The city of Chiang Saen in Northern Thailand was once the capital of the Lanna Kingdom. It’s had a turbulent history, captured by the Burmese in the sixteenth century and then plundered by King Rama I in the early 1800s. It was left for dead for about a 100 years before gradually being reborn. It’s still enjoying its childhood years though, and has a ways to go before it’s fully grown again. Today, it’s probably most famous for its proximity to the Golden Triangle. We drove around the neighbourhoods marvelling at the old city walls and the ruined stupas and chedis. We stopped by the Mekong River and looked across at Laos, unable to see much with the low-lying cloud but it was nice to know it was there.
Sop Ruak, the Golden Triangle
I’m not quite sure what I was expecting to see at the Golden Triangle but the almost carnival feel to the place wasn’t it. There’s any number of statues of Buddha and dragons and elephants, all living so close together than you’d think someone had run out of space. You can pay to climb scaffolded stages to take your photo with them…for a donation of course. It’s a bit fun-fair-ish, kitsch even, but still quite amusing. Known locally as Sop Ruak, it’s where the two rivers meet, the Mekong and the Ruak. Back in 1971. a US State Department official first christened it the Golden Triangle – the sides being Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand. We’d come to learn about the opium.
Hall of Opium
Billed as one of the best museums in the country, the Hall of Opium, aimed at teens and young adults, offers what it calls Edutainment. It’s the first time I’d come across this expression encapsulating the idea of education for fun. I’m a fan. From the minute we entered, they had me. We walked through a cave-like corridor in semi-darkness. Soft lights lit the carvings on the wall depicting all sorts of mad dreams. Adding these to the rather dreamy music, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the effects of smoking opium might be. Unknownst to ourselves, we had climbed to the third floor, where we’d learn about the first 5000 years of opium, the role of the drug and its trade in Asia, and the machinations of the Opium Wars. On the second, we’d learn about the impact of illegal drugs, the effects of drug abuse, and international efforts to curb this abuse. Before we left, we’d pass through a Hall of Reflection.
I hadn’t realised that there are 70 species of poppy and that the one I’m most familiar with, the Flanders poppy (Papaver Rheoas) is not what the drug comes from. Only Papaver Somniferum has the sap needed. Morphine and codeine are made from the ripe poppy straw. In North India, Turkey, and Tasmania, the flower is grown legally for medicinal purposes. In Europe, the poppies grown are for the seed – for cakes and oils and Hungarian mákos.
For nearly the whole two hours it took to watch the videos, listen to the narration, and read the texts, we had the place to ourselves. But then a busload of Chinese tourists caught up with us, their noise making it impossible to hear anything that didn’t come with headphones. This part of the world is very popular with tourists from China. Hundreds, nay thousands of them visit daily. But no matter. I learned a lot.
I didn’t know that Ben Franklin had been an addict or that some Indian elephants were fed with opium to keep them calm in the wars or that recreational use dated back to the 1800s. I was interested to see that on a list of signatories to the Second International Opium Conference in Geneva on 19 February 1925, Ireland appeared as the Irish Free State. I learned about the Boxer Rebellion – an anti-foreign, anti-colonial, and anti-Christian uprising that took place in China between 1899 and 1901. I learned about the victory at San-Yuan-Li where 100 peasants armed with spears and farm tools sent the British packing.
Regarded by the British as a minor skirmish, to the Chinese it is regarded as a live example of a spontaneous uprising by the indigenous Chinese people in response to the actions of an actively aggressive invading foreign power since 1644.
I was a little shocked to learn that the when China outlawed opium, Britain took up the slack and made sure the addicts got their fix. In Thailand, in 1906, the Opium Department was established. In 1927, the government nationalised private opium shops. It was legal for ethnic Chinese to smoke the drug in Thailand, the Thais had to do so in secret. I was amused to learn that the high, angular pillows given to customers of opium dens were designed to make them feel uncomfortable as the effects of the drug wore off. They’d be less inclined to linger and so make the bed available for the next user. Opium was made illegal in Thailand in 1959.
I hadn’t known that Bayer had developed heroin (the heroic drug) in 1898 to relieve pain without the addiction of morphine. Someone in the R&D department obviously got something wrong. Morphine addiction was a serious issue and garnered the moniker ‘The Soldiers’ Disease’ after soldiers in the US Civil War got hooked on the stuff. Cocaine was also causing problems. But as far back as 1500, Kjana Chuyma, a Mayan Priest who himself used the cocoa leaf, had warned his followers:
And when the white man will try to do the same and he will allow himself to do as you do, all the contrary will befall on him. Its juice which to you will represent the power of life, to your dominators it will be an obnoxious and degrading vice. While to you natives, it will be an almost spiritual nourishment, to them it will cause idicoy and insanity.
We watched videos of the rise of drugs in the USA and I was surprised to see that Irish gangs first controlled the US drug trade. We saw how drugs of all sorts affect the brain and the body. And as we walked through the Gallery of Excuses and Victims, we saw the names of greats like Elvis Presley, Kurt Cobain, and Diego Maradona featured on the walls.
I was fascinated by the exhibition on smuggling and was really taken with the idea of dissolving heroin in syrup and passing it off in a jar of peaches. Or stuffing it into raw cabbage heads. Or mixing it with clay and making Buddha amulets. I played an interactive game where I went through an airport, spotting likely smugglers and how they were smuggling. This really was edutainment.
The final part of the exhibit – the Reflection Hall – was where we got to read quotations from the Bible, the Talmud, and the Qur’an and to think about words of wisdom from the likes of Lao Tzu, Gandhi, and Crowfoot. What I took with me though was a line from Argentine novelist Julio Cortázar:
The evolution from happy to habit is one of death’s best weapons.
It’s well worth going out of your way to see.
While researching drug use in Thailand, I was a little gobsmacked to read a conversation on Reddit about where to get/do drugs in the country:
Just head to a local Bangkok pharmacy and buy some Tramadol, a legal opiod [sic]. Pop 2 of the green/yellow capsules for starters, and you’ll have the essence of an opium buzz.
What we missed in Chiang Saen
Of the half dozen or so temples in the town, the one that grabbed my fancy and will be on the list for next time is Wat Sangkha Kaeo Don Han (วัดสังฆาแก้วดอนหัน) where sketches on brick slabs tell stories about the various lives of the Lord Buddha. A boat tour that takes in the Myanmar waters and a stop at a market in Laos is also on my list. Or perhaps a river trip. It’s also possible to charter a boat to travel the Mekong to Chiang Khong (1.5 hrs) or up to Sop Ruak (Golden Triangle). All duly noted for next time.