It wasn’t that long ago that the “Golden Triangle” — the area of northernmost Thailand that borders Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) on the west and Laos on the east — was infamous for just one thing: opium trafficking. Today, however, the Golden Triangle flourishes for a much different reason. Now, it is one of the travel industry’s hottest destinations.
Nowadays, in or near the provincial cities of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, clients will find high-end getaways that offer guests accommodations and amenities that rival any five-star hotel in Bangkok, as well as Thailand’s southern beach resort cities of Phuket and Pattaya or the country’s opulent offshore island luxury resorts.
These luxury Golden Triangle properties include the elegant Anantara Golden Triangle Resort & Spa with 77 rooms and suites. For a more unconventional but just as luxurious stay, clients will find the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle, Thailand, located near the Ruak River just opposite Burma. While it replicates the look of safari camps found in East Africa in some ways, the all-inclusive resort has 15 canvas tents that are steel-framed and are equipped with air conditioning, in-suite facilities and complimentary Internet accessibility.
Thailand’s Golden Triangle region offers clients authentic cultural experiences. // (C) 2010 Ron Mesaros
Local tour operators such as Trikaya Cultural & Academic Travel Services can tailor private excursions up into the Golden Triangle area for small parties of visitors looking for a totally different Thai experience. Khun Kasemsak Bhamornsatit Pong, owner of Trikaya, said that the Golden Triangle is “absolutely safe” for travelers. Within the area, he pointed out that visitors can visit villages occupied by hill tribes, feel the strong Buddhist influence in the many temples and have the opportunity to visit, albeit briefly, both Myanmar and Laos.
“This is an experience totally different from what you have in Bangkok,” Pong said.
Lubosh Barta, Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai resort manager, was equally enthusiastic about the destination.
“Here, visitors get a feeling of being in an undiscovered place,” he said.
Its past infamy still contributes to an aura of mystery, Barta admitted, and for many, there’s a special thrill in traveling by boat on the legendary Mekong River.
“This is the real Thailand — not a place made for tourists.”
Scenes of ethereal beauty are, admittedly, at every turn. In the early morning hours, mist rises from the Ruak River, framing the thick jungles that blanket the mountains in nearby Myanmar. Farmers, many from the distinctive hill tribes, work the neat flatlands that gave rise to the area’s ancient name as the “land of a million rice fields.”
The bustling border town of Mae Sai is Thailand’s northernmost city and is an official point of entry into the river port town of Tachileik, Myanmar, just across the Ruak River. Each day, a steady stream of Thais pass through a large customs and immigration gate house on their side of the river and walk across a bridge into Myanmar, mainly to shop for locally produced goods, including jade jewelry, and to buy imports from China, especially electronics. For their part, Burmese come south into Mae Sai to shop for Thai-made goods.
Foreigners, ordinarily unlikely to get an official visa to enter Myanmar can, for a $10 fee, get a day pass at the same border offices and come home to tell friends how they made it into the otherwise closed country.
It’s even easier to get into Laos. The town of Chiang Saen, Thailand, located in the district of the same name, promotes itself these days as an unofficial Golden Triangle center. One of the major tourist attractions there is a boat ride on the Mekong that includes crossing over to the People’s Republic of Laos.
In a tiny market village there, visitors can buy a variety of locally made handicrafts and, for those with a strong stomach, bottles of whiskey in which snakes and ugly insects float. A post office permits the visitor to mail home a card bearing stamps from Laos, too — yet another opportunity for your clients to top their neighbors’ vacation stories.
And while Thailand continues to promote the Golden Triangle region as a vibrant tourist destination, it is also not hiding the region’s infamous history of drugs. About six miles from Chiang Saen is the Hall of Opium, an expansive museum built by the Thai government. Professionally produced multimedia exhibits, historical photos, interactive displays and narratives depict not only the history of opium usage, but the terrible toll it has taken on societies all over the world.
As visitors to these northern provinces quickly discover and enthusiastically appreciate, the area offers a distinctive travel experience while remaining quintessentially Thai.