Golden Triangle, Burma and Northern Thailand – November 1999
Here is the latest report on travel through the Golden Triangle, north of Maesai, meaning, Eastern Shan State, Tachilek/Maesai (Burma/Thai) border area and on north to Keng Tung and Mong La. Mong La, of Special Region No. 4 (in no indirect/direct reference to No. 4, the other name for heroin), up against the China border, southern Yunnan.
Although the roads look more like fudge, due to the brown/reddish clay of the area, some spots are deeper than others. A steady monsoon season has made a mud bath of the overland travel between Mong La – Keng Tung – Tachilek. Road construction has deteriorated with the torrential downpours that have taken place the past several weeks.
It is so bad in a couple of areas, that the local transport from both directions stop a couple of kilometers apart only to abandon their passengers to trek that distance, through the mud to catch the transport that could not penetrate the other side. The drivers pretty much exchange passengers with the other side, rather than risk the chance of getting stuck, losing the business entirely, or having to sleep in a mudhole, until someone pulls them out.
This daily dilemma has clogged the local airline service…when it does fly. Due to the infrastructure, the flights are limited to daytime service and good weather/visibility. There are no landing lights at the airports in Tachilek and Keng Tung. Two years ago, a flight was lost in poor visibility weather and was a total loss of lives when the Burmese Army finally found the aircraft three days later, due to weather conditions and the terrain.
I was enroute from Keng Tung to Tachilek at the time the crash took place, having penetrated the deep mud area in between a meter or so deep, bearly making it to a small lodge somewhere in between. It was a trip titled the Mekong Expedition. There was a steady drop of rain, sometimes by the bucket and the clouds were very heavy almost touching the rice paddys, giving zero visibility at times! The next day brought us closer to Tachilek only to find that there was over a kilometer of flood waters to make my trusty Toyota, now christianed, the Mud Chariot!
It was now to become an amphibious all terrain vehicle! Since I was the driver, I had to ask for a volunteer, of which there were three possibilities other than me! Two women and one man. The poor fella had injured himself seriously after jumping out the back of the truck the night before to help in the mud. He jumped off onto something sharp and cut his foot deep. That eliminated him, besides that, he was shorter than the two gals, Amy and Megan!
Finally, the taller of the two, Megan had to wade through the water of this inundated village area to determine if the floodwaters had washed away the road. I told her not to worry, that if the current got too swift for her to return, or if she were to be swept away, she would probably be swept into someone’s home, so she would be able to grab onto something there to keep from floating away! This somehow convinced her, as it was a race against time to get to the border town to get back across to a decent hot shower and western food at the Kobra Guesthouse! I said, dinner on me if we make it.
Well, she waded fairly well without losing her footing and once she was a pretty good distance away, we could still make her out, I decided that we should proceed. The villagers insisted that we not attempt the rising water. I knew that if the vehicle stalled, that would be a major bummer, especially if the waters continued to rise! Having no snorkle on the vehicle, had to make sure that it did not stall. The water went almost as high as the base of the windows, and I had lifted the truck an extra five inches the month before, higher than it already was for the offroad conditions, luckily! Keeping the engine revved at all times and continuing the push, we created a tidal wave higher than the hood of the truck that was headed in the direction of Megan, which almost knocked her over!
At that time, I realized that there was a tall makeshift farm vehicle with a load of people just start into the deeper water on the road. Having committed myself this far, I realized that they were creating a wave as well and to make damn sure that it did not drown my engine, I had to think real fast! Give it the gas was the only thing that came to mind, and create a bigger wave! Well, that definitely worked! Got past them, killed their engine and we were all cheered and booed at the same time by the people on the farm truck. At the end of the flood waters there was a cheering crowd as we were the only ones to make it that day so far, the time being almost 5p.m.
Megan caught up and on we went further only to come to a washed out major bridge. There I had to leave my truck for over a week. We crossed by small ferry to make it to Tachilek with only our backpacks, wearing wet and muddy clothes and boots. Our weary injured Englishman feeling the pain of his foot and the misery of the journey, limped to the bank just after I got on the boat. I offered him a hand of which he refused! I cautioned that it was very slippery! He must have felt pretty useless after his injury that his manhood took over and said, I CAN MANAGE!
Well, with his heavy rucksack, he took one step onto the boat only to slip and land square on his back, lucky to have the backpack protect his back from the solid wood floor of the boat! He cursed as everyone and probably at everyone, for laughing at his, one giant step for man! All 200 hundred people busted a gut! We all needed a good laugh after what we had all been through to get to that point! He blamed it on his disbelief of the Shaman in Keng Tung, curses!
I later found out, that the Burmese Army tried to conscript my truck which was on the other side of the river, to be used as a search and rescue truck for the missing plane! However, the shop owner insisted that it belonged to a foreigner and that he did not have a key for it. I had a gearshift lock on it anyways, in case anyone broke in! I was worried that it might be stolen and sold in China or Laos!
I imagine the road to be a little better than this particular trip, but not by much. Traveler beware, or for you adventurists, come on down to the Golden Triangle this time of the year! You will be entertained!
For more information on Kobra Jo’s Guesthouse in this exotic area, check out this web site.
General Information about the author, Kobra Jo:
My name, as most people remember, and the place as well, is Kobra Jo.
Many people ask why. Well, it all started with snakes, mainly, always in search of the King Kobra. Then it eventually developed into the “Trek Of The Kobra”, Burma-Laos-China-N. Thai…I had a pet mongoose that just loved heading out to the rice fields with me to hunt snakes. Always found some every morning. The villagers thought I was just plain crazy to see me out on the fields with this little creature bobbing up and down across the fields.
Finally, the villagers started to turn up at the house with snakes in bags and in cans, thinking I was going to feed them to my mongoose. My mongoose really didn’t like snake meat, he would just play with them for practice and then leave them alone. He preferred pork!
My present wife is of the Wa tribe out of Burma, former headhunters and cannibals. Needless to say, I try not to piss her off.
People/tourists come to me and the border for different reasons. For me, Maesai is not like the rest of Thailand or like Burma. It is a unique border town with everything to offer. When I speak of Maesai, I can include Tachilek, Burma the twin town of Maesai.
Maesai is known world wide for gems, primarily for rubies and jade from Burma.
Be careful though, because not everything that glitters is real. Synthetic stone pushers are everywhere and the King’s treasure under the glass case is guarded by a 14 year old gal that swears that red glass is a Ruby the Sultan of Brunei should be wearing!
More from Kobra Jo…