This fabled area is a beautiful stretch of rolling uplands that conceal remote hill tribe villages and drop down to the broad Mekong, which is backed on its far side by the mountains of Laos. Although some 60 km (37 miles) to the south, Chiang Rai is its natural capital and a city equipped with the infrastructure for touring the entire region.
The area's involvement in the lucrative opium trade began in the late 19th century, when migrating hill tribes introduced poppy cultivation. For more than 100 years the opium produced from poppy fields was the main source of income here. Even today, despite vigorous official suppression and a royal project to wean farmers away from the opium trade, the mountains of the Golden Triangle conceal isolated poppy plantations.
Despite its associations with the opium trade, the Golden Triangle is still the term used to refer to the geographical region, varying in size and interpretation from the few square yards where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos actually meet to a 40,000-square-km (15,440-square-mile) area where the opium-yielding poppies are still cultivated. That region includes much of Thailand's Chiang Rai Province, where strenuous and sometimes controversial police raids have severely curbed opium production and trade. The royal program to encourage farmers to plant alternative crops is also paying dividends.
The Golden Triangle's apex is the riverside village of Ban Sop Ruak, once a bustling center of the opium trade. An archway on the Mekong riverbank at Ban Sop Ruak invites visitors to step symbolically into the Golden Triangle, and a large golden Buddha watches impassively over the river scene. In a nearby valley where poppies once grew stands a huge museum, the Hall of Opium, which describes the history of the worldwide trade in narcotics.
Winding your way from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai will take you past Chiang Dao, best known for its astonishing cave complex; Tha Ton, a pretty riverside town on the Myanmar border, which has many outdoor activities; and Doi Ang Khang, a small, remote settlement—with one fancy resort.