Shopping the Golden Triangle
Where Myanmar, Thailand and Laos meet is a trove of jewelry, silks and crafts. Three countries in a single day? No problem.
A riot of colors and patterns greets the shopper entering a fabric store in Myanmar. Visitors to other shops are tempted by blankets, clothing, kitchen utensils, jewelry and beautiful Burmese lacquerware. (Patricia Woeber)
"Thailand, Laos and Myanmar — all three countries without a flight or train ride?" I again asked Watcharee Srithai at the reception desk.
It certainly appealed to me, doing something unusual and, I hoped, not exhausting here in the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Laos converge.
"Yes, no planes, no trains. And it's easy," she said, reassuring me for a second time and explaining the details of how, where and when.
I set off on a five-minute taxi ride to Sop Ruak, a Thai village on the Mekong River. The driver dropped me at a kiosk, where I hired a boat to take me across the river to Don Sao Island in Laos, which has a village that trades with tourists. The round-trip ride would cost $3 an hour, the ticket seller said, and the boatman would wait while I shopped.
My boatman pointed out Myanmar on the left and Laos across the Mekong as he led the way down concrete steps to the wide, brown river coursing below the steep, slanting bank. We climbed into a long-tail boat, common in Southeast Asia, and with a swish and a spray, skimmed southeast.
We passed a couple of long-tailed boats, one with a woman wearing a conical palm-frond hat. Tall kapok trees lined the Laotian bank, which had looked largely uninhabited.
The previous week, I had completed a monthlong tour of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos with an adventure travel company and had enjoyed several trips on different stretches of the historical and mythical Mekong, which originates in Tibet, runs south through China, borders Myanmar, Thailand and Laos and then flows through Cambodia and Vietnam until it joins the South China Sea.
The Lao People's Democratic Republic, centuries ago the "Kingdom of One Million Elephants," is today one of Asia's most unchanged and least-visited countries. Despite U.S. military offensives in the region during the 1960s and 1970s, Laotians warmly welcome Americans. Nowadays, the country's market economy is picking up, but it's not yet on the fast track of Asia's capitalism.
Within 10 minutes, we reached the shore. I climbed the steps, stitched in places by wood and bamboo supports, up the steep clay bank. Three bored-looking uniformed Laotian men lounged in a bamboo kiosk. After a cursory glance at my passport, they accepted the permit fee of 20 Thai bahts (50 cents) and stamped a receipt.
Twenty yards away, two large souvenir stalls, built of wood and bamboo with straw roofs, overflowed with items for sale. Although about a dozen stalls lined dirt roads, I headed for the nearest vendor, eager to see what was offered.
Colorful scarves, shirts, trousers and sarongs (the customary waist-to-ankle skirts worn by Laotian women) hung from walls and ceilings and lay neatly folded on tables. The Laotian women, master weavers of complex, intricate geometric patterns handmade on looms, traditionally produce silk scarves and shawls. In the previous weeks, I'd bought more than my fair share of these fabrics, and they were again irresistible. I bought two scarves, one in shades of green and the other in blues highlighted with gold thread, for $5 each.
Throughout Laos, I found no prices affixed to items in the street stalls and markets, and here was no exception. Buyers are expected to bargain, first requesting the price, although vendors usually ask for double what they will eventually accept. Although every Asian country has its own currency — kyat in Myanmar, kips in Laos and bahts in Thailand — street stalls, markets and shops gladly accepted U.S. dollars. Shops also took credit cards, and their scarves and shawls were tagged at $20 to $40 and higher.
On a wall of the Don Sao stall, wide-legged, shiny black silk fisherman-style pants shimmered at me. Unable to resist, I bargained them down to $8 from $10. Next, my eye caught another similar pair of pants, dark blue cotton patterned with gold elephants. Wild and certainly not high style, but I liked them. Five bucks.
Outside on the street, I scoured tables laden with rows of attractive handicrafts: small ceramic bowls with flower patterns, boxes with mother-of-pearl inlay and compasses hidden in tiny round containers made of bone and incised with scenes. I chose one with a tiny fisherman reeling in a gigantic fish. More tables held all sorts of souvenirs, including Buddha and elephant statues of various shapes and sizes in wood and metal.
Then I came upon rows of bottled snakes. Whiskey-pickled snakes glared malevolently through the yellowish fluid, $3 apiece. Some looked like cobras. Some looked astonished. Some looked hypnotic. I asked the saleswoman why people drink this stuff. "For headache, for fever, for make good love," she said.
"Not necessary for me today, thank you," I said, and also passed on giant-sized bottles of "Wine Lao" and whiskey. After 40 minutes, satisfied with my purchases, I returned to Thailand and paid for the hour's trip.