Chiang Rai is the gateway to the famous Golden Triangle, the site of the powerful rivers Ruak and Mekong, which separate the borders between Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos. The most coveted photo can be captured at the point where the sign pointing to the town is located, and from where you can see a beautiful view of the vegetation, mountains and murky waters that divide the three countries and that the locals have given to calling Sop Ruak.
Approaching an indigenous village in the border area is an exciting experience that is often included on a package tour of Chiang Rai and that is always worthwhile.
Many ethnic groups arrived from southern China and Burma to Thailand in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, fleeing from armed conflicts and persecution, which were often the result of illegal cultivation of opium, which led to the proliferation of drug mafias.
The Triangle became more famous during the Vietnam War, when opium trade and heroin consumption increased until King Rama IX, to end this scourge, founded the so-called "Real Project" in 1969. Through this initiative, he urged immigrants to join the culture and customs of the country replacing their crops with alternatives and focusing on organic produce. Thus, the lands were filled with plants, flowers, fruits, vegetables, rice, coffee and tea to which the Royal Seal of guarantee of the ecological quality product would be added, and would eventually produce a greater income than those of the opium.
The Opium Museum is an interactive room that brings visitors closer to the history of its cultivation and is focused on showing young people and adults, how it was a global problem and how drugs affect consumers and their families in a destructive way.
In the mountains, there are 7 ethnic groups and some of them are subdivided into others. Most are animists and continue to worship gods and spirits, although many of them are becoming Christianised. Each one has its own language, rites, religion and clothing and their means of subsistence is based on agriculture and, in recent years, also tourism.
There are the Lahu, Akha, and Lisu, with the same Tibetan-Burman linguistic root; the Hmong and Yao with a Sino-Tibetan language of origin and the Karen. The Lahu are divided into red yellow or black subgroups; the Akha are governed by rules that are based on respect for the older and more experienced individuals and women wear a colorful outfits decorated with beads, tassels, and ribbons; the Lisu live in bamboo and wooden houses and have sorcerers who interpret the future; the Hmong or Meo, among which their exit subgroups such as white and blue Hmong, settle at the top of the hills and practice a lot of Thai culture; the Yao or Mien profess Taoism and wear embroidered costumes, red necklaces, dark turbans with silver ornaments and jewellery; and the Karen, who live in the lowlands and are the most numerous with 400,000 members divided into subgroups with different languages. The famous ‘Giraffe Women’ do not belong to them but to the Karen Red or Karenni and they are a minority group from Mongolia that arrived in Burma and fled to Thailand in the 80s and 90s due to the civil war, becoming political refugees. Although there is a lot of literature that refers to tiger attacks and evasion of slavery, the real reason for the placement of necklaces on these women's neck is to feel attracted to men.
In Sop Ruak, you can board a canoe or speedboat for a pleasant walk upstream and visit the handicraft market on the island of Don Sao, which is part of Laos, followed by Chiang Saen, the oldest city in the country and once the capital of the Kingdom of Lanna, in the south of the Triangle. Here it is common among the locals to contemplate the sunsets over the Mekong with their families and to watch the birds on Lake Chiang Saen. Visitors can enjoy a stroll through the night market of Walking Street and visits to temples such as Wat Pasak, which is very beautiful and well preserved; Wat Phra That Chedi Luang, the largest stupa in the area; and the Wat Phra That Ngao, located outside the city walls and with a golden Buddha and a viewpoint from which there are spectacular views of the river and the mountains.
In the border region, in Mae Sai, the northernmost town in the country, the influx of tourists is scarce. Its major attractions, besides visiting the lively market, walking along the main avenue and crossing the bridge that spans the Sai River to the Burmese town of Tachileik, is to enjoy the temples and their great views. Among them, the Wat Phra That Doi Tung stands out, which is submerged in the dense vegetation on the top of Mount Doi Tung and has 2 chedis. At Wat Phra That Doi Wao or Temple of the Scorpion, there is an excellent viewpoint to admire the Triangle and the Thamphajoen Temple at the bottom of the hill.
The Golden Triangle is a mythical part of Thailand, a beautiful fluvial enclave that embraces three countries and that has played a pivotal part in the chronicles of the country's history. It is a landmarked by a past of opium cultivation but it is blessed with the best landscapes and the most pleasant people you can imagine.
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