GOLDEN TRIANGLE was once the world's largest and most famous opium growing region but production has dropped dramatically—particularly in Thailand—and now Afghanistan is far and away the world’s largest illicit opium producer . Covering an area the size of Nevada and at one time the source of 60 percent of the heroin consumed in United States, it embraces the lovely green mountains and valleys of northern Thailand, western Myanmar (Burma) and northeastern Laos.

The Golden Triangle is an area of around 350,000 square kilometers that overlaps the mountains of three countries of Southeast Asia: Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. The Golden Triangle originally designated the confluence of the Sop Ruak River and the Mekong river and may have been coined to describe the payment of gold for opium. Later the term was used to describe the opium and heroin trade around the nearby junction of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. Later still it was appropriated by the region’s tourist industry to describe the region where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar all come together.

Most of the opium and heroin is produced today in the region comes from Myanmar and to a lesser extent Laos. The section of the Golden Triangle in Thailand is pretty tame these days. Many former opium-growing areas are now popular trekking areas. King Bhumibol of Thailand has been active in promoting alternative crops to opium. Some hill tribe villages see a lot of foreign trekkers. Other are still remote and relatively untouched.

At one time about 70 percent of the heroin on the streets in the United States originated in the Golden Triangle. The region produced 3,000 tons of opium in 1996, 60 percent of the global supply. In the late 1990s, the Golden Crescent in Pakistan, Iran and particularly Afghanistan surpassed the Golden Triangle as the world's largest opium-growing area.

Myanmar produces 90 percent of the heroin and opium produced in the Golden Triangle. Laos produces some but much less than Myanmar. Thailand used to produce quite a lot but it doesn’t anymore. Many of the former opium growing areas in Thailand are now popular trekking areas. Sometimes opiums harvests are lower than they otherwise might be due to heavy rains and cold winters in the area. In addition, Chinese authorities have tried to crank down on the drug production and smuggling along China’s border with the Golden Triangle area.

In 1994, it was estimated the drug baron Khun Sa and the United Wa State Army controlled 75 percent of the heroin originating in the Golden Triangle. A Panthay Chinese Muslim from Burma, Ma Zhengwen, assisted Khun Sa in selling his heroin in north Thailand. In 1996, Khun Sa retired and the United Wa State Army took over many of the areas he controlled.

According to Wikipedia: “Over the two decades of his unrivalled dominance of the Shan state, from 1974 to 1994, the share of New York street heroin coming from the Golden Triangle—the northern parts of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos—rose from 5 percent to 80 percent. It was 90 percent pure, "the best in the business", according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. And Khun Sa, the DEA thought, had most of that trade. [Source: Wikipedia]


Opium was introduced to China by Arab traders during the reign of Kublai Khan (1279-94). The drug was highly valued for its medicinal qualities and was grow by some ethnic minorities in south China to raise money to pay tributes to the Chinese Emperors.

Opium as a major cash crop was introduced to the Golden Triangle by the British in the colonial period. It was grown as a cash crop for the French as well as the British. But it was Chinese who once fought for the Kuomintang troops with Chiang Kai-shek against Chairman Mao's Red Army that introduced big time production and smuggling.

The British aggressively marketed opium in China. The result: lots of addicts. Some smoked the drug in opium deans. Others took opium pills. Cheap pill known as pen yen gave rise to the expression have a "yen" for something. Chinese who came to the United States in the 19th century to work as laborers brought opium smoking with them. Opium dens opened in San Francisco and towns where Chinese railroad workers stayed. By 1890, there were a number of "smoke houses" in the basements in back-ally buildings in New York. The customers included prostitutes, showgirls, businessmen and tourist as well as Chinamen.

In 1949, the remnant's of Chiang Kai-shek's defeated Kuomingtan (Chinese nationalists) army retreated to the mountain of Burma along the Chinese border and tried to organize attacks against the Red Army. To raise money the Kuomintan encouraged peasant farmers to raise opium, which the Chinese nationalists sold for huge profits. Later the Beijing-backed Communist Party of Burma financed their operation with money from the opium and heroin trade.

Bert Lintner wrote on Asia Online: “Following Mao Zedong's victory in China in 1949, thousands of Kuomintang soldiers came streaming south, and, supported by the surviving Republic of China government in Taiwan—and the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)— they tried in vain to "liberate" the mainland from their new sanctuaries in Myanmar, then known as Burma. The Kuomintang invasion resulted in a reign of terror for the ordinary people who lived in the areas, as the nationalist Chinese collected taxes, forcibly enlisted recruits and encouraged poppy cultivation in the area to finance their "secret" army. At the age of 16, Khun Sa formed his own armed band to fight the intruders. In the early 1960s, his small private army was even recognized officially as the "Loi Maw Ka Kwe Ye", a home guard unit under the Myanmar army. [Source: Bert Lintner, Asia Online, November 1, 2007*]

"Ka Kwe Ye" (KKY), which literally means "defense" in the Myanmar language, was Yangon's idea of a local militia to fight the Kuomintang as well as local, separatist Shan rebels. The plan was to rally as many local warlords as possible, mostly non-political brigands and private army commanders, behind the Myanmar army in exchange for the right to use all government-controlled roads and towns in Shan state for opium trafficking. By trading in opium, the Myanmar government hoped that the KKY militias would be self-supporting. The warlords, who were supposed to fight the insurgents, strengthened their private armies and purchased with opium money military equipment available on the black market in Thailand and Laos. Some of them, Khun Sa included, were soon better equipped than the Myanmar milirtary itself. *


The Vietnam War was a boon for the opium and heroin business. Americans in Southeast Asia not only provided a fairly well paid source of buyers they also provided ways for Asian drug producers to export their products around the world. Before that time Turkey and the Middle East were the primary source of opium. As time went on demand increased and to meet demand production increased as more drugs flooded the market more people had access to drugs. Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet Guide of Thailand: “As the cycle expanded opium cultivation became a full-time job for some hill tribes within the Golden Triangle. Hill economies were destabalized to the point where opium production became a necessary means of survival for thousands of people, including the less nomadic Shan people.”

As part of their effort to combat Communism, the CIA allegedly helped expand the opium trade in Southeast Asia—first in Laos, then in Burma and finally in Vietnam—to help groups fighting Communism raise money and sew instability. From 1960 to 1973, the C.I.A. allegedly trained Hmong tribesmen to fight against Communist in Laos and the Hmong in turn financed some of their efforts by selling opium. There is much controversy about how deeply the CIA was involved in the Southeast Asia drug trade. If the CIA was not involved in the drug trade, it did know about it. As former DCI William Colby acknowledged, the Agency did little about it during the 1960s, but later took action against the traders as drugs became a problem among American troops in Vietnam. The CIA's main focus in Laos remained on fighting the war, not on policing the drug trade. See Opium Under Southeast Asia.

William M. Leary, the University of Georgia historian, wrote: “For more than 13 years, the Agency directed native forces that fought major North Vietnamese units to a standstill.... As Joseph Westermeyer, who spent the years 1965 to 1975 in Laos as a physician, public health worker, and researcher, wrote in Poppies, Pipes, and People: "American-owned airlines never knowingly transported opium in or out of Laos, nor did their American pilots ever profit from its transport. Yet every plane in Laos undoubtedly carried opium at some time, unknown to the pilot and his superiors--just as had virtually every pedicab, every Mekong River sampan, and every missionary jeep between China and the Gulf of Siam."

According to Alfred McCoy, a historian at the University of Wisconsin, the French administration of Indochina had financed its covert operations with the drug trade, and the CIA had simply replaced the French, to finance similar operations. He said he was told by retired general Maurice Belleux, the former head of the French equivalent of the CIA that the French military intelligence had financed all their covert operations from the control of the Indochina drug trade: “The French paratroopers fighting with hill tribes collected the opium and French aircraft would fly the opium down to Saigon and the Sino-Vietnamese mafia that was the instrument of French intelligence would then distribute the opium. The central bank accounts, the sharing of the profits, was all controlled by French military intelligence. He concluded the interview by telling me that it was his information that the CIA had taken over the French assets and were pursuing something of the same policy.

“During the 40 years of the cold war, from the late 1940s to this year, the CIA pursued a policy that I call radical pragmatism. Their mission was to stop communism and in pursuit of that mission they would ally with anyone and do anything to fight communism. During the long years of the cold war the CIA mounted major covert guerilla operations along the Soviet-Chinese border. The CIA recruited as allies people we now call drug lords for their operation against communist China in northeastern Burma in 1950, then from 1965 to 1975 [during the Vietnam war] their operation in northern Laos and throughout the decade of the 1980s, the Afghan operation against Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

“Powerful, upland political figures control the societies and economies in these regions and part of that panoply of power is the opium trade. The CIA extended the mantle of their alliance to these drug lords and in every case the drug lords used it to expand a small local trade in opium into a major source of supply for the world markets and the United States. While they were allied with the United States these drug lords were absolutely immune to any kind of investigation. If you're involved in any kind of illicit commodity trade, organized crime activity like drug trafficking, there is only one requisite for success, immunity, and the CIA gave them that. As long as they were allied with the CIA, the local police and then the DEA stayed away from the drug lords.”

The CIA set up an airline called Air America that was involved in various activities associated with the war: moving fighters, flying reconnaissance missions, dropping and picking up spies and searching for downed aircraft. Some say Air American was involved in drug smuggling.


Most of the opium produced in the Golden Triangle is grown by subsistence farmers on two acre plots of land. Opium is usually raised as second crop after their main food source rice is planted in May and harvested in September. On average the farms earned about $650 in the 1990s from five kilograms of opium crops. The money was used to buy everything from fertilizer to guns. In many places where opium is grown, the land is too high and too cold for rice and corn grown there doesn’t taste good.

A 2013 United Nations report said that just over 9 metric tons of heroin was seized in East and Southeast Asia in 2012, compared to 6.5 metric tons in 2010, while 2.7 metric tons of opium was seized in 2012 compared to 2 metric tons in 2010.

The opium harvesting season is in January and February. In Southeast Asia opium is usually in wrapped bundles called jois. Each joi weighs 1.6 kilograms (3.5 pounds), the amount of opium produced by 3,000 poppies. In Thailand about 2.2 kilograms of raw opium is grown on one rai of land (1,600 square meters).

Much of the opium grown in the Golden Triangle in the 1970s, 80s and 90s was refined into a super-pure form of heroin known as China White (also known Heroin no. 4). Favored by intravenous drug users in the United States, it was stronger and cheaper than heroin from Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan that circulated during the 1960s. Golden Triangle opium was also made into Heroin No. 3 smoking heroin, favored by addicts in Southeast Asia.

Most of China White has been refined from opium in remote but sophisticated jungle laboratories. In the 1990s these laboratories also began producing amphetamines such as "ice" which are very popular in Asia as well as in Europe and the U.S.

After the crackdown on opium and heroin production in Thailand in the 1980s most of production was done by opium farmers in Myanmar and heroin labs in Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. Thailand remained a key link in the smuggling.

There was a steady increase of opium production in the Golden Triangle in the 1980s and 1990s. About 4,000 tons of opium was produced in the Golden Triangle in 1995, most of it from northeast Myanmar. At that time it was estimated that two tons of f heroin was smuggled through Thailand, with only about two percent of it being intercepted by authorities despite a large DEA presence in the area.

Opium Production in Myanmar, Decline in Opium Production in Myanmar , See Myanmar. Opium Production in Thailand, See Thailand. Opium Production in Laos, See Laos


Tachileik (on the Myanmar - Thai border in the Eastern Shan State) is being upgraded as a tourism gateway to the heart of the Golden Triangle and cross-border trade center for Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and China.. The Friendship Bridge across the small Mae Sai stream links Tachileik with the northern Thai border town of Mae Sai. One can fly direct from Yangon to Tachileik in an hour. There is a ferry-landing site at Wanpon port on the Mekong River at the Myanmar - Laos border, 29 kilometers from Tachileik. The port also handles goods shipments to and from Thailand and China. A one-and-half hour drive away from Tachileik is Mai Pong, where one can enjoy a boat tour of Mekong River. See Thailand

Kyaing Tong (452 kilometers from Taunggyi and 176 kilometers from Tachileik) is the capital of Eastern Shan State. Located in the Golden Triangle near China, Laos and Thailand, this part of Myanmar is known for its scenic mountains and hill tribes. The road from Tachilek on the Thai border winds 100 miles to Kyaing Tonge and passes through mountains, forests, streams and tribal villages.

Many of the hill tribes found here are similar to those in Thailand except they are more unspoiled. Places of interests include a colorful active open market used by local hill tribes, - Akha hill tribe villages, Lishaw village, traditional dances, Maha-Myat-Muni Pagoda, Naung-Tong lake, Sunn-Taung Monastery, Hot Spring, traditional lacquer ware works and weaving factories and One, Three Pagoda. Loiw-mew, a misty 5500-foot-high peak is located about 20 miles from Kyaing Tong. Kyaing Tong can be reached by air from Heho or a seven hour drive along the rough road from Tachileik.

Ethnic tribes residing around Kyaing Tong include the Gon, Lwe, Li, Wa, Lah Hu, Thai Nay, Shan, Li Shaw, Li Su, Palaung and Akha, many of which are differentiated by their colorful traditional clothes. Visitors can observe their tribal dances and visit their mountain villages.

The Maha Myat Muni of Kyaing Tong (Wat Pra Sao Loang) is a Buddha statue housed in a pagoda encircled by a traffic circle, just around the corner from the Kyainge Tong Hotel. The walls and ceiling of the temple’s hall is resplendent with " Shwezawa" (gold lacquer) decorations yet it was not so lavish as to offend the eye. The Buddha statue was caste in Mandalay in 1921 and is based on a famous Maha Muni statue in Mandalay. The face of the image was cast from a mixture of 1.7 viss (1 viss = 3.6 pounds) of pure gold, 17 viss of silver and some copper. In 1920 the Takaw-Kyainge Tong road was merely a buffalo track, so the image had to be transported in separate parts. It was transported with great difficulty from Hsipaw to Takaw, a village situated on the western bank of the Thanlwin river by bullock cart, and from Takaw to Kyainge tong by buffalo cart. When the Buddha arrived the people of the town turned out in full force to welcome it with the rhythmic beating of gongs and Shan long drums. In 1926 the Buddha image was moved from it temporary thatched Vihara to the present building. This new Vihara had a roof of teak wood shingles with a ceiling of thick planks. A brick wall was also built to enclose the precincts. In 1938, it was again renovated and the roof replaced with a splendid tapering nine-tiered roof.


Northern Shan State: Shan State can be divided into Northern Shan State, Southern Shan State and Eastern Shan State. Tourist towns in Northern Shan State include Hsipaw, Lashio and Muse. The Shweli River forms the border between Myanmar's Shan State and China's Yunnan Province at Muse. Border crossings are at Lwe-ge, Muse, Namkhan, Kyu Koke, Kun-lone and Mongla.

Mong La (2 hour drive from Kyaing Tong, near China in Northern Shan State) is one the main towns in the Golden Triangle. It is known for its 24-hour casinos, hostess bars, brothels, loan shark outlets, and clubs with Russian women and Thai “lady boys” and golf courses, whose fairways and putting greens used to sit among poppy fields. It was said that many of those who used the course were lieutenants for the drug lords and Chinese tourist who flew into western Yunnan Province in China and drove into Myanmar.

Places of interest include a casino, elephant show, night dance show and drug museum. At its peak bout 200,000 mostly male Chinese visitors came to the town. Most come for the gambling. Some played a blackjack-like game called bajiale The stakes sometimes reached $100,000 a bet.

Mong Lar is a major stop in the opium and heroin trade. It has been since British colonial times. Towns further south like Muse and Pangsang are following a similar trend.

Chinese Gamblers in Myanmar: Casinos began sprouting in Myanmar along the Chinese border in the 1990s, and eventually up to a hundred were operating. Most were modest in scale, sometimes featuring a hotel. In the Golden Triangle Area followed a similar formula: deploy fleets of boats to ferry gamblers along the Mekong River, mainly from China but also Thailand.

Mang Lar, a town near the Chinese border, has grown wealthy from the tides of Chinese who come to gamble in its casinos and visit karaokes and brothels filled with Chinese girls. The city is rich and full of action by Myanmar standards.

Forbes reported: “Casinos began sprouting in Myanmar along the Chinese border in the 1990s, and eventually up to a hundred were operating. Most were modest in scale, sometimes featuring a hotel, but all followed the same formula: deploy fleets of boats to ferry gamblers along the Mekong River, mainly from China but also Thailand.” [Source: Forbes, July 27, 2011]

Ruili in Its Gambling Heyday: Describing the border town of Ruili in the mid 2000s, when it was a mecca for Chinese gamblers, Mark Magnier, wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “The vans stopped in front of a yellow building the size and shape of a small airplane hangar. There was little to distinguish it from nearby industrial buildings other than a garish arrangement of pulsing neon flowers near the glass door -- and the nonstop arrival of customers despite the late hour. Inside, a hall the size of two football fields was jammed with eight banks of roulette tables immediately inside the door, a line of electronic blackjack machines against the back wall and 12 pits to the left for a game called heaven-earth-harmony. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, April 13, 2005 //\\]

“The mostly male clientele of the Ruili casino placed bets through a haze of cigarette smoke. There was no alcohol and almost no small talk. A small crowd gathered as one winner collected three thick stacks of bills totaling about $4,000 and stuffed them into the sequined purse of his female companion. The building's interior was bright and clean, with recessed lighting and newly plastered walls. But the gambling machines, chairs and tables were battered, suggesting an operation that has been moved repeatedly on short notice. //\\

"Great, I finally won one," said a gambler placing $5 bets at heaven-earth-harmony, a game in which a pingpong ball is dropped onto a grid, with players betting on where it will land. "It's about time." A businessman from Jiangsu province, who, like many of the gamblers, declined to be identified, said the government crackdown hadn't deterred him. "When business is slow, I go every day," he said, smoking as he rubbed a quarter-sized mole on his right cheek. "Whenever I win, I stop. Over the past few months, I've won $2,400." //\\

"Would you like to go to Myanmar?" a smiling Chinese soldier asked as she guarded the border near the "Union of Myanmar, Silver Elephant Immigration Gate." Visas, even temporary passports, are available, no questions asked, for $30 to $40 from people who have good guanxi with local officials. For those who can't be bothered with formalities, taxi drivers helpfully point out well-worn breaks in the yellow-and-green fence separating the countries. //\\

Muse (179 kilometers north of Lashio) is the main border gateway between Myanmar and Yunnan Province (China). A small town on the banks of the Shweli River, it is a bustling trading center with an interesting market used by minorities in the area and Chinese. The Muse Motel has modern facilities. Namkham and Kyukoke are the border towns. Special permit used to needed to visit the area. That still may be the case.

Lashio (280 kilometers, 7 hour drive, 8 hour train ride from Mandalay) is a dirty, medium-size town and trading center that was off limits to tourist until the mid-1990s and is now a bustling, busy place due to expansion of trade with China. There isn't much to see in Lashio: its main attraction is the train trip to get there. Lashio is the capital of Northern Shan State and the terminus of the railroad line from Mandalay.. It can be reached by train or by car. There is accommodation for overnight.

Lashio is perhaps best known as the starting point of the Burma Road in World War II. Many Shan and Chinese live in the town, which in near Yunnan province of China. Many hill tribes lives in the mountains around Lashio but you are advised not to visit them because the region is also a major opium growing and heroin smuggling area controlled mainly by the Wa tribe. Places of interest include hot springs and the Chinese Quan Yin San Temple


The train from Mandalay to Lashio passes through beautiful scenery and traverses the 980-foot-high Goehteik Viaduct (read Theroux's Great Railway Bazaar for a good description of this bridge). The Gokteik Viaduct was built in 1899 by the Pennsylvania Steel company for the British Raj . A magnificent steel trestle bridge, it was one of the last links to be built on a network of railroads that connected Europe with the far east. The bridge is off limits. Ghet trains that go there from Maymo are outfit with iron rail cars with gun emplacements. Theroux described the viaduct as "a monster of silver geometry in all the ragged rock and jungle, its presence was bizarre".

The Goteik viaduct, also known as Gohteik viaduct, is a railway trestle in Nawnghkio, western Shan State, Myanmar. The bridge is between the two towns of Pyin U Lwin, the summer capital of the former British colonial administrators of Burma, and Lashio, the principal town of northern Shan State. It is the highest bridge in Myanmar and when it was completed, the largest railway trestle in the world. The bridge is located approximately 100 kilometers northeast of Mandalay. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The bridge was constructed in 1899 and completed in 1900 by Pennsylvania and Maryland Bridge Construction. The components were made by the Pennsylvania Steel Company, and the parts were shipped from the United States. The rail line was constructed as a way for the British Empire to expand their influence in the region. +

The viaduct stretches 689 metres (2,260 feet) from end to end with 15 towers which span 12 metres (39 feet) along with a double tower 24 metres (79 feet) long. The 15 towers support 10 deck truss spans of 37 metres (121 feet) along with six plate girder spans 18 metres (59 feet) long and an approach span of 12 metres (39 feet). Many sources have put the height of the bridge at 250 metres (820 feet). This is supposedly a measurement to the river level as it flows underground through a tunnel at the point it passes underneath the trestle. The true height of the bridge as measured from the rail deck to the ground on the downstream side of the tallest tower is 102 metres (335 feet). The cost of the bridge construction was 111,200 £(Pound sterling). Due to its technical and natural condition it was considered as a masterpiece of the world standard. +


Lashio is the starting point of the Burma Road (See World War II). What is called the Burma Road was actually two roads: 1) the roughly 600-mile-long Burma Road, built in 1937 and 1938 between Lashio, Burma and Kunming, China under Chiang kai-shek to bring supplies through a backdoor of China after the Japanese invaded China; 2) and the roughly 500-mile-long Ledo Road. The roads cost 1,133 American lives, roughly a man a mile.[Source: Donovan Webster, National Geographic, November 2003; Book: The Burma Road by Donovan Webster (Macmillan, 2004) ]

The straight line distance from Ledo to Kunming is about 460 miles. The Burma and Ledo Roads, built through some of the world’s most difficult terrain in India, Burma and China, covered more than twice that distance and hooked southward to avoid the Himalayas. The idea was ultimately to use the roads for an invasion of China and from China an invasion of Japan. Churchill called the entire project “an immense, laborious task, unlikely to be finished, until the need for it had passed.” The project was not completed until just six months before the war ended.

The Burma Road was the major overland supply route to China after the Japanese took over much of coastal China in 1937 and 1938 and blockaded its seaports. It was built at a break-neck pace, often by Chinese laborers forced to work for the Nationalists for two years without pay. When it was finished it was little more than a supply track that could only be used by trucks in the dry season.

The Burma Road was built by 160,000 Chinese laborers with virtually no machinery. One worker, who worked on the road between Ruili in Burma and Kunming in China told National Geographic, “It was not easy. I was a boy. In 1937 the engineers came through with stakes, marking where they wanted the roadway. We worked seven days a week, from sunrise to sunset.”

Today, the Burma Road is a rutted 1½ lane road that is in such bad condition it takes cars one day and trucks two days to cover the 116 miles between Lashio and Mu Se on the Chinese border. The Burma Road used disintegrates into a track as one approached the China-Myanmar border but now is better shape to accommodate trade between China and Myanmar. About half the length of the Burma and Ledo Roads is off limits to foreigners.

The Burma Road today is filled with trucks heading north from Burma with raw materials, and heading south from China with manufactured goods. Over one two mile stretch a National Geographic writer counted 104 trucks. Most of the China-bound trucks with food carry thing like rice and dried coffee, which don't need refrigeration. Truck stops along the route sell whiskey, toilet paper, candles, machetes and engine parts. [Source: Joel Swerdlow, National Geographic, July 1995]

Thipaw (200 kilometers or about 124 miles northeast of Mandalay), also known as Hsipaw, is a town in the North of Shan State situated at an elevation of 1370 feet and thus cool in the evenings. The city has occupied several sites around the Dokhtawaddi River. It's fertile valley is an ideal place to grow fruit and vegetables. The present town is almost 400 years old. It's position on the infamous WW II 'Burma Road' makes it a favorite place for truck drivers plying between Burma and Yunnan to stop, rest and eat. On the strength of the trade between the two countries Hsipaw has become relatively prosperous.

Thipaw is a lively and friendly town with minority villages accessible in a day's hike. Thipaw is accessible by train, bus, or car. Leaving Mandalay in the pre-dawn hours the train is supposed to reach Thipaw sometime in the afternoon, but when it does arrive is anybody’s guess. The bus is cheap. Car is convenient. Thipaw is a compact. The town center hosts a lively morning market. In the evenings the downtown movie is a popular gathering place. Scattered around are restaurants serving up local Shan dishes, Chinese dishes, and more recently a number of teahouses have added banana pancakes to their list of offerings to accommodate backpackers. Places of interest include the palace of the Shan Princess from Austria and the Shan style Bawgyo Paya on the Mandalay-Lashio Road. The Gokteik bridge can be seen on the way.


MAYMYO (72 kilometers east of Mandalay) is a 3,500-foot-high, British-built hill station known for its pleasant climate, colonial style houses and rich gardens. In the colonial era it is where Burma's old colonial masters went to escape the heat and dust of the plains. Maymyo still boasts red-brick mansions covered in ivy and pleasant gardens with roses, which flourish in the almost alpine climate of the hills. See Military

The drive and the train ride from Mandalay to Maymyo are noted for their views and wonderful scenery. The Maymyo area is famous for strawberries and orchids. Books: For an interesting description of the town in the early 1970s read Paul Theroux's Great Railway Bazaar . For information on its history read Barbara Crossete's Great Hill Stations of Asia .

Shaded by fragrant eucalyptus, pine, silver oak and teak trees and also known as Pyin Oo Lwin (Pin U Lain) , Maymyo has many colonial buildings, such as the Candacriag Hotel and Nanmyaing Hotel, which were built after the hill station was established in 1886. Near the clock tower is a lively fruit, vegetable and flower market which is frequented by members of hill tribes that live in the mountains around Maymyo.

Maymyo is situated on a plateau over 1,000 meters in the Shan Hills. Even at the height of the hot season, Maymyo is pleasantly cool and at certain times of the year it can get quite chilly. Sweater-knitting is the biggest occupation in town. Getting to Maymyo is part of its attraction. At the half-way mark you pass ‘View Point’, which was spectacular views. The standard transport around the town is miniature, enclosed wagon pulled by a pony. Another highlight is the magnificent botanical garden. Strawberries are in season in February and March. They’re cheap and delicious.

Military Regime’s Maymyo: The two military academies in Pin U Lain, a new town built from scratch near Maymo, have new buildings and young cadets walk about in sharp uniforms. The golf course has a helipad. Describing Pin U Lain, Bertil Lintner wrote in the Washington Post, “Built in the lush hills northeast of Mandalay, the new town is a kind of refuge -- but for the Burmese military. Instead of the British Victorian-style mansions of the old Maymyo, you'll find gaudy luxury villas in the new one. The town is also home to the Defense Services Academy, Burma's West Point, which trained many of the generals. [Source: Bertil Lintner, Washington Post, September 30, 2007 \>

“When construction on the officers' town began in late 2005, the Irrawaddy, a magazine published by Burmese exiles in Thailand, reported that "no expense has been spared to allow the generals to live in what basically is a resort, complete with an artificial beach and a man-made stretch of water to lap onto it." The theme-park retreat will also include replicas of a famous pagoda in Rangoon, the old royal palace in Mandalay and a popular beach resort -- which, the magazine dryly noted, "is probably where the fake beach comes in." \>

Thanks to a newly upgraded airport, the retreat is a quick plane ride to Burma's new capital, Naypyidaw, built in the wasteland and jungle 200 miles north of the old capital, Rangoon. Naypyidaw means "Abode of Kings," and kings are precisely what the Burmese generals see themselves as. On the capital's parade ground stand newly erected, larger-than-life statues of three famous pre-colonial warrior kings whom the junta's leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, sees as his role models. \>

Kandawgyi Botanical Garden (Maymyo) was founded in 1915 by a British botanist named Mr. Roger who began collecting local plants and trees and cultivating them on 30 acres of land at the present site. It was only in 1919 that the Government gave official sanction to it. The original area of the Botanical Garden was 170 acres of land and 70 acres of water totaling 240 acres. With a constant supply of sufficient spring water from a lake nearby, the garden was laid out in the design of Kew Gardens in England. In several plots were planted 4840 trees, mostly pine varieties, and 575 different floral species as well as many exotic fruit and shade trees from abroad that were acclimatized to grow in the Garden. In addition, vast meadows and several seasonal flower beds were arranged and hundreds of wild orchids from different parts of the country were collected and displayed in the Orchid greenhouse.

Maha Nandamu Cave (five kilometers south of Wetwun village, 20 kilometers east of Maymyo) is known for its stalactites. Also known as Peik Chin Myaung, the cave is at the entrance to the Peik Chin Myaung ravine and was formed out of a fault. On entering the cave you see springs flowing from different directions. The water at some places is as deep as five feet. Water seeps from the walls of the rock; and is clean and cool. It is said that this water cures eye ailments and itching. So pilgrims take this spring water home in bottles. The Great Cave covers an area about 48 acres. Once inside the cave. you shiver with cold what with the springs and small waterfalls. The Buddha-to-be's life story up to His Enlightenment is featured at appropriate places. There are also Buddha images and pagodas in corners and niches.

Maha Anthtookanthar Paya is a pagoda that was not planned, but just came to be. The reason for this is that three marble Buddha figures made in Mandalay were being transported to their planned home in China. On this journey one of the Buddha figures fell from the lorry and could not be reloaded due to its weight. After many attempts it was left behind and the other 2 were taken on their way. The Buddha image left behind. needed to be moved. but no one knew how to go about this task. A local Buddhist monk decided he would try faith. He sat for 7 days on this figure and preached to the locals and recited teachings of Buddha. After 7 days the figure was. apparently. easily lifted and placed in its current location and the local people built a pagoda as an offering to Buddha.

Other Sights Around Maymyo include Pwekauk Waterfall (also known as "Laughing Water" and Hampshire Falls) and 200-foot-high Anisakhan Waterfall. The village of Aungchantha is noted for its flower, fruit and vegetable market.


MEKONG RIVER is one of the world's great rivers. Originating in Tibet, not far from the source of the Yangtze River, it tumbles down through the Himalayas and southern China into Southeast Asia and flows along the borders of Laos, Burma and Thailand through the heart of the Golden Triangle into Cambodia, where it flows in one direction in the wet season and the opposite direction in the dry season. It finally empties into the South China Sea at the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Its source in Tibet as not discovered until 1994.

The Mekong River goes by many names. It is known as Lancang Jiang (Turbulent River) in China,the Mae Nam Khing in Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, Tonle Than (Great Waters) in Cambodia and Cuu Long (Nine Dragons) in Vietnam. It is also known as River of Stone, Dragon Running River, Mother River Khong, and Big Water.

The Mekong is the longest river in Southeast Asia, the 12th longest in the world and the 10th largest in terns of volume. With about half of its length in China, it flows for 4,880 kilometers (2,600 miles) and provides food and water for 60 million people and disgorges 475 billion cubic meters of water each year into the South China Sea.

The Mekong basin cover an area the size of France and Germany. More than 80 percent of the people that live in the Mekong River basis in rely on the river for agriculture or fishing. More than 41 percent of the land in the heavily populated Lower Mekong basin is used for agriculture, which accounts for 90 percent of all water use.

The Mekong River is one of the wildest rivers in he world and is surprisingly undeveloped for such a large river. There are no large cities or industrial zones along its banks. It is not dammed. Until 1994 there were note even bridges across it. For the most part the it is brown and muddy and still wild and free. The Upper Mekong features turbulent rapids, steep gorges and long section with no people. Often the only way to cross it is on cables strung between cliffs. The Lower Mekong River is calmer and more placid and incredibly wide in some places.

During spring melt and the monsoon season from May too October, the Mekong became a raging torrent, sometimes producing a flood wave that is 46 feet high. Annual floods often kill dozens of people. Floods in Cambodia and Vietnam in 2000, killed 500 people and wiped out herds, crops and orchards. At the end of the dry season in March, April and May the river level can drop as much as 40 feet in some places, exposing large rocks and sand bars, and making navigation even in small boats difficult.

The Mekong flows through some poorest countries and regions in the world. For many the countries that border it development of the river is vital to the development of the country. China wants to develop the river to help the impoverished Yunnan Province.

The Mekong River Commission (MBC) is an organization with representatives from Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam committed to water utilization, basin development and environmental protection. Myanmar and China are not members just observers.

A good book on the river is Mekong by Edward AA. Gargan (Knopf, 2002). Written by a former correspondent for The Times,

Route of the Mekong River in Southeast Asia: The Mekong River flows through a narrow, 200-kilometer-long gorge in southern China and along the Myanmar-Laos. From the tripoint of China, Burma (Myanmar) and Laos the river flows southwest and forms the border of Burma and Laos for about 100 kilometres (62 miles) until it arrives at the tripoint of Burma, Laos, and Thailand. This is also the point of confluence between the Ruak River (which follows the Thai-Burma border) and the Mekong. The area of this tripoint is sometimes termed the Golden Triangle, although the term also refers to the much larger area of those three countries that is notorious as a drug producing region.

As one travels south on the Mekong its become easier to navigate and higher numbers of greater varieties of boats appear. From the Golden Triangle tripoint, the Mekong turns southeast to briefly form the border of Laos with Thailand. It then turns east into the interior of Laos, flowing first east and then south for some 400 kilometres (250 mi) before meeting the border with Thailand again. Once more, it defines the Laos-Thailand border for some 850 kilometres (530 mi) as it flows first east, passing in front of the capital of Laos, Vientiane, then turns south. A second time, the river leaves the border and flows east into Laos soon passing the city of Pakse. Thereafter, it turns and runs more or less directly south, crossing into Cambodia. At Khone Falls the river cascardes over rocks and separates into several branches, divided by forested islands, before it enters Cambodia.

History of the Mekong: It is believed that Marco Polo may have set eyes on the Mekong River in the 13th century. The Portuguese Dominican missionaries Father Gaspar da Cruz was the first European to describe traveling on the Mekong River. He spent 1555 to 1557 in Cambodia. The Dutch explorer Gerrot van Wuystoof wrote about it in 1641

The French had ideas of using the Mekong to navigate through Southeast Asia into China but these dreams were dashed when an expedition led by Francis Garnier in the 1860s discovered a major obstacle, Khone Falls, in southern Laos. He suggested blasting a canal next to the canal but a short railroad was built instead (see Khone Falls, Laos) but the effort led to only minimal increases of commerce on the river.

A treaty signed in 1893 by France and Siam designated it as the border between Thailand and Laos. In World War II, a number of battles were fought in the proximity of the Mekong in China. During the Vietnam War, the river Mekong Delta in particular was the site of some bloody guerilla warfare.

Wildlife and Fishing on the Mekong River: The Mekong River is home of rare Irrawaddy river dolphins and rare pla buk, the world's largest freshwater fish, the Mekong Giant Catfish. By one count only around 100 river dolphins are eft and they are mostly in northern Cambodia. Dolphins.

Fish caught in the river are an important source of protein for an estimated 65 million people. Many of these fish rely on the natural annual flood cycle of the river to reproduce. In Laos, Thailand , Cambodia and Vietnam, fishermen catch about 1.3 million tons of fish a year, four times the yearly catch in the North Sea. One of the riche fish ground is the Siphandone, or Four Thousand Islands, area between Laos and Cambodia.

Fish stocks have been reduced by overfishing, habitat destruction and development. Large fishing operations—some fo them legal, some of them not—employ large nets and traps that can catch hundreds of thousands of fish ay a time. Some people catch fish with bed-sheet-size butterfly nets that they dip into rice paddies flooded by the river.

Mekong Giant Catfish : According to the Guinness Book of Records, the largest specimen freshwater fish ever caught was a pla buk netted in the River Ba Mee Noi, a tributary of the Mekong. The monster was reportedly 9 feet and 10¼ inches long and weighed 533½ pounds. There have also been reports of fish larger than 650 pounds.

The paa beuk takes between six years and 12 years to reach full size,

The Mekong Giant Catfish, also known as the pla buk, is seriously endangered, a victim primarily of overfishing, It is so rare now that when ever one is caught by a fishermen it is big news. The remaining members of the fish species are found mostly in Cambodia and Laos. One of its primary breeding areas, a stretch of reefs near Chuang Khong in Thailand, is currently dredged for navigation purposes.

In 1969, Thai fishermen near the Burmese border caught 69 giant catfish, In 1998 they caught one. In Thailand it has been several years since on has been caught. In Cambodia about five fish are a year. When one is caught in Cambodia conservationist often rush to the scene and buy it from the fishermen, then weigh and tag the fish and release it. The money the fishermen is often equal to a decades worth of pay.

The best place to catch paa beul is a stretch of the Mekong between northen Thailand and Laos near the Huay Xai, The fish is caught in April and May when river levels are low ad the fish migrates to Lake Tali in Yunnan Province in China to spawn. Local fishermen sacrifice a chicken and spill its blood into the river as an offer to the river spirit who protect the catfish. The fish are caught with special nets strong enough to hold them

The paa beuk is regarded as a delicacy in Thailand. The flesh is meet and is said to have a taste similar tuna and swordfish A single fish can fetch $5,000 at a market in Bangkok and ate sought after by gastronomes. Fishermen can only tale 50 or 60 a year. Efforts to breed and restock the river have e with some success.

As part of the breeding process when a male or female is caught it is kept in captivity until a fish of the opposite sex is caught The eggs are removed by massaging the female and mixed with sperm milk from a male. More than million young catfish have been produced this way and released into the Mekong.


Transportation on the Mekong River: The Mekong River and its tributaries provide crucial transportation links in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The runs for 786 kilometers between Simao in the Yunnan province of China and Luang Prabang in Laos.

Passage between Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand is blocked by Khone Falls in Laos, one of the world’s most powerful cataracts. The series of rapids and falls drops 70 feet. The river is eight miles wide at this spot.

The idea of using the Mekong River as the hub of a major transportation hub became a possibility in the 1990s when the peace was finally achieved in Cambodia and the insurgency in Laos became more manageable.

In the early 1990s there were no bridges over the Mekong River. Now there are several, in Vietnam and between Laos and Thailand.

Myanmar, Thailand, China and Laos have signed an agreement to open a navigation route along the upper reaches of the Mekong River. Under the agreement the four countries allowed commercial navigation across each other’s borders. There are plans to make an access route from southern China to the Indian Ocean via the Mekong River.

China is currently involved in dredging upper parts of the river to make them navigable. In the dry season, 150-tons can not navigate these sections. Dredging will remedy this. Dredging between Vientiane and Simao in Yunnan Province in China will make section of the river capable of handing 2,000 ton ships throughout the year except for a couple weeks in the dry season when water levels are exceptionally low. Both the Chinese and Laotian governments support the project as a means of promoting economic growth through increased trade.

Many locals oppose the dredging operations, They complain large ship creates wakes and waves that can sink smaller boast and worry that large Chinese boats will take away cargo business from smaller local boats and flood the market with cheap Chinese goods and produce. Environmentalist say the dredging damagesriver banks, destroys fish stocks and threatens endangered animals. The dredging operations involves using explosive to blast apart shallow rocks, reefs and shoals and widen channels.

Development of the Mekong River is still minimal but large amounts of water that flow into it are being siphoned off by large dams, small dams, canals and irrigation projects along it tributaries. The Mekong and its tributaries have the hydroelectric potential of all the oil in Indonesia. A large amounts of development has already by done. More than 50 dams built by the Asian Development Bank have built on the Mekong in recent decades. There are plans for many more.

China is currently involved in building large dams on the Mekong to provide electricity, control floods and provide water for irrigation. Some are being built. More than a dozen are in the planning stages. The $4 billion Xiaowan Dam is currently being built. When it is finished it will be the world’s tallest dam, over 300 meters (100 stories) high and create a reservoir 169 kilometers long. Only the Three Gorges dam will be larger.

Dams hat have already been built include the $600 million, 30-story-high Dachaishan Dam in Dachaishan Gorge, which created a 88-kilometer-long reservoir that filled up in just five days; the 35-story-high Manwan Dam, 100 kilometers south of Dali in Yunnan, with 40 foot tunnels through the mountains and a 1500 megawatt electricity generating capacity; and the Jinghong Dam.

The dams have displaced thousands of people, many of them ethnic minorities, and disrupted normal water patterns and fishing migration routes and reduced the flow of soil-enriching sediment..The Cambodian government has expressed its concern that development projects on the Mekong River could caused the Tonle Sap lake to dry up. The Tonle Sap is Southeast Asia’s largest lake and an important source of fish for Cambodians.

Its not just China that is building dams. A World Bank report was very critical of the Pak Moon dam Thailand, which was build near the Noon River; confluence with the Mekong and blocked important fish migration routes. Of the 265 species found on the Noon River before the dam was built only 96 remain. And fish catches dropped 80 percent. The $260 million Theun-Hinboun dam in the mountains of the central highlands of Laos supplies two thirds of that country’s electricity but has turned a once vibrant river into a stagnant lake and dramatically cut fish catches.

Supporters of the dam say the dams will help not hurt the people and wild life that use the river. They say the dams will increase the flow of water in dry season and reduce it I the wet season, reducing the chance of flooding and make ore water available for irrigation. Experts have also pointed out that Lower Mekong gets more water from the highlands of Laos and Vietnam than it does from China, where the dams are located.

One study found that local dams used to divert water for irrigation pose a much greater threat than the large dams. There are 20,000 local dams on the river, most them in Thailand, and they have been linked to fluctuating river levels. Others who studied the river have also said that massive numbers of people who live on the river har, the river through land degradations and water pollution, logging, erosion. . There also worried about sedimentation and salinization in the reservoir. The slay cold contaminate rice fields. sedimentation could make the dams unusable after a few decades.

The Mekong fell to record low in the dry season of 2004. River boats were stranded. In Cambodia the fish catch fell 50 percent after it declined 15 percent the previous year. Some blamed the problem on dam construction and the release of water to allow Chinese ships to navigate the river. Drought and overfishing also played a role.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Myanmar Travel Information, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP,,, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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