Golden Triangle, Mehkong River, Hill Tribes, All In One Day!

Ok my intrepid readers, pour yourself a cup of coffee and get comfortable. I intend to entertain (bore?) you with details of a 14 hour tour Mary Ann and I enjoyed yesterday in Northern (AMAZING) Thailand.

The Golden Triangle, Thailand, Burma and Laos.

I had heard from other Farongs living here in Chiang Mai about Mr. Oh. He is a young taxi driver who speaks perfect English. Let me take that back, he speaks perfect American. When I asked him how he knows so many American slang phrases, his answer was “Eddie Murphy movies”.

He told us that we could go anywhere within reason and stop when we needed coffee or to use the rest room. Our first stop was a combo of the two. Now I am all for international rest room signs, we have all gotten used to them where ever we travel, but sometimes they over-state the obvious. This is an example.

when ya gotta go, ya gotta go!

The fellow that owns the restaurant across the street from our hotel told us  “You just have to see the White Temple.” It was the closest thing on our list for the day, so our first stop. I’m telling you, it almost ruined my day. It was designed and built by a Thai artist who has gotten quite wealthy selling his art. I never want to see any of his artwork, because this guy is sick in the head. If Hell has a temple, it would look like this. I am only going to post one of the pictures I took, believe me when I say it is the least disturbing of the lot.

Hands reaching up as from hell

Inside the temple were painted incredibly disturbing images, including imagery of  the 9/11 tragedy that make the real thing look like a mere bicycle accident. I am glad to report this is NOT an official Buhdist temple, it is just a tourist trap.  We could not leave there fast enough, so I will not dwell on it further.

Back to the fun stuff.

The next stop was to visit what people refer to here as “the hill tribes.”

There are five major tribes living in the hills of Northern Thailand. They all have tribal origins in Burma, or Laos as well as being natives of Thailand. They are the Akha, the Lahu, the Palong, the Lu Mien and the Karen. Especially the Karen (pronounced KAHRUN) are persecuted for political reasons in Burma (now known as Myanmar). There are about 400,000 of them, with 100,000 living now in Thailand  The Karen, who were just this week granted an autonomous province in Thailand, are known as the “Long Neck” people. The Palong are known as the “Big Earring” people. Keep reading folks, my sociology lesson will end and I will give you some pictures to look at.

Anyway, these people have suffered through persecutions, opium wars and modern society, yet maintain their customs and dress. No Ropa Americana here. You wont find them wearing Yankee caps, god bless them. They have had to accept that tourism brings them the Baht. Now, if you are true adventurers, and have days to explore, you can go off deep into the hills of Thailand to find their real villages. How welcome a farong would be, I do not know. In our case, we touristed out and went to a set of five villages off in the hills that are set up for us to go spend money in. And boy did we. I think a couple of them are retired now. We found a selection of handicrafts available here in the village, for a mere fraction of the big city cost. I for one could not pass up a few things, but to be fair, I think Mary Ann outspent me abou 5 to1. She bought some marvelous scarfs, carved elephants and a few other things. Our hotel room looks like a gift shop this morning. What was my favorite trinket I bought? Well, here is a photo of it.

Two trinkets in one!

In case this is escaping you. it is a coffee cup/ashtray. Have a cup of coffee in the morning, then a smoke. How utilitarian can an item be? It is hand made out of bamboo with the decorative trimming made from the bark of the bamboo. Here is a shot of the old Akha man making it.

It took him about a half hour to make. Price? About 90 cents

Now I know, if motivated, the indigenous in Bocas could make these, but I think they lack the motivation.

The next village was the Palong. They grow coffee and pineapples. They are known as “The Big earring People”. I will let a couple pictures tell the thousand words I would probably write. You can thank me later.

Planting new coffee bushes

Now, you really need a close up to get the true experience here.

Can she get HBO on those ear rings?

I’m sorry but all I could think of was if she had to pay the satellite company for her reception.

Then it was onto the village of the Long Neck Karen. These people were referred to as the tribe of Giraffe women by a Polish explorer. Legend has it that the brass rings protect the women from getting eaten by tigers. Other legends say the men make the women do it so other tribes will not steal their women. I don’t know, and I do not think anyone knows why it started, but they continue it now to keep individual tribal identity, something very important to them. The rings are made of brass. I weighed one, over 4 kilos, thats over ten pounds to carry on you neck, 24/7. The things do NOT come off. They weave all day. A woman who cannot weave, cannot find a husband. The scarfs they weave are incredibly delicate and beautiful. Just ask Mary Ann, she now has a collection of them for her “over air-conditioned” office back in Sharjah. Ok, I’ll shut up, sit back and enjoy some more photos,

Making Mary Ann a scarf!

They start wearing the brass rings as toddlers

OK, so we had just doubled the GNP of the hill tribes for the day. They danced for us and even applauded Mary Ann when she made a donation in the name of BESO to the following;

Education in the third world, something has to improve folks.

Not being able to solve the worlds problems, we set off for the Mehkong river. Yes, I know, during that little “police action” in the sixties the NYT called it the Mekong. Here it is the Mehkong. This river starts as ice and snow melt in the Tibetan Himalayas. It flows through China, then becomes the border between Laos and Thailand, before heading down to Viet Nam and the “Mekong” delta.

Where we were headed for is known in lore and fact as “The Golden Triangle.”  It is where Burma, Laos and Thailand all meet. It was the center of the poppy growing, opium and heroin production. It was where the Brits scored the opium to addict the Chinese, which eventually led to the Opium War. It was where the drugs that end up on the streets of the USA came from for a long time, especially during the Viet Nam War. The only thing overtly left of all this trade today is a couple of Opium Museums, one of which we visited at the end of the tour. But first, our “illegal” entry into Laos!

Mr. Oh took us to a town on the Mehkong called Chiang Sean. Here, Thai boat men run the weirdest looking boats I have ever seen, or at least ridden in.

About the siz of a cayuco. Other than that way different.

They are made of plywood. They have internal combustion engines mounted on the back, probably out of old Toyotas. Interestingly, they have been converted to run on on the same gas that people in Bocas use to cook with.  Once they get going, they really zoom up the river. With about 6 inches of freeboard, it makes for a thrilling ride.

They take you to the other side of the river, to an island that belongs to Laos called, Don Sao. Technically we had now entered Laos. No immigration, and alas no stamp on our passports. It is actually just another tourist trap. Dozens of tourist oriented crafts, and something I think you might find amazing. I am putting in a larger photo this time so you can  look closely.

A cobra in a bottle of booze

Snake whiskey. They were offering free samples. Uh, no thanks. They had big bottles with big snakes and little bottles with baby cobras. Some had scorpions as well.  OK, I am a bit adventurous. I used to think I would try anything once. I now know different.

I bought a Golden Triangle T-shirt,  and a nicely carved stone box which I have no use for. I wanted a Lao Beer, so I found one. The same store sold smokes. I looked at a new brand and decided to try them.

At this price ANY ONE can afford cancer!

They were damn good. Now get this. A carton for 150 Baht. Do the math, I did. that is 15 Baht per pack, which is about 46 cents. That means each cig costs about 2.4 cents. Light ’em up!

Our time as illegals in Laos was up and we got back on the boat. He took us to the confluence of the Mehkong and Mae Nam Sai rivers, which is the territorial boundary of the three countries, Thailand, Laos and Burma. I call Myanmar Burma, because the Thais call it Burma. I imagine that if I ever go to Myanmar, I better call it Myanmar.

He then took us to a landing at a place called Sop Ruak, where Mr. Oh met us. I’ll share my favorite pics of this place.

He was about 75 feet high, really big.

But his belly was not as big as MINE!

From where we had lunch (gotta feed the Belly) I took a picture of three countries at once. But because I do not own photo shop, I cannot merge them into a panoramic for you. Suffice to say that eating lunch while enjoying a view of three different countries is rare. Personally, I have only seen three countries at the same time (Bolivia, Peru and Chile) once before, and I do not think Mary Ann ever has.

It was getting late, and we had one more stop to make.

No free samples.

This was a very cool museum. It is one of two in the region. The other is run by the government, this one by people who cannot grow poppies any longer so they decided to harvest tourist Bahts.

On the way home we stopped at a restaurant with a catchy name.

Cabbages and condoms?

This is an organization that has promoted birth control, aids prevention and education in Thailand for over 20 years. They won a huge grant from the Gates foundation, and do excellent work. They of course also had a gift shop, and yes, we bought more stuff.

We finally made it home. with a 25% tip, Mr Oh got $125 for 14 hours of driving us all over northern Thailand and entertaining us. I hope I have entertained you, thanks for reading.

About forrestwalker

An expat living overseas, traveling with my wife extensively and sharing the experiences with you!.

Posted on August 6, 2010, in thailand and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Well, your adventures certainly overshadow ours! We are in the USA, marveling at how clean, neat, and well-landscaped it is. And so much to spend money on, especially with grandkids around! Yikes, we need to get back to Buena Esperanza before the plastic melts!

  2. Thanks again for sharing all these adventures! I am sure the locals were thrilled that you both found their handicrafts so special. Great pictures and superb anecdotes..your abilities continue to impress me.
    Much love..Lil sis

  3. Thank you for teaching me a little bit about Northern Thailand! That info about the wars will really help when I become a tourleader there. Were you ever able to find a good source for the history of the region? Wikipedia’s good, but not that good. I am still looking for information. Hopefully I will find a local guide who speaks better English than yours!
    pura vida,

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