December 16, 2019
Just two hours north of Chiang Rai is the infamous Golden Triangle: the triple border of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. The name comes from a CIA memo. 50-70 years ago, the triangle was one of the largest opium producing regions in the world.
Today, thanks in large part to the efforts of the old Thai king Rama IX, opium production has disappeared and tourism has taken its place. I have heard mixed opinions of the Golden Triangle. On one side, it is a major landmark and the dark history is cool. On the other hand, there isn’t all that much to see and it is far from other tourist centers.
The easiest way to reach the Golden Triangle is by guided tour from either Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai (5 hours to the south!!!). However, those tours also visit the temples in Chiang Rai- something I did two days ago. Additionally, the tours are very structured and do not allow border hopping. Luckily, it is very easy to visit the Golden Triangle using public transportation which allows more flexibility and is cheaper.
As this was the last night in my Chiang Rai hostel, I checked out caught a 7:30 am bus to Chiang Saen 90 minutes away. Chiang Saen is a nice small town with a few ancient stupas. I got breakfast at local market – beef balls of some kind. Then, I caught a songthaew (shared-ride truck) to the Golden Triangle, officially known as Sop Ruak.
The Golden Triangle Park on the Thai side is pretty weak. It consists of a couple photo-op monuments overlooking the watery triple border and a gigantic Buddha riding an even more gigantic boat.
Just below the boat, I paid a pricey 500 baht to hire a speedboat for an hourlong tour. Due to the international nature of the trip, I had to leave my passport with the Thai immigration authorities.
Our first stop was the exact spot where the three borders meet in the middle of the river.
Then we kept boating up the Laos/Myanmar border to view a big casino. Then downriver along the Thai Laos border. Eventually we pulled up onto to the Lao side. This section of the Lao border is a special visa-free zone called Donsao Island.
Donsao was basically just a big counterfeit market for luxury goods. There were stores selling fake Louis Vuitton purses, Nike shoes, Kate Spade bags, Supreme hats, and much more. There were a couple Laos souvenir shops too, but the vast majority of the shopping was the fakes. Having been to Laos, I felt that the size of the construction projects on the island (there’s also a high rise casino) seemed beyond the scope of the Lao government. It turns out I was right: Donsao Island was leased to China for 100 years.
Back in Thailand, I hopped on another truck to Mae Sai- Thailand’s northernmost city. Was concerned about timing since the public transit here stops at 1pm (awfully early). On the truck I realized I completely forgot about the Opium Museum. Oh well.
Mae Sai is the border town with Tachileik, Myanmar. Normally Myanmar requires a visa but at this crossing, they will let you in for 500 baht. The catch is that you can only stay for the day and the Myanmar government keeps your passport so you don’t stray too far. Having last been to Myanmar in 2010- before the military junta fell- I had to go.
The crossing itself was easy and I got to witness a strange phenomenon. Thailand drives on the left side of the road, while Myanmar drives on the right. Drivers had to switch sides on the bridge. This made the bridge a sort of free-for-all since everyone had to cross the road.
After paying the fee, I suddenly got harassed by people selling short tours around town. I eventually took one guy up on it – three temples for 100 baht. I got in his rickshaw and away we went. The temples were distinctly Burmese and very different from the Thai temples. My favorite temple was a replica of Yangon’s world famous Shwedegon Pagoda. It was exciting to see these temples and be reminded of my trip 9.5 years ago.
Tachileik was noticeably poorer than anywhere I had been in Thailand. Dozens of deformed beggers lined the streets. But one thing really struck me: one vendor had a portrait of Aung Sun Suu Kyi hanging above his stall. It said “We trust your judgement, dear leader”. The last time i was in Myanmar, she was under house arrest by the military. Now she is part of that government. Crazy how times change.
Underneath the bridge was another fakes market. It was clean and quiet. My guess is that during holidays or weekends this place gets swamped. There were also a bunch of liquor stores selling knock-off liquor. I can only imagine what is in those bottles.
With my final 50 bath, I got a mediocre Thai lunch. There were Burmese restaurants but I was silly and didn’t have enough cash on me to go there. I was disappointed and somewhat surprised to learn that there are zero (yes 0) Burmese restaurants on the Thai side of the border- a missed opportunity for sure.
Back in Thailand and flush with cash from the ATM, I walked around busy Mae Sai. The town had a fakes market with similar items to Myanmar. Above the market and a loooong staircase was a beautiful temple. For some reason it was covered in flowers and monks were unwrapping hundreds of boxes of flowers. The temple also had a famous scorpion statue pointing towards Myanmar (the old enemy) and a lavish hall that personally sponsored by the royal family (the King’s mom lives nearby).
With that it was time to head south. I caught a minibus to the bus station then got an air conditioned bus to Chiang Rai that took 90 minutes. In Chiang Rai I learned that all the buses to Chiang Mai were sold out for the day. Luckily someone missed the bus so I was able to get onto one after waiting just 30 minutes. That bus ride took 4 hours due to road construction in the jungle. Around 9pm, I reached Chiang Mai.
While I enjoyed my day, I would not recommend the Golden Triangle to the average tourist. The landscape is no prettier than anywhere else in Thailand. The novelty of the area is the border crossings. Yes it is fun to hop into other countries, but these short border visits do not suffice for a real visit to the country. There are better ways to spend the day in Thailand. That said if you like border crossings, then go to the Golden Triangle.