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The Golden Triangle and the Drug Trade

golden triangle The Golden Triangle, located in northern Thailand, is known as the intersection of Laos, Thailand and Myanmar and is where the Mekong and Ruak rivers meet. As you stand on the river’s edge you can get a glimpse of all three countries.

More frequently though the Golden Triangle evokes images of opium poppies, hillside tribes, warlords, and the drug trade that went on in this region for years. The name originates from the high price of opium, leading itself to being known as black gold, which was purchased with gold. With the amount of gold and opium that passed hands, this area is now known as the Golden Triangle.

opium flower

Right off the overdone touristy strip with blazing golden triangle signs and life sized elephant statues you will see the House of Opium.

We start our opium education here. Though the  museum is small it includes a step by step intro into the production and history of opium, with lots of drug paraphernalia on display (but not for use!).

Opium is said to have originated in the Mediterranean area and the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and Persians learned to use it as a narcotic and a medicine as early as 1000 BC. Around 350 BC Alexander the Great brought opium into China and India. Over the years demand for opium grew, allowing Great Britain to monopolize the trade. Eventually this led to the Opium Wars between Britain and China, with the Chinese government attempting to forbid the trade of opium and destroying shipments. The British fought for free trade and won the opium wars, allowing them to continue flooding the Chinese market with opium.

During the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century as the Chinese hill tribes moved South, settling in present day Thailand, Laos and Myanmar they brought the opium with them, and opium began to prosper in South East Asia. There are various tribal legends surrounding the opium trade.

Akha opium legend   Lua opium legend

Opium the drug is obtained by scoring an opium pod a few days after the last petal has dropped off. After the pods are scored the white liquid is left to coagulate overnight after which point it turns dark brown and this is then collected. One opium plant normally yields 3-8 opium pods. Each pod can then be scored 3-4 times. 3000 pods of opium are needed to collect 1.6 kilograms of the opium drug. There are said to be optimal opium smoking positions – most notably, kneeling or lying down with the heel pushed against the buttocks.

optimal opium smoking position

Through a system of further processes the raw opium can then be turned into morphine and then heroin.

making opium into heroin

While opium was used as a medicine, it also began to gain popularity as a recreational drug, though the long term side effects were severe and addiction became common, leading to further problems or even overdoses.

effects of opium

For the hill tribe villages opium became a quick cash crop in the mid 20th century- easy to grow and bringing in lots of money. In Laos during the Secret War, when the US was heavily bombing northern Laos to avoid the Vietnamese spread of communism, the CIA was a major purchaser of the opium in the area (using the money to fund the war), providing the villagers with rice and aid in exchange. The CIA formed alliances with tribes and warlords, supplying them with ammunition, arms and air transport for the sale of opium.

This opium was then transported to Vietnam to keep up US troop morale – and by the end of the Vietnamese war it is said that there were 80,000 US soldiers addicted to opium/heroin (more than there were addicts in the whole of the US at that time). Sadly, when the soldiers returned home they brought this addiction with them. The number of heroin addicts in the US reaches 750,000.

Many of the areas where the opium was grown were in mountainous regions, cut off from roads, where power was in the hands of private armies and warlords. Most of these were financed by the drug trade.

By the early 1970s, Shan warlord Khun Sa (head of a Burmese minority group) became a major exporter of opium in the Golden Triangle region to fund his Shan army and his fight for independence.

Khun Sa_

By the mid 1970’s a new source of opium had popped up – the Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan area.

By 1995 the Golden Triangle region was still the world’s largest opium producer – yielding 2,500 tons annually. To battle the opium drug trade the US has put increasing pressure on Thailand to eliminate opium production in these regions and with the help of government programs villagers have received help with crop substitution and subsidies for growing other plants – coffee, tea, fruit etc. With more roads built through the mountainous regions these areas are now easier to monitor and keep track of. Even with all the efforts made there are still major opium crops in Burma (by 2005 there were 167 miles of opium cultivation).

Today Afghanistan produces the majority of the world’s opium.

While the House of Opium museum is informative, the Hall of Opium, further down the road, is even more educational and grandiose. The state of the art, interactive museum is very well organized. The museum presents the history surrounding the opium trade and finishes off with the impacts of illegal drugs. The exhibits are very interactive, with short films, audio commentaries and interesting advertisements dating from the early 1900s. There is a section extensively explaining how the drug trade was brought over to China and the effects it had on the population, culminating in the opium wars between Britain and the China. The more you read about the history, the more clear it is why the Asian countries tend to be “so harsh” on drugs.

social and economic effects of the opium wars

From there the look into legal opium begins – of which Thailand is selected as representative of the extensive legal opium production, trade and use in the 19th and 20th centuries in Asia.

opium trade in thailand

Another interesting exhibit at the museum featured information on other drugs, which have grown in popularity in the 20th century as well as advertisements for drugs when they were initially used for medicinal purposes in the West. Medicine with opium grew in popularity in the West from the late 1800s, when it was used to alleviate headache pain. Opium or morphine was even contained in cough medicines for infants.

heroin to cure cough heroin

The museum finishes on a hopeful note – that we all need to work together to ease and minimize the suffering caused by addiction and side effects of illegal drugs.

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7 Responses to The Golden Triangle and the Drug Trade

  1. Fascinating. I didn’t know that about Vietnam Veterans. It’s such a tragedy that a lovely little flower can produce something so poisonous.

    cosmoHallitan May 12, 2013 at 10:52 AM Reply
    • Yeah all of this stuff is very new information for us as well – never learned about this in history class!

      Dave and Vicky May 12, 2013 at 2:44 PM Reply
  2. nice pictures, interesting article
    οπτικα δικτυα

    elecnet June 20, 2013 at 8:28 AM Reply
  3. Well… did you or didn’t you whilst in the Golden Triangle? Never mind… don’t say. 😉

    Terryl Sky April 1, 2014 at 9:30 AM Reply
    • Haha we didn’t!

      Vicky April 2, 2014 at 2:32 AM Reply
  4. Great information, we will definitely put it on our list.
    We have been to Chiang Rai only for a day trip, next time we gonna stay longer 🙂
    Thank you for sharing guys ,,, Happy Travels

    Cheers,
    Sri & Kian

    Sri & Kian Radojewski September 7, 2015 at 6:52 AM Reply
  5. Hi Nicki, Thank you for the detail information, it is definitely will be on our bucket list
    Thank you for sharing

    Cheers,
    Sri & Kian Radojewski

    Sri & Kian Radojewski September 7, 2015 at 9:01 AM Reply

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