Travelling up by rail through the central plains, there’s no mistaking when you’ve reached the north of Thailand: somewhere between Uttaradit and Den Chai, the train slows almost to a halt, as if approaching a frontier post, to meet the abruptly rising mountains that continue largely unbroken to the borders of Burma and Laos. Beyond this point the climate becomes more temperate (downright cold at night between December and February), nurturing the fertile land that gave the old kingdom of the north the name of Lanna, “the land of a million rice fields”. Although only one-tenth of the land can be used for rice cultivation, the valley rice fields here are three times more productive than those in the dusty northeast, and the higher land yields a great variety of fruits, as well as beans, groundnuts and tobacco.
Until the beginning of the last century, Lanna was a largely independent region. On the back of its agricultural prosperity, it developed its own styles of art and architecture, which can still be seen in its flourishing temples and distinctive handicraft traditions. The north is also set apart from the rest of the country by its exuberant festivals, a cuisine which has been heavily influenced by Burma and a dialect quite distinct from central Thai. Northerners proudly call themselves khon muang, “people of the principalities”, and their gentle sophistication is admired by the people of Bangkok, whose wealthier citizens build their holiday homes in the clean air of the north’s forested mountains.
Chiang Mai, the capital and transport centre of the north, is a great place just to hang out or prepare for a journey into the hills. For many tourists, this means joining a trek to visit one or more of the hill tribes, who comprise one-tenth of the north’s population and are just about clinging onto the ways of life that distinguish them from one another and the Thais around them (see The hill tribes). For those with qualms about the exploitative element of this ethnological tourism, there are plenty of other, more independent options.
A trip eastwards from Chiang Mai to the ancient city-states of Lampang, Phrae and Nan can be highly rewarding, not only for the dividends of going against the usual flow of tourist traffic, but also for the natural beauty of the region’s upland ranges – seen to best effect from the well-marked trails of Doi Khun Tan National Park – and for its eccentric variety of Thai, Burmese and Laotian art and architecture. Congenial Lampang contains wats to rival those of Chiang Mai for beauty – in Wat Phra That Lampang Luang the town has the finest surviving example of traditional northern architecture anywhere – while little-visited Phrae, to the southeast, is a step back in time to a simpler Thailand. Further away but a more intriguing target is Nan, with its heady artistic mix of Thai and Lao styles and steep ring of scenic mountains.
To the west of Chiang Mai, the trip to Mae Hong Son takes you through the most stunning mountain scenery in the region into a land with its roots across the border in Burma, with the option of looping back through Pai, a laidback, sophisticated hill station that’s become a popular hub for treks and activities. Bidding to rival Chiang Mai as a base for exploring the countryside is Chiang Rai to the north; above Chiang Rai, the northernmost tip of Thailand is marked by the Burmese border crossing at Mae Sai and the junction of Thailand, Laos and Burma at Sop Ruak. Fancifully dubbed the “Golden Triangle”, Sop Ruak is a must on every bus party’s itinerary – but you’re more likely to find peace and quiet among the ruins of nearby Chiang Saen, set on the leafy banks of the Mekong River.
East of Chiang Saen on the Mekong River, Chiang Khong is an important crossing point to Houayxai in Laos, from where boats make the scenic two-day trip down the Mekong to Luang Prabang. Until recently, there were passenger boats from Chiang Saen up the Mekong between Burma and Laos to Jing Hong in China, and this service may resume again if the security situation improves (see Wat Phra That Chom Kitti).
The first civilization to leave an indelible mark on the north was Haripunjaya, the Mon (Dvaravati) state that was founded at Lamphun in the late eighth or early ninth century. Maintaining strong ties with the Mon kingdoms to the south, it remained the cultural and religious centre of the north for four centuries. The Thais came onto the scene after the Mon, migrating down from China between the seventh and the eleventh centuries and establishing small principalities around the north.
The prime mover for the Thais was King Mengrai of Ngon Yang (around present-day Chiang Saen), who, shortly after the establishment of a Thai state at Sukhothai in the middle of the thirteenth century, set to work on a parallel unified state in the north. By 1296, when he began the construction of Chiang Mai, which has remained the capital of the north ever since, he had brought the whole of the north under his control, and at his death in 1317 he had established a dynasty which was to oversee a two-hundred-year period of unmatched prosperity and cultural activity.
After the expansionist reign of Tilok (1441–87), who hosted the eighth world council of Theravada Buddhism in Chiang Mai in 1477, a series of weak, squabbling kings came and went, while Ayutthaya increased its unfriendly advances. But it was the Burmese who finally snuffed out the Mengrai dynasty by capturing Chiang Mai in 1558, and for most of the next two centuries they controlled Lanna through a succession of puppet rulers. In 1767, the Burmese sacked the Thai capital at Ayutthaya, but the Thais soon regrouped under King Taksin, who with the help of King Kawila of Lampang gradually drove the Burmese northwards. In 1774 Kawila recaptured Chiang Mai, then deserted and in ruins, and set about rebuilding it as his new capital.
Kawila was succeeded as ruler of the north by a series of incompetent princes for much of the nineteenth century, until colonialism reared its head. After Britain took control of Upper Burma, Rama V of Bangkok began to take an interest in the north – where, since the Bowring Treaty of 1855, the British had established lucrative logging businesses – to prevent its annexation. He forcibly moved large numbers of ethnic Thais northwards, in order to counter the British claim of sovereignty over territory occupied by Thai Yai (Shan), who also make up a large part of the population of Upper Burma. In 1877 Rama V appointed a commissioner over Chiang Mai, Lamphun and Lampang to better integrate the region with the centre, and links were further strengthened in 1921 with the arrival of the railway from Bangkok.
Since the early twentieth century, the north has built on its agricultural richness to become relatively prosperous, though the economic booms of the last thirty years have been concentrated, as elsewhere in Thailand, in the towns, due in no small part to the increase in tourism. The eighty percent of Lanna’s population who live in rural areas – of which the vast majority are subsistence farmers – are finding it increasingly difficult to earn a living off the soil, due to rapid population growth and land speculation for tourism and agro-industry.
One of three major national parks close to Chiang Mai, along with Suthep and Inthanon, DOI KHUN TAN NATIONAL PARK is easily accessible by train from Chiang Mai: a 1352m-long rail tunnel, the longest in Thailand, built between 1907 and 1918 by German engineers and Thai workers (of whom over a thousand died due to accidents, malaria and tigers), cuts through the mountain that gives the park its name. Despite this, and the fact that the king has famously holidayed here, the park remains unspoiled, but has enough infrastructure to encourage overnighting. The park is most popular on weekends, when groups of Thai schoolchildren visit, and during the cool season.
Covering 255 square kilometres, the park’s vegetation varies from bamboo forest at an altitude of 350m to tropical evergreen forest between 600m and 1000m; the 1373m summit of Doi Khun Tan is known for its wild flowers, including orchids, gingers and lilies. Most of the small mammal species in the park are squirrels, but you’re more likely to see some birds, with over 182 species found here.
The park’s trails are clearly marked, running from short nature trails around the park headquarters (where maps are available) to three major trails that all eventually lead to the summit of Doi Khun Tan – with impressive views of the surrounding countryside, it’s clear how it fulfilled its role as a World War II military lookout. The main 8.3km trail from the train station to the Doi Khun Tan summit, though steep, is very easy, divided into four quarters of approximately 2km each, with each quarter ending at a resting place. While you shouldn’t have a problem getting to the summit and back in a day, a more rewarding option is to do the walk in two days, staying overnight in the bungalows or at one of the campsites along the trail. Alternatively, you can take a circular route to the summit and back, forsaking a large chunk of the main trail for the two subsidiary trails which curve around either side, taking in two waterfalls.
A high road pass and a train tunnel breach the narrow, steep belt of mountains between Chiang Mai and LAMPANG, the north’s second-largest town, 100km to the southeast. Lampang is an important transport hub – Highway 11, Highway 1 and the Northern Rail Line all converge here – and given its undeniably low-key attractions, nearly all travellers sail through it on their way to the more trumpeted sights further north. But unlike most other provincial capitals, Lampang has the look of a place where history has not been completely wiped out: houses, shops and temples survive in the traditional style, and the town makes few concessions to tourism. Out of town, the beautiful complex of Wat Phra That Lampang Luang is the main attraction in these parts, but while you’re in the neighbourhood you could also stop by to watch a show at the Elephant Conservation Centre, on the road from Chiang Mai.
The modern centre of Lampang sprawls along the south side of the Wang River, with its most frenetic commercial activity taking place along Thanon Boonyawat and Thanon Robwiang near Ratchada Bridge. Here, you’ll find stalls and shops selling the famous local pottery, a kitsch combination of whites, blues and browns, made from the area’s rich and durable kaolin clay. On all street signs around town, and in larger-than-life statues at key intersections, is a white chicken. This symbol of Lampang relates to a legend concerning the Buddha, who sent down angels from Heaven in the form of chickens to wake up the local inhabitants in time to offer alms to the monks at the end of Buddhist Lent. Perhaps the town’s image as a laidback, sleepy place is justified in the light of this tale.
Founded as Kelang Nakhon by the ninth-century Haripunjaya queen Chama Thevi, Lampang became important enough for one of her two sons to rule here after her death. After King Mengrai’s conquest of Haripunjaya in 1281, Lampang suffered much the same ups and downs as the rest of Lanna, enjoying a burst of prosperity as a timber town at the end of the nineteenth century, when it supported a population of twenty thousand people and four thousand working elephants. Many of its temples are financially endowed by the waves of outsiders who have settled in Lampang: refugees from Chiang Saen (who were forcibly resettled here by Rama I at the beginning of the nineteenth century), Burmese teak-loggers and, more recently, rich Thai pensioners attracted by the town’s sedate charm.
To Thais the elephant has profound spiritual significance, derived from both Hindu and Buddhist mythologies. Carvings and statues of Ganesh, the Hindu god with an elephant’s head, feature on ancient temples all over the country and, as the god of knowledge and remover of obstacles, Ganesh has been adopted as the symbol of the Fine Arts Department – and is thus depicted on all entrance tickets to historical sights. The Hindu deity Indra rarely appears without his three-headed elephant mount Erawan, and miniature devotional elephant effigies are sold at major Brahmin shrines, such as Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine. In Buddhist legend, the future Buddha’s mother was able to conceive only after she dreamt that a white elephant had entered her womb: that is why elephant balustrades encircle many of the Buddhist temples of Sukhothai, and why the rare white elephant is accorded royal status and featured on the national flag until 1917.
The practical role of the elephant in Thailand was once almost as great as its symbolic importance. The kings of Ayutthaya relied on elephants to take them into battle against the Burmese – one king assembled a trained elephant army of three hundred – and during the nineteenth century King Rama IV offered Abraham Lincoln a male and a female to “multiply in the forests of America” and to use in the Civil War. In times of peace, the phenomenal strength of the elephant has made it invaluable as a beast of burden: elephants hauled the stone from which the gargantuan Khmer temple complexes of the northeast were built, and for centuries they have been used to clear forests and carry timber.
The traditional cycle for domestic elephants born in captivity is to spend the first three years of their lives with their mothers (who are pregnant for 18–22 months and get five years’ maternity leave), before being separated and raised with other calves in training schools. Each elephant is then overseen by a mahout (kwan chang), a trainer, keeper and driver rolled into one. Traditionally the mahout would have stayed with the elephant for the rest of its life, but nowadays this rarely happens, as being a mahout is seen as a low-status job.
Over the next thirteen years the elephant is taught about forty different commands, from simple “stop” and “go” orders to complex instructions for hooking and passing manoeuvres with the trunk - a stressful experience for the elephant. By the age of 16, elephants are "ready" to be put to work and are expected to carry on working until they reach 50 or 60, after which they are retired and may live for another twenty years.
Ironically, the timber industry was the animal’s undoing. Mechanized logging destroyed the wild elephant’s preferred river-valley grassland and forest habitats, forcing them into isolated upland pockets. As a result, Thailand’s population of wild elephants is now thought to be under two thousand, while there are around 2500 domesticated animals – down from a roughly estimated total population of a hundred thousand in 1900 (the Asian elephant is now officially classified as an endangered species). With the 1989 ban on commercial logging within Thai borders – after the 1988 catastrophe when the effects of deforestation killed a hundred people and wiped out villages in Surat Thani province, as mudslides swept down deforested slopes carrying cut timber with them – elephants and their mahouts were faced with the further problem of unemployment. Though a small number of elephants continue to work in the illegal teak-logging trade along the Burmese border, most mahouts struggle to find the vast amount of food needed to sustain their charges – about 125kg per beast per day.
Tourism has stepped into the breach, mostly in the form of elephant shows and trekking, though it’s been a mixed blessing to say the least, as the elephants are often poorly treated, overworked or downright abused. In town streets and on beaches, you’ll often see mahouts charging both tourists for the experience of handfeeding their elephants bananas or sugar cane, and Thais for the chance to stoop under their trunks for good luck. At any one time, there may be up to two hundred elephants effectively begging in this way in Bangkok, which is simply not the right environment for them – they’re regularly involved in road accidents, for example, despite the red reflectors that many sport on their tails; overall, it’s best not to feed city elephants in this way. Demand from the tourism industry is now outstripping supply, and it’s feared that captive beasts – which have a lower birth rate than elephants in the wild – may disappear in the next ten years or so, which in turn will mean that wild elephants will again be under threat. According to recent reports, the number of baby elephants being registered exceeds the number of births, suggesting many are being taken from the wild.
Heading east out of Lampang on your way to the small city of PHRAE, you’ll pass through the tobacco-rich Yom valley, dotted with distinctive brick curing-houses. Phrae province is famous for woodcarving and the quality of its seua maw hawm, the deep-blue, collarless working shirt seen all over Thailand (produced in the village of Ban Thung Hong, 4km north of Phrae on Highway 101). The main reason to stop here, however, is to explore Phrae’s old town, with its peaceful lanes filled with temples and traditional teak houses – as in Lampang, the former logging industry attracted Burmese workers and the influence is evident – and to enjoy the old-fashioned and friendly nature of a place still virtually untouched by tourism.
Sited on the southeast bank of the Yom River, Phrae is clearly divided into old and new towns; an earthen wall surrounds the roughly oval-shaped old town, with a moat on its southeastern side and the new town centre beyond that. At the centre of the old town, a large roundabout is the main orientation point; running northwest–southeast through the roundabout, through Pratuchai (the main gate on the southeastern side of the old town), and into the new town is Thanon Charoen Muang, where several shops sell the trademark deep-indigo shirts. The main street in the new town, Thanon Yantarakitkoson, intersects Thanon Charoen Muang about 300m southeast of the old town.
After leaving the Yom River, Highway 101 gently climbs through rolling hills of cotton fields and teak plantations to its highest point, framed by limestone cliffs, before descending into the high, isolated valley of the Nan River, the longest in Thailand (740km) and one of the tributaries of the Chao Phraya. Ringed by high mountains, the small but prosperous provincial capital of NAN, 225km northeast of Lampang, rests on the grassy west bank of the river. Few visitors make it out this far, but it’s a likeable place with a thriving handicrafts tradition, a good museum and some superb temple murals at Wat Phumin, as well as at Wat Nong Bua out in the countryside. Nan’s centre comprises a disorientating grid of crooked streets, around a small core of shops and businesses where Thanon Mahawong and Thanon Anantaworarichides meet Thanon Sumondhevaraj.
The town comes alive for the Lanna boat races, usually held in late October or early November, when villages from around the province send teams of up to fifty oarsmen to race in long, colourfully decorated canoes with dragon prows. The lush surrounding valley is noted for its cotton-weaving, sweet oranges and the attractive grainy paper made from the bark of local sa (mulberry) trees.
Although it has been kicked around by Burma, Laos and Thailand, Nan province has a history of being on the fringes, distanced by the encircling barrier of mountains. Rama V brought Nan into his centralization programme at the start of the twentieth century, but left the traditional ruling house in place, making it the last province in Thailand to be administered by a local ruler (it remained so until 1931). During the troubled 1970s, Communist insurgents holed up in this twilight region and proclaimed Nan the future capital of the liberated zone, which only succeeded in bringing the full might of the Thai Army down on them; the insurgency faded after the government’s 1982 offer of amnesty. Today, energies are focused on development, and the province has become less isolated with the building of several new roads.
The remote, mountainous countryside around Nan runs a close scenic second to the precipitous landscape of Mae Hong Son province, but its remoteness means that Nan has even worse transport and is even more poorly mapped. This does, of course, make it an exciting region to explore, where you may encounter the province’s ethnic minorities: the Thai Lue; the Htin, an upland Mon-Khmer people, most of whom have migrated since the Communist takeover of Laos in 1975; the Khamu, skilled metalworkers who have moved to Nan over the last 150 years from southwest China and Laos; and the little-known Mrabri – a good place to organize excursions is Fhu Travel. More straightforward targets include the temple at Nong Bua, with it superb murals, and beautiful Doi Phukha National Park.
Inhabiting the remote hill country west of Nan, the population of about three hundred Mrabri represent the last remnants of nomadic hunter-gatherers in Thailand, though their way of life is rapidly passing. Believing that spirits would be angered if the tribe settled in one place, grew crops or kept animals, the Mrabri traditionally built only temporary shelters of branches and wild banana leaves, moving on to another spot in the jungle as soon as the leaves turned yellow; thus they earned their poetic Thai name, Phi Tong Luang – “Spirits of the Yellow Leaves”. They eked out a hard livelihood from the forest, hunting with spears, trapping birds and small mammals, digging roots and collecting nuts, seeds and honey.
In recent decades, however, deforestation by logging and slash-and-burn farming has eaten into the tribe’s territory, and the Mrabri were forced to sell their labour to Hmong and Mien farmers, often under slave-like conditions. But in the last few years, salvation for many Mrabri has come in the form of weaving hammocks: foreign visitors noticed their skill at making string bags out of jungle vines and helped them to set up a small-scale hammock industry. The hammocks are now exported to countries around the world, and the Mrabri weavers have the benefits of education, free healthcare and an unemployment fund.
Nan is a pleasant spot to spend a day or two, but if you fancy doing something a bit more energetic, it’s worth heading out to the countryside. With or without your own vehicle, your best option is to head for the reliable Fhu Travel at 453/4 Thanon Sumondhevaraj. As well as dispensing advice about the region, Fhu and Ung, his wife, organize popular and enjoyable guided tours and trekking trips. One-day tours to Wat Nong Bua, including a visit to the local weavers, cost B3200 for two people or B900 per person for five people, including lunch. Two- to three-day treks head west, through tough terrain of thick jungle and high mountains, visiting Mrabri, Htin, Hmong and Mien villages. As well as offering cycling tours around town, one- to three-day whitewater-rafting excursions on the Wa River near Mae Charim to the east of town, and kayaking, whether overnight or just paddling for half a day on the Nan River near town, Fhu can also arrange trips to Luang Prabang in Laos, via the border crossing at Huai Kon in the extreme north of Nan province, which is open to foreigners.
If you’re coming up from Chiang Mai, the quickest and most obvious route to Chiang Rai is Highway 118, a fast, 185km road that swoops through rolling hill country. A much more scenic approach, however, is to follow Highway 107 and Highway 1089; a two-day trip along this route will leave you enough time for a longtail boat trip along the Kok River and an overnight stay in Tha Ton, which boasts several appealing riverside resorts and a wide variety of outdoor activities. There are other diversions en route, including the admirable Elephant Nature Park and a couple of good guesthouses that can arrange trekking in the countryside near Chiang Dao.
Guided treks to the summit of Doi Chiang Dao, famous for its many rare alpine plants and birds, can be arranged by both Malee’s and Chiang Dao Nest during the cool season, roughly from November to March. It takes two to three days to go up and down and costs around B3400 per person in a large group.
Travelling down the 100km stretch of the Kok River to Chiang Rai gives you a chance to soak up a rich diversity of typical northern landscapes, which you never get on a speeding bus. Heading out of Tha Ton, the river traverses a flat valley of rice fields and orchards, where it’s flanked by high reeds inhabited by flitting swallows. After half an hour, you pass the 900-year-old Wat Phra That Sop Fang, with its small hilltop chedi and a slithering naga staircase leading up from the river bank. Beyond the large village of Mae Salak, 20km from Tha Ton, the river starts to meander between thickly forested slopes. From among the banana trees and giant wispy ferns, kids come out to play, adults to bathe and wash clothes, and water buffalo emerge simply to enjoy the river. About two hours out of Tha Ton the hills get steeper and the banks rockier, leading up to a half-hour stretch of small but feisty rapids, where you might well get a soaking. Beyond the rapids, crowds of boats suddenly appear, ferrying tour groups from Chiang Rai to the Karen village of Ruammid, 20km upstream, for elephant-riding. From here on, the landscape deteriorates as the bare valley around Chiang Rai opens up.
The best time of year to make this trip is in the cool season (roughly Nov–Feb), when you’ll get both lush vegetation and exciting rapids. Canopied longtail boats leave from the south side of the bridge in Tha Ton every day at 12.30pm for the trip to Chiang Rai, which takes around four rather noisy hours. The slower, less crowded journey upriver gives an even better chance of appreciating the scenery – the longtails leave Chiang Rai at 10.30am. If you can get a group of up to six people together (up to twelve when the river’s deeper in the rainy season), it’s better to charter a longtail from the boat landing in Tha Ton, which will allow you to stop at the hill-tribe villages and hot springs en route. A round-trip to Chiang Rai and back costs B3800 per boat.
If you have more time, the peaceful bamboo rafts which glide downriver to Chiang Rai in three days almost make you part of the scenery. Each party is accompanied by two steersmen who dismantle the rafts in Chiang Rai and bring the bamboo back to be recycled in Tha Ton. Garden Home Nature Resort, for example, charge B8000–12,000 per boat for two to six passengers, including soft drinks and food, staying at a Lahu village and the hot springs along the way. They also offer two-day versions, starting at Ban Pa Tai, east of Tha Ton, as well as half- and full-day trips downriver from Tha Ton, by either raft or kayak, returning by car.
Passengers departing from Tha Ton boat landing are required to sign the log book at the adjacent tourist police booth. A peaceful guesthouse between Mae Salak and Ruammid, from which you can go trekking (guided or self-guided), might tempt you to break your river journey. Akha Hill House, on the south bank of the Kok, 3km on foot from the riverside hot springs near Huai Kaeo waterfall, offers lofty views, comfortable rooms and bungalows, some with en-suite hot showers (with decent rates for singles), and free transport daily to and from Chiang Rai.
The northernmost tip of Thailand, stretching from the Kok River and Chiang Rai to the border, is split in two by Highway 1, Thailand’s main north–south road. In the western half, rows of wild, shark’s-tooth mountains jut into Burma, while to the east, low-lying rivers flow through Thailand’s richest rice-farming land to the Mekong River, which forms the border with Laos here.
At a push, any one of the places described in this section could be visited in a day from Chiang Rai, while hardly anyone visits Mae Sai on the Burmese border except on a visa-run day-trip. If you can devote two or three days, however, you’d be better off moving camp to Mae Salong, a mountain-top Chinese enclave, or Chiang Saen, whose atmospheric ruins by the banks of the Mekong contrast sharply with the ugly commercialism of nearby Sop Ruak. Given more time and patience, you could also stop over at the palace, temple and arboretum of Doi Tung to look down over Thailand, Laos and Burma, and continue beyond Chiang Saen to Chiang Khong on the banks of the Mekong, which is now a popular crossing point to Laos.
For hopping around the main towns here by public transport, the setup is straightforward enough: frequent buses to Mae Sai run due north up Highway 1; to Chiang Saen, they start off on the same road before forking right onto Highway 1016; for most other places, you have to make one change off these routes onto a songthaew.
Opium will always be associated with the Far East in the popular imagination, but the opium poppy actually originated in the Mediterranean. It arrived in the East, however, over twelve centuries ago, and was later brought to Thailand from China with the hill tribes who migrated from Yunnan province. Opium growing was made illegal in Thailand in 1959, but during the 1960s and 1970s rampant production and refining of the crop in the lawless region on the borders of Thailand, Burma and Laos earned the area the nickname the Golden Triangle. Two main “armies” operated most of the trade within this area. The ten-thousand-strong Shan United Army (SUA), set up to fight the Burmese government for an independent state for the Shan (Thai Yai) people, funded itself from the production of heroin (a more refined form of opium). Led by the notorious warlord Khun Sa, the SUA attempted to extend their influence inside Thailand during the 1960s, where they came up against the troops of the Kuomintang (KMT). These refugees from China, who fled after the Communist takeover there, were at first befriended by the Thai and Western governments, who were pleased to have a fiercely anti-Communist force patrolling this border area. The Kuomintang were thus able to develop the heroin trade, while the authorities turned a blind eye.
By the 1980s, the danger of Communist incursion into Thailand had largely disappeared, and the government was able to concentrate on the elimination of the crop, putting the Kuomintang in the area around Mae Salong on a determined “pacification” programme. In 1983 the Shan United Army was pushed out of its stronghold at nearby Ban Hin Taek (now Ban Therd Thai), over the border into Burma, and in 1996, Khun Sa cut a deal with the corrupt Burmese military dictatorship. The man once dubbed the “Prince of Death”, who had a US$2 million bounty on his head from the United States, was able to live under Burmese army protection in a comfortable villa in Rangoon until his death in 2007.
The Thai government has succeeded in reducing the size of the opium crop within its borders to an insignificant amount, but Thailand still has a vital role to play as a conduit for heroin; most of the production and refinement of opium has simply moved over the borders into Burma and Laos. And in the last few years, opium growing within northern Thailand, although still at a very low level, has apparently started to increase again, based on small patches in remote mountains and using a high-yield, weather-resistant breed supplied by the Burmese drug barons.
The destruction of huge areas of poppy fields has had far-reaching repercussions on the hill tribes. In many cases, with the raw product not available, opium addicts have turned to injecting heroin from shared needles, leading to a devastating outbreak of AIDS. The Thai government has sought to give the hill tribes an alternative livelihood through the introduction of legitimate cash crops, yet these often demand the heavy use of pesticides, which later get washed down into the lowland valleys, incurring the wrath of Thai farmers.
The dangers of the heroin trade have in recent years been eclipsed by the flood of methamphetamines – either yaa baa (literally “crazy medicine”) or Ice (crystal meth) – that is infiltrating all areas of Thai society, but most worryingly the schools. Produced in vast quantities in factories just across the Burmese border, mostly by former insurgents, the United Wa State Army, yaa baa and Ice are the main objective of vehicle searches in border areas, with perhaps a billion tablets smuggled into Thailand each year. It’s estimated that three million Thais are methamphetamine users, prompting the Thaksin government into a fierce crackdown in the first half of 2003 which, much to the consternation of human rights watchers, led to two thousand extra-judicial deaths and 51,000 arrests. Things have quietened down since then, but the frequent busts of methamphetamine dealers show that the problem has not gone away.
The Kuomintang live up to their Thai nickname – jiin haw, meaning “galloping Chinese” – by offering treks on horses, a rare sight in Thailand. Trips to Akha, Lahu and other Chinese villages can be arranged at the Shin Sane Guest House from B500 for four hours, but it’s worth meeting your guide and checking out the itinerary and the horses before you hand over any money.
Armed with a sketch map from one of the guesthouses, it would be possible to walk to some of the same villages yourself – or better still, hire a guide from Little Home Guest House for B200 per day.
With its bustling border crossing into Burma and kilometres of tacky souvenir stalls, MAE SAI can be an interesting place to watch the world go by, though most foreigners only come here on a quick visa run. Thailand’s most northerly town lies 61km from Chiang Rai at the dead end of Highway 1, which forms the town’s single north–south street. Wide enough for an armoured battalion, this ugly boulevard still has the same name – Thanon Phaholyothin – as at the start of its journey north in the suburbs of Bangkok. The road ends at the Mae Sai River, which here serves as the Thailand–Burma border.
For a lofty perspective on the comings and goings, climb up through the market stalls to the chedi of Wat Phra That Doi Wao, five minutes’ walk from the bridge on the west side of Phaholyothin, behind the Top North Hotel. As well as Doi Tung to the south and the hills of Laos in the east, you get a good view up the steep-sided valley and across the river to Thachileik.
Thanon Phaholyothin ends at a short pedestrianized bridge over the Mae Sai River, which forms the border with Burma. Here, during daylight hours, you can have the dubious pleasure of crossing over to Thachileik, the Burmese town opposite, for yet more tacky shopping. You’ll first be stamped out by Thai immigration at the entrance to the bridge, then on the other side of the bridge, you pay US$10, or an exorbitant B500, to Burmese immigration for a one-day stay. Coming back across the bridge, you’ll be given a new fifteen-day entry stamp – unless you have a multiple-entry visa or re-entry permit – by Thai immigration.
The “Golden Triangle”, a term coined to denote a huge opium-producing area spreading across Burma, Laos and Thailand (see The Princess Mother Pagoda), has, for the benefit of tourists, been artificially concentrated into the precise spot where the borders meet, 70km northeast of Chiang Rai. Don’t come to the village of SOP RUAK, at the confluence of the Ruak (Mae Sai) and Mekong rivers, expecting to come across sinister drug-runners or poppy fields – instead you’ll find souvenir stalls, pay-toilets, a huge, supremely tacky golden Buddha shrine, two opium museums and lots of signs saying “Golden Triangle” which pop up in a million photo albums around the world.
Sop Ruak puts you tantalizingly close to Laos and, even if you don’t have time to spend exploring the country properly, you can still have the thrill of stepping on Lao soil. A longtail boat from next to Sriwan Restaurant, for example, will give you a kiss-me-quick tour of the “Golden Triangle” (B400), including a stop at a souvenir market on the Lao island of Done Xao (B20 admission).
Combining dozens of tumbledown temple ruins with sweeping Mekong River scenery, CHIANG SAEN, 60km northeast of Chiang Rai, is a rustic haven and a good base camp for the border region east of Mae Sai. The town’s focal point, where the Chiang Rai road (Thanon Phaholyothin) meets Thanon Rim Khong (the main road along the banks of the Mekong), is a lively junction thronged by buses, songthaews and longtails. Turning left at this T-junction soon brings you to Sop Ruak, and you may well share the road with the tour buses that sporadically thunder through (though most of them miss out the town itself by taking its western bypass). Very few tourists turn right in Chiang Saen, passing the port for cargo boats from Laos and China, along the road to Chiang Khong, even though this is the best way to appreciate the slow charms of the Mekong valley.
The layout of the old, ruined city is defined by the Mekong River running along its east flank; a tall rectangle, 2.5km from north to south, is formed by the addition of the ancient ramparts, now fetchingly overgrown, on the other three sides. The grid of leafy streets inside the ramparts is now too big for the modern town, which is generously scattered along the river road and across the middle on Thanon Phaholyothin.
Originally known as Yonok, the region around Chiang Saen seems to have been an important Thai trading crossroads from some time after the seventh century. The city of Chiang Saen itself was founded around 1328 by the successor to the renowned King Mengrai of Chiang Mai, Saen Phu, who gave up his throne to retire here. Coveted for its strategic location guarding the Mekong, Chiang Saen had multiple allegiances, paying tribute to Chiang Mai, Kengtung in Burma and Luang Prabang in Laos, until Rama I razed the place in 1804. The present village was established only in 1881, when Rama V ordered a northern prince to resettle the site with descendants of the old townspeople mustered from Lamphun, Chiang Mai and Lampang.
Armed with a Chinese visa from Bangkok or Chiang Mai, it was until recently possible to catch a passenger boat from Chiang Saen up the Mekong to Jing Hong in China. However, in October 2011, close to Sop Ruak, two Chinese cargo ships were subjected to a brutal armed attack by a group of men from the Thai army. The motive wasn’t immediately clear, but thirteen Chinese sailors died in the incident, and at the time of writing all passenger services between the two countries had been suspended. Cargo shipments from China were also stopped temporarily.
This is a crucial trade route for countries that are linked by the Mekong, and in a bid to get cargo services running again, officials from China, Thailand, Laos and Burma sanctioned coordinated patrols along stretches of the river. But in December 2011, after less than a fortnight of patrols, three Burmese soldiers were killed in a clash with suspected drug traffickers, suggesting that the situation is still some way from being resolved.
As one of the few places in Thailand where it’s possible for foreigners to cross to Laos, CHIANG KHONG is constantly bustling with travellers waiting to go over the river to the Lao town of Houayxai and embark on the lovely Mekong boat journey down to Luang Prabang. On a high, steep bank above the water, Chiang Khong is strung out along a single, north–south street, Thanon Sai Klang, between the cross-river pier at Hua Wiang and the fishing port of Ban Hat Khrai. Once you’ve admired the elevated view of the traffic on the Mekong and glimpsed the ruined, red-brick turrets of the French-built Fort Carnot in Houayxai, there’s little to do in the town itself, though several local excursions might tempt you to stay a little longer. On Fridays, there’s a bustling market around the bridge to the south of central Chiang Khong, while Saturdays see a night market, mostly for food, on the main street.
If you’d like to explore the area around Chiang Khong more fully, the best option is to put yourself up at Baan Tam-Mi-La guesthouse, where Khun Wat has simple local maps and lots of information. Thung Na Noi, a Hmong village 8km west, with a market every Friday, makes a good cycling trip, with the possibility of returning by a more circuitous, 12km route through the forest. There’s a guesthouse in the village and an attractive waterfall, Huai Tong, 3km away. At the Thai Lue village of Si Dornchai, 14km south of Chiang Khong on Route 1020, you can watch weavers at work at three shops near the bridge – this would also make a good trip by bike, returning via back roads along the river. With your own car or motorbike, you could push on from Si Dornchai for 50km to the interesting Kuomintang village of Ban Pha Tang and the precipitous mountain viewpoint at Phu Chi Fa, 25km beyond.
The Mekong giant catfish (pla buk) is the largest scaleless freshwater fish in the world, measuring up to 3m in length and weighing in at 300kg. Chiang Khong has traditionally been the catfish capital of the north, attracting fish merchants and restaurateurs from Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and Bangkok – the mild, tasty meat of the pla buk is prized for its fine, soft texture, and one fish can fetch B60,000–80,000. The catfish season is officially opened at the port of Ban Hat Khrai on April 18 with much pomp, including an elaborate ceremony to appease Chao Por Pla Buk, the giant catfish god. The season’s haul used to be between thirty and sixty fish all told, but recent years have been so disappointing (only two were caught in 2008, for example) that Thailand’s Fishery Department has begun an artificial spawning programme.
If you’re twiddling your thumbs in Chiang Khong while waiting to cross to Laos, or simply want to spend some time out on the water, ask at your guesthouse about one-hour boat trips on the Mekong or full-day voyages up to Chiang Saen and back. As you leave Chiang Khong itself and chug past sandy outcrops, it’s likely you’ll catch glimpses of villagers fishing, playing or washing in the river (usually met with big smiles and lots of frantic waving).
Foreigners can get thirty-day Lao visas on arrival in Houayxai. As paying in baht is so unfavourable, gold shops (where the rates are often best), guesthouses and banks in Chiang Khong sell dollars. Hua Wiang pier, at the north end of town, is the departure point for frequent passenger ferries to Houayxai. These cross-river ferries are likely to be phased out when the new Mekong bridge, 8km downstream from Chiang Khong, is constructed. However, the project has experienced serious delays, so completion may still be some way off by the time you read this.
From Houayxai, there are buses to Luang Prabang, Vientiane, Luang Namtha and Oudomxai, but by far the most popular option is to catch a passenger boat to Luang Prabang. Usually departing between 10am and noon every morning, these glide down the scenic Mekong in two days, with an overnight and a change of boat at Pakbeng. The alternative is to take one of the cramped, noisy and dangerous speedboats, on which passengers should be provided with helmets and life jackets. These cover the same stretch in six to seven hours. From Houayxai’s cross-river pier, tuk-tuks will take you to the regular passenger-boat pier or the speedboat pier.
It’s easy to sort all of this out yourself and there’s really no need to pay commission to a Thai or Lao travel agent to book in advance.