Exploring Thailand’s Enigmatic Golden Triangle: A Malaysian Guide to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai

Thailand is undoubtedly one of the most popular travel destinations for avid Malaysian travellers. However, did you know that beyond the tried-and-tested attractions of Bangkok, Phuket, and Hatyai, there are many more hidden gems just waiting to be discovered?

In particular, the Golden Triangle in Northern Thailand is a treasure trove of experiences and adventure that will thrill and excite any traveller. Join us today as we take a closer look at Thailand’s enigmatic Golden Triangle, and why Malaysians should start planning a trip to that region for their next Thai getaway! 

What is Thailand’s Golden Triangle?

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For those not in the know, the Golden Triangle refers to an expansive mountainous region that encompasses several countries and centred on the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong Rivers. In the past, the area was known for its historical ties to the opium trade. These days, however, it is more of a tourism destination where visitors can immerse themselves in rich cultural heritage and alluring natural scenery. 

Thailand’s Golden Triangle region mainly consists of its two major northern cities — Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. The former is known for its vibrant night markets and adventurous mountain trekking routes, while the latter boasts a plethora of famous temples and landmarks, as well as several incredible hiking trails dotted with majestic waterfalls. 

How to travel to the Golden Triangle

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If you’re looking to travel to Thailand and explore the Golden Triangle, we recommend making Chiang Mai your first stop. That’s because you can find direct flights (around three hours) from Kuala Lumpur to Chiang Mai at reasonably affordable rates, depending on which airline you prefer to travel with. 

Alternatively, if you don’t mind transiting, you can also book a flight to Chiang Rai, with a stopover in Bangkok. Travelling between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai is quite convenient too, with intercity buses and minivans aplenty that can ferry you from one city to the other in around four hours. You could also take a flight between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai that takes only 30 minutes but expect to pay a little bit more for your travel fees. 

Once you’re in Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai, getting around is easy enough. The main public transport options include buses and minivans, but you could also rent a motorbike or reserve a taxi for the day. What’s more, some hotels can also help you to book group tours for your daily excursions (highly recommended if you’re planning to visit some of the mountainous areas in the Golden Triangle). 

Exploring Thailand’s Enigmatic Golden Triangle

Things to do in Chiang Mai

1. Explore the beautiful Doi Inthanon National Park

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One of the best things to do in Chiang Mai is to visit the alluring Doi Inthanon National Park. Known as “The Roof of Thailand”, the park is home to the country’s tallest peak — Doi Inthanon, standing more than 2,560m above sea level. 

Here at this sprawling park, visitors can expect to find an expansive landscape adorned with majestic mountains, scenic valleys, towering waterfalls, and thick forests that provide plenty of opportunity to immerse one’s self in the city’s natural wonder. 

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Imagine admiring the stunning view from atop Doi Inthanon Summit, the tallest point in all of Thailand before embarking on a scenic hike via the 2.5km-long Kew Mae Pan Nature Trail, one of the most popular hiking trails in Chiang Mai. It is truly an experience that siphons you away from the hustle and bustle of city life. 

While you’re there, don’t miss the iconic Two Chedis, the twin pagodas that Doi Inthanon is most famous for, as well as the cascading Mae Klang Waterfall

TripZilla tip: If you’re trying to visit Doi Inthanon National Park, we recommend booking a tour with an agency as the park itself is about an hour and a half away from Chiang Mai’s city centre. It’s also better to book in advance via reputable online travel providers before arriving in Chiang Mai itself. 

2. Experience the thrill of white water rafting on the Mae Taeng River

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If trekking through jungles and hiking up mountain trails isn’t your cup of tea, another adventurous experience in Chiang Mai is white water rafting. Specifically, on the Mae Taeng River!

Navigate exciting rapids, paddle through stunning gorges, and enjoy the beautiful scenery as you conquer the snaking river. This activity is perfect for adventure seekers who want to experience the thrill of the rapids amidst the natural beauty of northern Thailand. 

If you prefer something a little more relaxing, you can hop aboard a boat ride on the Mae Ping River instead, where you can enjoy picturesque views as you cruise along the river. 

3. Visit an ethical elephant sanctuary

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Elephant sanctuaries are quite common in Thailand. However, Chiang Mai is home to arguably one of the best ethical elephant sanctuaries in the country — Elephant Nature Park. Here, the gentle creatures, most of which are rescued animals, are provided a safe and loving home. 

As a visitor, you’ll be able to observe the elephants in their natural environment and learn more about their behaviour and habitat. Time your visit right, and you might even be able to help the caregivers in feeding the elephants by getting up close with them. 

Alternatively, another wildlife-centric thing to do in Chiang Mai is to visit the Night Safari, an exciting night zoo that allows visitors to observe certain nocturnal animals, including tigers, lions, and giraffes, in an exciting safari-style adventure!

4. Wander through the enchanting Wat Chedi Luang

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Apart from adrenaline-fueled adventure, Chiang Mai is also a city that’s famous for its rich cultural heritage. One of the top things to do in Chiang Mai for cultural explorers is to visit the historic Wat Chedi Luang

Built in the 14th century, this fascinating historical temple complex showcases the grandiose architecture of the old Lanna Kingdom — ornate carvings, majestic interiors, and a rustic facade that befits its rich history. The main chedi (Buddhist stupa) stands 80m tall, making it the tallest point in the Chiang Mai Old City region (arguably the most vibrant area in the city). 

Apart from admiring the architecture and enjoying the serenity of the surroundings, you could also learn more about the city’s history here at the main hall. Alternatively, you could also visit the Chiang Mai National Museum to learn more about the Lanna Kingdom, its fascinating history, and how it has shaped the city to be what it is today. 

5. Immerse yourself in history at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

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Another of Chiang Mai’s important temples is Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, one of the city’s most sacred and revered temples, most recognisable by its golden chedi

Located in Doi Suthep National Park and perched atop the Doi Suthep peak, this ancient temple was constructed in 1383 by King Ku Naone. An important Buddhist relic, believed to be the shoulder bone of the Buddha himself, is enshrined in the temple, making it a pilgrimage site for devout Buddhists. 

Beyond its religious significance, the temple is also a popular tourist destination in Chiang Mai, thanks to the breathtaking panoramic views one can enjoy at the temple complex. That is if you’re able to climb the Naga staircase to reach the temple in the first place! Don’t worry, it’s not too challenging at all! 

6. Shop and eat till you drop at the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar

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No visit to Chiang Mai is complete without experiencing the vibrant Chiang Mai Night Bazaar on Chang Klan Road. 

This sprawling night market comes alive after sunset, transforming the streets into a dazzling display of local crafts, souvenirs, and quirky apparel. Explore the stalls overflowing with colorful goods, bargain with friendly vendors, and savour delicious street food adored by both locals and tourists (the mango sticky rice is a must-try!). 

If you’re planning a visit, just know that the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar starts at approximately 5pm every evening and runs up to around 10 to 11pm, although some stalls may close shop earlier.  

Things to do in Chiang Rai

1. Go trekking at Lum Nam Kok National Park

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Craving an adventure in Thailand? Look no further than Chiang Rai, a haven for trekking enthusiasts. In particular, the Lum Nam Kok National Park stands out as one of the best locations to begin your trekking adventure, thanks to its many forested routes that pass by rivers and waterfalls. 

Most treks at the park can take up to a few days to complete, where you’ll likely have to spend a night in a hilltop village. As you trek through the park, you’ll encounter wildlife along the way, as well as several lovely views of the surrounding areas. Depending on which route you take, you could even see hot springs and a tea plantation. 

If you’re planning on embarking on a trek at Lum Nam Kok National Park, we recommend booking a guided tour with a reputable online agency before arriving in Chiang Rai. Alternatively, you can visit Singha Park, an expansive area in the Chiang Rai countryside where you can find scenic cycling routes, fruit orchards, and a thrilling zipline and adventure rope course! 

2. Sign up for an awesome day of adventure at Doi Tung Tree Top Walk and Zipline

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As you might have guessed from the name, Doi Tung Tree Top Walk and Zipline is one of the top adventure spots in the area and one of the best things to do in Chiang Rai. Here at this natural haven, expect treetop canopy walks, rope bridges, giant swings, and zip lines that let you zip across the forest amidst alluring natural scenery. 

The area is also part of the Mae Fah Luang Garden, known for housing a wide array of tropical flowers. When these colourful buds are in full bloom, you’ll be hard-pressed to find other sights quite as mesmerising as it is. 

3. Visit Chiang Rai’s highest waterfall

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For more nature-centric things to do in Chiang Rai, why not leave the city behind and immerse yourself in the refreshing embrace of Khun Korn Waterfall, the tallest waterfall in Chiang Rai.  

Standing 70m in height, this majestic multi-tiered waterfall provides an escape to nature unlike any other. Picture trekking through lush rainforests enjoying a symphony of sights and sounds as you venture deeper before the cascading waters of Khun Korn burst into view, its crystal-clear waters crashing down from impressive heights into inviting pools below.  

Here, you can enjoy a refreshing dip while you enjoy the sound of the cascading falls. Let the cool water wash away any lingering travel fatigue, and don’t forget to take some stunning photos to remember this lesser-known paradise! 

For something a little more relaxing, hop on a scenic boat ride on the Kok River, where you can admire the beauty of Chiang Rai amidst lush green landscapes and traditional riverside villages. 

4. Admire the stunning view of the Golden Triangle

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While Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai are generally known to be cities located inside the general area of Thailand’s enigmatic Golden Triangle region, you can visit the actual spot that’s named the Golden Triangle too. 

Located about an hour and a half from Chiang Rai’s city centre, It’s the spot where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet. Here, from atop a hilltop viewing point, you can look out at stunning, picturesque views of the Mekong and Ruak Rivers, along with the natural scenery. There’s also an ancient ruined temple nearby that you can visit. Take it from us, it is one of the best things to do in Northern Thailand! 

5. Temple hop between Chiang Rai’s famous temples

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Much like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai is a city that is steeped in history and heritage. One of Chiang Rai’s most iconic landmarks, and one of its must-visit attractions, is Wat Rong Khun, better known as the White Temple. 

Designed by artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, this iconic Buddhist temple is famous for its awe-inspiring gleaming white exterior, adorned with intricate sculptures and mosaics. Beyond being a popular photo spot, visitors can also visit the temple grounds to admire beautiful murals that portray scenes from Buddhist mythology. 

Another must-visit temple in Chiang Rai is the beautiful Wat Phra Kaew (The Temple of the Emerald Buddha), a 14th-century temple complex dating back to the Lanna Kingdom. It used to house the famous Emerald Buddha (the one there now is a replica) and remains one of the most beautiful pieces of architectural marvels in the city. Also don’t miss Wat Huay Pla Kung, the Big Buddha Temple, known for its massive white Buddha statue and peaceful ambiance. 

6. Explore the vibrant Saturday Walking Street Market

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Just like when in Chiang Mai, you simply can’t leave Chiang Rai without exploring its bustling local market. One of the best things to do in Chiang Rai is to immerse yourself in the local scene at the Chiang Rai Saturday Walking Street Market

Held every Saturday evening, this lively market transforms the streets into a bustling hub of local crafts, souvenirs, and delicious street food. Browse through stalls overflowing with colorful textiles, handmade trinkets, and regional delicacies, offering a taste of Chiang Rai’s vibrant culture. 

Make your next trip to Thailand something beyond the ordinary

Did that spur your wanderlust for Thailand’s enigmatic and beautiful Golden Triangle region? Feel the travel bug creeping in? Then make your next getaway to Thailand one that goes beyond the usual tourist hotspots and take a gander at exploring Thailand’s lesser-known northern region! We’re sure you won’t regret it!

Brought to you by Tourism Authority of Thailand

By Darren

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