CHIANG SAEN, Thailand – Nestled in the heart of Southeast Asia’s infamous Golden Triangle region, a gleaming new museum portraying the chequered global history of opium is about to open its doors to the public.
The 400-million baht (9.5-million dollar) Hall of Opium, built amid mountains that a decade or two ago were covered with the intense red blush of opium poppies, will take visitors through the 5,000 year-old story of opium when it launches in October.
"Drugs are a global issue; it’s not about the Golden Triangle," says Disnadda Diskul, secretary-general of the Mae Fah Luang Foundation which established the museum.
A 130-metre underground tunnel leading to the hall, softly lit and emblazoned with sculpted scenes of souls tortured through the abuse of opium and its derivative heroin, gives visitors a taste of the journey to follow.
Using a variety of state-of-the-art multimedia, visitors are taken back to opium’s first appearance in ancient Sumerian texts, to the British-Chinese Opium Wars, the coining of the term Golden Triangle in 1971, and the spread of heroin as the West’s illicit drug of choice.
Walk through a replica of a British clipper ship used to carry opium from India to China, where it was exchanged mostly for tea — to feed another addiction growing in the well-heeled salons of London.
And observe how opium was prepared to be served at the thriving opium dens of the nineteenth century, catering to both rich and poor, and take a whiff of the rich scent of the drug.
"It’s edu-tainment," says Disnadda. "Why edu-taiment? Because education alone is boring, but if you put in the entertainment and you can absorb it with education, that is best for the kids."
Snippets of information are divulged along the way: heroin was believed by its creators to not be addictive; opium was legal in Thailand only for the ethnic Chinese; the global trade in illegal drugs was worth an estimated 400 billion dollars in 2000.
Matter-of-fact presentations allow visitors to judge for themselves how the rituals and romanticism associated with opium-smoking could have led to addiction.
The beautiful opium-smoking accoutrements on display, including pipes, pipe bowls, weights and pillows, show opium-smoking was seen a refined and tasteful practice — at least at the outset.
Other exhibits show the desperation associated with drugs, such as the ingenious methods traffickers have employed to move their cargo: soaking T-shirts in a heroin solution and drying before transporting, or mixing heroin with clay to form innocent-looking Buddhist amulets.
The positive side of the poppy crop is also highlighted — in medicines and poppy-seed-sprinkled bagels, while tales of stars who have fallen victim to drug abuse are retold, such as that of River Phoenix who famously collapsed after a lethal night on heroin, cocaine, valium and alcohol.
The long-gone world of illicit opium dens and antique paraphernalia are a world away from the region’s latest drug problem: methamphetamines pumped out by the million in jungle laboratories along the rugged Thai-Myanmar border.
That drug is not covered in detail, but the museum screens a moving video of Asian children affected by these and other substances such as solvents.
Disnadda sees the museum as the fulfillment of a wish by Thailand’s revered late Princess Mother — the mother of reigning King Bhumibol Adulyadej — to whom he was private secretary for nearly 20 years.
During a visit to the region he commented once that it was a pity the tourists traipsing to the Golden Triangle for a glimpse of its mythic past did not learn anything.
"We are branded, condemned, for being the producers of narcotics… And I said to her isn’t it a pity that people learn nothing here? So she asked me could it be done, that people could learn something about the Golden Triangle?"
The royal-sponsored Mae Fah Luang Foundation took on the task, employing two researchers who have been digging into opium’s past now for nine years.
"What we are aiming at is educating the 99 percent of people who are not involved in this business," Disnadda says.
"Don’t judge, but learn from the past, this is what we’re trying to put across. Don’t let it happen anywhere else in the world again."