OPIUM'S HISTORY EXPLORED The Hall Of Opium Traces The History, Trade And Cultivation Of The Addictive Poppy 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 Golden Triangle. Even local cab drivers are still dropping hapless travellers at the wrong address, mistakenly depositing them at a nondescript mini-museum nearby. 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 souvenir shops. 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. Drug use 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 use. 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 entrance. 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 production. 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 detailed. 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, from cocaine. 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 Joplin). 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).