful shades of red and orange off the hillsides.

Halfway along the lantern-illuminated path, we were handed sugar cane stalks and bananas. Elephants emerged from our side, no doubt excited for their evening snack.

A beautifully set table for two awaited us in front of a carefully crafted fire. In the background, two musicians were jovially strumming local Thai music. It was such a beautiful setting. Local dishes came in waves. Spicy, flavorful, strange, and all delicious. We tried everything. Hours went by as we recapped our trip so far, argued over who was a better Mahout a took in the awe of our surroundings.

As dinner ended, floating lanterns were brought out. We were to release them into the sky. Each lantern gave you a wish. Kristen and I had always wanted to do this. Each lantern glowed so bright amid the dark night. The orange flicker of the fire lit up our faces as we counted three, two, one…and let go.



Wrap it Up

Chiang Rai captivated my heart in every way. Incredible staff and the locals embraced us openly. I felt such peace and happiness here. Learning about the elephant rehabilitation and then meeting the saved elephants was beautiful. The full experience is something I could not recommend more.

Where I stayed: The Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle in Chiang Rai.

My Favorite Meal: Elephant Camp Dinner. I couldn’t tell you any of the dishes names unfortunately. At one point the chef picked up a bamboo stalk from the fire, opened the top and proceed to pour the fish cooking inside onto our plates.

My Favorite Moment: Releasing the floating lanterns into the night sky.

How I got there: Bangkok Airways – BKK – CEI

  • Bangkok to Chiang Rai – 1 hour 30 minutes
  • Chiang Rai airport to Four Seasons Tented Camp– 45 minute drive

Planned by: Swain Destinations

The Four Seasons Tented Camp works with the Elephant Sanctuary and rescues these elephants from the city streets, jungle labor and torturous environments. Now, these elephants have medical care, graze all day, spend a couple hours with guests and eat like kings. It’s moving to read about how they help and I urge you to do the same. Here is some information on how they rehabilitate abused elephants.

Ian Swain 2

I work for Swain Destinations, a travel company that specializes in customized trips all over the world. I love to take pictures, am quite awkward, put myself in uncomfortable situations and will eat anything. The world is an incredible place. See and experience as much as you can.

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