Fri, Aug 15, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Golden Triangle museum portrays history of opium


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 (US$9.5 million) 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 opens 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 130m 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 19th century, catering to both rich and poor, and take a whiff of the drug's rich scent.

Snippets of information are divulged along the way: heroin was believed by its creators not to be addictive; opium was legal in Thailand only for the ethnic Chinese; the global trade in illegal drugs was worth an estimated US$400 billion 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 illicit 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: methamphetamine pills pumped out by the million in jungle laboratories along the Thai-Myanmar border.

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?"

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