Trip report: Golden Triangle, Thailand

Old Dec 20th, 2008, 01:46 PM
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Trip report: Golden Triangle, Thailand

We went from flooded Hanoi to sunny northern Thailand and arrived at the Anantara Golden Triangle. We had read so much about it from Fodors posters and were not sure what to expect since there were some mixed reactions. But we really loved it, in part because of the contrast from having been in two cities and also because we had a really lovely, spacious suite with a fabulous view (we were at the very top of the hill - -quite a climb up but worth it). You could see the awful casino in Burma but it didn't mar the view.
We arrived in the late afternoon but were able to spend an hour at the pool. It is certainly one of the most gorgeous resort pools we have seen.

We woke up early and thought it would be neat to see the elephants bathe at 6:30am but when we got there it turned out to be closer to 8am. So in the meantime, we went for breakfast, another wonderful buffet in an open air restaurant overlooking the grounds. Lots of fresh fruit, Chinese food, Thai food, Japanese food, omelet station….
A bit later in the morning we took the shuttle into town. Sop Ruak is a little tourist town on the Mekong River with lots of shop stalls. We walked to the Golden Buddha and then see a little desk advertising boat tours. A one hour ride on a long tail boat that goes up to the casino in Burma, stops so you can take a picture, then travels back down and stops in Laos so you can shop at a little market set up for tourists, then back to Thailand. Takes an hour. How much? 400Baht What does the hotel charge for the same itinerary but for 2 hours (including 1 hr at the Laos market)? 6000baht (that’s not a misprint). No brainer. We have a delightful ride, buy a few t-shirt type things in Laos (cheap, low quality but for a couple of dollars we can be big spenders). The Mekong is a pretty dirty river and looks even worse after the heavy rains of the past few weeks. Lots of flotsam and jetsam floating around. But of course we love river life. One of the most interesting things we saw on this trip was a small port where a couple of boats were being loaded with heavy sacks. It was a human assembly line of scores of people carrying the sacks on their shoulders and dumping the sacks on the boat, then walking up the hill to collect another sack. DH said it looked like an ant hill.
When we got back to Thailand we walked up the mail street of town and looked at each stall. Mostly they sold the same thing but each one had one product that was a bit different than the others. We got to the end of the road and our destination, Aree’s massage parlour and taxi service. We read about Aree on the forum, which I told him. We decided to get Thai massages, 200baht each ($6 USD for one hour). We have never had Thai massages before and although I had read about how much pulling and pressure there was, I didn’t really understand how much we would be battered. But it felt good and the women did a terrific job. No happy ending for John because I was right next to him. We went across the street to a local place for lunch, The Golden View, with a table right on the river bank and had a really yummy lunch of Pad Thai and deep fried Mekong fish and 2 beers for $12USD. Aree then drove us back to our hotel.
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Old Dec 20th, 2008, 01:55 PM
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We were ready for some pool time and the weather was nice and sunny. Relaxed by the pool, swam a bit and had some very strong lattes. You get the usual pool service here: cold lemongrass scented towels, cold juice, fruit and very comfy lounge chairs.
After resting for a few hours in our room, drinking some Johnny Walker Red that we bought in town on our beautiful balcony, we went for dinner at the Thai restaurant. We had a relatively light meal and were joined for a bit by the General Manager and had a nice talk with him. But the highlight of the evening came a few minutes after we sat down at our table. Out on the terrace of the dining room, a group had gathered to launch hot air lanterns. We walked out to the terrace to watch. These are large white lanterns made of fabric with a small candle on the center of the base. They were probably 3’ in diameter and 4’ high. As the candles were lit, four people would hold onto the center base and wait for the air inside the lantern to heat up, while making wishes for bad things to fly away. At a certain point, there would be a countdown and the people holding onto the lantern would launch it into the sky. Within a few minutes there were over a dozen lanterns hovering over us and then going way up into the night sky. We were asked to join along and wished for the stock market to go up again.
Just a note here on the Thai restaurant at the hotel -- we didn't like it very much. I thought our dishes ranged from OK to below average. But we didn't have the energy to go into town so we ended up eating twice at the Thai restaurant, twice at the Italian restaurant and once had room service.

The next morning was Election Day. Results were coming in when we woke up at about 6:30, just as the polls were closing in the east. By the time we got back from breakfast, Obama had it in the bag.
We walked to the Hall of Opium which is back out to the main road and then just across the entrance to the hotel. This is a new museum funded by the royal family of Thailand as well as the governments of China and Japan. It depicts the history of opium: the trade, the wars, the production of it, famous people who died from drug abuse, displays of paraphernalia, …you get the picture. But a beautifully constructed museum. Everything written in Thai and English and lots of videos, dioramas, etc. It took the entire morning to go thru it.
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Old Dec 20th, 2008, 02:07 PM
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Thursday Nov 6 was our day to go touring. We arranged for a guide named Jermsak to spend the day taking us around the area. He is the tour guide and we also hired a driver. I found him on TripAdvisor. Jermsak and I exchanged many emails. At first he proposed an elephant ride, a river boat ride and a trip to Burma. I nixed all of these - - we did the elephant/river thing in Chiang Mai during our trip 4 years ago and there is no way I will go to Burma with the present government in power. We eventually settled on an itinerary sort of. He wanted to take us to some hill tribes and I was fine with that as long as they were real hill tribe villages and not the ones that we artificially set up for tourists.
Jermsak picked us up at our hotel at 8:30am and we were immediately struck by his excellent language skills. His speech was quite nuanced and he was very easy to understand. After spending the day with him, we learned so much about him, his family, northern Thai history, opium, and many other things besides the sights we saw.
Our first stop was a hot springs area not too far from the hotel. The temperature reaches boiling point and Jermsak told us that people come and boil their eggs for 10 minutes. There are little huts where you can have a mineral bath (not at 100 degrees Celsius) and a Thai massage. Maybe next time.
Next we stopped at a Yao village, Ban Pong Pakhem. It was clear when we drove up that this was an authentic place. Although there were some shacks with old and young women selling their embroidery, most of what we saw was small huts with mud floors and bamboo roofs. There was electricity but things were very simple to say the least. Places for animals, pipes for running water coming down from the mountain. Most of the men and unmarried women were in the fields. You’ve seen pictures of this tribe - - black and red traditional dress with silver on the headpieces. After Yao, we drove to an Ahka village, Ban Lo Yo, and this was more remote and somewhat difficult to get to. It was also clearly much poorer than the Dao village. The narrow paths were quite muddy because there was still some rain. This village was larger than the first one but we saw fewer people. We kept driving up the mountains until we came to the area where tea and coffee are grown. This is a mostly Chinese settlement - - people who fled China in 1949 and have lived in this area since. We stopped at a tea shack at a lovely lookout point and a young woman brewed us two different kinds of tea. We were served along with preserved fruits free of charge so I bought some preserved plums that are quite delicious. From there we went to lunch at Mae Salong Villa and had one of our best meals of the trip. For $15USD we had the best roast pork I have ever had (it came in a wonderful sauce, not like the dry roast pork in Chinatown), and black chicken with ginger ($1 more than regular chicken, it is a specialty of the area, the bones and skin are black). Plus rice, coffee and a beer and a gorgeous view towards the mountains.
After lunch we went to a tea plantation and factory. Unfortunately the workers had the day off so we couldn’t see the production itself but the plantation was lovely and it looked a lot like a vineyard. Next a long drive through the mountains until we got to Doi Tong villa and gardens. This was the Mother of the King’s residence for the last 4 years of her life, a villa that she had built for herself and her sister. She took a special interest in this area and worked hard to help eradicate opium growing. After she passed away a few years ago, her home and gardens were turned into a park and is open to visitors. The villa is a combination of Swiss and Thai styles and the garden resembles the Butchart Gardens in Victoria, Canada. We really loved this part of the day, it is clear how beloved the Mother of the King was.
We took the long way back to the hotel, through the mountains and the village of Mai Sai and a very special lookout point that is about 2 feet from the Burma border. On the drive back, we were right next to the Burma border for quite a distance and we had to go through a Thai checkpoint where they checked IDs, took photos, etc., presumably checking for drug traffickers.
We made a quick stop at Sob Ruak on the way back to buy a bottle of wine so that we could have dinner in our room and got back to the hotel around 6pm. We were quite exhausted at the end of the very long day and ordered room service (pizza and hamburger, do you believe it?), had our wine and some fruit. On our beautiful balcony we enjoyed a really fun meal and talked about the fabulous day we had and all we learned about Northern Thailand.
There have been several posters looking for a good guide in Northern Thailand. I can't recommend Jermsak highly enough. He was one of the very best guidez we have ever had. We learned so much from him and it really enhanced the trip beyond all our expectations. He told us that he does trips as long as a week, going deeply into the hill tribe areas, to Chiang Mai, etc. He can be reached at [email protected]
November 7, 2008
Without it being planned in advance, this was our day of “far niente”. We arrived at the pool at 10am and went back to our room at 6pm. The main activity of the day was switching chairs after lunch because we were in the sun where we were sitting. Lunch poolside, a salad and a sandwich and one beer. Dinner at the Italian restaurant in the hotel, delicious. Harking back to the old days, they made Ceasar salad at table side. I had puttanesca pasta and John had duck breast and we shared a saboyan with fresh fruit for dessert, one of the few desserts we have had on this trip so far. Unfortunately, we have to pack up to leave tomorrow.
November 8, 2008
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Old Dec 20th, 2008, 02:13 PM
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Nov 8
Our final glimpse of the three countries from our balcony and off to meet Jermsak in the lobby for a half day of sightseeing and trip to the Chiang Rai airport. We began with a ride to the top of the hill in town. I wondered why we hadn’t climbed to the top of the hill during our earlier trip there and then remembered that the guidebook said it was 332 steps to the top. Much easier to get there in a car. What a gorgeous view (I think I’ve said that a number of times on this trip) and just a bit different perspective of the three countries. Clearer demarcation of each one, at least from my perspective.
Next on to the ancient town of Chiang Saen which was an important capital more than 1000 years ago. This is the sightseeing we were considering doing yesterday when instead we just veged out. Much better to have Jermsak take us immediately to the temple complex and explain everything to us. The battles between the kingdoms and the movements of the ancient capitals from Chiang Saen to Chiang Rai and finally to Chiang Mai. There was lots of color at the sight, as it was right next to a monastery and the monks were outside making preparations for something.
The thing I asked to see this morning is the so-called White Temple south of Chiang Rai. The official name is Wat Rong Khun. I heard that it was built by a very successful modern Thai artist and that the temple was entirely white and really beautiful. We got there and it is quite different than anything else but it is like a Disney tourist attraction. The main temple is finished but there are 5 other buildings under construction and there is more space given over to shops and restaurants than to the temple area itself. Indeed the temple is all white and constructed with small pieces of mirror so that it really glitters in the sun. The temple itself is lovely. Inside the artist has drawn murals on the walls and in the back where the devil god is depicted. The mural includes paintings of Starwars ships and the character from The Matrix, a very modern mural for a Buddhist Temple. There is a gift shop that sells prints of the artist’s work…the gift shop is about the same size as the temple.

Then to the airport for our flight to BKK. We read and shopped for a while because the flight was delayed for about two hours - - the first time we had any flight problems.

Hope to get the the BKK trip report soon!
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Old Dec 20th, 2008, 02:14 PM
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Thanks for your report! I stayed at the Anantara right when they opened and absolutely loved it. I'm so glad you did too.
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Old Dec 20th, 2008, 02:29 PM
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Yes, Kathie, your report was what first got me interested in the area and in the hotel. So a BIG thank you!
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Old Dec 20th, 2008, 03:29 PM
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Glad you liked the Anantara. It seems to have become controversial.
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Old Dec 20th, 2008, 09:15 PM
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Sounds like you had a great time there. It's been a few years since we were that way but we really liked it. We stayed in the tiny town of Thaton not at the Anantara unfortunatley. I liked Mae Salong - Did you get any tea to take home? We bought some really lovely stuff and I still hanker after going back just for more of that - haven't been able to track any down even in Bangkok since! The opium museum has moved too - it was in a little old building - still well worth a look but I seem to remember the guide showing us the almost completed new building but saying it was in doubt and was probably going to be a shopping mall instead. Glad that didn't come off. Thanks so much for your report, its nice to have you view on the place.
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Old Dec 21st, 2008, 06:59 AM
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I should also comment on the past exchanges regarding the GM at Anantara. Based on the posts, it seems that there has been some turnover in theposition. But the current GM is terrific. We have never been to a resort where the GM was so visible. He ate in the main dining room almost every meal we were there, worked the tables, always said hello and began a conversation whenever we passed. We were extremely impressed with him and how well the place was run. The staff was very friendly, really excellent service.
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Old Dec 21st, 2008, 07:09 AM
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Great report - northern Thailand has changed a bit since we were there in 2000 - time to go back. Thanks for wishing for the stock market to go up with the hot air lanterns - did you happen request a time frame?
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Old Dec 21st, 2008, 07:44 AM
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Thanks for the report! I also find myself longing to return to the Anantara and N Thailand. We really enjoyed our time there and your report stirred the memories

Aloha!
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Old Dec 22nd, 2008, 07:22 PM
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great report....glad you liked anantara...we loved it too....sounds like they have made improvements in some areas--for instance there was no shuttle bus when we were there....the thai food was only so so, i agree...we found the GM to be quite pleasant when we were there and our room was about 1/2 way up the hill where you were...i could never have made it to the top...
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