The name of the Golden Triangle still conjures up images of poppy fields, opium-smoking hilltribes and clandestine laboratories hidden in the jungle.
The truth is that, currently, the dangerous border air of this region survives only in the past (at least in the Thai part), and the Golden Triangle of Thailand is a region that attracts many travelers, who decide to include this region within their route —often as a day trip from Chiang Rai city— lured by the myth.
In this article we tell you what Thailand’s Golden Triangle is, which are its main highlights for the traveler, and finaly we propose a complete two-day route to get to know Thailand’s Golden Triangle.
What is Thailand’s Golden Triangle?
Golden Triangle is the name by which is known the mountainous area where the countries of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos converge:
- “Triangle” for being the meeting point of three countries.
- “Gold” because this precious metal was the payment system used by the first opium traders.
The cultivation of opium in this region is not an ancestral activity, since it was not until the end of the 19th century when the tribal populations that grew opium migrated from southern China to the highlands of Southeast Asia.
In the early 1940’s the Golden Triangle of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos produced a modest amount of opium, but the suppression of opium crops in China and later Iran in 1955 brought the bulk of the world’s opium production to move to this mountainous region of Southeast Asia.
Later, internal political conflicts in Myanmar caused production in this region to skyrocket until it accounted for more than 70% of the opium sold globally (much of which was refined for heroin).
The opium trade has historically been used in this area by insurgent groups to finance civil wars, as well as by government guerrillas and for the personal benefit of corrupt officials. In recent decades, the cultivation and trade of opium that made the Golden Triangle famous has been drastically reduced in all three countries and, in the specific case of Thailand, it was banned in 1959 and has been practically eradicated for many years.
What to see and what to do in the Golden Triangle?
The Thai part of the Golden Triangle is a large area in the northernmost part of the country, and the places that may be of greatest interest to the traveler are:
- Sop Ruak (the epicenter of the region).
- Chiang Saen (a quiet town on the banks of the Mekong).
- Mae Sai (a market town along the Burmese border).
Is the Golden Triangle worth visiting?
It should be mentioned that the Golden Triangle (used by travel agencies to name manypackage tours to Thailand) sometimes disappoints some travelers with inflated expectations who hope to find much more than a couple of rivers merging together. Deep down, the Golden Triangle tag has been used by the tourism industry to exaggerate the real appeal this area conveys to tourists.
For some travelers, the beautiful alpine landscapes and paddy fields that you pass by on the way are more interesting than the heart of the Golden Triangle itself, where the three countries meet.
So, in our opinion, Chiang Rai is well worth for most travelers, as is its surroundings. But, the Golden Triangle, despite being interesting if one has time, is not essential for every traveler, although it is for some.
Next we’ll see the main highlights of Thailand’s Golden Triangle, so that you can see if it sounds appealing enough to include in your trip to Thailand.
Sop Ruak: the crossroads of three countries
The nerve center of Thailand’s Golden Triangle is Sop Ruak, a small Thai town located right at the point where the Ruak River merges into the Mekong, forming the natural borders that delimit Thailand, Myanmar and Laos.
Next to the river, at the spot that offers the best panoramic view, there is a viewpoint that allows you to contemplate a little piece of the three countries at the same time. This riverside area is striking for its Buddhist temples, altars and statues, a set in which a huge golden Buddha especially stands out, crowning a temple on a large structure in the shape of a boat.
Truth is that the best place to enjoy the views over the three countries is not here, but the top of the tree-lined hill next to the very center of the town, and which is accessed through a staircase that starts right next to the House of Opium museum. The short walk up there also allows to visit two Buddhist temples along the way.
Besides enjoying the views over the area where the three countries meet, the most outstanding activities you can do at Sop Ruak are taking a boat trip on the Mekong River, and visiting one (or both) of its two interesting museums devoted to the opium trade.
Boat on the Mekong River
One of the most popular activities among tourists visiting Thailand’s Golden Triangle is to take a boat tour on the Mekong, which allows to have a closer look at Myanmar and Laos land, and even stop in Laotian territory to stroll at a small local market (just a few souvenir stalls).
The standard tour lasts about an hour, and can be done by speedboat (500 THB/boat – up to 4 passengers) or by roofed slow boat (1000 THB/boat – up to 10 passengers). We certainly recommend the second option, less noisy and more comfortable. If you want to take a longer or different tour, you can negotiate with one of the local boatmen.
The Opium Museums: Hall of Opium and House of Opium
In Sop Ruak there are not one, but two museums dedicated to opium, and it is important not to mistake one for another since, although both are recommended, they are very different: one is old and quite discreet, the other modern and just amazing.
- The House of Opium (THB50) is a small museum located in the very center of Sop Ruak, making good use of its small space to inform about the history of the opium trade in the region (explanatory posters are in English), and display a bunch of opium-related objects.
- On the other hand, the Hall of Opium (200 THB; open Tuesday to Saturday from 08:00 to 16:00) is a large museum located 2 km. north of Sop Ruak, and is undoubtedly one of the most modern and spectacular museums in all of Thailand.
When I visited the Hall of Opium in 2015, I was lucky to have it practically all to myself, and I was impressed by the careful information and the quality of its exhibition rooms, with videos, photos, dioramas and the accurate recreations of all kinds of spaces and figures related to opium. Reserve a couple of hours for the visit, because it is really worth it!
Chiang Saen: tranquility and history along the Mekong
Just eight kilometers downstream from Sop Ruak is the pretty town of Chiang Saen, which is definitely worth a visit, and is also an excellent base camp from which to explore Thailand’s Golden Triangle.
Chiang Saen is today a quiet town away from tourism along the Mekong River, but during the 13th-15th centuries it was one of the most important cities in the kingdom of Lanna. We recommend spending a couple of hours exploring the ancient ruins of some of the more than 100 temples that existed in their heyday.
However, the best places to take the pulse of the city are:
- The promenade along the Mekong River, which at dusk fills with simple food stalls where you can eat and relax while enjoying the local atmosphere.
- Sinsombun market, Chiang Saen’s central market.
Mae Sai: the Burmese border
Less than 30 km northwest of Sop Ruak is Mae Sai, the northernmost town in Thailand.
It is advisable to take a walk through the bustling market area, a set of alleys with all kinds of shops, where you can take a break with a cold drink in one of its small cafes.
After visiting the market, you can take the path that starts behind the market and climbs up to a Buddhist monastery located on top of a hill, which offers good views over Myanmar.
From Mae Sai it is even possible to cross the border through the bridge that leads to the Burmese town of Tachilek, in Myanmar’s Shan State. At the border post you can get a permit ($ 10 USD) that allows you to visit Tachilek for a few hours, which you can spend visiting the Chinese market or the huge golden Shwedagon pagoda, also on a nearby hill offering excellent views.
In any case, Thailand’s border policies vary very often, and you must obtain up-to-date information to ensure that on the time of your visit it is allowed to cross to the Burmese side.
Tham Luang: the ‘lost children’s cave’ of Chiang Rai
Tham Luang cave became worldwide famous in July 2018, when a group of Thai children from a local soccer team were trapped inside and, against all odds, all of them were rescued alive 17 days after. Tham Luang is very close to Mae Sai, so if you feel curious you can stop to visit it. Nowadays there is a small museum that remembers what happened in this place.
Choui Fong: The tea fields
On our Golden Triangle tours from Chiang Rai we always make a stop at the beautiful Choui Fong tea plantation.
It is a very photogenic place where you can try a delicious Thai iced milk tea. Highly recommended! They also offer a wide variety of cupcakes, making it a pleasant stop for a drink and enjoying the stunning scenery. In addition, the climate there is usually cool and very pleasant.
2-Day Golden Triangle Tour from Chiang Rai
We suggest a 2-day/1-night circular route through Thailand’s Golden Triangle to get to know the region, starting and ending in Chiang Rai, which can be done either independently by renting a car or motorcycle (only recommended for experienced drivers!), by renting private transport with driver or by hiring an agency tour.
It is also possible to do this route by public transport, combining songthaew (local transport) and bus. But the vehicles that cover some of the routes involved have few daily departures, and it would be necessary to add an additional day (besides lots of patience and a strong desire for adventure) to complete the route.
Day 1: Chiang Rai – Mae Sai – Chiang Saen (via Sop Ruak)
- Chiang Rai – Wat Tham Pla (52 km): starting from Chiang Rai, you can stop 13 km before reaching Mae Sai to visit Wat Tham Pla (literally the “fish cave monastery”), immediately west of Ban Tham Pla town.
It is a curious monastery in an area crowded with monkeys, with a large pond full of carps, a cave-sanctuary and good mountain views, in addition to the colorful statues and monuments typical of Thai Buddhist temples.
- Wat Tham Pla – Mae Sai (13 km): in Mae Sai you can stroll through the Market, the central streets around the border crossing with Myanmar, and climb the path that leads up to the hilltop monastery Wat Pha That Doi Wao.
- Mae Sai – Chiang Saen (37 km): after eating in Mae Sai, you can continue on your way to Chiang Saen, passing by Sop Ruak, as it is a quieter and more pleasant place to spend the sunset.
In Chiang Saen there’s accommodation options for all budgets, from simple guest houses to the luxurious Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort. In any case, don’t miss dinner at the local food stalls by the Mekong River.
Day 2: Chiang Saen – Sop Ruak – Chiang Rai
- Chiang Saen – Sop Ruak (8 km): After visiting Chiang Saen Market and the main ruins of its golden age, drive north to nearby Sop Ruak, where you can enjoy the views over the three countries, visit the Hall of Opium museum and, after lunch, take a boat trip on the Mekong River.
- Sop Ruak – Chiang Rai (70 km): it will be time to say goodbye to the Golden Triangle and return back to Chiang Rai, with the satisfaction of having known another beautiful region of Thailand that, despite preserving few traces of the opium trade that made it famous, will leave you a great memory.
📋 The Golden Triangle is on our 15 Days Recommended Itinerary for a Trip to Thailand
Golden Triangle Day Tour from Chiang Rai
Our excursion to Thailand’s Golden Triangle usually begins with a visit to the Blue Temple (Wat Rong Suea Ten), one of the new jewels of Chiang Rai. An impressive temple that began to be built in 2005 and is now practically finished. This unique blue temple houses the striking image of a huge white Buddha statue.
Afterwards, we continue to Choui Fong tea plantation, to admire the scenery and enjoy a delicious tea.
Then we continue to Sop Ruak, the heart of the Golden Triangle, where the Mekong River and Ruak River meet. There we usually take a brief boat tour (if weather allows), and then climb up to the viewpoint before returning to Chiang Rai.
Thailand’s Golden Triangle is an appealing tourist attraction for many travelers. Now that you know more about it, do you dare to discover it by yourself?