Golden Triangle

by David on December 20, 2009

I’m coming up on my first full month in Thailand.  As my visa is only good for thirty days, it was necessary for me to leave the country and re-enter in order to get an extension.  My classmate Clay was in the same situation, so we signed up with a travel agency for a trip up to the Golden Triangle and back, or so we thought.  It turns out that it was a multi-stop trip with visits to the White Temple (a new and very famous temple built by a wealthy Thai artist), another much older and very well-known temple, the Golden Triangle, the Myanmar border market area and two Karen hill tribe villages.  While this sounds good at first, in actuality we only had twenty to thirty minutes at each stop and it was still a fourteen hour day.

The first thing that we all noticed was that driving outside of the city is scary as hell.  The highway is traveled by everything from scooters to old cars with almost no horsepower to new new tour buses like ours.  I’ve taken tuk-tuks all around the city and have ridden in the back of a song taew into the mountains, but this was the first time that I feared for my life.  After a while we all came to appreciate the necessity of passing the many vehicles going 35 mph on the freeway, but I still can’t fully understand why it was necessary to drive within four inches of their bumpers until there was an opportunity to pass, and why oncoming traffic didn’t seem to affect the decision making process.  So, note to travelers: when traveling between cities in Thailand, just close your eyes.  Unless you’re the driver.  Also, only the driver had a seat belt, there were none in the passenger area.

Our first stop was at the White Temple, a stunning complex of buildings built in a combination of traditional and modern Thai styles.  Notice the small walkway that looks like a gang plank leading onto the bridge to the main entrance? On either side of it are sculptures of human arms and hands reaching up in supplication out of a pit, some holding aloft skulls or bowls. I wasn’t aware that Buddhism had a hell, but evidently it does and that hell is well populated.

White Temple Front

Front of the White Temple.

White Temple Hell

Entrance to Hell

White Temple SideSide-rear view of the temple.

I’m becoming more familiar with Buddhist symbolism, especially the nagas which look like snakes with dragon heads, but the sculpture of what appears to be a harpy (shown below) was new to me.  According to Wikipedia this is a Kinaree, a creature with the upper body of a beautiful woman and the wings and lower body of a swan, allowing her to fly between the human and mystical worlds.  The Kinaree is derived from the traditional Buddhist and Hindu Kinnara, which is a prodigious lover which never reproduces and devotes its life to pleasure. It is also a celestial musician and the females are renowned for their dance, song and poetry and are traditional symbols of feminine beauty, grace and accomplishment.  Looking at her talons I’m thinking that she could dance like a drunk five year old and everyone would still tell her she was a paragon of grace.

White Temple Harpy

Feminine grace, beauty and velociraptor talons!

The next stop on our trip was an ancient Buddhist temple in the countryside. It was peaceful, beautiful and overgrown, the last part of which means that I was unable to get any decent pictures through the overhanging foliage.  Imagine a peaceful courtyard surrounding an ancient stone tower overgrown with trees and vines, a beautiful wooden temple stained in subdued earth tones, and a warm breeze blowing through the shade under the trees.  Take a few deep breaths.  Feeling relaxed?  Excellent, let’s move on to the terrifying beverages.

Next up was the golden triangle, the confluence of the Mekong and Ruak rivers delineating the borders of Thailand, Myanmar (Burma) and Laos.  This area is famous for opium production, although resorts and casinos are the big draws now.  A crop substitution program instituted by the Thai king has all but eliminated opium production in Thailand, but it is still produced by militias in Myanmar.  Police checkpoints are numerous, but I did not see them actually stopping or searching any vehicles.

Golden TrianglePictured (left to right): Thailand, Myanmar, Laos.

Fishing villages can still be seen along the banks of the Mekong river, although resorts and casinos are encroaching.  There is a large casino across the river in Myanmar which is owned by a Thai businessman, and a new casino being built along the shore in Laos which is owned by a Chinese businessman.  Globalization is confusing.

Fishing Village

Fishermen’s Shacks

After seeing the slow dinner boats cruising along the Mae Ping river in Chiang Mai, it was unexpected and exciting to see the brightly painted boats with their long propeller shafts flying at high speed up and down the Mekong.

Golden Triangle Speedboat

That outboard goes to 11.

A short boat ride took us across the river to Don Sao island, which is part of Laos although you don’t need a visa to visit it and are not able to continue on to any other area of Laos from the island unless you’ve obtained a visa elsewhere in the country.  The island was home to a small market selling jewelry, clothing and many kinds of whiskey (cue foreboding music).  It is also home to a small army of begging children. When I first encountered one I thought that she was trying to sell me something as she was moaning “5 baht, 10 baht” while looking in the general direction of a nearby rack of clothing.  After politely saying “no, thank you”  or actually “mai ao, khap” hoping that she would understand my poorly accented Thai, I continued on my way and about three steps later was confronted with two more children repeating the same mantra.  They were obviously well fed and seemed really, really disinterested in begging.  They were staring into the middle distance like kids who’ve had to spend way too long doing something boring and their voices were droning. I was expecting to hear them start moaning “braaaaaains” at any second.  I normally don’t mind giving someone a few baht if the honestly need it, but I saw this as more a business plan than a real case of deprivation and I’ve learned my lesson about giving any money when there is more than one beggar around: you will instantly be mobbed by a group who will follow you around until you get back into your vehicle.

So I continued into the shop that contained the highlight of my trip: animal whiskeys!  By that I mean bottles or vats of whiskey that also contain dead animals.  On offer were salamander, scorpion, armadillo, tiger penis and cobra. Yes they are real animals (I can’t verify the tiger penis because it looked like a deep sea eel as designed by H.R. Geiger), and yes it tastes almost as bad as it looks.  I took two shots just to be sure, and also because I’ve been seriously neglecting to keep up my daily intake of cobra.  Yes I am bad-ass, thank you for asking.

Salamander Whiskey

A salamander who I’m assuming died happy.

Cobra Whiskey


If you prefer something less exotic, they also offer “Johnny Worker Red Labial.”  The bottle even has the iconic Johnny Walker walking man sticker on it. Red Labial sounds like the beginning of the name for a venereal disease, though.  I’ll stick with the cobra.

Johnny WorkerJohnny Worker Red Labial (check out the salamanders in the jar to the right!)

The next stop was the cross-over point to get to Myanmar.  There is a huge market on the Myanmar side of the border where, judging by the packages that the steady stream of Thais were bringing back through customs, you can get dyed cloth at a great price.  I just needed to get over the border and back to get my visa stamped and, after some confusion and a $15 USD entry fee I was able to do just that.  Strangely, when they thought that I was going to continue on into the market, the Myanmar border guards told me that I had to leave my passport at the border and I could pick it up at the Thai border gate on my way back.  Knowing a little bit about the Myanmar government I was disturbed to hear that they wanted me to enter their country while they kept my passport but evidently this is standard procedure although none of my Thai guides or friends could really explain it to me.

We headed generally southward and made a stop at a Karen village.  The Karen are a hill tribe originating in Myanmar (Burma) that are divided into two groups, the Skaw and Pwo, distinguished largely by their traditional dress.  Examples of Pwo clothing can be seen in my earlier post on the Sunday Market, Skaw clothing is displayed in the photos below.  Karen villages are made up of long lines of tour vans parked alongside roads that are lined with shops selling jewelry and clothing.

Okay technically they’re made up of around 25 houses built on stilts where families composed of parents and their unmarried children live, with married daughters and their new families sometimes living at home as well.  It is likely that there are many villages which do not host hundreds of tourists each day, and as the Karen are known for being friendly and adopting advanced farming techniques so as to live as harmoniously with nature as possible, I plan to go out of my way to visit such a village.  The village that I visited on that day, however, seemed to subsist on the traditional marketing practice of asking if you want to buy something and, if you say no, moving the object closer to your face and asking again.  My record for proximity to an undesired Karen good is four inches and was set with a carved wooden frog in the Chiang Mai Sunday Market.  The village children were slightly less insistent but more persistent.  They have developed the technique of asking several times if you’ll buy something and, if you say no, walking away only to come back within thirty seconds and trying again.  I was tempted to buy a bracelet just to end the madness but realized that that would just be chumming the waters and marking me as a target.

Karen Village

Not pictured: many many very persistent children.

I was surprised to see, as we walked through the village, a man smoking from a giant bamboo bong.  Our guide assured us that he was only smoking tobacco, and the smell of the smoke supported that statement, but it was still remarkable to see. Especially in the only place in Thailand where Bob Marley wasn’t playing on at least one nearby radio.  I wonder if bongs were developed in one location and then spread around the world via traders and hippies, or if they were independently developed in several locations around the globe like the bow and arrow.

*brief pause for research*

Holy crap!  According to Wikipedia, “bong” is an adaptation of the Thai word “buang” which means a cylindrical tube, pipe or container cut from bamboo.  The Hmong people invented the bong hundreds of years ago.  Listen up hippies: “thank you” in Thai is “kap koon krap” (or “kap koon ka” if a woman is saying it). Evidently Iraq and India can make a claim to parallel development of the hookah, though, as it was a man from Baghdad who was working for an Indian nobleman who invented the hookah. But I digress.

Karen Village SmokerProto-stoner.

On the way back to the bus we did meet one very nice old woman who was clearly interested in selling jewelry to us but was not overly pushy and was respectful of personal space.  Unfortunately neither she nor I spoke more than a few words of Thai, and I don’t speak any Burmese. I would have liked to have learned more about her and heard about how much things have changed in the area over the past few decades. I’ve heard that not all that long ago Chiang Mai was a quiet rural city where oxen were driven along the main street.  I can only imagine that the changes that she’s seen have been even more profound that those seen in the city.

Karen Village Crone

A very sweet lady

We had the option to visit a Pwo village but the group universally rejected that idea after our brief foray through the first village. We fought our way through evening commute traffic in Chiang Rai and headed south toward Chiang Mai.

Mesai Commuters

Seat belt laws are unknown

We did make one other stop at a hot spring, but it was less exotic than it sounds. It was indeed a natural hot spring, but it came jetting up through a pipe that rose through the center of a 20 foot wide pool in the middle of a parking lot.  I won’t include pictures.

I was planning to make a trip into the countryside next week and this trip revitalized my interest in that.  The countryside in Thailand is absolutely beautiful and the people are friendly, if persistent.  If you visit the country take at least a couple of days to get out of the city and book a room in a guest house in one of the smaller villages.  Each one that I’ve seen has been different than the others, ranging from open farmland to mountain jungles, and all have been beautiful.

If nothing else you can find some unique souvenirs to send home.

Me With Snake WhiskeyA unique souvenir.

On a related note: Mom, if you receive any packages addressed to me and sent by me in the next couple of weeks, you should probably just leave them boxed up.


Juri Lounsberry December 28, 2009 at 10:30

Remind me to not consume copious amounts of dead animal infused whiskey and dance like a drunken 5 year old and fall into the Entrance to Hell!

Nello December 30, 2009 at 06:16

Niiice. Any people badgering your for money when/before you take their picture? I have a friend who just did a couple months in South America ( and granted, it was mostly about taking pictures of alpaca, but I expected something about this from that first picture of the girls in traditional dress.

Neat stuff.

Miho January 2, 2010 at 09:27

The cobra whiskey would have had me running from that place like a bat out of Buddhist hell!

It sounds like you are having an amazing time! I love all the pictures and stories – keep it going!!

Tom January 13, 2010 at 04:41

Yikes, and wow! :-)

Anita January 22, 2010 at 10:50

Wow! how long are you expecting to stay overthere. Great pics by the way, beautiful place, minus the creatures in your drinks…Be safe and have a fab time!

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