Mae Sai, Chiang Saen, Tha Kee Lek, Don Sao: the first two in Thailand, the third in Myanmar and the fourth on a river island in Laos. Names that do not say much, if anything at all, less so if they are associated to the area of Sam Liam Tong Kam. Nevertheless, this location takes on a very different meaning and above all a more suggestive one if we indicate it with its given name: the Golden Triangle, an area that conjures up images of poppy fields and opium dens, of caravans of smugglers and of drug traffickers, hill tribes, and of forest trails through which anything would travel.
It also evokes images of that wonderful movie, ‘Night Moves’, where Gene Hackman in the role of an old American officer at the helm of a handful of soldiers that with the help of a local tribe gang of drug traffickers enter Laos to free his son from a POW camp.
The Golden Triangle is the meeting point of three countries: Thailand, Myanmar and Myanmar, all bathed in a big river artery, the Mekong, which flows from China to Vietnam. A river that became known not for being a resource for six Asian countries (the sixth being Cambodia), but for the clashes and battles that have seen it as an unaware setting during the Vietnam War.
Nowadays the Golden Triangle is merely a tourist destination exploiting the myth of the past, where trades are developed and souvenirs are sold. A place where the visitor has to travel a lot with the imagination to find, amongst the stalls of pestering Burmese vendors who pester you trying to sell you anything between Mae Sai and Tha Kee Lek’s, a glimpse of the world that somehow recalls the atmosphere and legend that have transformed the stretch of a river bordering three countries into the Golden Triangle.
On the border between Mae Sai and Tha Kee Lek, legends die out, and the sign that stands in a Burmese town’s square that in a realistic Socialist tone invites everyone to ‘join in to achieve a drug-free zone’ sounds more like hypocrisy, a useless warning in a place where the most offered drug seems to be Viagra.
I arrive in Mae Sai on an early afternoon after visiting the villa and gardens of the Queen Mother at Doi Tung. Moving from Doi Tung to Tha Kee Lek is like getting from Switzerland to hell in just 35 kilometres. Three quarters of an hour in Myanmar only to get back into Thailand with a Dantesque feeling that ‘and hence we came forth to see the stars again’. The King’s Mother passed out a few years ago, and her residence has been transformed into a museum of sorts, with its flower gardens so well manicured, and with a royal project a few meters away where crops of vegetables and fruits are grown to support the local tribes.
A walk in the midst of those artfully designed flower beds that include cyclamen, poinsettia, roses and the common orchids, as well as dozens of other species of unknown names, was almost an escape from reality through an itinerary of colours, of order, of waters that flow from hanging showers or from simple bamboo canes. All surrounded by hundreds of people, mostly Thais, who crowd every flowerbed, every floral sculpture and every greenhouse as if to bestow a further tribute to the already revered mistress of the house. Everything is perfect in this corner of the world protected by the Royal Family, especially the villa where, from time to time, the Queen Mother spent her days. A kind of wooden chalet surrounded by potted flowers, a house which beauty lies in its simplicity, in the picture of this ‘Grandmother of the Nation’ that can only inspire fondness when you stop to watch her image, serene and always with a gentle smile on her face. Anyone could see their own grandmother in her, so much that you can almost expect to see her appear, ready to offer you a sweet, perhaps made with those strawberries that are plentiful in this area.
After lunch, I reach Mae Sai and the Burmese border. Thais harbour prejudices against the Burmese: centuries of wars, of warded off invasions when the Burmese were a florid warrior power, and other more recent episodes, leave scars.
Today, Myanmar is the shadow of the country that once was. A nation crushed by the weight of a military dictatorship where free elections were held only recently, where people and monks’ protests were often suppressed by the use of force, and where the opposition leader has recovered only a few months ago her freedom after years of house arrest. However, one can see small signs that may lead to a better future.
Mae Sai is an anonymous border town where markets and stalls thrive, where trades more or less legit happen, and where tourism bring over the stench of Myanmar poverty. Entrance to Myanmar costs about 20 US Dollars, plus photocopies of your passport and a few paperwork formalities. The difference is plain to see through border guards’ behaviour: Thais are kind, smiling, and fast to give information. Their Burmese counterparts are just as kind but a bit colder and less smiling, diffident to the point of declining, albeit politely, even a harmless souvenir picture.
Then there is the bazaar, with its dirt, its miseries, its beggars always nagging in offering goods of all kinds: from the inevitable Viagra to decks of cards with the image of Saddam Hussein, from low quality stones of to pornographic movies. The immediate feeling is that Myanmar has nothing to do with its backdrop of wonderful temples, and that those nice kids you immortalise smiling and innocent, instead of representing hope they look like the image of a grey and anonymous future, and their smile will be turned off amongst the stalls of a local bazaar.
Chiang Saeng is the focal point of the Golden Triangle. From its shore you can make out the coast of Myanmar and Laos, and only eight hours by boat to the north lays China. The Mekong flows undisturbed with its brownish color further intensified by the sunset light. A one-hour tour with a local speed boat takes me to touch the three coasts, with a stopover at Laos’ Don Sao market.
Laos is less pretentious then Burma; entering the country only costs a few UD Dollars and no formalities at all. I do not even need a passport for this kind of clandestine entry, and the customs officer, if you can call him so, also poses for a souvenir photo. I walk casually among the stalls, glancing on simple local products amongst which Chinese-made items and spirit bottles with cobras, centipedes and other similar creatures inside, as well as silk of a decent quality.
Laos is a poor country that is finding its way, but its poverty seems to be quite a discreet one. It seems that people are aware that after the American bombs that have made this country known to the world only thanks to the services of war correspondents, there may be a tomorrow thanks mainly to tourism which brings people to visit Laos’ most valuable gems: Luang Prabang, and the 4000 islands where the Mekong River widens to form a sort of delta in the southern part of the country.
In the small village behind the market, a group of men are having fun playing a game of traditional takraw with a woven rattan ball, four women chat on the side of a stall, and only a bear locked in a cage reveals all its misery for a lost freedom. It looks like the image of the Laos of the past, but I cannot help but think that it reminds more of the image of the Myanmar that I saw today.