March 07, 2011
MORE THAN MYSTERY IN THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE
IT would be a far braver soul than this writer to challenge anything written about Thailand by fellow scribbler Glyn May: after forty-five years of going there he gave up counting how many times after his 160th visit…
So when he started telling us a new yarn of intrigue involving the mysterious Golden Triangle, we invited him put it in writing. Here's what he wrote for us:
When summer arrives in Thailand's Golden Triangle, the sun turns an eerie blood red as rice farmers burn the residue from their recently-harvested crops, leaving a surreal haze drifting across this ever-mysterious pocket of Southeast Asia where illicit opium poppy crops once-flourished at the convergence of Thailand, Myanmar (Burma) and Laos.
Chiang Saen, the sleepy little three-border village near Chiang Rai's international airport, is dubbed Gateway to the Golden Triangle, and recently became the focus of new and decidedly odd circumstances.
In a strange flurry of unrelated activity, there gathered together a diverse cast of characters and props right out of a James Bond movie – playboys, glamorous women, multi-millionaires, cocktail parties, private jets, mysterious Chinese high-rollers... and elephants.
Scene One opens a few minutes from Chiang Saen at the grand five-star Anantara Golden Triangle Resort and Spa sprawling across 65ha of forest lands and manicured gardens.
Set within the Anantara's grounds is its Elephant Camp, home to 31 of these beasts rescued from a grim existence forcefully-performing half-starved on the streets of Thai cities.
As we approach the Camp on this grey morning, an unmistakably educated English voice booms from loudspeakers, shattering the quiet and scattering the jungle birds for kilometres around….
"…the pace is truly frantic …..there's a mid-field skirmish, the ball is moving fast towards the goal… a mighty swing…Oh, my goodness, they've missed again!!".
We emerge into a clearing where a game of elephant polo is in progress and Peter Prentice, the frenzied commentator and one of the world's best players, is in full flight.
But while the game can at times be as speedy as watching grass grow, the associated social scene involving Champagne, gala dinners, dancing and romance, are other matters altogether.
For the aficionados of this sport of the very rich and moderately famous – and the 40 players and their entourages from 15 countries here for the Annual King's Cup Elephant Polo Tournament – there is a true adrenalin rush.
The King's Cup is a spin-off of the Nepal-based World Elephant Polo Association, and has raised more than US$300,000 for the protection and support of Thailand's embattled elephants, of which only about 5000 survive from a population of 100,000 at the beginning of the 20th century.
This year's Tenth Anniversary Thailand King's Cup will be held in the seaside town of Hua Hin south of Bangkok from September 5th to 11th, with teams comprising three elephants a-side carrying a mahout and a player swinging a huge mallet, and lumbering after a tiny polo ball on a field 100m by 60m. We're assured it's worth putting in the diary…
Scene Two: Meanwhile, in the midst of this comparatively frivolous activity, local Thais in Chiang Saen are trying to come to grips with a huge new, garish casino that has descended upon their doorstep just a few hundred metres across the Mekong River in tiny Bokeo, one of the most remote rural provinces in the bordering socialist republic of communist Laos.
The Chinese company Dok Ngeokham has a lease of the prime Lao-Mekong riverfront land on which the casino and an associated five-star hotel complex sit, and has an extraordinary cash hoard of US86 million to spend on a golf course and trade centre – which reflects a quaint communistic attitude towards capitalism.
As each night falls and this bizarre gambling den bursts into a million-watts of light, Thailand's bewildered Chiang Saen locals indulge in their favourite new sport: whispering about men in black, of beautiful women on their arms, of private jets landing in the middle of the night at Chiang Rai Airport, and of ominous new happenings in the crop-fields of Laos…
For now, as the tight-lipped casino operators are publicity-shy, this is a story that for us will have to wait for a Laotian visa, a pocket-full of gambling chips, and a suitable disguise.
And hopefully a beautiful woman….
 ELEPHANT polo in the Golden Triangle can be as speedy as watching grass grow.
 ELEPHANT polo commentator extraordinaire, Peter Prentice
 CENTRE of the Golden Triangle: sign in Myanmar pointing to Thailand one way, Laos the other.
 MYSTERY awaits on the other side of this peaceful river scene at Chiang Saen
(Photos Glyn May)