In the far north of Thailand, Chiang Rai served briefly as the capital of the medieval Lan Na kingdom before the rise of Chiang Mai. Today, it’s known primarily as the gateway to the Golden Triangle region – “golden” because of the wealth that poured through on the back of the opium trade. A crackdown initiated by the Thai royal family, however, has reduced production of the drug to virtually zero in Thailand, opening up this fascinating corner of upland Asia to visitors once again.
Chief among the Golden Triangle’s attractions are the ethnic minority villages scattered across its hillsides and valleys, where you can experience the traditional lifestyles of the Akhu, Lisu and Karen, among others. Day trips may be undertaken by car from Chiang Rai, but to visit less commercialized settlements it’s necessary to trek for a day or two. Visitors are also permitted to stay overnight in local houses, where you’re encouraged to share meals with local families and help with work in the fields.