Coined by an unnamed CIA officer working in the area in the 1970s, the title Golden Triangle refers to a 350,000km2 area covering the mountainous regions of Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. The ‘triangle’ in particular was famous for opium growing and although the fields of poppies are long gone, the name has stuck and the small riverside town of Sop Ruak has become the focus of this legend.
Today, it is a tourist destination better known as the point where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos intersect. The actual point is in fact the confluence of the mighty Mekong and lesser known Ruak rivers in Thailand’s northern-most point. You’re more likely to find souvenir sellers, gamblers and busloads of camera-toting tourists here than any opium dens, but there is still plenty of interest in the area to make a short trip here from Chiang Mai worthwhile.
Thailand’s Golden Triangle region is in Chiang Rai province and includes Chiang Rai as well as towns such as Mae Sai and Chiang Saen. Each of these destinations has its own attractions however the historic riverside town of Chiang Saen ñ the oldest significant settlement in Northern Thailand - seems to be the focus of the Golden Triangle and is the town which most people consider its main attraction. The locus of the triangle is the small but touristy riverside town of Sop Ruak, some 10kms north. Here you’ll find the excellent Hall of Opium museum.
Chiang Rai is the largest and only city in the area, located a 45-minute drive from the Golden Triangle proper. This unremarkable town has some limited historic interest, but the best infrastructure and hotel selection in the far north. From here you can go trekking, visit hill tribe villages, ride elephants and make daytrips to the lofty Doi Tung Royal Villa and Mae Fah Luang Botanical Garden, or hop over the border to the Burmese town of Tachilek for some shopping and cheap Chinese goods. Also within easy reach is the tea growing Chinese community in the hamlet of Mae Salong, which boasts gorgeous views.
There are fairly good accommodation options at all of the main tourist centres in the Golden Triangle region, with everything from backpacker budget establishments to quality resorts and hotels. Several transportation options make getting around fairly easy and increase the appeal of the area, which is commonly visited as a short trip from the large city of Chiang Mai.