The Golden Tri­an­gle gleams

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION AFLOAT -

some­where be­tween the river’s sil­hou­ette ridges and spi­ral ed­dies, or watch an orb sun rise or gib­bous moon fall.

“I’ve got a sig­nal!” calls some­one. We rush to our iThings. On a re­mote reach where prob­a­bly no habi­ta­tion has stood for mil­len­nia, sud­denly we’re reel­ing in emails, up­load­ing stuff and be­ing tube-fed news of the ap­palling world be­yond … and just as sud­denly the sig­nal is lost, per­haps mer­ci­fully so.

The first Euro­pean to see the Mekong was Por­tuguese ex­plorer An­to­nio de Faria in 1540. Over the cen­turies it has worn names re­flect­ing var­i­ous mytholo­gies as well as its can­tan­ker­ous ge­og­ra­phy — Mother of All Waters, Nine Dragons River, River of Rocks, River of Bends, Mil­lion Ele­phant River and, fan­ci­fully, Danube of the Ori­ent. Th­ese days there are so many back­pack­ers at the north­ern Lao town of Pak Beng that our guides sug­gest we just plough on.

Next day Thai­land ap­pears on the western bank, marked by, of all things, a minia­ture Dutch wind­mill. On the op­po­site Lao shore, thou­sands of hectares have been cleared for banana plan­ta­tions for ex­port to China. We are ap­proach­ing the Chi­nese Spe­cial Eco­nomic Zone, a The old opium war­lords and Kuom­intang smug­glers are gone. The junc­tion on the Mekong River where Myan­mar, Laos and north­ern Thai­land meet is known as the Golden Tri­an­gle and 20 years ago it had a hell of a rep­u­ta­tion to live down.

Today, on the Thai side at least, cabbages have re­placed pop­pies, nav­i­ga­tion and tourism are the le­git­i­mate money earn­ers, and a huge golden Buddha (pic­tured) over­sees the whole show.

The im­pres­sive Hall of Opium museum recalls the area’s ram­bunc­tious past.

This Mekong shore, from “the Tri­an­gle” at Sop Ruak down through the towns of Chi­ang Khong and Chi­ang Saen, is one of the most re­ward­ing re­gions of Thai­land for vis­i­tors seek­ing an al­ter­na­tive to sun­burn, mega­groups and bucket booz­ers. Here is Thai­land at home to it­self. To reach it, fly from Bangkok to Chi­ang Rai. Check out the town’s ex­tra­or­di­nary “White Tem­ple”, the crys­talline, Dis­ney-like Wat Rong Khun, then drive east to the Mekong.

Among the best ac­com­mo­da­tion on the river is the Anan­tara Golden Tri­an­gle Re­sort, whose ac­claimed Ele­phant Camp sets the stan­dard for vis­i­tor in­ter­ac­tions with jum­bos and, fur­ther south near Chi­ang Saen, the serene, ab­so­lute Mekong-front chalets of Rai Saeng Arun re­sort. More: gold­en­tri­an­gle.anan­tara.com; raisaen­garun.com; au.tourismthai­land.org.

JOHN BORTH­WICK vast con­ces­sion area in Laos where the dom­i­nant “eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity” is a casino com­plex for FIFO gam­blers.

There are no more vil­lages now. The Thai shores have been tamed with stern stone lev­ees and grow­ing towns stretch along both shores. We land at the bor­der port of Ban Houay Xai not for the casino but for im­mi­gra­tion, to be stamped out of Laos.

Then, across the river at Chi­ang Khong, Thai­land, it’s time to farewell our fra­grantly good ship, so named for the champa or frangi­pani, na­tional flower of Laos, and step ashore in the once-no­to­ri­ous Golden Tri­an­gle.

John Borth­wick was a guest of Pan­daw River Ex­pe­di­tions and the Tourist Author­ity of Thai­land.

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