The big trip

Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle review: stay with gentle giants in the jungle

Featuring just 15 ‘tents’, this unique Thai hotel doubles up as an elephant sanctuary

Situated in the north of Thailand, verdant Chiang Rai is home to some of the country’s hill tribe communities like the Akha, Karen and Lisu. At the north eastern tip of the province lies the Golden Triangle, where the country meets its neighbours – one way you’ll look into Myanmar, a few of its golden pagodas shining through the lush greenery; the other, the mountains of Laos, photogenically draped in mist. Once a hub of the opium smuggling trade, the area has seen a dynamic change with land historically dedicated to poppy-growing now repurposed as tea or coffee plantations.

If you’ve travelled here from Bangkok or even Phuket, you’ll notice a distinct slow-down in pace of life; the air is clearer, it’s far less frenetic and there are far fewer tourists. It’s still very accessible with most menus, shops and signs having dual language. You’ll feel the change most distinctly on the drive from the airport to the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle, a trip of around an hour, but one that will take you through rural Thailand with a backdrop of flourishing jungle, rice paddies and farmland.

Elephants roam the grounds of the camp

Elephants roam the grounds of the camp

Four Seasons

Why stay here 

You’ll be scooped up in a stylish wood and brass long-tail boat from the jetty that will whisk you up the Ruak River, a tributary of the Mekong. As you follow the meandering waters, keep your eyes peeled as you might just spot a surprise on the banks. 

The boat ride sets the scene for an unforgettable stay. The Four Seasons Tented Camp is like no other hotel we’ve visited; it’s remote and secluded, sitting right on the banks of the river and featuring just 15 “tents”. As you arrive, you strike a huge gong signalling the start of your R&R.

The air is rich with the hum of insects and bird calls, dense with butterflies and dragonflies and the backdrop, a million shades of green. There are vintage Land Rovers to run you about the grounds (the tracks are a little bumpy for golf buggies), but the hotel is best accessed via the paved path that runs through the jungle; giant bamboo creates an almost cathedral-like canopy and an Indiana Jones-style suspension bridge provides a moment to pause and drink in those epic surroundings. Peering through the trees might provide a magical glimpse of elephants: the hotel doubles as an elephant sanctuary for ex-working or show-animals where the gentle giants can live out a peaceful existence with their mahouts. 

The pool is in the heart of the hotel, a secluded oasis: a lot of care has gone into designing a truly tranquil spot which feels almost lagoon-like, the calm only broken by the occasional boat zipping up the river. Large boulders dot around the edge of the organically-shaped pool which is split into two sections, a deliciously cool section with views over the river and a bubbling Jacuzzi. This comes into its own in the cooler part of the year when temperatures can drop to 10C.

The interior of a superior tent

The interior of a superior tent

Ken Seet/Four Seasons

Rooms and suites

The fact there are so few tents helps to build a real sense of intimacy and seclusion. The staff here lean into this brilliantly – they know you by name and strike the perfect balance of friendliness and professionalism. 

“Tent” is a truly inadequate word to describe these lodgings; remarkable, air-conditioned structures themed around a 19th century hunting lodge featuring huge beds from which you can look out across the jungle vista. Head out onto the viewing platform and slip into your own Jacuzzi to find some inner calm. Inside, a huge hand-hammered bath takes centre-stage; showers are in the great outdoors. You’ll need to get used to zipping and unzipping the canvas doors between the various sections of your domain, but it’s all part of slipping into the adventure. There’s a larger tent for groups of up to six which has its own pool jutting out into the jungle.

Nong Yao Restaurant

Nong Yao Restaurant

Ken Seet/Four Seasons

Eating and drinking

For sundowners, head up to the Burma Bar with its glorious views and sip on some tropical cocktails. Afterwards, one of the vintage Land Rovers will be on hand to trundle you down to dinner at Nong Yao, the hotel’s core restaurant which is a spacious, open-air affair with a traditional thatched roof.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all served here or you can eat by the pool. Everything is a la carte – not a buffet in sight – a mix of brilliantly executed Western dishes, Thai classics and regional specialities from Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. Tables are set up to reflect the number of guests staying. Each morning, the elephants come up for an hour for their breakfast and guests are encouraged to feed them from a great pile of bananas. 

In the evening, if you fancy something a bit swankier, there’s the Elephant Camp Dinner where the chef will create a custom menu for you to dig into while listening to traditional Thai music and watching elephants at rest. There are picnics and jungle sundowners that can be arranged if the mood takes you.

Burma Bar

Burma Bar

Ken Seet/Four Seasons

What to do

Four Seasons Tented Camp has a fab wine cellar which hosts tastings. Alongside traditional pairings of cheese (including some surprisingly fabulous Thai ones), a host of local snacks are also prepared – velvety Thai red wines are paired with sai oua, a smokey, spicy, herbal sausage; Monsoon Valley sparkling white with air-dried, grilled pork strips. It’s a really accessible way to feel like you’ve tried something from the region. That said, if you fancy yourself as a bit more of a foodie, the hotel will organise a trip to take you out to some local spots. 

Each morning, you can hike with one of the park rangers up to the peaks, but if rambles aren’t your thing, there’s an equally exciting way to start your day – watching the elephants bathe. Right on the banks of the river there’s a huge pool which the elephants come to each morning where they have a great old time spraying each other with water while you get a chance to hose them down.

There are walking activities with them, too – an afternoon stroll through the jungle is quite a remarkable experience. It’s moving to be around these cheeky, playful creatures with their deep, gentle eyes and the hotel creates a profound experience that will last far beyond your flight home.

Last but by no means least is the hotel’s remarkable spa – situated a ten-minute walk from the main hotel area (signs saying “don’t turn back now!” are posted along the pathway), it’s a wonderfully simple teak affair with two walls and completely open to the elements. There’s no music with nature providing the perfect backdrop to whichever treatment you choose – a theme throughout this enchanting spot.

Rooms at the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle start from £1,790 per night full board; fourseasons.com

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