Walk through a long dark tunnel, with images of tortured souls sculptured on the walls, and you enter the Hall of Opium.
You might not expect a world-class museum to be cradled in the humid jungle of the Golden Triangle.
But then, this notorious region where Thailand meets Burma and Laos, produced most of the world’s heroin from the 1960s to early 1990s.
Hall of Opium
Thailand’s late beloved Princess Mother Mae Fah Luang wanted to help end the northern hill tribes’ dependence on growing poppies for the illegal drug trade.
So she had the land cleared of these bewitching red and white flowers and planted with substitute cash crops instead.
And to shrink the demand for drugs through education, the “Heavenly Royal Mother” built the sprawling 60,000 square foot Hall of Opium museum.
The result is a thought-provoking and surprisingly poignant exhibition.
Don’t confuse this opium museum with the smaller House of Opium, also in the Golden Triangle area near Chiang Rai.
The Hall of Opium is the flagship museum on opium – and the one you want to see when figuring out what to do in Chiang Rai.
On our tour, the plan was to devote only about an hour at the museum.
But the museum proved so engrossing that our small group lingered for at least twice that.
And we could easily have spent more time again to properly absorb everything.
If there’s one piece of advice we can lend, it’s this – don’t shortchange yourself on a visit. The museum is one of the most fascinating things to do in Chiang Rai.
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Multi-media displays chronicle the 5,000-year history of opium.
Opium’s far-reaching history ranges from its medicinal use by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks as a painkiller and cure for dysentery to the misery of drug abuse today.
One section recounts how the British love of tea fuelled the widespread Chinese addiction to opium in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Pass through a teak replica of a British clipper ship used to carry opium from India to China, and you learn that the British forced the Chinese to accept opium as payment for tea.
This led to the Opium Wars and eventual collapse of the Chinese civilization.
Mao Tse Tung is even quoted as saying the wars were the beginning of the Communist Revolution.
Opium dens and pipes
At this point, the noses of the few international visitors who find their way to the remote museum usually press up against the glass cabinets showcasing a fabulous collection of antique opium pipes.
There are mother-of-pearl pipes, ivory pipes and pipes embellished in ornate silver.
One pipe has a beautiful bowl shaped like a cupped hand.
Turn the corner and you next gaze into a mock-up of an elegant 19th century opium den in old Siam (now Thailand, where opium smoking was legal until 1959).
The scene is so seductive, you’re tempted to step right into it, settle back on the silk pillows and try the stuff.
The sound of clanging of chains from the prison below the plexi-glass floor in the next room pulls you into the 20th century – prohibition and drug trafficking.
Shades of grey
There are no clear villains however.
Remarkable black-and-white film footage shows how the CIA actively supported the illicit opium trade in the Golden Triangle in the 1960s.
The positive benefits of the opium poppy are portrayed too in codeine pill bottles and injections.
How could wounded soldiers have survived battlefield amputations without the opium-derivative morphine?
Fun facts are also found.
Who knew that heroin (made from morphine) was once the miracle drug of the day?
“The sedative for coughs!”
Old posters advertise Heroin (so named because it made people feel heroic).
It was trade-marked by Bayer in 1898 as a non-addictive substitute for morphine and was commonly used as a cough suppressant and pain reliever.
Lessons learned at the Opium museum, Chiang Rai?
Finally you reach the sunlit Hall of Reflection.
On triangular pillars you find quotes from Gandhi, Marcus Aurelius and other philosophers meant to inspire you to live a meaningful life free of abuse.
Perhaps this from the Talmud says it best:
“What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow men. That is the entire law; all the rest is commentary.”
Photo credits: 4 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase