Less than 70 km northeast of Chiang Rai there exists one of Thailand’s most infamous destinations—the point where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar all meet. Here, the little village of Sop Ruak exists as the epicenter of “The Golden Triangle”, a moniker coined by the US Central Intelligence Agency to describe the rampant, and exceedingly lucrative, opium production that was once common to this area in all three countries. Nowadays, as one gazes across the Mekong River to Myanmar and Laos—ignoring for a moment the roaring speedboats, souvenir vendors, and eyesore casinos—it’s hard not to get caught up in the romance of the place, and get lost in the mesmerizing scenery.
Doi Tung: This 1,389-meter-high mountain, one of the Golden Triangle’s major attractions, is generally full of Thai tourists year-round, due in part to the fact that the late Queen Mother set up a centre for agricultural research here, as well as the impressive Mae Fah Luang Botanical Garden. Another popular place to visit is the Hall of Inspiration, a well-curated museum that traces the area’s social and agricultural transformation—a direct result of the celebrated Royal Projects initiatives. In a few decades this area went from a dangerous opium producing region, to a profitable collection of local farmers raising fruits, vegetables, and cash crops such as coffee. You can even book a room and stay overnight here at the Doi Tung Lodge (call 05 376 7015).
Hall of Opium: Built by the Mae Fah Luang Foundation, under Royal Patronage, this is one of the most informative and noteworthy tourist attractions in the Northern region, and well worth a visit. The three-storey state of the art multimedia museum—not to be confused with the smaller House of Opium, or the Opium Museum in Sop Ruak—is creatively conceived, well laid out, covers 5,600 sq.m, and provides for a thought provoking afternoon.
On the first floor, the history of opium is discussed, with a large section devoted to how the drug made its way to Asia. During the Industrial Revolution, expensive goods became cheap to manufacture and British exports flourished. The Brits traded around the world, with everyone except the Chinese, who didn’t need anything the English were offering. Eventually though, the Chinese population got hooked on opium, which was produced in India and sent via the famed East India Company (which the British controlled). The entire Chinese population became dependent and decimated by the drug, leading to the Opium Wars of the 1930s. Meanwhile, opium made inroads in Siam, brought in by the Chinese merchant class. It was even made legal for the ethnic Chinese for a time, and a farm tax of 25 percent was levied on it by the government, making it a very profitable enterprise. The ethnic Hmong migrated to Laos and Northern Thailand from China and Vietnam in the 1860s, and became the major cultivators of opium poppies in the region, setting in motion a lucrative trade that was only brought under control recently.
Along with the historical halls the museum contains displays of the paraphernalia associated with opium, as well as full scale diorama depictions of opium dens and their smokers. Other displays show the medical and other contemporary uses of opium and its derivatives, and a final set of rooms is devoted to examining the drug trade and drugs in general. The museum is open daily from 8:30am to 4pm, and admission is B200.