The Golden Triangle conjures up mystery in an exotic paradise. Named as such because at this particular point in the far north of Thailand this is the spot where Laos, Myanmar and Thailand merge bordered by the Mekong and Ruak Rivers that has served as a major trading spot for about a thousand years or more. Just a little further up the Mekong is the Yunnan Province of China.
For a long time, the trade that flourished in this Golden Triangle was illicit but very profitable. The area had pirates, shady traders, small private armies and thugs. That illicit trade was in Opium which grows very well in the warm mountains of Southeast Asia. While it brought a lot of riches to the area, it also brought unsavory characters, but that helped make the Golden Triangle a place of legends and violence. Today, most (but not all) of the opium trade is gone but the romance of the region stays with it.
The Golden Triangle is not so far from the City of Chiang Mai, a trip that I do often and jump at every chance to revisit. I find the Golden Triangle area to be amongst the most naturally beautiful parts of Thailand, and worthy for visitors to Chiang Mai to make this full day trip I recently had a couple of Californians visiting me in Chiang Mai and it gave me another opportunity to travel there.
Traveling due north of Chiang Mai, the traveler first encounters the steep mountains of Northern Thailand covered in tropical forest. You don’t see any villages and just an occasional farm, but buried off the main highway on both sides, down small unpaved roads are the various hill tribe villages. The Hill Tribe people are varied, the Akha, the Hmong, the Karen, the Yao, the Lisu and others, each with their own lifestyle, language, clothing, food and history. The Hill Tribes are spread over Laos, Thailand and Myanmar, moving across borders as if there were no border at all. The Hill Tribe people have their own farms, often straddling a steep hillside, and were the main producers of the opium. Later, they became the growers of their own variety of high quality Ganja, or Cannabis (Marijuana in the US) known as “Thai Sticks”. If this latter crop becomes legal (meaning the US stops its ridiculous “War on Drugs”, which appears to be almost totally lost by the US), this region is likely to again become producers of this high quality crop. But for now, the main crops are coffee and tea and rice.
In the mountains, we stop at one of the many hot springs for a bit of coffee and breakfast to help keep us going on our trip. The coffee is excellent local Arabica and the coffee shops are rustic wood building with local artwork. The shop we had our morning coffee in has hot spring water channels within the restaurant so that you can put your feet into the naturally steaming water from the hot springs while sitting next to the channel drinking your coffee. A great way to start the day and I wish I could do this at home every morning.
Despite the multitude of problems outsiders have given the Hill Tribes (and still do to an extent), these people are extremely pleasant and friendly to visitors. About halfway up to Chiang Rai, we saw along the road a group of Akha rice farmers working the rice fields. We stopped to see what exactly they were doing and they quickly invited us into their group to show us how they plant new rice seedlings into the wet and muddy rice fields. We didn’t speak their language and they didn’t speak ours, but we communicated with smiles and gestures. It was an experience. The fields were beautiful in their different shades of green, some very bright green.
When entering Chiang Rai, the small city that is the center for this Northern Thailand region, the first thing you encounter is the amazing white temple, Wat Rong Kuhn. This temple was the brain child of a devoted Buddhist artist that made a very large temple that is a modern religious artwork with amazing sculptures and murals telling the story of Buddhism, the spirituality of the religion and how it relates to the problems of the modern world. It is one temple everyone should visit at least once, and it is easy to spend much of the day studying the messages sent out in the artwork.
Our guide on this trip was actually able to take us behind the temple off the beaten path to watch the artists in their work preparing more artwork for a second temple that is being built.
Chiang Rai itself is a fairly modern city spread out over a large area that is home to many fresh food markets of locally grown crops, big stores and a large and prestigious university campus. Unlike most cities in Thailand, there seems to be no traffic problems despite the many trucks traveling with crops headed south. The city is bordered on three sides by tall forested mountains, and there are small rice fields within the city itself on every available lot between buildings. It is a city with one foot into the 21st century and the other foot in the traditional culture of the region.
A little further north of Chiang Rai, we make an abrupt right turn to head east to the banks of the Mekong and the Golden Triangle.
When we reach the Mekong, you enter the town of Chiang Sean. This farm and fishing town straddles the banks of the Mekong and is dotted with small resorts and restaurants. If you had the time, this would be a good place to settle for the night. Just about 10km north along the Mekong you will find the Golden Triangle. There are lots of places to stop, including at the giant Buddha statue that can be seen from a long distance in every direction, including across the river in Laos and in Myanmar. A few decades back, another Buddha statue even larger than this was discovered on the floor of the Mekong that dates back at least 800 years. It was a big project in trying to recover that statue, but the work was abandoned after many unsuccessful tries, so it still sits partially buried at the bottom of the river.
There are some excellent restaurants in the Golden Triangle that mix Thai food with Burmese food. In Myanmar (Burma) the rice is a bright orange from the added paprika that makes a different flavor than found in Thailand.
There is also an Opium Museum that some people that are into history of the region would find fascinating.
From the Golden Triangle, you can easily hop on one of the shallow draft boats that will speed very quickly with their large car engines and propellers extended on a large pole at the back of the boat. These boats will take you to nearby Myanmar and then across to Laos, both of which have casinos built primarily for visiting Chinese from the north. The Chinese will come down in large river hotel boats to go to the casinos. There is a small village on the Laos side which makes a nice stop and does not require a visa or visa fee to enter.
In The Lao village, you will find Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Rolexes, and lots of designer accessories. Nothing is real, of course, so don’t take any of these things back to Europe (small quantities to the US are OK, though). Also while in the village, we encountered a pair of work elephants. We bought a few small watermelons that we gave to them as a treat and the pachyderms would gobble up the entire watermelon in a few bites in a matter of seconds. It was all fun. We also ran into a few monkeys wandering around that wanted to take charge of the situation.
Returning back to the town Chiang Sean, we visited some amazing old temples, dating back in the range of 800 to 1000 years. This town was once completely walled to keep out the invaders, pirates and other rogues that wanted to control this strategic trading town. Parts of the wall are still there crumbling from the centuries. It is steeped in history mixed with commanding views and deep Buddhist spirituality.
As night started coming, we hoped in the car for our return trip to Chiang Mai, with just a stop to buy fresh pineapple from the fields. The variety of pineapple grown here is about half the size of traditional Hawaiian pineapple, but much sweeter. The almost non-stop ride back to Chiang Mai took at least two hours and perhaps a bit longer.
Note to those planning a tour up to the Golden Triangle: In Chiang Mai, there are many tour companies offering this trip, and some are very cheap. Without having a good guide that can explain the meaning of the region, the temples, and the significant historical and religious attractions, it can be a long and often tedious trip. We were lucky in that we had a private guide from our own tour company (Top Thai Tours Ltd.), Tony, that could explain the meaning of everything on this day trip and take us to some out of the ordinary places along the way. He is a former monk and knows the significance of every Buddhist statue and shrine. The big tour buses from Chiang Mai provides a driver that explains little and herds visitors quickly from one spot to another. If you read on Trip Adviser about this day trip, some found the trip hurried and not very exciting, It is because they traveled to the Golden Triangle this way. My advice is to find the right guide to make this trip an experience that will never be forgotten. If you cannot afford that, then I would suggest you get some really good guide books and read up before exploring the area by yourself at a slow pace — over 2 or 3 days. My second piece of advice is to not stay overnight in a Chiang Rai hotel. While certainly not as luxurious (maybe downright rustic), it is better to stay in one of the little homestay houses or in a small resort in a village or small town.