Admittedly, I’ve never been one for museums—but even I found Chiang Rai’s Opium Museum one of the most unique and engaging galleries I’ve explored.
Visually and aurally compelling displays narrate the complex and tragic history of opium’s effects on a global scale.
Used by the ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians, opium was once dispersed among Arab trade routes. China had been using it medicinally since the 17th century, when the Southeast Asian tradition of recreationally smoking the narcotic bled over the borders, and the international drug trade exploded.
When the East India Trading Company gained control of India, it inherited its opium production. Although the Chinese government had prohibited the substance, the EITC concocted intricate systems to profit by trading opium within the country.
This led to the Opium Wars, which resulted in treaties heavily favouring the British, the handover of Hong Kong and the economic devastation of China. At its zenith, one in 30 Chinese were opium addicts.
Opium first arrived in the New World in apothecary shops. It was later dealt illegally by Irish and Jewish gangs in New York as heroin, which could be cut with other substances.
And so the moniker of “The Golden Triangle” was born, referring to the tripoint of Thailand, Burma and Laos, which, alongside the Golden Crescent (Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan), became one of Asia’s two primary areas of opium production. In the Golden Triangle, opium was traditionally grown by the indigenous hill tribes, who often live below the poverty line.
While Myanmar remains the second-biggest producer of opium (Afghanistan being the first), the Thai government has cracked down on its own nation. But as opposed to robbing hill tribes of their livelihood (illicit as it may have been), a project spearheaded by the Princess Mother in the late 1980s saw poppy farmland reconstituted for legal crops and the hill tribe people educated in alternate forms of agriculture.
Despite government efforts, the drug trade continues to boom in Asia, and penalties for possession and trafficking are extremely severe compared to other countries.
At the Opium Museum, the drug’s world history is depicted through a series of elaborate and encompassing displays, including that of a British ship and opium den. As our camera crew restrained the urge to bow to various wax figurines, I was surprised to recognize the exhibited opium weights as the “cute trinkets” I’d seen in Burmese antiques markets.
The museum likewise addresses the drug’s psychological effects. Visitors follow a blue-lit corridor where spooky ambient music is played and the walls depict carvings of emaciated individuals in the throes of the agony of addiction and withdrawal. There are also videos documenting the catastrophic stories of opium addicts and dealers, and heartbreaking displays of victims of drug-related violence and overdose.
A trip to the Opium Museum: a more nuanced, informative, and effective anti-drug campaign for impressionable youth than those “this is your brain on drugs” egg commercials from the ’80s and ’90s. (In my opinion, anyway.)