A lot of zen can be found on the back of an elephant…said no one ever.
The ideal arrival to Four Seasons Tented Camp is via a quick long boat ride, where you hand off your passports as you prepare to embark on the international waters of the Mekong River, which flows between the three countries. Halfway up the stairs to the entrance of the hotel is a gong. Guests are invited to bang it three times for good luck. We both do so, fully aware that we’re already giddy with the good fortune that’s gotten us to this point.
The next day, we’d celebrate a year to the day that we went on our first date. It wasn’t really supposed to be a date. It was supposed to be two friends catching up at an event, a wine auction hosted by the High Museum. I had volunteered on their Young Professionals Board, where I was given one job: bring as many friends as you can. All of the friends I invited were busy, sick, uninterested, out of town – except for one. Jeremy.
That’s the night that started it all and we’d unintentionally planned our first Julycation trip over the exact dates a year later. Even more unintentionally, we’d be celebrating while at the Four Seasons Tented Camp. The room alone at this property is worth the trek and the price: a picture-perfect tented camp, thoughtfully decorated in a Colonial style with touches of elephants everywhere, like the tusk-shaped sink handles.
We looked around us, in awe, and asked one another, “A year ago today, did you ever imagine we’d be here? In love? Engaged? In the jungles of Thailand? Riding elephants?”
And that’s where we were, hoisted on top of Yuki, the largest of the Four Seasons’ pachyderm friends, and Tadpole (her Thai name escapes me), the sweetest of them all. She was also the most self conscious: totally terrified of going across a bridge (maybe it was a weight thing?!), so she sauntered us through a small pond to start off our trek. This did not make the adjustment of being ten feet off the ground on top of an elephant any easier for me.
Many, if not most, of the elephant experiences in Southeast Asia are questionable at best in their treatment of their elephants, a reason our tour partners will not work with most elephant operators. The Four Seasons, however, has created a safe haven for the elephants – many are rescues, brought to this happy home for a life where they are loved and respected.
When we’d first arrived to the elephant experience, the lead Mahout, Seng, instructed us of the various ways in which one can mount an elephant: you can climb up a leg, jump from in front of the trunk, or tap their sides to bring them to you, where you still have to do a bit of climbing. At 5’2”, I’ve never looked at something and said “I wish I could climb that” – like when I was in college and parkour was a big deal, I never understood what prompted someone to scale a building. Same goes for an elephant – never have I ever looked at one and wished to be on top.
But there we were, Mahouts-in-training, balancing on top of an elephant, where I found I had a choice: am I going to relax and embrace the next couple of hours of my life, or am I going to live in fear? I thought back to what Seng told us when we first looked up at the monolithic animals. “When you’re down here, they’re the boss,” he said, pointing to the ground beneath us. “But when you’re up there,” he shifted his finger to the top of the ginormous Yuki, “you’re the boss.”
And so it is with fear. If you don’t get a handle on it and trust that you’re in charge, you’re always going to be in a place where it can trample you.
I looked back at Jeremy, who had no (and has never had any) trouble embracing the journey: the boy was so relaxed he was practically reclining on his elephant. So yes, maybe you can find a lot of zen on the back of an elephant. As we journeyed across open fields, I found it to be one of the most peaceful experiences: they walk slowly, taking it all in, stopping on occasion for a nice bite of leaves. When given the opportunity to eat a banana, their favorite treat, they become happier than a seagull with a french fry.
The highlight of this highlight? The Mahouts led us into the Mekong River, where the elephants enjoyed dunking themselves (including the riders) repeatedly into the water. Three of the elephants were trained to store and shoot water from their trunks – Jeremy’s was one of them. His attack elephant sprayed everyone else before turning its attention back to the rider, a shot that we caught in action.
We rode back to the camp, where we were set to enjoy one of the included spa treatments (the Four Seasons includes the Mahout training, one spa treatment per person, and two tours to the surrounding area – not to mention, Epperly Travel is a Four Seasons Preferred Partner thanks to our Travel Edge affiliation, so our clients can experience even more. The Mahout training was hands-down one of my top three travel experiences. We thought the day could not get any better, until we were informed of the private Elephant Camp dinner that had been arranged for us as a gift from our friends at Travel Beyond. We decided to grab a drink from the Burma Bar, where we noticed hundreds of lights across the river.
“That is yours,” our waiter said, pointing, offering to escort us as soon as we were ready. We were ready, we eagerly informed him. He carried a lantern to light the path in front of us, stopping along the way to greet two elephants that awaited us in the dark (as large as these animals are, you’d think they’d be louder – we would’ve walked right into them had there not been a lantern!). We spent some time feeding them bananas before continuing our walk toward the lights. When they opened the doors, we were surrounded by lights: candles and lanterns from floor to ceiling, some even carved in the shape of our names. Off to the side, two guitarists played softly and our waiter whisked us to the private table in the middle of the room.
Four Thai-inspired courses later, following a conversation about what a year this has been, we were invited to set off wish lanterns into the sky. Everything about it: the lights, the music, the celebration of the two of us, brought tears to my eyes. We’d known each other long before this night last year, but it took us six years to see what was right in front of us – that’s our love story, in a nutshell. We found each other – what else is there to wish for?