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The Golden Triangle, and no drugs

The Golden Triangle, and no drugs

Sunita Dripalani visits Thailand, Laos and Burma and gets a taste of
different cultures

The Statesman (New Delhi)
August 11, 2000

Have you ever visited the Golden Triangle? It is the home of the Mekong
river, pretty Wats (Buddhist shrines), lush tropical forests and winding
mountain roads. Three countries meet here: Thailand, Laos and Burma. I
traveled there recently with a friend and spent a beatific fortnight in
these parts.

We took the overnight train from Bangkok. The second class
air-conditioned sleeping berth that had been booked for us was clean and
comfortable with its cushioning. The polluted streets, traffic jams and
touts of Bangkok had not impressed us overly and we were glad to head
northwards to cleaner climes.

Chiang Mai (The Rose of the North) and the capital city of northern
Thailand was hospitable, cheap and friendly. It had character and charm
and we breathed a sigh of relief when we checked into a clean B & B
(US$25 only). The night bazaar overtook city life and was crowded with
tourists haggling furiously for fake designer ware of every possible
kind. We too got into the frenzied bargaining. In sign language. We
spoke no Thai and the shopkeepers negligible English: the calculator
therefore served as the key weapon and an indispensable interpreter.
Raised eyebrows, shaking heads, astonished looks and furious
gesticulation all came in handy while clinching the deal.

The following morning we headed towards Chiang Rai and the Golden
Triangle. After a three-hour drive by coach, we arrived at the Mae Sae
border from where one could clearly see the boundaries of Laos and
Burma. The ride in itself was beautiful: we passed through dense, wooded
forest, spectacular mountain scenery, pretty waterfalls and hill tribe

We took a boat ride up the Mekong river swollen with silt and rainwater
and stinking with human excreta. On both sides, bare bodied village
children ran along the banks waving with delight at the tourists.
Poverty was stark and widespread. The houses on the banks were built on
wooden stilts to protect them from flooding and were a patchwork of
metal. The village elders waited impatiently for the boat to dock so
that they could flog their local handicrafts and earn the much needed

Chiang Rai town itself has many interesting Wats. Their ancient ruins
indicate that they were there long before Chiang Mai and Bangkok.

On the way back, we stopped at a hill tribe village of the Akhas. They
have their own distinctive culture, religion, language and dress. The
women wore colourful hand-woven costumes. Their trousseau consisted of
heavy silver jewellery which adorned their heads and which they wore all
the time. Personal wealth and status was reflected by the beauty and
elaborateness of their costume and jewellery. This tribe along with some
of the others (Meo, Yao and Lisu) migrated over a century ago to
Thailand from south China.  Their main profession is farming. What is
commendable is that the Thai government has given them land and helped
them preserve their way of life which has hardly changed over the last
thousand years. Some of the other tourists felt embarrassed at this
invasion of their privacy and the commercialisation of their lives. This
is a double edged sword. It would be simplistic to say that tourism and
the influx of the dollar should not be allowed to corrupt these people.
On the other hand it helps them with their day to day needs and brings
their cause into the public eye. There is no right and wrong here.

The next morning we flew to Mae Hong Son with its misty valleys filled
with acres of sunflowers in full bloom. A 16-seater Dornier aircraft
took us on a bumpy flight from Chiang Mai and we landed half an hour
later on a pocket handkerchief sized airstrip. The air was pure and the
scenery indescribably beautiful.

Our first stop was Cave Lod-a large limestone cave with stalactites and
stalagmites through which a little river ran. We clutched onto the shaky
raft as the boatman navigated through its chambers. A local guide held
up a lantern which threw light on the eerie shapes and created larger
than life shadows around us. We got down at each chamber to admire the
limestone formations and climbed rickety wooden stairs to get a bird's
eye view from the top. As we went deeper into the cave, the oxygen level
kept on dropping and after a while it became impossible to go further
in. It was a relief to come back into the sunshine and take in deep
breaths of fresh air.

After an elephant ride through a section of the unspoilt jungle, we
visited the Padong hill tribe village, the home of the famous giraffe
women. The women of this tribe came to Thailand from Burma. At an early
age, they have brass rings put around their necks as a sign of their

These weigh 5 kg. To counterbalance this weight and prevent them from
tipping forward while walking and doing their daily chores, similar
rings are worn around their ankles. The longer their necks,. The
prettier they are considered to be.

Such is the concept of beauty in this tiny little village tucked away in
the mountainous terrain of northern Thailand. Life here seemed so
peaceful and uncomplicated. We had travelled extensively and got rare
glimpses of a different culture. We certainly did not look forward to
returning to the hustle and bustle of Bangkok.