On Friday, we completed the final leg of the Mae Hong Son Loop, including the remainder of the 1,864 curves. After stopping for a quick breakfast in Pai (which, as it turns out, does have plenty of hippies and was not nearly as tranquil as Soppong), we were back on the main highway heading east to the Golden Triangle.
This time, in addition to the ups and downs and multiple switchbacks, we had to deal with a good old fashioned tropical downpour. Fortunately, we managed to get to our destination safely. We did, however, witness another small car having difficulty on a hill as its wheels spun in the water, as well as a courageous man on a scooter crashing as he attempted a curve.
The Golden Triangle is the name for the northeastern corner of Thailand that borders both Myanmar and Laos. The Mekong River creates a natural division among the countries and if you continue just a little way further up the river, you’ll get to China’s Yunnan province.
The Golden Triangle is not just a unique quirk of geography and a catchy name. It is also the source of extensive illegal trade in opium. Particularly during the 1960s and 1970s, the region was notorious for the lawlessness engendered by the demand for opium and heroin. The Thai government has since cracked down on the drug rings and worked on multiple initiatives to provide alternatives for farmers aside from cultivating poppy. Captained by the Princess Mother, the government has gone to great lengths to educate locals and foreigners alike about the negative effects of drugs and has even erected a large museum explaining in detail the history and consequences of the opium trade.
Not just any museum, the Hall of Opium turned out to be a complete interactive experience. We entered the museum through a creepy tunnel, with odd music tinkling in the background and sculptures of men and women in intense pain adorning the walls. We aren’t quite sure what this grand entrance was meant to convey, but attempted to capture the experience on video. Unfortunately, cameras were not allowed and Giorgio’s surreptitious video is not of the highest quality.
The Hall of Opium didn’t just have bizarre tunnels; there were life-size dioramas of opium dens, PSAs about the debilitating effects of doing drugs, and a Chinese-sponsored exhibit about the devastating effects and injustice of the opium wars. In all seriousness though, the museum provided a comprehensive history of the opium trade that was significantly more interesting and educational than we had expected. Of particular interest were the videos describing the role of the CIA in the region. The clips were particularly critical of the CIA’s support for multiple international groups who openly financed their operations with proceeds from drug trafficking.
The Golden Triangle itself, or the viewpoint that has been set up there, was full of tourists from all over the world. Everyone wanted to get their picture while standing on Thai soil with Myanmar and Laos in the background. Of course, we joined in with the hordes of tourists to take our own commemorative photo (see below). The surrounding riverbank was full of food stalls, clothing vendors, and plenty of gold Buddha and colorful elephant statues. We were in the middle of a small festival on the banks of the Mekong!
Our guidebook also described a small plot of land in the middle of the triangle that can be seen during dry season and is unclaimed by any of the three countries, much like the no-man’s land between the Namibia/Botswana and Laos/Cambodia borders. Unfortunately, it seems it had rained enough to cover the islet up.
From the Golden Triangle, we made the quick drive to the city of Chiang Rai, where we ended our short road trip. After we left our Yaris behind, we once again had to rely on local public transportation.
We feared that our bus ride to the border town of Chiang Khong would repeat our miserable Laotian/Cambodian bus journey. It turned out, however, that the buses here in Thailand are much more organized (or at least the one we took was). A taxi driver dropped us off at the central bus station and we were on the bus and on the road within five minutes. With our own seats no less!
Tomorrow, we are crossing the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge over the Mekong into Laos, which we will be exploring for the next two weeks. For now, we’re having one last Thai beer while overlooking the Mekong from our balcony. We are so close to Laos that we’ve been enjoying the music from a party across the border for the past few hours.