Do the words Golden Triangle conjure up exotic images of rifle-toting, bandana-wearing, opium-smuggling fighters moving stealthily along remote jungle trails in the mountains of Thailand, Laos and Burma? If so, you’re not alone in your perception of a region that for decades has been a center of illegal drugs, even as a host of governments tried putting the traffickers out of business. 

A New Home for Luxury Five-Star Resorts.

The Anantara arrival hall sets
the stage for your adventure.

While opium production still flourishes in neighboring Burma, the Thai side of the triangle has instead become home to several, five-star hotels – Four Seasons and Le Meridian among them – that serve an adventurous clientele who come for the surrealistic mountain scenery, exotic wildlife, Ruak and Mekong Rivers, colorful hill tribes — some of Thailand’s oldest civilizations — and the elephant camp of the Anantara Golden Triangle Resort.

Chiang Rai, gateway city to the Golden Triangle, was founded in 1262 becoming the capital of Lanna, as the ancient kingdom was known, before its integration into modern Thailand early in the last century. 892 kilometers north of Bangkok, the city is an arduous 10-hour drive, but less than two hours via one of Thai Airways daily flights; another hour via the hotel’s luxury van and you arrive at Chiang Saen and Anantara resort’s magical new realm.

Nighttime beckons the wild
spirit of the old northern Kingdom..

From the resort’s grand entrance to the massive mountains nearby; from the infinity pool to the magnificent vistas viewed from its decks; everything at the Anantara Golden Triangle is outsized – and the adventures crafted for guests fit the massive scale.

Whether you opt for the three-country tour, a private, long-tail boat cruise on the Mekong River, or a day of “driving” the elephants, the hotel’s golden triangle experience promises to be very, very large.

More than Just Rooms with a View.

Dreams of a Thai-style safari
come to life in the Anantara suites.

Step onto your balcony and gaze toward the green hills of Burma. Now, turn to see the large, flat-screen TV that hangs in all 20 Burma view rooms. It’s typical of the modern amenities that accompany traditional teak furniture, indigenous silk textiles and Thai art that decorate the room. In the bath, an oversized terra cotta tub provides an extra touch of luxury. One realizes the elegance of the 19 Anantara suites as you nestle among silk pillows on the canopied balcony daybed. Walk-in showers and double terrazzo tubs allow more private moments of relaxed luxury. Guest’s rooms feature the expected technology, entertainment and business support: satellite TV, high-speed internet, IDD telephone w/voicemail, electronic safe, work desk w/power sockets, in-room bar and coffee making facilities, etc. but there’s a wild touch to the rustic charm of every room.

Restaurants and Bars Overlook the Mekong Valley.

Baan Dahlia is the venue for fine
Italian dining with wines to match.

Guests gather morning, noon and night at Sala Mae Nam, the hotel’s main restaurant, which offers traditional Thai and northern Thai specialties in a pastoral, open-air setting. A second restaurant, Baan Dahlia, brings exceptional Italian cooking to the Golden Triangle, and one can match authentic Mediterranean cuisine with selections from the extensive global wine list while enjoying stunning valley views. At day’s end adventurers gather in the Elephant Bar and Opium Terrace to trade stories of the day’s events over light snacks and inventive cocktails prepared by the Anantara’s friendly mixologists.

Tall tales of the day’s adventures
are told in the Elephant Bar.

On A Mission to Save Thailand’s Elephants.

John Roberts, Director of Elephants,
shares his experience studying elephants.

Mahouts love their Ellies.

At dinner with John Roberts, Director of Elephants, we learn how the camp and the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant foundation were formed. Born from a desire to provide safe haven for elephants that are abused or cannot work, and to help protect the last of Thailand’s wild herd, the foundation — — is centered around the Mahout Camp and some 30 plus elephants that live on the resort’s property.

Mahout people have a long history of training elephants for work in the teak trade and the King’s army. Little of the old occupations remain and many Mahouts have fallen on difficult times. The new foundation provides “street rescues” for elephants and their Mahout families bringing them to the refuge where they get medical attention and can “work” with guests who pay for the prospect to learn a little Mahout training and “drive” the colossal creatures.

Typically, guests sign up for two, 2 ½ -hour sessions, the first at 7:00AM when you get comfortable mounting and dismounting your own gentle giant, while learning basic commands said in a strong voice:

Pai! (Go),
How! (Stop),
Sock! (Walk backwards),
Goy! (Slow down) and so on.

Leaders of the pack on the ridge trail.

The ride ends where the elephants bathe.

After lunch we return for an awe-inspiring, two-hour afternoon trail ride on our now familiar pachyderm.

Our group of a half-dozen elephants lumbers along the camp’s high-ridge overlooking the Mekong River far below with Myanmar and Laos in the distance beyond.

At the end of the ride you ease into the river where the elephants roll playfully side to side and blow water from their snouts while you attempt to hang on.

My wife Robin and I rode with an expat family working for a US scientific company in Shanghai – Spencer and Wendy and their incredibly fearless kids, Jack, age 5 and Abby, age 7.

Riding together was great fun, the only problem being, if you have any fear at all about handling the big beasts, you’re pretty much out of luck when a five-year old jumps aboard ahead of you and starts shouting Pai!

Three Countries to Discover.

With a hotel car, driver and experienced guide the Thai-Myanmar border tour is a real adventure.

A young Burmese girl protects
her skin with sandalwood paste.

On a winding road, paved one and one-half car widths wide, you travel tight switchbacks over the mountains along the border between Thailand and Myanmar. On some sections of the road, the yellow line acts as a divider between the two countries. By mutual agreement neither country’s drivers venture off road to the other side while traveling back and forth along the old opium trade route.

Stops along the way include a Thai military outpost that peers across the border at a Burmese military encampment a few hundred yards away. Checkpoints at either end of the pass assure that drivers who enter the zone depart on a timely basis.

On Don Sao Island Laotian
silk scarves are luxurious.

Once over the mountain you’ll come to a small-town border crossing where you can depart Thailand on foot across a dividing river’s bridge to enter Myanmar for a few hours of shopping in the old Burmese bazaar.

Our guide, well-known by guards on both sides, led us through the procedure of departing one country, entering the other and returning – visas required at both ends. Some travelers may be uncomfortable leaving their passports with Myanmar border officials, who are part of one of the world’s most oppressive regimes, but we opted to go-ahead in exchange for a first-hand chance to see what lay on the other side.

Another day we rode the hotel’s long-tail boat on a high-speed cruise across the Ruak and Mekong rivers to Don Sao island in Laos. A low-key, Laotian border guard collects a 20 Baht fee (US 60 cents) to enter the shopping area – no passports or visas required. Exotic offerings include snake and tiger pee whiskey and silk scarves at prices that make the short journey to the island a must.

The Princess Mother Begins the Triangle’s Transformation.

The revered Princess Mother.

As mentioned previously, most of the Thai opium traffic has been eliminated from the Golden Triangle. This is due in no small part to the effort of Thailand’s Princess Mother (HRH Somdet Phra Srinagarindra 1900-1995), who in 1988 began the Doi Tung development project to improve the living condition of rural Thais, and thereby decrease their dependence on the old trade.

The Royal Villa architecture mixes
Swiss chalet style with Thai design.

Today, over 1,000 locals are employed in the production of paper, ceramics, fabrics and coffee with their annual incomes having increased over 800%. The Royal Villa and Mae Fah Luang gardens nearby are a testament to the beauty and industriousness she espoused.  You can visit Doi Tung in person or learn more online at   Another initiative of the Princess Mother’s Foundation, and a major tourist attraction, is the nearby Hall of Opium. 

This multi-million dollar museum uses compelling exhibits, multimedia, and artifacts of the trade to present Opium’s fascinating history and its effect on people and cultures around the globe. Information and a virtual tour is available at the museum’s web site

Room Rates and Location.

Rates are quoted in Thai Baht currency. As of this writing 1,000 Thai Baht equals $28US or 22Euro. The exchange rates are the "on-shore" Thai rates as per the Bank of Thailand. Room type with rates: Deluxe, 9,200 ThbBurma View, 10,200, The Anantara Suites, 17,200 Thb. Rates include full breakfast, but are excluding tax or service charges.

Anantara Golden Triangle Resort & Spa
229 Moo 1, Chiang Saen
Chiang Rai 57150, Thailand
Tel: 66 (0) 5378 4084 Fax: 66 (0) 5378 4090

— Feature by Jim Hollister, Jetsetters Magazine Luxury Travel Editor; photography by Jim & Robin Hollister and The Anantara Golden Triangle.