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Discovering the Power of Poppies at Thailand’s Hall of Opium

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 unique museum to be cradled in the humid jungle of the Golden Triangle.

But then, this notorious region, where Thailand meets Laos and Burma (Myanmar), produced most of the world’s heroin from the 1960s to early 1990s.

Hall of Opium, Thailand

The dark psychedelic entrance tunnel to the Thailand Hall of Opium
The dark psychedelic entrance tunnel to the 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.

Opium poppies, from which heroin is made, grow in northern Thailand.
Opium poppies, from which heroin is made, once grew copiously in northern Thailand

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 (which focuses more on its huge souvenir shop).

The Hall of Opium Museum is the flagship museum on opium – and the one you want to see when figuring out what to do in Chiang Rai.

Overlooking the Mekong River at the notorious Golden Triangle
The Hall of Opium is one of the best Chiang Rai attractions in the notorious Golden Triangle

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.

Opium history

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 fueled the widespread Chinese addiction to opium in the 18th and 19th centuries.

How did the love of tea contribute to opium addiction? Find out at the Hall of Opium
How did drinking tea contribute to opium addiction? Find out at the Hall of Opium

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.

Exhibit of a heroin addict at the Hall of Opium, Golden Triangle
Museum exhibit of a heroin addict

Opium dens and pipes

At this point, the noses of the few international visitors who find their way to this 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.

Opium pipes
Opium pipes

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.

But no.

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.

Opium - seductive but hellish for addicts
Opium and heroin – seductive but hellish for addicts

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.

Poppy seed heads, from which opiates are made

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?

Heroin bottle, sold by Bayer of Aspirin fame
Heroin bottle, sold by Bayer of Aspirin fame


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.”

If you visit the Hall of Opium, Chiang Rai

The Hall of Opium is a fascinating museum in Thailand - and well worth a visit!
The Hall of Opium is a fascinating museum in Thailand – and well worth a visit!
  • Language: Information is in English as well as Thai.
  • Hours: The museum is open daily from 8:30 am to 4:00 pm (except Mondays).
  • Cost: Admission costs 200 Thai baht p.p. (about $5.50 USD).
  • Location: The Hall of Opium is located in the Golden Triangle Park, opposite the Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp & Resort, outside Sop Ruak village.
  • More information: See the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s webpage on the Hall of Opium.

Final thoughts on Thailand’s Opium Museum

Thailand’s Hall of Opium Museum is a provocative surprise. Even if you’re not particularly interested in opium history, it’s more fascinating than you’d expect – it quickly engrossed us!

The museum is well-organized with clear English signage and features a stunning collection of opium pipes and weights. Add in the engaging multimedia displays, and you have a truly unforgettable museum visit.

Experience more of Thailand!

Koh Tao: The boho-chic island is known for its colorful undersea life. So what’s it really like to go snorkeling in Koh Tao?

Phang Nga Bay: Check out sea canoeing in Phang Nga Bay. You’ll be amazed by the cave hongs and stalactites!

Koh Samui: Where to stay in Koh Samui? You’ll love the luxurious Tongsai Bay Resort and its villas with private pools.

Our top travel tips and resources

Hotels: is great for scoring a “wow” hotel – or at least a decent one. (We especially like their flexible cancellation policy!)

Vacation homes, condos and rentals: We prefer and use Vrbo (Vacation Rentals by Owner).

Tours: For the best local food, walking and other guided tours, plus skip-the-line tickets to attractions, check out Viator (a TripAdvisor company) and GetYourGuide.

Car rental: Renting a car is often one of the best ways to explore off the beaten path. Discover Cars searches car rental companies so you get the best rates.

Travel insurance: SafetyWing is designed for frequent travelers, long-term adventurers and digital nomads. It covers medical expenses, lost checked luggage, trip interruption and more. We also have and recommend Medjet for global air medical transportation and travel security.

Travel gear: See our travel shop to find the best luggage, accessories and other travel gear. (We suggest these comfy travel sandals for city walking, the beach and kicking about.)

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Photo credits: 3 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase

About the authors

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George Mucalov are the publishers of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents. See About.

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Thursday 24th of April 2014

Quirky, delightful and sad, all at the same time. Definitely on for when we visit Northern Thailand. Thanks for writing about it.

Kathryn Burrington

Friday 18th of April 2014

There are so many things in British history that we should be ashamed of but this is a new one on me. Forcing the Chinese to take payment in opium is so wicked - beyond belief! My father was born in Shanghai in 1927, eventually they had to leave because of the war but I remember Granny having a silver opium pipe (as an ornament I belive!). We think she buried it in the garden - I wonder if it is still there!


Sunday 13th of April 2014

I will have to add this to my Thailand itinerary.


Sunday 13th of April 2014

This sounds like such an educational look at opium's history. I never realized that heroin was so commonly accepted. In Penang, there are a few museums with very luxurious looking opium beds. I'd love to get one to use as a reading spot.

Janice and George

Sunday 13th of April 2014

An opium bed? Now that would be a cool piece of furniture for your house or apartment :-)


Saturday 5th of April 2014

What an interesting museum full of educational exhibits! I feel like I need to read more about the Opium Wars. Great read!