Mae Sai and the Golden Triangle

Mae sai

During our trip to Chiang Rai, we visited Doi Mae Salong, Doi Tung and then drove along the border with Burma towards Mae Sai. This is the northernmost spot in Thailand. In fact, there is a sign to the right of this bridge that says just that and you can have your picture taken underneath it. There is a lot of cross-border activity going on here with markets on both sides. I remember coming here over 10 years ago on a tour. I don’t think we did much as there wasn’t time to cross the border. We just took a picture of the blue gateway which marks entry into Burma. That is basically all we did this time too! Though we did find a small restaurant to eat a late lunch on the other side of this bridge. We chose a table overlooking the river which didn’t turn out to be a good idea. There was a lot of garbage there. Much of it on the Burmese side. Some children were playing in the water. This river marks the boundary between Burma and Thailand. I was just wondering about border security when a young Burmese boy walked down to the river, stripped to his underwear and then proceeded to swim across. No-one seemed to care as he climbed up the steps on the Thai side, pausing only to put back on his clothes.

 We didn’t stay in Mai Sai too long. There isn’t really much to see there. So, we got back in the car and we proceeded on our journey to the so-called Golden Triangle. This whole area is now historically important as the center for the opium trade in the three neighbouring countries: Burma (now called Myanmar), Laos and Thailand. The “triangle” actually covers a very large area but someone chose Sop Ruak as being the town at the centre. (Probably a local tour operator). This is where the three countries meet as well as two major rivers. Other than that, the town is pretty miserable and boring.

I had read in the Bangkok Post a few years back about the grand opening of the Hall of Opium which is just north of Sop Ruak. It sounded like a fascinating place and I was looking forward to visiting and finding out a bit more about the opium trade. It is run by the Mae Fah Luang Foundation which was initiated by the late Princess Mother. You may remember that we visited her summer villa and gardens earlier in the day at Doi Tung. It was easy to find the hall as it was just off the main highway, though literally in the middle of no-where. The car park was virtually deserted. The only two vehicles belonged to the foundation. We walked up the steps and into the reception. That is when I spotted the sign “Foreigners: 300 baht”. I was so disappointed. When we had visited the gardens and villa in the morning I was happy to note that Thai and foreigners were charged the same price. I sang the praises of the Princess Mother. At the Hall of Opium we debated for a while whether it was worth to go in. A sign said photos were not allowed to be taken. So, we chose not to go in. I decided I would use the money saved to buy a book (or two) on the opium trade instead.

We drove on wondering whether we would know once we had reached the magical spot called “The Golden Triangle”. We needn’t have worried. Apart from the coaches, the first thing we spotted was a giant seated Buddha and two large elephant statues. I don’t remember seeing these before on my tour. I believe the elephants were built in commemoration of His Majesty the King. People were having their picture taken here and at a nearby sign that said “The Golden Triangle”. A dozen or so children dressed in hilltribe costumes were posing for the camera. Of course they weren’t doing it for free. I didn’t really want my picture taken with them but took a picture of them standing with some foreigners. I just turned away when that girl on the right came running up to me demanding 20 baht. Luckily she was then distracted when two big coaches suddenly pulled into the parking lot. The kids then started squealing in delight. “The farang are coming! The farang are coming!”

If they were charging 20 baht each then they must be making a lot of money. Keeping an eye on them from the sidelines were some adults also dressed as hilltribes. It was starting to look like they were using the kids to make money. A bit further on there was an older woman with what was presumably her baby. As foreigners walked by she tried to get the toddler to perform. She beckoned to the foreigners and gestured taking a photo. What is that advert on television? It has a child and she is saying something like “we are not tourist attractions”. I just kept thinking of that advert when I walked around this tourist trap. And that is basically what this place is. OK, the elephant and Big Buddha are nice. But the location? It is just a spot besides the river. And this river is really long. There are many attractive towns better than this one. There isn’t much to do in Sop Ruak apart having your picture taken below the sign or go on a boat ride that advertises that you will visit three countries in one hour. We stopped to buy an ice cream each and one for a little hilltribe girl. At least she wouldn’t be passing that onto her “mother”.

Our final stop on the way back to Chiang Rai city was Chiang Saen. This was once the location of an important Thai kingdom. Scattered around town are a number of ruins. So far, we were having a bit of a disappointing afternoon. We were hoping to see here something along the lines of Ayutthaya or Sukhothai. We noted in our guidebook that Wat Chedi Luang was an impressive stupa in ruins. So, we decided to make that our first stop. We drove into the car park where we could clearly see our stupa a few metres away. “Was that it?” We debated whether it was worth getting out of the car to take a closer look. It had been a long day. But, we decided for the sake of these blogs and our online guidebook we should make an effort. It was then that I spotted the sign in English that said “Foreigners 30 baht”! OK, I am not stingy and I know that is less than a dollar. But really, there wasn’t much there and we could see just about see all of it from the front seat of the car. So, we just drove off. This town wasn’t a “Sukhothai” and we didn’t want to pay 30 baht for each of these little ruins. I am sorry.

I was just re-reading my diary of the tour I took 12 years ago of the Golden Triangle. (One of these days I will try and type it up for you). The Golden Triangle tour didn’t take me to Doi Tung which was by far the highlight of our day today. They took us to the places we visited in the afternoon. You know what the funny thing is? I wrote that the highlight of the tour was a buffet lunch in a five star hotel outside of Mae Sai! I really should have re-read my diary before the trip. Anyway, at least we got some pictures and a story to share with you. If you are tempted to go on a “Golden Triangle” while in Chiang Mai I advise you NOT to go. There is nothing to see.

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