Wed, Dec 07, 2005 - Page 13 News List

The Golden Triangle tourist trap

By Ben Hopkins  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

PHOTOS: BEN HOPKINS, TAIPEI TIMES

Over a year had slipped by since I first landed in Singapore and cycled through Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. Rust had eaten into my once-proud-looking mountain bike and the cobwebs were setting in, reminding me that the time had come once again to swap the concrete confines of Bangkok for the wide open road.

I chose Thailand's northernmost province of Chiang Rai as the next destination for a mountain bike tour. It offered a mountainous landscape and a turbulent political history, besides adjoining the porous borders of Burma to the north and Laos to the east. Besides which, the mist-shrouded mountains near Chiang Rai are still referred to by tour operators, with a deliberate air of mystery, as "The Golden Triangle."

I was keen, firstly, to get off the beaten track, and secondly to explore the region unencumbered and free of tour guides. Thus it was that a few kilometers out of Chiang Rai I found myself swinging off the road, down a mud track and into the woods.

For the first two nights the villages I stopped in were Akha and Lisu hill tribe settlements. The hill tribes of this region are semi-nomadic and each tribe has a dialect which differs from Thai, rendering my phrase-book useless. Their customs, mode of dress, spiritual beliefs and, I imagined, cuisine were unique to themselves.

Instead, instant noodles from the nearest 7-Eleven (only half a day's walk away) are generously served up, indicating the modern world is fast encroaching upon these charming and friendly people.

The following night, however, in a Lisu village, I'm offered a feast that includes birds and squirrels, all roasted on an open fire beneath a brilliantly luminous sky that now seems light years away from the modern world.

After three days tracing my way through the tribal paths of the Chiang Rai region, I emerge at the foot of a 13km climb to Mae Salong. The road up the mountain offers breathtaking views and as I near the top the sinking sun illuminates my guest house like a shining palace set against a darkening skyline.

My wake-up call comes courtesy of an American. As I poke my head through the shutters of my guest house, he immediately spots me and hollers, "What are ya doin' here man? Come down to breakfast!"

My new buddy introduces himself with a bone-crushing handshake as Rambo and before I have a chance to order coffee plummets into a speech about the dangers that lurk in the hills above Chiang Rai.

"The government wants you to believe it's safe up here, but it's not."

"What's not safe?" I ask.

"Man, ya don't know? They're still growing poppies and shooting anyone who goes near. Nothing's changed since '79. Everyone knows it but no one dares speak out. Everyone's in business with them drug lords. You'd better just stick to the road."

Until some years ago, Chiang Rai was reputedly Thailand's major producer of opium. But, as a result of a military crackdown and a crop-substitution program, the trade has been successfully pushed over the border. I decide to explore this so-called lawless region for myself.

The town of Mae Salong straddles a 1,800m-high hilltop and every open space offers a vista of green rolling hills rich with tea plantations. The town was founded by Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) soldiers led by general Tuan Shiwen from southern China who refused to surrender when the communists finally gained power in 1949.

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