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The logic behind tented camps and can Asia compete?
Luxury operators have elevated the humble tent from a poor traveller's makeshift shelter to a glamorous destination with willing customers paying top dollars.
Thailand's most luxurious tented camp, Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle, in fact, fetches an average room rate of around US$1,000 a night.
Who would have thought it took a tent in an upcountry area such as Chiang Rai to break the ground on Thai hotel rates?
Far from being a marketing ploy, the logic of tented camps ensures their acceptance by a discerning clientele. Without exception, the successful camps are in remote areas with breathtaking settings. Nature and adventure are their primary allure. Conservation is usually part and parcel of their operation. And the clincher for clients who want all of the above with style and comfort is, managed by luxury operators, they offer quality everything - service, f&b and other important aspects of a great trip, not least the tent itself, which really is suite life.
Asia's luxury tented camps are few and far between, and the question is whether the continent can compete in this field with, say, Africa, Australia or the Middle East. In Mombo in Botswana, I sighted 56 lions in one day. At Emirates Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa in Dubai, gazelles and oryxs roamed freely in a 225m2 protected area, while dune drives and camel trekking make it more special.
But Asia's marine reserves, tropical rainforests, and animal and bird life must be exotic to many and are the central theme of the few luxury camps that have sprouted in the region. Amanresorts' Amanwana, for instance, is in the nature reserve of Moyo Island, Central Java. Deer and macaque monkeys roam, while the biologically diverse waters off the Flores Sea make for exciting reefs journeys. Aman-i-Khas, on the edge of the Ranthambhore National Park in Rajasthan, India, offers opportunities to spot tigers and sloth bears during four-wheel drive safaris.
And the Golden Triangle? A region with a notorious past of opium trade, and no safaris with which to excite guests, is not top of mind for a luxury tented camp.
Yet, the Four Seasons has had a steady stream of guests since it opened a year ago and, from what they wrote and drew in the thick guest album on the coffee table at the camp's Burma Bar, their's was a unique and memorable experience.
Most were mesmerised by...the elephants. The camp is part of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, and guests can make donations to support its rescued elephants, or adopt one. It also runs mahout training for guests
(note: the camp's own working elephants are not part of the fund and are provided for by the resort operations) and, having gone through the training myself, I would say, no wonder the guests were thrilled (see Tried & Tested below).
With cutbacks in teak foresting, elephants are no longer needed and are a burden to their owners. It can cost as much as 30,000 baht (US$943) per month to upkeep an elephant. Many resort to taking their charges to the big cities to get people to pay to touch or play with their elephants. The lucky elephants at Four Seasons live in 121.2 hectares of forest.
Lucky too are the guests. There are only 15 tents perched on a bamboo forest hill, thus affording panoramic views of Myanmar and Laos across the Ruak River that flows into the Mekong. Anyone will feel he is in a remote place here, and those who love greenery will call it paradise.
The camp's additional advantage is its location enables it to offer off-site recreation such as cultural and temple tours in Chiang Rai, day trips to Myanmar and Laos, and hill tribe visits.
But the must-see attraction is not too far away from Four Seasons, the newly-completed Hall of Opium, a project initiated by the late mother of His Majesty the King. It came as a surprise to me that one of Thailand's best museums is tucked away here. Through the use of multimedia, the 5,600m2 hall takes visitors from the origins of opium to its spread throughout the world, covering the Chinese and British Opium Wars, the drug trade, the ill effects of drugs and more. It was such a complete and sophisticated presentation that it left an indelible impression.
Considering the rate is all-inclusive of fine - and generous - f&b, mahout training and some excursions, and the experience is multi-dimensional - nature, culture, adventure, conservation all rolled into one - the Four Seasons proves again the value of luxury tented camps.
The one in the Golden Triangle is an ingenious idea. With imagination, Asia can compete.
The Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle was winner of the annual TTG Travel Awards 2006 Best New Resort (Non-Beach).
Learn to be a mahout
Seven elephants and their mahouts awaited us - five guests of the Four Seasons - for mahout training. I felt dwarfed, and scared. The leg of the elephant in front of me was bigger than all of me, and it did not help she was a Dancing Queen. She was swaying all the time, as though to the beat of a distant drum.
I was to command her to lift her leg high (song sung), so I could get on her; to go forward (pai); to turn (baen); to go backwards (sock) and to stop (how). Are you kidding? I had never been on an elephant, let alone command one, and it seemed daunting to me to be on top of such a tall and huge beast unsaddled. What if I fell? What if she decided to run away?
My heart raced and I asked the trainer to give me the gentlest elephant of the seven - no dancing please. I was introduced to Puang Phet (Bunch of Diamonds). Indeed, she was calm, and I grew slightly calmer.
Puang Phet, 30, literally walked into the camp when her owner took her to the village. She was living in the back of a six-wheel truck and making a living in the streets of local towns in the north.
Before I knew it, the mahout helped me up Diamond. I felt safe with the mahout behind me and once on the elephant, I realised how easy it was to balance myself, as the base was as big as a table.
The elephant started to walk on the mahout's command. Soon, I learnt and began to join him in all the commands. We went to a clearing in the forest and there, we learnt to command the elephant to lift her leg high so we could get off. Under our mahout's supervision, we learnt to get on again and to command the elephant to move forward, turn, go backwards and stop around the clearing.
At the end of two hours, we were confident enough to do it all on our own.
If only you could see our proud faces on top of our elephants without the mahout, riding all the way back to the Four Seasons, which was a good 30-minute ride. Don't worry, each mahout was actually walking next to his elephant, and that was why it was safe. I never for once imagined I was the one in control. But the whole training was fun and exhilarating.
And Diamond, for me, is now forever. - Raini Hamdi
TTG Asia Media is a member company of China.com Inc.. China.com Inc. is a Mobile Value Added Services (MVAS), Internet portal services and online game services company operating principally in China. It is listed on the Growth Market Enterprise (GEM) of the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong. Its majority owner, CDC Corporation, is a provider of enterprise software, business services, mobile applications and Internal media. CDC Corporation is headquartered in Hong Kong with operations in 14 countries and listed on NASDAQ under the symbol CHINA.
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