Gambling in the Golden Triangle
Living in Thailand, one cannot help but miss certain things. I missed Las Vegas. For the past decade I've gone roughly twice a year to hone my poker skills and walk the strip at all hours. I even spent four consecutive Christmases there in the mid-90s, much to the chagrin of my Catholic parents. But, as with baseball and burritos, I found suitable alternatives in my new home. Then one day I heard out about the Golden Triangle Paradise Resort. A casino within a half-days drive of Chiang Mai? I'm there.
I came to discover that the Golden Triangle Paradise Resort is one of 34 casinos that ring Thailand's borders. Together they bring in an estimated US $2 billion per year, as Thais cross into Burma, Laos, and Cambodia to indulge in games of chance outlawed in their homeland. No single place rivals the American gambling mecca. Poipet, in Cambodia, leads the way with nine casinos adjacent to the Thai border. The Golden Triangle Paradise Resort sits alone in a Burmese no man's land opposite the Mekong River from Sop Ruak in Chiang Rai Province. Its not Vegas, but my wife and I could not resist.
The first stop for visitors to the resort is Burmese immigration. But don't expect a Burmese stamp to show your friends, or a new Thai visa when you return. Aside from being 500 baht poorer, you'll show no signs of ever leaving Thailand. Even the resort's postcards fail to mention it's in Burma. The longyi-clad men who drive you to the resort do, however, give the initial impression that things are different here.
Those differences disappear soon after you step into the luxurious Lanna-style resort, built by the family of a former Thai deputy interior minister for US $25 million. Nearly all traces of Burma vanish. Aside from a VIP room featuring portraits of Burma's top three generals, the 144-room gambler's haven could easily be mistaken for a resort on the Thai side of the Mekong. Thai is spoken, Thai food is served and Thais deal the cards. Why not? Nearly every customer is Thai.
The Vegas regular in me noticed one other thing?the silence. Whereas opening the door of a casino on the strip leads to an onslaught of bells and buzzers, whooping and wailing, upon entering this hotel I heard no evidence of betting. After a quick tour, we discovered some lonely slot machines down a back hallway, and the reason for the relative quiet. The real action is confined to the resort's euphemistically titled "computer game room," which features plenty of wagering tables and no computers.
Bets range from 50 baht (US $1.25) to 10,000 baht (US $250). The game of choice is bacarrat. The object of this card game is to get a sum as close as possible to nine in two or three cards. If the sum of the hand is in the double digits, the first number is ignored, making 4 and 14 identical, for example. Two hands are dealt, one representing the dealer, the other representing the player. Gamblers bet on who will have the number closest to nine: the dealer or the player. Ties are also an option. They pay well, but rarely hit.
While imbibing is allowed, few gamblers here mix vices. Overall, the casino's atmosphere borders on tense, especially at the higher limit bacarrat tables which dominate the gaming room. With an average of 75 dollars--what a minimum-wage earning Thai makes in a month--being bet on each hand, few appear willing to do anything that might compromise their luck. So tea is the drink of choice and many a teacup is surrounded by Buddha statuettes and other talismans.
Bucking two trends, my wife and I ordered a couple beers and opted for a 100 baht (US $2.50) minimum blackjack table. The regulars to our right welcomed our enthusiasm and quickly taught to hit and stay in Thai, although our dealer surely knew the English equivalents. Without any luck (or amulets to attract some) we were rather quickly dispossessed of our stake. Our tablemates lobbied us to buy more chips, but we knew where our fate lied: the roulette wheel.
At this casino, roulette is the little-spenders last resort. For a mere 50 baht, punters can place any bet, except whether the ball will find red or black. That will cost you a minimum of 500 baht. The minutes between each spin of the roulette wheel are the most frenzied moments the casino has to offer. A tangle of arms ring the betting area as gamblers, some of whom aren't even seated, race to pile chips on their lucky numbers. With a wave of the croupier's hand the action ceases and everyone takes a deep breath as they watch the wheel. Ten seconds later the rejoicing--and consoling--commence.
My wife and I spent more time consoling in our short stint at roulette. Still, for nearly an hour we were transported back to our beloved Las Vegas, or at least our nerves thought so. Back was the anxiety and heartache of a trip to the center of the gambling universe. Sure we were half a world away, but the wheel was the same and the house was still ahead. We had found what we were looking for and it was worth the trip.
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Published on 4/7/04