Mae Sai-Golden Triangle-Chiang Saen
I had toyed with the idea of dropping across the border into Tachileik for the day, but somehow the appeal of passing through four more convoluted immigration arrivals and exits had decreased in appeal after doing just that between Thailand and Laos, and anyway, did I really want to get my first taste of Myanmar by visiting what is, by all accounts, a dusty border town with little to see? So I contented myself with attempting to peek across the border from Mae Sai, where the Thais have tactfully erected a series of monuments commemorating King Naresuan, who beat back several Burmese invasions and personally dispatched their crown prince in a sword duel. The most memorable of these monuments is a giant scorpion, angrily brandishing its huge claws in the general direction of any Maew hordes who might dare come this way. The peek didn’t amount to much (darn haze again), but hey, this was along the way anyway for my main destination of the day — the Hall of Opium. I grabbed a bottle of Yellow Surprise (A SPECIAL BRAND OF SIAMESE DRINKING WATER EXPLOITED AT MAE SAI) and hopped aboard a tuk-tuk to the Golden Triangle.
My hopes were not very high, since every museum I’ve been to in Thailand — and, for that matter, every museum I’ve been to in any South-East Asian country outside Singapore — has sucked. But once I hopped off the songthaew and strolled through the landscaped grounds of the Hall, it became clear that this was no ordinary municipal dust-collector, and I bit the 500 baht bullet for an entry ticket and ventured inside.
The first section of the Hall of Opium is also the strangest: a dimly lit and weirdly colored twisty tunnel, with (you realize with a start) outlines of wraithlike, tortured figures embedded in the walls amid admonitions to pay attention and learn what opium does to you. After a brief breather in a large open-air hall complete with a little field of poppy, opium latex oozing out a few sliced-open pods (was it for real?), you’re escorted in to watch a brief movie about the history of opium in the area and endless benevolence of their Majesties in putting a stop to it… and then the museum starts. And this was, perhaps, the most amazing part: hall after hall of pictures, objects and explanations, with life-size replicas, videos, headphones where appropriate. For most part, it was remarkably true to the facts even when those facts were inconvenient, with eg. thorough coverage of the Thai kingdom’s former opium excise tax system, the political motivations behind the original ban and the CIA’s dope-dealing through Air America. Only the very last sections on the unrequired evils of all drugs started to go a little overboard.
Somewhat dazed but quite thoroughly satisfied, I munched on some tasty poppy seed cookies at the gift shop and trekked the three km down to the Golden Triangle itself. This term has now been appropriated to describe the point when Myanmar, Laos and Thailand intersect, and since this isn’t really very much to look at, the Thais have gone out of their way to dress it up into an absolutely ridiculous tourist trap. The once modest temple has sprouted a giant sitting Buddha perched upon an even more giant ship-shaped buildings and there are elephant statues topped with palanquins where you can clamber and have your photo taken (in exchange for a donation, of course). Every inch of the riverside is taken up with hawkers pushing cruises on the Mekong and every inch of the roadside opposite is taken up with souvenir stalls pushing junk.
I shoveled down some rather tasty fried kuey teow phat siiu noodles and made my escape, first snagging the songthaew down to Chiang Saen. This is the place where I was originally supposed to stay, and which turned out to be low-key but fairly nice, with some intriguing, half-overgrown ruins along the road out — it was a shame that I had no time to explore. Another hour and a half by rattletrap local bus to Chiang Rai, and I was back in Wangcomeland.