As I was organizing my trip to Northern Thailand
, I honestly struggled to find information on how to visit the Golden Triangle on my own
, without buying pre-packaged excursions, often combined with Chiang Rai, even doing a day trip from Chiang Mai
Honestly, given the distances and the many things to see, it seemed absurd to me and in any case I had already decided to dedicate a full day to Chiang Rai
and overnight there, thus visit the Golden Triangle day trip from Chiang Rai
. Whether independently or with a tour, I would then decide once on site, perhaps haggling a bit.
In the end, also because there were 4 of us, we opted for the private taxi for the whole day for 2,000 baht, which took us directly to the points of interest in the Golden Triangle on the Thai side, leaving us as much time as we wanted to visit the various stops.
Visiting the Golden Triangle
First of all, the Golden Triangle is a rather vast area in the mountainous region bordering Thailand (Chiang Rai province), Laos and Myanmar. A place of breathtaking natural beauty but sadly known for its opium smuggling past. From a tourist point of view, when we talk about the Golden Triangle, we are referring to the point where the Ruak River (Myanmar) joins the Mekong (Thailand and Laos). The name “Golden Triangle” derives from the gold bars that came from opium production in this area, which is particularly suitable for opium poppy cultivation.
As you can imagine, therefore, there is nothing golden about the history of this area, which has experienced the consequences of opium production, from consumer dependence to the opium wars of the 19th century and the subsequent defeat of the Chinese Empire and the beginning of European colonialism in China. Which if we think about it objectively, is a more or less direct cause of several conflicts and problems that have affected -and still affect- the geopolitics of South East Asia.
The Golden Triangle area has always been inhabited by many ethnic minorities, often discriminated against or even persecuted, who found in the opium trade a source of livelihood, although they were exploited by those who actually ‘saw gold’. Thailand has now banned all opium poppy production and trade and turned the region into an important cultural center, where attention is given to local communities.
But let’s go in order and see the stages of our day trip to the Golden Triangle.
Once one of the world’s major opium production centers, Sup Ruak is now a small village made up of a few small houses and several small restaurants and souvenir stalls, all around the famous Viewpoint on the Golden Triangle, where the Ruak River meets the Mekong and Thailand, Laos and Myanmar look at each other. The viewpoint is overlooked by a huge golden Buddha, sitting on a boat, like the one where we ride for a mini-cruise on the Mekong.
The boat ride is indeed a must: an hour-long ride on a long tail boat at a cost of 1,000 baht per person.
The boat first heads north, approaching the Burmese coast and then descends passing the Kings Roman Casino, a piece of China built on Laotian land granted to the Chinese administration for 99 years. I won’t dwell on the controversy surrounding this casino, the problems caused to the land and the workers involved in the construction and operation of the casino, but I invite you to do a little research because I believe being a conscious tourist also means being aware of some of the situations that occur in front ot our eyes, especially since during the Mekong cruise you will disembark for half an hour on the Laotian island of Don Sao.
In this regard, I was mentally prepared to visit an area full of souvenir stalls at a decidedly inflated price, just as I had read on various sites, but instead, I found myself paying a small disembarkation fee (not indicated at embarkation) to visit a decidedly empty place, with only a few shops selling counterfeit Chinese junk.
Moving away from the port we encountered a lovely park surrounded by greenery, with wooden buildings and signs that seemed to indicate cultural activities and exhibitions, but alas it was all completely empty…I cannot tell if it was the time of year or the influence of the aforementioned new Kings Roman Casino….
Hall of Opium
A short drive and we arrive at the Hall of Opium Museum, a large, new museum about the region’s past. Admission costs 200 baht and is well worth it. A really well-done museum, which provides an educational and above all historical perspective on the region’s past, on the opium wars and a very strong final part on the impact that opium production, and all other drugs, have on the world, on the economy, on wars and above all on people.
I recommend spending about a couple of hours in the museum, both to see the historical part with excellent information in English and to stop and reflect in the final section.
I also really appreciated how the museum tour ended: with the ‘hope’ room and the account of the efforts made for the redevelopment of the area by the Queen Mother, and the efforts and attention paid to the local people.
Still accompanied by our driver, after about 20 minutes of driving through green expanses of Thai vegetation, we reach the picturesque town of Mae Sai with its maze of local market stalls. Traditional handicrafts such as textiles, jewelry, and works of art, but also lots of clothes, household goods, and everyday items: venture into this maze of shops for a taste of local life and walk up the hill to Wat Pha That Doi Wao, or Temple of the Scorpion Mountain, so called because of the huge statue of a scorpion gazing down on Myanmar. In fact, it seems that this statue is a monument dedicated to King Lanna Naresuan, who blocked the invasion of the kingdom by the neighboring kingdom of Burma (present-day Myanmar) and the scorpion is a clear invitation to Burma not to tempt us again!
And speaking of Myanmar, it is right here in Mae Sai that you find one of the three points where you can cross the Thai-Myanmar border on foot. By paying a 500 baht (or $10) fee, it is also possible to enter Myanmar until evening, without leaving the Tachilek border area. Unfortunately when I was there, however, the border was closed, we were told to avoid new contagions from Covid since in Thailand it was no longer a problem, while in Myanmar, also due to the ongoing civil war in the country, it still was.
On the way back you could possibly decide to add a stop at Wat Tham Pla, also called the monkey temple
, because of the colony of monkeys living in the temple area. We skipped it and opted instead to return to base to enjoy an evening at the Chiang Rai Night Bazaar
As you can see, visiting the Golden Triangle on your own is not that complicated or expensive. If you want to save even more money, you can reach Mae Sai by local bus No 18, which takes about an hour and a half and costs 134 baht. In Mae Sai, you should then be able to find a driver who can take you to Sup Ruak and back to Mae Sai at a lower rate than leaving from Chiang Rai.
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