The term 'Golden Triangle' conjures up images of elephant armies, gilded parasols, exotic spices, and the illicit opium trade. This is the Golden Triangle of the past... long gone. Today, this former undeveloped region that overlaps northwest Laos, northeast Thailand and the remote Shan province of Myanmar, is a land of luxury tourist resorts (Thailand), flashy Chinese-built casinos (Laos), and illicit methamphetamine smuggling (Myanmar). It is beautiful county, inhabited by several hill tribes as well as lowland Lao-Loum (ethnic Tai-Lao), northern Thai (ethnic Tai-Yuan) and many Chinese from the Yunnan province, just a few miles to the north. It is mountainous and chilly, and was our first stop in Thailand.
Behold, the triangle: Thailand in the foreground, Laos to the right, Myanmar to the left.
After three weeks in (de facto) former communist, war torn, and so-called "developing" nations, it was a real shock to cross the Mekong into VERY developed, commercial Thailand. The contrast was incredible. You can really see what a difference decades as America's capitalist bulwark against Southeast Asian communism makes. Billboards, automobile traffic, and a tourist infrastructure that sometimes feels like Las Vegas pulled us back into the 21st century after sleepy Laos. Don't get me wrong... Thailand is fantastic and beautiful... it is just very evident that it is part of the first world.
One other major difference is the food. Whereas Laos and Cambodia had a somewhat limited selection of dishes and lots of consistent but delicious simplicity, Thailand offers a huge variety of regional dishes with complex and varied ingredients. Above, the night market in Chang Rai, the largest city in Thailand's northernmost province.
An insanely good lemongrass salad with tiny crispy river shrimp and thinly sliced lemongrass. Below that is a timid pork dish and to the lower left, deep fried frog's legs.
Freshwater clams in chili sauce.
Sauteed morning glory with chilies.
And the most delicious coconut ice cream I have ever had. It is a Chang Rai specialty.
And some more... exotic treats. From upper left to lower right: fried grasshopper, fried cricket, fried grubs, (lower row) fried grasshopper, fried Bully, fried grubs and (cut off on the end) fried bamboo worms. We both tried the crickets and the bamboo worms, which were actually delicious, especially with a cold Chang beer. I also got bold and tried the big, roach-like fried bully. It was something like eating a shrimp that is 90% shell and 10% hot grease. Interesting, for sure, and something our guide had not even tried before.
Chang Rai was once the capital of an early Thai kingdom or muang. All of northern Thailand, and especially Chang Rai province, shares a common ethnic and cultural connection to much of Laos. Like Laos, the area was once inhabited by Indic civilizations. The Khmer (in the case of southern Laos and southern/ eastern Thailand) and Mon (in the case of central and northern Thailand as well as parts of Burma) ethnic groups pre-date the ethnic Tai people who make up the majority of Thailand and Laos today. In the first millenium AD, various Tai ethnic groups arrived from what is now southern China. The Tai-Lao settled in the Mekong River valley and eventually eastern Thailand. The Tai-Syam settled in the Mae Nom Chao River valley and lowlands of central Thailand, and the Tai-Yuan settled in what is now northern Thailand. The Tai-Yuan eventually formed the kingdom on Lanna, with ties to Luang Prabang to the east, alliances with the Siamese (Tai-Syam) in the south, and held under occupation by the Burmese for nearly 200 years during the 16th to 18th centuries. Lanna did not become a part of Thailand officially until before World War II.
Lanna has its own cuisine, dialect, and architecture that have influenced and been influenced by the surrounding cultures of Luang Prabang, Siam and Burma.
Partly to extend our 15-day overland visas, and partly out of curiosity, we crossed the border into Myanmar for an hour or so. Even in the border town of Tachileik, which we were not allowed to travel beyond (our passports were held by immigration at their office during our visit) you could sense the differences between Thailand and Myanmar. Coincidentally, because of the country's recent move towards a more open society, Myanmar is in the news quite a bit lately. They are going to be given the chairmanship of ASEAN, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi will be participating in the next election, and Secretary of State Clinton is planning to visit next month. There is a lot of hope this will lead to democratic reforms that will allow the oppressed people of Myanmar to help move their nation out of isolation. After visiting much of the rest of this region, Myanmar has moved to the top of the list of places to see as it opens up to the outside world after decades of brutal rule by military junta.
A glimpse of Myanmar (or Burma, if you prefer).
Back on the Thai side of the border.
The Golden Triangle was originally named for the area's former number one cash crop, opium. The British encouraged growth of this crop in India and southeast Asia as part of their forced trade relationship between their colonies and China during the 19th century. Thailand was never a colony, but some of the hill tribe farmers of the north had a lot to gain by growing the crop as part of the trade. During the 20th century, drug warlords ruled the Golden Triangle before the international War on Drugs helped led to its demise. Thai royal projects, under leadership of the king and his mother, transformed opium farmers into tea and flower planters. Above, a tea plantation grows where opium once did. Opium production in Thailand has been almost completely irradicated, and has moved on to other areas of the world, of course.
As in Laos, hill tribe people are a variety of ethnic groups, many of which predate the Tai, from China, Burma, and Tibet. This Akha woman was selling wares in the northern town of Mae Salong. The Akha hail from southern China and rely more heavily on tourism today than on traditional slash-and-burn nomadic agriculture. The Thai government, out of concern for the environment as well as more selfish forestry-for-profit motives, has encouraged the Akha to stop slash-and-burn in favor of settling down in villages. They are one of the poorer hill tribes in Thailand, but many hold on to their traditional dress, language and customs.
Also in Mae Salong, a sundries shop that was selling a huge bag of delicious bamboo worms.
One nerve-racking stop in the region was a temple famed for its resident monkey population. The monkeys are very used to humans and you can buy peanuts to feed them. That is all fine and good unless you have maimouphobia (irrational fear of monkeys) like I do.
Most people saw adorable and precocious little creatures looking for a peanut handout. I see shifty and vicious primates, all too close to humans (but without any moral imperative) ready to bite your hand off if you don't give them the peanuts fast enough. The adults were actually very pushy and loud and our guide had a large stick with him in case they got to aggressive.