Talk about the Golden Triangle and people come up with all kinds of images: opium dens, machete and machine gun wielding drug kingpins, gigantic stacks of money hidden in the jungle. No one exactly agrees on where the boundaries of the Golden Triangle actually are….but it roughly encompasses the are where Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar/Burma come together. Each of the governments of these countries tries to distance itself from the destructive past, but tries to capitalize on its tourist appeal at the same time.
After crossing the border into Thailand, we were ushered into our minivan by a hysterical comedic duo of driver and copilot. We drove into a thunderstorm where they attempted to tape the lightning and constantly cracked jokes in Thai. Unfortunately, we arrived very late….barely awake enough to stumble to the nearby Night Bazaar area for food (although we did stop to watch a couple dance performances on the stage). The next morning we had time to do a little more exploring…mainly we were hunting for an ATM, but we did find the world’s most delicious taro and ginkgo flavored steamed bun. Just saying.
Late that morning, we hopped on a northbound bus, heading to the tiny village dropoff of Ban Mai…from which we walked to the even tinier village of Phasan Ngoi. There we found Sky, an expat from the US, living his dream in the Thai countryside. He gave us hand drawn maps (he’s an artist) to explore the neighborhood and that first evening we discovered it was his birthday! After a cloudburst that included hail, lightning, and wild winds, the weather finally calmed again so we could take him out. We celebrated with beers at his favorite local noodle joint and sat around talking about the Chiang Rai district.
The following day, we rented his second motorbike from him and set off to find a good cup of tea in the famous Mae Salong area. A Chinese minority immigrated to this region over a century ago and set up villages and tea plantations that are like a small slice of Yunnan here in the Thai mountains. Our bike struggled with the steep grades that opened more and more impressive views over the countryside. At the top, we found the tea villages, complete with many shops and tasting rooms. We stopped at a wide open, airy tearoom with a delightful owner who spoke decent English and practically drowned us in many different varieties of delicious oolong tea. The hour we spent sniffing and sipping each of the teas, while flipping through photo albums of the owner’s private fields and talk with her, was the perfect respite in the middle of an arduous but beautiful ride.
On our way back to the village, we stopped to rest and (quite by accident) discovered a lovely little path that led up along a monk’s trail. Down the street was a temple that filled the air with the sound of a thousand tiny chimes, giving a voice to the breeze. It was decorated with whimsy, charm, and a lot of mirrored glass mosaics. Like finding a private scene from Buddhist in Wonderland.
The next morning, we went to the side of the highway and flagged a passing bus to carry us to Mae Sai, the border town with Myanmar/Burma. I had originally included this venture and then scrapped it when I heard the border situation had become difficult. However, a couple weeks ago, I checked back and all seemed to be running smoothly again…so we thought…why not?
Crossing was surprisingly easy…stamp out of Thailand, walk across the bridge, hand over our passports and money to the Myanmar/Burma officials (they keep your passport), and that was it! We walked into Tachilek and half an hour back in time (it is 30 minutes behind Thai time). With only a day to explore, we set right to work! By pure serendipity, the second guesthouse we noticed was the one that had been recommended to us, so we checked in, grinned at the Aung San Suu Kyi portraits on the walls, and set our bags down in our room that looks exactly like the kind of room I imagined a foreign correspondent would live in back in 1950s Burma.
First, we tried our first Burmese meal from a local food shack that was abustle with morning market goers…and us. Then, we went up the hill to the large golden pagoda that is shaped and named after its larger and more famous brother, where we had a commanding view of the city. Coming back down, we wandered deep into the neighborhoods where I think the locals were way more interested in me…friendly, but oh-so-curious!
But of course, we started to get hungry again. We went on a hunt for street snacks and found many different versions of potatoes and peppers, served with mysterious and delicious sauces served in wee bags, which you are supposed to pop with the sharp sticks they give you for a utensil. This gave us the strength we needed to continue with our wanderings. We ended up in the slum along the river that faces the hillside resorts on the Thai side. People swam and fished in the border river…which was fascinating to Sangbyeong, who has always lived in a country with closed borders.
My favorite encounters of the day were the conversations I had…one with a woman who has been collecting and renting our her books for 40 years, with a daughter in London and a passion for mysteries and fantasy….the longyi-clad internet cafe owner who gave me free tea and regaled me with Tachilek’s local history. And late that evening, in the night market, I ate the most delicious bowl of noodles and veggies drowned in spicy peanut sauce! I had expected great things from Myanmar/Burma, but our 25 hours there were better than anything I had imagined.
Before I knew it, we were back in Thailand, on our way to Chiang Mai (but we did stop in Chiang Rai, and I did go back for another purple bun).