Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Thailand's Golden Triangle

Thai Airways flight 140 was scheduled to leave Bangkok at 1:45 p.m. but Thai decided it wanted to leave a bit early. Airlines in the United States should take a hint from Thai.  Our destination was Chiang Rai, the most northerly airport in Thailand and the gateway to the famous Golden Triangle.

The flight north over the Thai countryside was a bit of a disappointment because despite it being crystal clear out, there was so much water vapor in the air it was next to impossible to get any impression about the landscape below me. I had paid $15 extra to fly in Business Class on this Airbus 300 and the extra space was nice. Unfortunately Thai does not serve anything alcoholic on its domestic flights “We trying to cut costs, you know” so it was an extra $15 spent for nothing. At least the wider seats were nice.

We arrived in Chiang Rai about twenty minutes ahead of schedule and Budget had my rental car ready and waiting when I arrived at their counter.  As I passed through the arrivals area of the Chiang Rai airport I noticed a large display area. In the area was a banner sign that said “Toilet Exposition and Conference, Bangkok.  Beneath the announcement of the exposition was its motto, “Happy Toilet – Happy Life.”  This is one of those incidents that Sam Kinison once summed up by saying “You can’t think these things up. Someone has to actually do it first.”

River Lapwing – most easily found in Thailand only near Sop Ruak
By far the best bird of the afternoon was the highly localized River Lapwing that, out of character for the species was along the shore of a lake just before you enter Sop Ruak. I can’t really explain why these denizens of the river environment were this far inland on a lake. I guess its just one of those ornithological mysteries that are not worth spending the time on trying to figure out.

I birded my way north and then northeast to Sop Ruak, Thailand, a village strategically placed at the junction of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. The mighty Mekong River (here about ¾ mile wide) separates Thailand from Laos, and the Sop Ruak River that enters the Mekong near downtown Sop Ruak separates Thailand from Myanmar.  You could, and I did, throw a rock across the river and it would plunk down in Myanmar.

Sometimes in travel you find a place that clicks. A place filled with serenity. A place where you feel welcome and don’t ever want to leave. A place like the place Jimmy Buffett sang about in his song “I Have Found Me a Home.”  I first felt that feeling when I visited Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego. I felt it again when I visited Sop Ruak. It’s the kind of place where you walk around telling yourself, “I could live here” and you know that you could.

Sop Ruak. Laos is to the right. Myanmar is the peninsula straight ahead. Thailand to the left.. The river is a small section of the very large Mekong River. This makes up the “Golden Triangle.”
One of Sop Ruak’s claims to fame is its existence on the Golden Triangle.  The Golden Triangle is one of Asia's two main illicit opium producing areas.  It is an area of around 350,000 square kilometers that overlaps the mountains of four countries of Southeast Asia, Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Vietnam and Thailand.  Along with Afghanistan in the Golden Crescent together with Iran and Pakistan it has been one of the most extensive opium-producing areas of  of the world since the 1950s. The Golden Triangle also designates the confluence of the Sop Ruak River and the Mekong River because the term has been appropriated by the Thai tourist industry to describe the nearby junction of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar (Burma).

Opium and morphine base produced in northeastern Burma are transported by horse and donkey caravans to refineries along the Thailand-Burma border for conversion to heroin and heroin base. Most of the finished products are shipped across the border into various towns in North Thailand and down to Bangkok for further distribution to international markets. In the past major Thai Chinese and Burmese Chinese traffickers in Bangkok have controlled much of the foreign sales and movement of Southeast Asian heroin from Thailand, but a combination of law enforcement pressure, publicity and a regional drought has significantly reduced their role. As a consequence, many less-predominant traffickers in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand now control smaller quantities of the heroin going to international markets.

Heroin from Southeast Asia is most frequently brought to the United States by couriers typically Thai and U.S. nationals and Hong Kong Chinese, traveling on commercial airlines. California and Hawaii are the primary U.S. entry points for Golden Triangle heroin, but small percentages of the drug are trafficked into New York City and Washington D.C. While Southeast Asian groups have had success in trafficking heroin to the United States, they initially had difficulty arranging street level distribution. However, with the incarceration of Asian traffickers in American prisons during the 1970's, contacts between Asian and American prisoners developed. These contacts have allowed Southeast Asian traffickers access to individuals and organizations distributing heroin at the retail level.

Its other claim to fame, strictly for from a tourist standpoint, is the Hall of Opium.   The Hall draws visitors into the world of opium, taking them on a ‘journey’ that sheds light on the more than 5,000 years of use and abuse of opiates dating back to pre-historic times.  The exhibits at the Hall explain the continued use in pharmaceutical preparations and medicine for the treatment of ailments and international efforts to control illegal drug abuse. Case studies help visitors to understand the problems of addiction and choices available to fight the temptation of drugs.

Every step of the way through the 5,600 sq-meter exhibition area in the Hall of Opium, the information is presented through the dramatic use of state-of-the-art multimedia innovation and is vivid and poignant. The use of audio-visual presentations and interactive displays, coupled with dynamic spatial design, work together to enlighten and provoke thought. The Hall of Opium at the Golden Triangle Park also incorporates an information center for research and extension education on opium, opiates and other narcotics.

I checked into my hotel, the Imperial Golden Triangle Resort, an absolutely wonderful and at $20 US a night remarkably cheap gem in northern Thailand.  After a few nights here you literally wonder why you ever go home

After stowing my bags I walked north (upstream) along the main road checking for birds and trying to avoid snarling dogs.  I succeeded in both accounts.  Without doubt the best bird here was the Amur Falcon that flashed past me enroute to decapitating its dinner somewhere nearby.  I returned to the hotel at about dark and then walked into the little village of Sop Ruak.

A stunningly beautiful Amur Falcon over Sop Ruak

American and European tourists seem to enjoy being bused around like the Japanese. Once they arrive at a destination, they listen to the local story recited by a local resident; obligingly nod their heads in unison and say “very interesting” and then move on to the next location on their guided tour itinerary.  It seems that most of these tourists learn what they can about an area by standing in lines at souvenir shops where they can buy “authentic” whatever’s imported yesterday from Indonesia or the Philippines, and then return home with stories about what “bargains” obtained while shopping in country X. 

 A massive statute of Buddha along the Mekong River in Sop Ruak

American and European tourists have become so ingrained in having everything done for them and having that done instantly, that few seem to take any adventure in their travel  Our lives seem to focus around the California Factor We want our meals quickly. We complain if our computer takes more than five seconds to connect to the Internet.  We unnecessarily send back restaurant food if it’s not to our exacting specifications.  We complain if we have to park too far from the entrance to a shopping mall, and God/Allah forbid is someone cuts off our SUV while in freeway traffic.  No matter what it is we must have it now. If its not 105 percent correct we’ll send it back.  Everything, including our vacation experiences, must be exacting, ahead of schedule and precisely how we ordered it or we send it back.

Dinner one night in a restaurant that sat out over the Mekong River was, appropriately, Mekong River catfish.  It and a large bottle of Singha beer, cost an entire $3.00 US.

After nine days in Thailand I thought it was a novelty to hear American English spoken at dinner.  “We’re from near Sacramento,” the American tourist snarled as if I was supposed to know her family was from Sacramento.  “This is our first time in Thailand and it will be our last time,” she told me when I asked how they liked being in Thailand. When I asked why she did not like it, she rattled off a litany of reasons.

“Everything moves so slowly here. Its nerve wracking,” she started.  It was obvious she had never driven in Bangkok traffic.

“It’s so hot here,” was the next complaint.  The warmest it had been during my stay was 94 degrees F and that was in the lowlands near Bangkok. She apparently forgot about the continuous days of 105 degrees or greater that visit Sacramento from June to September each year.

Her final complaint was that they could not get any news here. “All the papers and all the news broadcasts are in Thai and we can’t keep track of the Dow while we’re here.”

Was it a surprise to anyone that newspapers were in Thai since we were in Thailand?? And the same for the reporters on the television? They’re Thai after all.  Perhaps copies of the English language Bangkok Post had eluded her.  Perhaps in this distressing foreign experience she had forgotten how to use her remote control button because the English language BBC World News, presented in the Queen’s own bloody English, had been on every television I watched since my arrival.

She and her family were traveling on a “See Asia” package that included being squired around Thailand in an air conditioned bus. They were “doing” the Golden Triangle for a couple days and then on to Chiang Mai. They would spend time visiting the Hill People near the Myanmar border, although each night they would be whisked in their air conditioned bus back to the Sheraton in downtown Chiang Mai each night.

She invited me to have dinner with her family.  Her husband, an investment banker and two teenaged daughters sat at a large table overlooking the Mekong River. They were looking across the expanse of the river to the other shore. 

“Have you considered taking a side trip to Laos while you are here,” I asked?

“I don’t even know where that is,” her husband, Chris, said. From where we were sitting we could see the lights of a small village flickering on directly across the river in Laos.  I pointed out that he was looking at Laos. He didn’t have a clue.

“What is there to do in Laos,” their oldest daughter asked.

I gave her a list of trekking options and exploration options they could use.  For one they could take a river boat downstream for several days and then fly back to Bangkok.

“That sounds like, so like, primitive,” the enlightened oldest daughter said when I described taking a long tail boat across the Mekong River to Laos that morning.  

She would have never made it on a four day boat trip down the Rio Napo in Ecuador, let alone a four minute trip across the Mekong River to another world. Maybe that's why she should go.


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