Dah and her friend, Pum Pui, are not morning elephants. As the sun rises over my transparent, domed sleeping quarters mere feet away, the gentle giants are slow and still. Mae Noi, on the other hand, is having a ball. Thunk. Thunk. The start of a new day signals playtime, and she enjoys repeatedly flinging a rubber tire against the wooden fence that separates us. Between throws, she feasts from a treat dispenser hung high on a tree, and I’m convinced she’s grinning.
The animal encounter is part of the ethically run Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort, whose accommodations include upscale rooms and “jungle bubbles.” It’s the latest in luxury travel experiences designed to help us slow down in chaotic times. “People are looking for out-of-this-world experiences that will create strong connections, that create strong emotions,” says Gauderic Harang, general manager of the resort. “We live in a fast-paced, changing world, and people are hungry for experiences.”
The activity is a dusk-’til-dawn experience that can be added on to a stay at the resort in Chiang Rai, Thailand—roughly an hour flight from Bangkok. From the second you land, Harang and his team have curated every detail. Ground transportation is complete with little iced elephant cookies, a refreshing lemongrass drink, and Wi-Fi. Along the way, a glowing, neon-red sun unlike anything I’ve ever seen appears over a lake, and the driver kindly offers to stop for photos.
“It’s aspirational,” says Harang. “We see a wide range of guests who are going to save for five years to come here. People now have a much different way of spending, and I’m not necessarily only talking to one part of the population that may be able to afford it.” Staying at the resort is not cheap—a three-person room starts at $772, and a night in a jungle bubble starts at $388—but a once-in-a-lifetime experience among elephants is arguably priceless.
After you’ve gotten acquainted with the property, your bubble experience begins with a bag. The staff thoughtfully equips you with a note and a small overnight duffel to pack a few essentials for your stay. Aside from a camera and a change of clothes, you want for nothing.
An open-air Jeep takes you on a five-minute trek through the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) camp, an independent nonprofit financially backed by Anantara. GTAEF supports some 20 elephants at a time along with the mahouts who care for them, and their families. The program provides lodging and food, sends the children to school, educates mahouts on how to ethically care for elephants, and supports a silk weaving business for spouses. “You have to treat your employees like you treat your guests,” says Harang. “You have to treat them with respect. It displaces the issue if we’re just taking care of elephants. It supports an ecosystem sustainably.”
Many of the animals have suffered previous trauma and abuse from performing on city streets or logging. Several are retired and have no teeth, making it impossible for them to eat in the wild. Mahouts take the time to mash food and feed these elders by hand. It’s just a small part of what you’ll learn when partaking in the “Walking with Giants” excursion or splurging on the jungle bubble add-on.
Your host escorts you along a path of stone pavers through the lush, green rice paddy to introduce you to your accommodations for the night. Made of polyester satin and manufactured in Spain by SkyBubbles, each bubble comes with bells and whistles—a dehumidifier, an unlimited minibar, and even a digital touch-screen mirror. “It’s a unique space to live an incredible experience but has all the comfort of a luxury hotel room,” says Ferran Monfort of Area Cubica, the parent company, which has been making tents and inflatables for parades for 15 years. The technology allows air inside to recirculate three times an hour, eliminating any odors. Bubbles can be customized for each location and shipped worldwide, with about two to three days of installation time.
Harang used drone technology to study the property, and after six months, he identified the perfect location for the bubbles beyond the rice paddies, backing up to the jungle with complete privacy from the resort.
For the interiors, Harang insisted on minimizing any visual disturbance, using a centralized cooling system that would go unnoticed. While SkyBubbles manufactures everything from the doors to bathroom fixtures, locally sourcing materials was a top priority for Harang. With an abundance of teak in the area, he commissioned local furniture makers to design pieces that would fit in the jungle environment. Ultimately, it’s a five-star, standalone hotel room—but swap the TV for elephant trumpeting. “It’s Planet Earth for real, elephants on IMAX,” says Harang.
Outside, your four-ton friends are separated from the bubble by an electric fence and a walkway that you can traverse. The bubble sits atop a large, custom-built platform with a patio set for observing. I spend most of my time here. Pum Pui, which affectionately translates to “chubby,” bathes in the mud, a view made even better when the staff delivers a three-course picnic complete with a bottle of that lemongrass drink they so thoughtfully remembered to include.
Later, I feel eyes on me. Convinced that Dah and her friends have turned in for the night, I’ve done the same. It’s after 10 p.m., and I’m sitting alone atop the plush bed inside the bubble. My sight grazes the edge of my laptop, where one large and curious eye is staring at me. I feel utter guilt for bringing technology.
At Anantara, they’ve solved for stressful times. They’ve brought us back to nature, back to humanity, and they’ve done it all through design. The elephants pace and peer in curiously, and I do the same: not just to study, but to connect. When I got close, they got closer. When I ate, they ate. A lot. And when I finally slept, they did, too—although not without the endearing comfort of a roaring snore.
In the morning, as my driver walks me out through the rice paddy one last time, I say farewell to Dah and friends and leave the weight of the world—and that of my laptop—behind.