Inherently edgy, opium has some wild legends surrounding it. These legends, which trace the poppy drug’s roots and raise questions about what the authors were on, grace mock-papyrus transcripts displayed at outer Thailand’s Opium Museum.
The legends revolve around flatly drawn females who die before the narrative gets going. Their loss sets the stage for poppies to sprout from intimate parts of their bodies . . .
Speaking of bodies, the Opium Museum also contains some unnerving waxwork dioramas. One depicts a “black gold” junkie in a cage. Beside the exhibit stands a list of the symptoms that opium can inflict. The list runs the spectrum from euphoria to death, by way of reduced sex drive.
Another diorama depicts an addict reclined on a mat beside enough opium consumption tools to give an army visions of poppy-pink dragons soaring above the Golden Triangle. The addict should be squatting, judging by a sign that describes the “heel-against-buttocks” opium intake posture as the most “satisfying” — it’s favoured by hill tribes.
My roving band of curiosity-seekers arrived at this bizarre attraction on Myanmar’s fringes by mistake. We had planned to explore the high-tech Opium Hall, which lies farther along the road from our starting point, in the temple town of Chiang Rai. But the Hall is four times the price per person, and inertia had set in.
So we remained, a touch nonplussed because the word “opium” conjured up exotic visions. Despite its quirks, the Opium Museum is far from spectacular — “poky and musty,” a nitpicker might say. Worse, its second floor serves as the stage for a substance infused with much less mystique than opium: tobacco.
Wild guess: the curator ran out of opium bric-a-brac — the pipes and poppy bed views abundantly on display. The wads of tobacco exhibited upstairs could be seen as padding.
Still, if you find yourself anywhere near Thailand’s northernmost tip, the Opium Museum merits a visit. For one thing, it is inherently engaging, thanks to its co-ordinates’ clout — it stands right at the Golden Triangle’s heart, amid mountains that a decade or two ago blushed with poppies.
For another, the museum is compact and “do-able”. You breeze in, breeze out, getting drip-feed glimpses of the drug with which Britain once befuddled mighty China.
Serious opium devotees, it transpires, rested against 15cm-high “opium pillows” made from hard leather, wood or brightly enamelled porcelain. Uncomfortable, eh?
Apparently not, according to the museum’s eloquent explanation.
“Porcelain pillows keep smoker’s head firmly soft and comfortably cool, and although they are very hard, after smoking a few pipes of opium, the smoker feels as though his head were resting on a cloud,” the accompanying text encased in a glass case says. Very revealing.
The museum also casts light on the life of Golden Triangle drug king and ethnic Shan guerrilla leader, Khun Sa, who thrived in the area’s lethal whirlpool of rivalry and heroin-financed militia.
Before his 1996 surrender to the Burmese authorities, Khun Sa embodied the impunity of the area’s heroin smugglers. After the warlord was caught, Burmese heroin production apparently went into freefall. But the country still remains the world’s biggest heroin producer after Afghanistan.
And Khun Sa’s presence shines through two portraits of him. In one, he stands in battle fatigues against the backdrop of a yellow-green-red flag. In another, he wears a rippling shoulder-padded blue suit and tie, the bags under his eyes that stand out in photos only subtly apparent. Behind him stands a line of poppies poised to burst into flower. Beyond lies a string of mountain ranges that match his suit.
The overall picture is flattering. In the eyes of some, Khun Sa was just a bumpkin who got lucky. To others, as the pictures suggest, he was a professional. According to the New York Times, he loved publicity. It shows.
Step out of his gaze into Chiang Saen town’s blazing sunshine, and you have two easy ways of viewing the crux of his kingdom. Either you can climb some giant white steps with dragon banisters for bird’s-eye-views, or you can just amble onto the promenade, which boasts a giant Buddha, Ganesh effigy and tacked-on ship’s figurehead.
The vantage-points give onto the lush junction between Thailand, Burma and Lao PDR. The three Asian neighbours would be kissing, were they not kept apart by a swirling fork in the Mekong.
If the mood takes you, you can do a quick cruise down the river and go shopping in Laos — too tacky and tricky for this tourist’s taste, given the issue of visas. You might find it more satisfying just to stare at the crossroads and think. If the hills could talk, they would doubtless tell stories to rival any contained by the splendidly odd Opium Museum.
o House of Opium, Golden Triangle, Chiang Saen, Thailand. Open daily: 7am-7pm, admission: 50 Baht (RM5). Chiang Saen is linked by bus to Chiang Rai (1½ hours, every 20 minutes, 37 baht).