Chiang Rai & Golden Triangle
The area earned its name due to the wealth that opium trading used to bring. Nowadays the opium has gone but the area still retains an allure. The mountains of Myanmar and Laos are easily visible and ruined cities such as Chiang Sean and The Hall of Opium Museumoffer evidence of a long and checkered history. The area around the museum is a bit touristy but once you are on a boat trip on the Mekong River you can dream away while closely passing Burmese and Laos countryside and even make a stop on the Lao side of the river and sip Beer Lao or send a postcard from Laos before heading back to the Thai side.
The area around Chiang Rai has been cultivated using organic, sustainable agricultural techniques and is farmed by the hill tribe people of the area. It is a great place to explore on an elephant's back, and is the picture-postcard vision of verdant Thai rice terraces and orchid-clad hillsides.
The Mekong River forms the border with Laos for a few hundred kilometers from the Golden Triangle to the south offering a scenic route to access the beauty of northern Laos and the city of Luang Prabang by river. From the border town Chiang Khong, there are several boat options to cruise the Mekong River, allowing you to sit on the deck and enjoy one of the most stunning views in the world surrounded by blue sky, brown river water and lush jungle on both sides of the river. Take a look at one of our tour modules featuring Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle or ask your travel consultant to include a few days in your tailor made tour.
Where to stay in Chiang Rai and the Golden Triangle?
In Chiang Rai we really like the stylish The Legend Resort, which is located on the river but still in the city. La Lunna is also charming and offers very good value. The Golden Triangle area at the far north of Thailand is home to the very top-end Four Seasons Tented Camp, where guests can enjoy fabulous excursions during the day and luxurious tents to return to in the evening. The delightful and also deluxe Anantara Resort and Spa has a great elephant camp nearby.
Touring Pai and Mae Hong Son
Heading west towards Myanmar, the delightful towns of Pai and Mae Hong Son are picturesque and charming. Pai is the hot new destination for backpackers and travelers looking for that essential 'Thai travel sensation'. It is a charming town in a scenic valley with lots to do during the day: biking, rafting, trekking and cafes and bars to enjoy in the evenings. There are now daily flights from Chiang Mai if you don't want to brave the four-hour drive up winding roads in the mountains.
The delights of Mae Hong Son are a very under-rated and often missed part of the Thai tourist trail. The town has interesting Burmese and Shan architecture in many monasteries as well as wonderful countryside and trekking opportunities. A drive to Nai Soi Village, where you can meet the Padaung, or long neck people, is a highlight and an educational experience for many travelers. The ideal tour is to spend two days driving along one of the most scenic roads in Asia with an overnight stop in Pai and then fly back after a night in Mae Hong Son. If you are traveling between June and December, a rafting trip on the Pai River is a highly recommended experience for adventurous travelers.
In Pai stay at Belle Villa Pai or Baan Krating Pai, both a little out of town with nice rural ambiance or the new town centre hotel The Quarter. In Mae Hong Son we use the eco-friendly Fern Resort for almost all our clients.
Adventurous travelers can continue to Mae Sariang, which is deep in Karen country and close to the Salween River. The scenery here is rugged and beautiful and the people are especially welcoming. Then drive back to Chiang Mai via Doi Inthanon.
If you are feeling independent why not try and drive the northern loop yourself? We will deliver the car to you, book your hotels, supply a map, road book and provide directions for you.
Further afield to the Unseen Thailand
For more intrepid travelers the stunning scenery and natural charm of Nan and Loei are definitely worth visiting. The mountains of the north-east are home to many charming towns, each with a laid-back atmosphere and constitute a fascinating part in the history and culture of the region. Phrae and Nan are particularly alluring and the surrounding mountain scenery around Loei is simply outstanding, but the real reward for the traveler in this region is in meeting the smiling, friendly people who live here.
Accommodation in the more remote destinations is not as varied or luxurious as it is around Chiang Mai, however, that does not mean you have to suffer backpacker standard guest houses either. We always use the best available hotels and will do our best to reserve the best rooms in the house. Sometimes even in the most remote areas we can find a true hidden gem such as Bo Klua View Resort in Nan province or Phu Phu Nam Resort in Loei. If you want to see the real Thailand you really should make the effort to see places like Nan and Loei where the modern world has not yet arrived and neither have the tourists. A million miles from Phuket and Pattaya, it is in places like these where you will find those special and memorable experiences that live with you forever.
Chiang Rai & Golden Triangle – Attractions
Wat Rong Khun
Wat Rong Khun is also known as the White Temple. Whereas most temples visited by tourists have a history going back many centuries, this magnificent place of worship was built only recently. It is the realization of a dream for Thailand’s noted artist, Mr Chalermchai Kositpipat, who designed and is supervising the construction of this beautiful white temple and its many statues of figures based on religious beliefs. The construction started in 1998 and is expected to be completed in 2008. In addition, there is a gallery nearby exhibiting his paintings.
Wat Phra That Chedi Luang
Next to Chiang Saen National museum is an ancient 88-meter high, bell-shaped, Lanna style principal chedi which has a 24 meter circumference base. Constructed in 1290 by King Saen Phu, the 3rd ruler of the Lanna kingdom, it is the tallest religious Lanna monument in Chiang Rai. In addition, there are also remains of ancient vihans and chedis.
Chiang Saen National Museum
Located in old town Chiang Saen, this museum exhibits artifacts excavated locally including a well-known Chiang Saen-style bronze Buddha image and Lanna Thai artifacts. Inscription stones from Phayao and Chiang Saen itself can be found in the museum. In addition, there are exhibitions of indigenous art objects of the Thai Yai, Thai Lu and other hill tribes. These items include musical instruments, ornaments and opium-smoking accessories. The museum is open on Wednesdays through Sundays from 9.00a.m. to 4.00p.m., except on national holidays.
The Kok River is one of the most scenic attractions in Chiang Rai. It runs from Thathon in northern Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai City and then flows on to meet the Mekong River at Chiang Khong. From Baan Thathon boats, rafts and treks leave daily venturing into the surrounding mountains where the jungle dips into the river's cool waters. A long-tailed boat can be hired to ferry visitors up and down the river. Stops can be made at Akha or Iko, Lisu and Karen hill tribe villages. Alternatively stops can be made at the Buddha cave, a temple within a cavern; an elephant camp, for trekking; a hot spring; and a riverside Lahu village.
Akha Hill House
The Akha Hill Tribe hosts a Guesthouse situated in the mountains 23 kms outside Chiang Rai, 15000 m above sea level. The village is overlooking a majestic valley surrounded by tea plantations, rice fields, waterfalls and native jungle.
Chiang Khong is a small, peaceful district on the bank of the Mekong River opposite Huaixai, Lao PDR. It is about 115 kilometers from the provincial seat, or approximately 55 kilometers to the east of Chiang Saen on Highway No. 1129. Chiang Khong is noted as the place where Pla Buk, giant catfish, is cultivated. The Chiang Khong Fishery Station is able to inseminate and breed Pla Buk, the largest fresh water fish in the world and fingerlings bred here have been released in several rivers. It should be noted that the fishing season is from mid-January to May. Sightseeing trips by boat are available to view the scenery and life styles along the Mekong River. An additional attraction is a visit to Ban Hat Bai, a Thai Lu community noted for making beautiful local fabrics.
Doi Mae Salong
Doi Mae Salong is the site of Santi Khiri village, a community settled by the former Chinese 93rd Division who moved from Myanmar to reside on Thai territory in 1961. The village became well known for its enchanting scenery and tranquil atmosphere. Today it is a major tourist attraction with its small-town ambience, delicious native Chinese dishes, small hotels and guesthouses catering to visitors and tea, coffee and fruit tree plantations. The scenery is especially picturesque in December and January when sakuras are in full bloom. Scattered with many hill tribe villages, Doi Mae Salong is ideal for trekking.
It is recorded that an ancient community was founded in the north of Chiang Rai Province more than 2000 years ago. This ancient town was named Yonok Nak Phan. According to legend, King Singhanawat founded the town, and the Nagas (mythical serpents) helped dig the town’s moat. Later, Yonok Nak Phan faced its unfortunate destiny; it collapsed and turned into a swamp. According to the geological evidence, it is believed that the town’s destruction was caused by an earthquake which turned it into present-day Chiang Saen Lake.
The above story is just a historical tale. However, it is clear that Chiang Saen existed during in the reign of King Meng Rai of the Lanna Kingdom, because it known that he truly existed. In the ancient Tai language of Burma and Northern Thailand, the word ‘chiang’ means ‘a big town’, while the word ‘saen’ presumably comes from King Saen Phu, King Meng Rai’s nephew. After King Meng Rai passed away, King Saen Phu came back, renovated Chiang Saen, and was its third king. He also resided and worked there; therefore, Chiang Saen was a capital city from 1327 – 1341, spanning the reigns of King Saen Phu and his son, King Kham Fu. After that, Chiang Saen declined in importance from the capital city to simply a leading town. Nevertheless, Chiang Saen Town was well developed, and Buddhism was dearly cherished by its governors. Ruins of 75 temples have been found within the town walls, and 66 were situated outside. This large number of temples attests to the thriving civilization of Chiang Saen. In 1557, Chiang Saen, Chiang Mai and several towns of the Lanna Kingdom were captured by Burma. Later, Ayutthaya won them back, and eventually they came under the control of Bangkok. The many ancient ruins make Chiang Saen a peaceful tourist attraction, with lots to explore. The Town offers a charming and serene atmosphere on the banks of the Khong River, at the three-country border between Laos, Burma and Thailand. Chiang Saen has both scenic natural attractions and an impressive cultural heritage. In particular its impressive Buddha images showcase Lanka, Sukhothai and Ayutthaya art and techniques. Besides, the graceful stuccos and splendid craftwork found in the area are Thailand’s great heritage for its younger generations.
The Hall of Opium, Golden Triangle Park
The Hall of Opium at the Golden Triangle Park houses several sections to be explored and various exhibitions to be contemplated. For example, the 5,600 square-meter Hall of Opium presents An Invitation to the Mysterious World of Opium from Darkness to Light, the history of opium as of 5,000 years ago from its natural properties to its uses. It traces opium's global journey through trade routes in the age of imperialism, culminating in the Opium Wars-an event that disgraced both winners and losers that led to the fall of the Manchu Dynasty. It also features Siamese wisdom in confronting the West and the eventual control of opium problems. Other exhibits are presented in a manner that encourages visitors learn how drugs become a part of everyday life and understand the impact of opium on society in terms of crime, conflict and illegal drugs. Additionally, the Hall of Opium presents efforts to curb drugs through actual case studies that offer alternatives and opportunities in fighting against the temptation of drugs. The Hall of Opium also displays paraphernalia associated with opium smoking and trading, along with many photographs, films, and videos about opium and other illegal drugs from countries around the world.
Doi Tung is located in Mae Fa Luang District and can be reached by taking Highway No.110 for about 48 kilometers and turning left onto Highway No. 1149, an asphalt road leading directly to Doi Tung. The route winds through beautiful scenery with many interesting sites including the Doi Tung Palace (Pra Tamnak Doi Tung), the Mae Fa Luang Garden and Akha and Muser tribal villages. IN addition to scenic lookouts, the most notable attraction is the Phra That Doi Tung Holy Relic, an old religious site atop the mountain. Also located on Doi Tung Mountain is a beautiful royal residence known as Phra Tamnak Doi Tung. The royal villa, situated on the slopes of the adjacent Pa Kluay Reservoir, was to serve as a royal winter retreat for the Princess Mother, who passed away in 1995 and was originally built on the theory that the local hill tribes would be honored by the royal presence and thereby cease their opium cultivation. The main attraction for visitors to Phra Tamnak Doi Tung is 'Suan Mae Fa Luang', the beautiful landscaped gardens filled with hundreds of different kinds of plants and flowers, named in honor of the Princess Mother and the Doi Tung Development Project established by the late Princess Mother in 1987.
Mae Chan, which is about 29 kilometers to the north of Chiang Rai, serves as a trading post where the Akha and Yao hill people sell their goods and buy manufactured items. Silver and other tribal handicrafts are available at local shops.
A trip to Chiang Rai province would not be complete without seeing the notorious Golden Triangle first hand! This famed border location where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet on the Mekong River was once supposed to be the center of all the poppy cultivation in Thailand. Travel approximately 9 kilometers north of old town Chiang Saen, along the road parallel to the Mekong River to the area where the borders of Thailand, Myammar and Laos converge. This area where the Mekong River meets the Ruak River is locally referred to as "Sop Ruak". Within this area are remains of many ancient places and structures attesting to the fact that the area had been settled by people in the past. It is also the area where various legends concerning the Lanna ancestors originate. Boats can be hired in order to view the upstream scenery of the Golden Triangle and to travel downstream to Chiang Khong. The trip to the Golden Triangle and Chiang Khong would take approximately 40 minutes and 1 hour respectively, depending on river currents and water levels.
Mae Sai which is about 62 kilometers from the provincial seat on Highway No. 110 is Thailand's northern-most district. Mae Sai borders on Myanmar's Tha Khi Lek marked by the Mae Sai River with a bridge spanning both sides. Foreign visitors are allowed to cross over to Tha Khi Lek market by presenting their passports and paying a fee at the Mae Sai immigration checkpoint. In addition, there are tour services to Chiang Tung in Myanmar, which is approximately 160 kilometers north by road.