My second day on northern Thailand would consist of a journey around the Golden Triangle including brief visits to Myanmar and Laos. The hotel concierge booked a car with a driver for me after convincing me this was the best option. This cost around US $100 for 8 or so hours, more than it would have cost to rent a car to drive myself, but the local knowledge my driver provided was very valuable. The concierge also offered a package with a more formalized tour, but it wasn’t really what I wanted and was significantly more expensive.
I did some some research ahead of my trip and decided on this plan so I could do some unique travel (at least for me), and get several new passport stamps in the same day. This isn’t my typical vacation, so I certainly took advantage of atypical activities. I’d like to really experience a place for more than a few hours, but I don’t know when or if I’ll ever have the opportunity to return to Myanmar and Laos.
I met my driver in the driveway of the Le Meridien Chiang Rai around 9am and I was pleasantly surprised with how good his English was. I checked out of my room and put my luggage in the trunk of the car. The tour was scheduled to end in the late afternoon so I had the driver drop me at the Chiang Rai airport since I had an early evening flight to Bangkok.
The tour started around Chiang Rai, at Wat Rong Khun (aka White Temple). This is still under construction, but its a very unique modern temple. Amazing design.
After this we started to head north towards Mae Sai. On the way we made another brief stop to visit another temple, Baan Dam (Black House). This was literally and figuratively darker than Wat Rong Khun, but also very impressive.
Unlike some other tours I’ve experienced; there was no pressure to purchase anything, and no entry fee for either temple.
It was only an hour or so from Chiang Rai to Mae Sai. On the way, we saw several small villages. Some people take tours of these areas, and particularly in the hills surrounding where various ethnic minorities reside. The ‘longneck tribes’ are among the most notable. I’ve heard its an interesting experience, but I didn’t have time on this trip.
Once we entered Mae Sai, we didn’t bother to do much other than park the car and then walk to the bridge that connects to Tachileik, Myanmar. There are lots of stands selling various goods presumably for the tourist market, but these items, and many more ‘black market’ items are for sale across the border.
Entry gate into Myanmar
I’ve taken planes, trains, and automobiles across international borders, but walking was a unique experience. In most cases, a visa is required to enter Myanmar. If only visiting this area, a temporary entry permit can be purchased for 500 Thai Baht (~$16). It does not allow entry into the rest of the country. This permit is good for 2 weeks. Keep in mind that upon returning to Thailand, that the new visa is only good for 15 days as opposed to the 30 days when entering via air.
Once across the bridge, I was quickly accosted by various people selling “male-enhancement” products. I was rather embarrassed, and asked my tour guide how old I looked that I would need that, but he didn’t understand my attempt at humor. Thankfully after saying no, they left us alone. Sadly, it seems that sex tourism is a brisk business in Myanmar.
We visited the market, filled with knock-offs, presumably made in China. It brought back memories of various markets I visited when in Beijing and Shanghai, although it was mostly outside, in the rain. I was tempted by a $60 iPhone 5, but it was very poorly made, and now that the phone has been released, it didn’t look much like it. That was too much to pay for what would likely be a paperweight. I bought a few souvenirs for myself and friends/family.
After the market, we walked around the city a bit, and climbed a hill to a lovely pagoda overlooking the area.
Despite my tour guide’s advice, I did visit a toilet in Myanmar, it was a squat toilet, but it was relatively clean.
Not in Kansas anymore…
Once away from the market, I did not see many westerners or obvious tourists. I did enjoy just walking around and seeing the city. It’s one of my favorite ways to explore a new place. I often do it with running shoes, but I wasn’t that adventurous today, and I don’t think my driver was particularly interested.
Shwedagon Pagoda, Tachileik
After a few hours of walking around, we were pretty hungry, and my driver insisted we wait to eat until we were back in Thailand. So we headed back to the bridge to walk back into Mae Sai. As a registered tour guide, he just walked through the checkpoint carrying my purchases. I had to surrender my Myanmar entry permit and get my passport back. I then proceeded to fill out immigration forms and get stamped back in Thailand.
After previous meals at the Le Meridien, and dinner at a touristy place, I really felt I had to get some authentic food while in the area. I told this to my driver, and after asking me multiple times if I was sure I wanted local food, we found a tiny lunch place he knew on a side street. He seemed to know the owners, who seemed absolutely shocked to see a me there. It was early afternoon, so the restaurant was just about to close, but they graciously allowed us to eat there. It was a tasty Thai noodle dish, that was quite spicy even though I’m sure it was toned down for my palate. I asked what it was called, but I couldn’t really translate it into anything sensible, and online searches didn’t help. Oh well. It was a memorable meal, and it was about $4 for both of us.
By this time I had expressed my interest in also crossing into Laos. This would be an unofficial visit, as although I did enter the country, there is no customs checkpoint. Similar to Tachileik, visitors can access the border area, but a visa is required to venture further. We drove to the Thailand side of the Golden Triangle, home to museums, other touristy activities, and of all things, a Four Seasons resort! That was a little beyond the budget of this trip.
We stopped at a large Buddha statue which is where we hired a boat to Donsao, an island in Laos where we would visit. Once there, there is a small outdoor market with things such as cobra and scorpion whiskey, which I did not buy.
I did have a Beerlao, which was pretty tasty.
My tour guide told me that they do not export Beerlao, but apparently that isn’t true. Further research has shown its even exported to the US. I certainly wouldn’t go out of my way to seek it out, but its memorable as the one thing I purchased during my short visit to Laos.
Beyond the small touristy market, there is a casino nearby. Just in the interest of exploring it, we arranged to visit, since there wasn’t much to see/buy in the market. An English speaking local called a driver who picked me and the tour guide up to take us a few minutes to the casino. I was surprised to hear the driver speaking on the phone in Mandarin. Apparently, much new development in Laos is subsidized by the Chinese government. In the casino, the language of the tables is Mandarin, and the selection of games reminded me of Macau. The main clientele are from China. I was sort of hoping to play some low stakes games craps or blackjack, but I couldn’t find tables of either game. Oh well, I certainly didn’t need to gamble anyway. For those that do want to spend some time at the tables, there are casinos in Tachliek too.
After walking around the sparkling new casino, we got a ride back to the pier, where I did get one other thing at the market, another stamp for my passport. No, its not official, but it will be a good memory and complete the fun day of border hopping.
Our boat driver was waiting at the dock in Donsao, so we got in the boat took the short ride back to Thailand. Upon returning, I was offered a souvenir photo of me in the boat on a triangular block of wood with the 3 nations flags. It was all of about $3, a little cheesy, but a nice memento.
We still had some time before I had to get to the airport, so we made our way back via Chiang Saen, an ancient city. Beyond the old city walls, we visited Wat Phra That Chedi Luang, dating from the 14th century was in pretty bad shape, and had sustained damage further damage in an earthquake in 2009.
I’ve traveled all over the world. I haven’t had a day quite like the day I spent around the Golden Triangle. I certainly won’t forget this for a long time.
After a full day of walking and driving around, needless to say I was pretty tired. I arrived at the airport at least 2 hours before my flight. The Chiang Rai airport is very small with minimal traffic, so this was much earlier than I would have liked. My driver suggested I get a massage to relax before my flight. It took some searching, but I finally found a small foot massage parlor on the upper level. There was a short wait, but I still took advantage of the $8 charge for an hour long foot massage. I don’t normally like people touching my feet, but after a lot of walking around on this trip, it was really nice, and the price can’t be beat.
Sadly my trip was winding down. Only a few more flights and experiences, and I’d be heading home. Next I’ll review my Thai domestic flights between Bangkok and Chiang Rai.