Our mahout turned in amazement. “Bo!” Bo? Towering forests of napier grass offered no clues. Just before Bo had peppered her back with dirt; apparently the perfect sunscreen. We couldn’t see her as dust.
“BO!” The scream fell on deaf ears that were too big. “He lost his elephant,” grinned seven-year-old Felix.
It was the first day of our family adventure in the wilderness of Chiang Rai, northern Thailand, and we were bewitched.
Fiona’s daughter, Rose, poses for elephant Bo Derek in the wilderness of Chiang Rai province in northern Thailand
Picturesque: A beautiful aerial view of the city of Chiang Rai, which shares its name with the province
Jungle patrol with four grazing giants had led us to the plains of the Ruak. Across the river, the mists of Myanmar. Away to our right, the hill tribes of Laos. And lurking somewhere in the bushes behind us, an elephant named after Bo Derek, who plays hide and seek.
Turns out it’s easier to lose a four-ton Nellie than you might think. Her step is deceptively soft. A fine ballerina makes more of a blow. And less of an entrance, as I discovered when I was bending over to tie my shoelace, I suddenly felt the warm air lapping down her six-foot-long trunk along my neck.
To today’s daughters of Instagram – in my case Rose, 13 and Evie, 12 – an elephant emerging from the undergrowth a few inches behind you means only one thing.
Gentle Giants: Elephants play in tropical rainforest in green Chiang Mai
“Fairies!” they screamed, turned into position, held iPhones up for the perfect shot.
My husband and I had long dreamed of taking the children further away than a roof box would allow. But five seats on an airplane to the other side of the world are not for the faint hearted, financially or otherwise. And the closer our departure date approached, the more I panicked.
What if the 11-hour flight was an abomination? What if Bangkok, our first stop, was crazy for a family more used to strolling through the vineyards of rural France?
Nonsense, said my husband, the eternal backpacker, nostalgic for the fake cassettes and sweaty youth hostels on Khaosan Road. It would be the trip of a lifetime.
The Hardcastle’s odyssey started seriously with a glass of sparkling water at Anantara Siam hotel in Bangkok (photo)
The Holiday Hardcastles: Fiona with Rose, Evie and Felix
Certainly, the welcome glass of champagne at Anantara Siam in Bangkok, the height of elegance in the city, got you off to a good start. By the time we brushed up for a second, I couldn’t remember what I was worried about. We only had one day in Bangkok. The first stop was the temple complex of Wat Pho and the Reclining Buddha, a 50-meter golden wonder.
I could have stood in the glow of his beatific smile for hours, but consumerism was calling and my girls were hungry to negotiate.
Chatuchak market, a maze of chaos and color, did not disappoint. We had barely blinked before packing two knock-off Mulberry bags, three bootleg backpacks, five fans, four purses, a dodgy football set for Barcelona and a counterfeit Gucci clutch. In every sense of the word, we went back to the Siam for dinner and slept for our morning flight to Chiang Rai and its sister hotel, the Anantara Golden Triangle, named after the infamous hotbed of opium production that once defined the region.
But it’s the pachyderms, not the poppies, that’s the draw now. All 22, who roam the 160 hectares under the eye of British conservationist John Roberts and his team, a band dedicated not only to animal welfare – the majority were saved from the streets – but also to their potential unlock. When we entered through a polished teak corridor with gilded elephant heads, their trunks tied with the sacred orange sash, I found myself silent as if we were in church.
Excited chatter came to a halt as we stood at the base of a colossal carved candlestick. Below a huge bowl of lotus flowers.
Rarely less comfortable than in a kitchen, I was happy to sit back in Spice Spoons cooking class and watch Chef Gino rustle up some signature dishes with my husband and kids, a spectator with a glass of wine with the hand. Gino had other ideas. Smiling at my protest, he showed me to my hob.
“Don’t care, Mama,” Felix whispered, trying to copy the seemingly simple steps of his Tom Kha Gai.
While my version of coconut milk chicken soup won’t easily disrupt the hotel’s restaurant menu, I accepted my shortcomings with grace. Let go of the ego, so goes the Buddhist teaching.
The Hardcastles had an exciting ride on a long-tail boat with a Nissan car engine up the Mekong River
It is impossible to travel to this part of the world and not be touched by the spirituality of its people. Spent a morning exploring temples with our soulful guide filled our head with philosophy and fables. Felix, who sounded like a young minority Ben, kept asking if the Naga (Buddha’s part dragon, part snake guard) would defeat the Garuda (part bird, part human) in battle.
Rose lit up at the sight of a Bodhi tree under which the Buddha is said to have sat in his quest for enlightenment. Evie isolated a more Thatcherite message. “I like the way you can make money and still have good karma,” she said.
Then it was time for an exciting long-tail boat ride with a Nissan car engine up the Mekong and back to base, where our favorite welcome committee escorted us to dinner in exchange for a sugar cane starter of our own.
Our last night and the Anantara Golden Triangle had best saved until last; a star-lit banquet in the rice fields as our four-legged friends chewed nearby.
Saying goodbye would never be easy. And as we flipped through the pages of the hotel’s Golden Book – an encyclopedia of passerby gratitude – we were lost for words.
Crayons were requested. Felix took up the challenge. The result? An elephant at the helm of a speedboat.