Thursday, July 14, 2005

Golden Triangle Whirlwind

Because we had four minivans here in Thailand, we were able to divide up the group to pursue different interests. One van with went to the Thai Queen Mother’s Flower Garden up in the hills, while the other vans went into Chaing Rai to access ATM machines, the Internet and shopping. After getting some cash I had about half an hour to quickly check my email and copy and paste my blog updates. We were then off for a full day of sightseeing.

We went to Sop Ruak, which is the tourist-town located on the Thai side of the point where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet – the Golden Triangle. This town had the single highest concentration of tourists, especially western tourists, of any place that we had been to on this trip! They mostly came in minivans, though there were also large bus loads, including the colorful double-decker private Thai buses. Our first stop was lunch at the Imperial Golden Triangle Resort, which boasts the best view of the Golden Triangle. The meal was the most western oriented of any that we have had during this trip. Several other foreign tour groups joined us as we ate.

We then had an hour to wander the area while we waited for the other minivan to arrive. At the time, Sop Ruak was not very busy. Quite a few of the shops were closed. There was a large sitting Buddha statue on a large boat-shaped structure that was under construction, and there were many restaurants on platforms overlooking the river, as well as quite a few places offering long boat trips to the casino in Myanmar and over to a village on the Laos side. The boat trips do not really stop in Myanmar – they just approach the casino site. According to our guide, Surapon, you need a passport and a fairly large cash deposit (US$1000 ?) to actually visit the casino.

On the Internet I had seen a couple of gate-type structures declaring the “Golden Triangle”. In reality, I saw maybe eight of these during our visit there – all set up to attract tourists. From some you can actually see the site where the three borders meet – for others the view is only of the Mekong River. The newest one is associated with the large sitting Buddha statue and gives a direct view of the casino in Myanmar (which is owned by a Thai businessman).

One of the Golden Triangle gates that I had seen online is located at the top of a hill above the town. Despite what the Imperial Resort claims, this is by far the best view of the border area. There was also an interesting small temple here, as well as some tourist shops. Based on aerial photographs shown on postcards, the Myanmar side of these border has undergone a fair amount of development, including the clearing of forests and possible land reclamation, in recent years. All of this seems to be in support of the casino.

We also went to a small park on the river, across from Surapon’s sister’s tea house, and to the Opium Museum, which was a small museum attached to a large gift shop and a parking lot crammed with tourist minivans.

Most days we have had rain in the morning, then intense hot and sunny skies shortly after noon time, then rain again in the later afternoon. This was one of those days. The heat was really getting to me in the afternoon and I was not crazy about running off to yet another tourist trap. People kept asking Surapon when we were going to take the boat to the Laos side, as that was the main attraction beyond seeing the tri-country border. He said that we would do that later in the afternoon as tat is the best time to visit there.

Finally, we all boarded an open-sided boat and basically followed the same path as the long boats (which only hold about four passengers). There were no visa requirement at the Lao village, which felt more like an outdoor shopping mall than a village. It was hard to tell just where the people slept, as it was basically one gift/souvenir shop after another. Thai Baht is the accepted currency. Many of the shops sold stamps and postcards, and had mail boxes for sending overseas. Laos stamps are apparently quite rare, so for 50 Baht I bought a postcard and addressed it to myself. I also traded some 10 Bhat for the equivalent in Laos money (whatever that is).

In the distance we could see dark clouds building up and heading our way. We were still wandering around the village shops when the winds started to kick in, blowing maps and post cards from the shelves. The shop owners quickly lowered their coverings to protect their shops. It was suggested that we should hurry up and leave the village. However, it would be difficult to find all of our group members so several of us camped out behind the shutters of one of the shops. Eventually the decision was made to move and with the rain starting to come down we boarded the boat. Those of us on the right side of the boat hid behind umbrellas, but still got wet from the rain. It was the coldest experience of our entire trip (since leaving Flagstaff).

By the time we got to our hotel at about 6pm I was completely exhausted. I think I caught a bit of a flu from staying up so late most nights organizing my photos and writing up my blog. The night before I did not get to sleep until 12:45am. I slept for 1.5 hours until dinner time. I did not eat much for dinner as my stomach felt bloated. I had a feverish and restless night, but felt like I was on the mend by morning.

It would have been nice if we could have checked into our hotel earlier in the day and rested up a bit before going to the Golden Triangle spot. That was the approach when we were in Myanmar. Surapon really kept us on the go since we arrived in Thailand. While we probably got our money’s worth, I think it came also came with the costs of greater physical and mental exhaustion!

The photo below is of the Golden Triangle from the hill above Sop Ruak. The Ruak River to the left separates Thailand and Myanmar, with Laos across the Mekong River on the right. A tiny bit of Myanmar's casino (orange roof) can be seen on the middle right edge of this photo.


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