Infamous or legendary, actually involving a huge area involving Northern Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Southern China. A region where all kinds of smuggling have taken place historically. Mostly famous for opium that used to be the currency in the hills here, but also for guns, gems, human trafficking and amphetamine. There is a long history relating to this going back to the opium war. Then the migration of hill tribes into Thailand bringing opium with them. Then the trade of colonial powers like England and France and complicated allegiances during the Indo – China conflicts. The smuggling involved and involves even today various drug lords and regional armies.
Back in the days, it was the Shan commander Khun Sa, General Li Mi of the Kuomintang, and in more recent times people like Wei Hsueh-Kang, commander of the United Wa State Army and in big in the jade and drug trade. There are plenty of players and involvement and corruption is plentiful high up in the hierarchy of Myanmar’s top brass. But not digging deeper into that here, the point is just that the real Golden Triangle was and is so much more than a sign declaring where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. The Golden Triangle is today a tourist attraction called สามเหลี่ยมทองคำ Saam Liam Thong Kham. Locally known by the name Sop Ruak, since this is where the Mekong River meets the Ruak River.
Reginald Le May served with the British legation in Bangkok for a while and also as Vice Consul in the north. In An Asian Arcady is an account of a long trip he took by an elephant in 1914.
Below my feet the river bank went sheer down for nearly fifty feet; the river itself was a mighty expanse of water flowing swift and clear, with just the top of an island showing, and far away on the other side the bank rose fully as high again, lined with row upon row of tall palms, looking like small shrubs in the distance.Reginald Le May, An Asian Arcady, Cambridge 1926. Reprinted in Bangkok 1986.
When you are travelling to Sop Ruak there will be police and military checkpoints, a witness that trade and smuggling is still present. But the landscape at Sop Ruak, even though recently infested with casinos on the Myanmar and Laos side, is very picturesque. One of the best places to enjoy the view is to have a lunch on the terrace of the Golden Triangle Imperial hotel with the view of the border meeting of the three countries. If the restaurant is busy, they set up a buffet here with some nice springrolls, pad thai and other dishes. I always saved myself for the creme caramel dessert. Staying overnight at this classic hotel is also not a bad idea, but make sure to book a room with Mekong River view.
For my touring in the north, I have only stayed overnight here a few times. Sop Ruaks attractions consist of the viewpoint, a small tourist market and two opium museums.
What is also popular is to rent a boat to go out on the Mekong to get close to the neighbouring countries borders. A close up to the casino in Myanmar. In the old days, we usually went to the small Laotian island Don Sao. It was charming and laid back, kapok trees growing here and there. It was just to get a flavour of Laos, maybe try some Beer Laos, enjoy some knockoff deals, or buy a postcard and post it from Laos.
Nowadays the landscape has changed completely on Don Sao, with the casino, a China Town and an arena. The island is apparently on lease to China. In more recent years we have preferred not to go to Don Sao. But if you intend to, make sure that you bring your passport.
If you don’t overnight here, just a half day is more than enough before you continue to Chiang Saen or Chiang Kong.
When you are in this area it is well worth continuing to the charming riverine Town of Chiang Sean. Read more about it here.
If you like to dig in a bit deeper in some of the poppy, opium and heroin-related history to the area. Here is a YouTube video documentary about Khun Sa, the most wanted, unwanted drug lord or freedom fighter that was a friend and foe with everyone.