Mai Sai and the Golden Triangle

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January 3rd 2018
Published: January 23rd 2018
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Getting to Mai Sai from Chiang Mai was easy. The green coloured buses run fairly frequently from Chiang Rai's central bus station, and from Mai Sai's not-so-central bus station it's a quick (depending on traffic!) ride up to the Myanmar border. We decided to stay in this dusty frontier town for two nights at Kongkam House.The big problem was finding it! The location given on various map apps was incorrect. We had in fact walked past it but on some maps it is listed as Royal House and there is no sign other than the one in Thai script outside. That is how we managed to walk straight past! We then had to wait half an hour for someone to arrive to check us in as the cleaner wasn't able to do so. Then we found out that the room wasn't ready yet, despite arriving after check-in time. It's a shame because it soured our view of what must surely be the best accommodation option close to the border. There is no lift either, so be prepared to carry your luggage up to the third floor either bare footed or wearing the ultra-slippery flip-flops the hotel provides.

In all honesty there isn't a great deal to do in the town. The souvenir shops are interesting for a while, and there's always a photo opportunity at the "Northernmost of Thailand" where inserting the word "point" would make the grammar police much happier. Unmissable is the tiring climb up the steps to Wat Pha That Doi from where you can look northwards for a first glimpse of Myanmar. At the top there are a few pagodas and temples to explore, and a super-weird statue of a crab which seems to be the must-have selfie for all visitors. About halfway back towards the bus station we found an odd hotel. We actually thought it was a palace or a temple as it is surrounded by huge golden statues of Thai warriors. they didn't seem to mind us walking around with a camera, but they had no interest in trying to get us to stay there. There are very few eating options after 6pm other than the extensive streetside stalls, but tucked away almost under the border bridge is a great little place for dinner. It's nothing fancy but it's quirk is its location just metres from Myanmar across the fast-flowing river. the food was good and cheap too.

An easy(ish) excursion from Mai Sai is the so-called Golden Triangle. Pick-up trucks run from the imaginatively-named Street 8 all morning, although we were wondering if one was ever going to leave. We had been sat at the side for a good 20 minutes with no activity and no driver when suddenly there was a frenzy of movement and a handful of other passengers arrived. It was a very picturesque journey taking about an hour. Along the way we picked up some other passengers and one wanted dropping off in the middle of nowhere resulting in an intriguing diversion down a muddy track which was not built for any form of transportation.

You know when you have arrived at the Golden Triangle because suddenly there are stalls selling touristy tat and snacks everywhere. We jumped off and got a good view of the confluence of the rivers where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. China isn't too far upriver either. There are lots of statues honouring Buddha and Ganesh alongside the river and it is a very bustling place with tourists and pilgrims rubbing shoulders in very close proximity.

The Golden Triangle gets its name from the opium trade as this was the golden area for growing opium poppies and producing the narcotic for distribution. You can learn so much more in the rather tatty House of Opium. We had no idea that to produce opium the poppies, once their flowers had dropped off, had to be scored so that sap leaked out in the same way as on a rubber plantation. The sap is collected and processed to make the drug, and of course it can then be further processed to make such horrors as heroine. The museum gave a very thorough and balanced view about the opium trade. Perhaps the most interesting fact to come out of the museum was that heroine was actually discovered by the German pharmaceutical giants Bayer. Vielen dank for that! Of course, the medical variant, morphine, is something we are far more thankful for. There also seemed some kind of deep irony to meeting a group of Colombian tourists in there.

A few kilometres out of town is the similarly named Hall of Opium. This museum is slightly different in that it is very well funded, fiercely anti-drugs, and photography is strictly prohibited inside although we can't see what big secrets we would possibly be sharing with you. It has modern dioramas, videos, voice-overs in English, and you flow through the museum learning the history of the Opium Wars about which we knew very little. It seems incredible that the opium trade was legal and regulated for so long. What the museum didn't explain was why you had to lie on your side to smoke it effectively. Their mock-up opium dens were horrific, but we did learn a lot. There is also a display of the lives lost to drugs featuring not only famous westerners but also several prominent Asian celebrities. Combining the two museums gives quite a complete and balanced view of the industry.

Getting back to Mai Sai then proved to be something of an adventure. We had been led to believe that the trucks keep running back there until some time between 2 and 3pm. Imagine our shock when we flagged one down to be told that they had already finished for the day. The driver was simply on his way home. I asked a security guard if he would be able to call a taxi for us, but instead he spoke to a family on their way back to Mai Sai who agreed to take us back. We sat in the open back of their pick-up for a fascinating, albeit slightly bumpy and uncomfortable ride. We were eternally grateful but they wouldn't even take a small token of gratitude from us.

There may not be a tremendous amount to see or do around Mai Sai, but it's definitely worth a day or two of adventure seeking!

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26th January 2018

New TB photo
What a great photo. Life is grand and this one says it all.

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