The Golden Triangle

What we say: 3.5 stars

The Golden Triangle is one of those regions that has captured popular imagination: think warlords, secret armies, opium mule trains chugging through the jungle, triads, the DEA and CIA, hill tribes, remote villages and above all the chest-high pink and white poppies that are the source of opium and its derivatives, morphine and heroin.

Mountains of the Golden Triangle

The mountains of the Golden Triangle.

Through the 1960s to 1990s the Golden Triangle referred to a wide swathe of northern Southeast Asia comprising northeast Burma — the Wa and Shan states — northern Laos and northern parts of Thailand, primarily Mae Hong Son, Chiang Rai and the upper districts of Chiang Mai province. It was called “golden” because the wealth of the region was largely derived from black gold, or opium.

Poppies near Muang Sing, Laos

A woman with a child picks poppies near Muang Sing, Laos.

The region is a remote area of rugged mountains and forests inhabited by Shan, Tai Lu plus Hmong, Akha, Lisu, Yao and myriad hilltribe peoples. Up until recently much of it was highly difficult to access by road, and the governments in Bangkok, Vientiane, and still today Rangoon exercised only very limited control. Political and military power in these parts of Laos and Thailand was in the hands of private armies controlled by warlords and largely financed by the drugs trade — indeed in northeastern Burma that is still largely the case. After the civil war in China fleeing Republican (Kuomintang) army units moving into northern Thailand rivalled the Shan State Army of warlord Khun Sa for dominance, with the powerful Wa State army increasingly a major player as the Kuomintang faded and Khun Sa went into retirement.

View from the Kuomintang town of Mae Salong towards Khun Sa's nearby, former base at Hin Taek

View from the Kuomintang town of Mae Salong towards Khun Sa's nearby former base at Hin Taek.

In more recent times, under US pressure the Thai government has made major efforts to eradicate opium production in this region, and while only 20 years ago poppy fields were still a common sight in northern Thailand and Laos, they are now very rare in the former and increasingly so in the latter.

Black gold

Black gold.

Crop substitution programmes have seen coffee, tea and temperate fruit and vegetable crops replace papaver somniferum in Thailand, and in northern Laos much former jungle land has been given over to new hybrid rubber tree species able to cope with northern climes. At the same time apparently “troublesome” hill-tribe villages were relocated into lowland areas, where they are more easily controlled. In Burma, cultivation has declined considerably with the Shan elements attempting to proffer a more acceptable public face and the Wa Army switching over to simpler, and more profitable, methamphetamine production.

Former poppy fields now grow tea - honest guv!

Former poppy fields now given over to tea -- honest guv!

In Thailand, cultivation has been, as we noted, practically eradicated and most mountain villages brought into the national grid with road construction, cultural assimilation and agricultural projects by the Thai government, Royal family and various charities. These days the Golden Triangle is little more than a marketing phrase for tourism.

The Triangle is reduced to the village of Sob Ruak where the borders of Burma, Laos and Thailand meet, and where you can buy a T-shirt in the coach park, visit the two opium museums and have a cocktail in the opium lounge of an upmarket hotel. You can stay at the Golden Triangle Inn and sign up for a Golden Triangle trek or even go and pay 20 baht to get a photo taken in a Doi Pui poppy field.

We’ll leave you with a photo of the Kok River between Burma and Thailand, which was formerly an important smuggling route but is now very popular for scenic boat trips between Tha Ton and Chiang Rai

The picturesque Kok - no sniggering at the back!

The picturesque Kok, sans drugs.

Last updated: 31st August, 2015

About the author:
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.
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