OPIUM'S HISTORY EXPLORED
The Hall Of Opium Traces The History, Trade And Cultivation Of The
CHIANG RAI, THAILAND - It remains almost as secret as the underground
drug trade itself: a government-backed museum about the hazards of
addiction located in the heart of southeast Asia's formerly notorious
Even local cab drivers are still dropping hapless travellers at the
wrong address, mistakenly depositing them at a nondescript mini-museum
The $12-million museum opened in 2002, but is likely to remain
low-profile until its official opening before mid-year, probably by a
member of Thailand's revered royal family.
Promotion, due to start this year, will aim to lure large numbers of
tourists. The new facility's none-too-surprising message: Opium and
heroin (derived from opium) are bad.
Eyebrows were raised when it was announced the museum would be built
in the heart of an area long associated with illicit narcotics.
But, these days, marketing gurus are responsible for numerous signs
saying "Welcome to the Golden Triangle." The name is used by resorts,
tour companies and other businesses. The Golden Triangle's public face
is squeaky clean.
Hall of Opium
The gleaming Hall of Opium should not be confused with the tacky,
15-year-old House of Opium, three minutes' drive away in the tourist
town of Sop Ruak. This private museum, a dim and dusty series of
displays of drug paraphernalia and other exhibits, sits amid tawdry
This town, an hour north up a smooth highway from the modern city of
Chiang Rai, is where Thailand, Burma and Laos meet at the edges of the
Mekong River to form the heart of the Golden Triangle.
Visitors leave Thailand on three-minute boat rides to the islet of Don
Sao in the middle of the Mekong River-where, for less than $0.70 (no
passports required), Lao officials issue tickets permitting
exploration of a Lao village's souvenir shops and the sending of
postcards home with the stamps of communist Laos.
Similar visa-free forays into Burma-though passports must be shown-can
be made to the Paradise Casino five minutes away or from the Thai town
of Mae Sai to Tachilek, a market town.
The nearby hinterland of all three countries (plus nearby parts of
China) is opium territory. Most poppies grow in Burma.
Thailand has had great success in weaning hill tribes from opium
production. The Golden Triangle is no longer the main source of opium
that's turned into heroin for Western markets. Afghanistan now has
that dubious honor, according to United Nations assessments.
Against this backdrop the Hall of Opium was built. Its origin is in
campaigns led by the late Princess Mother (mother of Thai King
Bhumibol Adulyadej) to educate hill tribes, promote alternative
occupations and raise awareness of the unpleasant consequences of drug
She started the Mae Fah Luang Foundation (mae fah luang is Thai for
Princess Mother) in the 1980s to help impoverished ethnic minorities.
One year before her death in 1995, the foundation hired a U.S.
academic, Charles Mehl, to gather data for a museum project.
It was to be a six-month contract but nine years later, he was still
toiling. "We want to educate people about drugs-what they can do to
you and to society," said Mehl.
The museum itself took four years to complete with considerable
Japanese funding. The Mae Fah Luang Foundation runs it, with support
from the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
The objective is for the three-level museum to become a major tourist
attraction for foreign and Thai visitors as well as an educational
tool for schools.
Externally, the building resembles an architecturally stylish
concrete-and-glass corporate headquarters. However, it extends through
a hill with parts emerging on each side. Plans call for opium poppies
to be grown, as an outdoor exhibit, down a slope opposite the main
Visitors walk along an eerily dark 127 metre subterranean tunnel-with
bas reliefs of addicts' writhing spirits barely visible on the walls
and tiny blue lights edging the tiled path-before emerging into the
first exhibition hall.
Here a greenhouse of opium poppies sits alongside photos and text with
information about the best-known of more than 200 members of the
Papaveraceae (poppy) family-including Papaver somniferum, the opium
poppy. Displays are devoted to the biology of the opium poppy. Others
illustrate the lifestyle of the Akha, Hmong, Karen, Lahu, Lisu and Yao
tribes, which to greater or lesser degrees have been involved in poppy
A second hall describes the history of opium: Dioramas and
English-language narration explain 5,000 years of opium history from
ancient Egypt to Europe in the Middle Ages (including its use in early
medicines) and on to Asia. Alongside a replica of an East India
Company clipper, European colonial expansion into Asia is described
with emphasis on the 19th-century Opium Wars against China.
The subject is related to Britain, France and others in selling opium,
mostly from India and Turkey, in China to finance the expansion of
trading operations-again with potent dioramas. The conclusion
presented is that Britain benefited from the opium trade while China
lost. Further, China's humiliation fuelled subsequent support for Mao
Zedong and communism.
So, the scene is set: The following section concentrates on "Opium in
Siam," as Thailand was then called-with exhibited drug paraphernalia:
pipes, pillows and ornate boxes. The process of preparing opium from
the harvesting of poppy sap to the point where it reaches consumers is
A full-size opium den in Bangkok's Chinatown is recreated, complete
with plaster-case renditions of hapless wretches slumped after smoking
the drug. The conversion to heroin is also described, accompanied by a
vivid diorama of jailed addicts.
Hall of Excuses
In the Hall of Excuses/Victims, videos show interviews with a Thai
addict and the grief-stricken family of a foreign addict. Short films
describe the involvement of U.S.'s organized crime in marketing heroin
and the Central Intelligence Agency in propping up right-wing regimes
profiting not only from heroin trafficking but also, in South America,
A gallery includes pictures of celebrities, Western and Asian, who
have succumbed to drugs: Tallulah Bankhead, John Belushi, Kurt Cobain,
Billie Holiday, Bela Lugosi and others (but no Jimi Hendrix or Janis
Finally, the Hall of Reflection is reached-a quiet room intended to be
inspirational. Quotations of religious and secular origin are inscribed on
various surfaces, including this from Mahatma Gandhi: "Remember that there
is always a limit to self-indulgence but none to self-restraint."
Thai tourism officials say the museum's powerful message will draw
attention to the country's unrelenting war on drugs (more than 1,000
foreigners are in Thai jails for drug offences).