The city of Chiang Mai is the gateway to northern Thailand’s beautiful highlands. This scenic region, often known as the Golden Triangle, has jungle-clad mountains rising to 2,000m and reaches as far as the Mekong River on the country’s border with Myanmar and Laos.
Chiang Mai is a fascinating tourist destination in its own right, but we chose to escape its busy streets and noisy tuk-tuks to take the northern highway out of the city towards the hills. The colossal Mae Malai Market was our first stop en route and here we sampled some of its many oriental food delicacies – ranging from fresh fish, ants’ eggs, deep-fried crickets and beetles plus a mind-boggling array of strange vegetables, fruit, roots and nuts.
City of the three mists
Although it was Thailand’s dry season, the weather closed in as we drove into the mountains, the temperature dropped and the rain arrived in torrents. We were drenched to the skin during a short trek to see a ferociously bubbling hot geyser, and then abandoned the rest of the day’s planned activities in favour of a relaxing massage, a hot bath and early dinner at our hotel in the ancient town of Pai.
The horrendous weather continued all the following day, but we dodged the worst of the showers to discover that the town had suffered a long and turbulent history. During the Second World War, it was an important transportation hub for the Japanese during the construction of their infamous road from Chiang Mai through to Burma. Nowadays Pai has become a lively trekking centre and is popular with the international backpacking community.
Many ethnic minority hill tribe communities dwell in the surrounding villages, and amongst them are descendants of the Kuomintang Nationalist Chinese Army, who escaped Mao Zedong’s communist forces in 1949.
Our journey west from Pai began in thick fog, but as the road gained height the tropical sun burned away the mist to reveal magical views of mountaintops stretching to the horizon. We visited the remarkable Spirit Cave and floated through its vast interior on a bamboo raft. This imposing cavern is home to thousands of bats and has an impressive array of stalactites and stalagmites. During the afternoon, we hiked along a picturesque riverbank to the celebrated Carp Cave Pool. Unfortunately the word ‘carp’ on the direction signs was woefully misspelled! The pool itself was in a charming environment and we were mesmerised watching hundreds of these beautiful fish circling in the cool water munching on a bizarre diet of hard-boiled eggs and lettuce.
Mae Hong Son, known as ‘City of the Three Mists’, is an absolute gem. Tucked away in the lush green mountains that separate Thailand from Myanmar, it has a perfect natural setting and a unique cultural identity.
The best view of Mae Hong Son is from an elegant white Burmese-style Buddhist temple on a hilltop overlooking the city. However, the most important local temple is by the city centre lake, and the monks living here were keen to converse with foreigners as part of an educational project called ‘Monk Chat’!
Over recent years, this far-flung province of Thailand has become host to various ethnic tribal refugees from Myanmar’s internal conflicts. The next day we journeyed by boat up the nearby river to meet one of these tribal groups. They were the Padaung (or Kayan) people whose women wear copper coils around their necks as part of their unique cultural identity. Although generously supported by Thai government grants, these gentle people have become largely self-sufficient by selling beautifully woven textiles to visitors.
Victory over poppy fields
Doi Angkhang lies high in the mountains deep in the heart of the Golden Triangle, and is rarely visited by western tourists. Under the auspices of Thailand’s King, the Royal Agricultural Station Project was set up here in 1969. Primarily a research centre, it has successfully focused on developing marketable food products for cultivation by the local hill tribes who were previously dependent on growing illegal opium as their major source of income.
We stayed at the Angkhang Nature Resort, which overlooks the station’s gardens and spent a delightful day admiring rhododendrons, azaleas, roses, orchids, exotic fruits and vegetables, bonsai and sweet-smelling herbs. We also visited the Thai military base at a nearby village on the frontier with Myanmar. A flimsy wicker fence marks the official border, with an unlocked rickety gate at the actual crossing point between the two countries. We could have strolled into Myanmar unchallenged, as there was no one in sight on either side!
More picturesque gardens were on view the next day at Doi Tong, the country home of the now deceased but much revered Queen Mum – called the Princess Mother in Thailand. This iconic lady initiated a sustainable development project for the local tribes whose livelihood depended on opium.
She built her lovely house in the style of a Swiss chalet and surrounded it with a wonderful formal garden. She then employed the local people to cultivate and sell the flowers, thereby weaning them away from opium poppy dependence.
Nearby, the affluent town of Mae Sai marks the hectic trading frontier between Thailand and Myanmar. Its busy market is a shoppers’ paradise, selling gems, lacquer ware, antiques and every other conceivable form of merchandise, much of it contraband. You can buy absolutely anything here, even pairs of silicon buttocks designed to enhance the curvature of oriental backsides!
Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet at Chiang Saen. This pretty tree-lined town lies at the junction of the Mekong and Ruak Rivers, and is regarded as the very centre of the Golden Triangle. It has an attractive temple, Wat Chedi Luang, and a much-photographed golden Buddha by the river. However, the Hall of Opium Museum is Chiang Saen’s chief attraction. The creation of this superb museum was another of the Princess Mother’s initiatives and it has interactive displays showing opium’s usage for medicinal purposes and its chilling history as a dangerous narcotic.
The evils of addiction and mankind’s efforts to restrict its usage are graphically presented. Although opium has come to be inseparably entwined with the Golden Triangle, there is growing evidence that poppy cultivation has almost ceased in Thailand and been considerably reduced in Laos and Myanmar. Our fascinating journey through Thailand’s most beautiful landscape really did finish on a note of optimism.
By Nigel Wright
Nigel Wright, and his wife Sue, moved to Portugal eleven years ago and live in the countryside near Paderne with their three dogs. They lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s, and although now retired, still continue to travel and enjoy new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening, photography and petanque.