Trek Into The Golden Triangle – Part One
One of the advantages of a posting to Hong Kong is that other Far East countries are easily accessible. One of the first we visit is Thailand. Chiang Mai is Thailand's northern gateway to a magical land of
green hills that rise alarmingly steeply out of verdant valleys.
There are waterfalls with the roar of dragons, caves perfumed by wild
orchids. Beyond the hills are the mountains which were once forested
with teak, but are now mostly stripped bare, though re-forestation is
in progress. Bangkok's River Chao Phraya, and Chiang Mai' s River
Ping begin here. In these hills and mountains live tribes that
remain essentially primitive in their way of life, though one should
never confuse 'primitive' with 'simple'. Such tribes as the Karen,
Akha, Lahu and Lisu. Many of these people have their villages in the
Golden Triangle, that corner where Burma, Thailand and Laos meet and
where the poppies grow. Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy, is
still a problem for the authorities in these hills, which can only be
policed by helicopter. Go picking wild flowers in this part of the
world and you may find yourself pressing them between the pages of a
prison library book.
In Chiang Mai there are various agencies that arrange treks into the
hills to visit the tribes of the interior. Although these treks have
been going for a number of years now, there is still only one way to
get to many of the villages, and that is on foot. The fact that it
is hard work, and one has to be reasonably fit, willing to put up with
large spiders and cockroaches in one's bedroll, pigs and chickens in
the living quarters, sleep on split bamboo mats covering mud floors,
and generally rough it, has kept the numbers of visitors down. The
average number of people on each trek is round about six, but is more
likely to be three or four.
Annette and I booked a three day trek with an agency that had
been in existence for twelve years, a firm which had
been recommended to us by our son Richard who had gone with them the
previous year. At 7.30 a.m. on the morning a vehicle arrived to pick
us up at our guest house. On board were Tony and Tracy from
Sheffield, a couple in their early twenties. We were also introduced
to our twenty-year-old guide, Ping, who took his name from the Chiang
Mai's river. We were twice the age of our companions on the trip.
The vehicle drove for five hours on winding roads north, up hill
and down dale at eighty mph, until both Tony and I were hanging out
the back getting rid of our breakfasts. The women seemed to be all
right, chatting away merrily about what wimps men were when it came to
At noon we arrived at a river called the Mae Kok, where the men
recovered and we all had a rice meal. Ping explained that we would
be going down river by 'long-tailed boat' (a long sleek canoe with an
outboard engine whose propeller was at the end of a metal pipe some
two yards in length) to our first night stop at a Karen village.
"Trouble is," said Ping, "the river's very low for this time of
year. We may get stuck sometimes, so be prepared to get out and push
the boat over sandbars."
"How many in a boat?" I asked.
"They don't take more than eight," he said.
There were, of course, thirteen people our canoe. Apart from
the five of us, the rest were going on to Chiang Rai. We sat in the
canoe sideways, feet against one edge, head against the other, one-
and-one about to maintain even distribution of weight. Two Germans
sitting side-by-side ended up the same way and refused to
tail, so the canoe started out a little wobbly in the first instance.
We begin by roaring off in a cloud of spray and excitement, only
to hit a sand bar on the first bend. Everyone, including the
Germans, get out. The boatman speaks only Thai which Ping
translates into English, but there are two French, an Argentinian,
three Italians and of course the two Germans. No one really knows
what they are expected to do, but they begin pushing the boat over the
sand bar with the boatman yelling for all he's worth.
I wonder if I am alone with my concern of river snakes as I splosh
through the ankle-deep water. I happen to know there are, among the
many poisonous snakes of Thailand, the deadly king cobra, ordinary
cobras, vipers and banded kraits. Among the non-poisonous snakes are
giant pythons. I also happen to know that all snakes can swim. At
Cha Am, in the south, Annette and I were having an evening meal by a
lake, when a snake suddenly reared from the water and snatched a
surface-skimming bat from the air.
Each time my foot enters the water I wince inwardly, waiting for
the double pinprick that means a futile dash upriver to a vehicle that
will take five hours to get me to a hospital, by which time I will
have been dead for four hours fifty-eight minutes. I have a picture
of Annette running beside a stretcher, holding my hand as the venom
washes through my system. I cannot feel her fingers and a red mist
is falling over my eyes. Sometimes I hate my fertile imagination.
The boat is freed from the sand bar and there is a scramble for
seats again. This exercise is repeated some dozen times during the
trip. In the mean time we settle back lazily to watch the world
speed by: green banks, tiered rice-fields and the occasional statue of
Buddha on a hillside. Two hours out from the starting point, our
engine breaks down and we begin to drift on the current. The boatman
curses (we assume) and tinkers with some tools. Eventually he gets
it going again, to our relief, but it still sounds pretty ropey.
Then we pass another boat, outside a hut on the shore. The boatman
stops and begins to remove the coil from this engine and fix it to our
Someone asks Ping, "Does he know the owner?"
"No," smiles our guide. "That's why he's working so quickly.
The owner's probably asleep in the hut."
We get down lower in the canoe, our eyes anxiously on the door of
the hut. To our knowledge there are no gun laws in this part of the
world and we have seen rifles and other firearms carried openly. The
boatman successfully makes the swap, and with our now efficient coil
installed we roar off down river. Everyone begins to Chatter at
once. The air is light once again. After noticing an amphibian,
the Frenchman tells Ping that in France they eat frogs' legs. Ping
is confused and asks why only the legs, why waste the rest of the
We reach a bamboo bridge that spans the river. On the south bank
there is a police post where we have to leave our names (in case we
don't return?). Another canoe with six tourists is just leaving as
we arrive. It has a policeman on board with a machine gun, in
case of river bandits. Our boat is too overloaded to take another
person, so are told to proceed without an armed guard. No one is too
worried, since there hasn't been a hold-up for some time on that
stretch of the water. While we are at the police post we are
surrounded by young tribal children shouting, 'Wombat, wombat,' over
and over again. I thought some eccentric Australian missionary had
been by, until I realised that what they were actually saying was,
'One baht, one baht.' Annette hands out a few coins but that only
increases the number and noise, so we escape to the boat.
Near to evening we arrive at the riverside Karen village and
shake off our cramps. Tony and Tracy follow Ping along a path
smelling strongly of pigs, to a group of thatched huts. Annette and
I drag ourselves behind.
The accommodation is a wooden hut raised on stilts, its furniture
consisting of nothing but reed mats. We sink gratefully onto these
while Ping makes us some mashed tea over an open fire in the kitchen
below. Later we drink the tea as Ping tells us about the Karen.
He points to a magazine photograph of Christ on the cross.
"Most of these people are Christians, though there are some
Buddhists amongst them. They originally came from Burma and there
are probably around quarter of a million in northern Thailand. The
women wear shifts and the men shirts and loose trousers. The
ancestral spirit is passed down through the female line, rather than
the male, and it is the groom who moves in with the bride. Should
there be any marital dispute, the children automatically go with the
While Ping is talking, we are served a meal of cucumber soup,
spicy sweet and sour pork, rice, bananas and pineapple. Under the
hut the pigs are rooting around, rooting out whatever pigs find in
hard-baked earth. Chickens are everywhere, mother hens occasionally
attacking piglets who go too close to their brood. On the verandas
of the surrounding huts, made of bare untreated timber bleached almost
white by the sun, are villagers chattering away. Some of the women
are weaving: the work is quite beautiful, full of triangles of blue
and red. The people are shy and fragile-looking, both sexes being
slim and narrow-hipped. They laugh a lot. Being a lowland tribe,
they have not been thoroughly swamped by opium, and there are few
When dark comes, the crickets fill the night air with buzz saw
sound, and paraffin candles are lit. Annette and Tracy attempt to
teach some of the children snap. One little boy of six is so taken
with the playing cards that when it comes his turn to deal, he grabs
the pack and runs off with it. Everyone laughs. A few minutes
later he emerges out of the dusk with the cards again, and begins
handing them out one by one. Presumably he just had to show them to
someone: his parents, or an aunt.
Later in the evening, when the children have gone to bed, we are visited by around a dozen young men carrying weapons, mostly AK47s. They are excited and tell us they have been into Burma to attack government troops. They squat on the floor and tell their wide-eyed western visitors that they have sabotaged a railway and have got away without harm. One of them is actually Burmese and not a Karen, but his father and mother have been killed by soldiers and he hates the regime as much as do the Karen, who have been forced into exile by the violence and maltreatment meted out to their tribe. We share our food with them, but they merely pick at it, being too high on adrenaline to take an interest in their stomachs. Later they leave us to go to sleep on the raffia matting which serves as a floor covering. Some blanket rolls are given to us. A few yellow-backed cockroaches the size of my big toe escape from my blanket as I unfurl it. I say nothing to Annette. Tracy has already found a
hand-sized striped spider in the only toilet in the village. Annette
goes to bed first, while I make some notes by candlelight. Before
she drops off to sleep, she says, "Watch out for the cockroaches."