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Destination of the Week

Journey to the Heart of Mekong


It is five in the morning at the Golden Triangle. Across the border on the Burmese side, mountain ranges are shrouded in thick mist. And the air is heavy with the smell of burning wood, probably from a jungle fire. Soon there will be bursts of outboard motors coming from the longtail boats plying up and down the Mae Ruak which joins Mekong a few kilometres downstream.

A guest is looking out of his room at Le Meridien Baan Boran perched on a hilltop overlooking the confluence of Mae Ruak and the mighty Mekong, the point where the borders of Thailand, Burma and Laos meet. Gradually, the breathtaking view of the Golden Triangle unfolds as the sun appears above the mountains. Down there in Chiang Saeng town, another business day is slowly breaking.

At the foot of Wat Phu Khao, along the road running parallel to Mekong river, vendors begin arranging their potpourri of goods — handicrafts, herbs, semi-precious stones, antiques, locally-woven apparels, footwear, local food and snacks, etc. Opium-smoking paraphernalia is one of those souvenir items that catch the eyes of most visitors.

The dry season usually draws a greater number of visitors, both Thai and foreign travellers to the north, to Chiang Rai, and in particular, to the famed Golden Triangle, which is trying to replace the image of an area associated with drug producing and trafficking with that a unique tourist attraction and a thriving trading post.

Apart from being the only province where access is possible to Burma, Laos and China, Chiang Rai (which boasts of the second longest runway after Bangkok ) is about an hour flight from the capital.

For those who get bored with the sand, sea and sun destinations, Chiang Rai offers a good alternative. Here you find a ‘less-beaten track,’ an adventure, or eco-tourism at its best. The splendour of its misty mountains, cool climate, unspoilt pastoral beauty, wealth of historical and archaeological sites together make Chiang Rai an enchanting tourist attraction.

Since the province is where the three countries meet, no wonder the colourful mix of ethnic minorities are found here. Akha, Lisu, and Lahu hilltribes as well as ethnic Chinese, Laos and Burmese ( mostly Shans ) have been living here along with local Thais for ages.

Despite being a multi-border province, Chiang Rai enjoys but a moderate benefit from trade. Until now, trade with the neighbouring Burma and Laos, and with China as well, has been slow and often shows deficits. During the past five months, the frontier trade here suffered a sharp Bt 475.15 million deficit, according to official figures.

MaeSai Checkpoint

There are three border check points in Chiang Rai where the trade is being conducted — Mae Sai, Chiang Khong and Chiang Saeng. Of them, Chiang Saeng recorded the steepest deficit.

Most Thai exports include low-priced consumer goods instant noodles, ready-to -wear clothes, energy drinks and miscellaneous goods, while imports are high-priced raw materials such as processed wood and live animals.

There have been complaints over the difficulty Thai exports to Burma have been facing at Mae Sai-Tachilek checkpoint: Burma’s ban on certain consumer goods, and the requirement for letters of credit.

Better transportation, clear trading rules and easier visa application for visitors will definitely benefit trade and tourism in the region. However, cooperation among the neighbours is still either slow or inefficient, preventing the triangle’s potential to grow. Hopefully, the time will come, sooner rather than later, when the triangle becomes the heart of trade and tourism activities of the Mekong region.

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