The town of Chiang Saen is the focal point of the Golden Triangle from a tourist perspective. Besides offering its own impressive selection of historic attractions, it is within easy access of the attractions of Chiang Rai, Mae Sai and everything in between. The area is home to a small selection of quality resorts at which visitors can avail themselves of services such as Thai massage and other spa treatments as well as quality dining facilities. The actual ‘triangle’ point is located in the small town of Sop Ruak, 10kms to the north.
Golden Triangle viewpoint
There are various points from which to observe the meeting point of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos; however, the best is perhaps at Sop Ruak to the northwest of Chiang Saen.
This is considered the official viewpoint and comes complete with a sign to indicate such, which visitors can use as a fitting background for that obligatory photograph.
There is a good selection of vendors cashing in on the tourist traffic, selling Thai and Burmese goods which make for ideal souvenirs or gifts to take home.
Old Opium Museum
Located in the centre of Chiang Saen, this popular museum gives visitors an insight into the opium trade that was once rife in the Golden Triangle region, focusing on how it flourished and was eventually controlled. Sections of the museum concentrate on the early global history of opium, the 19th century opium wars and the 20th century trafficking problem in Southeast Asia. It has been upstaged by the world class Hall of Opium nearby, but is a much cheaper alternative.
Hall of Opium Golden Triangle
Completed in 2005 at a cost of US$10 million, this exceptional museum ranks as one of the best in the region. Built with foreign input, it’s an excellent interactive tour de force through the history of opium. There are brilliant multi-media exhibits telling all there is to know about this narcotic which shaped the course of history significantly in Asia. Well worth the entrance fee.
Chiang Saen National Museum
Located close to Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Saen, this impressive museum is home to a variety of artefacts excavated in and around the area, with some pieces dating back to the time of the earliest settlers. Jewellery, Buddha icons and masks are among the more notable pieces, while the stone reliefs that originally resided in Wat Sang Kha Kaew Don Tun are also of interest.
Wat Rong Khun
Located just a short distance from the centre of Chiang Rai, Wat Rong Khun is an ornately-decorated Thai temple that is covered from top to bottom in tiny mirrored tiles. This gives it an essentially white appearance while also causing it to glisten and sparkle in sunlight. The temple owes its unusual appearance to Thai artist Chaleumchai Kositpipat who considers it a work in progress and is constantly adding to the aesthetic appeal of the structure and the grounds in which it resides. The ëdrowning souls’ carved into the stone of the floor around the temple are especially interesting, and it is a favourite venues for high society weddings.
From Chiang Saen, it’s possible to take a short boat ride across the Mekong River to an island that is officially in Laotian territory. The landmass is small and only appealing from the perspective that visitors get the chance to say they’ve ‘visited’ Laos. A collection of shops on the island sell Laotian handicrafts, beer, whisky and edible items.
Golden Triangle temples
As is typical of any area in Thailand, the Golden Triangle is home to a good selection of traditional Buddhist temples featuring gilded exteriors and interiors with a variety of interesting Buddhist icons. Wat Chedi Luang is especially notable, dating as far back as the 13th century and featuring a 16th century chedi. Also of note is Wat Phra That Chom Kitti, which dates back to the 10th century and features a chedi with a bronze covered spire and some interesting Lopburi-style Buddha statues.
Mekong River trips
Visitors can take a trip along the Mekong River from Chiang Saen to Chiang Khong, taking in the views of both Thailand and Laos en route. Trips are three hours each way and cover a 20kms stretch of the river which cuts through jungle and mountain gorges. Trips are best made in the cool and hot seasons since the weather in the rainy season can make river conditions perilous.
Mae Sai – Tachilek
Half an hour’s journey beyond Chiang Rai brings you to the Thailand-Myanmar border, with the town of Mae Sai on the Thai side and Tachilek on the Burmese. Surrender your passport and get a one-day pass into Tachilek where a veritable emporium of cheap pirated CDs and DVDs, fake designer goods, electronic products, edible items and handmade goods await.
It’s possible also to take short tours of the area around Tachilek, visiting temples and other local sites of interest. Tours can be arranged with any of the many hawkers waiting at the top of the stairs to Tachilek’s market. On the Thai side of the border, there is more shopping but generally at higher prices.
Doi Tung Royal Villa and Mae Fah Luang Gardens
There are several reasons to ascend this striking 1,800-metre-high mountain along the border, just west of the Mae Sai crossing post. A good but windy road takes you up to several attractions, the oldest of which are two ancient chedi dating from the 10th century – a popular pilgrimage site. Continuing up the mountain, you can visit the Royal Villa, now a museum honouring the present king’s late mother who would retreat here and was responsible for the eradication of opium cultivation and agricultural substitution of the local hill tribes.
There are some lovely landscaped gardens here too and a small zoo is also found on the premises. A hair-raising road descends the back of the mountain into Mae Sai, right on the actual border and with spectacular views, although it’s frequently closed if the usual Thai-Burmese border spats are going on. Drive it with extreme caution and do not leave your vehicle (if you step out on the left side of your vehicle, you will be in Myanmar, and it drops away very steeply).