Traveller's Guide: The Golden Triangle

The compact region where Thailand, Laos and Burma meet offers a heady mix of cultures and landscapes, says Aoife O'Riordain

Lush jungle, mist-shrouded mountains, hill-tribe villages and tranquil views of rice paddies mark the Golden Triangle, the point in northern Thailand that converges with Laos and Burma where the Ruak and mighty Mekong rivers join.

While its peaceful, untouched landscape has more recently become a draw for visitors, the Golden Triangle – a term coined by the CIA – gained notoriety in the 1920s as one of the world's most prolific opium producers, until it was eclipsed by Afghanistan. In an effort to stamp out the drug trade, the Thai government made poppy-growing illegal in 1959 and brought in crop-substitution programmes for farmers. Opium production was cut considerably, but there are concerns it is rising again in remote pockets across the border in Burma and Laos.

That said, there are plenty of natural attractions to warrant a visit – the Thai side of the Golden Triangle, in particular, has plenty of interest. This northern corner was a stronghold of the Lanna culture that prevailed for several centuries and was called the "land of a million rice fields", which hints at the scenic charms that await. Its gateway, Chiang Rai, is a laid-back city on the banks of the Kok river. It became the first capital of the Lanna kingdom in 1262, under King Meng Rai, and is dotted with landmarks such as the Wat Rong Khun (White Temple).

Doi Luang National Park (dnp.go.th) has miles of often-deserted trails to explore as does Namtok Khun Kon Forest Park (dnp.go.th), close to the Burmese border – its natural wonders include the spectacular 70m Tat Mok waterfall.

Set on the banks of the Mekong is another 14th-century Lanna capital, the small but charming Chiang Saen, which is dotted by temples, historic buildings and ruins. Six miles upstream is the heart of the Golden Triangle, the confluence of the Mekong and Ruak rivers, known locally as Sop Ruak – the point where all three countries can be seen from one vantage point.

An absorbing place to spend a few hours is the Hall of Opium (00 66 5378 44446; maefah luang.org) in the Golden Triangle Park north of Chiang Rai by the Laotian and Burmese borders. This museum educates, but in a lively way, about the 5,000-year history of opium as well as the illegal trade and the impacts of drug abuse.

Further north, Doi Mae Salong, also known as Santi Khiri, is a hilltop village that was colonised in the 1940s by refugee soldiers who came from Burma but were originally part of the Chinese 93rd Division that fought against Mao Zedong. Even now, there is a decidedly Chinese feel with teashops and slopes planted with oolong, coffee and fruit trees. It is particularly scenic in December and January when Thai Sakura trees – cherry blossom – are in bloom.

It is possible to make the crossing over to Burma from Thailand's most northerly point, Mae Sai, to the frontier town of Tachilek in Shan State. You will be charged US$10 (£6.60) for a visa and can only visit the town – a busy trading post with a frontier feel and a few sights such as the Shwedagon Pagoda, a food market and bustling Chinese market.

However, to experience how sparsely populated the Golden Triangle can be, cross the Mekong further downstream from Chiang Khong to Huay Xai in Laos. Just an hour's drive into the tranquil countryside are the semi-buried remains of the city of Souvanna Khomkham, believed to date from the fifth century.

Independent travel in the Golden Triangle is rewarding but can take time. Instead, one of the best ways to visit is as part of a larger itinerary. Travel Indochina (01865 268 940; travelindochina.co.uk) offers an eight-day escorted small-group tour starting in Chiang Rai and including a Mekong cruise before ending in the Laotian capital, Vientiane. There are regular departures in December and January for £1,080pp, including six nights' board, guiding, most meals, cruise and transfers, but not international flights.

Other UK operators incorporating the Golden Triangle include Red Savannah (01242 787 800; redsavannah.com), Rickshaw Travel (01273 322 399; www.rickshawtravel.co.uk), Intrepid (0808 274 5111; intrepidtravel.com) and Trailfinders (020 7368 1200; trailfinders.com).

For more information see Tourism Authority of Thailand (0870 900 2007; tourismthailand .co.uk) and Tourism Laos (00 856 21 212 248; tourismlaos.gov.la).

Tribal gathering

The Golden Triangle is dotted with remote villages populated by the Hmong, Shan, Yao, Karen, Lahu and Lisu ethnic groups. Mae Fah Luang Art and Cultural Park (00 66 5371 6605 7; maefahluang.org), near Chiang Rai, forms part of a foundation set up to conserve and promote the crafts and lifestyles of the northern hill tribes.

Near the Burmese border, close to Mae Sai, is the Doi Tung Development Project (00 66 5376 7015; doitung.com), site of the Doi Tung royal villa. There are workshops where artisans produce homewares and fashion, as well as coffee and macadamia nuts. There is a café, an orchid garden and a guesthouse – doubles start at 2,500 baht (£44), room only.

Viator (020 3318 0421; viator.com) has a one-day tour visiting villages of the Akha, Yao and Shan tribes. Sample oolong tea at one of the plantations of Mae Salong; €35pp.

A river runs through it

One of the best ways to see this part of the countryside is from the Mekong river. The Luang Say (00 856 71 252 553; luangsay.com) is a handsome teak river barge that plies a route along the Mekong, from the heart of the Golden Triangle at Houie Say in Laos, 200 miles downstream to the Unesco World Heritage-listed city of Luang Prabang, also in Laos. The two-day journey slides through the lushly forested countryside, docking in to visit hillside tribal villages as well as a night at a traditional-style lodge in Pakbeng on the banks of the river.

The two-day journey costs from $373 (£249)pp and includes the cruise, all activities, meals and one night's accommodation.

Natural highs

The gently rolling countryside of the Golden Triangle is ideal for exploration by bike. Spice Roads (00 66 2 381 7490; spiceroads.com) offers a leisurely two-night cycling tour, starting and ending in Chiang Rai. The tour, which covers 118km over three half-days, skirts the banks of the Mekong and visits local landmarks such as the Opium Museum. The price of 13,000 baht (£248)pp includes board, an English-speaking guide, most meals, cycle hire and a support vehicle.

New frontiers

Burma is back on the tourist map and can be combined with a visit to the Golden Triangle. Audley (01993 838 000; audleytravel.com) offers a 17-day "Discovering Burma and Northern Thailand" tour that visits well-known sights in Burma such as Mandalay and Bagan as well as venturing off the beaten track to Kengtung in eastern Shan State, before crossing over to Thailand's Golden Triangle. The price of £4,745pp includes international flights, 15 nights' B&B, a private guide and driver.

Getting there and getting around

There are ongoing political demonstrations in Bangkok and other parts of Thailand. The FCO (fco.gov.uk) advises you should "take extra care and avoid all protests, political gatherings, demonstrations and marches. If you're travelling to the airport, allow extra time."

Chiang Rai is the main jumping-off point for the Golden Triangle. Bangkok is served non-stop from Heathrow by BA (0844 493 0758; ba.com), Eva Air (020 7380 8300; evaair.com) and Thai Airways (0844 561 0911; thaiairways.co.uk). There are regular flights from Bangkok to Chiang Rai with Thai Airways, Air Asia (00 66 2515 9999; airasia.com) and Nok Air (00 662 900 9955; nokair.com).

It's also possible to fly into Chiang Mai, further south, via Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. From Chiang Rai there are regular buses to the Golden Triangle operated by Green Bus (bus.greencorporate thai.com) as well as a network of smaller buses.

Most visitors travel with a car and driver, or on an organised tour. Visas for Laos can be obtained on arrival at Houei Sai for US$35 (£23) – remember to bring two passport photos. Burma's is best purchased by post or from the embassy in London (myanmarembassylondon.com) in advance; £14. It is also available on arrival, though the process is more complex and expensive; US$40 (£26).

Where to stay? Try an elephant camp

Members of the Hmong and Lahu tribal villages look after guests staying at the Lanjia Lodge (00 66 8880 97047; asian-oasis.com), a community-based guesthouse set in the picturesque hills an 90-minute's drive from Chiang Rai. Days are spent trekking through the pristine landscape and visiting local hill tribe villages. A two-day stay costs from 2,680 baht (£52)pp, based on two sharing.

With views out over the Golden Triangle, the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp and Resort (00 66 53 784 084; goldentriangle.anantara.com) is one of the area's top resorts (left). The hotel works alongside Think Elephants International and The Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation and its adjoining camp is home to more than 25 elephants and their carers. During your stay, you can learn the basics of being a mahout or you could join a sunset elephant trek along the banks of the Mekong river. Doubles start at £560, all inclusive.

If your pockets are even deeper, the Four Seasons Golden Triangle Tented Camp (00 66 539 10 200; fourseasons.com) is the ultimate jungle retreat, with just 15 luxurious tents for visitors. Its two-night "Adventure Package" costs £3,582 for two people with full board, all activities and transfers from Chiang Rai airport.

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