Sunday, June 14, 2009


1. The next morning (11 June, Day 46), we decided to explore more of Tachileik, beyond the few hundred meters around the border bridge. After breakfast at 8, we strolled to the border bridge and were immediately approached by a young man offering tours in his tuk-tuk to various attractions depicted on a card he was carrying. He quoted a price of 100 baht and settled quickly for 80 bahts when we counter-offered. .

2. Included in our short tour were visits to 2 temples: the Township Dhammayon Temple and Tachileik Shwe Dagon Pagoda. Without a tour guide and the tuk-tuk driver speaking little English, our visits were brief and cursory. Dhammayon Temple was not big but very well maintained. I particularly liked the 12 wall murals inside the temple. They were beautiful, depicting the life of Buddha from the time he was born to his enlightenment. Included in each picture frame were explanations in English too. I understand the Tachileik Shwe Dagon Pagoda was modelled after the Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Yangon, the most sacred Buddhist pagoda for the Burmese. We took off our shoes and put the shoes in the rack (fee 2 bahts) and spent some time walking the temple ground. From the temple ground, we had a good view of the town. Tachileik town was fairly sprawling, contrary to our original impression that its a one street town. We could see many temples, a church and a golf course. On the wall of one of temples was a large board explaining the evolution of Buddha teaching, the emergence of Theravada and Mahayanan Buddhism and the spread to Buddhism eastwards to many countries in Asia. This was in English, so we could read. Not knowing which day I was born, I did a short prayer and put in a donation into the donation box at Tuesday Buddha, as it was Tuesday that day. There were few devotees at the 2 temples, only handful in Shwe Dagon temple, and hardly any monk. They must be out collecting alms, as we saw many on the streets on the way here. Internet research gave little information on the 2 temples even though theres wealth of info on Shwe Dagon in Yangon. Outside the temple compound, the driver pointed to the only tall building in the landscape and said its a casino. When asked, he said that the town has 3 casinos.

3. Our next 2 visits were visit to a minority village and a gem workshop/shop. We proceeded to the minority village but told the driver to cancel the visit to the gem workshop. Located just outside a casino, the minority village was nothing but a merchandising stop. We paid 140 bahts to get in, took a few pictures and left. Our arrival at about 9 stirred the whole place to life, as the people started to put on their traditional dresses. Once outside, we told the driver that we wanted to go and see the casino up the road about 300 m away (which was in the complex called Regina Golf and Resort). He was initially hesitant but we insisted. At the gate, the security lifted the bar and welcome us in, no question asked. It was just a plain building, nothing indicating that it was a casino. At the entrance to the building, we were again welcome in. Going in it was not obvious that its a casino until we went downstairs to the basement. There were about 20-30 tables, largely Baccarat. Cant tell if people there were Thai or locals. We decided to play a small sum for fun. The currency used was baht. When we wanted to change US$50 to chips, the staff asked for ID as it involved currency exchange and law required them to see our ID. As our ID was kept by the hotel we decided to take 1000 bahts and try our luck. In less than half an hour we contributed the whole amount to the revenue of the casino. On the way out of the complex, we stopped to take a look at the golf course. Looked pretty well maintained, but quiet, could only see 1 flight. I supposed the golf course could attract golfers and golf tournament who could stay in the hotel and also gamble. We were also told that the minority village was developed by the same owner who developed the Regina Golf and Resort.

4. The tuk-tuk brought us back to the hotel by 10.45. After checking out, we walked to the border crossing bridge. Passing the snooker table "saloon", we decided to have a best of 3 games snooker game. Here they played 6 red balls (as against the normal 15), so the game was much faster. Sunny was in top form, I lost 2-0. Immigration out at Myanmar end was easy. They took out our passports and stamped and returned to us. Thai immigration was like any other immigration, straightforward. We were out of the border crossing by 11.30 am.

5. After paying 80 baht for carpark at Wang Thong Hotel, we were on the road again. After some discussion, we decided to go and see the Golden Triangle. In our map and according to Miss G this was given as a single point. Our guess was that this must be one vantage point where we could see the 3 countries. Also, theres a Hall of Opium in the Golden Triangle Park that we wanted to visit. To get there, we headed for Chiang Saen, a short distance from Mae Sai. Along the way, we saw quite a few resorts, a number of them looked posh. Opposite the Hall of Opium was one- Anantara Resorts and Spa. We decided to go in and have a look. Perched on the hilltop, the resort overlooks the Mekong and the mountains of Laos and Myanmar. A beautiful resort but one beyond our budget. Cheapest was US$200 a night.

6. The Hall of Opium is one of the best museums we visited in our trip so far. It is located in the Golden Triangle Park, together with the Greater Mekong Lodge. Established by the Mah Fah Laung Foundation and sponsored by the King's mother (her photo was prominently displayed at the entrance) the museum spans an area of 5 600 sq m. Divided into many halls, it explains how the poppy plants were grown to produce opium, the 5000 years history of how opium was used, first for medicine and then how it was abused, the growth of the opium trade from 900 crates a year to 50 000 crates a year by the British East India Company, how it figured in the world trade in the 19th century (a very good chart showing the trade flows across the continents), the opium wars and the unequal treaties imposed upon China leading to the ravages of the summer palace (with beautiful wax models of Lin Zexu, Emperor Dao Guan, Queen Victoria, William Matheson etc), effects of drug abuse, rehabilitation efforts, as well as efforts to help farmers convert their crops to other cash crops. A very fascinating museum. After paying a ticket of 300 bahts, we were led to a dimly lighted tunnel that connects to the main building of the museum on the other side of the hill. Possibly about 100 m long, the walls are sculptured with distorted bodies and faces of opium victims. Quite scary really, but impactful. Exhibits were complemented with many AV shows. On the section on East India Company's role in the spread of opium, Singapore was mentioned as playing a role in the shipments between India (where poppies were grown) and China, including pictures of Raffles and a Singhapura landscape. The museum is a must see if you happen to be near the area. If not for the fact that it was already 2.30 pm, we would have stayed longer. Unfortunately no picture taking inside the museum. Later, we saw another attraction called House of Opium but we didnt have the time for another one.

7. After lunch at the restaurant near to the Golden Triangle Park, we proceeded along the road with road signs leading us clearly to the Golden Triangle. After passing the big Buddha beside the road we turned left to go up the hill to the lookout point. From this point on Thailand, we could see the Mekong, and the mountains of Laos and Myanmar, an area called the Golden Triangle which was notoriously known for growing the poppies and the distribution of drugs to various parts around the world. Today, this area is promoted for its tourism appeal. We could also see efforts by governments to help farmers convert their land to other cash crops, eg. coffee. In our travel in NE Laos, there were signboards showing joint efforts by the Laos and PRC governments. In Thailand, the royal family was actively involved in such rehabilitation efforts. In this banner at the hill top, it says "Mekong...our river our life".

8. Time was 4 pm and we decided to head straight to Chiang Mai to spend 2-3 days there. At about 250 km away, along Highway 1 and then 120, we reckoned we could make it before last light especially when roads are pretty good in Thailand. We did make it to Chiang Mai by about 6.30 and with the help of Miss G found Royal Pennisula Hotel. At 900 bahts a night, with wifi and basement carpark, it was not a bad deal. We had noodle soup for dinner at a shop near the moat. On the way back, we stopped for a drink at the Real Mexican Restaurant. Here you see Sunny relaxing over a margarita.

9. We planned to stay another 2 nights in Chiang Mai before we depart for Mae Hong Son on Monday, 15 June, to take a loop along the Thai-Myanmar border before heading for Sukhotai.

10. Overall, we were happy that we had departed from our plan to stay a night in Tachileik, to catch a glimpse of Myanmar. Other than the persistent touts, the visit was generally pleasant. We did not feel insecure even though the streets were dark at night. People were somewhat reticent but they were helpful and polite when spoken to. We were surprised that we could get by with Mandarin in some situations. They could be migrants from Yunnan or descendents of KMT soldiers who settled here after they lost the war to the communists in China. Thai baht is the de-facto currency. I dont know why the immigration had to keep our passports but I hope in due course they will free up.

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