Allow half a day to see all of Chiang Saen's historical sights before exploring the Golden Triangle. To help with orientation, make the museum your first stop. There is a good map about local historical sites on the second floor.
The Chiang Saen National Museum (702 Phaholyothin Rd.; tel. 05377-7102; Wed-Sun 8:30am-4:30pm; admission 100B) houses a small but very fine collection of this region's historic and ethnographic products. The ground floor's main room has a collection of large bronze and stone Buddha images dating from the 15th to the 17th century. Pottery from Sukhothai-era kiln sites is displayed downstairs and on the balcony. The handicrafts and cultural items of local hill-tribes on display here are fascinating, particularly the display of Nam Bat, an ingenious fishing tool. Burmese-style lacquerware, Buddha images, and wood carvings scattered through the museum reinforce the similarities seen between Chiang Saen and its spiritual counterpart, Pagan (in Myanmar). Allow an hour to carefully go through the museum.
Wat Pa Sak, the best preserved wat here, is set in a landscaped historical park that contains a large, square-based stupa and six smaller chedis and temples. The park preserves what's left of the compound's 1,000 teak trees. The wat is said to have been constructed in 1295 by King Saen Phu to house relics of the Buddha, though some historians believe its ornate combination of Sukhothai and Pagan styles dates it later. The historical park is about 200m (656 ft.) west of the Chiang Saen Gate (at the entrance to the village). It is open daily 8am to 6pm; admission is 50B.
The area's second-oldest wat is still an active Buddhist monastery, and is located right next to the National Museum. Wat Chedi Luang has a huge brick chedi that dominates the main street. The wat complex was established in 1331 under the reign of King Saen Phu and was rebuilt in 1515 by King Muang Kaeo. The old brick foundations of the viharn, now supporting a very large, plaster seated Buddha flanked by smaller ones, are all that remain. Small bronze and stucco Buddhas excavated from the site are now in the museum. It is open daily from 8am to 6pm. Admission is free.
There are several other wats of note in the town center. Wat Mung Muang is the 15th-century square-based stupa seen next to the post office. Above the bell-shaped chedi are four small stupas. Across the street, you can see the bell-shaped chedi from Wat Phra Buat. It's rumored to have been built by the prince of Chiang Saen in 1346, though historians believe it is of the same period as Mung Muang.
If you're exploring by bicycle or motorbike, head for Wat Phra That Chom Kitti, in the northwest corner of the Old City. Its main feature is a slender, slightly leaning, 25m (82-ft.) chedi, but the site is also worth visiting, as it sits on a small hill and offers great views of the town and across the river to Laos.
The Golden Triangle
The infamous Golden Triangle (10km/6 1/4 miles north of Chiang Saen) is the point where Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos meet at the confluence of the broad, slow, and silted Mekong and Ruak rivers. They create Thailand's northern border, separating it from overgrown jungle patches of Myanmar to the west and forested, hilly Laos to the east. The area's appeal as a vantage point over forbidden territories is quickly diminishing, as there is now a legal crossing into Laos from nearby Chiang Khong.
Nonetheless, a look at the home of ethnic hill-tribes and their legendary opium trade is still interesting, and there are some good sites to see. In fact, the appeal of this geopolitical phenomenon has created an entire village -- Sob Ruak -- of thatch souvenir stalls, cheap riverview soda and noodle shops, and large, fancy hotels. In addition, the two attractions below are worth visiting.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.