The Golden Triangle is the area where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar (Burma) meet at the Ruak and Mekong rivers. Chiang Rai province in northern Thailand is the gateway to this unique region in Southeast Asia.
The name of the region comes from its history. The Golden Triangle was once the global capital of opium production and the hub of the international opium trade. The lucrative substance was literally “worth its weight in gold” as a kilo of opium could be traded for a kilo of gold.
The rolling hills of the Golden Triangle were once filled with brightly colored opium poppy fields used to harvest and extract opium, with hill tribes villages heavily involved in the production, use, and trade of the drug. Thailand has since banned the sale of opium and cracked down on production and trafficking and made huge strides at rehabilitating affected communities by encouraging the production of wholesome alternatives like vegetables and tea.
Despite its dark history, the Golden Triangle is now laid back and peaceful, but busy with the movement of everyday life. It’s a great place for a day trip, with plenty to do. Hike up to the viewpoint for panoramic views from up high, or take a boat trip up the Mekong River for a completely different perspective. Laze back in the boat and enjoy the scenery, or stop at a Laos island for a chance to dip into Lao culture from Thailand.
Golden Triangle Park – Viewpoint & Sitting Buddha in a Boat
Head straight up to the Golden Triangle Viewpoint to see where the Ruak and Mekong rivers merge and the borders of Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to look over the confluence of three countries and two rivers, at the very hub of history. Take a breath here and contemplate the multitude of cultures flourishing within eyesight.
Nearby lies the Phra Chiang Saen Sii Pandin, a gigantic golden Buddha image seated on a platform shaped like a boat. The boat is perhaps even more dazzling than the Buddha statue itself. Ornately decorated with colorful stained glass, the huge boat sits right on the very edge of the river, glistening proudly in the sun.
Boat Trip Along the Mekong River
Look across the mighty Mekong River from the height of the viewpoint, then take a boat trip right through it for a more intimate experience with this important waterway. Long tail boat ride can be chartered to traverse the river, passing between the shores of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. Take a short trip to snap some pictures of the scenery, or a longer one to get to Chiang Saen and beyond.
Sit back and enjoy the views from the lazy comfort of the boat, or take a stop at Don Sao, a Lao island in the middle of the river. You don’t need a visa to make a stop in Don Sao, and it’s worth the visit to the rural village. Shop at the local market and browse through beautiful Lao handicrafts like handmade textiles, generally cheaper here than in Thailand.
Ban Sop Ruak
Sop Ruak is so named because it is situated on the bank of the Mekong exactly at its meeting point with the Ruak River. This historic hotspot is the “centre of the Golden Triangle” and the home base from which to see the many gems of the region. It’s also the hub of border crossings by boat into Laos and Myanmar.
The town itself has just one main street that winds along the curve of the Mekong River, lined with stalls selling handicrafts made by Laotians and locals. Enjoy a fish dinner on the waterfront while the sun sets over the mountains. Sweeping views of Laos over the Mekong River can be found here at any time of day, with the hills of Chiang Saen providing the village backdrop.
Wat Phra That Doi Pu Khao
Head from the centre of Sop Ruak to Wat Phra That Doi Pu Khao to see the ruins of an ancient temple believed to have been built by the ruler of Wiang Hirannakhon Ngoen Yang, once the capital of the Lanna kingdom. The chapel and crumbling chedis are all that remain of the temple today, but the brick viharn has been renovated, as well as a shrine that women are prohibited to enter. Archaeologists date the temple to the 14th century, but legend has it that it was built as far back as the 8th century.
Browse the temple ruins, then take in the surrounding area. From the hilltop, you can look over Sop Ruak, the Mekong River and much of the Golden Triangle.
Hall of Opium and House of Opium
There are two museums in the region where you can learn more about the history of opium in the Golden Triangle. Both are essential for anyone interested in deepening their understanding of the area’s complex history.
The Hall of Opium Museum is the larger of the two. Owned by a Thai Royal Family foundation, it focuses on the wider historical context of opium and the broader impact of the drug trade. It’s an interactive experience, featuring multimedia exhibitions designed to make education fun.
The House of Opium is older, smaller, and privately owned. Founded by a local woman with a passion for collecting opium paraphernalia, she turned her extensive collection into a museum when the crackdown on the drug trade made these items hard to find. Come here to see countless tools for planting, harvesting, and consuming opium, including pipes, scales, and scrapers.
Three Countries at the Hub of World History
It’s possible to take a short day trip here to see the infamous landmark and snap some photos, but it’s also easy to spend a good deal of time in the area. The Golden Triangle region offers a wealth of history and culture, nature and adventure, and there’s plenty for travelers of every kind to do or see here. Come for educational opportunities or spectacular sightseeing; travel to temples, museums, little villages, mae sai border; trek up mountains or drift down the Mekong River to Chiang Saen or Chiang Khong.
You can meet the elephants in two different places while you are in the area. The luxurious Four Seasons Golden Triangle Tented Camp or Anantara Golden Triangle and Elephant Camp offer this life-changing experience.
Most experiences here include opportunities to see all three countries and two rivers converge at a single point, a truly rare sight, and one that happens to be the hub of global history.
Day Trip From Chiang Mai
How to get there
Most visitors arrive from Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai with an organized tour, otherwise rent a car or minivan with a driver through local travel agency.
By Air and Bus
- From Chiang Mai Airport or Chiang Rai Airport
- Take a bus from Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai to Mae Sai, then take a blue songthaew from Mae Sai to the Golden Triangle, which takes 45 minutes.
Golden Triangle Tour
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Read more about Things To Do in Chiang Rai