Walk through a long dark tunnel, with images of tortured souls sculpted on the walls, and you enter the Thailand Hall of Opium.
Cradled in the humid jungle of the Golden Triangle, it’s an unlikely place for a world-class museum. But then, this notorious region where Thailand meets Burma and Laos produced most of the world’s heroin from the 1960s to early 1990s.
Opium poppies growing in northern Thailand – photo Flickr Tennessee Wanderer
Overlooking the Mekong River at the notorious Golden Triangle
Thailand Hall of Opium
To end the northern hill tribes’ dependence on growing poppies for the illegal drug trade, Thailand’s late beloved Princess Mother Mae Fah Luang cleared the land of these bewitching red and white flowers and planted substitute cash crops.
And to shrink the demand for drugs through education, she built the sprawling 5,500 square metre Hall of Opium.
A modern exhibition building – photo Hall of Opium
From ancient Egypt to the Opium Wars
The result is a thought-provoking and surprisingly poignant exhibition. 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 of the most fascinating sections 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, which 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.
Museum exhibit – photo Hall of Opium
Opium pipes, pipes, 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.
Stoves used in opium production – photo Hall of Opium
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 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?
“Safe!” “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.
Heroin bottle, sold by Bayer of Aspirin fame
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.”
Our magazine article on the Thailand Hall of Opium
A version of this story was first published in NUVO magazine. See here for a link to the PDF of the print article.