Photo: The Golden Triangle from above.


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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 ... Travelfish members only (Around 900 more words) ... please log in to read the rest of this story.

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What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Sob Ruak.
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