Exploring The Golden Triangle, Thailand
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Once a notorious no-go area, the Golden Triangle has opened up in recent years to become a popular destination for visitors to northern Thailand. With stunning mountainous scenery, hill tribe villages, countless temples, and the mighty Mekong River — not to mention the chance to look out over three countries — this little corner of Southeast Asia is well worth a few days’ exploration.
What is the Golden Triangle?
The Golden Triangle is the area where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar (Burma) meet at the confluence of two rivers. The Thailand-Laos and Myanmar-Laos frontiers run along the Mekong, while the smaller Ruak separates Thailand and Myanmar.
It’s a stunning place, full of misty, forested mountains, and seems peaceful today. However, competing kingdoms fought over its fertile land for centuries, while throughout much of the 20th century, the area was notorious as the world’s biggest producer of opium, leading to it being dubbed the Golden Triangle by the CIA. In the early 21st century, Afghanistan took over as the biggest producer, and although there’s still some production in Myanmar, the Thai part of the triangle is a safe place where other forms of agriculture, as well as tourism, now fuel the local economy.
Where is the Golden Triangle in Thailand?
Thailand’s section of the Golden Triangle is in Chiang Rai, the country’s northernmost province. The confluence of the Mekong and Ruak rivers is next to the village of Sop Ruak, about an hour’s drive north of the city of Chiang Rai.
Many Golden Triangle tours depart from Chiang Rai, and most include activities like a Mekong boat trip and a visit to a hill tribe village; expect to pay around £75 for a one-day tour. You could also hire a car and a driver in Chiang Rai — it’s easy to arrange one through your hotel or a travel agent (from around £55 per day, including fuel). Getting to the Golden Triangle from Chiang Mai is also possible; there are many full-day tours available, costing from around £50 — although you’ll spend most of the day on the road.
The best time to visit the Golden Triangle is from November to March. The rainy season has ended, and daytime temperatures reach between the high 20s and low 30s, with night-time lows usually from 13-17°C. It’s a pleasant time to explore, however in the mountains, temperatures can get as low as freezing at night, so be prepared.
What to see and do in the Golden Triangle, Thailand
If you’re heading to the Golden Triangle, you'll likely pass through Chiang Rai. The city is on the Route 1 highway from Bangkok and has an airport with flights to the capital, and it’s easy to arrange transport or tours up to the Golden Triangle. Chiang Rai itself has many attractions worth exploring. Probably the best known is Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple, which features Buddhist symbolism alongside imagery depicting Western icons such as Superman, Harry Potter, and Michael Jackson. The city also has a number of markets including the Night Bazaar and the Sunday Walking Street Market. Plus, it's easy to book hiking tours in the nearby mountains — your accommodation should be able to arrange them for you. Expect to pay around £30 per person for a one-day trek in a group of four, and £75 for three days, with everything included.
Golden Triangle Park
Set right on the west bank of the Mekong in the village of Sop Ruak, Golden Triangle Park is easy to spot thanks to its large golden statue of the Buddha seated in a boat. It’s a popular visitor attraction, full of souvenir stalls, food stalls and restaurants, and coach parks, but it does have a viewpoint from where it’s easy to see the meeting point of the three countries. The view takes in the green mountains that rise from each side of the Mekong, and the flat peninsula of Burmese land that sits between the two rivers.
Hall of Opium
This museum, a couple of kilometres from the Sop Ruak viewpoint, gives a thorough overview of the opium trade. You’ll learn about the cultivation of opium poppies, the heroin production process, the Opium Wars, drug trafficking, the effects of opioids on addicts, how help given to poppy farmers to switch to other crops like tea and coffee helped to halt production in Thailand, and much more. Exhibits include mock-ups of a poppy plantation and a typical Chinese tea house where people smoked opium. Entry is THB 200 (about £4.50).
Long-tail Boat Rides on the Mekong
From the jetties at Sop Ruak, you can head out on the river aboard a longtail boat, to the spot where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet. You can take a charter lasting about half an hour, while trips across the Mekong to Don Sao Island are available, too; there's little more than a market there, but you don’t need a visa and afterwards you can always say you’ve been to Laos.
Stay at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort, across the road from the Hall of Opium, and you can hang out with some magnificent creatures. This resort has its own sanctuary, populated by elephants rescued from situations like begging on the streets of Thai cities. The hotel has 160 acres of bamboo forests and fields through which the elephants roam — you can watch them strolling around from the balcony of your room. There are also opportunities to interact with the elephants, such as going for a walk with them and their handlers.
Tea and Coffee Plantations
In the 1970s, as part of the fight against the opium trade in the Golden Triangle, Thailand’s king introduced measures encouraging farmers to grow other crops, such as tea and coffee. Today you can visit several of the plantations that have opened since. These include the Choui Fong Tea Plantation, off Route 1 north of Chiang Rai, which produces a number of tea types including Assam and Oolong. You can tour the plantation, then sample its produce in a tea house with views out over the terraces to the green hills beyond. The Doi Chaang Coffee Estate, deep in the mountains about 90 minutes’ drive from Chiang Rai, is a great place to learn about coffee production in beautiful surroundings. The estate offers accommodation if you fancy staying for a few days.
Hill Tribe Villages
A number of hill tribes live in and around the Golden Triangle. They include the Akha; originally from China, they’re well known for their traditional costumes, notably the women’s elaborate headdresses that are adorned with beads, shells, and other decorations. You can get a glimpse of life in their remote villages by taking a day trip north from Chiang Rai — visits also feature in some Golden Triangle tours, while you can take multi-day trekking tours that call in at hill tribe villages.
The Golden Triangle is dotted with stunning temples. Wat Phra That Pu Khao is a hilltop temple just above Sop Ruak that offers some of the best views of the meeting point of the three countries. Believed to date from the 8th century, the temple still contains a number of ancient ruins. Wat Tham Pla (Fish Cave Temple) is a Buddhist temple in the mountains south of the town of Mae Sai. Huge golden dragon claws guard a staircase at the base of a hill, and you can climb the 200 steps to explore caves containing shrines. Another feature of the temple is the large group of macaques that roam freely. Mae Sai itself, on the Burmese border, is home to Wat Phra That Doi Wao temple, which features a giant scorpion statue and views across into Myanmar.
Riverside Chiang Saen, 10 kilometres south of Sop Ruak, is one of Thailand’s oldest cities, and former capital of the Lanna Kingdom. Chiang Saen is home to remnants of city walls, plus several temples including Wat Sao Kian, Wat Athi Ton Kaeo, Wat Phrathat Chedi Luang, and Wat Pa Sak. You can also visit Chiang Saen National Museum, which gives an overview of the city’s history, or simply take a leisurely stroll along the banks of the Mekong, perhaps stopping off at riverside food stalls and coffee shops along the way.
Looking for more places to visit in Thailand? Read our guide to Wat Phra That Doi Suthep temple in Chiang Mai, find out more about Thailand’s best islands, and plan your own Thai island-hopping adventure.
Nick Elvin contributed to this post.