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Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai

The village of Sob Ruak on the banks of the Mekong River, where the Ruak River discharges into the Mekong is referred to as the centre of ‘The Golden Triangle.

It was July, the wet season. As I disembarked from my flight at Chiang Rai’s Mae Fah Luang International Airport not a drop of rain was to be seen. The taxi driver, however, was correct when he said it would rain before the end of the 30 minute drive to the hotel in the provincial capital city of the same name as Chiang Rai, Thailand’s most Northern Province.

As the taxi pulled up in front of the hotel the heavens opened and the rain, intermittent at times, was to be my constant companion on my visit to this remote province.

Triangle MapA map of the Golden Triangle, encompassing the mountainous regions of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. What had drawn me to this region was the promotion of Golden Triangle of South East Asia as a tourist destination. Sop Ruak is referred to as the centre of The Golden Triangle, located approximately 70 km north of Chiang Rai and 8,287 km from Sydney. So the next morning I set out from Chiang Rai with a driver to reach the Golden Triangle.

The driver was quite affable and turned out to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the local tourist attractions. He suggested seeing the coloured temples of Chiang Rai as they were on the way to Sop Ruak.

The first was Wat Rong Khun, known as ‘The White Temple.’ This privately owned temple financed by a local philanthropic artist commenced construction in 1997. It is completely white and gives the impression it could easily pass as a cake decoration.

The next stop was Wat Rong Suea Ten, known as ‘The Blue Temple’. The main hall was completed in 2016 and construction is still taking place around it.

We then travelled to what is referred to as the ‘Black Temple.’ It was not a temple but the Baan Dam Museum, a collection of ‘black’ buildings designed by a team of artists under the guidance of the internationally known Thai artist, Thawan Duchanee. It was a collection of Thai traditional and not so traditional buildings decorated with skulls, bones and skins of animals.

Kayan refugeeA Kayan refugee weaver in a village near the Thai-Myanmar border. Her particular ethnic sub-group is known for wearing neck rings.We carried on towards Sop Ruak past pineapple plantations and rice fields. As we entered a mountainous region the driver suggested a visit to a hill tribe settlement near the Thai-Myanmar border where we visited Kayan refugees from Myanmar. These Kayan women are noted for their fine weaving as well as wearing brass rings around their neck and are often referred to as ‘long necks’. However, they told me their necks were not long, it was just the weight of the rings pushing their shoulders down which made their necks seem long.

We next visited the Akha hill tribe. Originally refugees from Tibet and Southern China many had settled near the border area of Myanmar and Thailand. Their clothes were distinctive and colourful and set them aside from other hill tribes. They were friendly and welcoming but I noted that the dangers of smoking had not yet had an impact on them, many having cigarettes (using locally cultivated tobacco) dangling from their mouth.

As the rain became heavier we headed to Sop Ruak on the Mekong River which marks the border between Thailand and Laos and Laos and Myanmar while the Ruak River marks the border between Myanmar and Thailand.

While Sop Ruak is marked on Thailand’s map as The Golden Triangle, in reality the term refers to an area of some one million square kilometres consisting of the mountainous regions of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar near the intersection of their borders. There are several vantage points in the village which offer splendid views of the meeting of these borders.

The Golden Triangle is noted for cultivation of the Opium Poppy and derives its name from the method of payment used for purchasing illicit drugs. Historically only gold could be used to purchase opium and heroin from this area giving rise to the naming of this region ‘The Golden Triangle.’

House of OpiumThe House of Opium Museum. The opium poppy is an important crop in this part of the world. Photo by Douglas PerkinsIt was the major opium producing area in the world until overtaken recently by Afghanistan. Of the three countries of the Golden Triangle Myanmar is the major producer of opium and is the second largest producer of illicit drugs in the world. Laos continues to increase its harvest while Thailand remains primarily a transshipment point.

Since the independence of Myanmar from Britain in 1948 armies of different ethnic groups in Myanmar have aggressively pursued the production and sale of opium and heroin in order to finance their struggle for independence from Myanmar. Their natural market was the opium and heroin addicts of China.

With a more stable government in Myanmar the need for funds to finance virtual private armies has reduced the need to rely on the sale of illicit drugs. But domestic and international demand for opium, heroin and more lately methamphetamines has remained enabling criminal elements or “drug barons” to take over the illicit drug trade.

The three governments have introduced a multi-faceted approach to stamping out the illicit trade using law enforcement, drug rehabilitation programs for domestic users and encouragement of farmers to replace opium crops with other crops. However the opium poppy is readily cultivated in the Golden Triangle and provides a better financial return than other crops so the demand for illicit drugs continues.

It is little wonder the Governments of the Golden Triangle face a daunting task in stamping out illicit drugs but they continue to try.

On arriving in Sop Ruak I visited the House of Opium museum devoted to the opium poppy. An exceptional amount of information is available on the history of the Golden Triangle as well as exhibitions of opium smoking paraphernalia and a flow chart illustrating the stages of production of morphine and white heroin.

Wat Rong KhunWat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai – referred to as the White temple (‘Wat’ in Thai means ‘Temple.’) Photo courtesy of JJ HarrisonThe Tourist Authority of Thailand is promoting Chiang Rai Province and the Golden Triangle as tourist destinations. Bus loads of day trippers arrive each day in Sop Ruak to view the intersection of the three countries, visit the House of Opium and take boat trips on the Mekong River.

I walked past Sop Ruak’s Big Buddha on the banks of the Mekong to the port where I boarded a ferry to eventually dock at a landing stage in Laos.

Laos has set up the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone in Bokeo province, neighbouring Thailand and Myanmar. Special investment incentives, easier regulations relating to foreign trade and foreign investment and special tax breaks are luring investors to this area which has resulted in the establishment of Casinos and a village for Chinese workers.

The latest Casino being built near the banks of the Mekong has been referred to by Thais as Laos Vegas. Boat trips from Thailand, where gambling is illegal, to the casino cross the river and tour groups from China also are frequent visitors.

After arriving in Laos I entered a market established to sell duty free goods where traders do a brisk sale in tobacco and electronic goods. One of the more interesting products on sale was bottles of Laos Whisky containing dead reptiles. According to the label on the bottles two glasses a day will cure rheumatism and lumbago.

After visiting several of the viewing points for the Golden Triangle I watched the tourist buses depart for Chiang Rai or further afield. After they left the village of Sop Ruak was exceedingly quiet and most of the restaurants and tourist shops were closed by 7.00pm.

Article extracted from Freemason magazine, March 2018, pages 36 to 38.


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