CHIANG RAI, Thailand --There is a museum at the Golden Triangle
called the House of Opium that is dedicated to the history of the
Although the concept might seem odd from a Western point of
view, the museum serves as a dramatic, if slightly offbeat,
reminder of the impact the opium trade has had on this northern
Thai region until quite recently.
The Golden Triangle, the scenic site where Thailand, Laos and
Myanmer meet at the Mekong and Ruak rivers, gains its notoriety
from being the nexus of the opium trade in Southeast Asia.
The Thai government has gone to great lengths to try to end the
sale of opium and heroin, including instituting the death penalty
for drug trafficking. Drug use also is being heavily
And people in local hill tribes here who once gained their
livelihood from cultivating the poppy from which opium is derived
now are being encouraged by the government to develop fruit and
vegetable crops, make and sell handicrafts and raise the
small-headed Thai elephants that tourists are offered a chance to
ride on local jungle treks.
The anti-drug efforts have had an impact on the tribal way of
Yet it still is not uncommon for the elderly to take opium daily
in small quantities for medicinal purposes.
So familiar is opium to the region's culture and history that
the privately run House of Opium does not seem out of place.
The museum is designed, in a very rustic way, to teach those not
familiar with the drug about its cultivation and trafficking.
Located just steps from a hillside view of the Golden Triangle
-- a view that is marred somewhat by souvenir stands and kids in
native costumes poised at the prime viewing spot to charge for
their presence in souvenir photos -- the small, low-key museum's
exhibits are appropriately crude.
They are complete with samples of poppy pods, opium and heroin
enclosed in glass display cases.
And there is also a variety of opium-related paraphernalia,
everything from scales to carrying cases to pipes.
There is a minimal admission charge at the museum; for details,
Visitors can learn all about smoking opium and facts such as
what soil opium poppies grow best in (alkaline), who historically
did most of the planting and harvesting of the plant (women) and
how long it takes for a plant to grow from seedling to harvestable
commodity (four months).
English-speaking visitors have to ascertain some of these facts
from guides or other visitors, since most of the commentary is
handwritten in Thai.
Postcards and other items featuring the various uses of opium
are for sale at the museum and make bizarre souvenirs of a trip to
the region, especially those that appear to show strung-out drug
As recently as 1995, those loyal to opium warlords in nearby
Myanmar were fighting the Myanmar government in skirmishes that
sometimes spilled over into Thailand. Since then, the warlords have
made peace with the government of Myanmar, and the region is much
calmer these days, allowing more exploration by tourists.
Visitors still are advised to stay away from remote border
areas. They also are advised to hire licensed guides for jungle or
river treks, since some of the hill tribes do not take kindly to
trespassers, and language can be a problem.
The Golden Triangle is located about an hour's drive from Chiang
Rai on newly widened roadways. Chiang Rai has a modern airport, and
flights are offered by Thai Airways from Bangkok (about 90 minutes
by air) and Chiang Mai (about 35 minutes by air).
Where to Stay
Modern hotel accommodations in Chiang Rai can be found at the
Dusit Island Resort, a casually upscale resort where guests can
swim, have a massage or enjoy fine dining in a relaxed setting
after a day of touring, trekking, rafting or other light adventure
travel, all of which the hotel can arrange.
The hotel has 271 rooms and suites decorated in Thai decor, all
with river views and conveniences such as television.
Facilities include an outdoor swimming pool, health club and
A deluxe room starts at about $127 a night and a standard room
at about $101 a night, not including tax or service charges.