Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Places in the Heart #3 - The Golden Triangle

Unlike most Australians who visit Thailand, my first experience of the Land of Smiles was in the far north, in the so-called Golden Triangle. Here, Burma, Laos and Thailand meet at the confluence of the Mekong and Ruak rivers, the physical border marked by several Big Things - the tackiest of casinos in Laos and Burma, and a huge golden Buddha on a glittering, dragon-prowed ship surrounded by white elephants on the Thai side.

image from Thailandwanderer.com

During daylight hours, the little town of Sop Ruak is abuzz with tourists shopping for market souvenirs, taking photos at a hillside lookout, and praying for blessings under the benevolent smile of the Buddha. For most visitors, this is a whistlestop en route to the border town of Mae Sai or the gorgeous Queen’s gardens at Doi Tung ... but there are many rewards for lingering a little, exploring this fascinating and historic part of the country over several days.

My first visit here in 2006 coincided with the annual Elephant Polo tournament, which for five years was held in the grounds of the Anantara Golden Triangle. With its own holistically-run elephant camp, this was a celebration of Thailand’s pachyderms in their natural environment, a welcome respite of quality care and attention for elephants brought off the streets of Bangkok, Pattaya and Surin. Economics and the tyranny of distance, however, eventually forced the event back south to its original base of Hua Hin, closer to Bangkok and less of a haul for socialites and tourists. 

At the ele polo

It was here that I started my love affair with these gentle, intelligent and hilarious giants of the animal kingdom; and while I have since visited many other elephant camps around Thailand, I'm yet to find one that impresses me quite as much as the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation, managed by the thoughtful and conservation-minded John Roberts. 

While private visits to this camp can be arranged, it is not generally open to the public. Instead, guests at the all-inclusive Anantara resort have full access to the elephants, with mahout lessons and care for the animals all part of a daily itinerary - a fantastic experience for anyone who can afford it. 

Baby elephant at GTAEF

But if you need an even greater incentive to visit Thailand’s north than elephants, there are plenty of other attractions in the Golden Triangle region to keep you occupied for several days. Across the road from the Anantara is the fascinating Hall of Opium, which tells the story of the region’s infamous drug trade without holding back; while the nearby town of Chiang Saen is a veritable historic goldmine, with Lanna temples such as Wat Phra That Chedi Luang and Wat Phra Chao Lan Thong dating back to the 13th century.

It’s beautifully cool and misty up here in the north during the winter season (November-January) - and there’s something truly magical about an early morning pilgrimage to the evocative Wat Pa Sak, built in 1295 and surrounded by 300 teak trees. Chances are you’ll have this architectural and spiritual gem all to yourself - enjoy the serenity.

Sunrise over the Mekong at Sop Ruak. Pics: Julie Miller

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