Stitched together by the meanders of the Mekong and Ruak rivers, temple-strewn Chiang Saen on the Thai border is the point at which Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. A crossroads of culture, cruises and not a little contraband, Chiang Saen is Thailand’s northernmost port and is the launch pad to some of the region’s most riveting landscapes.
Although there are plans to create a super-sized passenger terminal at Chiang Saen to accommodate the influx of Chinese tourists sailing downstream, currently two rickety floating pontoons greet cruise ships, somewhat devoid of facilities. But what it lacks in charm, Chiang Saen port makes up for in location.
Can I walk to any places of interest?
Smack-bang in the centre of town, much of Chiang Saen can be visited on foot from the port. Yet, apart from a smattering of temples, there is little in this relatively relaxed frontier town to interest most tourists. Far better to hop on the boat (same port) that ferries passengers over the water to the Laos shopping island of Don Sao (no visa needed) where souvenirs, textiles, and refreshments from across the Laos northwest are gathered in a charmingly rustic riverside marketplace.
Transportation is the one thing Chiang Saen has in abundance: tuk-tuks, songthaews (repurposed pick-up trucks), and clatter-bang local buses abound. And if you are travelling short distances, such options suffice. But for those planning to head into mountain country where clouds can descend and rapidly cut temperatures in half, taxis and tour-operated minibuses tend to outclass much of the local transportation on offer. A range of local ferries can take you across the Mekong or further upstream.
What to see and do
The secluded and little-visited region of Thailand’s remote north is about as far as you can get from the sardine-packed beaches of Koh Samui. Yet, as anyone who has ventured to the tea plantations and tribal villages north of Chiang Rai will tell you, this is where the real magic of Thailand can be found.
What can I do in four hours or less?
Four hours is long enough to immerse yourself in frontier country, where rivers bisect national borders, and languages and cultures cross. The small pocket of land tucked in a corner where the three countries meet (six miles north of Chiang Saen) is known locally as the Golden Triangle – a term coined by the CIA in the 1920s when the area was best known for supplying much of the world’s heroin. This relatively unprepossessing patch is now home to two of Thailand’s most exclusive resorts. The Four Seasons Tented Camp is off limits to all but it’s well-heeled guests, while the Anantara Golden Triangle Resort offers some of the best dining options in the region.
Sharing an elephant refuge between them, this is where some of the world’s most pampered proboscideans live. The nearby elegant Hall of Opium is a popular draw that walks tourists through a history of opium production in the region, replete with a miniature poppy plantation.
What can I do in eight hours or less?
Those staying longer can venture up the winding roads into Thailand’s magical mountain region. First stop while still on the flatlands is Mae Sai, a relatively pleasant border town and the gateway to Myanmar’s Shan State. Skip the bustling market selling cheap Chinese imports and ramble up the steep slopes to Wat Phra That Doi Wao, the majestic scorpion temple, which boasts panoramic views of both Mae Sai and the Burmese town of Tachileik across the border.
Climbing into the mountains following the Burmese border one reaches the Doi Tung Development Project, founded by the Thai royal family three decades ago to provide opportunities for those disenfranchised by the abolition of opium production. The centrepiece of the project – for tourists at any rate – is the Mae Fah Luang Arboretum, an idyllic royal botanical garden etched into the mountainside, home to a stunning collection of plants and boasting some of the best views in the area.
Final stop before heading back to base is the beguiling settlement of Mae Salong. A slice of China in Thailand’s far north, these valleys were first settled by members of the 93rd division of the Chinese Nationalist Army that fled Yunnan after the victory of Mao Zedong in 1949. Surrounded by tea plantations growing the best oolong to be found in Southeast Asia, tea tasting is essential.
What can I do with a bit longer?
Zip due east across the mountains from Chiang Saen and you reach Mae Hong Son, the remote wilderness sparsely populated by hill tribes and home to the best trekking in Thailand.
Eat and drink
Northern Thailand was once home base for the formidable Lanna Kingdom, which ruled over this mountainous terrain for 500 years until the 18th century. They left an indelible mark on the architecture of the region, and on its food. Lanna dishes not to miss include khao soi, the creamy coconut curried noodle soup ubiquitous in the northern capital of Chiang Mai; sai oua, pork sausage infused with lemongrass, chilli and kaffir lime; and Thailand’s best range of naam phrik – chilli dips. Snacking doesn’t come better than a plateful of miang kham: coconut, ginger, chilli, garlic, cashew nuts and lime wrapped up in a bite-sized leaf ready to guzzle.
Don’t leave the city without…
Filling up your suitcase with Laotian textiles at the market on Don Sao across the river from Chiang Saen. It’s a crime to make it to Mae Salong and not stock up on tea.
Need to know
Flight time from the UK The nearest airport to Chiang Saen – Chiang Rai – is a good 15-hour flight from the UK, including transfers in Bangkok.
Although the political situation in Thailand periodically wobbles, northern Thailand is generally shielded from domestic politics, and is among the safest places to travel in the country. The greatest threat to tourists is posed by the roads, which can wind up into the mountains without safety barriers. Choose your driver carefully.
Best time to go
November to February is high season in the highlands, when the skies are clearest, and when it gets chilly at night. October, March and April are shoulder season – warmer nights but a greater chance of rain. The heavens open May to September.
Most museums are closed on Monday.