The Anantara Resort & Spa Golden Triangle is in Chiang Saen, on a ridge a mere half-kilometer (about a third of a mile) from where the three countries meet. From the hotel, I could gaze over the tall native elephant grass to the jungles of Myanmar and Laos beyond.
After a lunch of grilled salmon spiced with lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, garlic, ginger, chiles and cilantro in Anantara's dining room, I took the half-hour, 17-mile taxi ride to Mae Sai.
The bustling border town once was a conduit for smuggled goods from Laos and Myanmar, but it now offers legitimate shopping opportunities. The taxi dropped me at the immigration office (next to the hospital) so I could arrange a free visa to leave Thailand, then to the border building, where I met John. We relinquished our passports and paid 250 bahts (about $6) each for a permit to enter Myanmar. We walked the 90 yards across the bridge spanning the Mae Sai River into Myanmar.
In my mind and heart, Myanmar will always be Burma, an enchanting country lost in the shadows of isolation and still under American sanctions because of the ruling junta's repressive policies. I've loved Burma since my first trip in the early 1980s, and I was happy to be back, if only briefly.
On the other side of the bridge, wide concrete steps led down into Thakilek's streets: a confusion of shops, pedestrians and bikes weaving by stucco buildings. John and I meandered in and out of shops that sold bootlegged music cassettes and movie videos and DVDs.
We peeked into stores selling blankets, fabric, clothing, kitchen utensils and bamboo items. I stopped to admire Burmese lacquerware bowls, plates and boxes; the beauty of this folk art has an ageless appeal to me.
Other shops contained all sorts of food, in neat piles. One had an amazing assortment of dried fish that gave off a pungent odor, which mingled with the appetizing aroma of fresh garlic coming from the rear of another store. I saw large plastic bags containing a spongy white material that looked like dried tripe, but John said it was the center of bamboo, an easily obtained carbohydrate used in soup.
On the front counter of a jewelry-souvenir shop, amber and jade pendants hung on stands. "Amphan, amphan," the vendor said, pointing to the amber, a beautiful stone believed to invite health, wealth and prosperity.
"Yes, amber with many flaws," I said, peering closely at the piece. It had beautifully shaped black, fossilized leaves embedded in it. This piece, on a silver hoop, intrigued me, and it was far cheaper than the clear stones priced at $10 and $20.
"Lucky money! Lucky money!" the woman sang, happily waving the $5 we had agreed on.
At a similar store, I bought a tiny jade Buddha for $3, a silver dolphin charm for the same price, and three small metal Buddhas for a couple of dollars more.
John and I headed for the shop he wanted to check out. It displayed hunting and fishing items, mostly binoculars, knives and animal trophies.
"All cheap Chinese gear," John whispered so the shop's owner would not hear. "That's a clouded leopard skin and there's a wild boar's skull, a macaque monkey, and bones and antlers of many deer. Also, one elephant tooth and a python skin. No tiger bones or skins, no rhino horns. This stuff has been here for months. Thankfully, nothing is in demand."
Picking up a skull, he turned it over in his palm. "There's nothing new here — just a couple of deer skulls and some fake tiger penises."
"Are they phony trophies?" I asked.
John just smiled and did not answer.
After visiting a similar store on another street, we speedily retraced our steps to Mae Sai. Afterward, I noticed, "walk" was noted as the mode of transport on my passport's Thai stamp.