Opium For the Masses

The Golden Triangle is an area in Southeast Asia that incorporates the border region of four countries – Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. It is one of the world’s largest producers of opium – Myanmar being the second largest producer next to Afghanistan worldwide. The Golden Triangle is a mountainous region covering 367,000 square miles and following a convergence of the mighty Mekong River. Most of the opium and heroin produced in the 21st Century came from this region. Nomadic hill tribes and indigenous people first used opium cultivation for medicinal use. It soon made its way across trade routes through Britain, India and China where large profits were made and the medicine of the tribespeople became a commodity used by many in opium dens.

Harvesting opium is done by making several vertical slices or scores into the pod and allowing the alkaloids to seep out over a period of time.  The seepage is a sap-like substance that is collected once it’s hardened a bit.  Raw opium is sun-dried, weighed in standard kilogram quantity, wrapped in a banana leaf or plastic and then stored until ready to sell, trade or smoke.  The majority of opium is cooked in boiling water.  The impurities are strained out, and the mix is cooked again until the water has evaporated and you are left with a much thicker tar-like substance. This paste is called “prepared opium,” “cooked opium,” or “smoking opium,” and it is dried in the sun until it has a putty-like consistency. Raw or cooked opium contains more than 35 different alkaloids, including morphine, codeine, and thebaine.  Most opium dens kept a supply of opium paraphernalia such as the pipes and lamps necessary to smoke the drug.  Opium smoking was done laying down enabling the user to hold the long pipe over an oil lamp that would heat the drug until it was vaporized, allowing the smoker to inhale the vapors.

The 19th Century Opium Den

Today, opium and heroin base are produced in northeastern Myanmar and transported by livestock to the Thai-Burma border for conversion to street heroin.  It then makes its way to various towns in northern Thailand and onto Bangkok.  It leaves Bangkok and is trafficked to international markets including the U.S.  The Thai government has made a large effort to crack down on opium/heroin production in Thailand and has worked extensively to reduce or eliminate the hill tribes’ dependency on opium use and cultivation.  The King’s Mother, Her Royal Highness Princess Srinagarindra, led a major campaign to rehabilitate the forests and improve the lives of the northern hill tribes by steering them toward crop cultivation. One of the results of her efforts was the installation of the Hall of Opium in the Golden Triangle Park, which I visited a few days ago with several DEPDC directors, a few international volunteers, and some potential NGO donors from France.  I was blown away by the museum.  It is hand’s down the most informative and intensive resource on all things regarding opium – history, tribal use, production, trade, the opium wars, abuse, and eradication.  What makes the Hall of Opium unique is that is an interactive, multi-media experience.

Poppy Fields

The Hall of Opium contains several halls, each with its own topic:

  • Entrance Tunnel
  • Lobby and Introduction Hall
  • Auditorium
  • The First 5,000 Years
  • Dark and Bright Hallway
  • From West to East
  • The Opium Wars
  • Opium in Siam
  • 19th Century Medicine
  • Prohibition/Crime/Wars
  • Where’s the Stash?
  • Efforts to Control Drugs
  • Case Studies
  • Gallery of Excuses/Gallery of Victims
  • Hall of Reflection

There is so much to say about opium that I could write a much longer blog but I suggest if you want to know more, you visit this website which is an excellent source of information about all things related to the Hall of Opium and opium in general.

Collecting the Alkaloids

And with that, I’ll leave you with a quote from the Hall of Reflection.

“Remember that there is always a limit to self-indulgence, but none to self-restraint.”  Mahatma Gandhi


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