CHIANGRAI– It wasn’t that long ago that throughout Southeast Asia the term Golden Triangle was associated with just one thing: opium trafficking. For those fighting the illegal operations, it geographically referred to that area of northernmost Thailand where that country borders Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) on the west and Laos on the east.
From the poppy fields of Burma, Thailand and Laos, the drug, often converted into heroin, was moved overland through hidden jungle trails, then down the Mekong River, often aboard speedy little power boats, into northern Thailand. From there it was secretly transported down the length of the country to Bangkok to be smuggled abroad. For the drug lords in control, it was a very lucrative business. For those fighting them, it was a deadly war.
Today, the Golden Triangle still flourishes but, at least in Thailand, for a much different reason. It’s now one of Thailand’s hottest destinations. Thanks to some vigorous police and military enforcement action by the Thai government, along with a major program to get local farmers to produce cash crops instead of cultivating poppy, the drug smugglers are mostly gone from this area.
With increased security and a major improvement in roads and other infrastructure, came developers who invested millions of dollars to clear raw land and put in luxury resorts that attract well-heeled visitors from all over the world.
Located in or near the provincial cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai now are high-end getaways that offer guests accommodations and amenities that rival any five star hotels in Bangkok or in Thailand’s southern beach resorts cities of Phuket or Pattaya or its offshore island luxury resorts. These include the Four Seasons Tented Camp on a bluff overlooking the Ruak River and just opposite Myanmar. Don’t let the name fool you; the “tents” are steel framed, fully furnished, air conditioned, even WiFi enabled. Supplementing such luxury resorts are many more modest guesthouses that are popular with back packers and other budget travelers.
All provide European and North American visitors the opportunity to admire the scenery, enjoy the distinctive North Thailand cuisine, feel the warmth of the Thai people — and, for those seeking a bit more adventure, to have an elephant encounter. At several resorts in the area, elephants mainly rescued from the streets of Bangkok where they were ill treated and often injured, are cared for under a Thai government initiative.
Funding to support these animals, however, comes mainly from donations by visitors, from the resorts themselves, and through various “adoption” programs. In return, the elephants “earn” their support by being part of various travel packages resorts offer to their guests. In some cases, visitors simply go off for a ride into the jungle for a few hours. But offered, too, are full-scale programs allowing visitors learn now only to ride their elephant, but care for them and become “instant mahouts.”
Perhaps the most extensive of these programs is found at the luxurious Anantara Golden Triangle Resort near the provincial town of Chiang Saen. John Edwards Roberts is the Director of Elephants and Conservation Activities who oversees a community of 56 elephant aides to care for the animals and conduct informal riding lessons for fascinated visitors.
The staff includes young volunteer veterinary students and the mahouts who were often the original owners of the rescued elephants. While the resort supports the elephants, the mahouts retain their ownership.Their families live in their own little village at the elephant camp. Roberts is also head of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. Currently, the Anantara Resort cares for about two dozen Asian elephants, all but one are females that range from 2 ½ to 3 tons in weight.
As something of a surprise treat for visitors, a baby elephant is brought around during the breakfast hours right out onto the restaurant’s patio. There it becomes an immediate “photo op” for excited guests.
Regardless of their budgets, visitors to the northernmost tip of Thailand will find in the Golden Triangle a fascinating and “different” Thailand.
Scenes of ethereal beauty are at every turn. In the very early morning hours, mists rise from the Mai Sai River framing the thick jungles that blanket the mountains in nearby Myanmar. Farmers, many from the distinctive ethnic hill tribes, work the neat flatlands that gave rise to the area’s ancient name “Land of a million rice fields.” Towns throughout the area bustle with activity as open-air markets attract locals to shop for daily necessities as well as the latest electronic gadgets.
Formal diplomatic relations between the U.S., Myanmar and Laos ordinarily make regular travel to these two countries quite difficult for Americans. Both governments still prefer to keep most foreigners out except in controlled circumstances. Still, in the Golden Triangle things are strangely enough less restrictive.
The town of Mai Sai promotes itself as something of an unofficial Golden Triangle capital and offers a formal point of entry into Myanmar from Thailand. Each day a steam stream of Thais pass through a customs and immigration gate on their side of the river and walk across a bridge into Myanmar, mainly to shop there for locally produced goods, including jade jewelry and imports from China, mainly electronics. For their part, Burmese come south into Thailand to shop.
Americans can, for a $5 fee, get a day pass into Myanmar at the same border offices.
It’s even easier to get into Laos, a Communist country that is otherwise difficult for Americans to enter. One of the major tourist attractions there is a boat ride on the Mekong that includes crossing over to the little village of Pak Bang in the People’s Republic of Laos.
In a tiny market village there, visitors can buy a variety of locally made handicrafts and, for those with a strong stomach, bottles of whisky in which snakes and ugly insects float. A post office permit’s the visitor to mail home a card bearing Lao stamps. One more chance to top the neighbors back home.
Yet to be determined is future access to a casino in Laos just opposite Thailand. Since gambling is against the law in Thailand, it’s quite obviously that the Lao business plan is to attract Thais across the river to their establishment. Whether arrangements will be made to accommodate other foreigners remains to be seen.
Similarly, a lavish hotel casino has been built on the banks of the Mekong in Myanmar, just over its border with Thailand. While patrons generally come in via the formal border crossing, boat landings at the complex suggest that prospective Thai gamblers can hop a water taxi and, in a couple minutes, be at the gaming tables. Then, if very lucky, this could be a real “Golden” Triangle.