Golden Triangle, Thailand: A Shan Drug Lord and a Motorcycle Sensei

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golden triangle

Golden Triangle, Thailand: A Shan Drug Lord and a Motorcycle Sensei

It all started with a….Yes, indeedy. As any of my half-dozen or so readers will now guess, our trip into the Golden Triangle did indeed start with a request. And the adventure that resulted? Let’s just say Kawasaki ER-6 street bikes and a whole bunch of beautiful bendy roads. And a drug lord’s hideout, and the most wonderful conversations about the nature of faith. That was Hykie.

“Hey, Ron.”

“John, I need a favor.” Ever direct, that’s Ron, though note that the size of the favor isn’t mentioned.

“Uh-huh. Go ahead.”

“I have to go back to Jo’burg for a couple of weeks. But I’ve got a mate coming here for a few days while I’m gone.”

Silence.

“Can you look after him? You know, show him around and stuff? He’s a great guy and an old old friend.”

“Where’s he staying?”

“That’s all sorted. But he likes bikes, so you may wanna do that.”

Sort of Like the Buddha, Really, Only Thinner

I didn’t really need persuasion anyhow. Hykie arrived, and I recognized him at the airport instantly because his huge, all-encompassing smile simply beamed good-humor to all around. I figured he must be Ron’s friend. We got him digs and repaired to the house I was renting in Chiang Mai. Little Minx, always always the most gracious hostess, split the ice with an ax as she always does with her own beatific smile. Within minutes I was taking time off work, and we were planning a harum-scarum ride right around northern Thailand’s Golden Triangle.

Having driven almost all those roads myself, and the ones up to Fang Thaton and Mae Sai many times, I knew the best routes and even knew the locations of the most dangerous potholes.

We rented[1] a brace of ER-6s, Kawasaki’s sweet-looking 600cc street bike from Mr Mechanic’s on Moon Muang Road in Chiang Mai, and set off on route 1001 through the Sri Lanna National Park on a trip through the Golden Triangle.

The Art of Motorcycle Acquaintance

That glorious, empty road was my schooling. I was in luck, too, with my teacher. Hykie’s youthful penchant for racing street bikes (often alongside Ron) made him a true expert in the sort of Valentino-Rossi-my-knee-is-on-the-road-and-my-ass-is-hanging-off-the-bike mold. That meant he was the best ever sensei in the art of motorcycle acquaintance. Patiently, gently, he showed me how to distribute my weight properly, and to countersteer on sharp bends to neutralize the front wheel’s inward tendency. My ER-6 was a lot more fun after Hykie’s input, oh yes.

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Hykie, his ER-6, and a sign we were not going to disobey: go left. Somewhere in the Golden Triangle. Pic: JC.

This was a question not of the road traveled, but with whom you traveled it. Hykie was, and I’m sure remains, the best traveling companion. A teetotaler, he sipped Coke while I got sloshed on Leo beer with plenty of ice (as is the custom in Lanna). We talked of the nature of faith: I’d been reading Hitchens and Dawkins and Gray, among others, and was a confirmed atheist, and still am. We are born at the heart of a dying star, and to that state we will return. And that is that.

Yet Hykie argued passionately for the value of faith, it’s structure, and its social good (though on the latter point there are arguments on both sides). He said it had given him a sense of certainty in an uncertain world that allowed him to flower into the (extremely fine) human being he now was (and is). I could not but face the simple truth of his argument, that faith has capabilities to bring out the best in people. Still, I stuck to my humanist line. This particular conversation took place in some streetside stool-and-table bar in Mae Sai, at the apex of the Thai part of the Golden Triangle.

We headed west, into the border region with Myanmar’s Shan State. Back in the 1960s and 70s this area had been prime poppy land, controlled first by the Kuomintang’s rump Division 93 and then by Khun Sa, the legendary Shan warlord who evaded justice right up until his death in 2007 in a protected compound in Yangon.

Back in the day, Khun Sa used to hang out in Ban Hin Taek, a dusty no-horse ville lodged like a stone in a horse’s hoof up between the arêtes of the wild borderland hills.

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The author with the mounted statue of Khun Sa at his base in the Golden Triangle at Ban Hin Taek. It looks bronze, but in fact is glass fiber. Pic: HB.

Khun Sa’s hideout at Ban Hin Taek is now a museum celebrating the Shan people’s fights for independence and autonomy (still going on, by the way). It’s also an outrageous hagiography of a man who was at one time a drug warlord and an inspiration to a people at the same time.

Prominent among the pictures and memorabilia in the museum is a rough painting of the signing of the Panglong Agreement, which the Shan correctly deemed betrayed by the autarkic, unitary government that replaced Aung San in 1947. That makes the Shan’s fight one of the longest civil wars in the world.

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With apologies for the appalling shot, here’s the painting of the Panglong Agreement in Khun Sa’s museum at Ban Hin Taek, Chiang Rai province, Thailand. Aung San is whited out by the flash. The agreement set a period after which certain Burmese provinces would have the right, if they so choose, to secede from the Union. The agreement was signed by all the relevant parties on February 12, 1947. Aung San was the undisputed leader of a nation riven by war. Loved by all, he is still revered today with pictures of him hanging everywhere you go in what is now Myanmar. Four months and one week later, on July 27, 1947, Aung San and his cabinet were dead, gunned down by automatic fire. Mystery still surrounds the events of that day, but one thing is sure. Neither Burma nor Myanmar recovered from the traumas of Aung San’s death and the subsequent numerous civil wars. The nation still has not. Many tribes and groupings are still fighting the government, like the Shan, and much of the country remains ‘black’. Pic: JC

There was no one there. Hykie and I were alone. Oh, and Little Minx is Shan. She fled the bombings and strafings of her home town, by foot, across the mountains, aged seven. These hardships are unknown to me, to Hykie. Our stories are punctuated by danger, by vulnerability, by grief. But not by the kind of flesh-ripping death-danger that Little Minx has scurried down the street to escape.

That terror, unknown to us. We pondered that, too.

Fang and Gone

We arrived in Fang. About 200 or so kilometers from Chiang Mai.

Hykie turned to me at the gas station and said: “Hey John, I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to ride now. I know the way back and I’ll meet you there. Take care.”

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The author with Hykie at Ban Hin Taek in the Golden Triangle. A gentle, kind, funny, intelligent traveling companion. I found out later Hykie’s a big star in South Africa, and even won South Africa’s edition of the castaway show Survivor. Stay well, brother. Pic: Some kid hanging around admiring our bikes.

He was gone. By the time I arrived at Mr Mechanic’s, having been determined all the way to make a decent showing (within safe biking limits, of course, kids) Hykie had already been parked on a stool in the shop for 25 minutes.


[1] Current advisory: the Thai coup and military junta have disrupted the normal channels of corruption in the kingdom, meaning that the police have been seeking broader sources of income. In Chiang Mai these days, more than a dozen police checkpoints dot the city, particularly around the city’s moat. The police there ask not for a driver’s license, but an international driver’s license. Few travelers bother to procure these from their nations of origin, so they’re forced to pay on the spot fines of THB400-450 (about USD13). Be careful when out clubbing, too, as police will stop you and ask for urine samples to test for drug use. One way to avoid the police cordons in Chiang Mai is to leave the city on your bike in the evening. Any time after six should do, but you’d have to factor in an extra night’s stay somewhere near Chiang Mai. I’d recommend the Chiang Dao Nest for an overnight stay with dinner. Pricey, but damned excellent and a beautiful location in which to wake up. You’ll also have passed the major army/police checkpoint north of Mae Taeng if you stay there, so your way is clear to the north.

John Clamp

John Clamp

John Clamp has lived, worked, and scuba dived in Asia for ten years. An incorrigible traveler, he knows Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, China, and South America. His favorite places are Rio de Janeiro, Borneo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Phnom Penh, and the Similan Islands in the Andaman Sea.

6 Comments

  • Erika
    Erika

    I tried to learn how to ride a motorcycle in Chiang Mai – I got half a block down the road and hit a car. They took the bike away immediately….

    July 21, 2017 at 9:46 pm
  • AA

    Reminds me of the time when I used to ride my bike in India. Great article!

    July 21, 2017 at 10:33 pm
  • John Clamp

    One correction and an advisory about the current state of police action in Chiang Mai to come….

    July 22, 2017 at 5:42 am
  • Keith Nykaza

    Good read! Can’t wait for the next article. Well done!

    July 22, 2017 at 9:43 am
  • Ronald

    What a nice article thank u bud will get hykie to reply..

    July 22, 2017 at 12:08 pm
  • David

    Afraid of bikes…but one day will face those fears. Awesome read.

    July 27, 2017 at 4:40 am
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