Photo: The Golden Triangle from above.

Things to see and do

1 km north of town, Route 1290
T: (053) 717 433

There’s a perfectly good opium museum down the road in the town centre for 50 baht so we were rather sceptical about the fancy 200 baht out of town Hall of Opium, but by the time we left we were definitely won over.

Compared to the long-running House of Opium, the newer Hall of Opium’s scope is more general, and its contents and aims broader. There’s an emphasis on the wider historical context of opium, including European trade and interaction with Southeast Asia and China; the East India Company, the Opium Wars, imperialism in Asia, the history and origins of opium and information on other drugs.

What is says on the can. Photo taken in or around Sob Ruak, Thailand by Mark Ord.

What is says on the can. Photo: Mark Ord

The museum starts out in spectacular fashion. As the entrance, foyer and ticket desk were constructed on one side of a hill and the museum proper on the far side, a 137-metre, dimly lit tunnel was dug right through the centre of the hill linking the two. This very elaborate entrance is supposed to represent the descent into hell and darkness resulting from opium addiction!

You emerge from the tunnel into a sprawling complex of exhibition rooms, video theatres, dioramas and text, map and photo displays. The level of written English is excellent and information abundant. Eager staff members run around after you to turn on videos or light up displays. It’s fascinating stuff and if you were to examine all the displays and watch every film you’d be in there for at least two hours.

No photos are allowed inside. Photo taken in or around Sob Ruak, Thailand by Mark Ord.

No photos are allowed inside. Photo: Mark Ord

The route finishes at a good fresh coffee shop and bakery, and that rare bird—a tasteful souvenir shop and bookstore. Looking around for the exit we were met by a shuttle bus chauffeur since apparently by the time you’ve reached the end it’s a two-kilometre walk back around the hill to the carpark. The only thing we didn’t like was the unnecessary no photography policy, but you certainly get your money’s worth.

There’s actually only minimal overlap between the two museums content-wise—they’re complementary rather than repetitive—so if you have time, why not see both?

More information
Staff members claim the Hall is a kilometre out of town but it seemed substantially more to us and if you were feeling lazy you could hop on one of the blue songthaews travelling in the direction of Mae Sai. If you miss the last one back it is a pleasant walk back to town along the river.

Centre of town, opposite the 7-eleven, Sob Ruak

The House of Opium is the original museum in town dedicated to the infamous sticky black poppy resin.

The little museum is well-laid out and English explanations are both comprehensive and comprehensible with even some information in French. The curators have managed to fit a lot of material into a small space and displays cover the general history of the drug, its historical context in Southeast Asia, the region’s hill-tribes and major opium players such as Khun Sa and the KMT.

Back in the day. Photo taken in or around Sob Ruak, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Back in the day. Photo: Mark Ord

There are maps, dioramas and particularly good, and extensive, collections of opium weights. The array of pipes, lamps and opium containers is also very impressive so, even though it’s a tiny museum, you should allow the best part of an hour for a visit.

We found the emphasis on the immediate region and the hill-tribe peoples who traditionally cultivate it complemented rather than duplicated the more generalised contents at the Hall of Opium.

No shortage of weights on display. Photo taken in or around Sob Ruak, Thailand by Mark Ord.

No shortage of weights on display. Photo: Mark Ord

There’s a small market in the carpark selling jewellery, clothes and hill-tribe knickknacks plus a very good little coffee shop. (Coffee shop opens later and closes earlier than the museum though.) The House of Opium is well worth a visit and a bargain at 50 baht.

Town centre, Sop Ruak.

The best and most iconic viewpoint over what passes for today’s TAT-designated Golden Triangle is from the top of the wooded hill behind the House of Opium. It’s conveniently placed in the town centre, only a short climb and lets you take in a couple of interesting old temples on the way up or down.

A sealed road, or parallel flight of naga-lined steps, lead up to the summit of the small hill overlooking the town and river. The hill-top carpark includes more souvenir stalls and the inevitable coffee shop as well as a splendid viewing platform with accompanying map explaining where you are.

Strike a pose. Photo taken in or around Sob Ruak, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Strike a pose. Photo: Mark Ord

The much-photographed vista takes in all three countries so you can see the Mekong River with Laos to the right and a green triangle of Burma formed by the confluence of the Mekong and Ruak rivers to your left.

From the carpark steps take you up through the trees to an old brick chedi and the tiny but elegant Wat Prathat Sam Mung. Beyond this are the remains of what’s claimed to be an eighth-century ruined stupa where you can just make out chunks of an ancient seated Buddha figure. Sob Ruak is certainly a very old settlement and in pre-Thai times would have probably been inhabited by the indigenous Lawa people. Thai (Tai) clans migrated south and west through what is today Laos in the 13th century from their land of origin in southern China, and this far north-eastern region would have been one of their first landfalls in what is contemporary Thailand.

No shortage of relics. Photo taken in or around Sob Ruak, Thailand by Mark Ord.

No shortage of relics. Photo: Mark Ord

Continuing down the wooded hill takes you to a second, larger temple, Wat Doi Phu Kao, which is unusually constructed out of laterite. From here ornate steps lead you back down to the street level and the House of Opium Museum. It’s a short walk so allowing 30 to 40 minutes or so should suffice.

The access road and staircase leads off Highway 1290, the main through road, just to the side of the House of Opium museum.

Riverfront, Sop Ruak.

A popular activity among day-trippers to Sob Ruak is to take one of the boat tours along the Mekong River which allow you to see adjacent bits of Laos and Burma closer up than you would do from the Thai town’s riverside and usually include a stop at a Lao market or souvenir stall.

Boats leave from the carpark jetty costing 500 baht, officially seat up to five “foreign-sized” passengers and generally take around an hour. These are the infamous Mekong speedboats—noisy and not very roomy—and we’d say four passengers were probably enough. Larger boats coming with roofs offer a more sedate trip and seat 10 persons for 1,000 baht. Both come with life-jackets. If you turn up on your own you’ll have to wait around for some kind-hearted visitors to share a boat with.

Plenty of options. Photo taken in or around Sob Ruak, Thailand by Mark Ord.

Plenty of options. Photo: Mark Ord

At 100 baht per person for an hour-long boat trip one can’t complain about the price though frankly in terms of interest or scenery it’s not really worth much more than that. The boats are low in the water so all you can see is the riverbank casinos and some distant hills and the so-called Lao market is just another collection of souvenir stands and coffee vendors. We guess the main reason for going would be to say that you’d done it, or for those with limited time, to say you’d been to Laos. The view is much more impressive from the hilltop and you can buy the same tourist tat anywhere.

Note that the official entry point into Laos is at Chiang Khong and foreign tourists cannot get stamped in or out at Sob Ruak. You can however, if you deposit your passport at immigration, cross over the river for a few hours. Shuttle boats cost 30 baht each way and when we enquired Thai officials stated that no Mae Sai-style payments were required. Alternatively, you should be able to find a private boat to take you over to Laos to either a local market or the casino, wait and bring you back for around 300 baht.

An easy way to pass some time. Photo taken in or around Sob Ruak, Thailand by Mark Ord.

An easy way to pass some time. Photo: Mark Ord

The boat trip office and jetty is down in the riverside carpark, opposite Near River Restaurant, next to the tourist information counter.

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Where to next?

Where are you planning on heading to after Sob Ruak? Here are some spots commonly visited from here, or click here to see a full destination list for Thailand.

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