One of the most popular things to do in Chiang Mai, apart from visiting elephant sanctuaries and cooking classes, is the tour to The Golden Triangle. Just the name sounds intriguing, right? Is it like the Bermuda Triangle where unexplainable disappearances occur? Are there gold mines there? Is this some kind of religiously significant site – a giant monumental triangle plated with gold?
If you’re a little more history savvy than that, you’ll know that this part of the world was quite infamous for its participation in the opium trade and is actually that point at which the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet (hence the triangle reference).
Most of the day trips offer a list of exciting stop-offs such as hot springs, the stunning white temple and a Karen Long Neck Village. But if your inner realist is starting to question how you can fit all these activities into a 24-hour period and whether it is ethically acceptable to visit a refugee village that has become a tourist attraction, you should probably listen. And if you’re still not convinced, then read this article and you’ll save yourself a wasted day and lots of awkward moments.
The qualms I have with the Golden Triangle tour is not with the tour guides or the companies. Our guide was lovely, well-organized, spoke good English and did everything he was supposed to. It’s just that the itinerary is way too full and there are a bunch of ethical grey areas concerning the Karen Long Neck Village.
It’s a three-hour journey to the Golden Triangle that’s broken up with a ten-minute stop at the hot springs and a forty-minute stop at the white temple.
The Hot Springs
10 minutes gives you enough time to either a) go to the toilet or b) quickly buy a coffee and stick your feet in the water for a few minutes. If you do decide to walk around the market, you will have time for neither a nor b.
The White Temple
The white temple is not worth a visit. I’m just going to go right out and say it. Yeah, it’s quite beautiful and new and all of that. But the visit there is just not that good. There are heaps of tourists who are all shuffled up the ramp, into the temple and then through it in less than ten minutes. That’s about seven minutes waiting to get in and three minutes inside. You do get to glimpse the glory of this structure and it really is nice. But before you know it, it’s over and you’re left with about thirty minutes to walk around the rest of the territory.
This part is really nice. But thirty minutes is really enough for a brisk walk around the place before you’re loaded back onto the bus. What’s the point? If you’re going to visit the White Temple, do it without a strict schedule so you can take in the beauty and forget about your watch.
This area is interesting purely for the fact that it is located on such a historically significant part of the Mekong. Whether or not the town is worth stopping in is not for us to judge as we did the boat cruise over to Laos (for an extra 300 baht). You know when you can just feel like something is going to be a dodgy experience. Like 300 baht for a sixty-minute boat ride to the Golden Triangle and Laos. What does that actually mean? What am I going to see? How is 60 minutes enough time to absorb the significance of this place and visit a Laotian market?
The answer is very simple. You’ll spend about 20 minutes on the Mekong cruising around until you reach the ominous triangle (a bushy island in the middle of the river). You can’t go further than the very beginning of the island as it’s technically Myanmar’s territory.
You’ll then head over to Laos where you’ll spend thirty minutes walking around a dreary and depressing market that is designed exclusively for tourists. Locals call out desperately, trying to attract your attention. There is a sense of desolateness. You’ll be offered whiskey-marinated cobras and some famous Laotian cigarettes and t-shirts. The whole affair is quite tacky and unpleasant.
Myanmar Border Crossing
The attractions in this town were few and far between. I think the big draw-card was the fact you get to be near the Myanmar border and even take a selfie there. Although I’m not sure why that would be considered an attraction. But anyway…
Since the town does lie on the border, the locals seem to be a mix of Thai and Myanmar nationals who pass from country to country daily to access things like hospitals and markets (or so our guide told us). The Burmese often use a distinctive yellow face paint called Thanaka and we saw a lot of women and children with pale white cheeks and foreheads in this town.
Despite the fact that we didn’t have much time (30 minutes), we managed to find a productive way to spend it…
We stepped off the van and into a small border town. There was nothing outstanding about this town and there was absolutely no reason to stop there other than to take a picture of the Thai-Myanmar border crossing and try to find some kind of souvenir in the strict time frame of twenty minutes we’d been given for this stop.
The usual array of stone bangles, Buddhas and elephants covered the tables standing outside most of the shops. Scooters lined the side of the road and a small queue of border crossers waited patiently to be let through to Myanmar. A small boy, about five years old, stood still, gaping silently at something or other. The lead he held in his hand was attached to the collar of a small, scruffy poodle that was taking a particularly watery dump on the footpath. I immediately felt angry. I knew that no one was going to pick up the poo, that someone would inevitably step in it, and that that someone could very possibly be me.
We made our way up the street, unimpressed by the usual trinkets on sale. We were just about to turn around and head back down the street when a small kiosk selling some kind of drinks in glass bottles caught my eye. What was this? Kombucha? Homemade beer? Some kind of local delicacy?
We approached the stand and were greeted with a huge smile from the beautiful young lady behind the counter. We scanned the bottles and quickly realised we had come to the right place – a fruit wine stall. No sooner had this realisation been made then we were presented with two, small porcelain cups filled with our first sample of grape wine. I was dubious. Isn’t that just normal one. One swig later and I had understood my ignorance. The wine was clean, fresh and fruity. Like drinking juice with a hint of something naughty.
As soon as we finished the first sample, the next one came, then the next, then the next. Pomegranate, Blueberry, Lychee, Melon. I quickly asked how much a bottle cost so we could figure out whether we could afford to be falling in love with this wine. 100 Baht a bottle. Yes. The love story began.
We started discussing which flavour to take before quickly deciding we could, in fact, take two. Because 100 baht for a whopping 750ml bottle of scrumptious wine is not to be sneezed at. This is when the bartender/sales assistant piped up. Four bottles for 300 baht. Clever woman. She knew her clientele. We were sold. After purchasing our wine and taking a quick photo with the lovely lady, we made our way back to the tour bus.
The runny poodle poo was now smeared all over the footpath in a footprint pattern. And then I giggled silently. At myself. For how unfairly judgmental and egotistical I’d been. What had I expected? That a five-year-old boy would whip out a pooper scooper and start cleaning up after his dog? He was probably too caught up replaying his favourite cartoon in his head or wishing he could buy an ice-cream or wondering what these strange people with big cameras and funny faces were doing walking on the street.
Long Neck Karen Village
This place was miserable. This place was beautiful. This place was filled with women who acted happy but seemed sad. They smiled. They posed. They sat patiently while they were photographed, while strangers sat beside them and took selfies and they thanked everyone who purchased something from their stands. But there was suffering in their eyes.
We were told by our tour guide that these women had fled Myanmar during the war and had sought refuge in Thailand. The Thai government, being almighty and kind, had granted them permission to stay on Thai land, in this village and live a peaceful life.
The other side is, of course, that these women are not allowed to work, can barely speak Thai and receive most of their income through this bizarre human zoo where tourists pay to see them.
Other, more cynical, sources, claim that these women are now trapped in Thailand, having been registered as a Thai village tribe (without their consent) and thus stripped of any right to receive refugee status (see HERE for more info). There are even claims that the children in the village are being exploited for the sake of tourism.
Whether or not tourism is a good thing for this village is unclear. It seems that it does bring a profit to the ladies and children and they can support themselves this way. But we certainly didn’t feel comfortable walking through their village and photographing them. It felt like an invasion and left us questioning our choice to take the tour.