Photo: The Golden Triangle from above.

Introduction

Our rating:

The Golden Triangle: an evocative name conjuring up images of opium mule trains winding through dense jungle, rugged mountains and past remote villages, with a backdrop of swathes of the waist-high pink and white poppies that are the source of opium and its derivatives.


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Through the 1960s to 80s, the infamous Golden Triangle referred to wide stretches of mountainous areas in northeast Burma, northwest Laos and the upper regions of Thailand: primarily Mae Hong Son, Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai provinces. It was called “golden” because of the wealth of the region—derived from “black gold”, or opium.

Indeed, golden. Photo taken in or around Sob Ruak, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Indeed, golden. Photo: Mark Ord

These days the Golden Triangle has been tamed and narrowed down for tourism purposes to the small riverbank town of Sob Ruak lying at the confluence of the Mekong and Ruak rivers where Burma (Myanmar), Laos and Thailand meet. The Thai government and Tourism Authority of Thailand have then successfully converted their slice of this once wild region into a highly profitable tourism hotspot.

Mule trains are now of course seen only on postcards and the Sob Ruak waterfront, where once rival Kuomintang and Shan armies fought over opium convoys, is today a collection of tacky souvenir stalls, tourist cafes, opium-themed museums and gaudy Buddhist installations. Buy your Golden Triangle T-shirt and have a cocktail in the “opium lounge” of an upmarket hotel: it’s on many a tourist’s must-see list.

Take a boat trip. Photo taken in or around Sob Ruak, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Take a boat trip. Photo: Mark Ord

The Golden Triangle today is little more than a marketing phrase and where once opium flowed out of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai to Bangkok cartels; Doi Tung lattes and Mae Salong oolong for tourists and Thai yuppies in chic Lanna-themed coffee shops are now the main products emerging from them there hills.

Today’s proliferation of gaudy, riverside Buddhist installations is perhaps there to appease the consciences of local visitors, many of whom are actually on their way through to visit the equally gaudy casinos that you’ll see on the Lao and Burmese banks opposite. (Casinos being illegal in Thailand.)

What made the area famous. Photo taken in or around Sob Ruak, Thailand by Mark Ord.

What made the area famous. Photo: Mark Ord

Sob Ruak is a tiny town, so while there’s plenty in the way of tourist infrastructure, municipal facilities such as a post office, hospital or police station are to be found in the larger, neighbouring towns of Mae Sai and Chiang Saen. Of course you’ll find the ubiquitous 24-hour convenience store and ATMs, and there is a small police post by the jetty, but note that there are no immigration facilities here for foreigners. Official border crossings to Laos and Burma are made at Chiang Khong and Mae Sai respectively.

Cynicism aside the town’s museums are actually very good and extremely informative and some of the views are great so we’d say Sob Ruak is well worth a visit though we’re not so convinced it necessitates an overnight stay. Apart from the aforementioned high-end resorts and a couple of in-town guesthouses, the accommodation choices are limited and once the sun goes down and the day-trippers depart things get very, very quiet.

An impressive riverside setting. Photo taken in or around Sob Ruak, Thailand by Mark Ord.

An impressive riverside setting. Photo: Mark Ord

You’d need half a day maximum to cover all its sites so a day trip from Chiang Rai combining perhaps the Mae Sai border market and Golden Triangle is eminently feasible. However, Sob Ruak’s unhelpful public transport system does make that rather tricky and if you don’t have your own wheels then you’re almost forced to book an organised tour. Consequently you’ll see Sob Ruak (The Golden Triangle) featuring on numerous Chiang Rai agents’ sightseeing programmes and day-tour itineraries.

Under your own steam, if you were coming from Mae Sai, an early morning songthaew to Sob Ruak should leave time for a look around before proceeding to Chiang Saen while if you were staying in the latter—which would be our recommended base for exploring the area—then again an early morning, short, local bus ride up to the Golden Triangle ought to leave ample time for a return in the afternoon but in either case do be careful not to miss the last songthaew in the afternoon.

Very pretty in places. Photo taken in or around Sob Ruak, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Very pretty in places. Photo: Mark Ord

If you have a rental bike or car then the area’s quiet, largely flat roads, make life simple and a stop in Sob Ruak would be convenient if travelling between Chiang Saen and Mae Sai or even as a day trip from Chiang Rai. Our recommendation, unless you do get stuck, would be a morning trip to Sob Ruak before moving on to nearby Chiang Saen in the afternoon whose sedate old ruins and very local-style waterfront scene provide an excellent contrast to the busy Golden Triangle and which also offers a much better choice of budget and mid-range sleeping options.


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Orientation
The town is set along Route 1290, with Chiang Saen nine kilometres south along the bank of the Mekong and Mae Sai around 30 kilometres to the west. Restaurants, a few hotels and a large car and coach park are on the Mekong side of the highway, while a small residential area, housing several guesthouses, the House of Opium and a hilltop temple stretches off to the west side of the main road.

There’s no bus station as such, but what public transport there is departs from the riverside carpark which forms the town’s focal point and the town is too small to warrant a hospital, police station or even a proper market. Administratively Sob Ruak is a sub-district of Chiang Saen so it’s in that larger neighbour where you’ll find the closest municipal facilities.

There is a small police booth at the junction of the main through road and entrance to the car-park as well as a tourist police office just out of the centre to the north but the closest real police stations are in Chiang Saen or Mae Sai. You’ll see an immigration office just to the south of town but this is more for casino crossing issues, illegal entries and river traffic than tourist visas so again, Chiang Saen or Mae Sai would be the closest points. We repeat, although you can temporarily cross to a market or casino, Sob Ruak is not a legal entry point into either Burma or Laos.



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What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Sob Ruak.
 Check prices, availability & reviews on Booking
 Read up on where to eat on Sob Ruak.
 Check out our listings of things to do in and around Sob Ruak.
 Read up on how to get to Sob Ruak, or book your transport online with 12Go Asia.
 Do you have travel insurance yet? If not, find out why you need it.
 Planning on riding a scooter in Sob Ruak? Please read this.
 Buy a SIM card for Thailand—pick it up at the airport when you arrive.
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