On a less-beaten track
Golden Triangle at a glance
|• King Meng Rai, the founder of Chiang Ra
It is five in the morning at the Golden Triangle, an area where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. Just across the Thai border, mountain ranges on the Myanmar side are shrouded in thick mist. And the air is heavy with the smell of burning wood, probably from a jungle fire. Soon there will be bursts of outboard motors coming from the longtail boats running up and down the Mae Ruak which joins Mekong a few kilometres downstream.
There is a magnificent view from a hilltop overlooking the confluence of Mae Ruak and the mighty Mekong. Gradually, the breathtaking scenery of the Golden Triangle unfolds as the sun appears above the mountains. Down there in Chiang Saeng town, which is part of Thailand’s Chiang Rai province, another business day is slowly breaking.
At the foot of Wat Phu Khao, along the road running parallel to Mekong river, vendors begin arranging their potpourri of goods — handicrafts, herbs, semi-precious stones, antiques, locally-woven ap-parels, footwear, local food and snacks, etc. Opium-smoking para-phernalia is one of those souvenir items that catches the eyes of most visitors.
The dry season is about to end but Chiang Saeng still draws a greater number of visitors, both Thai and foreign travelers, first time and repeat visitors to the famed Golden Triangle, which has almost shed its image of an area associated with drug producing and trafficking, is presenting itself as a unique tourist attraction and a thriving trading post.
Apart from being the only province where access is possible to Myanmar, Laos and China, Chiang Rai, offers a good alternative. Here you find a ‘less-beaten track,’ an adventure, or eco-tourism at its best. The splendour of its misty mountains, cool climate, unspoilt pastoral beauty, wealth of historical and archaeological sites together make Chiang Rai an enchanting tourist attraction.
Since the province is where the three countries meet, no wonder the colourful mix of ethnic minorities are found here. Akha, Lisu, and Lahu hilltribes as well as ethnic Chinese, Laos and Myanmar (mostly ethnic Shans) have been living here along with local Thais for ages.
Being a multi-border province, Chiang Rai enjoys benefit from trade with neighbouring countries. There are three border check points in Chiang Rai: Mae Sai (with Myanmar), Chiang Khong and Chiang Saeng (with China and Laos).
The border trade between the northern region and the three neighbouring countries – Myanmar, Laos and China has been growing since 2000 when the official trade value was registered as much as 9,744.2 million baht while the unofficial trade value reported by various studies was about 1.5-3 times greater.
The large size - the sum of official and unofficial trade value - offers significant employment opportunity to the frontier and offers strong economic development to trading countries.
Perhaps the most important advantage that enables border trade development is natural trade corridors: the lengthy boundary of 2,103 kilometer between the northern region and Myanmar and Laos; and the Mekong River that connects the four countries.
Beginning a decade or so ago, border trade has spiraled upward between Thailand and other Mekong countries. This despite Thailand’s harrowing financial crisis of 1997 and much more recent military coup of 2006.
The Thai government has since implemented various national policies, including involvement in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS), Ayeyawaddy - Chao Phraya - Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS), Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand Economic Cooperation (BIMST-EC), and the Special Quadrangle Economic Development Zone (China, Laos, Myanmar Thailand) in the Mekong Sub-region to bolster Thai regional development policy.
The Thai government also promoted the Chiang Rai Border Economic Zone to speed up businesses in Chiang Rai as well as to strengthen commercial ties between Northern Thailand, Myanmar, China, and Lao PDR. Finally, the Thai government signed the one-stop custom checking agreement policy under the ADB Greater Mekong Subregion.
Along with the thriving border trade, Chiang Rai benefits from the business of tourism as the province being one of Thailand’s most frequently visited tourist spot. By far the best known attractions include the Golden Triangle and the Mekong river plus a wealth of cultural diversity.
The name Golden Triangle often evokes an impression that illicit drugs are the activity of this area. True, it was once notorious for opium trade. Strict enforcement by various countries particularly the United States and Thailand, see an end to drug-production while the hill-tribes now have a permanent settlement instead of the slash and burn to grow crops.
Chiang Rai in brief
Chiang Rai, the northernmost province of Thailand is about 785 kilometers north of Bangkok. Situated on the Kok River basin, Chiang Rai covers an area of approximately 11,678 square meters with an average elevation of 580 meters above sea level. The province, which is located within the renowned Golden Triangle area where Myanmar, Laos and Thailand converge, is also known as the gateway to Myanmar, Laos and Southern China.