Museum Focuses on Opium Trade

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CHIANG RAI, Thailand --There is a museum at the Golden Triangle called the House of Opium that is dedicated to the history of the opium trade.

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 discouraged.

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 life.

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, visit www.houseofopium.com.

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 addicts.

Advisory

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.

Getting There

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 several restaurants.

A deluxe room starts at about $127 a night and a standard room at about $101 a night, not including tax or service charges.

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