Exploring the Golden Triangle on a Southeast Asia Tour

Landmarks & Icons

Arch with 3 golden pagodas representing Thailand, Myanmar, Laos at Pra Thad Pha Ngo Temple, Chang Saen, Thailand

There are a lot of Golden Triangles in the world. One is the connection between Melbourne, the Great Barrier Reef, and Sydney in Australia, another consists of the historical centres of Rajasthan in India. Don’t sleep on the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia, which sits at the conflux of Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos on the banks of the Mekong River. While the region has been home to instability in the past, a visit here as part of a Mekong cruise or a journey through Northern Thailand affords the opportunity to experience three distinct nations on one Southeast Asia tour.

It’s not often you can visit three countries in one go, so that alone would recommend a visit here. Furthermore, lesser-visited destinations like Myanmar and Laos offer a lot of historical sites and unique cultural experiences to reward eager travellers. If you have a taste for travel off the usual tourist routes, you should jump at the chance to explore the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia. It’s the best way to see Myanmar and explore landscapes and histories that’ll beguile you.

The Country Formally Known as Burma

Myanmar, which was known as Burma when the country had friendlier relations with the western world, is not the easiest of nations to visit, but things are trending in the right direction. In 2015, it held an election where a democratically-elected government took control of the country for the first time in decades. The military still has a tight lease on the government and they continue to make the wrong decision when it comes to humanitarian crises and other issues with diversity in their population. However, the country has increasingly opened up to the west and it is easier now to visit the country than it’s been for decades.

Furthermore, and we can’t stress this enough, a country’s government is not always indicative of its people. Few travellers would approve of the Myanmar military’s actions in recent years, but once you meet the actual locals in Yangon, Mandalay, and near the Thai border, you’ll meet people who are polite, welcoming, and shockingly friendly.

To get to Myanmar, you’ll have book far in advance. Also, booking Myanmar shows the vital importance of a travel agent, as it’s almost impossible to just show up in Myanmar and book a room for that evening; in recent years the tourism infrastructure has been stretched to its limits, and it can’t accommodate spontaneity the way Thailand or Vietnam can. To ensure things run smoothly during your time in the country, have a travel agent book all your accommodations, tours, and transfers ahead of time. Having a travel agent will also mean you have someone back home who can help you out of a jam in the event one arises.

View at dawn of the Shwedagon Pagoda and Yangon, Myanmar
View at dawn of Yangon and the Shwedagon Pagoda

A Burgeoning Tourist Route

The border town of Tachileik is many people’s point of entry into Myanmar on a Southeast Asia tour, existing at the heart of the Golden Triangle. If you’re heading on a day trip from northern Thailand or are on a Mekong cruise that takes in all three countries, Tachileik will be the main spot to enter the country. However, it’s not the kind of place you want to linger more than a few hours. In America, the Wild West may be a thing of the past, but it’s alive and well in Tachileik, which thrives off a border trade that has its fair share of smuggling activities from over the Thai border. Enjoy a thrilling taste of the madness and then be swiftly on your way.

Landscape of Tachileik, the border town of Myanmar between Chiang Rai province of Thailand, Myanmar
Landscape of Tachileik, the border town of Myanmar between Chiang Rai province of Thailand

It’s much more likely you spend time in Mandalay or Yangon while in Myanmar. Mandalay was the last royal capital, founded in the 1850s. It’s not the most attractive city, but it is in the midst of a development boom and is a great spot to meet locals and get in touch with the ordinary rhythms of life in Myanmar. Like many spots in Southeast Asia, the city seems overrun with motorbikes, so be prepared for lots of honking and the constant noise of street traffic. However, there is a lot to see in the city aside from the day-to-day activities of the Burmese. You’ll find plenty of markets, temples, and monasteries here, as the city has around half of the country’s population of monks. The city also has the Royal Palace, which was rebuilt in the 1990s and remains the city’s most popular tourist attraction.

Mandalay Palace in Mandalay, Myanmar
Mandalay Palace in Mandalay, Myanmar

If Mandalay best represents modern-day Myanmar, Yangon harkens back to the past, when the country was a British colony. It’s the nation’s largest city and is known for the many temples and pagodas that stretch across its sizable geography. The largest temple and most popular landmark is Shwedagon Pagoda, which is one of the most impressive Buddhist stupas in all of Southeast Asia and one of the symbols of the nation. Sule Pagoda is also impressive and worth visiting.

If you’re taken with the Buddhist temples of Yangon, you should take the time to visit Bagan, an ancient city lying to the southwest of Mandalay. It’s known to have more than 2,000 Buddhist monuments within its borders. You need only look out over the golden stupas poking out of the green underbrush to be amazed and realize what a special place this is. Bagan is said to have the world’s largest Buddhist temples, and while it’s hard to know whether it can justifiably make this claim, the ancient centre is certainly worth visiting on a Southeast Asia tour.

Ancient temples in Bagan, Myanmar
Ancient temples in Bagan

The best spot to get a taste for rural Myanmar is along Inle Lake, which lies to Mandalay’s southeast. There you can head on boat rides, visit small fishing villages, and spot rare water birds in the tranquil environment. These are only the most popular spots to visit in Myanmar. Expect the country to grow more popular in the coming years, so if you want to get the drop on the influx of travellers, arrange for a visit in the near future.

The Northern Reaches of Thailand

Few people need an introduction to the Thai capital of Bangkok or the beaches of Phuket. Even Chiang Mai is relatively well-known and people seek it out when they head on a vacation to Thailand, but further north of Chiang Mai near the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia, things become a little more fuzzy in most people’s minds. If you’ve been to Thailand before and crave an adventure away from the usual tourist spots, seek out the Golden Triangle.

Mae Sai sits right on the border with Myanmar and is essentially the Thai equivalent of Tachileik. It’s the northernmost town in Thailand and feels like an open-air market with the amount of commerce going on at all times of day. The only thing to keep in mind when visiting Mae Sai, or Tachileik, or any spot along the Thai-Burmese border, is that the countries have an antagonistic relationship, one that has occasionally broken out into open skirmishes in recent years. Luckily, if you’re travelling with a tour company, they’ll be informed of the political situation and ensure that you avoid any political hotbeds.

Aerial view of Mae Sai, Chiang Rai Province, Thailand
Aerial view of Mae Sai, Thailand

The northernmost region of Thailand in the Golden Triangle has more to it than the banks of the Mekong or the contentious border with Myanmar. Not far to the south lies Chiang Rai, a mountainous city that used to belong to the independent Lanna Kingdom until being incorporated into Thailand in the 16th century. A lot of travellers who visit Chiang Mai ignore Chiang Rai, which is only a few hours to the northeast. That means that you’ll have much of the city to yourself if you visit. Take advantage of the leisurely pace to see some of the city’s incredible temples or visit the Night Bazaar that pops up each evening.

Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai Province, Northern Thailand
Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai

Of course, the one essential stop you have to make in Chiang Rai is Wat Rong Khun or the White Temple, a mindboggling work of art that won’t be fully completed for another 100 years. Designed and funded by artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, Wong Rong Khun is known for its dragon scaling and stark white colour scheme. Each tile of the temple looks like an elaborate hand-carved piece of ivory. There’s really nothing like it anywhere else, and a chance to see it should be reason enough to stop in Chiang Rai during your Southeast Asia tour.

Another hidden spot in the Golden Triangle is Chiang Saen, which sits on the Mekong across the border from Laos. Like Mae Sai, Chiang Saen is a border town, meaning it thrives off of trade. However, unlike Mae Sai, Chiang Saen is hardly bustling. The most frequent activity here is the constant arrival and departure of Chinese trade barges heading up the river to China. A visit here offers a chance to see Thai and Chinese cultures interacting, which isn’t something you’ll see further south. If you’re fascinated by the intersection of culture, it’s also worth visiting Sop Ruak, which sits at the official centre of the Golden Triangle, right where Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos meet. In the past, Sop Ruak was integral to the opium trade and you can learn about this illicit history at the House of Opium and Hall of Opium.

Aerial view of Mekong River at Chiang Saen city, Thailand
Aerial view of Mekong River in Chiang Saen, Thailand

Riverside Laos

In comparison to its neighbours, Laos is relatively quiet and understated. Travellers often overlook it when venturing through Southeast Asia, and even in the Golden Triangle, it plays second fiddle to the comforts of Northern Thailand or the mysterious allure of Myanmar. But it shouldn’t be overlooked, even if you afford it the least time of the three countries in the Golden Triangle.

A cruise along the Mekong River is the best way to see Laos along the Golden Triangle. You’ll pass by river villages, stop off in some of the largest towns and cities, and experience the culture of this region that thrives off the water. As well, you’ll enjoy comfortable or even luxury accommodations on board and never be without a good view during your entire trip.

Laos’ equivalent to Mae Sai or Tachileik is Huay Xai, which sits on the Mekong River just over the border with Thailand. However, unlike Mae Sai or Tachileik, Huay Xai is not defined by the antagonism of the border nations or the illicit border trade. In fact, its central landmark is the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, which spans the border and connects the countries. Huay Xai is a great little stop along the river, as it’s a haven for eco-tourism and is a great access point for trips to the nearby jungle. It has the Gibbon Experience, where you can see these incredible primates in the wild and help support their conservation, and offers easy access to nearby hill tribe villages. Pak Beng also lies along the river and is a good place to observe how Laotian people make a living along the river in more remote parts of the country.

Staircase up hill with view of historic Theravada Buddhist Temple, Huay Xai, Laos
Staircase up hill with view of historic Theravada Buddhist Temple, Huay Xai, Laos

For travellers on a Southeast Asia tour, likely the most attractive destination in Laos is Luang Prabang, which is the ancient capital and the centre of much of the country’s religious life. What’s convenient for foreign travellers is that Luang Prabang is the starting point for many Mekong cruises, so you can explore its historical corridors before boarding a boat and cruising up the river towards Thailand, Myanmar, and eventually China. In Luang Prabang, you’ll find dozens of temples and monasteries that demonstrate Laos’ profound connection to Buddhism. For the best views of the city, climb the 350 steps up Phou Sii Hill to get views over the city from the centre of town. In the evening, head to the night market to shop and try out local foods. Don’t expect futuristic comforts in Luang Prabang, but if you want to watch saffron-robed monks begging for alms through the market or spend your days exploring gorgeous temples that most people have never even heard of, it’s the place to be.

Night souvenir market in front of National Museum of Luang Prabang, Laos
Night souvenir market in front of National Museum of Luang Prabang, Laos

A trip through the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia is a bit more adventurous than a typical vacation to Bangkok, Phuket, and maybe Angkor Wat (Siem Reap) and Hanoi thrown in for good measure. Canadian and American agencies warn against unsupervised travel along the borders of these countries due to the occasional border clashes, but with an expert travel agency, you can rest easy and see countries that most people hear about, but never dream they can visit.

A trip to the Golden Triangle lets you peek behind the curtain of Myanmar to glimpse an ancient land with humble, accommodating people and gorgeous temples and monuments. It also lets you see hidden treasures in Thailand’s north and explore the sleepy river villages of green Laos. If you’re looking for a bit of adventure and new experiences on a Southeast Asia tour, this is a trip for you.