杭州龙凤 22/01/2019

Crossing over

Once ground zero for bad decisions, Tijuana is transforming, writes Ben Stubbs.
Shanghai night field

‘The Toothbrush”, or El Cepillo as he’s called in Spanish, adjusts his high-riding black underpants and climbs the corner post of the ring as AC/DC blasts from the stadium speakers. He spreads his arms and leaps on the crumpled wrestler lying on the concrete floor below the ring. Lucha libre (the Mexican term for wrestling) might be entertainment, but as we watch the Toothbrush slam a chair on his opponent’s back, I realise it’s certainly not faked.

I have crossed the border from San Diego into Tijuana with Turista Libre tours to experience the realities of life on the Mexican frontier in a city that was once, not so long ago, known mainly to the outside world as a place for drugs, murders and donkey shows.

Our guide is expat Derrik Chin, who grew up in Ohio, moved to Tijuana for love, and stayed. As we cross over, the formalities are as low-key as I’ve seen crossing from one country to another: there is a single-file turnstile and an uninterested guard on the other side, then we’re in Mexico.

Our transport for the evening is a recommissioned yellow school bus, and as our group is given activity bags with stickers and figurines, I momentarily think that this could be a socks and sandals-style tour. For his next move, though, Derrik hands out mezcal and jelly shots to the passengers and cranks up the music. Through the windows, I see Tijuana for the first time: a farmacia here, an open-air market there, and the twinkling lights of the city above us.

Our first stop is taco restaurant El Franc. It is jammed with locals sitting and standing while the chefs carve meat and dollop avocado onto plates. I hoover down three tacos for only $US4 ($4.40).

With full bellies, we head to the wrestling and get our third-row seats among the locals. We drink Micheladas (spiced beer) and watch a show that becomes more engaging the later the night gets. By the time Dr Wagner jnr, El Cepillo and El Hijo del Santo arrive, the wrestling is fast and brutal. At one stage, the audience showers the wrestlers with corn cobs and plastic cups after El Cepillo somehow manages to get a ’90s-era printer into the ring, which he promptly smashes over his opponent’s head.

The next day, Derrik and I leave the bus behind and take his car along the highway that skirts the edge of the border to Playas, where the Tijuana beach butts against the fence that separates Mexico from the US and continues into the water. We walk along the border and read the graffiti on the fence that stretches 50 metres into the choppy Pacific Ocean.

Fine cuisine is one of the prominent motifs of “new” Tijuana, so Derrik takes me to a taqueria on the edge of a main road. Inside Kokopelli, we sit at the retro bar and watch the chefs make imaginative seafood tacos for the crowd. Over glasses of hibiscus flower tea, we make requests as the chefs slice, grate and grill a selection of octopus, tuna ceviche and gourmet prawn tacos.

Our next destination is a little unusual. Derrik takes me to the Puerta Blanca Cemetery, which is next to the border fence. We walk among the tombstones and along the cobbled lanes to a crypt at the back. It is the resting place of Juan Soldado, a man who was framed for the rape and murder of a girl and shot by firing squad in 1938.

Years later, a local lady insisted Soldado was innocent and took a stone from beside his grave and asked for his help crossing the border. She succeeded, eventually returning the stone and declaring the event a miracle. I notice the inscriptions around Soldado’s crypt thanking him for his help. He has become the unofficial patron saint of border runners. I see the cobbled lane around the crypt is missing hundreds of stones that have been taken by hopeful locals.

Back in the car, we drive past the red-light district. The streets are full of ladies of the night and visitors who have crossed over to get lost. During the day it’s an urban market, and regular people walk and talk as if it is any other street in the city.

Outside Hotel Nelson, we see mariachis for hire and Hotel Caesars, where the Caesar salad was invented.

Next, Derrik drives me through the city to one of the less-reputable districts in the hills. We pull the car over and all of a sudden I’m greeted by a naked lady in the slums. Her name is La Mona and she’s 15 metres tall. Local artist Armando Munoz Garcia wanted to give a gift to the city, a statue of La Mona, and when the city wouldn’t help him with costs, he decided to build it in his front yard. Armando’s house sits behind the statue – his bedroom is inside her chest and his bathroom is, appropriately, somewhere below the belly button.

“You find out all sorts of things living in this city,” Derrik says.

Our last stop for the evening is in what seems like an industrial alley. Behind a tin facade is the Baja Craft Beers brewery. It is tapping into the San Diego craft beer boom by providing options over the border. The lights inside are converted beer kegs and the walls are lined with rocks in cages. We watch the soccer- the local team, the Xolos, who recently won the Mexican championship, play – and we sample a local Nocturna black beer and a hoppy Border Psycho.

Just like the pub, Tijuana is inconspicuous, even a little intimidating when it is viewed from the US side, though once you get up close, eat a taco or two and immerse yourself, it’s easy to see what has kept Derrik here so long.

FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN BAJA CALIFORNIA

BEACH CHILL

The beach town of Ensenada is 100 kilometres south of Tijuana and it’s a great place to see whale migrations, surf or relax. See ensenada上海夜生活m.

TASTE A DROP

A little more than 100 kilometres from Tijuana is the Valle de Guadalupe wine region. Turista Libre runs regular weekend tours. See turistalibre上海夜生活m.

SPLASH OUT

Rosarito is only 20 kilometres from Tijuana. There are numerous dining options, a golf course, bars and tours of the region. See rosarito上海夜生活.

BIG SPRAY

Only 30 kilometres south of Ensenada, legend has it a whale became stuck in the rocks — the result is the La Bufadora marine geyser that shoots up to 20 metres into the air. Grey whale sightings are common during their migrations. See visitmexico上海夜生活m.

BEV HEAVEN

Tecate is a city 50 kilometres east of Tijuana and it is a great place to enjoy the mountains around La Rumorosa or take a Tecate brewery tour. See discoverbajacalifornia上海夜生活m.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Delta Airlines has a fare to San Diego for about $1700 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne including taxes, see delta上海夜生活m. From San Diego, take the trolley to the San Ysidro stop, where it is easy to cross into Tijuana.

STAYING THERE

The Marriott in Tijuana has comfortable rooms with everything you would expect from a five-star hotel. There are numerous restaurants a short taxi ride away. See marriott上海夜生活m for booking details.

TOURING THERE

Turista Libre run a variety of lucha libre, wine-tasting and city tours. Derrik will also run private tours if you’d like to tailor a specific itinerary. Tours start from the San Diego side of the border. See turista-libre.blogspot上海夜生活m for booking and tour details.

MORE INFORMATION

visitmexico上海夜生活m

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Shanghai Night Net.

杭州龙凤 22/01/2019

Nature’s little secrets

Elephant trekking. Photo: Leisa TylerAndrew Bain veers off the beaten Overland Track to discover places and features regularly missed by walkers.
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Tasmania’s Overland Track is the most famous bushwalk in Australia, hiked by about 8000 people every year.

Prominent sights abound along its 65-kilometre length, from the bowed figure of Cradle Mountain to the heights of Mount Ossa, Tasmania’s highest peak, and the depths of Lake St Clair, Australia’s deepest lake.

The track itself might be no secret, but it’s full of little secrets – places and features most people stroll past, barely realising they exist.

WATERFALLS

The Overland Track is bookended by well-known waterfalls. As the track climbs in the first hour from Cradle Valley towards Marion’s Lookout, it enters a pocket of rainforest split by Crater Falls. At the other end, nearing Lake St Clair, side trails descend into the Mersey Valley to viewpoints around the impressive D’Alton, Fergusson and Hartnett falls.

In between are waterfalls that tumble mostly unheard and unseen through valleys around the track.

For most walkers, the first day on the Overland Track ends at Waterfall Valley, where a public hut sits at the edge of an alpine meadow. By virtue of its name, it seems obvious there are waterfalls here, but they’re not readily visible. Unmarked trails lead east from the main track, descending beside creeks to a series of waterfalls.

The most spectacular of these is Branigan Falls, about a five-minute walk from the Overland Track, down a steep and slippery bank that requires caution. These falls spill over an overhang, creating a ledge that allows you to walk in behind the waterfall, something you can’t do at any other waterfall along the track.

Take the side trail to Lake Will and you’ll find a muddy track heads along its shores to Bluff River and Innes Falls, a few steps downstream from the lake outlet. These falls squeeze through a chute in the conglomerate escarpment, and are particularly beautiful around April, when the banks of Bluff River turn golden with autumnal deciduous beech.

BEACHES

While at Lake Will, it’s worth resting for a while on its shores. The lake is little more than one kilometre from the main track, across flat ground, and provides an almost coastal scene at the heart of some of the most beautiful mountain terrain in Australia.

The trail arrives at the lake and straight onto a beach, but it’s worth continuing a short distance south along the shores to the next beach, which is larger and more protected. On the tiny headlands along the lake, pencil pines stand like bones, and the dolerite dome of Barn Bluff, by now one of the most familiar shapes of the Overland Track, rises from the opposite shore.

Walk on and this day typically ends at Lake Windermere, where a small platform has been created on its shores for anyone willing to brave an alpine swim. The base of Hartnett Falls and beside the track’s end in the Narcissus River are other good swimming spots.

MINES

On the side trail to Lake Will, just a few metres from the main Overland Track, you’ll step through an exposed deposit of coal, a lingering reminder that mining was partly responsible for first opening up this remote and wild area.

When the Overland Track was created in the early 1930s, it followed in part a web of existing stock routes and mining tracks. Coal was mined here, as evidenced by this seam of coal, but copper was the main resource.

Part-way along the Overland Track, Old Pelion Hut – the oldest hut near the Overland Track – was built in 1919 to house workers toiling in the nearby copper mines.

From behind the hut, an unmarked trail heads high along the bank of Douglas Creek for a few minutes to emerge at the entrance to one of the copper mines, where a tall heap of crushed rock, excavated from the mine, spills down to the edge of the creek. The mine is cut horizontally into the cliffs, and extends for about 50 metres.

Bring a torch to explore inside the mine, where the walls are stained with copper and inhabited by strange cricket-like creatures.

FOSSILS

When you return from the copper mine to New Pelion Hut – the third night’s stop for most walkers – the Overland Track’s ultimate fossil experience beckons.

From the hut, a short walk along the banks of Douglas Creek leads to a stony beach known to many simply as Fossil Beach for reasons that become obvious quickly.

Among the stones are hundreds imprinted with Permian-era marine fossils. It’s easy to lose an hour or two turning over stones in search of fossils – the soft sandstones are the best bet – or you can simply admire the collection along the fallen tree. Along its trunk and branches, walkers have created a virtual gallery of fossils, lining up stones in an ad hoc outdoor museum.

WILDLIFE

The days of spying Tasmanian devils along the Overland Track are pretty much gone, due to the decline in the devil population, but this is still a walk that affords excellent chances to see a range of animal life.

In the alpine meadow out front of Waterfall Valley Hut, wildlife traffic gets heavy with approaching dusk. Wallabies graze the lawns alongside wombats, while Tasmanian native hens strut about on their matchstick legs.

Most appealing of all is the prospect of an appearance by quolls. One night I camped here, a pair of quolls wandered between tents just on darkness.

The next day, as the track rounds Lake Windermere, it winds between wombat burrows before rising to Lake Windermere Hut. Wander back towards the lake in the early evening and the prospects are good that you’ll find the burrows’ residents foraging through the buttongrass.

FIVE OTHER GREAT TASSIE WALKS FREYCINET PENINSULA CIRCUIT

Two or three days looping around Freycinet Peninsula, seeing the famous — Wineglass Bay, the Hazards — and the often forgotten. See parks.tas.gov.au/base=2258.

SOUTH COAST TRACK

A rugged 85-kilometre, camping-only challenge, beach-hopping and rising over the exposed Ironbound Range. See parks.tas.gov.au/base=2265.

WALLS OF JERUSALEM

The Walls of Jerusalem provide relatively easy walking around beautifully shaped peaks and tarns. See parks.tas.gov.au/base=27104.

TARN SHELF

An extended day out along a chain of glacial lakes little more than an hour’s drive from Hobart. See parks.tas.gov.au/base=3589.

MARIA ISLAND WALK

The Maria Island Walk follows the coastline for four days, with the option to venture onto Mt Maria or the dolerite towers of Bishop and Clerk. See mariaislandwalk上海夜生活m.au.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Cradle Mountain, at the start of the Overland Track, is a 2½-hour drive from Launceston. The finish at Lake St Clair is 2½ hours from Launceston and Hobart. Tassielink buses service both ends of the track. See www.tassielink上海夜生活m.au.

WALKING THERE

Between October and May, permits are required from the Parks and Wildlife Service. Tasmanian Expeditions operates camping trips, while Cradle Mountain Huts has a series of private huts. See tasmanianexpeditions上海夜生活m.au; cradlehuts上海夜生活m.au.

MORE INFORMATION

parks.tas.gov.au.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Shanghai Night Net.

杭州龙凤 22/01/2019

Bada bing, a tribute to Jim

Holsten’s Confectionary, used as the locatoin for the last scene of the Sopranos series. Photo: The New York TimesAfter the death of Sopranos star James Gandolfini, Douglas Rogers joins a tour of the show’s familiar New Jersey landmarks.
Shanghai night field

On a crowded corner of 39th Street and 7th Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, a roly-poly Italian-American man is selling Sopranos memorabilia to tourists from the back of a van. He has books, posters, New York number plates saying GOOMBAH and FUHGEDDABOUDIT, and signed colour photographs of scenes from the show. In one photo, Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini, is standing with lieutenants Christopher and Vito outside Satriale’s Pork Store.

Then I do a double take: the man selling the merchandise is not some cut-rate midtown hustler – it’s Vito. (Or, should I say, Joseph Gannascoli, who played him.)

Carrying that day’s copy of the New York Post, I queue for a signed photo. A big mistake. When Vito sees the rag, what comes out of his mouth could have been scripted for the show: “That motha—-ing piece of —- paper!” he rants. “The —- they’re writing about James! What he ate, what he drank, how overweight he was … Makes me wanna …” He finally calms down enough to sign a photograph for me and says he hopes I enjoy the tour.

It’s 10 o’clock on Saturday morning, four days since Gandolfini’s death of a heart attack in a Rome hotel room, and I’m here for the weekly On Location Tours’ jaunt through the New Jersey sites of the acclaimed HBO television show. It’s the first tour since Gandolfini died, and the mood is sombre. The 50-seat bus is full. The four-hour trip will take us through the industrial wastelands so distinctive of the show.

Our guide is Marc Baron, an actor and singer who had small parts in 13 episodes of the series, and has led the location tour since 2001. We make our way to the Lincoln Tunnel and New Jersey, the pulsating Woke Up This Morning our soundtrack, just as it is in the show’s opening credits.

Baron clearly knows and loves the show, and he’s also an entertainer, with a wry delivery. He tells behind-the-scenes stories of the show and cast, and runs a trivia competition. “Who said of Ginny Sacrimoni, ‘She’s so fat, she goes campin’ and the bears have to hide their food’?”

“Paulie Walnuts!” a man says behind me. He turns out to be John Thompson, from Newcastle in England, who proceeds to get most of the other questions right, too.

Our first stop is a now-shuttered diner in some seedy no-man’s-land. Christopher (played by Michael Imperioli) was shot outside it in the second season, and the brilliance of the tour is that after we see the location Baron plays a clip of the relevant scene.

Like Gandolfini, the show’s creator, David Chase, is an Italian-American from New Jersey, and every Italian-American character on the show had to come from Jersey or New York. The fictitious site of Satriale’s Pork Store, though, is in the predominantly Irish town of Kearny, our second stop. The local Irish-American Association were paid to hoist an Italian flag on shoot days and the crew would put the famous pig sign up on the store the day before shooting. “Like the flag at Buckingham Palace, locals knew Tony was coming to town when the pig went up,” Baron says.

I pop into Big Stash’s sandwich shop on the main street and order a salami sandwich. The walls are decked with pictures of the owner, Mike Trivic, with Gandolfini. Trivic tells me: “He would come in here a lot. Right outside my door is where Christopher stole all the newspapers in the first episode.” The Catholic church across the street doubled as Father Phil’s place of worship.

We drive through gritty sections of Newark, Harrison and Belleville, Baron pointing out sites used for Pussy’s auto-body shop, Tony’s gambling den, and AJ’s school. Baron plays a clip and asks us if we recognise one of the extras in a high school scene with AJ. No one does. He says: “That young girl is better known today as Lady Gaga.”

In a more upscale part of Kearny, we pass the Tudor mansion Tony drives past in the opening credits, and a short while later pull up outside Holsten’s. The ice-cream parlour, which dates from 1939, became a cult destination for Sopranos fans after the final episode aired in 2007, and in the past four days it’s become the site of a remarkable pilgrimage. “I started getting all these calls and text messages,” co-owner Chris Carley says. “Then people started arriving. They haven’t stopped.”

Carley has placed a “Reserved” sign and a bouquet of flowers on the booth where Tony sat with Carmela and AJ in the final, enigmatic scene.

Holsten’s became part of the tour only after the series ended; on the other hand our final stop, the Bada Bing!, the strip club the men hung out in, has been on the itinerary since the beginning.

We pull up outside a nondescript cinder-block building on the side of the busy Route 17. A roadside billboard for Satin Dolls reads: “the original Bada Bing”, and under the main sign are the words: “Thank You Jimmy. Farewell Boss.”

It’s somewhat surreal to enter a dark strip club at 3 o’clock in the afternoon with 50 complete strangers – almost all of whom instantly recognise where they are without ever having been there. A shrine has been erected around the boss’s corner bar stool: a framed portrait of a downcast Tony, a white rose, a Sopranos baseball cap, and a “SOPRANOS” New Jersey number plate. We have been warned that the dancers will not want to be photographed, but one is gyrating on a pole on the stage behind the bar, and another, Diana Lomoro, happily poses with members of our group by the shrine. “I was in three episodes,” she says.

I introduce myself to the manager, Bill Pepe, and we talk in the kitchen, where a busboy chops potatoes with a meat cleaver. “I was at a benefit for the local police department when the news came in,” Pepe says. “Everyone stopped for a moment of silence. The police loved Jim.” He looks at the memorial by the bar and shakes his head. “It was a family atmosphere when they filmed here – and Jim was the captain.”

We troop out into the sunlight and head back to New York, a song plays in my head, Don’t Stop … Telegraph, London

The Sopranos Sites Tour leaves on Saturdays at 10am from the corner of 39th Street and 7th Avenue: $US46. To book, contact On Location Tours, phone +1 212 683 2027; see onlocationtours上海夜生活m.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Shanghai Night Net.

杭州龙凤 22/01/2019

Double identity

Michael Gebicki finds doppelgangers all around in an Italian city of distinctly Austrian flavour.
Shanghai night field

‘Are we still in Italy?” The man on the platform at the station in Bolzano is perplexed, and I know what he means. So convincingly does Bolzano mirror the architecture, the language, the manners and the mores of Austria’s nearby Tyrol region that it’s all I can do to stop myself from answering “Ja!”

Located in Italy’s most northerly province, Bolzano is the capital of South Tyrol, which the Italians know as the Alto Adige, the High Adige, after the river that gallops through its heart.

Until the end of the First World War this was Austrian territory, and Bolzano still prefers to think of itself as something other than true red, white and green Italian. German is the lingua franca, “Guten tag” the standard greeting.

Pasticcerie are konditorei here, and men in knickerbockers with alpenstocks and Tyrolean hats with feathers tucked into the band can sometimes be seen strolling through Bolzano’s Piazza Erbe – Obstmarkt to the locals.

Even the name “Bolzano” has a doppelganger. To the German-speaking population, this is not Bolzano at all, but Bozen. And though you might find me in Waltherplatz enjoying a kaffee mit torte, to me this is lovely and lyrical “Bolzano”, never “Bozen”.

It’s the towering peaks of the Dolomites surrounding the city that give the game away. Bolzano is the base for hiking, biking, skiing and mountaineering trips in some of Europe’s most sensational alpine country. Most travellers who pass through Bolzano are looking for adventure, but it’s well worth pausing here just to catch your breath and take in the sights.

Much of Bolzano’s charm comes from its age. In the city centre, nothing much has been built since the late 19th century, and the cityscape is dominated by bell towers and church spires, the most impressive being the cathedral that sits under a decorative tiled roof at the city’s mediaeval heart. The daily produce market brings life to the cobblestones of Piazza delle Erbe, where open-fronted stalls sell everything from strawberries to wines, speck and kaminwurzen, the local smoked sausage. Cafes spill across the cobblestones of Waltherplatz, and along Mustergasse is a series of baroque facades that were once the homes of the city’s wealthiest merchants and bankers.

Poised photogenically on a sharp crag overlooking Bolzano is the 10th-century castle Sigmundskron, part of the Messner Mountain Museum created by local lad Reinhold Messner, one of the greatest mountaineers. In contrast to the stone walls of the thousand-year-old castle, the museum is a surprisingly modernist steel-and-glass construction furnished with symbolic objects, quotes and memorabilia from various mountaineering expeditions that explore the almost mystical relationship between mountains and the people who live there. If the museum proves inspirational, you can easily follow Messner’s footsteps in modest fashion by taking the cable cars that hoist you from Bolzano to outstandingly luscious mountainsides.

The Colle Cable Car is the world’s oldest funicular, built by a hotelier to haul guests up to his mountain lodge. The Renon Cable Car connects Bolzano with Soprabolzano, from where a historic narrow-gauge scenic railway completes the trip to the glorious Renon Plateau, through flowery meadows set against spiky peaks. At the top is a restaurant that plays jolly accordion music reminiscent of lederhosen and thigh-slapping dances.

No right-minded visitor would want to miss Otzi the Iceman. Housed in Bolzano’s South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, Otzi is the mummified corpse of a Stone Age man who lived in this region a little more than 5000 years ago. When he died from blood loss caused by an arrow wound his body was covered by snow and ice, which kept it in a remarkable state of preservation. The discovery of his body by two German hikers in 1991, in a rock gully filled with glacier melt, changed how we thought about Stone Age life.

From his copper-bladed axe to his first-aid kit, backpack, goat-hair leggings, shoes and bearskin cap, this was a man well adapted to living in the hostile environment in which his body was found, at an altitude of 3200 metres in the Otztal Alps.

The museum is mostly a reconstruction of Otzi’s life and times. His corpse lies in a sealed, darkened room and can only be glimpsed through a tiny window.

It seems absolutely true to Bolzano’s character that as I exit the museum I am almost taken out by a girl on a bike, dirndl skirt flying, with braided blonde hair, who looks as if she’s just stepped off the set of The Sound of Music.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Singapore Airlines has a fare to Milan for about $1820 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne, including taxes. Fly to Singapore (about 8hr) and then to Milan (13hr 15min); see singaporeair上海夜生活m; phone 13 10 11. There are frequent train services to Bolzano taking about three hours with a change in Verona.

STAYING THERE

The Hotel Greif is the city’s best, stylish and in a premium location with 33 sculpted rooms accented with original artworks. Doubles from €158 ($222). See greif.it.

Gasthof Kohlern sits above Bolzano among pine forests and meadows. The world’s oldest cable car links the guesthouse to Bolzano. From €130 for two a night. See kohlern上海夜生活m.

Drei Birken is a small and wonderful guesthouse situated in the tiny village of Oberbozen. Cheapest rooms are small, so pay a modest premium for something larger. From €74 for two a night. See dreibirken.it.

TOURING THERE

A hire car is essential for anyone who wants to make the most of the region’s adventure opportunities.

MORE INFORMATION

suedtirol.info

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Shanghai Night Net.

杭州龙凤 22/01/2019

Jumbo-sized mission

Elephant trekking. Photo: Leisa TylerLeisa Tyler follows the campaign to give Thailand’s dwindling elephant population a future.
Shanghai night field

The Thai jungle meets African safari for dinner at the Anantara Golden Triangle. Perched high above the resort’s baby-elephant camp, a pavilion and two-seat dinner table have been embellished with zebra-print chairs, a giraffe-print tablecloth and bunches of foliage strapped to the poles. Cicadas trill and a centipede races across the table while two baby elephants, trunks locked, compete in a tug of war below.

My husband and I watch the antics of the show-off calves before feeding them a bucketful of sugar cane and sitting down to a few

up-country culinary treats of our own served by waiters in safari suits. There is larb moo – minced pork with juicy strips of fatty skin mixed with ground-roasted rice, fresh herbs and a liberal dash of lime and chilli; jungle curry, a feisty sour-and-spicy soup made with freshwater fish and laden with leaves from the forest; and luscious pork sausages that have been wrapped in bamboo before being deep-fried and served with a spirited plaa daek (fermented fish sauce).

While two young elephants might not be your average dinner guests, this meal is about more than just extreme dining situations; the proceeds of our dinner are going to help the very few Thai elephants left in the wild to stay wild.

In 2006 the International Union for Conservation of Nature declared the Asian elephant on the verge of extinction. In Thailand, elephant numbers have fallen from about 400,000 at the turn of the 20th century to 5000 today, with only half of these living in the wild. (Vietnam’s wild elephant population, in comparison, is about 100.)

Thailand has a strong connection to pachyderms. Revered for their brawn and loyalty, historically they were not only essential for transport and industry such as logging, but signified the king’s divine right to rule and the spiritual figure Erawan. A decline in natural habitat and an increase in ivory trading are some of the factors that have led to the animal’s demise.

Thailand-based hospitality company Minor International, which owns the Anantara Golden Triangle and nearby Four Seasons Tented Camp, is hoping tourism can be a catalyst for raising awareness of the Asian elephants’ fate and for assisting their survival.

Founded in 2001, the annual King’s Cup Elephant Polo tournament has been the lynchpin of Minor International’s conservation efforts. Held in the seaside resort town of Hua Hin, three hours south of Bangkok, the game is conducted along the same lines as regular polo but with elephants, who run significantly slower than horses and aren’t always as willing to do as they are told. Money is raised through corporate sponsorship and a glitzy auction, where everything from hotel accommodation to artwork goes under the hammer.

It’s at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort and the Four Seasons Tented Camp, both near the Mekong River town of Chiang Saen in northern Thailand, where visitors can get up close and personal with the elephants.

Spearheaded by British conservationist John Roberts in 2003, the Anantara resort raises funds through a three-day mahout training program. Initially, these funds were used to take sick and distressed elephants and their human handlers off the streets of Thailand’s tourist cities, Bangkok and Pattaya, where they are used to collect tips. Elephant begging earns good money; on average mahouts can earn about 5000 baht ($175) a night, slightly less than an unskilled labourer in Thailand makes in a month. But it is a difficult life for a young elephant, which is often taken from the wild in Laos or Myanmar, smuggled into Thailand and made to live in adverse conditions in the city. Street elephants frequently suffer from malnutrition and disease.

In the past 10 years Roberts and his team have rescued and relocated 32 elephants to Anantara’s 65-hectare estate. With no more space available, they now concentrate their efforts on protecting wild elephants and assisting in the “human-animal conflicts that often lead to clashes”, Roberts says. Among their endeavours are planting trees for elephant habitat, building electric or beehive fencing to keep the elephants away from crops, and educating kids on the status of the wild elephant and the effects of ivory trade.

I have followed Minor International’s elephant projects for many years but never experienced the mahout training course, which I quickly discover is far from a leisurely ride in the comfort of a cane basket along sun-dappled forest paths. Instead, guests learn to command the elephants while sitting saddleless behind their floppy ears.

Purlarp is my ride for the day. She is a cheeky three-tonne 26-year-old with a penchant for swimming like a bucking bronco and grazing on fresh bamboo stalks – preferably while she is supposed to be trekking.

We are briefly introduced by her mahout, Chen, at Anantara’s elephant camp, a scruffy clutch of thatch and wood buildings at the bottom of a forested gully, before Chen tells me to jump on her prickly big back and hold her ears tight as she lurches her knobby head forward and scrambles to her feet. It’s terrifying.

The mahouts spend two very short minutes explaining how to get on and off and turn right and left before we hit the trail. I’m not entirely convinced of their safety procedures with novice riders, even less so when we arrive at a water dam and Purlarp wastes no time in snorting a wrinkly grey trunk full of water into the air before submerging herself. Diving deep into the water she waggles her great head from side to side, occasionally coming up for a gulp of air before diving back down. I am barely able to hold on to her, but fear more getting clubbed by her enormous grey foot if I fall. So I hang on for dear life, gripping her ears tightly, my legs clenched around her neck. Up and down she goes before finally I can’t hold on any longer and I get thrown into the murky brown water. Purlarp screeches and snorts more water. Game over.

It’s amazing to be on top of the elephants – which is less daunting by the minute – but the next day I can barely walk from clutching so hard the day before. Luckily, I discover that enjoying their company and contributing to their welfare doesn’t always mean having to be on top of them.

At the nearby Four Seasons Tented Camp, guests can participate in on-ground activities such as the behavioural research overseen by scientist Joshua Plotnik from Think Elephants International and the University of Cambridge. Plotnik and his team are documenting the cognitive skills of the elephants, which in turn they hope will help to better protect them in the wild.

The program uses games, tasks and rewards to determine how important smell is for elephant cognition. Using a thatched shed at the elephant camp, our experiment involves a table on rollers, a curtain, two buckets in which we randomly place sunflower seeds and an elephant who gets to smell both buckets before having to remember which has the seeds. The elephant can’t be tricked and wins the seeds every time.

That night at the Four Seasons Tented Camp I join a group of elephants and their mahouts at the top of a nearby hill for cocktails. The views are unsurpassed, soaring over three countries; to the left a patchwork of small farms scattered over roller-coaster hills is the forbidden Shan state of Myanmar; to the right the giant swath of the Mekong marks the border with northern Laos and its Chinese-owned casinos; behind us the creamy blue outline of Doi Tung mountain marks the far western edge of northern Thailand.

It is estimated that the Asian elephant’s habitat has shrunk by 70 per cent in the past 30 years. Looking out over these three nations, it’s not hard to imagine a time when they roamed here freely.

“Of course it would be lovely if all elephants lived in the wild,” Roberts says. “But the truth is there is no wild left. Where are you going to put them?”

The writer stayed as a guest of the Four Seasons Tented Camp and Anantara Golden Triangle.

GETTING THERE

Thai Airways has a fare to Chiang Rai for about $1060 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne, including taxes. Fly to Bangkok (about 9 hours) and then to Chiang Rai (1hr 20min); see thaiairways上海夜生活m. Chiang Saen is a 1½-hour drive from Chiang Rai airport.

STAYING THERE

With views over Burma, Laos and the Mekong, the Anantara Golden Triangle is an incredible location for a resort. There is a spa, a cooking school and 77 rooms. The resort is comfortable but in need of renovation. Double rooms cost from 41,195 baht ($1455), including taxes, transfers from Chiang Rai and mahout training. See goldentriangle.anantara上海夜生活m.

The Four Seasons Tented Camp has 15 canvas tents, each with hand-beaten copper bath tubs, outdoor showers and decks overlooking a bamboo grove. The service is excellent and the food is a highlight. Bring strong mosquito repellent. Minimum two-night stays are from 183,675 baht twin share, including a half-day mahout training program and a massage each. Participating in the research project costs an extra 11,000 baht for two people. See fourseasons上海夜生活m.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

tourismthailand上海夜生活.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Shanghai Night Net.