Navigating The Golden Triangle

Sitting just 50 kilometers south of the notorious Golden Triangle convergence of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos, Chiang Rai is Thailand's northernmost major city. A jumble of night markets, ornate dedications to the King, and food stalls offering delicious Northern Thai curries, the city is rapidly gaining the attention of tourists. While one could spend days wandering the hectic streets of Chiang Rai, during our visit, we used the city as a jumping off point to explore the beautiful scenery in and around Northern Thailand. 

Our stay began at Bamboo Nest de Chiang Rai, a collection of thatched roof bungalows 40 minutes west of town.

On a hillside overlooking terraced rice paddies, we were surrounded by the serenity of complete isolation. Our hut offered no modern amenities, but the stunning views, delicious homemade meals, and hospitality one could only find in the 'Land of Smiles' were more than enough to compensate.

We scheduled a 2-day trek exploring
the area around Bamboo Nest. Noi, our guide, led us through the jungle, hacking
a path with his machete as we went. He had amazing English, loved sharing information about the plants, animals, and people we encountered along the way, and filled the silence with a series of noises and songs. His incredibly obedient dog, Khaw, accompanied us the whole way. 


After hours of arduous hiking, we reached a village so remote it’s rarely visited by foreigners. The village was home to the Lahu ethnic minority, a group that originally descended from Tibet. An old friend of Noi’s took us in. His wife and daughter had left him a few months earlier and Noi worried about his crippling opium addiction. We explored the village and met some of the local children who were fascinated by our camera equipment. 

As night fell, Noi prepared a dinner consisting of the bamboo, vegetables, mushrooms, and herbs he had foraged along our hike. Exhausted, we enjoyed our meal by candlelight before dozing off. 


The second day of the trek was much less strenuous. We made our way through a few more Lahu villages until we reached a boat that took us downriver to a traditional Ahka village. The Ahka people are a nomadic tribe, also originally from Tibet. Some of the Akha women maintain their traditional way of dress and almost all maintain the practice of chewing betel nut and limestone paste wrapped in clove leaves. What little of their teeth isn’t ground away after years of chewing this combination is stained a deep blackish red by the betel nut.

Once back in Chiang Rai, we rented a motorbike with plans to take a few day trips to sights near Chiang Rai. The first day of our rental we drove about 65km north to the border town of Tachileik, Myanmar. Once across the border, we hired a tuk tuk driver to take us around to a few local attractions: a Shan meditation temple, Shwedagon pagoda where we were led in a prayer ceremony, and a “gem” market. We were dropped off back at the border crossing and had about an hour to explore a nearby market. Though our visit was very brief, the people of Myanmar left an impression as incredibly friendly and gracious hosts.

The next day we rode our bike to Mae Salong, a village high in the mountainous region northwest of Chiang Rai. The village is home to a Chinese Kuomintang refugee community, originally settled by the troops of the Republic of China Army’s 93rd Division who refused to surrender after the Communist victory in 1949. Instead, they fought their way out of China and into Burma where they hid in the jungles until granted asylum in Thailand. Once the epicenter of the opium trade, the poppy fields have since been replaced by fields of tea. The village felt like a return to China. Most of the residents spoke Chinese and all of the street signs and business names were written in Chinese characters. We spent the day eating delicious Yunnanese noodles, visiting a chedi dedicated to the king’s mother, and zipping around the beautiful scenery as we got more confident taking hairpin turns on the motorbike. 

Daily flights on Thai Airways and China Eastern connect Shanghai and Chiang Rai, with stopovers in Bangkok and Kunming respectively. Book a bungalow at Bamboo Nest well in advance by emailing [email protected]. If instead you choose to stay closer to the heart of the city, Baan Malai Guesthouse is an great affordable and centrally located option. While in town, head to Barrab Restaurant near the clock tower to try Khao Soi, a classic Northern Thai combination of crispy egg noodles and boiled rice noodles served with a curry sauce. To reach Mae Salong and Myanmar, rent a motorbike from ST Motorcycle on Jetyod Road. However you choose to fill your time in Chiang Rai, you're certain to be blown away by the beautiful scenery and incredibly hospitable people. 


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