We’d been assured that our driver spoke good English. He didn’t. In fact he barely knew a word. Every time we tried to communicate to him he called his brother who did speak English and handed the phone to me. That’s how I ended up having a polite but tense argument with a stranger in the crowded parking lot of a tea plantation while Jack ran to various viewpoints to take photos. We didn’t really care about the tea plantation and only added it to our list as a potential last stop for refreshments if we had time. But since our obstinate driver took the clockwise route instead of our intended counter clockwise route, we’d just wasted over an hour of our precious private car and driver day. What’s more, he refused to take us to a more preferred destination, Tham Luang Nang Non cave where a dramatic rescue saved the members of a junior soccer team in 2018. Two divers lost their lives in the rescue, and we wanted to visit the memorial to their sacrifice. But no. We were told there’d be no time for that.
Frustrated, we urged the driver to make haste to what should have been an easy and scenic next stop after the Black House, the Golden Triangle.
This is the spot where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet on the Mekong River, and the main area of opium cultivation during the 1950s and 60s. The name “Golden Triangle” was only coined in the early 70s, supposedly by the CIA, and while opium production in Thailand is much reduced now, Myanmar still accounts for about 25% of the world’s production, far behind Afghanistan.
The history of the opium trade in this region is complex and beyond my ability to summarize, but here’s an excellent treatise on the subject if you want a deep dive.
One tragic idea to note is that opium addiction and the subsequent demand for supply has been used to fund wars by the British, the Chinese, and the French, to name a few.
Thailand might be dreaming that there’s no longer opium production here, but they’ve certainly developed the Golden Triangle as a tourist destination. It’s not the most scenic place we’ve ever been, but the history of the opium trade is what brought us here, not the views.
We spent a half hour or so in the carnival atmosphere of the Golden Triangle Park, avoiding as much as possible the busloads of tourists and their selfie sticks, and declining the 15-minute boat ride on the Mekong.
We were more interested in the Temple of the Ancient Buddha of Chiang Saen, high above the river. Luckily we could drive up most of the way and avoid the usual 350 steps so many of the temples we visit seem to require as a minimum.
The temple itself is mostly ruins but the view of the Golden Triangle is spectacular.
It was time to learn more about opium at the museum we saw just at the bottom of the hill.