Published: March 12th 2011March 7th 2011
We descended out of the Chiang Dao Mountains to Mae Sai
on the Burmese border. We checked out the markets and picked up a bottle opener for the remaining cider. We then jumped back in the songthaew
(small pickup truck/ute with seats in the tray) and continued our journey, stopping on the way for lunch at a roadside restaurant at midday. I had a yum pla duk sam rot
(spicy catfish salad) and Ren had pad thai goong sod
(rice noodles stir fried with prawns, shrimp, egg, bean sprouts, tofu, chillies, fish sauce and peanuts). The food was good, but in comparison to street stalls and local cafes, roadhouse food isn’t the best. After lunch we headed to a lookout over the Golden Triangle
(where the Mekong River divides Thailand from Burma and Laos) and drove a short distance further to the Opium Museum. This was a fascinating place, but the afternoon sun was burning down, our only option was to retreat to a bar to sip icy cold coconut shakes. With the afternoon heat intensifying exponentially, we left at 3.30pm and headed straight for the homestay. We had been in the back of the songthaew
without air conditioning for
the best part of the day, so we were looking forward to kicking back and relaxing into the night. We eventually arrived at 4.15pm. The homestay was a suburban house (Baan San Sai), in a village in the province of Chiang Rai, and the sleeping area was a large dormitory type room that slept eight. Our hosts were preparing a dinner that smelt fantastic, and we were to be entertained by a traditional performance at some stage during the evening. It sounded fun, so we freshened up and prepared for the night.
We participated in a welcoming ceremony at 6.30pm, where a male elder welcomed us by sharing a string around the group and then tying a string around each of our wrists. We were then served a fantastic meal of chicken green curry, garlic cabbage, chilli pork, pork crackling and cucumber with rice. A group of local schoolkids entertained us with traditional music during the meal, which was a cute touch (but all over the shop in terms of tune and timing). They shared their instruments with us at the end of their performance, and we were also treated to a four year old Thai dancer, which was
difficult to watch (but entertaining all the same). The locals were engrossed with her performance, so we had to agree with their sentiment and applaud.
At the end of the meal, a traditional Thai lantern was released into the sky (powered by fire), which was a moving experience. It had been a long day, and the time had come to retire. We were trekking the next few days, and we were all anticipating the experience. SHE SAID...
We boarded a songthaew
and travelled for about two hours to visit the point of the Golden Triangle
where the Thai, Burmese and Laotian borders meet, with China also in the not so far distance. The curvy mountainous roads were initially scenic with bamboo and teak tree forming cool archways over the roads, but then we got to the first unsealed road of this trip. We had an hour or so of red dusty clouds raised by our songthaews
as well as by the construction crews building the new road adjacent to this dirt road. It was a long and hot journey and we were happy to stop at the border town of Mae Sai
. Mae Sai is a
typical border town full of cheap and cheerful Chinese goods, but it also had some picturesque areas. This was our last chance to go to a bank etc for the next three days, so our short stop involved an ATM visit, then doing the usual walk to the 7-11 afterwards to break the 1000 baht notes down to the more usable 500 and 100 baht notes, and finally we had the mission of buying a bottle opener for what has become Andrew’s drink of choice here - Chang beer.
We drove on to the Golden Triangle for lunch at Sriwan Restaurant
right on the banks of the mighty Mekong River. We watched the loud longtail boats ferry tourists along the river while we cooled down with tall glasses of fruit shakes. It had been suggested that catfish was a good local dish to order - so Andrew ordered yum pla duk sam rot
(spicy catfish salad), but I’m not a big fan of it so I had the pad thai
(rice noodles stir fried with shrimp, egg, bean sprouts, tofu, chillies, fish sauce and peanuts) instead. Andrew’s salad was very tasty even though it was very oily; however
I think everyone who ordered the catfish regretted doing so when they saw the large buckets of catfish covered in flies just outside the toilets where they were being gutted. Not the most appetising sight!
The Golden Triangle is literally the point where the Mekong River separates the lands of Thailand, Burma and Laos. However the Golden Triangle is also best known for the illegal opium trade that once flourished here. After driving up to the viewpoint to see the said Triangle, we visited the House of Opium Museum
and it was a very educational experience in all things opium! It explained how the hill tribes grew poppies and had become addicted to opium. We got detailed explanations on how to grow poppies, harvest them for opium with thorough descriptions of exactly how and when to dry, cut and scrape the poppies to extract the black tar; then prepare the tar for sale. The black tar can be smoked as is or cooked into a variety of drugs including heroin. The ‘education’ didn’t stop there, it went on to explain how to smoke opium, complete with a life-sized wax man in a shack, assuming the opium-smoking position of lying
on a mat, properly holding the pipe, and resting his head on a pillow. We were then led into the world of opium paraphernalia with opium pipes carved out of just about anything, opium pillows (some of which were intricately carved out of stone), and opium weights carved into cute and fanciful figures. The Thai government eventually banned the growing of poppies and tried to re-educate the hill tribes by giving them alternative cash crops. However, the drop in their income from moving to coffee and other crops, plus the fact that many of the men in the tribes were by now addicted to opium, did not help the cause at all. The Golden Triangle was the world's largest illegal opium producing area and had the biggest heroin smuggling operation until Afghanistan took over this dubious title a few years ago.
I’m all for Museums being educational, but giving us a step by step manual on how to make heroin was going a little too far I thought! However, it was a very interesting introduction to the past experiences of the hill tribes. Then, as it is the world over, we had to exit the Museum through the gift
shop which sells all the opium paraphernalia your heart could ever desire! On my last trip to Bangkok I had bought a set of five little black iron elephants of different sizes which I was told were ‘weights’, I now realise that we’ve got five seemingly innocent opium weights sitting on our CD rack!
After the Museum visit, there was an optional speedboat ride down the Mekong River into Laos and back - which Kim, Lee, Tim and Paul took up; but we declined as we really wanted to spend more time looking around the shops and market at the Golden Triangle. While the Golden Triangle is an interesting place to visit if you are in the area, it’s not really somewhere I would go out of my way to visit. A classic tourist tick box sight. We had been carrying around some post cards with us for a few days and decided to post them here, but the only mail box we could find was a rickety old thing barely attached to a pole on the main street. We decided to have faith and posted the post cards anyway, but we have been left wondering if they
will ever reach their destinations in Australia and England.
We then made our way to our Baan San Sai homestay in a small village called Mae Jun
. Today was the first day we were really leaving the cities behind and venturing into more traditional/un-touristy areas. We had to brush up on Thai customs and the dos and don’ts - which are many, but not hard to observe. Basically, feet are seen as filthy and anything feet related should not be touched or put in the spotlight in anyway; heads are sacred and should not be touched either; public affection is a no-no; and losing your cool is seen as unnecessary and very rude…smiling on the other hand is very welcome and we have found smiling to be the most excellent and useful travel tool in Thailand. We were really careful to observe these local customs as much as possible, but judging from the attire of some of the other tourists we came across, I think I need to make a pertinent point about Asian travel - regardless of how hot or muggy it is, it isn’t very wise (or respectful) to wear clothing that is considered to be decidedly
floozy by the locals. Meanwhile the look I was sporting in my baggy cotton pants was a decidedly unfloozy look by any standard.
The host family cooked up a traditional northern Thai khantoke
dinner for us (khantoke
refers to the pedestal tray-like low tables the food is served on). But first we had a Welcome Ceremony performed by the por more
(village elder) where we got to sit in a circle on the floor and hold a white string between us while the elder chanted and made sticky rice and chicken balls as a ceremonial offering. He then tied white string on all our right wrists. This was a simple but touching ceremony and I liked being part of it, however tokenistic it was.
Later, while we enjoyed the multitude of very impressive dishes cooked for us - chicken green curry, stir fried cabbage with garlic, chilli pork mince, pork crackling with cucumber, and steamed rice - we were entertained by a traditional music recital presented by the school children of the village. I struggle with children’s performances in these settings, but even though the recital wasn’t brilliant the kids were cute, and their music teacher seemed
genuinely proud of them. The homestay was not quite what we had expected, but it was not an unpleasant experience and we did get a little insight into how a suburban Thai family lives.
We were housed in a Thai styled large wooden one room building on one side of the family compound, while the family had a similar building on the other side. Sleeping arrangements were dormitory style with mattresses on the floor, but the mattresses were more comfortable than they looked, and I was asleep before I had time to fully absorb the tranquillity of this little village at night. The facilities were better than I had prepared myself for and we had hot showers and western style toilets in an outhouse at the back of the compound. Against all advice I had planned on dehydrating myself to avoid a night time outdoors adventure, however I forgot to stop drinking at a reasonable hour and my resulting night time toilet trip was hilarious. I had been lying there cursing that last drink and willing my bladder to stop being a pest; but after a while I had to concede defeat. So after much fluffing around trying to quietly put clothes on in the dark (but waking Andrew up anyway), off we went with our trusty little torch to the outhouse...If I haven’t already said that Andrew is the bestest travel companion ever, I will say it now - ‘Andrew is the bestest travel companion ever’.
Apart from the toilet trip, it was just as well that we got a good night’s sleep because we would need all our strength for the next few days. The next morning after a fantastic local breakfast of you tiao
(Chinese fried doughnuts), khao niao sung khaya
(sweetened coconut sticky rice topped with egg custard), or toast with bananas, we left in our songthaews
(small pickup truck/ute with seats in the tray) to pick up our local guide for the trek.
See you on the mountains of the hill tribe trek!