What is the value of gold in
The Golden Triangle?
Evelina Rioukhina, UNECE
The Golden Triangle. This is a symbolic place where three countries, three nations and three huge civilisations and cultures come together. In more concrete terms, this is the border of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos with the River Me-Kong in the middle and really symbolic triangle of sand, each side belonging to a different country.
Today, the only country from which you can easily reach The Golden Triangle is Thailand, from a symbolic place located in the north of the country close to Chiang Rai and known for the hill tribes, which have been settled in the Chiang Rai area for hundreds of years. Scattered throughout the watersheds of northwest Thailand, the hill tribes include the Akha, Lahu, Lisu, Mien, Hmong and Karen.
Akha. The Akha make up 3% of Thai- lands hill tribe population and are the most tradition-bound group. Once a highland tribe, the Akhas are slowly moving into the lowland valleys in search of more arable land. They are perhaps the most attractively dressed of all tribal groups, wearing skillfully embroidered silken jackets in their everyday life.
Hmong. The Hmong are a fiercely independent tribe of Sino-Tibetian origin. Numbering about 65,000 in Thailand, they are scattered throughout the northern highlands where they cultivate opium poppies at a greater rate than any other tribe group. As with other nomadic tribes, the Hmong maintain much of their wealth in silver jewellery. The women are particularly distinctive with long dark hair woven with horse or human hair switches that form an enormous bun.
Lahu. Perhaps the most welcoming of all the tribal groups in Thailand, the Lahu number roughly 40,000 and live in villages situated above 1,000 metres. The Lahu farm poppies, dry rice, corn and other cash crops. A singular cultural identity is not easily found among the Lahus, due to the continuing tumult of migration. They worship a deity that is Tibetian in origin, and have borrowed the Buddhist practice of merit making. Many have absorbed Christian theology into their belief system. They are also noted for their keen music skills.
Lisu. The Lisu are one of the smallest minority hill tribe groups in Thailand, representing only 5% of all tribal people. Arriving from Burma in 1920, the Lisu live at a very high altitude where they can grow subsistence crops. The Lisu are hardworking and extremely competitive in their day-to-day life. Even their clothing is brash, incorporating a multitude of bright colours, embellished with hundreds of silver trinkets. They lead well structured lives and are among the most successful of all Thailands tribal people.
Mien. The 33,000 Mien in Thailand are closely connected to their Chinese roots and still incorporate the Han language into their own. Considered the aristocrats of all tribal groups, they are ancestor worshippers and even celebrate the Chinese New Year . Mien farmers practice shifting agriculture depending more on rice and corn rather than poppies. Their silver work is among the most intricate and is highly prized, even by other tribes.
Border of Myanmar (Burma), the Goden Triangle (2003).
Karen. With over 250,000 members, the Karens are the largest tribal group in Thailand and account for over half of the tribal people in the country. Originally from Tibet, these most western of assimilated Thai tribe hill people have been in Thailand since the 18th century. The Karens are most noted for their on-going struggle with the Burmese Government for an autonomous homeland, as another four million Karens live in Burma.
Among Karens (or Karenni, or to be more precise, the Red Karenni) there is the most fascinating and the most exotic tribe of longnecked women, called Giraffe Women, who live in three Pa Dong villages around Mae Hong son. The Giraffe Women wear many rings around the neck, giving impression that their necks are longer. Some say that the neck-ring custom is an old tradition that should be secretly kept and preserved by the tribe, others say that it might have come about to prevent the women from leaving the village and marrying into other tribes, or being taken as slaves by the Burmans. (It is interesting to note here that some European researchers, after analysing X-ray pictures and recent studies of orthopaedic surgeons, have proved that the vertebrae remain intact, and the optical impression of length is achieved by the degree of inclination of the spiral of the ribs, although this needs, perhaps further study).
Besides all these tribes, the region is also renowned for the geological species found here, such as unique butterflies or insects that live only in this place, and some varieties of unique plants typical only in this region. For example, the river in this very place (and almost nowhere else, upstream or downstream) is visited by an exceptionally rare species of fish called Cat fish. (It is Interesting to note that an exceptional specimen weighting 200 kg was caught there in 1968! ).
Another meaning of the word gold in the Golden Triangle (often used in quotation marks) derives from the biggest opium plantation region of the world. Indeed, Thailand, Laos and Burma have been known as the Golden Triangle because of their historically prominent role in the drug trade. For centuries, these countries have produced the opium that has attracted traders from Europe and elsewhere.
Some facts and figures from the past: 7th-8th century Arab traders bring opium (a medicine) from the Middle East to China. 17th century Smoking spreads to China from Spains colony in the Philippines (having originated in Spanish South America). The Dutch in Formosa smoke mixed opium and tobacco to combat malaria; opium smoking spreads to mainland China. 1800 China outlaws cultivating and importing opium; edicts ignored by Western merchants. Ching dynasty is too weak to enforce edicts.
19th century British Indias opium trade expands with China, reversing silver surplus from China to India. 1839-1842 First Opium War. British merchants refuse to stop opium shipments; China bans all trade with British. 1852 After twice banning opium (1811 & 1839), Thailand establishes royal opium franchise. Opium taxes soon provide 40%- 50% of government revenues. 1856 - 1858 Second Opium War. Anglo-French forces defeat China; British gain Kowloon Peninsula. China is forced to legalize opium imports. Mid-late 18th century France colonizes Vietnam, Cambodia, and Lao (French Indochina). Conquest financed by drug monopoly (Regie de lOpium) after 1869. 1885 Britain completes conquest of Burma. 1906 American Medical Association approves heroin for general use. 1910 Britain Opium Act tightly controls opium production and trade; Opium Rules added, 1938. 1925 Geneva Convention internationally restricts production and sale of heroin. Note: all the above facts (and the list is far from complete), show how serious and important the problem is. The above facts are given for illustration, sure to consider the problem in detail is not the purpose of the present article.
Children from the hill tribes of the
Golden Triangle in their national dress,
Chiang Rai, Northern Thailand (2003).
The sense of the word golden is now hidden behind the geographical notion of The Golden Triangle, this place nowadays is undoubtedly one of the most attractive in Asia.
Today only one part of The Triangle is open for visitors and admirers with the gold of the Imperial Palace, Ayuttaya, Pitsanulok, enigmatic Sukhothai and Wat Si Chum, colourful Chiang Mai and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep and many other fascinating historical and cultural relics. The doors to the second and the third part of The Triangle are unfortunately shut. The second part is the mysterious and fascinating Myanmar with its architectural gold of Schwedagon, historical gold of the 3000 pagodas land of Bagan, historical gold of Mandalay, natural gold of the Lake Inlé, its fascinating rock Kyakhtiyo (see its cover page photo in UNS No.614); and the third part of The Triangle is magic Laos with its fascinating architectural gold of numerous Wats, and its unique natural wonder as 4000 isles in the delta of Me Kong and many other breathtaking places in these two other countries. From Chaing Rai one can make a symbolic visit of these three countries by short boat trip, to breathe the air of Myanmar (the boat can penetrate into its territory, but is not allowed to stop near the river bank), and to breath the air of Laos (by making almost a mile inside its territory but respecting a very strict and regulated from the river bank). A special souvenir shop where one can buy souvenirs and currency from these other two countries adds to the feeling of as if visiting them. But still this remains a symbolic and as if visit.
The military junta regime and violation of human rights in Myanmar (especially the recent arrest in May 2003 of Aung San Suu Kyi, the national freedom hero, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate (1991), civil conflict and insecure situation, with the danger of terrorist acts in Laos, prevent many of us for moral and other reasons from visiting these countries, and keep these countries in an isolated position. It is now important for each of these countries to take care of all this sublime beauty for its own population, and for the world cultural and historical treasury, despite the turbulences of the events these countries are currently facing. It is clear that the doors of these two other countries can be opened by the warm wind of democratic reforms.
The road to democracy in these countries is long and difficult, and at present the cost of their freedom and openness is high. However, democracy is the only way for the future, and only in this way will it be possible for all those who dream of discovering and admiring the gold and the grandeur of the other two parts of The Golden Triangle, to visit The Triangle from any of its three sides and appreciate its Gold in its full glory and total value.