935km (581 miles) NE of Bangkok; 239km (149 miles) NE of Chiang Mai
The small village of Chiang Saen, the gateway to the Golden Triangle area, has a sleepy, rural charm, as if the waters of the Mekong carry a palpable calm from nearby Myanmar and Laos. The road from Chiang Rai (59km/37 miles) follows the small Mae Nam Chan River past coconut groves and lush rice paddies. Poinsettias and gladiola decorate thatched Lanna Thai houses with peaked rooflines that extend into Xs like buffalo horns.
Little Chiang Saen, the birthplace of expansionary King Mengrai, was abandoned for the new Lanna capitals of Chiang Rai, then Chiang Mai, in the 13th century. With the Mekong River and the Laos border hemming in its growth, modern developers went elsewhere. Today, the slow rural pace, decaying regal wats, crumbling fort walls, and overgrown moat contribute to its appeal.
Once upon a time, the Golden Triangle was the center point of many illicit activities. The name was given to the area where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar come together -- a proximity that facilitated overland drug transportation of opium and heroin in its first steps toward international markets. Thai authorities have mounted a concerted effort to stop the drug traffic here and, while some illegal activity goes unchecked, the area is hardly dangerous. Rather, Sob Ruak, the Thai town at the junction of the Kok and Mekong rivers, is a long and disappointing row of souvenir stalls, with a few "Golden Triangle" signs for photo souvenirs. Still, if you stand at the crook of the river, you can look to the right to see Laos and to the left to see Myanmar (Burma). When the river is low, a large sandbar appears that is apparently unclaimed by any authority.
A common route here is to leave from Chiang Rai by car (or motorbike) and travel directly north to the Burmese border town of Mae Sai, a great stop for souvenir shopping. Then follow the Mekong River going east along the border, making a stop at The Hall of Opium, and the town of Sob Ruak, before catching the museum and many temples of Chiang Saen. If you're overnighting in the area, the fanciest places are in the Golden Triangle proper (west of Chiang Saen).