Man at His Best

Into Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle

Not for heroin, for elephants.

BY Lestari Hairul | Dec 13, 2016 | Travel

The brain is a weird and wonderful thing. And once mine seizes on an idea, it doesn’t let it go easily. So it was when we were picked up from our hotel in Chiang Rai. The next stop of my Northern Thailand trip, and heroin was on my mind.

It’s nothing at all to do with the ride, one of the many ubiquitous limousine types that Thai luxury accommodations tend to utilise. The only difference was its interiors and the driver; all decked out in safari gear. It’s as if we’re on our way to an entirely different environment. A leather map rolled up in a safari bag assures us that we’ll still be on this continent at least.

But as we cruise down the road the fact that we are entering the notorious Golden Triangle region is hard to shake off. Sure, the Thai side has almost entirely eradicated all opium production thanks to the efforts of the late Thai Princess Mother Srinagarindra. The region though is still second only to Afghanistan in producing heroin. Thanks Myanmar.

On our way, we pass Mae Sai and Chiang Saen: border towns near the Golden Triangle, the former being a place to obtain cheap counterfeit goods. Stands by the side of the road in Chiang Saen sell fresh strawberries and juice. And according to the driver, some local moonshine made from corn too could be obtained.  We finally change course and turn a corner. A gaudy edifice to Roman excess greets us. The all-white Bird Hotel, gilded partly in gold and accented by these hideous statues of Roman gods and goddesses intrudes upon the otherwise uniform landscape of small buildings and green fields. The explosion of anything that the architect had thought to be Roman, signals we’re just 20 minutes away from the pier.

It takes approximately an hour and a half from Chiang Rai to get to the West Post dock. Bypassing the throngs of Chinese tourists hankering after Made-In-China souvenirs (“they come here to bring back home their own goods!” says our driver) by the jetty, we are led to a traditional long tail boat by a woman in traditional costume. My best friend and I grin at the contrast. The sun is blistering and I can feel my face melting off, but this beats the cattle ferries filled to the brim with the hoi polloi on their way to the casinos.

Birdsong accompanies as we leave the ugliness behind. Lush jungle on either side of the river makes the tranquil sailing a cool respite to the eye despite the heat. Our Camp Host points out Laos and Myanmar, I think of heroin again and my brain registers “the horror, the horror” musing momentarily on the book we had to study in school, also involving a river. Two elephants on the bank raise their trunks and trumpet hello. The heat is getting to me and the gong by the pier finally shatters the heady daydream. Here we are at the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle.

 

TENT LIFE

I wake to the chirp of birds, the tent flooding with light from the freakishly early sun rise. My friend thought it a good idea to wake with the day and had zipped up only the clear plastic dividers. The luxury tent comes with two sets of barriers at each window or door opening, one made of the aforementioned plastic and the second of canvas. “Tent” would just refer to the general structure of the abode because everything else inside would be what you’ll expect to have in any luxury accommodation. That includes a big metal tub taking centre-stage in the room. At night the sounds made by whatever has found itself deep inside it, are amplified. Good acoustics keep us up when a particularly massive gecko decides to hang out for three nights, shouting what seems to be expletives each time. There are dozens of these lizards all over the camp flipping the bird verbally through a muffled but loud bellow.

The mountains of Myanmar are shrouded in mist whilst before it, a carpet of jungle lay spread out. River meanders on the right and you can just about spot Laos. If you squint at the blanket of vegetation down below, you could just imagine the elephants slowly getting on their day. Breath-taking, eye-soothing verdant views from the comfort of your own balcony. For as long as you can stand the heat. That mist? God, that’s just everything being boiled alive.

There are two options for escaping the heat, cranking up the AC in your own room aside. Should you be unfortunate enough in choosing a hot season to visit, a swirling whirlpool framed by boulders and logs provides a nice cool dip. A few standout reclining loungers will get you sorted, including one set perched right over the Ruak River just near one of the jetties and close enough to see the interaction between elephant and mahout.

Alternatively, escape into the cool wine cellar. We are here on the daily, snacking on the cheese, fruit and nuts platter accompanied by the wines of the day. There’s something almost like a wizard’s den to the place with its cold dark interiors lifted only by mood lighting, the bottles snaking up almost to the ceiling encroaching into the circular space. A green chandelier made of empty bottles cast another dreamy spell and it’s always a struggle between wanting to stay within and venturing less than a minute away to have a proper dinner.

But the growling stomach wins, and can never be satiated merely by cheese and fruit. Even if some of that fruit is in liquid form. A delectable spread of Thai, Lao and Burmese dishes are available at the Nong Yao Restaurant. There’s also Western food available but where’s the fun in that? When in Rome, fill the stomach from breakfast to dinner with the likes of laap, mohinga and khao soi.

Sometimes, a civilised pre-dinner game of wine and cheese just won’t cut it. To the Burma Bar we go, right on the other end of the property. The bar alone is worth the trek, involving a swinging bridge, stuffed with curios and transporting you to a hunting lodge’s gentlemen’s den. You could choose to be conventional and have your usual G&T, but we think it should at least be in the books that you try from the table in the middle.  It groans under the many jars full of amber liquid and suspicious solid matter, glasses surround them and more jars of nuts and dried fruit accompany whilst various artefacts complete the picture. And as the sun continues to set, the place gets even darker, lit only with minimal electrical lights the rest being candles and kerosene. It is from this setting that you must imbibe the likes of snake wine, scorpion wine, and whatever else on the table that purports to make your sexual health, your vigour, and your entire life better. Can’t say it actually does anything except put another notch on the strange experiences belt, and we’ve tried both “male” and “female” tonics at the table.

On a really good evening, you will be entertained by the merry-making from the villages across the way. The whoops and singing, the drumming and the fires celebrating weddings run for days or you could be catching the high-point of certain festivals. Burma Bar overlooks the Ruak River, Myanmar and the Elephant Camp. You can almost hear these gentle giants.

 

ELEPHANT CALLING

If you’ve somehow forgotten that you’re in a place with an elephant camp, don’t worry, your surroundings will remind you when you least expect it. Having grown used to the 10 different elephant ornaments all over my tent, not counting the numerous handles made of tusks and pachyderm pictures that dot the place, I am still pleasantly surprised whenever touches of the animal appear. Like the heads of a pair of chopsticks at lunch, for instance. The intricately carved chopsticks are just among many beautiful pieces that you can purchase from the gift shop by the Burma Bar.

In collaboration with the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF), the Four Seasons Tented Camp has female elephants and their mahouts and families on the property. These elephants were rescued from the streets and illegal logging camps from the hills, most often traumatised and abused from the experience. A sweet one that comes to feed in the morning at Nong Yao Restaurant was even in a car accident during her time on the streets. Her mahout and his colleagues keep a careful eye on her and she isn’t allowed to “work” with the camp guests, morning banana feedings aside. There are many arguments swirling around the ethics of having tourists ride elephants and for most places where people do it in Thailand, they are certainly issues to be raised.

I hesitate, at each elephant ride, knowing that some of them used to perform back-breaking work several hours a day at the logging camps. Just a few days before this trip, an elephant in Cambodia collapsed to death from sheer exhaustion and the heat of the day after being made to carry tourists for hours on end. Get close enough to the elephants, look into their eyes whilst touching their skin etched with scars and the experience is overwhelming. I whisper a sorry each time I’m atop Thang Mo, an elephant rescued from street begging, but have to concede that the mahout training experience provided by the resort does help in making these giants more “real” to the guests. It’s when you get this close to an animal, feeding her and bathing her, seeing her play spraying the other elephants and yourself with water and just seeing her delight in doing the things that a relaxed and happy elephant does that you see them as living beings and not just another tourist attraction. For some people, that’s what it takes to be educated on the issue.

With carefully monitored schedules, the elephants at the camp only “work” a few hours a day. It is really a retirement home for them where they can live out their days in peace with their best friends, eating all the bananas and sugar cane they’ll ever want and indulging in the baths when the weather gets too hot. There is a constant debate in the conservation world, of how much human to wild interaction is ethical. For these elephants rescued from years of poor living conditions amongst humans, they no longer have wildness within them. And with ever-shrinking habitats, it is perhaps a better situation to be in at the resort, even if there are tourists to contend with such as myself. The money that comes from paying for these experiences goes back to the care, feeding and rehabilitation of the elephants, and also to rescue efforts of more elephants from the streets and logging camps. That could, at least, assuage a little of my moral dilemma.

HEROIN IS SO PASSÉ

You can’t escape the drug, or at least the history whilst here. As was mentioned at the beginning of the story, the Thai side of the Triangle has eradicated the opium production thanks to the efforts of the late mother of the recently deceased Thai King Bhumibol. But that doesn’t mean other drugs haven’t filtered through to wreck society. The most pressing problem for years now is methamphetamine, or yaba a drug in tablet form that consists of meth and caffeine. If you’ve seen the devastation that this drug has wrought, you’ll understand the urgency of the situation. A case that shocked Thailand several years ago involved a father holding his toddler son hostage with a machete whilst high on yaba. The child bled to death to the horror of helpless onlookers.

Destroying the production capacity of one country only cripples one aspect of the drug industry. As long as drugs continue to stream through across the border from the neighbouring nations, whose governments continue to be propped up by profits from their sale, Thailand will be affected. Education is thus necessary and it is here that probably the most comprehensive museum dedicated to education on drugs can be found.

We get to the Hall of Opium, a USD10 million endeavour that’s been brilliantly constructed by the anti-drug foundation first set up by the Princess Mother. The experience is carefully constructed; you must go through the museum through a set itinerary following the precise directions just so you won’t miss anything out or get lost in the cavernous building. It starts with a grim 137 M long tunnel of nightmare scapes, featuring people suffering and stuck in the walls whilst eerie music plays and choice lighting plays upon the bas reliefs. A nod to the ancient cave paintings in Thailand, the walk sets the tone for the rest of the exhibit. This is clearly not the place to hem and haw over whether or not drugs could possibly benefit humanity, much less the question of legalisation.

Perhaps one of the pertinent things to come away from the museum is the realisation that, beyond the obvious devastating effects on people, the drug really is a tool. Carefully exploited in politics, this can be seen in the early Opium Wars by the British and then later the funding of modern wars in South America by drug cartels and also in the military junta of Burma. Until that aspect of the drug industry is seen to, the anti-drug efforts are possibly weaker than it could be. Appealing to common sense and emotion can only work insofar that people are not desperate in survival mode or are educated enough to understand the long-term costs of both selling and consuming drugs. It’s important to make sure that people aren’t placed in the position to require the selling and consuming drugs in the first place. Much like the way elephants are exploited because of humans in poverty, for whom certain unethical tourist practices provide easy money.

It is a sobering reminder to the colossal depths of human stupidity. My friend and I sit in silence on the ride back to the Four Seasons, passing another group of humans and elephants on an afternoon walk from nearby the nearby Anantara resort which shares the camp.

Perched on the edge of a cliff, with a three-storey skull-busting drop down below, I have a massage at the resort’s outdoor spa. The heat is sauna-like, climbing to over 40 degrees and imbuing the whole experience with somnolence. Just before I drop into a deep slumber, I think of the good work that the GTAEF has done and continues to do. Yes, humanity has managed to destroy many things it touches but we do have the capacity to get it right again. And ensconced in luxury like this, it’s also a testament to human creativity at finding ways to solve problems whilst still appealing to the positive. There is always hope. 

First published in Esquire Singapore's 50th issue in November.