The Golden Triangle gleams
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.