The Golden Triangle

Golden Triangle area, north of Chiang Rai
Golden Triangle area, north of Chiang Rai

Chiang Rai

All due respect to Chiang Rai (a qualifier that always precedes an offensive statement), but there is nothing to do there and in its defense, I don’t think anyone would claim you come to see Chiang Rai. The town is small without being quaint, and while nothing about it is offensive, it’s beyond bland. Chiang Rai is not even worth it as a base from which to see the region (I’ve heard good things about nearby Pai).

All of that is not a reflection on the region around Chiang Rai, Thailand’s slice of the Golden Triangle. The sun-drenched green hills are home to countless small hill tribes, most of Chinese, Burmese, and Laotian origin (many of whom came to Thailand as refugees), and while certain villages are now frequented multiple times a day by lumbering tour buses, many of the area’s inhabitants still live almost entirely removed from the rest of the world.

I spent a day trekking through this region with a local guide who still lived in one of the villages and in retrospect, it was the least contrived place I visited in the whole country. As we were essentially walking through this guide’s neighborhood, we temporarily camped out at some guy’s house when it started to rain and though he didn’t seem that surprised to have a dopey American in his living room, nothing about this village felt inauthentic, which I cannot say about many of the other villages I saw in northern Thailand.

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Typical house in these hill tribe villages, elevated to allow people’s animals to live underneath and as a preventative measure against flooding

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Some local kids playing something that vaguely resembled cricket. This guy in the black shirt threw a John McEnroe-style tantrum shortly after I took this
Some local kids playing something that vaguely resembled cricket. This guy in the black shirt threw a John McEnroe-style tantrum shortly after I took this

When I booked this hike, the woman kept saying something about a “bamboo lunch” and I just agreed because I had no idea what was going on. As we were climbing in the morning, my guide kept stopping and cutting off various pieces of bamboo and carving them with his machete, which I initially thought was kind of a weird, time-consuming tick. What I later realized was this was the mechanism for making lunch.

I won’t go through a step-by-step description of this, but because bamboo is watertight and has naturally occurring dividers at each of the ridges (the lines you see in bamboo every 6-8 inches), they make excellent makeshift cookware. Using nothing more than a bunch of bamboo, some banana leaves, a machete, and a fire he’d made, my guide prepared noodle soup, barbecued pork, an omelet, and some tea for lunch in some hut out in the middle of nowhere with ingredients he’d bought that morning. Not that this was in some way a great experience of Thai culture, but it was seriously impressive.

As we were walking, my guide just nonchalantly carved the chopsticks and made this whole lunch like he was in a fully equipped kitchen. By comparison, one time I tried to make myself eggs and toast simultaneously and the whole thing devolved into chaos.
As we were walking, he just nonchalantly carved the chopsticks and made this whole lunch like he was in a fully equipped kitchen. By comparison, one time I tried to make myself eggs and toast simultaneously and the whole thing devolved into chaos.

You get a lot of conflicting reports in this part of Thailand about whether or not opium is still grown in the infamous Golden Triangle. Everyone in Chiang Mai vehemently denies it and would love to show you the royal agricultural projects created as an alternative jobs initiative. When I jokingly asked my guide in Chiang Rai if there were still drug runners operating in the northern hillsides, he replied, “Oh, yeah” without missing a beat.

Compared to the notorious opium-laden region of northern Myanmar to the west, I think Thailand has somewhat contained the problem, though to claim it’s nonexistent seems like a stretch. Whatever drug activity there might be, it’s certainly a very safe place to travel, but the insistence in this region that all illicit drug trade is contained behind the Burmese border is, I think, highly questionable.

Maybe definitely some opium somewhere in this picture
Maybe definitely some opium somewhere in this picture

Overall, I was totally underwhelmed by Chiang Rai, as my uninspired writing can attest. There are so many other places in northern Thailand and this one is just not worth it, as there are several other towns in this region that would give you equally good access to northern Thailand’s natural offerings coupled with a much more interesting town.

Chiang Mai

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From the very little I’ve seen, Thailand’s second city is its best. Chiang Mai has all the elements that make a second city so lovable, combining a laidback atmosphere with a thriving, subdued culture and the easy navigability of a smaller city. A majority of Chiang Mai is enclosed within the original walls, dating back 700 years, and the ancient moat still slowly encircles the main city center.

Chiang Mai is known for having a large “expat population,” which I’m beginning to realize is code for “a lot of tourists” in travel literature. With this comes the inevitability of annoying drunkards on every corner and if your goal in Thailand is to meet locals, you’ll be sorely disappointed here. That said, the combination of a huge college crowd thanks to the city’s several universities and a modest expat population, along with Thai hippies, makes Chiang Mai a fun mash-up of people who don’t seem too worried about much of anything and fully embrace the easygoing lifestyle.

For a place that is absolutely mobbed with tourists, Chiang Mai is almost entirely without any big hotels within its historic center. This is one of the things I enjoyed so much about the city. I have truly never seen so many hostels, guesthouses, and B&B’s in my entire life, and each is more charming than the last. A turn down any side street will bring a half dozen teak-paneled buildings into view, each with a campy name and a flowering courtyard. Inevitably most cater to Western tourists, but this culture of very small hotels makes Chiang Mai infinitely charming and makes sure the big international hotel chains don’t make it inside the city walls.

Like Chiang Rai, the area around Chiang Mai is the thing you really come to see. Taken inside Doi Inthanon National Park
Like Chiang Rai, the area around Chiang Mai is known for its greenery. Wachirathan Waterfall, Doi Inthanon National Park

The city isn’t big enough to have an exclusively touristy area, so nearly every place in town caters to both locals and foreigners. As a result, nowhere is entirely devoid of Western presence, but you’ll also never feel like you’re eating at the equivalent of the Times Square Applebee’s. As an example, I ended up in a bar one night that was playing American country music and serving Sam Adams on tap, but the same place also hosted the unofficial gay billiards club of Chiang Mai. The locals, who probably went there almost every night, warmly welcomed tourists into their game and very patiently taught a French girl who had never played pool in her life how to hold the cue stick.

If you go to Chiang Mai, you absolutely have to be there on a Sunday night. I made my way over to the Sunday Night Market with the expectation of seeing the usual junk, and while you aren’t about to find the world’s most original item, the street isn’t full of complete crap either. Even on a rainy night, the crowd was thickly packed between tents on either side of Chiang Mai’s primary east-west road, but there’s plenty of food along the way to sustain you as you make your way through the bustling street.

Otherwise known as staplers
Otherwise known as a stapler
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The expression on her face kills me, but these two were serving up chocolate waffles. As in, made with chocolate batter. Not even Seoul had these!

This isn’t something unique to Chiang Mai, but while in Thailand, you have to go to a Muay Thai boxing match. The rules of Muay Thai are pretty different from Western boxing, most noticeably in the fact that holding someone is a central part of the strategy and you can hit anyone basically anywhere with anything; there’s a lot of leg and elbow movement in Muay Thai. Various events in history in which Muay Thai boxers have beaten foreign fighters have become a part of the legends surrounding Muay Thai and the sport is revered in Thailand.

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When you walk up to the entrance of the Thapae Boxing Stadium, you think you’ve entered Fight Club. Its gritty exterior is a bit too on-point though, and while an evening at the ring is great fun, I don’t think it’s exactly the authentic world of underground street fighting the strategically run-down environs would like you to think. The only Thai people in the entire place were the bartenders and members of the various fighters’ entourages, but the whole experience is a great time anyway, even if it’s slightly watered down. Honestly, I don’t know that I’d want to end up at a true, back alley Muay Thai boxing facility anyway.

First of all, the soundtrack for the evening was comically American, including repeated plays of “The Final Countdown” and a cringe worthy EDM remix of “Let It Go.” Around the arena inside this giant warehouse thing are about eight bars, almost all of which have “Bronx” in the title, presumably code for general toughness.

The proceedings began with a hipster coming out and playing some sort of flute that looked like it was stolen from a snake charmer as a pre-game warm-up, followed by the first fight which featured, wait for it, children.

This kid weighs maybe 50 pounds and could probably drop you in seconds
This kid weighs maybe 50 pounds and could probably drop you in seconds

When two five-year-old boys were lifted into the ring, as they couldn’t actually lift the ropes to get in, I was horrified and felt like I entered Lord of the Flies. In the end, it didn’t amount to much. The two kids lightly sparred for about 45 seconds before it was all over, and it essentially seemed to be the Thai equivalent of the 8-and-under soccer leagues practically American kid participated in. Not that boxing is particularly safe, but I think most kids probably get knocked about more messing around with their friends than these two did in the ring.

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After that, there were five more fights including a pretty intense “lady fight,” all lasting the full five rounds. The final fight featured a guy from Syria who won suspiciously quickly with a forfeit from his bedraggled opponent.

Between the fourth and fifth fights, there was a kind of halftime show that featured a (choreographed) duel between two guys with swords, followed by six rather tubby guys who were thrown into the ring blindfolded and proceeded to jokingly bludgeon each other in what was essentially a Thai slapstick skit. The whole thing was ridiculous, but on occasion, tourist traps like this have a zany appeal all their own.

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While Bangkok feels much larger than its 6.5 million, Chiang Mai feels smaller than its 400,000. Even though the city seems like one continuous coffee shop and guesthouse, Chiang Mai doesn’t lack charm. At different points, Chiang Mai reminded me of Cape Cod, Costa Rica, and Southern California with its appealing mix of hippie culture, no-worries mentality, and surprisingly diverse selection of things to do and places to eat. As long as you can tolerate the omnipresent tourist crowd, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable place.

Laughing at poor English translations is the height of immaturity, but it doesn't make it any less funny. A selection from Chiang Mai
Laughing at things that get lost in translation is the height of immaturity, but it doesn’t make it any less funny. A selection from Chiang Mai

Overall, Thailand was not my favorite and that was in no small part due to pilot error. When planning a trip of this size, there are bound to be miscalculations and details that slip through the cracks, and I shoved the Thailand portion of this trip in the middle with more concern for what was happening on either end. So in that sense, I very much did not position Thailand well for success in my own head.

Because it is such a backpacker-friendly country, Thailand has a reputation of being the kind of place you can plan on a whim once you have boots on the ground, and that’s not entirely untrue. Particularly in the northern part of the country, there are an overwhelming number of tour companies and options for sightseeing and trekking, but you have to be willing to put up with your own poor decisions if you want to do things at the last minute without researching ahead of time. The good thing about traveling this way is that you’re in a better position to benefit from random experiences you happen to wander into, and when this happens, there’s nothing better. But it can be dangerous to count on the unexpected.

I didn’t do enough research about where to stay, which cities to visit, what to do, and how to spend my time in Thailand, and that certainly contributed to my lack of enthusiasm about the country. What I realized from this is that when you travel this way, you simply end up with a different kind of trip. Did I see all the top sights in Chiang Mai? Definitely not, but I met some of the most interesting people I’ve encountered so far and we bumbled our way around the city in a way that inadvertently gave me a better sense of Chiang Mai than if I’d had a checklist of things to do.

There are pros and cons to this approach, and ultimately I wouldn’t want to spend my entire year abroad in this way, because this “Hey, whatever works, man” approach would mean a lot of squandered time in a place like Tokyo. That said, I wouldn’t swap my experience in Chiang Mai for anything, but it did make writing this post damn difficult. I’m not going to regale you with personal stories and I didn’t have a whole lot else to offer. I loved what I did in Chiang Mai, but you can’t see the whole world that way.

All of that said, I’m not sure I quite get it. Thailand is a beautiful country, the people are really friendly, and there is a lot to see, but that’s true of everywhere I’ve been so far, yet everyone I know, from fellow Americans to other Asian tourists, has heaped praise on Thailand.

Thinking about it now, so many people said they loved Thailand because it’s so cheap and they’re definitely not wrong, but you also get what you pay for. With a few exceptions, a cheap price equals a cheap experience, from accommodations to souvenirs. If you want something of substance, you’ll have to pay for it and while it’ll still be cheaper than in most other Asian countries, you won’t be getting an incredible deal.

There are two notable exceptions to this: food and massages. If anything, the cheaper the food, the better it seems to be and you’ll never pay more than 50 baht (about $1.50) for street food. I never had a bad experience with this and as far as food safety is concerned, your eyes are your best judges. I think most New York halal carts look more suspect than your average street cart in Bangkok, but of course if it looks highly questionable, then it probably is.

It’s true that “Thai massage” is often a winking euphemism for prostitution and for anyone who’s not entirely naïve, this service can easily be found. The scantily clad “masseuses” sitting in a line-up outside a shop are a pretty obvious give-away. However, there are plenty of places to get a normal massage and a price of 200-300 baht ($5-8) is entirely normal for a one-hour foot massage in the heart of Bangkok. I found a place around the corner from my hostel that I went to every day that ran me 350 baht ($9.50) including a very sizable tip.

I do not understand this as a business model, but unfortunately what I do understand is what a tough business this is. I gather that these women get almost none of the money you pay the shop, rely almost exclusively on tips, and can wait around all day for clients because there is such a surplus of these places. I almost didn’t go because I worried that the whole system was exploitative, and while I’m still not fully convinced it’s not, I came to the conclusion there is simply a stupid amount of supply for the demand. While these jobs aren’t great, it keeps the women (the ones who aren’t, in fact, prostitutes) from having to resort to less reputable work.

Thailand’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Even though this is my first stop in Southeast Asia (Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia), I’m still pretty confident in declaring Thailand the most tourist-friendly country in the region with the most infrastructure in place to facilitate Western visitors. As such, it is incredibly easy to navigate the country without speaking Thai and you’re bound to meet other travelers. The downside is, of course, just that; there is a lot of tourism development and you’ll meet tons of other travelers.

Finding the ever elusive “authentic experience” when traveling is frequently a challenge, but in Thailand it can feel downright impossible thanks to a booming tourist industry that has largely obscured much of the local experience from outsiders. The good news is, it does seem as though there are still places you can go to get off the beaten track, but this requires a lot of research and planning ahead of time, as well as a lot of money. As I already mentioned, in a country notorious for being so cheap, it takes deep pockets to get away from the packs of economical travelers.

Also, for every wonderful person you meet abroad, there are five drunken savages you can’t get away from fast enough. I would never before have classified “British” as a portent of insanity, but in Thailand, Brits are often such out of control, manic debauchers that it’s best to avoid them if you aren’t interested in perpetual belligerent drunkenness and spur-of-the-moment tattoos.

My conclusion is that I can’t muster strong feelings for Thailand one way or another. I would never tell someone not to visit, but of the six countries I’ve visited so far, this is the country I feel the least interested in revisiting.

I’ve spent the last couple days on the beaches in the south of Thailand on Koh Lanta and they are every bit as stunning as the postcards have led you to believe. I would recommend this part of the country the most highly of anything I saw in Thailand, but I’m not going to take the time to write more extensively about it. There’s only so much you can say about a beautiful beach.

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This marks the end of my time in Thailand and I’m heading next to the country that is, for me, the most mysterious place on my entire itinerary: Myanmar/Burma. I won’t/can’t get into the particulars of this naming situation and which is the more politically correct, but I’m going with Myanmar, as that is how the country is listed by the UN, though it succinctly refers to itself as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.

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