To the Opium Museum! Exploring the Golden Triangle

A good day trip out of Chiang Rai is to Thailand’s side of the Golden Triangle. While most people think the town is called this, most people are wrong. The town on the Thai side is known as Sop Ruak, and in reality the term “golden triangle” (coined by the CIA!) actually refers to the opium-producing region at the intersection of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar along our favorite [mighty] Mekong River.

We headed to the bus station and took a local bus (a green one) to Chiang Saen. From there, we hopped into a shared songthew and headed to the triangle. There isn’t a ton to see, but there is a view out on the river, a beautiful buddha, ornate dragon statute, and of course obligatory monuments stating GOLDEN TRIANGLE in large (although not gold) letters. You can take a cruise to the other side if you want, but seeing as we’d spent nearly a month in Laos and may or may not stop in Myanmar later, we decided not.

Opium Museums

There are 2 opium museums in town — beware. One is called the Hall of Opium and is about a mile out of the main area. Thinking this was the obscure museum I wanted to see we trekked the mile(+) in the midday heat, sweat casually dripping off our bodies. Upon arrival the price was steep, but we’d already walked and decided to pay. Mistake. The museum covered some random and poorly-connected bits of history, trying (and failing) to weave together how the British rule of the tea trade in the 1600s lead to opium trade, then how this lead to the drug’s spread to India, China and beyond. At the beginning there was what I might refer to as a propaganda-type video with some misleading information about present day opium use and production in Thailand. The museum was beautiful – very elaborate and weirdly large –  but not what we were looking for.

Disappointed, we stopped at a Mekong-front local restaurant on our way back to share a portion of pad thai and a Leo beer prior to heading to the correct museum, the House of Opium. Akin to Bolivia’s cocoa museum, this one was much more budget — yellowed papers announcing shocking (albeit very outdated) facts, faded photographs stapled to walls, and strange “artifacts” in cracked cases. More my style. The museum covered different details than the former, and actually the 2 complimented each other well. We took some not normal photos inside and, on the way back, felt guilt for our opium-related spending.

💲Budget Tip | Take the local bus to Chiang Saen (37 baht, very oddly specific price) then the songthew the rest of the way (20 baht). It’s much cheaper than a private transit or tour and quite easy. The green bus leaves from the downtown station, stall 10, every hour. Last bus back is at 5pm.

Chiang Saen

We decided to explore the town near the Golden Triangle prior to going back to Chiang Rai and set off on foot. A quick stop at the riverfront was cute, as we watched locals loading into small boats through the tiny customs office to cross the river. The town itself was lacking, however. Being a weird border town nearly every store was filled with nothing but goods — anything you can image — presumably for people to buy and take or sell over the border.

There were not many restaurants open as of course we were out during the awkward afternoon time, and the market was looking quite scary by 3:30pm. So, after an hour of wandering and not purchasing new floor fans or lawn chairs or metal cookware despite our strong desire to, we called it a day and jumped on the bus back. To our great excitement, it deemed itself full enough and left right away!

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