Hidden in Thailand’s topmost northern corner is the Golden Triangle, Saam Liam Thong Kham, a US bequeathed name describing the harvest of opium poppies between the mountains of four South Asian countries. Golden Triangle has been appropriated to portray the meeting place of Thailand, Laos and Burma . Amidst north Thailand’s beautiful mountains, rice terraces and temperate climes lay the relatively unknown Chiang Saen and Sop Ruak. Chiang Saen being one of Thailand’s oldest towns
A sleepy back-water town perfect to escape Thailand’s pulsating cities or tourist and hawker packed beaches. Founded 1000+ years ago, for a brief stint it became the capital of the ‘Lanna’ Kingdom, before King Mangrai moved it further South to Chiang Rai and then later Chiang Mai.
Before King Mengrai, Lanna’s revitaliser, 700 years ago King Singhanuwat from Yunnan settled here, establishing a simple outpost. Within a century this developed into a self-contained kingdom – Haevan Nakorn Yang Chiaburi Sri Chiang Saen. History between these two kings has fallen into a dusk of feudal wars and natural catastrophes. King Rama I of Siam in 1804 rescued it from marauding armies through razing it to the ground. It was abandoned for a further century until Prince Chao Inta and settler’s descendents rebuilt it.
On the outskirts are many unspoilt temples, in varying stages of decay and restoration, dating from 1295. Fortifications merge with Buddhist structures, reflecting its troubled past with Khmer, Singhalese, Sukothai and Laotian influences, waiting to be discovered within the lush vegetation.
Predating Lanna is Wat Phra Thaat Jom Gitti, which after 338 steps offers panoramic views of the stunning scenery. Nearby, Wat Phranon holds a magnificent limestone image of the Buddha’s head once gilded in gold leaf, buried for 1300 years.
Beyond crumbling city walls is Chiang Saen Lake. Legend has it the lake was once a village beside a swamp – inhabited by a colossal white eel that ate the villagers wildfowl. Tying a long fishing line to a goose’s back, the villagers successfully caught the eel and feasted, ignorant of its divinity. An angel visited the village, stopping to advise a widow who had not partaken of the banquet to stay inside. The widow heard great winds ravage the village but heeded the angel’s words. Come morning, the widow left her home to find the swamp and village had become a lake.
With the subduing of armies and divine eels Chiang Saen is a wonderful place to visit to find something different in Thailand.
What was once notorious for underground activities involving Shan armies, KMT supporters, Triads and other dark characters is Sop Ruak.
A stop-over to glimpse the lifestyles of peaceful riverside villages and float along the Mekong. Six miles from Chiang Saen, Sop Ruak is where the Ruak and Mekong rivers converge and forge a natural boundary. South of the Ruak is Thailand, to the north, Burma; to the east of the Mekong is Laos. Nearby hills give breath-taking views and an ancient lookout adjacent to Wat Phrathat Phu Khao (temple on the hill), believed to be built by a king of Wiang Hirannakhon Ngoen in the 8thcentury is a quiet place to observe the vista of where three countries meet.
There is little to do except visit the two museums, especially the informative Opium Museum next to Wat Phrathat Phu Khao and stroll the riverside lined with souvenir and handicraft stalls and visit the Big Buddha.
Sop Ruak, is also perfectly placed to further ones travels over the Mekong into Laos, or Burma and into Chinas Sipsongpanna (Xishuangbanna) in Yunnan.
Another intriguing town near by is Mae Sai which is the main border crossing into Burma from Thailand. The town is a hot bed of activity with traders and hawkers from crossing from one side to the other it is also a popular crossing point for tourist who need to re new their visas.
The Golden Triangle is one of Asia’s two opium producing areas. In it’s hey day covered over 367,000 squares miles. Those producing opium are usually hill-tribe communities living under the poverty line. Although King Bhumipol largely eliminated opium production through a successful crop substitution programme, it is once again on the rise and Burma’s Shan United Army has been accused of funding its oppositional movement through the sale of heroin.
Carried on donkey and horse caravan through Burma/Myanmar, heroin base is brought to the border to refineries then transported throughout Thailand and international markets. Illegalised in the 80’s it remains a way of life for many, who should be encouraged to find alternative methods of living.
A brief note:
Opium is a lure for travellers. However, purchasing it supports its illicit harvesting when tribes-people could be farming more sustainable crops and personal risks of imprisonment. All over the ‘Kingdom of Smiles’ signs request restraint in buying and using, especially in front of children.