Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand

Thailand’s most northerly province, Chiang Rai is located 785 kilometres from Bangkok and borders Myanmar in the north and Laos in the east. Built by King Mengrai in 1262 the province has a mainly mountainous terrain and helps form the ‘Golden Triangle’ around the Mekong River. Chiang Rai is a major draw for tourists keen to experience the region’s natural attractions and learn about its place in Thailand’s past. Another key reason for tourism to the area is the local hill tribes. Visits to hill tribe villages are regular events and goods made by the hill tribes (materials, trinkets, etc.) are very popular purchases. The province features a number of key attractions including Mai Sai, Chiang Saen – home of numerous ancient ruins, and Doi Hua Mae Kham - home to a number of hill tribe villages.

Chiang Saen
Chiang Saen is a town located right next to the Mekong River. The town itself is quite ordinary except for its ruins - ruins that provide archaeological evidence of Chiang Saen’s former glory as a 14th-century city kingdom. The town is literally littered with temples (36 in total), fortresses, moats, Buddha images, remnants of city walls and chedi that all bear witness to its’ intriguing past. In fact some of the monuments are actually older than the Chiang Saen era, providing evidence to an even later kingdom known to locals as ‘Yonok’. Many of the artefacts (sculptures, Lanna-style Buddha images and pottery) unearthed in Chiang Saen have been moved to the Chiang Saen National Museum to provide a fascinating insight into the area’s history and pre-history. Very close to the Golden Triangle, Chiang Saen is a crossing point into Laos, but only for Thai and Laos citizens. The town also acts as a port for ships from carrying goods from China. Although the archaeological aspects of Chiang Saen are fascinating, the town itself is very quiet, with very little to do. Almost everything in the town closes around 21:00. Worth seeing - but probably not worth going out of your way for.

Details: The museum is open on Wednesdays to Sundays from 08:30 am to 16:30 pm (except official holidays) and admission is 10 Baht.

How to get there: Buses from Chiang Rai to Chiang Saen run frequently and the fare is 25 Baht.

Doi Mae Salong Mountain
Mae Salong in Chiang Rai is very reminiscent of parts of China and much of the area’s history has a strong Chinese connections. When the Communists took over mainland China in 1949, remnants of the Nationalist Chinese army fled to the Thai-Burmese border. In 1961 they were driven into Thailand and some settled own on Doi Mae Salong Mountain and formed a Yunnanese community right in the heart of the Thai kingdom. The Yunnese who settled here were involved in the opium trade until the Royal Thai Army resisted these activities. A road was built into the area in the 1980s and since then there has been a great effort to incorporate the Yunnanese into mainstream Thai society. Despite this effort, however, a strong Chinese heritage is still very much apparent - Chinese is still often spoken in Mae Salong, and it’s not unusual for people to have Chinese satellite TV.

Aside from Doi Mae Salong’s picturesque scenery, there is quite a bit to do here. If you wanted to you could quite easily stay two or three days. A tour of the Chokechamrern Tea plantation is worthwhile – the fact that this brand of tea originally came from Taiwan underscores the area’s Chinese connections. There is also a museum and the village market sells the fine teas produced around the village. There are also a number of Akha, Lisu, Mien and Hmong villages in the area, and the Hilltribe Development and Welfare Centre supports them with the sale of their handicrafts (mainly woven cloth and silverware).

Details: The museum opens daily from 08.30 to 16.30. The entrance fee is 30 Baht per person.

How to get there: Doi Mae Salong is located on Route 1089, 40 kilometres from Mae Chan. It is possible to get to the mountain by bus from Chiang Rai to Ban Basang (fare 15 Baht) where you can pick up a Songtaew to the mountain top (50 Baht).

Doi Tung
Known by locals as Thailand’s Switzerland, Doi Tung (‘Flag Mountain') is an attractive mountain-top destination of forests and nearby Shan, Akha and Lahu tribal villages. Probably the most important attraction in the area is Wat Phrathat Doi Tung – a temple built one thousand years ago which is an important place of pilgrimage for Buddhists from Thailand and overseas. A giant flag was flown from the point where the temple’s chedis were built giving 'flag mountain' its name. Doi Tung is also home to the Doi Tung Development Project, an initiative of Her Royal Highness Srinakarindra the Princess Mother (mother of Thailand’s current monarch) who passed away in 1995.

Doi Tung has traditionally been an area at the centre of Thailand’s opium production, and with a ready supply of the drug in the area, drug use was prevalent, especially amongst the poor. The Princess Mother built a summer palace in the area and initiated the Doi Tung Development Project. The purpose behind the project was to establish means of overcoming the area’s social problems through education, training, and through “Sustainable Alternative Development” such as changes in agriculture (an Agricultural Training Centre was set up to help people change from opium production to growing crops such as coffee, strawberries and macadamia nuts) and the introduction of trade in such items as local handicrafts (a ‘Cottage Industry Centre’ was also set up alongside an outlet for locally produced goods and to ensure local crafts such as hand carpet manufacturing are passed on to future generations.

The Princess Mother’s palace has been maintained exactly as it was when she stayed there. The grounds of the palace (Mae Fa Luang Garden) are extremely well kept and certainly warrant a visit. Visits to the Doi Tung Development Project’s various activities are also possible.

A trip to Doi Tung is often combined with a visit to Mai Sai. Probably the biggest draw to the region is its scenery. A trip through the mountains to Doi Tung is simply glorious. Hiking here is possible, but you should always arrange a guide – drug production does still exist and the Mong Thai Army and Karen Rebels are occasionally active in the area.

Details: Admission to the royal palace and the gardens is 100 Baht per person. Both open 07.30 to 17.30 daily.

How to get there: The palace is located at kilometre 12 of route 1149. Given the distances to be covered and the fact a motor vehicle is essential to a trip to Doi Tung, an organised tour to the site is recommended.

Doi Tung Development Project
(053) 767-003, (053) 767-015-7

The Golden Triangle
The Golden Triangle was an expansive area taking in parts of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. The region was famed for providing an estimated 50% of the world’s illicit heroin and opium supply. Various US Agencies (including the CIA) were (supposedly) active in the region to counter opiate production and it is one of the few places on earth outside Vietnam where ‘Agent Orange’ was (supposedly) utilised to kill vegetation – in this case the opium poppies that flourished in the fertile land around the Mekong River. So rewarding was the region’s drug trade that various factions inside the three countries fought each other struggling over control of the lucrative crop. The Golden Triangle was a “no-go-zone” except for the fearless, the foolhardy, and the military. Nowhere else in Southeast Asia earned so much infamy … nowhere else conjured so many images of warlords and wickedness… For many then, a visit to the latter-day Golden Triangle must be a bit of a disappointment.

Opium production has been illegal in Thailand since 1959 and His Majesty King Bhumipol’s ‘Royal Projects Foundation’ initiated a ‘crop substitution program’ that has moved farmers away from cultivating deadly opium and successfully driven them towards more lucrative (if less immediate) produce. The success of the program has all but tamed the region’s drug trade, and today the Golden Triangle is simply a small area around where the three countries meet around a village called Sop Ruak.

In many respects there’s not a lot to a visit to the Golden Triangle except looking at the scenery and having your picture taken in front of a big “Golden Triangle” sign. There’s nothing extraordinary about the place – quite the contrary in fact (probably a testament to the success of King Bhumipol’s project). The water is slow moving and murky, and the river traffic little more than huge Chinese flat-bottomed boats carrying export goods to Thailand and Myanmar. Unless of course you can get to Myanmar side of the river where there is a Casio (there was a plan to make this an international haven for gambling, but nothing much materialised), there’s little to do save eat at a few decent restaurants and visit a few ancient temples. However, the Golden Triangle is one of those ‘been there; done that’ type of places. As such, it’s certainly worth the visit, so long as you don’t expect more than it offers.

How to get there: From Chiang Rai you can take a bus to Chiang Saen. From Chiang Saen take a Songtaew to Sop Ruak (fare 10 Baht). If you need to let people know where you are going simply say ‘Golden Triangle’ in English - they should have heard that before!

Shopping Areas and Places in Chiang Rai

Just like every major city in Thailand, Chiang Rai has some great shopping areas. Given its location, the goods you can buy from these areas take on a bit of a twist. Many of the goods you can buy over the counter are from Burma, China and a number of other countries.

Mai Sai
Located north of Chiang Rai, Mai Sai is the most northern town in Thailand and directly on the Thai-Myanmar border. As this is one of the few active crossings between Thailand and Myanmar, Mai Sai has a ‘border town’ feel about it – plenty of coming and going and plenty of activity. The main street acts as a night market but most stalls close before it gets dark. The town has an excellent opium museum at Sop Ruak and is famous for its gem market where you can find precious stones such as rubies, emeralds and jade (all mined in Myanmar).

There’s a parallel market on the Burmese side of the border where gems and a host of other goods (mainly from China) are sold. A particular favourite is Chinese Champagne – huge magnums of the stuff come in at only a couple of dollars! Foreigners are allowed to go into Myanmar through Thakileik and can reach as far as Kentung. Don’t expect too much from Mai Sai – this is not a cold war checkpoint, nor is it a wild west-type town. It is though a great place to visit and to get a taste of Myanmar.

Details: To cross the Myanmar border you will require a passport. A day pass into Myanmar costs around $5. Admission to the opium museum is 20 Baht.

How to get there: Buses leave Chiang Rai for Mai Sai around every hour. The fare is 20 Baht for a regular bus and 40 Baht for an air-conditioned bus.

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