Saturday, March 29, 2014

Khantoke Dinner

Celebrating and embracing the Lanna culture of Northern Thailand, a Khantoke dinner is a fantastic experience. Dinner is accompanied by traditional Lanna music and dance, with all performers wearing the customary garb.

 The final song even includes audience participation, during which time women are invited to dance around the restaurant in a sort of Thai conga line while moving their hands in intricate patterns. And, while all Thais have learned these hand gestures from a young age, watching foreign women try to replicate it must be a laughable sight.

The highlight, of course, is the food. A handful of different dishes are served on a pedestal in the center of the table. The selections include traditional fare like lemongrass sausages, Henglay pork curry, fried chicken, pork tomato-chili paste, pork rinds, and Thai green chile paste with fresh streamed veggies. Sticky rice is a useful and delicious tool for eating from communal plates, as everything is shared. The best part, all the dishes are endlessly refillable.

Delicious food, interesting cultural performances, and nice pillows to lounge on once you’ve stuffed yourself so full you think you might never move again, who could ask for more? 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Golden Triangle

Historically known for its rampant growing of opium, these days the Golden Triangle is primarily a massive tourist attraction. Located at the intersection of the Mekong and Ruak Rivers, the Golden Triangle itself provides little other than the view of Myanmar (left in above photo) and Laos (right), endless options to pay for kitschy souvenirs or river boat rides, and an odd assortment of statues that range from a giant Buddha on a ship and elaborate shrines to massive elephant statues and dozens of signs and maps indicating that you are, in fact, at the Golden Triangle.

However odd the glittery bauble of Golden Triangle Park may be, its original intent was to educate. As part of the late Princess Mother’s efforts to empower the impoverished hill tribe regions and to end the hold of opium in Thailand, the Golden Triangle Park was encouraged to blossom into a huge tourist attraction. The hope was to turn curious tourists into drug opponents.

In this same vein, the Royal Doi Tung Foundation established the Hall of Opium. Costing $10 million and taking 10 years of research and planning, the museum first opened its doors in 2005. From ancient uses, through the East India Company, to the Opium Wars, and straight on up through present day, the multimedia experience outlines opium use and production throughout 4,000 years of history, as well as documenting the tragedy of drug addiction, its societal implications, and modern attempts to battle illegal drugs.

Though a bit campy at times, the museum attempts to look honestly at the history of opium production, including the drug’s history in Thailand. Impressively enough, this includes a timeline of things within Thai history like the establishment of opium taxation, legal/licensed opium production, and a breakdown of how much government revenue came from opium (quite a bit), even during times of concerted worldwide efforts to end the opium trade.

Though still burdened by its past as part of the infamous Golden Triangle, Thailand has demonstrated enormous progress in ridding itself of the influence of opium. Thailand’s crop replacement programs, spearheaded by the Doi Tung Foundation and the Royal Project, have been particularly successful. Fields that once grew poppies, now yield tea, coffee, and macadamia nuts. Farmers who may have once been drawn to the income of opium have been taught to cultivate cash crops like decorative flowers, lettuce, apples, peaches, and herbs.

Obviously, Thailand’s production isn’t at complete zero and many opium farmers may have simply moved farther afield, pushed into Myanmar and Laos, historically much more active members of the Golden Triangle opium trade. The Golden Triangle countries may have given way in global opium production to Afghanistan, Mexico, and Colombia, but production within SE Asia is still a major concern. So, while the education about the opium trade may be less relevant within the borders of Thailand (though by no means irrelevant), the gaudy, tacky, tourist trap that is Golden Triangle Park holds merit in its attempts to educate.

*To give credit where credit is due, all photos from inside museum are borrowed, as they do not allow photography inside the Hall of Opium.