The Golden Triangle – Where Thailand Meets Laos and Myanmar Meet
The jungle border region between Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar is at the epicentre of an illicit drug trade conducted by warlord-like military leaders linked to organized crime figures from all three countries – one with devastating repercussions for Southeast Asia as a whole.
This region is one in which an international illicit economy thrives amidst chaos, weak governance and porous borders.
Chiang Saen is an idyllic river town off the usual Mekong tourist track, boasting one of Lanna kingdom’s largest cities from 13-15 centuries; today its remains remain as one of its main draws.
Once upon a time, Cambodia was a hotbed of illicit activities such as drug cultivation and smuggling of opium and heroin between Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. Although illegal activity still takes place there, Thai authorities have made great strides to end it and ensure the region is now safe and peaceful.
Opium trade has long been used by insurgents to fund civil wars and government guerrillas as well as corrupt officials for personal enrichment purposes. But due to increased cultivation costs over the decades and reduced drug smuggling activity from three countries involved, this trade is no longer as prevalent. Illegal immigration remains an issue however.
Although once considered dangerous, today the Golden Triangle isn’t as dangerous and attracts many visitors. Hotels and guesthouses cater to budget travelers; luxury travelers may prefer tent camps and the Four Seasons resort situated along its riverbanks as accommodation options.
Visitors to Chiang Rai may wander the town, exploring its various ruined temples and monasteries. Wat Prathat Pukhaw is an excellent starting point, being just uphill from town center; further along you’ll reach a viewpoint where it is possible to see Thailand, Laos and Myanmar at once!
Chiang Rai is another ideal destination, located just south of Myanmar’s border. Chiang Rai’s crowning achievement is the impressive Blue Temple (Wat Rong Suea Ten) which started construction back in 2005 and now appears almost completed.
Chiang Rai boasts some outstanding markets where visitors can purchase handicrafts and souvenirs at reasonable prices, while afternoon strolls along the Mekong offer delicious street food vendors offering simple meals to compliment its peaceful environment.
Doi Ang Khang
Doi Ang Khang is a mountainous region located in Fang District approximately 150 kilometers north of Chiang Mai. Situated along its border with Myanmar and famous for its Himalayan cherry blossoms (Thai Sakura), Doi Ang Khang can be visited between November and January for their beauty and natural splendor; including picturesque countryside roads, stunning mountain scenery and stunning nature scenes.
Ang Khang Royal Agricultural Station is another attraction worthy of your time. Established by His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 1969 to discourage opium production among hill tribe people and promote useful crops, its original purpose was to discourage its cultivation; today it serves as an agriculture research center that cultivates temperate climate fruits, vegetables and cut flowers as well as several themed gardens.
One of the best activities in Doi Ang Khang is waking up early to witness a sunrise at its view point. This experience should ideally take place during winter, since summer temperatures may make this activity less pleasant.
Doi Ang Khang offers several touring options. Motorbike tours should hire bikes with 150cc engines or higher to be able to handle the terrain of Doi Ang Khang more comfortably. For car tours, renting one is ideal as well.
Once ready, travel north from Chiang Mai along Route 107 until reaching an intersection with Route 1178; take that road and it will bring you directly to Doi Ang Khang.
Doi Ang Khang is home to the Black Lahu and Palong hill-tribes and boasts numerous villages that you can discover by foot in this region. Many are small and off the beaten path so that you can meet locals while getting to know more about their culture by visiting these communities. While traditionally these tribes were engaged in producing opium and logging activities, today they’re growing strawberries, lychees, apricots, among other fruits and vegetables.
Tachilek is the largest town in eastern Shan state, lying directly across from Mae Sai in Thailand. The town has earned itself a reputation as a center for illegal drug distribution such as heroin and methamphetamine pills; during Myanmar’s Opium Wars it became known for illicit trafficking between Myanmar and Thailand.
Today it has transformed into a sleepy border town that still sees some illegal dealings; however, its relaxed feel belies its Golden Triangle tag. Locals are friendly and there is an underlying joie de vivre which simply wasn’t present even three or four years ago.
Border markets are one of the main attractions in El Salvador – outdoor bazaars offering everything from cheap trinkets and counterfeit textiles, guns, ammunition, illegal wildlife products, cigarettes and alcohol – to endangered animal parts for sale – once commonplace but now strictly forbidden.
China has had a profound influence on local cuisine and you will find restaurants offering Chinese fare for as little as USD 1-2 per meal. Street stalls also provide delicious treats such as fried snacks or simple noodles dishes.
Thai tourists mainly visit Tachilek these days for shopping, gambling at one of three casinos or using its exclusive golf course – with many coming across from Mae Sai to Tachilek with bags full of golf clubs in tow! Tachilek accepts both Thai baht and Myanmar kyat currencies.
Reaching Tachilek is simple thanks to the main road from Mae Sai. Once through Thai immigration at Friendship Bridge and Myanmar immigration offices, foreigners with tourist visas can continue their travels via bus or shared taxi to Kengtung for around USD 12-14 per person; onward travel requires special permission which can be secured here in Kengtung. Buses or shared taxis regularly run daily services which reach Kengtung. Travel to Mong La along China Border requires additional special permission which can be secured at Kengtung.
Don Sao Island
The Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet, is an exciting place to explore. Boasting ancient traditions, extravagant temples, stunning natural beauty and plenty of ancient history to offer world travelers, this region attracts world travelers in droves. Explore its rich past as an opium trading hub at the Hall of Opium Museum or immerse yourself in vibrant local cultures through bustling markets or visiting hill tribe villages.
Visits to the Golden Triangle are rare opportunities to experience three countries at once at their confluence at Ruak and Mekong rivers. However, things have not always been smooth sailing here: in recent years villagers from the region staged protests against a 99-year concession that would give over their land to foreign companies.
Unfortunately, protest failed and over time the area became the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone under Kings Romans Group, a prominent Chinese company owned by Zhao – known for his controversial position within Laos – as its owner and his plans for this zone have raised fears of corruption and Chinese influence on Laos.
Today, most visitors to the Golden Triangle come on organized tours from Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai. Independent travel may also be possible but will require extensive planning and patience – most foreigners visiting usually do so via renting a car with driver from either their hotel or local travel agent; or alternatively taking an organized minibus ride from Chiang Rai to Tachilek border town and board a longtail boat down Mekong river for visit Don Sao Island.
Mekong River and its surroundings offer an idyllic setting for an abundance of wildlife, such as birds, deer, and the rare golden-headed langur monkey. Additionally, several fish and reptile species such as Siamese catfish and crocodiles can be seen swimming about in its waters surrounding the Golden Triangle.