I Stayed in a Bubble in the Jungle to Get Closer to Elephants

On the far northern border of Thailand, there's an enchanted jungle where you can sleep right in the middle of an elephant sanctuary. I tried it, and it was life changing.

“You are about to experience something very unique,” the card on my bed reads. It’s sitting on top of a small denim tote bag with instructions to pack just what’s “necessary to sleep in a unique setting.”

That may be the understatement of all time. I’m about to embark on one of the most unusual evenings of my life: a night spent in a transparent dome just a few feet away from Asian elephants in the deep bush of Thailand’s Golden Triangle. Although I’m one of the first people to experience it and I should be a little nervous, honestly, I could not be more excited!

I’ve been fascinated by elephants since I was a child, and as an adult, I’ve been able to go on safari in Africa and spy them from the safety of a safari car. But it’s been my longtime wish to visit the conservation area of the Golden Triangle to get up close, and hopefully even hands-on, with the elephants here. I was excited just about being in a jungle paradise with these intelligent giants, but then I discovered the just-opened Jungle Bubbles and jumped at the chance to spend sundown to sunup with massive pachyderms as my nighttime companions.

The adventure begins

Zipping along the Mekong River on the way to the Anantara Golden Triangle Resort is a fantastic adventure in itself. And then, as I arrive at the hotel’s dock, I spy an elephant trunk just beyond the riverbank, and then another, and another. A welcoming committee of elephants are munching on bamboo and waiting to say hello as I walk into elephant paradise.

I’m handed a chilled coconut with a bamboo straw, but before I can slurp up all of the cold juice, a curious trunk comes winding onto the deck, looking to take it for herself. I place the coconut into the crook of the incredibly muscular proboscis and watch as the whole hardball, shell and all, is crunched like a tiny peanut in her muscular jaws.

Then my arrival group walks up to the check-in of the open-air lobby—escorted by our ele friends. I’m in complete, joyous awe. After I say a temporary goodbye to my VIP escort, I check out my plush room, which has views of Myanmar and Laos from my window here in Thailand (the three points of the “triangle”). The thick herbaceous foliage of the jungle goes as far as I can see, and I hear the trumpeting of the 21 rescued elephants that call this area home. Here are 8 of the most endangered elephants in the world.

My own personal Jungle Bubble

jungle bubbleCourtesy Melissa KlurmanAt 5 p.m., after I’ve squeezed my absolute basics for an overnight into the tote (the rest of my gear stays in my hotel room), I’m driven to a well-tended rice paddy hidden in the shadows of the hotel. From here, I’m led along a secluded stone stepping path, green shoots making way to a lamp-lined passageway, and there they are: the Jungle Bubbles.

The clear domes look like Jetson-esque living spaces that have landed in Land of the Lost. Two large bubbles, each with dark green sidecar bubble attachments, are connected by sleek teak decks with tables and chairs. I’m going to stay in one bubble, and about 100 yards away, another lucky hotel guest (or, in this case, a couple) will occupy the other. There’s complete privacy with a wooden fence, and where I’m sitting, all I see and hear are elephants.

The bubble itself seems surprisingly spacious inside. There’s a four-poster, king-size bed; a minibar stocked with beer and soft drinks; a Nespresso machine; and then a bathroom, hidden behind green tent walls, with a sink, shower, and toilet, as well as plenty of luxe amenities, including soft robes and towels and delicious-smelling toiletries. But what I’m really here for is waiting outside.

Elephants all around

My guide is trying to explain the details of the tent, including the fact that there’s a compression chamber, so it’s important that I close the outside door before I open the interior one so the bubble doesn’t deflate. I stop and stare: Wait, it’s an actual bubble, not just a round room? That’s good to know! And then I spot the elephants right outside the plastic walls and I lose focus.

Three enormous eles are close enough that I can hear them breathing, snorting, shuffling, and munching. Noises, I’ll soon discover, that they make all night. Elephants, it seems, never sleep. Well, they actually get two or three hours a night, and according to scientists, they may lay down for an hour every few days, but realistically, they don’t really stop. It’s kind of like having a newborn: You can hear the twitching and slight shuffling of appendages before an early-morning cacophony of grunts, squeaks, and endless gut noises. That’s what it’s like to sleep next to elephants. And also like having a newborn, it’s exquisite. Nothing is more fascinating, or compelling, or satisfying, or just downright amusing and charming as being able to watch elephants undisturbed, in private, for as long you can keep your eyes open. Check out these 14 amazing things you didn’t know elephants could do.

Alone at last

elephantsCourtesy Melissa KlurmanWhen my guide departs, it’s 5:30 p.m. It’s still a warm 80 degrees, and the light is golden—magic hour for pictures. And I’m as giddy as a kid opening presents on Christmas morning as I take picture after picture of the elephants standing just a few yards away.

It’s also amazingly relaxing here. The only thing I have to do is watch elephants. No phone, no news, no chitchat. I grab a beer out of my mini-fridge and watch as the three elephants that will be my neighbors this evening play in a mud hole that they have been expanding deeper and deeper for the past half hour as they splash and roll in the goop. The largest of the three, an elephant named Dah, trumpets just a few yards from where I’m sitting, and I get a chill.

The smallest, Mae Noi, is sitting in the mud bath, splashing like a rowdy toddler. She’s joined by the middle-sized Pumpui in the raucous dirt fest. I think they look like a family of father, mother, and baby, but I know from talking to the conservationists here that most of the elephants are females and none of them are babies; Dah is actually around 3, so tubby toddler is definitely how I think of her.

Sunset picnic

The sun sets, and the lanterns in the tree next to my bubble illuminate like the most exclusive cocktail party being thrown for the three guests of honor. It’s just before 7, and when the sun starts to settle, the jungle gets noisy. The air is alive with the buzzing, chirping, and clicking of bugs and birds as they gear up for what sounds like a nocturnal party. Was this chorus going on all day and I missed it? Or did it just start when the sun started to set?

The elephants finally leave the mud as it gets dark, blowing hard to clear the mud out of their of trunks. My picnic dinner arrives in a woven basket, filled with delicacies I selected earlier—sandwich wraps, rice crackers with peanut sauce, fresh fruit, sparkling water, and watermelon juice—and I eat watching the eles as the last light of day fades away.

Side note: It’s absolutely prohibited to feed the elephants or try to interact with them during the night. And no matter where you travel, it’s important to interact with animals responsibly, according to environmental experts.

The dark, dark night

elephantsCourtesy Anantara Hotels, Resorts & SpasThe temperature has dropped at least 15 degrees in the last hour. It’s so cool and pleasant out, I can barely believe I was sweating in Bangkok just 24 hours ago. And bonus: There are none of the biting insects I had feared; the low evening temps, combined with burning coils, are keeping them at bay.

Although I don’t camp, I think seriously about sleeping outside. I’ve turned off my porch lanterns and the tree lights and sit in the dark listening to the mixtape of elephants munching leaves and insects chirping and buzzing. The stars begin to peek through the velvet sky, and it’s incredibly peaceful. This definitely qualifies as one of the most peaceful places on Earth.

Elephants. Don’t. Stop.

Now that it’s cooler out, my massive neighbors are going for dirt baths instead of mud ones. It’s dark, so I can’t see the elephants as well, but I hear the swoosh of a trunk throwing gravel over leather-like backs and the steady crunch of dirt falling back onto the ground.

Then there’s a sudden loud crack! I think an elephant has knocked over a tree? Broken down the fence? Oh, wait—I think one just snapped a branch to eat. I can’t see, but I hear munching.

And then there’s a gentle trumpeting, a little bit like a gently honked horn as a patrol drives by to check out the area. It’s a reminder, too, that unlike an African safari, I’m not alone out in the bush; I even have a phone in my bubble, should I need help. Plus, there are no other wild animals nearby, since an electric fence protects the entire perimeter of the bubble platform.

Eyes wide shut

elephant bubbleCourtesy Melissa KlurmanEven though it’s relatively early, just 9:30, jet lag and complete darkness and silence are lulling me to sleep while sitting on the deck. I doze off in a deck chair, and then I decide to head to bed.

There’s a constant flow of cold air inside to keep the bubble inflated, and in the mountainous jungle, the temperature dips into the 60s at night. So, I jack up the space heater and snuggle under an extra duvet while listening to the sound of chomping and gazing at the stars through the dome. I’m sound asleep within minutes.

Midnight madness

Hold on—who set off the alarm?! Where am I? The elephants are trumpeting loudly! Then it sounds like they’re talking…or maybe crying? What is happening? Something has upset them, and they are LOUD! And then, silence again.

I am now, of course, sitting straight up and wide awake. I can see the three eles together by the trees in front of my bubble. Everything is evidently fine. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this is the real reason elephants startle so easily.

Breakfast with the elephants

elephantsCourtesy Anantara Hotels, Resorts & SpasApparently I drift off, and at 4:30, I’m awake for good. I hear munching outside. Is it breakfast or a prolonged midnight snack? Thai elephants eat about 300 kg a day (about 660 pounds), so it’s hard to tell since the eating never stops.

A rooster crows, and the light gently turns on all around. The elephants are on round 500 of breakfast, but I’m on my first cup of coffee. Dah is rubbing against the trees, getting her morning scratch on; it sounds like wood being pulled against a washboard. Instead of mud, Mae Noi has transitioned to a morning dust bath, grabbing large trunkfuls of dirt and throwing it over her back, so big puffs of beige smoke rise all around her.

I’m supposed to be picked up at 7 a.m., but the morning light is gorgeous and this is the most peaceful morning I’ve had in memory, so I try to hold onto every last second. I toast the elephants with my coffee and listen while they chomp their breakfast. There will be no better way to ever start a day or, for that matter, to spend a night. The Jungle Bubbles are truly a window into the amazing world of these incredible animals.

The details

The Jungle Bubbles experience is part of the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort. You’ll need to book a room at the resort, and then the overnight experience costs an additional 20,000 Thai bhat (approximately $660 in U.S. currency). During the rest of your stay, you can participate in additional elephant encounters, including Walking with Giants conservation walks and educational experiences.

The entire resort works to support the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF), which helps to rescue elephants from abuse on Thailand’s city streets. The GTAEF also places mahouts, the traditional elephant handlers who have worked with the animals in Thailand for hundreds of years, in positions where they can live with their human families while taking care of their elephant ones. Today, 21 elephants, 19 females, and two males live here in comfort in the wild, with a full staff of veterinarians and conservationists to look after them. Next, check out these stunning photos of elephants in the wild—and some more fascinating facts about these gentle giants.

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Melissa Klurman
Melissa Klurman is a freelance travel writer and editor with more than 27 years experience who reports on travel trends around the planet for Reader's Digest. Winner of a Lowell Thomas Gold Award for excellence in travel writing, she started her career as an editor at both Frommer’s and Fodor’s travel guides, then went on to write about travel for many publications including Family Traveller, Parents, and Working Mother magazines. More recently she has been a contributing editor at Saveur, Islands, and Caribbean Travel and Life and a senior contributor at Travelocity. A New Jersey native, ice cream addict, and a lifelong Bruce Springsteen fan, Klurman lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with her husband, son, and rescue dog.