The Golden Triangle was once an opium hot spot but, in conjunction with Anantara Hotels, is now home to Asia’s premier elephant camp.
Opium and insurrection. That’s what came to mind when I first decided to venture beyond Chiang Mai, back in the days when armed Communist insurgents still roamed northern Thailand and the infamous Shan-Chinese opium warlord Khun Sa made Ban Hin Taek, Chiang Rai, his home and centre of operations.
Back then a rusting 250cc dirt bike was my vehicle of choice for the assault on what had widely been known as the Golden Triangle since the 1950s, when a crackdown on poppy cultivation in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan – outlining a curve on the map dubbed the Golden Crescent – saw international opium production shift to Southeast Asia.
The dusty red roads rimming the Thai-Burmese frontier took in the impressive sight of thousands of acres of poppy fields stretching as far as one’s bulging eyes could see, across the border in either direction. The ‘gold’ mined in the triangle – a 950,000sqkm zone of rugged mountains and rivers crisscrossing Thailand, Burma and Laos where poppy farms flourished – had reached its peak around the time I naively puttered my way around and through the fields. The only time the darkness behind the beauty revealed itself was when ex-Kuomintang (former National Chinese Army regulars who had fled China after the Communist revolution) field guards raised their rifles to chase me away from taking photos of a blood-orange sun sinking behind the purple-and-white blooms.
Khun Sa was run out of Thailand in 1982, and he gave up his warlordship in 1996 in order to enjoy freedom and benefit in Rangoon, an event which more or less capped the transformation of the Golden Triangle from a dodgy backwater to a coveted travel destination. Another major catalyst for change came as Thailand’s Princess Mother established royal projects in the Triangle, which focused on sustainable flower, fruit, coffee and tea farming for poppy farmers. Today, northern Thailand is almost entirely free of opium production, and tourism has replaced opium as the region’s main source of gold, luring visitors who seek to explore the scenic Mekong River, tour the enchanted temple ruins found of Chiang Saen and become acquainted with Asian elephants.
Flash forward three decades, Chiang Rai International Airport is full of leisure and business travellers, many of them headed for Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort. Elephants weren’t so common back in the bad old days – they were probably hard at work shunting logs deep in the forest – but Anantara’s Elephant Camp provides ample opportunity for a pow-wow with pachyderms.
The camp, built and run very much like a traditional northern Thai village, works with Anantara’s Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) to promote conservation of elephants, both domestic and wild. Most of the animals at the camp, along with their mahouts, once trudged city streets across Thailand, barely eking out a living from handouts. Here, in an environment that closely resembles a traditional mahout village, the noble beasts receive supervised rehabilitation and health care, while offering guests a rare chance to interact with these gentle giants through a variety of activities, including learning the skills a mahout needs to control an elephant.
Guests may also ride the resident elephants into the forest, where mahouts share their knowledge of edible jungle plants and medicinal herbs. If you’ve never sat atop an elephant while it lopes into a jungle stream for a cooling bath – well, let’s just say it’s a ride that will challenge even the most accomplished equestrian. And you’ll come out of it just as clean and refreshed as your jumbo pal.
Opposite the entrance to the Anantara, the Hall of Opium, a royally sponsored museum with high-tech, multimedia displays, chronicles the fascinating history of the Golden Triangle, the papaver somniferum (opium poppy) and all of its useful – and often abused – derivatives. It takes a full hour or two to circulate through all of the exhibits, testaments to how humanity’s escapist obsessions have tarnished the reputation of a morally neutral floral by-product.
Back at the Anantara, Black Ivory Coffee, the world’s most expensive coffee (at a cost of more than US$1000 per kilo), comes out piping hot. The extremely rare brew is ground from specially selected beans collected from the dung of elephants under the care of the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. Approximately 10,000 beans are picked for each kilogram of roasted coffee, meaning it takes 33 kilograms of coffee cherries to produce just one kilogram of the black gold. While sipping the deep, dusky and nicely stimulating cup of java, I wonder if the elephant I rode earlier in the day might have participated in its production, before being pleasantly distracted by the sweeping views of Laos, Myanmar and the Mekong River below.
As a geographic lynchpin of the Orient, the world’s 12th-longest waterway conjures up images from eras passed, and historic lives lived. Along its 4000km, the Mekong passes through six countries on its journey from the Tibetan Plateau in China down to the Mekong River Delta in Vietnam, where it drains into the South China Sea. For centuries, the river has served as a major transport line among all of the countries along its length, as well as a crucial source of food and water for millions of people.
The best way to appreciate the river is to take a longtail boat cruise starting from Sop Ruak, the small town found at the centre of the Golden Triangle, where the Ruak River flows into the Mekong. Zooming across the choppy river by the boat, you can cross to Don Sao, a rustic river island belonging to Laos, or continue all the way to Chiang Khong, a charming market town with an official border crossing to Laos.
The next morning I choose instead to have the boatman stop 20 kilometres southeast of Sop Ruak in Chiang Saen, where King Mangrai, the ambitious Thai-Lao founder of Chiang Mai and the Lanna kingdom, was born. Here along the fertile riverbanks, and amid a vast forest of teak, his nephew Saen Phu established his own small kingdom in the 13th century. For hundreds of years afterwards, Chiang Saen served as an important trading centre, as well as a significant Buddhist centre.
The inhabitants abandoned the walled and moated city in the 16th century when invading Burmese armies invaded, relocating to Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and parts of Laos. The ruined city wasn’t re-occupied until the early 20th century, and today it’s a thriving river port for barges from China carrying all manner of Chinese exports down the Mekong. As always, I’m enchanted by the town’s quiet river setting and by the crumbling city walls and temple remains comprising Chiang Saen Historical Park, especially the ruins of Chedi Luang, an impressive 60-metre-high, bell-shaped stupa elevated on an octagonal brick-and-plaster base in the classic Lanna style. Yes, the Golden Triangle has come a long way since the heady days of the opium trade. You won’t miss the opium but the other attractions, elephants included, are still here.