Backpacking Golden Triangle

Biking the Golden Triangle: Southeast Asia

Searching the Internet for Golden Triangle may bring up stories of opium production and of notorious drug lords. It however undercuts the fact that this region, marked by the mighty Mekong River separating three countries, is a popular choice with travelers. Especially northern Thailand. Abhijeet Deshpande shares an experience.

Given the relative ease to secure visas, ease of inland travel, and the strong airline connections from Bangkok, Thailand offers just the right window. Though you could fly to Chiang Rai, it’s northern most town, straddling the Triangle, many prefer to include Chiang Mai in their itinerary. For one, its the Thai hub for Songkran festivities – a fun water festival. So, if you happen to be here in the month of April, get ready for some action! Other than that, Chaing Mai has its fair share of history and beautiful Buddhist temples. We took an overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, then a 3-hours bus to Chiang Rai, and a songthaew (a pay-per-seat shared transport) for the last mile to our hostel.

The next morning we met Bee and his brothers Amon and Anek, donning their signature bright green tees, at the Chiangrai Bicycle Tour Company. Bee is a former Buddhist monk, an ardent cycling fan, and heads their family business. While he and Amon, two experienced cycling guides, helped us get familiar with our front-suspension, 24-gears mountain bike and helmets, Anek took charge of the truck. For most part of the next 4 days, the truck remained out of sight, but close enough for safety calls. Bee led the group, weaving through Chiang Rai’s traffic, and Amon trailed ensuring no one gets left behind.

Cycling is both fun and challenging: slow travel, an active body and, if you are inexperienced bikers like us, will test you. A distance of 200-250 kms over 4 days may not sound much, but for the uneven terrain. That you have really nice bikes to pedal helps. Plus, the guidance of experienced cyclists who carry an infectious ability to crack up and keep the mood light is a deal clincher. On our part though, we grossly underestimated the rigor involved. The first two nights, as we checked in to hostels, we could barely lift a leg. The mornings after, were worse – with the bike’s saddles waiting to harass our butts! At times, Bee and Amon had to prompt: ‘slow, but sure’ – a mantra to keep us pedaling. That you are out in the sun at 35 degree Celsius means burnt skin too. Always, always carry a sunblock. With that out the way, the breathtaking scenery, engaging activities, and stunning landmarks will keep you going.

Country Side

Northern Thailand is wild and cultivated, flat and mountains, sports hanging bridges, and can turn from dry to rainy in minutes. In fact, its changing terrain and weather makes it an unbeatable treat. Biking the Golden Triangle means you are immersing into the local landscape. Be it cutting across rice fields, irrigation canals, waterfalls, pineapple cultivations, or scaling a mountain.

Landmarks

The region is also an eclectic mix of rural and urban, familiar and the not-so, and traditional and the modern. Though we stopped at the Mae Fah Luang Art and Cultural Park (Lanna or Tai art), Chiang Rai Rajabhat University, Lamnamkok National Park, the largest “Happy Buddha” in Thailand, and the ruins of Wat Chedi Luang, and while each one is a marvel in its own right, there’s perhaps no better that portrays this aspect than the truly majestic White Temple in Chiang Rai. From its first sights to observing the level of detailing, to the myriad of designs, the White Temple is a living legacy of our times. The absence of such an impressive edifice from the tourism map of this amazing country had us stunned.

Its highly talented architect, visual artist, and designer, Chalermchai Kositpipat, has made herculean efforts to reflect the changing times. Besides the Buddhist and Hindu style statues and sculptures, the temple also has paintings depicting concepts of good and the evil through scenes of popular movies such as Star Wars or even political figures.

Things to do

Besides biking on mountainous or flat roads, hiking in the forest, there are more activities that this experience brings forth. For instance, walk in to Karen Hill Tribe and Lahu Hill Tribe villages to say hello, and visit rice-flour or paper mills operated by local organizations. Plus, there’s this elephant ride wading through a river.

The Golden Triangle

From the landmark gate that welcomes you, the House of Opium (a museum), the huge Buddha statue mounted on a treasure ship, the ornate elephant monument, to the mighty Mekong River, it all makes for a perfect backdrop to the Golden Triangle.

Laos is just east of the river – in sight and a short, visa-free, ride away. The longtail propeller boat probably thinks of itself as a dirt bike – it is airborne half the time, forcing passengers to hold on to dear life. It is worth every bump though, and visitors are rewarded with a close up of this Laotian Special Economic Zone in the town of Done Xao, leveraged mostly by Chinese manufacturers and casinos, with an array of retail outlets selling everything relatively cheaper, including snake whiskeys! But is this where we end the biking? No.

Thai-Myanmar Border

From the serenity of green rice paddies and scenic waterfalls, we rode into the chaotic markets of Mae Sai, the concluding point. Coffee, wines, fruits, nuts and spices dominated the buzz. From where we were, people drove in cars, rode on bicycles, or even walked on both sides of the congested international border. Anek was waiting to mount the bikes on top of his truck and, after four days of shadowing the group, was happy to switch into a faster gear, all the way back to Chiang Rai.

Food

From the exotic to the routine, from freshly cut fruits to deep fried fritters and spicy meats and vegetables, the food in Golden Triangle region is anything but bland. Depending on your palette, it is as likely to evoke a range of feelings. Khao Soi, with eggs, coconut mixed with chili curry and soya sauce, is undoubtedly the most popular fried noodle dish. While on the bikes, Anek’s food and safety truck would appear magically during pit stops. He kept the group hydrated and refreshed with bananas, melons, pineapples, crispies, water, and more. And just as magically, he would disappear too. The brothers had their roles defined and each performed it to perfection. Then, at certain places, you are also likely to see crispy fried worms.

Sleep

En route, we experienced a variety of arrangements. From a basic guest house on the banks of Mae Kok River, to cottages and resort-styles in the walled and moated ancient city of Chiang Saen, the base for Golden Triangle. Besides, the two towns of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai both offer safe and clean hostels, guest houses or hotels for practically every budget. Both also offer a thriving night life.

The Victory Ritual

Chiangrai Bicycle Tour Company has a ritual that bikers need to perform at the end of this expedition in Mae Sai: lift off their bikes – never a dull moment with the brothers!

Visiting Thailand is almost a given for every traveler and justifiably so – for all that this Land of Smiles offers. Yet, compared to the number of visitors to its beaches, perhaps a lesser number explore the endearing north.

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45 thoughts on “Biking the Golden Triangle: Southeast Asia

  1. Abhijeet ! I love your blog and nominated you for the Blogger Recognition Award!

    http://www.recipe4travel.com/2017/06/16/first-blogger-recognition-award/

    Congrats!

  2. There is certainly a lot to find out about this topic.
    I love all of the points you have made.

    1. Thank you for stopping by. Make that someday soon 🙂 Biking the Golden Triangle in Thailand is a wonderful experience! And you have all the information here to plan for it! Happy Travels.

  3. This is so cool, super brave and good on you for trying this out! I loved Thailand and Laos but haven’t been to Myanmar maybe I should try it this way!

    1. Thank you Tara. Yes, we loved this experience of Biking the Golden Triangle and it really tested us! We were glad to find the right companions for the tour. You do get a glimpse of Myanmar in this trip but not a lot though.

  4. This seems to be such an awesome experience. I love how different your perspective is. Moving around and exploring the golden triangle through bike would have been very fulfilling for sure. The elephant ride through the river, the white temple, the beautiful landscape all make up for a fantastic time there. I would love to take a tour covering the golden triangle in Thailand. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    1. Thank you for stopping by! We are delighted you liked our perspectives on Biking the Golden Triangle. We strongly recommend this tour and hope that you are able to plan for it soon! Cheers.

  5. We visited the Golden Triangle last year and your article brought back some great memories! We did our visit on motor bike, but bicycle would certainly give you a chance to really experience things along the way. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you Cristine. Wow! Motor biking to a destination has its own charm. Feel free to look up our travel blog on Long-Distance Motorbiking in India, in case you chose the country as a motorbiking destination! Happy exploration!

  6. Amazing Post! I’ve been wanting to go for some time and this helps me start planning on this trip.

    1. Thank you for stopping by! We are glad you found helpful information to plan your trip to the Golden Triangle in Thailand! Happy travels!

  7. Since I’m the worse biker it sounds extremely hard for me!! But with all the things to see and food maybe it would be ok 😀 haha love the shots!

    1. Thank you for stopping by. Actually, we were biking after years when we booked this tour and were quite worried if we would be able to make it! But our tour operators were so encouraging. There motto “Slow but Sure” has stayed with us ever since! Give it a shot and start with shorter trips!

  8. Absolutely great read.
    Traveling on a bike is something that i look forward to do one day!
    It seems like a great experience!
    Loved it.

    1. Thank you Simone. You are bang on to say that biking is a great experience. Hope you get the try it soon. Biking to the Golden Triangle in Thailand was just mesmerising. There was so much variety to the whole trip!

  9. Quite a challenging journey. It must have been so much fun biking to such beautiful places. These guys have done an incredible job. Would love to follow their route.

    1. Thank you Purvi. Yes, the tour challenged us, at the same time, amazed us too. First couple of days were really tough! But by the third day, we started to crave for more. Its a fantastic way to explore the Golden Triangle and there is so much that can be seen up-close which otherwise can be missed.

  10. You really are a talented writer. I was drawn in like a moth to a flame. Amazing place that looks like something out of an Indiana Jones film.
    Thanks for sharing and I’d love to try some snake whisky!
    Top blog

    1. Thank you for stopping by! We are delighted you liked the post and would love to try some snake whisky! Good luck for that! Cheers.

    1. Thank you for stopping by! Yes, we would surely recommend you consider visiting the Golden Triangle soon! Happy travels.

  11. What an adventure through the scenic trails of SE Asia. Love this blog for such unique , earthly travel stories 🙂

    1. Thank you Sinjana. We are glad you like the backpacking guide for Golden Triangle and our website Backpacking Series! Do stay tuned it for more. Cheers

  12. Wow! Sure seems like a fascinating adventure biking the golden triangle of southeast Asia. I am sure you would have wonderful memories of this trip.

    1. So true Pujarini. Every time we think of the biking trip to Golden Triangle in Thailand, we get nostalgic. Its an experience to be cherished for the lifetime! Thanks for reminding us again.

  13. I liked the picture with the hands! Truhly interesting one. It worth thousands of generic landscape images.

    1. So agree with you Alexander. The hands really stood out as we were making our way to the White Temple in Chiang Rai. Spectacular sight. And something so unique. Glad you noticed.

  14. Wow! What an adventurous trip! Covering the Golden Triangle by cycling sounds interesting. And the views are simply amazing. I visited Thailand last year but missed on the Golden Triangle. This calls for a second visit I guess. The White Temple of Chang Rai is high on my list.

    1. Thanks Shaily. Totally echo your thought on a second trip to Thailand. May be you could head straight to North of Thailand. Chiang Mai has regular flights and you could cover the northern areas from there! Its worth it for sure!

  15. This is such an amazing experience everyone should do at least once in a lifetime. I did it exactly a year ago, around this date and this post brought a lot of amazing memories. Thank you for sharing

    1. Thanks for stopping by! We are happy to bring back amazing memories for you. We totally recommend Biking the Golden Triangle to be experienced at least once for sure!

  16. Hi! I tried writing a comment just a little bit ago but it gave me an error. I came back because I REALLY wanted to tell you about how this post gave me some serious wanderlust! I’ve been wanting to go travel to Thailand for ages, my own little corner of the world has a little Buddhist temple that I attend, participate in festivals, and there’s a Sunday market but it’s only a small taste of the country itself. I’ve been looking for a good place to start when I finally get to travel there and your post inspired me!

  17. This is a really great guide! I had never heard of the golden triangle before in Thailand. My parents are actually thinking of going on vacation there at some point. Wish I could go with, but I absolutely loathe flying 🙁 Looks like such a beautiful place, especially the northern part of it with the mountains.

  18. WOW!This is not only so adventurous but also very active. At times, when I want to travel , I consider places with bike trails so hat I can enjoy cycling. Anyway, biking the golden triangle looks so fun..so much to admire !

  19. This is really a great guide for people who would like to travel there. One of the country that I really like to visit soon. Continue to share your wonderful journey and trips! Happy weekend

  20. This looks like the just the perfect trip to get into the heart of any country. And very inspiring. I loved my time in Thailand and Chiang Rai brings back so many memories. And that snake whiskey! I would never dare to try it.

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