Nestled in the Jungle

The Golden Triangle’s new hotel frontier

By: Fred Gebhart

How do you know when a destination has made the must-see list? When Four Seasons comes to town.

By that measure, the Golden Triangle, nestled at the junction of far Northern Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, is Southeast Asia’s hottest new destination. Once known for opium fields and trackless, lawless mountains, the Golden Triangle is better known today for luxury camping, elephant treks, open-air spas and elegant resorts all an easy hour’s drive from the regional air hub at Chiang Rai.

“Adventure travel doesn’t get much better than this, riding elephants through the jungle and sundowners overlooking the river,” said Lee Marona, general manager, USA, for Exotissimo Travel. “In 1990, the Thai army didn’t even come here without serious negotiations. Now it’s the most luxurious camp in Asia.”

Camping Four Seasons-style means walking beneath canopies of bamboo, teak and ferns and bouncing across a suspension bridge to reach the open-air spa, restaurant and two bars. Accommodations are in 15 tents stretched along a half-mile of trails carefully cut into jungle hillsides.

The tents are a sybarite’s dream, complete with polished teak floors, king-sized beds, air conditioning, massage tables on outdoor decks suspended above the jungle and hot and cold water from fanciful copper taps in bird and animal shapes. In keeping with the camp theme, guest access is by river.

Daily activities are just as fanciful, from learning to ride an elephant to visiting local villages, boating to Laos or Burma or visiting Mae Fah Luang, an agricultural project sponsored by the Thai Royal Family that helped convince local farmers to switch from opium to other crops. An ornate Opium Museum nearby details the crop that once made this triangle of jungle-clad mountains so golden.

What’s the down side? Clients who want to extend another night or two are probably out of luck. The all-inclusive Tented Camp has been running at 100 percent almost since opening day in January 2006.

There is probably space a few miles down the road at the Anantara Resort, a lavish 90-room spa enclave set on a ridge overlooking the Ruak and Mekong rivers. The Four Seasons and the Anantara share an elephant camp and offer similar adventures. But where Four Seasons brings Disneyesque jungle fantasies to life, Anantara offers a more traditional resort experience with rich wall fabrics, gleaming wooden floors, imposing public spaces and sparkling pools.

Anantara also offers a more diverse set of activities. American favorites include Thai cooking classes, shopping excursions, jungle trekking, hill-tribe visits, birding, mountain biking and dawn offerings to local Buddhist monks, said general manager Mark Heather. The property is also a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World.

The mountaintop Phu Chaisai Resort & Spa offers similar amenities and activities in a quieter setting. The 34-room boutique property is a favorite among regional travelers eager to escape the glitter of larger resorts without losing the luxury.

With a handful of buildings scattered along a wooded hillside, Phu Chaisai focuses on its forest setting. Rooms evoke elegant bamboo retreats with balcony views across misty mountain ridges and valleys. There are no TVs (or alarm clocks) in the carefully decorated and air-conditioned rooms. Public areas are open to the mountain breezes and so is the low-key spa, with treatment rooms dim and relaxed beneath traditional leaf-covered roofs and filled with the sound of bird calls.

Clients who don’t want to spend the hour or so it takes to drive from Chiang Rai can base their adventures at The Legend, a 78-room property on the Mae Kok River. Set amid expansive gardens, The Legend feels like a country estate with whitewashed walls, blond teak interiors and enormous indoor-outdoor baths. It’s a good compromise for travelers who want to sample softer adventures like elephant rides, river excursions and area day-trips without straying too far from paved highways, ATMs and cable TV.


Exotissimo creates custom vacations across Northern Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia.

Four Seasons Tented Camp

Phu Chaisai

The Legend