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The Golden Triangle: The Hall of Opium

The Golden Triangle: The Hall of Opium

In a hilly corner of northern Thailand, among hills-shrouded with low-lying jungle, is the region historically famous for producing opium—the Golden Triangle. Its name, which is often cited for having been originated by the CIA, signifies the area where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet—borders etched out by the convergence of two rivers: the meandering Ruak edged with hazy steam, and the mighty Mekong, its churning brown-orange sediment, always in a hurry to get downstream. In some places, the distance between the three countries sprawls over a mile wide; in other areas, the border could be crossed in just a few hops.  

On the Thai side of the border, overshadowed by giant golden Buddha, is the pop-stand of the under-travelled town, Ban Sop Ruak. Full of tourist trap wares—t-shirts “I Heart Thailand” and makeshift longyis, and the designated photo spot, especially for Instagrammers, is the “Golden Triangle Sign” where three countries meet. Perhaps, the most unusual destination is a 5,600 square-foot museum dedicated to the history of opium, called The Hall of Opium. The museum is part of a years-long effort by the Thai government to eradicate the growth of opium, which has plagued the region for centuries. Funded by the Thai Royal Family, the initiative, in addition to the museum, provides land grants to help the various indigenous hill tribes, (often the farmers of the opium poppy fields), the Karen’s, Khmu, Akha, Hmong, Lahu, and among others who live in the various elevations of the mist shrouded hillsides discontinue the production of opium and replace it with coffee or other crops.

The first known reference to poppies is often attributed to the ancient Greek poet, Hesiod, in the eighth century BCE. It also was mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey as “a drug to lull all pain and anger, and bring forgetfulness of every sorrow.” The museum has traced 5000 years of the history of opium’s use in Ancient Greece and Egypt, highlighting both its medicinal and recreational uses. Opium was passed on from culture to culture, how it followed trade routes making its way East. And with it, the evolution of extravagant paraphernalia—silver and gold ornately carved long pipes, once a decoration of pride, now illegal to own, but a number are held in displays for educational purposes. The museum chronicles the cultivation of opium in the Imperial period with a refreshing non-western retelling and the disgrace of the Opium Wars. We can look back in hindsight and see the hegemonic edge the British had over China. That addiction propped up the tea trade and how this impacted human lives, economies, and borders. Creating a steady demand for opium was dependent on the Chinese becoming addicted, and this was a systematic method of pressure and distribution by the British that led to economic prosperity. Finding the cracks in another country—a way to weaken without even going to war is the future of how we can expect wars to be fought and won.

Some of the greats in Literature produce work under opium’s spell. Among them, Samuel Coleridge perhaps, one of the most famous, wrote of opium, “To bring forth thoughts – hidden before… and to call forth the deepest feelings of his best.” Another was Thomas De Quincy, who published “Confessions of an Opium Eater” in 1821, achieved almost overnight success by exposing himself as a user. But the British, for the most part, were spared equal misery of opium addiction that China experienced in the 19th Century. And even though the Opium Wars seem to have occurred a long time ago, such that they are now of interest only to historians, war buffs, those interested in Asian-British relations, or those interested in colonialism. But the very psychology of oppression by addiction continues like a virus that keeps morphing into something entirely different yet yielding the same results.  

The museum is impressive – multimedia presentations, videos, photos, and screens aim to educate the viewer by carefully curating historical information and data points. But, despite all this elaborate craftsmanship, it’s a simple chart on the wall that is possibly the most striking—a graph that shows the regions in the world where opium is produced encapsulates the destructive power and the influence that addiction can have on a country. While Thailand, opium has been in the process of eradicating its growth and use for decades, Laos and Myanmar are still active producers—the latter far out-producing the former. But there has been an astounding increase in the production of opium in Afghanistan that began in 2002, which coincided with the military activities of the USA in that country.

By many accounts, the majority of the opium and its heroin derivatives are obtained from Mexico and South America, while the majority cultivated in Afghanistan serves other markets such as Asia and Europe. This does not negate the importance of this number since the revenue from the production and sale of opium can be used for anything, including weapons or to support terrorist groups. But again, if to focus on the region, the blame, and even the criminality, is to miss the overarching theme, i.e., that the poppy continues to be a source of havoc, irrespective of who the end-users are.

For centuries, people coveted the milky latex that oozed out of the top-heavy bulbs. The hills and valleys, covered by dense jungles and comprised of various altitudes, make it a unique challenge, even today, to prevent people from slipping opium across borders. Opium has had a powerful reign—not even a living army that can control and determine the fate of so many people to suppress their will and limit their abilities. The point of crippling a portion of society, which is what opium or any highly addictive substance does, is easy to overlook. Regardless of where it comes from, the critical issue is its adverse effects on a segment of society, and so who needs war when you can space out an entire population of a country.

Opium is the stuff of forgetting, the stuff of wars, the stuff of greed; it incorporates the one substance that, historically, packed all the deadly sins into one puff, swallow or injection. Its versatility and ability to morph and affect peoples’ lives Century after Century and wreak havoc have been astonishing. Long before the borders in the region were drawn and redrawn depending on the Century, dynasty, leader, regime, colonists, the poppy was growing, and it continues to grow today irrespective of ownership or politics. Initially used as a medicine, opium quickly became the 19th and twentieth Century’s temptress dressed as heroin. Still, modern innovations have produced new, more efficient (and more lethal) intoxicants, which can be 50 times more powerful, such as the synthetic off-spring, fentanyl. Now, up over the hills and past the dense forest are the echoes of the cross-border hill tribe agricultural workers who, for centuries, made their livelihood growing opium poppies but who, now, are facing a decline in demand or at least less monetary value per crop yield. As the cultivation of opium begins to fade, opium is now starting to seem more like a fairer sibling compared to the killing power of its synthetic super-sister.  

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