This post originally appeared on the 22 October 2011 on Tuk-tuks, chicken bouquets and bicycle bells @ kerrytolsontravels.com
I was excited to be in the region of the Golden Triangle, famous in the past for opium poppy growing and drug lords, back then it was not a place for the traveller to get lost in or wander off the beaten track lest you never returned. Today the poppy fields are gone and the hill tribes who cultivated the opium are encouraged to engage in other activities, yet two days prior to us arriving in Chiang Rai, the Bangkok News carried a story in which a Chinese boat was hijacked in the area, the thirteen crew members killed and after the recapture of the boat, an enormous load of drugs was recovered. The badlands of the Golden Triangle might be in the past, but the area was still being used as a runners route. With this news story fresh in our minds, we hire a car for two days and took to the hills flanking the Laos/Myanmar/Thai boarder.
We wind our way up the dense jungle mountains to Mae Fa Luang where we find ourselves at a beautiful Swiss inspired chalet and having to don matching blue stone washed Thai fishing pants (oh so not fashionable!) and spend hours meandering through stunning gardens – but not a poppy in sight. Further into the hills, the roads become narrower and evidence of fresh landslips reveals the hardships of living in such an area, a number houses and thatched huts lay scattered down the mountain side. Along the way we pass small hill tribe villages and tribesman in traditional outfits – colourful and ornate, I’m particularly taken with the Akha woman and their spectacular headdress. Pompoms, bells and silver coins sewn on black cloth and pile high upon their heads, beads, intricate embroidery, shells and silver cut-outs of animals emblazon across their tunics and leggings. Up close, their smiles are blood red from the beetle nut they chew.
At Doi Mae Salong we go in search of the Akha tea-pickers but as it’s nearing the afternoon we have missed them, instead we indulge in a tea-tasting ceremony and later stagger out with boxes of fragrant teas which I’ll probably never get round to drinking.
Doi Mae Salong - off limits to outsiders until the mid 1990’s - is the area where
a Chinese division defected to. Known as the “Lost Army” they sort asylum in Thailand and in return for their refuge, fought for Thailand against any communist insurgency or infiltration. The village has a very Chinese feel to it – cherry trees line the roads (apparently during blossom time this is one of the most beautiful places in all of Thailand), bight red lanterns hang from noodle shops and tea shops, enormous Chinese style buddhas loom large above small village houses, chinese writing decks the shops and street signs, and you can hear the Mandarin language being spoken. Pride of place is the Chinese Martyr’s Memorial, a beautiful shrine and museum complex that looks almost out of sorts next to the small dusty village of thatched palm leafed bamboo huts and low concrete box houses. We stop at a hill tribe market, I’m keen to pick up some traditional fabric however I find the Akha women’s selling techniques intense and aggressive and become overwhelmed by the demands.
Mal wanders around the stalls taking photos and as he tries to photograph an elderly Akha woman in full costume, she lets him know of her displeasure of being ‘shot’ – promptly giving him the two finger salute and a mouthful of words.
(Of course it’s not until later we realise how insensitive we’ve been – both of us. The Akha follow a religion based of animistic beliefs steeped in superstition and by taking photographs of elderly tribespeople there is a belief this could bring on a sickness or death. Even later, we’re told by a tourguide that such a belief could have been overcome by offering to pay her for her photograph. As for the hard sell, the Akha are the most impoverished of the hill tribes and at the moment it is the ‘low season’ for this area, thus fewer tourist means less money.)
Descending from the 6000ft mountain ridge, we make our way the boarder of Myanmar and Thailand, a dusty, bustling township called Mai Sae and wander the higgly-piggly twisting corridors of the boarder markets. Absolutely everything is sold in these markets and we are stunned to find so much ‘westernised’ items on offer. This is a town at the very northern tip of Thailand (almost in the middle of no-where) and bordering an incredibly poor country yet one can buy glittering gold evening bags, remote controlled helicopters ( Mal was trying to figure out how he could get one home), gun sights and flick knives sit side by side of children’s toys and sequined ball gowns that would delight any ‘les girls’ dancer.
Then we arrive at our ultimate goal – the Golden Triangle itself. The precise spot where the waters of the Mekong River (Mae Khong) and the Ruak River blend together in a mass of rapids, swirlpools and rips. The water surges and flows at a fast pace and small longboats fuelled by gas BBQ cylinders sitting behind the bench seats bounce and crash along its surface. From its apex we can see clearly see the boarders of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand come together. Looking into Laos we view huge ornate palaces with gold crowns and domes flanking the river. A huge neat concrete wall runs along the rivers edging giving it the impression of grandeur, neatness and order. Across from it is Myanmar…. Burma …. intriguing, mysterious, beckoning…. I can’t wait to enter it, but we don’t succumb to the offers of ‘day passes’ into her yet.
Myanmar entry visa’s are burning a hole in our passports, but we don’t dare risk their precious 27day allowance for a couple of hours thrill. From where we stand we can see gold pagodas glinting in the sunlight.
Around us the site of the Golden Triangle is like a huge theme park. An enormous gold Buddha sits upon a colourful metal ship. Statues of elephants, teapots and various religious (and non religious) icons deck the area. Amongst it all wander the tourists and heavily armed guards (of which one came up and offered to take our photo against the triangle marker) and saffron robed monks who buy wind-chimes and bird statues…. these sit next to carved opium pipes and opium pillows. It all has a very surreal feeling to it.
When the sun settles on Chiang Rai the disco lights come out and just as spectacular as the clock tower‘s light and music show on our first night, we found ourselves dazzled by disco-ing utes driving along the highway, belting out their tunes and blinking lights in time. And once again it’s almost a requirement to don the sunglasses when watching these moving nightclubs, they are so bright they can be seen for miles.
On our last night in this northern town we wandered down to the street market and found ourselves swept up into a boisterous maypole-style line-dancing session. On stage a boot scoot’n, ten-gallon hat wearing Thai band belts out pop music whilst hoards of dancers shimmied, heel kicked and jived around a pole draped in streamers. More and more scurry onto the dance floor, laughing clapping and stomping with absolute joy. Big M gave me the’ come-on’ to join in, “No body knows us” he yells as he plunges into the throng. As I watch him embrace the moment of total inhibition freedom, I think “Why not!” And thus we end our Chiang Rai rave on a golden high.
Thailand Blog posts
This blog originally appeared on my blog: Tuk-tuks, chicken bouquets and bicycle bells at kerrytolsontravels.com in 2011.
Hello! I'm Kerry
. . . a plan-nothing, have no idea where I'm going travelholic.
A daughter of the gypsies and the wife of a workaholic, I'm forever wondering 'What's over there?' and devising ways to squeeze through the barbed-wire fence of small-business ownership responsibilities and every-day life tangles to discover it.
and this is my book.