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Dark Journey

A new museum explores the history of opium in the Golden Triangle and casts a fascinating light on the changing face of this once-infamous area.


THERE'S LIGHT at the end of the tunnel in Thailand's war on drugs--or at least at a new museum in the Golden Triangle. At the Hall of Opium, a recently opened multimedia exhibition near Chiang Saen, visitors enter through a long, dark passage with clay skeletons in relief on the walls. The tunnel, which leads into a bright airy hall, is a reminder of the human price that's been paid over the centuries for drug production.

It's that often grim history that forms the core of the museum's exhibits. Visitors can learn about the 19th century Opium Wars between Britain and China, how opium and, much later, heroin--an opium-derivative--developed into a vastly lucrative commercial commodity, and how Thailand has managed to rid its northern mountains of opium poppies. Other exhibits show how opium is prepared and smoked and explain the scale of drug problems around the world.

"We want to educate people about drugs," explains Charles Mehl, an American academic who helped set up the museum. "This is what they can do to you, this is what they do to society." All told, it has taken four years--and $10 million of mainly Japanese funds--to complete the museum, which is run by the Mae Fah Luang, a Thai royal foundation.

That the museum is here at all shows how much has changed in this once-turbulent part of northern Thailand, right on the border with Laos and Burma. These days, the area welcomes bus-loads of tourists, and is complete with rows of souvenir stalls and plenty of signs reminding visitors that they are in the Golden Triangle.

What the signs don't explain is the origins of that name. It first appeared in print in this magazine in a July 1971 cover story titled "A Wonderland of Opium." Correspondent T.D. Allman quoted then-United States Assistant Secretary of State Marshall Green as saying that opium was not grown in China, as Washington once claimed, but in a "golden triangle" stretching from northeastern Burma to northern Thailand and northwestern Laos. At the time, Washington was trying to win favour with Beijing. Indeed, in the same month the article appeared, it was announced that then-U.S. President Richard Nixon would visit China the following February.

Whatever the reason for the term, it was an immediate hit. "The name captured the imagination of the public, it evoked the lawless nature of opium and its trade," explains Ronald Renard, a Thailand-based expert on the opium trade. "Within a few years, the Golden Triangle--now with capital 'G' and 'T'--came to symbolize all of Southeast Asia's opium-related problems."

The name also caught on in Chinese (jin sanjiao) and in Thai (samliam thongkham). It's easy to understand why: In a place of constantly shifting borders and upheaval, only two currencies have remained constant: opium and gold. In the past, heavily guarded mule convoys would take raw opium from northern Burma to the Burmese market town of Tachilek near the Thai border, where most of it was sold to buyers from Thailand and Laos, often in exchange for bars of pure gold.

To Mehl at the Hall of Opium, such details are all part of the story he's trying to tell: "We want to tell the true history of opium and the drug trade," he says. And these days it's better to do that here than in Bangkok, Chiang Mai or any other Thai city. Adds Mehl: "Here you can enjoy the quiet--and a beer by the Mekong after visiting the museum." Times have indeed changed, at least in this part of the Golden Triangle.

Sop Ruak village, near Chiang Saen
For more information on opening hours contact the Mae Fah Luang Foundation in Bangkok, tel.: (66 2) 254 2225, or visit the Web site

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, May 08, 2003

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