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North Thailand, early December 2015.

Stumbling upon a news article the day before I arrived in Chiang Rai, I learned about The Golden Horse Temple, set on a steep limestone mountain near the Golden Triangle – the former heroin capital of the world on the borders of Burma and Laos.

The legend goes that the formerly abandoned and supposedly haunted temple was given new life after a champion Thai kickboxer had decided to retreat to a cave for seven days before becoming a monk and began to revive the monastery. His sermons were so inspiring that he was given a horse to travel to the nearby villages, where he eventually started to take orphans of the victims of the violent opium trade under his tutorage. He takes in impoverished hilltribe children to this day, children of families not recognised as citizens of Thailand, and teaches them to read and write, study Buddhist scripture, trains them in Muay Thai kickboxing and guides them in horseback riding as a way of collecting alms in the morning.

Known as ‘The Tiger Monk’ by locals, this warrior has survived shootings, bomb attacks and poisoning attempts by the drug cartels during his time at the temple. Although the heroin trade is now strongest in Afganistan, and most of the poppy plantations have moved into Burma’s Shan state, drug trafficking still goes on here.

The heavily tattooed Tiger Monk is now a revered figure among some Thais, but still keeps a low profile. In fact, when I asked about the location of the temple at a tourist info desk in Chiang Rai, they’d never heard of it, but I was able to find someone who I hired to take me there by car.

Beyond the temple of the Golden Horse, I hired scooters and bicycles from guesthouses to explore the villages, towns and cities of Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Nan and Phrae provinces to get a feel for the lesser-known, more rural side to Thailand, where the typical house is made of teak wood and buffalo still take precedence over tractors.

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