Photo: The Golden Triangle from above.


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The Golden Triangle: it’s an exotic, evocative name that has captured popular imagination. Think warlords, secret armies, opium mule trains slogging through a dense jungle, rugged mountains, triads, the DEA and CIA, hilltribes, remote villages and above all, the waist-high pink and white poppies that are the source of opium and its derivatives.

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Through the 1960s to 1980s, the Golden Triangle referred to wide swathes of mountainous areas in northeast Burma, northwestern 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, which was largely derived from “black gold”, or opium.

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

Indeed, golden. Photo: Mark Ord

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

The Sob Ruak waterfront, where once rival Kuomintang and Shan armies fought over opium convoys, is now a collection of 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.

Up in the hills, crop substitution programmes have seen coffee, tea and temperate fruit and vegetables replace papaver somniferum in Thailand, while in northern Laos much former jungle has been given over to new hybrid rubber tree species able to cope with northerly climes. In Burma, cultivation has declined considerably, with Shan groups attempting to proffer a more acceptable public face and the Wa Army switching over to simpler, and more profitable, methamphetamine production.

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

Take a boat trip. Photo: Mark Ord

Thai cultivation has been practically eradicated and most mountain villages are now reached by roads, have electricity, are culturally assimilated and run agricultural projects set in place by the Thai government, royal family and various NGOs. The Golden Triangle is little more than a marketing phrase and where once opium flowed out of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai to triads in Bangkok and Saigon, today Doi Tung lattes, Doi Chang iced mochas and Mae Salong oolong for Thai yuppies in chic Lanna-style coffee shops are the main products emerging from them there hills.

The proliferation of gaudy riverside Buddha installations are perhaps there to appease the consciences of local visitors, many of whom are actually on their way through to visit the enormous, and even more gaudy, casinos that have been built on the Lao and Burmese banks opposite. (Casinos are 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

It’s an interesting enough and highly historic site to visit; both opium museums are well worth a look and sure, why not snap a selfie in front of the Golden Triangle sign on top of the hill! Just don’t expect Sob Ruak to have remained the wild west of yesteryear.

Sob Ruak is a tiny town, so though there’s plenty in the way of tourist infrastructure, municipal facilities such as the post office, hospital and police station are to be found in larger neighbouring Mae Saiand 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 do note that there are no immigration facilities here for foreigners. Border crossings to Laos and Burma are made at Chiang Khong and Mae Sai respectively.

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

Several large, tour-group orientated restaurants break up an otherwise unobstructed view of the river as you head south, while leaving town to the west takes you past a long string of souvenir stands, the Hall of Opium and a couple of large, upmarket resorts. There’s no bus station as such, but public transport generally departs from the riverside carpark – do confirm where your own bus leaves from though.

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