by Hank Leukart
March 24, 2006
Poppy farms and heroin in the Golden Triangle
Getting lost on a motorcycle near the Burmese border.
A motorcycle sits on the "easy," curving road up Doi Tung
UAY XAI, Laos — In 1971, the single biggest source of opium around the world was The Golden Triangle, a remote territory where the Mae Khong and Ruak rivers form the borders of Thailand, Burma, and Laos in Southeast Asia. Then U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Marshall Green coined the term when President Nixon visited the area, hoping to stem opium flow. Today, the Thai government, with help from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, has succeeded in stopping much (but not all) of the opium manufacturing in Thailand; however, much of the “eradicated” opium-producing poppy farming has simply moved north into the less-stable rural countryside of Burma.
I spent the last two days in The Golden Triangle, and I can testify that I didn’t see a single poppy farm during my stay — although I admit that I didn’t look very hard, nor would I probably be able to easily identify an illegal poppy farm if I saw one. Nevertheless, I did look. After renting a motorcycle, I took an exhilirating trip on steep and curving mountain roads, visiting Mae Sai (the middle of nowhere), Chiang Saen (the middle of the middle of nowhere), and finally, the steep mountain Doi Tung on the Burmese border (I can’t stress enough how middle-of-nowhere this was).
“The main attraction at Doi Tung is getting there… West of Ban Phame the road has lots of tight curves, mud, rocks, precipitious drops, passing trucks, and occasional road-repair equipment… the road also runs high in the mountains along the Myanmar border and should not be travelled alone or after 4pm. Ask first in Mae Sai about border conditions… It is not safe to trek in this area without a Thai or hill-tribe guide, simply because you could be mistaken for a United States Drug Enforcement Agency agent (by the drug traders) or drug dealer (by the Thai army rangers who patrol the area). You may hear gunfire from time to time, which might indicate that the rangers are in pursuit of the Mong Thai Army or Karen rebels or any others who have been caught between the two hostile governments.” — Lonely Planet, Thailand
Yet at 6:00 PM, I found myself lost on my tiny motorcycle at the top of the Doi Tung summit, wondering if I would live to see another day. I can vouch for the fact that the Thai government’s program to encourage farmers to plant alternative crops seems to be working; I didn’t get a chance to shoot-up any heroin or visit any poppy fields at the top of Doi Tung (which probably helped me navigate the roads better), but I ate more strawberries that day than I have since this year started — and I drank more strawberry wine than, uh, well, I’ve never had strawberry wine until now. I only had one glass.
Eventually, after some locals helped me by drawing a crude map, I found the correct “road” down the mountain, knowing that I had to drive as fast as possible to beat sundown but as slow as possible to avoid driving off a mountain cliff. At each Thai military checkpoint (I counted six on the way down), I wondered whether to beg them to let me stay the night with them; I figured I could use my emergency heat blanket and emergency pancho as a makeshift sleeping bag and pay them in buckets of strawberries. But, as I made eye-contact with them at each gate, they never tried to stop me, never yelled anything about certain death on the road ahead, and never tried to thank me for my work for the DEA.
Based on their implicit approval and desire to keep every last one of my strawberries, I puttered slowly but speedily down the steep road and eventually made it back before sundown to my hotel in Ban Sop Ruak, a village that was once the domain of the opium warlord Khun Sa.
The next day, after a relaxing Thai massage, I visited the exceptional Hall of Opium, a museum sitting in a former poppy field that traces the history of the entire drug trade. If you get a chance to visit the area, this is not to be missed; especially the 500-foot-long opium simulation tunnel and the recreations of old opium smoking houses. Eventually, the museum plans to extend the complex to include a functioning opium plantation. No joke.
To Lonely Planet: please update your guidebook. I don’t remember hearing even one gunshot during my entire trip!