In October 2008, my wife Angie and I spent a few days in northern Thailand. While visiting this part of the Golden Triangle, we chanced upon a rusty map of the region. “Look,” I said to Angie, “two months ago I was here,” as I pointed to Xishuangbanna, the southernmost region of China’s Yunnan Province. (‘Xishuangbanna’, 西双版纳, is the sinicised version of the Thai word Sipsong Panna ( สิบสองปันนา) and means ‘twelve thousand rice fields’.)
The Golden Triangle
“So close, eh?” Angie mused, “I wonder whether you could drive from there to here. Wouldn’t that be something?!”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I replied, “There’s borders to cross and who knows if there’s even a road.” Having only just managed to organise our first driving journeys in China, the idea of crossing borders seemed, to me, unfathomable. In those days, whenever an idea came up, my brain was inevitably troubled by the question of how to make it happen, and from that often flowed a stream of reasons why it couldn’t be done. Angie, by contrast, is seldom bothered by such details.
Later that day I reluctantly pursued the idea with her. Wouldn’t it be something to drive from the foothills of the Tibetan Plateau in northern Yunnan down through Laos and the Golden Triangle to Chiang Mai, and to see China merge into South-East Asia, turn by winding turn? It was a powerful idea, but “how?”
I grew up in another Golden Triangle of sorts, in Bregenz, a small town by the eastern shore of Lake Constance where Germany, Austria, and Switzerland meet. No opium poppies there, I can assure you: the only sources of inspiration are reflections in crystal-clear lakes and the herb-scented mountain air.
Shopping in Switzerland? Lunch in Germany? Dinner in Austria? All in one day? Easy! As I child I regarded driving across borders as an everyday occurrence, but since moving to Asia I have gained a newfound appreciation for the romance – and administrative complexities – that such overland journeys can inspire.
Prayer Flags in Shangri-La
Fast forward to April 2009. Angie and I have just landed in Shangri-La. The sky is overcast and snowfall has dusted the hilltops. While eating breakfast we meet the hotel manager and tell her about the journey we are about to make. Her eyes light up, “If you enjoy driving, then you must take the back road to Lijiang – let me show you…” I finish my toast in one bite and drain my coffee cup while Angie knocks back a motion sickness pill. And then we’re on our way.
The main road from Zhongdian to Lijiang is shown on my map as a thick red line. The road that we take is shown as a single pencil-thin line, snaking between the two towns. The hotel manager was right – the road is incredibly beautiful, winding over high passes before descending to the Yangtze at Tiger Leaping Gorge, where the river roars through a deep gorge beneath looming cliffs.
The new Route 3 in northern Lao
After arriving in Lijiang that evening, we wander the cobbled streets, bemused at the sheer number of people visiting this UNESCO World Heritage Site. From Lijiang we drive south along excellent highways to Dali, on the shore of Lake Erhai, and then to Kunming and south again to Jinghong, the largest town in Xishuangbanna.
By the time we arrive in sleepy Jinghong, with its palm tree-lined streets and Thai-style temples, it’s clear that we are on the edge of South-East Asia. The region’s main ethnic minority, the Dai, are closely related to the Thais and in the countryside we drive past groups of sarong-clad Dai women with flowers in their hair.
We arrive in Thailand…wat’s up?
From Jinghong we continue our drive on another wonderful road to the China–Laos border at Mohan, where we make a bit of history: Angie and I are, according to everyone we ask, the first Westerners to drive a China-registered rental car across this border. What I had taken for granted back in the “Golden Triangle” of my youth does, indeed, mean making history here…
At the Thailand-Myanmar border…
In Laos, Route 3 connects the China-Laos border with Huay Sai on Laos’ border with Thailand, cutting south-west diagonally across the country. At that time, Route 3 had been recently rebuilt, and the modern road contrasted starkly with the villages it runs through, where villagers’ lives seem untouched by the twenty-first century.
Later the same day we arrive at Huay Sai and take a rickety looking car ferry to Chiang Khong on the Thai side of the border. After a long day – driving in three countries and over 400 kilometres – Angie and I treat ourselves to a stay at the lovely Anantara Golden Triangle resort.
The next morning, wholly refreshed, we drive back up to the map of the Golden Triangle, where Angie had had her idea six months previously. We look at the battered map in its rusty frame before turning and gazing out towards Burma and Laos, shaking our heads and agreeing “Now, that really was something…”
Never, ever let questions of “How?” stand in way of pursuing your ideas!
Since that first trip, we now have multiple crossing-border itineraries in Asia allowing you to step into our footsteps:
- Yunnan via Laos to Thailand
- Yunnan via Laos to Vietnam – Our Summit to Sea itinerary takes you from one UNESCO World Heritage old town, Lijiang, in Yunnan to another, Hoi An, right by the South China Sea.
- Burma – Our From the Golden Triangle to the Bay of Bengal itinerary is a magical exploration of Burma, including out-of-the-way, hidden gems and well-known, must-see stops.
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