Chiang Rai: gateway to the Golden Triangle

by Ian.Littlewood

If you want a change from Bangkok and beaches, why not head to Chiang Rai, Thailand's northernmost city, and see what's on offer?

We looked at Mr Lek’s jeep with some misgiving. ‘Okay for Golden Triangle?’ I asked. ‘Cheap price,’ said Mr Lek. Not quite the answer I was looking for, but in spite of the easy-going brakes and generous steering, I didn’t really regret our choice. Mr Lek’s battered jeep was part of the Chiang Rai experience. 
This small town in the far north of Thailand has the sort of laidback atmosphere that Chiang Mai enjoyed 30 years ago. Samlors still pedal through the dusty streets, there’s an engagingly chaotic night-market, and you can cycle round from temple to temple, café to café, without sucking in a year’s supply of exhaust fumes in the space of an afternoon.
Admittedly, there’s not a whole lot to do in the town itself, but my companion and I had splashed out on the Dusit Island Resort, whose vast swimming pool offers an ideal way to soak up any spare time. It’s set on a spur of land behind the hotel, just alongside the Mae Kok river. Between lazy dips you can sit with a glass of Thai beer, watching the light change on the jungle-fringed water as occasional boats chug past. Offhand I can’t think of many pleasanter ways to spend late afternoon in Chiang Rai or anywhere else.
But the sleepy attractions of Chiang Rai aren’t usually what bring people up to this remote part of the country. The real draw is that wedge of jungle, river and mountain where Thailand meets the borders of Laos and Burma – aka the Golden Triangle.
Our first stop was Chiang Saen, about 60 kilometres north-east of Chiang Rai. Its heyday was seven or eight centuries ago, but there’s enough left of the old city to make it worth a visit. We headed for the remains of Wat Pa Sak, a temple complex just outside the town. In general, it's the sort of thing I can take or leave. If what you know about Thai architecture could be written on a postage stamp, one ruined temple looks pretty much like another. But context is all, and the lonely ruins of Wat Pa Sak, scattered among the teak trees, half-covered in moss and lichen, have a singular appeal. 
For a start, they haven’t been packaged for tourist consumption. As you wander around these ancient brick structures, pausing for shade under the tall trees, the odds are you’ll have the place to yourself. Most of the stucco that once covered the temples has long since crumbled away and only a few of the Buddha images, adorned with saffron scarves, remain niched in the walls or seated among the ruins.  The poignant tranquillity of the place leaves a deeper impression than many more celebrated sites.
At the apex of the Golden Triangle we’re squarely back in tourist territory, and there are plenty of souvenir stalls to prove it. So we take our photos and move on. Below us the wide expanse of the great Mekhong river recedes into a jungle landscape that doesn’t look as though it wants much to do with human beings anyway. 
For many years this was the hub of the Asian drug trade. Things have changed – up to a point – but we couldn’t leave without calling in at the Hall of Opium. This eccentric little museum, which has exhibits on just about every aspect of the history, manufacture and use of opium that you can think of, is clearly the work of an enthusiast. 
A shaded restaurant at the edge of the river provided a plate of fried rice and a drink to set us up for the blisteringly hot drive on to Mae Sai. (The jeep’s air-conditioning had even less to say for itself than the brakes.) 
I've got a weakness for border towns. They tend to have an edgy, impermanent feel, a whiff of corruption in the air. Mae Sai is no exception. Its scruffy streets are lined with stalls that serve the endless traffic of goods along the bridge leading from the far end of town across the river into Burma. On the other side is Tachilek, the Burmese counterpart of Mae Sai. If you time it right, you can use this crossing as a way into one small corner of Burma. A few dollars at the border post will let you travel at least as far as the pretty hill town of Kengtung. But check before you make any plans. If the Burmese generals happen to be feeling nervous, the bar comes down.
We were hot, sticky and ready for the pool again by the time we got back to Chiang Rai, but we’d sampled a haunting fringe of Thailand. And it’s easily done. There are several direct flights you can take from Bangkok to Chiang Rai, and buses from Chiang Mai leave throughout the day. Once you’re there, just hire a jeep – but perhaps not Mr Lek’s.




Lecturer and Writer. Ian has lived and worked in France, the USA, Japan and Thailand and now lives with his wife and daughter in the south of England. Among the books he’s written are literary companions to Paris and Venice, The Idea of Japan, the Rough Guide History of France, and Sultry Climates: Travel and Sex since the Grand Tour. His main areas of interest are Europe, Japan and South-East Asia.