The Golden Triangle

I try to avoid being an obvious tourist whenever I’m outside of Chicago. But in certain parts of the world it is impossible to blend in. My stature (nearly six feet), my skin (creamy white), my eyes (green) and my accent (American) peg me as a visitor. The best I can do is disguise the American accent by faking an Eastern European one (which I did with great success in India) and cover my hair with a scarf (convenient as it eliminates the need to comb my hair).

Despite the limitations of morphing my physical appearance, I still try to live like a local where and when I can. I cringe a little when I see bus loads of people blindly following a tour guide, as cameras dangle from their necks and souvenirs spill from their shopping bags. I angle for the authentic experiences that prove one-of-a-kind, versus cookie-cutter and mass produced. It’s not any sort of elitist traveler uppity attitude. It’s just a matter of preference. I want to go where no stranger has gone before — or at the very least, rarely goes.

But, those mass-produced itineraries also exist for good reason. Namely, they hit all of the major sites in a condensed amount of time and eliminate the stress of having to package it together independently. So I’m not above joining them, even though I love to make fun of them.

Today was one of those days. I decided to take a heavily advertised, cookie-cutter excursion from Chiang Mai to the Golden Triangle. This is the area of northern Thailand that borders Myanmar (Burma) and Laos. Back in the day, it was a big center for opium trading. Today it’s a major tourist destination without the opium. Not that I would have tried it or anything.

Big lesson learned: To those who sign up for this tour, a good night’s sleep and  a large cup of coffee should be mandatory. It was a truly exhausting day that began at 7 a.m., when the group mini-van picked me up, and ended at 9 p.m., when it dropped me back in Chiang Mai. I think this tour would have zonked out my parents within the first few hours.

The trip was a blitz through the Golden Triangle’s “greatest hits,” with quickie stops at multiple places. We actually spent more time in the van driving than visiting the featured sites. But as the old adage goes, “It’s about the journey, not the destination.” This certainly applies with this tour. We passed some spectacular scenery — mountainous countryside, lush-green rice patty fields, golden temples perched on hills in the distance. Gorgeous stuff. I brought a book to occupy the ride but wound up gazing out my window for most of it, completely absorbed in the exotic views streaming past me.

We first stopped at a hot spring for 30 minutes. It was just “eh” — like Old Faithful’s pet hamster. It was long enough for me to stretch my legs and get that cappuccino I’d need to power through the morning.

Next, we stopped at the White Temple in Chiang Rai for 30 minutes. This temple is absolutely breath-taking, especially against the bright blue sky. It’s unlike the other temples in Chiang Mai: Everything is white. It’s also very new and still being constructed, which is in contrast to some of the ancient Buddhist temples with a richer legacy.

The White Temple setting reminded me of a fairy tale: Think “Never-ending Story” meets Buddhist place of worship. The outside of the temple features demon-like creatures guarding the main entry, with hands from the ground reaching, clawing, striving to get in. It is a little creepy, actually.

As I strolled around the white-frosted building, I wondered if anyone else ever thought about what an aggressive paintball game might do to the place.

Next, we took a 1.5-hour boat ride that included a quick stop in Laos. The boat journey on the Mekong River, where the three countries of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar (Burma) meet, was beautiful and calming. We docked in Laos, where our group was dumped into a market that sold scorpion whiskey, t-shirts and local handicrafts. I was most impressed with the selection of knock-off designer handbags available for purchase. Coach, Chanel, Prada … you name it, they had it. Starting at around $15 per piece, too. I did a handstand in front of one of these stalls.

Next, we had a late buffet lunch before visiting a hill tribe village market for 30 minutes. This particular visit seemed very manufactured and there was unspoken pressure to buy the handmade products — it was not the authentic village experience I would have preferred. Nevertheless, the photo opportunities were pretty great.

This stop included an introduction to the “long neck” Karen tribe, refugees from Myanmar (Burma) famous for the copper coils wrapped around the necks of its women.

Once upon a time these coils were worn by both the women and the men, as a means of protecting the neck against tiger attacks. I guess that was a legitimate issue back in the day. Today the custom is only worn by the women, starting as young as the age of four. I met a woman who was more than 50 years old who had been wearing the coils since she was five years old.

I tried on a touristy version of the neck coil, and my neck began sweating within the first minute of wearing it. And damn, that thing was heavy!


And finally … we made the 3.5-hour journey back to Chiang Mai. I had to take a few Tylenol to make it through the remainder of the evening.

Rarely do I give a play-by-play of my day like this. At least, not on this blog. But I think it’s worth doing for this particular excursion to highlight how much these day-trip companies cram into the itinerary only to tucker guests out. If you’re short on time, this is the popular Golden Triangle option. But I felt like I was just scratching the surface, never really getting a true flavor of the place because I was so concerned about meeting at the designated departure point on time with each stop. With one eye on the clock, I could not truly absorb the place. Not in the span of 30 minutes anyway.

Would I do this trip a second time? Nope.

Would I recommend it to others? Sure.

Am I happy that I did something so touristy? For the reminder of why I often avoid blitz outings such as this, sure.

The three handstand photos, across two countries, are now among my most cherished souvenirs. That was worth the journey alone.

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