The Golden Triangle itself
We continue hitchhiking north towards the Golden Triangle. The region is defined by Mekong River and forms a triangle on the border among Thailand, Laos and Burma and is famous for producing opium for hundreds of years. Traditionally here live mountain tribes, animists with quite exotic customs whose main crop is poppy. People in Thailand don’t use opium and heroin anymore and the government tries to educate the tribes to start growing other cultures and to develop its tourist industry here in the meanwhile. In Laos and Burma things are different. There they continue producing drugs full force and Burma is the main producer of methamphetamine and they often traffic their production through Thailand. Nevertheless the region is considered safe.
A young couple take us to the fork for the next place we want to visit – Mae Salong. They are headed to Chiang Rai, the main city of the north, which we plan to visit in a couple of days. But we first want to see the villages of the mountain tribes. Tourist agencies here offer tourists payed trips where they take them to a village which is usually full of souvenir vendors, you pay for every photo and respectively the experience is not authentic at all – it is like you go to the zoo.
Locals at these villages wear costumes and it is very commercial. Our plan is to go deep into the mountains and see authentic villages that are not touched by the tourist industry. The region Mae Salong is interesting in itself because it is inhabited mainly by Chinese people who escaped the communist party in China in the 50-s as well as various tribes. The people who took us decided to divert from the main road and take us directly to Mae Salong while they treat us with chips and juices all the time.
The atmosphere in the village is quite interesting. We feel like we are in south China again. There are many red lanterns on the main road and signs on the doors for the coming Spring Festival (the Chinese New Year). All the programs on the TVs are in Chinese and we see the typical street vendors who sell Chinese goods. In the center there is a bazaar named after the Akha Tribe who come down from the hills to sell strange roots, beans, souvenirs and honey to the tourists.
The market in Mae Salong
A woman from the Akha Tribe at the market
Roots gathered from the jungle
They wear many heavy jewelries on their heads. They are all seated and embroidering while they sell their goods and their lips and teeth are black from chewing betel. There is a Chinese cemetery, home for the Chinese veterans and Chinese schools. While we taste the local teas with an old woman from Yunnan Province she proudly tells us how her parents, originally from Gomindana, managed to escape the communists and came to live here. It turns out most of the Chinese here came from Yunnan.
House ate Mae Sa Long
Akha women on the road
We continue hitchhiking and decide to divert more to the north and as resulted later we chose the wrong road and we found ourselves in some wild regions next to the border with Myanmar. We stop at the small village Thed Thai next to a sign that explains where Khun Sa – the king of the opium lived. He controlled the Thai-Myanmar border for years on end. In 1989 Khun Sa even offered the American government to buy his production of 1000 tons of heroin that he wanted to sell internationally. He was persecuted by the Thai military and he had to settle in Burma where he lived undisturbed till the end of his days. Khun Sa himself is half Chinese, half Burmese. The ironic thing is that the people from this village Thed Tai never really knew who he was and thought he was their pleasant neighbor.
The last car that stops is driven by a man who doesn’t know English at all. He called some friend of his and they invited us to camp near some school. The guy drives us through some villages and to our surprise we in front of a luxury building and the headmaster comes running happily towards us and shows us some shelter where we can pitch our tent. Around we see meadows, rivers with wooden bridges and wooden houses for the teachers as well as many kinds of flowers and fruit trees. Later we are told that this schools is done by the princess and in it study the children from the tribes living in the region. At the same time the school belongs to the border patrol and all teachers are policemen and the headmaster is lieutenant.
The headmaster treats us to coffee in the morning and then prints out a map of the region. They also let us use their internet and when we see where we are located we are shocked. At noon we prepare to take a walk to the close-by village Akha and we are wondering how exactly to do it when a guy from the school drives us there with his motorbike.
People here are very different from the other people in Thailand. Women wear indigo blue costumes, checkered skirts reaching the knees and long socks. Some of the old women smoke long pipes filled with I don’t know what, others circle around with panniers with what they picked up in the jungle. People here live in straw huts and execute an interesting form of agriculture – they set the forest on fire and then throw their seeds on the burned field. They plant mainly rice and don’t plough the dirt or do anything more about their crops. They rely on the rain for irrigation.
Authentic Akha village
One of the houses in the village
And another one
… and the last one
Nowadays the Thai government prohibits this kind of agriculture because of the damage it does to the jungle, but we see that people continue doing it anyway. Akha are the poorest of the five tribes in Thailand (Lisu, Lahu, Karen, Akha and Yao). Usually their members are additcted to drugs and conduct illegal activities. These tribes could also be found in China, Burma, Laos and Vietnam. Usually they have a strong ethnic consciousness and neve identity themselves with the country they live in – just the land they inhabit.
Woman from the tribe smoking pipe
The last last house 🙂
After we finish walking the people from the school call us for lunch and when we say we will continue traveling a policeman from the Yao tribe offers us to take us to the main road. We want to stay one more night in the mountain, but they guy wants to help us so much that he drives us directly to the highway leading to Chiang Rai, 50 km. away.
While we travel we see tea plantations next to the road – it is very beautiful. On the highway there are the usual shopping malls, 7 eleven and other kinds of similar stuff that we don’t like so much so we decide to hitchhike to the border of Mae Sai and enter a mountain that is close – no more than 20 km. away.
This time a woman dressed in the typical costume and wearing high heels stops. We ride at the back of her pick-up because it seems to us she is a little bit afraid of us. When we reach the fork we knock on her window to stop, but she panics that there are no people or cars around and drives us directly to the camp site. We protested a lot while she was driving but she didn’t stop.
The nice Thai woman
We enter some very touristic area with resorts, villages of Akha tribes reformed especially for the tourists, gardens with orchids and all other kinds of tourist bullshit. We try to find some normal camp site but it turns out there is none here. The woman who took us here feels inconvenient and she drives us to another place where there are restaurant and some shops in the forest. There is a nice glade with traditional tribal swing. The woman calls the guards and tells them to guard us.
There is no one here and the atmosphere is calm so we decide to stay. On the next day we understand this is a police station. Usually we always try to find places with running water and here we find event toilets and bathrooms. Before she left the woman gave us a whole water-melon, a big bag of chips and instant noodles. Then she leaves in the dark.
When we wake up we see the policemen going around doing their business and nobody seems bothered by our tent. At noon we leave to Chiang Rai – the most northern big tourist city. First a jeep full of tribal people takes us to the highway.
The next people who take us make us feel very authentic – we felt the energy of the Golden Triangle. I think the one hour shootings yesterday in the forest really helped the process. So the people in the luxury jeep we are in look criminally and drive us directly to Chiang Rai. The driver has gangsta style haircut with zig zags and stars, a beard and wears a lot of gold rings – his looks are not typical at all for the Thalandis.
He wears leather jackets because he feels cold from the air conditioner. They tell us they live at the border town Mae Sai. At the back there is a young woman with very short pants who sleeps on a big teddy bear. The most shocking thing for us is that she is branded on the arm with some strange symbols. We drive at 140-150 km/h (85-90 mph) on the highway and thank God we reach the town in 20 minutes because we felt a little bit on edge, though people were behaving very well and friendly. They leave us a kilometer away from the center.
Blossoming banana tree
The first we do is send the package which lightened up our rucksacks with 7 kilos., then we leave our baggage in a hotel and we start going around. Chiang Rai is not so touristic as Chiang Mai and one feels one is in Thailand. There are no bars and souvenir shops so it is nice for walking. After the walk in town we continue to one of the old monasteries in the region.
The clock tower in Chiang Rai
In the evening we head to the river and find a nice place to stay. It is in the center behind the tourist information kiosk and the monastery Wat Phra Singh, but it is as if you are out of the town.
There is a kindergarten close to us and we hope they don’t wake us early to move the tent. But as the Thai tradition is they didn’t pay any attention in the morning, and they left us stay till 10 o’clock despite the fact that the gardeners were sweeping the ground just a few meters away.
Our camp at the canal
In the evening before we took our rucksacks, we took a walk on the pedestrian street. There is a park filled with all kinds of flowers and orchids. Small drops of water are falling from the trees and one feels like in a fairy-tale.
On the streets there are thousands of street vendors selling various kinds of delicious food that smell divine.
Ice cream in a coconut shell
Just before we leave starts a carnival called “Diversity sexual”.
There are transvestites, homosexuals and heterosexuals dressed in extravagant costumes. It is fun to watch and on top of everything the carnival was organized by some school. Everyone knows that Thais have positive attitude towards all kinds of sexuality. We go back to our bivouac at 9 p.m.
A restaurant on the river bank
We find a place with laundry machines – you put 15 eurocents for one cycle. We wash for hours since it is the first time in moths we use this perk of the civilization. Then we enter in some kind of museum built especially for the birthday of the queen. They offer free bikes for rent and also computer to use with free Internet. We take a look at the royal carriages exposition, use the Internet, grab two bikes and start sightseeing.
An old house
In the evening we take a walk around the night bazaar. The place is for tourists and there are all kinds of street food and souvenirs being sold. We pass through a beautiful park with flowers and later it comes to our notion it is actually a fare of Asian flowers. We buy a milk shake with passion fruit and go back to our place satisfied from this nice day. We have left our rucksacks to the guards at the kindergarten. When we came back the guy gave it back to us with a broad smile on his face.
Typical Thai house
In the morning the headmaster of the kindergarten shows up and we feel uncomfortable thinking she might tell us to go away. We are here every morning and the parents see us how we cook on the stove and our pitched tent. To our surprise instead she invites us to move inside the kindergarten’s yard because it is safer and there are toilets and bathrooms. This makes our hearts melt. We leave our rucksacks there for the day and go to take again the bikes. Our plan for today is to explore the near-by villages in the mountain riding on dirt roads where it would be impossible to hitchhike. We’ve never even dreamed of finding free bikes and now new opportunities abound.
A tree inside the town
We go 15-20 km. east on some pathways in the forest. We ride for two hours in the forest and then come on an asphalt road. We pass by several villages – Akha, Karen and Yao. These ones don’t seem so picturesque to us like the ones we visited a few days ago next to the jungle with Burma.
A pavilion for rest on the road
Then the tire of Mr. Shushtari’s bike becomes flat and we hitchhike a jeep to drive us to the next village. One can hitchhike here even with bikes 🙂 We eat some noodles and go back to return the bikes at the museum. We drive like crazy for the last 15 km. and manage to come back before it closes. The tour was fantastic and energizing.
We go to the kindergarten to take our rucksacks and start considering to pitch our tent when one of the teachers offers us to take us to her villa outside of town. We haven’t had so many contacts with Thalandis up to now and we are delighted by the invite. She promised that she would drive us back on the next day. We get in the car with the teacher and her corpulent 8-year old son. We expect to arrive at the typical Thai house with lawn and corpulent people. The teacher herself looked very normal and we didn’t expect what will happen and where we will go.
First we pass by her mother’s house – she is solemn Thai woman living in a typical village house. Then we continue out of town on some narrow roads and then so many bends follow that we lost orientation. We reach a building with no fence located on a hill, surrounded by a glaze with trees. Hens are running around and there is a man who sets fire. He looks like a nice person and the teacher invites us to get to know her father. From now on everything that happened was so crazy that we couldn’t believe our eyes.
With the sorcerer
The father of the teacher is lean, nodulous short man with long greasy hair. He approaches us with jumping, shouting and laughing. He is dressed with a shirt and Thai fishermen pants. He is smiling all the time and behaves like a naughty child. We haven’t seen anyone here in Thailand that resembles him and we can’t believe he is the father of the super-normal teacher.
He is so delighted to meet us that he plays traditional Thai music loudly. He opens a beer and starts dancing by making some really strange movements with his wrists and fingers. Generally his whole behavior is flabbergasting. The teacher seems worried to how we will react to all this and keeps saying we can go back with her if we don’t like it here. But everything is very interesting to us and we convince her we want to stay.
All the members of the family
The house is a wooden buildings with bars instead of walls. On the first floor there are some eccentric furniture, huge 2 meter tall baskets, dried wild wasp hive and two bamboo beds in some kind of a bay where we are offered to sleep if we don’t want to pitch the tent. On the second floor, where he resides, there is a Buddhist temple with Buddha statues and a photo of an elderly monk.
Wold bee hives
There is another building which is a small temple with strange pictures hanging on the wall and a dozen of red juice boxes as offerings to the spirits. The official religion here is Buddhism but there are many animistic customs still deeply rooted in people’s mundane life.
The sorcerer’s house
The kitchen is also a shelter with bars and door. Inside it is the main table and the bamboo throne of the father. There is a fire set nearby. The teacher has told us her father is a tattooist and in the beginning we thought this is the reason he behaves so strangely and lives in such a weird place. The only words he knows in English are “Happy” and “Home, sweet home”. From time to time he comes to us and shouts loudly “Happyyyy” then starts jumping, pointing at the house, and shouts again “Home, sweet home”. In general he seems really nice but very strange and different from everyone else.
We take off the rucksacks and sit by the fire. The music keeps playing loudly, it gets dark and other people start coming. A young girl, three old men – one of them dressed by the Maoist fashion with a hat with a red star on it, looking like a communist from the 50-s, the other resembles the local alcoholic and the third is a very well dressed businessman.
The teacher’s father sits on his throne all the time with his legs crossed in a strange manner. Everyone starts drinking alcohol. The Maoist proudly claims it is vodka, but to us it looks like some locally produced alcohol. They smoke weed too. Everyone show great respect to their host and behave in a weird way. The girl is hugging him all the time and lights his cigarettes, one of the men pours him drinks and the other one gives him food. The sorcerer (as we call him) doesn’t appear to consider himself special and behaves as a child all the time – he laughs, taps everyone on the back and dances.
At one point the “alcoholic” and the “communist” kneel down and the sorcerer starts giving them blessings – he stretches his hands and they pretend they take something from them and pour it on themselves. At the same time the atmosphere is very informal, the rest keep eating and drinking, talking and nudging, hugging and joking.
Rice boiled in bamboo leaves
We feel more and more weird and can’t grasp why they behave like this and what is happening. I ask the teacher why people kneel in front of her father, but her English is not so good so we can’t understand. With the help of an application on her smartphone she writes that before he was a monk and taught people how to make good deeds. A monk that drinks so much alcohol… this we haven’t seen so far.
After a while the teacher shows a tattoo on her back that her father made. She said the other people present have tattoos by him too which surprised us. Then a boy with 15 medallions on his neck. He looks very fashionable and speaks more English so we can speak to him.
While we sit around the fire the father calls me and tells me to sit on a chair beside him. He says to show him his hand and takes out a knife and prepares to cut me. Everyone gather around us and I start freaking out a little bit. Then I pull my hand and tell him I don’t want to participate. Then his daughter offers her hand. He spits on it with alcohol and start cutting. The knife is blunt of course and he does no damage to her skin at all. Nevertheless people are convinced it is magic.
While the father performs this the expression on his face becomes crazy and I freak even more. After the “show” he takes out two gigantic medallions and put them on us regardless of our protests. The boy explains they are magical and if we wear them for even 5 minutes blessing would befall upon us. They claim the stones are diamonds, but to us they look like ordinary glass.
It turns out the father is a respected sorcerer and that is the reason everyone kneels in front of him. I decide to calm down and not be so affected by all this. Later people start dancing and the father gets so indulged that at one moment he throws his shirt on the “alcoholic”. He then folds it carefully and puts it in his pocket as if it is a holly gift. Around 10-11 p.m. people start leaving and the father invites us at the Buddhist temple to light some incense sticks and when the teacher and her son Bum Bim leave we go to sleep.
We decide to stay one more day at Chaing Rai because we couldn’t see the main landmark Wat Rong Khun (The White Temple) located 15 km. outside the city. Luckily it turns out the sorcerer’s house is just 3-4 km. away from the temple and when the teacher and her husband come in the morning they offer to give us a ride to there. The sorcerer is in a great mood again, puts the music on, drinks some alcohol with his son-in-law and we leave. They leave us at the temple and they head back to Chiang Rai because today is the Children’s Day and they want to take Bum Bim somewhere to have fun.
The White Temple
The White Temple is a modern art miracle. It has been designed by a famous Thai painter and it is really something amazing. The complex will be finished in year 2070 but the main temple is completed and it is something out of this world. We walk around the painter’s gallery. His paintings are mainly on various Buddhist topics but are genial. We walk for two hours around this marvelous place and then head back to Chiang Rai hitchhiking.
We are far north now and the weather is cool in the morning and in the evening so one has to take a bath at midday otherwise one freezes. We visit the bathrooms of the kindergarten for a noon shower. Then we encounter a cheap vegetarian restaurant and we spend the afternoon at an Internet café. Today is Saturday and in the evening hundreds of street vendors go out and offer wide variety of food. In Thailand there is something called “Saturday Pedestrian Street” when streets are closed and people go out for a walk.
Chinese trade ships in Mekong
The food smells divinely and we drool. In India and even Burma we were in spiritual to ascetic mood but here in Thailand we think only about food. We discuss all the time what to eat or cook and we are in the opposite consumer-gluttony mood. But here it is impossible to not feel like this. Everywhere there are different meals cooking, bubbling and smoking. It is good we had to hurry for the appointment with the teacher otherwise we would have bankrupted.
Edible algae from Mekong River
In the evening we go back to the sorcerer. He got drunk before we came and was sleeping. There are several new people but without him everything is quiet and calm. Jacky – the fashionable boy with the medallions says he lives in a tent at the backyard. He invites us to tea. Before we go to sleep the teacher writes on her phone that we shouldn’t have sex here because the place is sacred. The madness never ends here obviously. So one can drink alcohol and smoke weed, but sex is prohibited. Well anyway it has never occurred to us to have sex in an open room where there are people everywhere around. We calm down the teacher and tell her we won’t.
In the morning two women in their fifties come dressed in pajamas. One of them brings with her candles and incense stick and the sorcerer writes something with a needle on the candles, then makes some circles above his head and voila – the magic is done. The women too behave as children laughing all the time and tweaking each other. We draw the conclusion that the Thais who we first though look and behave a little bit like Americans are quite odd in reality.
The sorcerer goes to take a bath and one of the women accompanies him – we suppose to assist him. He is bathing with cold water and shouts loudly. Later the teacher and her husband go to buy some food and then cook it. Then they clean the whole house. All of this time the sorcerer dances and has a lot of fun. He shows the wounds on his ankles which he got from staying long time in a meditation posture. We have seen this with some yogis in India before.
After breakfast we take our luggage and get in the car. We then stop for a short time in front of the sorcerer parent’s house – two 90-year-old joyous little old people. The granny is very happy to see and pinches the sorcerer in the belly and he tickles her and tries to tweak her on the breast. Then they leave us in the center of the city and give us an embroidered bag made by members of the Karen Tribe. Our first stay in a Thai family leaves a great impression on us.
We go out of the city on foot and start hitchhiking through small villages towards the Golden Triangle to Chiang Sean where one can see Burma and Laos on the other bank of Mekong River. Then we will continue south where we want to visit some less inhabited places and see authentic Thai villages and regions.
A shop where “houses for the spirit” are sold
If one hitchhikes on the highway one can cross whole Thailand direction north-south for three days. In Asia it is often hard to hitchhike on small secluded roads because there are no cars passing by, or the road is in very bad condition or there is some military thing going on in the vicinity or there are traffickers… But in Thailand the situation is different, everything goes fast and smoothly and one can divert as much as one wants. There are new jeeps everywhere and the asphalt roads are always in perfect condition.
This region though look poorer than the ones we have visited so far. Jeeps are older and we wait for 20-30 minutes for someone to stop. We change cars four times in order to cross the 120 km. to Chaing Sean.
This is a small town located on the bank of Mekong River with a very nice atmosphere. There are stupa ruins everywhere. On the banks there are many fish restaurants with their mats on the sidewalk and with low tables. We buy some Thai spices for curry and coconut milk. We learned how to cook Thai food and now we do it with desire – mushrooms with coconut milk with chili paste and salad with tomatoes and guava 🙂
We head to the end of the town and on our way a Thai family stops by and tell us they go to the Golden Triangle which is 10 km. north. They leave us to a giant golden Buddha statue and we start looking for a place to pitch the tent. 2 km. further we find a nice abandoned hut inside the mountain.
Climbing plants crawl through bamboo stems. Huge tarantula stalks us from the ceiling. There are also several plates with rotten bananas offered as gifts to the sprits. We enter inside hoping that the bamboo rods are strong enough to hold the floor. The hut is a pile dwelling and is two meters above the ground. It would be painful if we fall on the interlaced reeds. We go to bed happy that we are on the banks of Mekong again – this is our favorite river so far. It often happened before on our other journeys that whatever we do we end being on it. Be it China, Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam we always arrive at its banks. We have started missing it and now we are happy we saw it again. Mekong is the tenth longest river in the world and the third widest in Asia after Yang Tze and Ganga.
We go back on foot to the center. Then visit an old temple – 700 years old actually from which there is a great view towards the triangle. Burma seems so close as if one can reach it in minutes on the river. Now is the dry season and Mekong is small.
Ancient Buddhist temple
Then we continue to the opium museum which we wanted to visit very much. The entrance is 50 bahts (1,25 euro) and with a budget of 5 euro per day for both of us we could allow ourselves to buy just one ticket. I enter and start writing down what I see in order to tell it later to Mr. Shushtari but he shows up. The ticket seller has let him enter for free.
Statue of a man smoking opium
Stone pillows for opium
It is very interesting; there are all kinds of instruments displayed used for gathering the resin from the poppies; agricultural calendar, description of customs and legends of the tribes who produce opium; old pipes, scales, including ones that have the form of a chicken. We learn that scales are considered something sacred because they have the power to protect its owner from addiction and are kept in a separate bags on pedestals.
There are other many interesting artefacts and facts. On the second floor the exhibition is related to the use of tobacco, Chinese hookahs. There are also rings from the Padung Tribe which women put around their necks in order to elongate them and legends related to the Mekong giant sheatfish (Pangasius Gigas) – the biggest freshwater fish in the world weighing 200-300 kg.
Chinese hookahs for smoking tobacco
Pipes for smoking opium
We have so much fun in this museum that we start hitchhiking to Chiang Sean in the late afternoon. We buy some food, go out of town and decide to pitch the tent at the first appropriate place. After the last house of the village we see a wide glade next to Mekong and we settle there. We set our bivouac and a few minutes later we hear loud music from a close-by karaoke bar. People are singing terribly till late but at the end we manage to fall asleep.