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Golden Getaway

It's one of the most notorious parts of Southeast Asia, but the drug-growing region on the Thai-Burmese border offers some fascinating destinations for the curious traveller.

By Bertil Lintner/THOED THAI

WHEN THE OLD HEADQUARTERS of a former Golden Triangle drug lord becomes a tourist destination, you know times have changed.

Twenty years ago, the lush and tranquil highland valley of Thoed Thai was under attack from Thai forces rooting out drug smugglers. Today, it boasts a resort where you can lazily sip a beer at sunset or just enjoy the soothing ripple of a nearby stream. If you get tired of the slow pace of village life, you can go mountain-biking in the surrounding hills, which are some of northern Thailand's most breathtakingly spectacular. Or trek up to a deserted military camp that's been converted into a museum dedicated to erstwhile warlord Zhang Qifu, alias Khun Sa. Continue uphill and you'll find the ruins of Khun Sa's house and an old air-raid shelter.

Khun Sa, the most infamous opium king that the Golden Triangle has ever produced, ran this place until Thai troops attacked it in January 1982. Fierce fighting raged for several days before Khun Sa was defeated. To crown their victory, the Thais replaced the village's name, Ban Hin Taek ("cracked rock village"), with the more auspicious Ban Thoed Thai ("village upholding the Thai spirit").

Khun Sa, who claimed to be fighting for independence for the Shans of eastern Burma, retreated across the border to his homeland, where he established a new base at Homong opposite the Thai town of Mae Hong Son. There, he built a town and a military base that were even bigger and more prosperous than Hin Taek. A few years later, in January 1996, he surrendered to the Burmese authorities, disbanded his private army of some 15,000 men and moved to Rangoon with his money and three young wives.

If you want the full story, ask "Khun" John, proprietor of the Rim Taan Guest House on the river that flows through Thoed Thai. John speaks excellent English, partly as a result of serving with the American-supported "secret" army in Laos in the 1960s. Those skills came in handy back in April 1977, when a representative of the United States government, Joseph Nellis, helicoptered into the village for talks with Khun Sa over his offer to sell his entire opium harvest to Washington. John was called in act as the interpreter. Khun Sa's offer, however, was rejected, and the Americans decided in favour of-ultimately unsuccessful-military action against the warlord.

The Rim Taan ("river bank") Guest House, which John now runs, consists of a string of chalets that make up a total of 14 basic but adequate rooms. They're not air-conditioned, but they do have fans and hot water-useful for coping with the early morning chill of the mountains. At no more than 400 baht ($9) a night, they're a real bargain. The adjacent Ting Ting restaurant serves excellent Thai and Chinese food, but it's also worth exploring the food stalls in the local market, which offer delicacies reflecting Thoed Thai's ethnic diversity, which covers sizeable Shan and Yunnanese populations as well as Akha, Lisu, Lahu and other hilltribes.

DETAILS: Rim Taan Guest House, 15 Mu 1, Thoed Thai, Mae Fah Luang, Chiang Rai. John's mobile phone number is (01) 883 1401, but if the signal doesn't reach Thoed Thai-which happens quite often-call the local telephone exchange at (053) 771 223, ask them to go and get Khun John, and then call back in 10-15 minutes.

GETTING THERE: To get to Thoed Thai nowadays is easy. A wide, paved road winds its way over the hills from Pasang on the main highway north of Chiang Rai-in sharp contrast to the potholed dirt track that runs through the actual village. Or you can approach it from the more famous-and more frequently visited-old Kuomintang settlement of Mae Salong 25 kilometres away. Thoed Thai is 10 kilometres off the main Mae Salong-Pasang highway.

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, February 14, 2002

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