Searching the Internet for Golden Triangle may bring up stories of opium production and of notorious drug lords. It however undercuts the fact that this region, marked by the mighty Mekong River separating three countries, is a popular choice with travelers. Especially northern Thailand. Abhijeet Deshpande shares an experience.
Given the relative ease to secure visas, ease of inland travel, and the strong airline connections from Bangkok, Thailand offers just the right window. Though you could fly to Chiang Rai, it’s northern most town, straddling the Triangle, many prefer to include Chiang Mai in their itinerary. For one, its the Thai hub for Songkran festivities – a fun water festival. So, if you happen to be here in the month of April, get ready for some action! Other than that, Chaing Mai has its fair share of history and beautiful Buddhist temples. We took an overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, then a 3-hours bus to Chiang Rai, and a songthaew (a pay-per-seat shared transport) for the last mile to our hostel.
The next morning we met Bee and his brothers Amon and Anek, donning their signature bright green tees, at the Chiangrai Bicycle Tour Company. Bee is a former Buddhist monk, an ardent cycling fan, and heads their family business. While he and Amon, two experienced cycling guides, helped us get familiar with our front-suspension, 24-gears mountain bike and helmets, Anek took charge of the truck. For most part of the next 4 days, the truck remained out of sight, but close enough for safety calls. Bee led the group, weaving through Chiang Rai’s traffic, and Amon trailed ensuring no one gets left behind.
Cycling is both fun and challenging: slow travel, an active body and, if you are inexperienced bikers like us, will test you. A distance of 200-250 kms over 4 days may not sound much, but for the uneven terrain. That you have really nice bikes to pedal helps. Plus, the guidance of experienced cyclists who carry an infectious ability to crack up and keep the mood light is a deal clincher. On our part though, we grossly underestimated the rigor involved. The first two nights, as we checked in to hostels, we could barely lift a leg. The mornings after, were worse – with the bike’s saddles waiting to harass our butts! At times, Bee and Amon had to prompt: ‘slow, but sure’ – a mantra to keep us pedaling. That you are out in the sun at 35 degree Celsius means burnt skin too. Always, always carry a sunblock. With that out the way, the breathtaking scenery, engaging activities, and stunning landmarks will keep you going.
Northern Thailand is wild and cultivated, flat and mountains, sports hanging bridges, and can turn from dry to rainy in minutes. In fact, its changing terrain and weather makes it an unbeatable treat. Biking the Golden Triangle means you are immersing into the local landscape. Be it cutting across rice fields, irrigation canals, waterfalls, pineapple cultivations, or scaling a mountain.
The region is also an eclectic mix of rural and urban, familiar and the not-so, and traditional and the modern. Though we stopped at the Mae Fah Luang Art and Cultural Park (Lanna or Tai art), Chiang Rai Rajabhat University, Lamnamkok National Park, the largest “Happy Buddha” in Thailand, and the ruins of Wat Chedi Luang, and while each one is a marvel in its own right, there’s perhaps no better that portrays this aspect than the truly majestic White Temple in Chiang Rai. From its first sights to observing the level of detailing, to the myriad of designs, the White Temple is a living legacy of our times. The absence of such an impressive edifice from the tourism map of this amazing country had us stunned.
Its highly talented architect, visual artist, and designer, Chalermchai Kositpipat, has made herculean efforts to reflect the changing times. Besides the Buddhist and Hindu style statues and sculptures, the temple also has paintings depicting concepts of good and the evil through scenes of popular movies such as Star Wars or even political figures.
Things to do
Besides biking on mountainous or flat roads, hiking in the forest, there are more activities that this experience brings forth. For instance, walk in to Karen Hill Tribe and Lahu Hill Tribe villages to say hello, and visit rice-flour or paper mills operated by local organizations. Plus, there’s this elephant ride wading through a river.
The Golden Triangle
From the landmark gate that welcomes you, the House of Opium (a museum), the huge Buddha statue mounted on a treasure ship, the ornate elephant monument, to the mighty Mekong River, it all makes for a perfect backdrop to the Golden Triangle.
Laos is just east of the river – in sight and a short, visa-free, ride away. The longtail propeller boat probably thinks of itself as a dirt bike – it is airborne half the time, forcing passengers to hold on to dear life. It is worth every bump though, and visitors are rewarded with a close up of this Laotian Special Economic Zone in the town of Done Xao, leveraged mostly by Chinese manufacturers and casinos, with an array of retail outlets selling everything relatively cheaper, including snake whiskeys! But is this where we end the biking? No.
From the serenity of green rice paddies and scenic waterfalls, we rode into the chaotic markets of Mae Sai, the concluding point. Coffee, wines, fruits, nuts and spices dominated the buzz. From where we were, people drove in cars, rode on bicycles, or even walked on both sides of the congested international border. Anek was waiting to mount the bikes on top of his truck and, after four days of shadowing the group, was happy to switch into a faster gear, all the way back to Chiang Rai.
From the exotic to the routine, from freshly cut fruits to deep fried fritters and spicy meats and vegetables, the food in Golden Triangle region is anything but bland. Depending on your palette, it is as likely to evoke a range of feelings. Khao Soi, with eggs, coconut mixed with chili curry and soya sauce, is undoubtedly the most popular fried noodle dish. While on the bikes, Anek’s food and safety truck would appear magically during pit stops. He kept the group hydrated and refreshed with bananas, melons, pineapples, crispies, water, and more. And just as magically, he would disappear too. The brothers had their roles defined and each performed it to perfection. Then, at certain places, you are also likely to see crispy fried worms.
En route, we experienced a variety of arrangements. From a basic guest house on the banks of Mae Kok River, to cottages and resort-styles in the walled and moated ancient city of Chiang Saen, the base for Golden Triangle. Besides, the two towns of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai both offer safe and clean hostels, guest houses or hotels for practically every budget. Both also offer a thriving night life.
The Victory Ritual
Chiangrai Bicycle Tour Company has a ritual that bikers need to perform at the end of this expedition in Mae Sai: lift off their bikes – never a dull moment with the brothers!
Visiting Thailand is almost a given for every traveler and justifiably so – for all that this Land of Smiles offers. Yet, compared to the number of visitors to its beaches, perhaps a lesser number explore the endearing north.
Have you biked to the Golden Triangle? How was your experience? We would love to hear from you (please scroll below to leave a comment).
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