The lush, mountainous chunk of land where Thailand, Laos Myanmar and Vietnam meet has long been one of Southeast Asia’s most noteworthy areas for a variety of reasons. There are the inevitable issues with cross-border migration and smuggling, but the “Wild West” image that some like to play up doesn’t really reflect the reality of this beautiful area.
Too many travel operators in Northern Thailand tack a night in Chiang Rai city onto a slapdash tour of the entire region. Visitors whisk in, see the statue of King Mengrai and drive past the brand-new clock tower before heading out to the ‘lawless’ frontier of the Golden Triangle. It’s too bad because there are some spectacular side trips in this laid-back regional hub – hill-tribe treks and elephant rides of course, but there are also a few surprises.
The best way to visit Chiang Rai is to snub the package tours and take a VIP bus from Rose-of-the-North Chiang Mai. You’ll arrive near the Night Bazaar, where there are plenty of Chiang Rai hotels. If you can stomach driving in Thailand, you may want to rent a car to explore the countryside on your own. Otherwise, hire a car and driver.