Revisiting North Thailand Part 2: “golden Triangle” Nostalgia.

Jurgen

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Oct 23, 2009
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  1. An old Lanna capital
  2. Climbing to Chom Kitty temple
  3. Chiang Saen National Museum and Wat Chedi Luang
  4. Lunch at the Golden Triangle
  5. Cruising down the Mekong river



Preamble



Thailand’s “Golden Triangle” region, from Chiang Saen to Sop Ruak, is, nowadays, a chart-topping tourist destination. After my first call to there, in March 1989, I had recently many opportunities to ramble along this striking Mekong stretch, a “must do” for the “Turbulent River” lovers.



As a touristic appeal, a yellow sandbank, arising during low water periods, just off the border of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, was called the “Golden Triangle” (6). This denomination, in reality, covers far larger territories in the three connected countries.

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An old billboard structure showing the “Golden Triangle” sandbank.
Picture taken in March 1989



I have previously written several “trip reports”, on the GT-Rider’s forum, covering the “Golden Triangle” area (1); some of my vintage pictures already illustrate these write-ups. For this particular account, the second in a series of “nostalgia rides” around North Thailand, I have partly used the same old photographs.



My two first visits to the “Golden Triangle” region were in March 1989 and July 1990, as part of classic touristic tours, organized by “Diethelm Travel”.


All vintage pictures, published in this story (decorated with a border to diferentiate them), were taken in March 1989 and July 1990. They are intermingled and might have been shot, indifferently, during my first or second trip.



My first “come-back” to the “Golden Triangle” was in September 2009, as part of my first series of motorcycle trips in this Northern region.

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Revisiting the “Golden Triangle”, twenty years later, with my beloved Honda AX1.





An old Lanna capital



In my story’s first part, I travelled from Chiangmai airport, in a “Diethelm Travel” minibus, all the way to Chiang Saen, along Route 118 (see: Revisiting North Thailand Part 1: “route 118” To Chiang Saen).



This is how the trip organiser described the follow up activities, for the tour’s second half day (“Diethelm Travel’s” flyer for North Thailand tour, 1989 and 1990) [2]:

“Afterwards sightseeing in Chiang Saen, the former capital of the first Thai Kingdom, situated directly on the Mekong River at the border between Thailand and Laos. Visit to Wa Phra Dhat Jom Kitti by climbing up 283 steps to the top of the hill.

Also visit to Wat Jedi Luang and the small museum near-by.



When traveling to Sop Ruak and to the “Golden Triangle’s” attractions, the historic city of Chiang Saen is easily overlooked. The remnants of Yonok’s significance and grandeur are weared down and scattered, as the city was heavily obliterated by destructions and eroded by time. This ancient kingdom, however, dates back to the Khmer era, and is the cradle of Lanna and, to some extend, of modern Thailand [3].



Chiang Saen and Chiang Khong are the major cities, along the Lanna’s Mekong stretch. The first one is a bustling commercial harbour and the destination of a continuous flow of Chinese goods. Nowadays, the individual ship’s capacity is still limited by the river’s rocks, but the Chinese appetite to blast their way downstream could soon increase the tonnages and alter even more the face of the once “Mighty Mekong” [4].

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Chinese boats moored along the Mekong rim in Chiang Saen.
Picture: October 2017

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Down and uploading operations along the Mekong rim in Sop Ruak
Picture: February 2015


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From Sop Ruak to Chiang Saen, there are several harbors, additional mooring places are also used all along the Mekong rim.
Picture : February 2015



In itself, modern Chiang Saen is a rather modest and bland dwelling, requiring some perseverance to hunt down its past splendors’ testimonies. The visit’s highlights, scheduled for my tour in March 1990, Wat Chom Kitty, the Natinal Museum and Wat Chedi Luang, are still the most compelling places. Nowadays, I would, however, add a walk along the old city walls, particularly under romantic and nicely shadowed forests, and a stop-over at the ruins of Wat Pa Sak (the teak forest temple)[5]. A stroll along the Mekong’s rim, to observe the naval activities and patronize and open air restaurant is, of course, another unique attraction.






Climbing to Chom Kitty temple



In accordance to the travel agencie’s program, the first visit, after arriving in Chiang Saen, was for Wa Phra That Chomkitti, “by climbing up 283 steps to the top of the hill”. I do not remember if we really proceeded with this escaladation, as a paved trail allows vehicles to reach the top and it’s monuments. Nowadays, a four lanes ring road cuts the old city from the coumpound’s entrance, wich, however, is conveniently accessed by motorcycles and cars.

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The stairs up to Wat Phra That Chom Kitty


The first temple on the hill is Phra That Chom Chaeng. Its terrace affords a panoramic view over the Mekong valley. As the plateform is made of bright marble, and as it has to be “endured” barefoot, it is a hardship during hot sunny days.

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Wat Phra That Chom Chaeng marble plateform


Aside from the vegetation, wich now hinderes the sight toward the South, the georgeous view, from the plateform to the Mekong Valley and over Laos, has not changed a lot over the years.

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Vintage view (March 1989) from Phra That Chom Chaeng to the Mekong Valley

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Modern view from Phra That Chom Chaeng to the Mekong Valley


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A Buddha image on Wat Phra That Chom Chaeng’s west side



After climbing a couple of stairs the main stupa of Wat Phra That Chom Kitty is reached.
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The Wat Phra That Chom Kitty’s stupa (chedi).

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Devotees making merit at Chom Kitty stupa


Chom Kitty is an important historical place and a yearly celebration is hold at the temple to recall the Tai braveries in there fight agains the Khmer Empire.





Chiang Saen National Museum and Wat Chedi Luang



The National Museum is located in the old city and is adjacent to Chedi Luang temple. The Chiang Saen region has only imparted a small fragment of it’s antic mysteries and many archeologic sites have been marked without being yet explored (3).


The already discovered artifacts are exhibited in the Chiang Saen National Museum, who showcases stones with inscriptions, sculptures and bronze Buddha images. The exhibition also displays textiles, cloth and provides erthnographic information about the main ethnicities represented in the region (5).

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One of the museum’s highlights, is the famous “Kirimukha”, a Kala face stucco from an old Lanna temple.

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An antic wooden Buddha image



Located next door to the museum, Wat Phra That Chedi Luang features an eighty-eight meters tall, bell-shaped, Lanna style stupa, with a seldom octagonal base. It is said to have been built in the fourteenth century by Phaya Saen Phu, the third king of the Mang Rai (Mengrai) Dynasty, the grandson of the founder of Chiang Mai. Saen Phu also gave it’s name to the city.

In ancient times, earthquakes have heavily glitched the temple’s structures, and they were partly rebuilt. The two last damages are recent; in March 2011, Chedi Luang’s pinnacle was destroyed by an earthquake and another 6.3 heavy shake, on May 5th 2014 provoqued more destructions and cracks in the stupa. The same earthquake notoriously damaged Chiang Rai’s “White Temple”, Wat Rong Khun.

Restauration work has been undertaken and, nowadays the chedi’s top stands straight and an large wooden temple host its antic Buddha image.

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Wat Chedi Luang with its bound pinnacle and the building site for its temple hall reconstruction.
Picture taken in March 2014, after the first, and just before the second earthquake.

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Picture taken in October 2017. The new temple hall is nearly completed.

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Renowated Wat Chedi Luang, its pinnacle is straight again and the wall cracks have been repaired.
Picture taken in October 2017


“Chiang” is the qualification of a fortified city, and, thus, old fortifications can be seen all around the place. Time, however, has not been mercifull to the antic dwellings of Chiang Saen; human destructions and weather erosion have ravaged the remains of the city’s grandeur. During a walk under the North West forest, many stone walls can, however, still be admired.

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A sector of the ancient Chiang Saen city wall


Under the forest shadow, a place of particular interest is Wat Pa Sak (the Teak Wood Temple), a pagoda dating back to Saen Phu times (fourteens century) (5). The king had a forest of hundreds of teak wood trees planted and the area is still densely timbered nowadays.

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What Pa Sak pagoda in the middle of teak trees.





Lunch at the Golden Triangle



After Chiang Saen a short drive took me to the day’s highlight, the “Golden Triangle” in Sop Ruak. Nowadays, this place is less exciting as some of it’s attractions have faded out, approximately replaced by a religious attraction park.


Werstern tourists were only permitted to enter Laos in 1988, and only 600 people actually took the opportunity that year. Despite its slight opening, Thailand’s neighbour remained secretive and, during my first visit, in March 1989, glancing over the “Bamboo Curtain” continued to be captivating. Even so the cold war had begun to warm up, the Berlin Wall was still standing and, since 1975, the former French Indochina and covert US battlefield, had faded away from the Western minds.

Another “Golden Triangle” appeal was the dubious attraction to a nefarious and lawless region, the pinnacle of the infamous drug trafficking, symbolised by the colorfull poppy flower, an ubiquitous local decoration.

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(March 1989 picture) - The Golden Triangle sandbank, view from Thailand with Myanmar (it was called Burma at that time) on the left picture’s side and Laos on the right picture’s side.

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(March 1989 picture) - View over the sandbank toward the Laos side

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Modern billboard many were replaced by larger concrete displays

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At the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong rivers, there is no “Golden Triangle” sandbank during high water levels.

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Compared to the sleepy environment of March 1989, the Triangle’s region became a bustling tourist attraction.



As the afternoon of our March 1989 visit had advanced, lunch was organised at Sri Wan restaurant, on the Ruak rivers’s rim, a couple of hundred meters North of the confluent with the Mekong. This restaurant is still active today, but the lonely eatery has now been joined by many other food outlets.

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Sri Wan restaurant, still catering to customers along the Ruak river’s rim

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On the oppositer Ruak river’s rim, a landing place receives customers bond for the Myanmar side Paradise Casino.


Next to the Sri Wan restaurant, in March 1989, a billboard invited tourist to snap selfies (wich, at these times, were just ordinary pictures, taken on film).

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A billboard from March 1989 “Golden Triangle and poppies”.

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Relaxing on the wooden seat, many years before becoming “local”.


Amazingly, in 2017, the same carved wooden billboard is still displayed; it is one of the fiew signboards still decorated with poppies. The pillars are now made out of concrete, and the wood has been repainted in green; it is, however, still cloven.

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Still the same billboard, repainted and now supported by concrete pillars.



The “Golden Triangle” region has by far not wiped out all production and dealing with illicite drugs. Opium, however, has lost its regional appeal, partly after successful eradication campains, partly due to the competition of other producing countries. The synthesis of amphatemines is, however, thriving, partricularly on the Myanmar side.

As the dubious appeal to visit the apex of an illicit traffic faded out, legal attractions had to be set-up to maintain and develop the visitors flow. Through a Thai-Chinese foundation venture, a park was constructed along the Thai Mekong rim, displaying images of the Buddhist pantheon. With less restrictions on gambling, the neighbour countries, Myanmar and Laos, were able, on their side, to setup attractive casinos.

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A new concrete door to the “Golden Triangle” (sandbank), with, just opposite, on the Lao rim, the entrance to the Kings Romans casino compound.

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The colorfull “Golden Triangle” apex featuring a sandbank, the Myanmar casino at the horizon and the golden dome lobby entrance to the Kings Romans Laos casino

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The pier and the golden dome lobby entrance to the Kings Romans Laos casino – view from Doi Phu Khao.



The highlight of the “Golden Triangle Park” is a huge golden Buddha image, Phra Chiang Saen Si Phaendin, sitting on a “treasure ship”. The large statue, glittering in the sunshine is a landmark that can be seen from afar.

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Early morning, before the tourists buses arrive, there are few visitors in the park.

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The Buddha image is sitting in a “treasure ship”.

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The large golden Buddha image of “Phra Chiang Saen Si Phaendin”

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With a high density of donation boxes, there are plenty of opportunities to make merit, with a chance of being rewarded in a future live, or alternatively, to get an immediate gambling fortune from one of the opposite Mekong rim’s casinos.

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The “Golden Triangle” a highlight of the ASEAN (AEC) economic market

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The “Triangle”, actually a “Quadrangle” including the omnipotent China.

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Even my grandson had fun in the stucco park.

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This is not Thailand’s mascot, but an image of the Hindu God Ganesha, also worshipped by Buddhists. As the God of good fortune, he allows to make merit before crossing the borders to the “roulette tables”.

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The « Golden Triangle Park » seen from the opposite side (from the entrance of Kings Romans casino coumpound)





Cruising down the Mekong river



Not obviously visible from the “Golden Triangle Park”, the Kings Romans casino’s main building is located a couple of kilometres downstream the Mekong, near to Ton Phueng village.

The area is called the “Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone (SEZ)”. Covering 3’000 hectares, it was rented for one hundred years from the Laos government. A new metropolis called “Kapok City” , in essence a “China Town”, is under construction there, with the aim to become the second largest dwelling in Laos. The place will generously dispense all wordly delices in order to keep the gamblers mood high, from shopping malls to massage parlours and to restaurants providing the most exotic meals.

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The casino’s gulden domes are dwarft by the ongoing construction projects aiming to transform “ Kapok City” in Lao’s second largest dwelling.


As the lease agreement for the “Special Economic Zone” was only signed in 2007, the casino developments around Ton Phueng are quite recent and still ongoing. The landscape, since my first cruise along this Mekong river stretch, in March 1989, has drastically changed. Despite trying hard, I was unable to recognise places that I once photographed from a boat.


The departure for my first downstream river cruise was from a makeshift landing place, near to the Sri Wan restaurant, were I had lunch.

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Small speedboats for the Mekong cruise downstream to Chiang Saen.


In recent years, I tried several times, from the Thailand rim and even on a chartered boat, to find the steep banks that I had photographed in March 1989. Finally, showing my pictures’ printouts to locals, I was able to localise the spot, near to Ton Phueng village. The stretch is now tamed and even partly walled.

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Ton Phueng, the Lao Mekong rim opposite to Chiang Saen.

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The Mekong rim in Ton Phueng is now partly walled and the high sand banks no longer exist.



In March 1989, the “Bamboo Curtain” had just slightly been lifted and the Mekong’s Lao rim was a no-man’s land, far from any “Special Economic Zone” developments. While gliding down the river, it was enticing to exchange amazed glances with people, close to the water rim but sill in another world.

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Stairs are cut in the sand-wall to allow access to the water level

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Playing, bathing and making their daily chores, while tourist pass nearby on dinghies

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The big river was also a water supply.

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Goodbye Laos, I did dot recogn, at that moment, to become a frequent visitor to this country, twenty years later.



After disembarking from the boats in Chiang Saen, the travel agency van took me to the next programmend destination, the city of Chiang Rai and the Wiang Inn Hotel.




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NOTES



[1] See some of my other “Golden Triangle” stories published on GT-Rider’s Forum:

A Mekong Promenade - Part 7: Along the Golden Triangle

North Thailand - 1 The Quest For The Laughing Buddha


[2] Diethelm Travel (thailand) ltd, flyer for North Thailand tour, 1989 and 1990)


[3] Detailled information about Yonok and the historic Chiang Saen can be found online. See, for instance, the following short overview:

Chiangmai-Chiangrai.com

Chiang Saen takes its name from King Phya Saen Phu, who built many or enlarged many of it’s temples. Chiang means “fortified city”.


[4] Friends know that I despise the eaten away cliché “Mighty Mekong”, and I use it here in a sarcastic way. Sadly, the qualifier “mighty” will no longer be adequate for an emasculated river, beraved of its rocky teeth and harnesses by a multitude of dams.





[5] There is usually no entrance fee for temples visits. For the “National Museum” the entrance fee is 100 THB and for the “Wat Pasak” ruins the entrance fee is 50 THB.



[6] “Saam Liam Thong Kham” is the “Golden Triangle” name in thai language (transliterarted).
 

DavidFL

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Wow. What a fantastic comparison with brilliant photos.
An awesome post Jurgen.

I love this one
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that big radio on the bank with the aerial fully extended. How times have changed ever so fast.

Kob Jai Lai Lai.