Things to do in the Golden Triangle
Table of Contents
The Golden Triangle and the Mekong River
Attractions of the Golden Triangle
Let’s talk about the attractions of the Golden Triangle (สามเหลี่ยมทองคำ), a famous and notorious area in Northern Thailand. The “physical” Golden Triangle is the area where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet at the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong rivers. A marker stands at the spot from where you can view these three countries. It is in the village called Baan Sop Ruak.
The term “Golden Triangle” though refers to a much larger area that overlaps the mountains of these three countries. It has been one of the most important opium exporting areas of the world since the 1950s. Opium cultivation was already widespread in this area long before that though. In Thailand this area roughly covers parts of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai provinces. Other border provinces such as Mae Hong Son, Phayao and Nan are not considered part of the Golden Triangle. Opium cultivation took also place in these provinces but probably on a lesser scale.
On this website I consider places such as Doi Angkhang and Doi Mae Salong also as destinations in the Golden Triangle. The turbulent days of the Golden Triangle are over. After decades the Thai government succeeded in eradicating the commercial cultivation of opium in the early 1990s. Good roads have opened up an area of which parts where not under government control until the 1980s. Tourism played its part in opening up the former “Wild West” of Thailand.
The Golden Triangle as a tourist destination
The “physical Golden Triangle” is the geographical place in Northern Thailand where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet. Here the Ruak river flows in the Mekong River.
This place has become a major tourist attraction over the years. They placed a Golden Triangle marker, where tourist can make photographs and selfies. Around this spot tourist infrastructure has taken place. There are restaurants, hotels, two opium museums, and souvenir shops. They have built several tourist attractions including a sitting Buddha image, statues of elephants and so on.
The development on the Thai side though dwarfs in comparison to that on the Laotian side of the river where Chinese investors constructed an entertainment city consisting of hotels, casinos and other buildings.
This is also the place where you can charter a boat for a trip to the Laotian island Don Sao or to Chiang Saen. On Don Sao there is a souvenir market for tourists.
The Mighty Mekong River
A major attraction of the Golden Triangle is the Mekong (แม่น้ำโขง), or Mekong River, which is a trans-boundary river in East Asia and Southeast Asia. For many people the name Mekong has a kind of mystical sound to it. People always have been attracted to the Mighty Mekong River and I share that feeling. To enjoy dinner on the banks of the Mekong River is something very special. I will never forget crossing the river for my first visit of Laos in 1989.
It is the twelfth longest river in the world and the sixth longest in Asia, with an estimated length is 4,909 km. The Mekong river runs from the Tibetan Plateau through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. The extreme seasonal variations in flow and the presence of rapids and waterfalls in the Mekong make navigation difficult.
It seems that there are only vessels plying the river over short distances. Almost all boats you see are the typical flat bottom boats, like the one on the sunrise picture below. I took this photo in Chiang Saen in 2021. The map comes from Wikipedia and was made by Shannon.
Attractions and things to do in the Golden Triangle
The Ancient City of Chiang Saen
Chiang Saen (เชียงแสน) is one of the oldest settlements in Thailand. The date of its official foundation in 1329. For many centuries this fortified town was a major military stronghold of a Burmese kingdom until King Kawila destroyed Chiang Saen in 1804. Numerous temple ruins are scattered over a wide area in and around the walled city. Why is Chiang Saen not a UNESCO World Heritage Site?
Boat trips on the Mekong River
Chiang Saen never has been a busy port. Options for boat trips on the Mekong River are limited, which is a pity. Boats to Luang Prabang depart from the Laotian town Ban Houaysai, which is opposite the Thai bordertown Chiang Khong. There is some boat traffic on the river in the Golden Triangle area but it is mostly cargo the transport.
At the Golden Triangle Tourist Spot you can charter small boats to bring you to the Laotian island Don Sao. The last time I visited it was an underwhelming experience. There is a tourist market that offers Bia Lao, cheap souvenirs and products from China. It is not a very inspiring place. The boat trip is very short and not scenic.
Much better is to charter a boat to bring you to Chiang Saen, about 10km from the Golden Triangle Tourist Spot. It is a much nicer trip and you leave the ugly development behind. The typical boats in use on the Mekong River for tourists is the small speedboat, like the one on the picture below. They are noisy but a lot of fun.
Phra That Phu Khao
This temple is right at the geographical Golden Triangle and should be on every itinerary It is one of the most interesting attractions of the Golden Triangle. There are a lot of interesting structures and statues at Wat Phra That Phu Khao (พระธาตุดอยปู่เข้า) to keep you busy for at least half an hour. I always recommend to walk up the Naga staircase of temples as it is part of the experience, in my view. The first staircase leads to a level where there is an ancient Buddha statue as well as a remarkable assembly hall.
This stucco Buddha statue was originally in a bad state of preservation. Only the face, chest, upper arms, waist, left knee, and part of the legs remained. An analysis suggests that the statue was made in the Lanna style with Sukhothai artistic influence around the mid 14th to the mid 15th centuries. In 2018 the Budddha statue was restored and preserved by the 7th Regional Office of Fine Arts, Chiang Mai.
An ancient temple
More steps take you further to the oldest part of the temple, which dates back to a period that predates the foundation of Chiang Saen (1327) The temple is centred by a mondop surrounded by 5 small satellite chedis at the back of viharn. These structures are enclosed by double boundary walls with a staircase on each side except for the western wall. According to legend, Chao Kaeo Ma Muang had this constructed around 759. However, the architecture indicates that is should have been constructed around the 14th century.
Some folklore and chronicles said that Prince Lao Kao, son of King Lave Chakaraj of Hirannakhon Ngoen-Yang ordered the monastery built in 759 on a small hill near the Mekong River. Monuments and ruins in the monastery complex area include a: a viharn, ruins of chedis and wall from this location.
The View on the Golden Triangle
If you walk further you will come to a viewpoint which offers the best view of the Golden Triangle. First on the right there is a gilded statue of Phra Upakut, the highly revered monk.The standing Buddha statue is a recent addition to the temple. Prof.Dr. Surakiart Sathirathai took the initiative to raise funds to construct the statue that is dedicated to Queen Sirikit, the Queen Mother. The statue was unveiled in 2014. Queen Sirikit granted it the name “Phra Buddha Siri Trairath” which means “Lord Buddha blessing for the prosperity of the three nations.”
From this spot you have a fantastic view over the physical Golden Triangle. The featured picture of this page I took from Phra That Doi Phu Khao.
The excellent Hall of Opium
This is an educational center at the Golden Triangle Park. The Mae Fah Luang Foundation established The Hall of Opium in 2003 to educate people about illicit drugs, especially opiates. You could call it a museum with a mission: to reduce drug abuse. The museum tells the story of the relationship between humans and opium over many centuries. You will learn about the medicinal use of opium, the opium wars between China and the British Empire and the history of the Golden Triangle.
The Hall of Opium is certainly worth your visit. The exhibitions are very well done. This is one of the best museum in northern Thailand. Just make sure that you have enough time: most people take at least two hours to fully take in and appreciate all the exhibits. Entrance fee for the Hall of Opium is 300THB per person, about 10 USD. That seems a lot of money but it’s worth it.
The Opium Museum
If you are short on time you can also visit the much smaller but also interesting House of Opium, which is a privately-run museum. This museum is only about a km from the Hall of Opium. It also gives information about the use of opium through the ages and the history of the Golden Triangle. It is a different experience as the Hall of Opium but still worth a visit. The museum has a large collection of opium pipes and weights and exhibits the traditional dress of the tribal people of North Thailand. Most people spend about half an hour in this museum. Entrance fee is 50THB per person.
Mae Sai and Tachilek
Mae Sai is the Thai bordertown. It is a vibrant town, unlike any other in North Thailand. That is to say: Mae Sot is a similar bordertown but it is in Tak province which some people don’t consider to be part of North Thailand. Mae Sai is a very interesting place. Until the Covid crisis occurred you could cross the border on a day pass to Tachilek, the town on the Myanmar side. Tens of thousands of people cross the border here every day. It seems that most of them are short-time visitors. Not many are travelers, it seems. You can cross the border to travel to Kengtung, formerly known as Chiang Tung and called Kyaingtong by the Myanmar government. As of now, the immigration procedures are on hold.
Tachilek has a couple of interesting temples and a busy market, offering all kinds of goods produced in China. The atmosphere is quite different from that in Mae Sai, which makes for an interesting experience.
Wat Tham Pla, an exceptional place
This cave and fish temple with lots of monkeys is not on everyone’s itinerary. I particular like this exceptional place because it has atmosphere and lots of things to see. There are a couple of unique structure, a nice cave temple and a stunning backdrop. Bring some 5THB coins with you for the “purgatory garden”. I wrote a blog about Wat Tham Pla (วัดถ้ำปลา).
Doi Mae Salong, a Chinese enclave
Santikhiri (สันติคีรี) the community on Doi Mae Salong (ดอยแม่สลอง) is one of my favorite places in North Thailand. It has an atmosphere and history unlike any other place in Thailand. Besides that, it has stunning scenery, great Chinese food and a lovely climate. There are great tea plantations and hill tribe villages in the mountains around the town.
Most people pass through Santikhiri or only stay one night. If you have the time, Santikhiri is a great place to wind down and enjoy the scenery and the cool weather. Santikhiri has a very interesting and turbulent history. The Chinese Martyr’s Memorial Museum (อนุสรณ์ชาวไทยเชื้อสายจีน) tells the wandering story of the forgotten Kuomintang soldiers, who finally found a place to live here. It is a very interesting and moving story but I recommend to do some reading before you visit the museum in Santikhiri.
The Kuomintang (KMT) forces were deeply involved in the opium trade, mainly as middlemen. For that reason, I believe the Doi Mae Salong area should be included in the Golden Triangle. I am preparing a blog about the KMT and Santikhiri.
Doi Angkhang and its Royal Project
Doi Angkhang (ดอยอ่างขาง) is a mountain, very close to the Myanmar border. It was a major opium growing area in the past and the scene of lively and mostly illicit cross border traffic. Opium caravans passed through this mountain range. Already in the early 1930s Doi Angkhang was a major opium growing area and had a dubious reputation. British Consul-General H.Fitzmaurice, based in Chiang Mai, wrote in a report in early 1931 that Doi Ma Angkhang was one of the most notorious opium growing regions in North Siam. There were “dacoits” and bad characters abound making it an unsafe area (Chiang Mai newsletter, by H.Fitzmaurice, Consul-General, Feb 1931).
Doi Angkhang becomes a national park
That changed with the establishment of the Royal Agricultural Station in 1969 and the construction of a road. Over the years this Royal Project became the biggest and most popular in North Thailand. It attracted a growing number of international and domestic tourists, resulting in the opening of a resort and guesthouses. However, a couple of years ago Doi Angkhang became part of the Doi Phahom Pok National Park. Consequently, authorities closed all accommodation on the mountain, which directly affected the Royal Agricultural Station. With a decline in visitors, the station unfortunately was forced to lay off hundreds of staff.
The only places where you can now spend the night are campsites. Two years ago I spent one night at the main campsite along the road from the station to the town of Fang. It was very pleasant but it is camping in the nature: the site is next to a parking lot and you rent the tent for one night. The sunrise was amazing making the camping worthwhile. Even though I loved the experience, it is not the kind of camping many Westerners would enjoy.
The attractions of Doi Angkhang
Doi Angkhang still has that remote feeling, especially if you take the road from Chiang Dao via Arunothai. The scenery is spectacular and there are a number of KMT villages along the way. Tham Ngob, the former headquarters of a KMT unit, is one of them: the barracks building is still there. The Royal Agricultural Station is still worth a visit and there are two interesting hill tribe villages not far from the station: the Palong village Noh Lae (หมู่บ้านนอแล) and the Black Lahu village Kob Dong (หมู่บ้านขอบด้ง). To visit Doi Angkhang you have to drive yourself or a rent a vehicle with a driver.
Therd Thai, the former Baan Hin Taek
This is a community in Mae Fah Luang district, which is off-the-beaten-track. Baan Hin Taek (บ้านหินแตก, meaning “the village of the broken stone) was a remote village, which used to be the headquarters and military camp of the notorious and legendary drug lord Khun Sa. Thai military forces attacked the base of Khun Sa in 1982 and dislodged him and his Shan United State Army, who moved across the border into Burma. After that Thai authorities renamed the town “Baan Therd Thai”(บ้านเทอดไทย), which means “Village to honor Thailand”.
Not many tourists make it to Baan Therd Thai but the area is very interesting. It probably has more diversity of ethnic groups than anywhere in Chiang Rai province. The town is mainly Shan (Tai Yai) and Chinese KMT but the surrounding mountains are home to Akha, Lisu, Lahu, Yao and Hmong villages. All these groups showcase their culture, dress and dances during an annual festival at Hua Mae Kham, right on the border with Myanmar. The former headquarters of Khun Sa has been turned into a museum, run by local people. Khun Sa appears in this very interesting documentary from 1994: