Our mahout spun around, bewildered. ‘Bo!’ Bo? Towering forests of napier grass offered no clues. Moments earlier, Bo had been peppering her back with dirt; apparently, the perfect sunscreen. Now, we couldn’t see her for dust.
‘BO!’ The shout fell again on deaf, oversized ears. ‘He’s lost his elephant,’ grinned seven-year-old Felix.
It was day one of our family adventure in the wilds of Chiang Rai, northern Thailand, and we were bewitched.
Fiona’s daughter, Rose, poses in front of elephant Bo Derek in the wilds of Chiang Rai province in northern Thailand
Picturesque: A stunning aerial shot of Chiang Rai city, which shares its name with the province
Jungle patrol with four grazing giants had led us to the plains of the Ruak. Across the river, the mists of Myanmar. Away to our right, the hill tribes of Laos. And lurking somewhere in the bushes behind us, an elephant named after Bo Derek, playing hide and seek.
Turns out it’s easier to misplace a four-tonne Nellie than you’d think. Her step is deceptively soft. A prima ballerina makes more of a thud. And less of an entrance, as I discovered when, bending down to tie my shoelace, I suddenly felt the warm air of her 6 ft trunk rippling down the back of my neck.
For today’s daughters of Instagram — in my case, Rose, 13, and Evie, 12 — an elephant emerging from the undergrowth inches behind you means only one thing.
Gentle giants: Elephants playing in tropical rainforest in verdant Chiang Mai
‘Elfies!’ they shrieked, pivoting into position, iPhones held aloft for the perfect shot.
My husband and I had long dreamed of taking the children further afield than a roof box would allow. But five seats on a plane to the other side of the world is not for the faint-hearted, financially or otherwise. And the closer our departure date drew, the more I’d begun to panic.
What if the 11-hour flight was a horror? What if Bangkok, our first stop, was too frenzied for a family more used to pottering through the vineyards of rural France?
Nonsense, said my husband, the eternal backpacker, nostalgic for the fake cassettes and sweaty youth hostels of the Khaosan Road. It would be the trip of a lifetime.
The Hardcastle’s odyssey got under way in earnest with a glass of fizz at Bangkok’s Anantara Siam hotel (pictured)
Fiona with Rose, Evie and Felix
Certainly, the welcome glass of champagne at Bangkok’s Anantara Siam, the apex of city elegance, got things off to a good start. By the time we’d polished off a second, I couldn’t remember what I’d been worried about. We had only one day in Bangkok. First stop was the temple complex of Wat Pho and the Reclining Buddha, a 150 ft golden wonder.
I could have stood in the glow of its beatific smile for hours, but consumerism was calling and my girls were hungry to haggle.
Chatuchak market, a maze of chaos and colour, did not disappoint. We’d barely blinked before we’d bagged two knock-off Mulberry bags, three bootleg backpacks, five fans, four purses, a dodgy Barcelona football kit and a counterfeit Gucci clutch. Spent, in every sense of the word, we slid back to the Siam for supper and sleep before our morning flight to Chiang Rai and its sister hotel, the Anantara Golden Triangle, named after the notorious hotbed of opium production that once defined the region.
But it’s pachyderms, not poppies, that are the draw now. All 22 of them, who roam the 160 acres under the eye of British conservationist John Roberts and his team, a band devoted not only to the animals’ welfare — the majority were rescued from the streets — but also to unlocking their potential. As we entered through a polished teak walkway lined with gilded elephant heads, their trunks tied with the sacred orange sash, I found myself shushing as if we were in church.
Excited chatter lowered to a hush as we stood at the foot of a colossal carved candleholder. Below, a huge bowl of lotus flowers.
Seldom less at ease than when in a kitchen, I was happy to sit back in the Spice Spoons cookery class and watch head chef Gino rustle up a few signature dishes with my husband and children, a spectator’s glass of wine to hand. Gino had other ideas. Smiling through my protestations, he showed me to my hob.
‘Don’t mess up, Mummy,’ whispered Felix, as I attempted to copy the seemingly simple steps of his Tom Kha Gai.
Although my version of chicken soup in coconut milk won’t be troubling the menu of the hotel’s restaurant any time soon, I accepted my shortcomings with grace. Release the ego, so the Buddhist teaching goes.
The Hardcastles had a thrilling ride on a long-tail boat fitted with a Nissan car engine up the Mekong River
It’s impossible to travel to this part of the world and not be moved by the spirituality of its people. A morning spent exploring temples with our soulful guide filled our heads with philosophy and fables. Felix, sounding like a young Ben from Outnumbered, kept asking if the Naga (Buddha’s part-dragon, part-serpent protector) would beat the Garuda (part-bird, part-human) in a fight.
Rose lit up at the sight of a Bodhi Tree, under which the Buddha is said to have sat in his search for enlightenment. Evie isolated a more Thatcherite message. ‘I like the way you can make money and still have good karma,’ she said.
Then it was time for a thrilling ride on a long-tail boat fitted with a Nissan car engine up the Mekong and back to base, where our favourite welcoming committee escorted us to dinner, in return for a sugarcane starter of their own.
Our final night and the Anantara Golden Triangle had saved the best until last; a star-lit banquet in the paddy fields as our four-legged friends munched nearby.
Saying goodbye was never going to be easy. And as we leafed through the pages of the hotel’s Golden Book — an encyclopaedia of gratitude from guests gone by — we were lost for words.
Colouring pencils were called for. Felix set himself to the challenge. The result? An elephant at the helm of a speedboat.