Discover the golden triangle of Mandalay

Known by locals as Sop Ruak , Thailand’s Golden Triangle is the name given to the forested and mountainous area in the north of the country, where the borders with Laos and Burma meet.

Despite the region’s fraught history, today it’s a serene landscape where you can explore coffee plantations, traditional villages and slow, winding rivers, as well as one of Thailand’s best elephant sanctuaries.

For centuries, the Thai, Laotian, Khmer and Burmese fought over these fertile hills, where the borders of empires and kingdoms brushed uncomfortably. Then, in the mid-20th century, the Golden Triangle became one of the main centers of opium production, adding another chapter of violence to the area’s troubled past.

The tribes living in the hills suffered greatly from these political winds. That changed in the 1970s, when Thailand’s then-king Rama IX created a series of initiatives to encourage farmers to switch from growing poppies to other cash crops, including coffee and tea . Thanks to these efforts, many of the villages are prospering.

If your base is in Chiang Mai , there is also a tour that you can take leaving from this town. With a duration that also covers the whole day, they will pick you up from your hotel and take you to discover the golden triangle in an excursion of approximately 13 hours in total.

If you prefer to explore it on your own , keep reading, because in this article we will leave you with several ideas so that you can make the most of your time and get to know Thailand’s Golden Triangle first-hand.

Discover the golden triangle

If the name of golden triangle can evoke a geographical and cultural richness, it owes its name to the opium trade obtained from poppy. The hub of this hard drug, the golden triangle nevertheless attracts many curious people wishing to discover one of the most impressive crossroads in the world.

Thailand ‘s Golden Triangle Park is located on the outskirts of Chiang Sen. If you visit it, you will be able to see its famous viewpoint overlooking the triple natural border that forms the Mekong River between Thailand, Laos and Myanmar.

Splendid monuments and landscapes

Central city of an eponymous region, Chang Mai is a central point of the Silk Road. Crossroads of Asia, it is the closest city to the golden triangle. It is the city with the most monuments in Thailand, not including Bangkok. City mixing tradition and modernity Chang Mai is a major step in the discovery of Thailand. Made up of a multitude of ethnic groups, Chang Mai is a multicultural region. The region is home to many museums and cultural centers.

Discover new food, different ways of thinking, customs specific to each community, you will discover Thailand in a new light. Stroll in the hinterland, in the middle of the mountains, you can observe landscapes of unique beauty. A feeling of freedom will take hold of you. If the Chang Mai region is not considered a hostile place, you will be able to use a guide for more tranquility.

The golden triangle and its monuments

white temple

Located about ten kilometers from the city (Chang Rai) closest to the borders with Myanmar and Laos, the white temple will surprise you with its immaculate beauty and with what you will find there. If the decor is between beauty and the superfluous, you can discover along the nine buildings one of the most surprising monuments in Thailand.

Wat Rong Khung, built in 1997, is not a religious center but pure spectacle. Created by artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, it has architecture similar to traditional Thai temples  but with lots of wacky symbols . It is more of an amusement park than a place for meditation . It is a fairly small enclosure that can be covered in just under an hour. It was not at all what I expected!

To enter you have to cross a striking bridge:Beneath our feet are hands that seem to ask for help . The artist wants to represent the path to happiness avoiding desire, greed and temptation.

Inside, two large statues represent death, there are figures of meditating Buddhas and murals with flames and demons… Nothing exceptional. In the trees that surround the temple we can find the hanging heads of Michael Jackson, Neo from the Matrix or Freddy Kruger among many other crazy things.

Karen Long Neck Village

The white temple (the only thing I would eventually see in Chiang Rai) didn’t excite me too much, but visiting a village with female giraffes would seem overwhelming . These tribes, originally from Myanmar , live illegally marginalized along the borders. They survive thanks to tourism, curious about their traditions.

They wear metal rings around their necks, arms, and legs. Originally, these ornaments were placed on women with another intention: to protect their sensitive parts (in case they were attacked by snakes or wild animals).

Those poor women, now turned into fairground animals, smile and pose impassively for the tourists while weaving. After just taking a couple of photos, I preferred to sit next to a girl to play at painting my face as a wonderful thanaka , like her… I didn’t like this experience at all.

Doi Tung Temple

Historic site, King Achutarat planted a flag to evoke the place where two Buddhist monuments were built, the Doi Tung temple will make you discover a panorama that is well worth the detour. At the top of Wat Phra That Doi Tung you will enjoy a view without equal in the country. You will see Myanmar and see several dozen kilometers on the horizon.

Sop Ruak

This is the place that best evokes the golden triangle. The Mekong naturally separates Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. You will be able to take a photo of three countries simultaneously. You can stroll between these three countries during a short cruise on the Mekong. A giant golden Buddha watches over this part of the world that you must discover.

Visit Wat Pa Sak

Walk the eight-century-old walls that protected the capital of the former Lanna state. Visit the 14th-century Wat Pa Sak (wat means temple), which brings together motifs from Thai, Khmer, Burmese, Laotian, Hindu and Buddhist cultures , with its spire pointing skyward.

Back in town, meet the saffron-robed monks who frequent the 13th-century Golden Buddha complex , one of the oldest and largest in the Golden Triangle and all of Thailand, and the remains of its original temple, Wat Phra That Chedi Luang . He takes advantage of the visit to this temple to buy souvenirs in some of the regional craft shops, which sell everything from indigenous fabrics to Buddha statues.

Enjoy a sunset in a luxurious restaurant

If budget is not a problem, or if you still decide to treat yourself, you can reserve a table to enjoy dinner at the Sala Mae Nam restaurant at the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort hotel . The open-sided room has spectacular views of the Golden Triangle and the elephants that roam the area. Breakfast or lunch are also options to enjoy this restaurant and its views.

Have a typical breakfast

For an authentic Thai experience, enjoy cardamom-ginger coffee with sweet rice cake for around 90 baht at a vine-fringed stall in front of the modern Opium House gift shop .

Be amazed by the Opium Museum

The Golden Triangle opium museum tells the story of the poppy plantations that served as the engine of an imperialism that captured nearly all of East Asia and made the area the epicenter of a gruesome global trade.

The emphasis here is on the present, the human cost of addiction, and the efforts to keep the culture of the area’s tribes intact. It’s really interesting, don’t miss it.

Visit Wat Tham Pla

Face off against a multitude of monkeys in the small town and temple of Yunnan .

At Wat Tham Pla you will find a steep staircase flanked by gleaming dragon claws. After a quick climb, you’ll come to the cave known as Fishtail . Inside, on a small shelf to one side, a humble bust with an enigmatic smile seems more animist than Buddhist. Tour the cave, snap whatever photos you need, and then head out again: on the way back you’ll be faced with incredible views of the Burmese ranges , which later become the Himalayas.

Best time to visit the Golden Triangle of Thailand

The climate here is significantly cooler than what you will experience in locations further south in Thailand. From November to March, you’ll find warm days and cool nights, as well as clear, sunny skies. Slash-and-burn agriculture can cause haze in the air during February and March, and the heat and rains arrive in April, so you may want to avoid that time.

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