From Opium to Oolong: Chiang Rai and the Infamous Golden Triangle

The triangle has a diverse but traditionally optimistic symbology. To Catholics, the holy trinity. To the Celtic, the cycle of life. To Greeks, a doorway. But in Thailand’s north, the triangle is not one of divinity or of life or beginnings. It is one of carnage.

The Golden Triangle is composed of these three countries, and we stood at the junction: two feet in Thailand but a stone’s throw over the Mekong River’s murky waters to Myanmar or Laos. So close, you could swim to each with relative ease. Without knowing that this region was once the epicentre of the opium trade in Asia—second only to Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan’s Golden Crescent—of course you wouldn’t. Mountains yawn white cotton-batten clouds across a cerulean sky and the Mekong divides itself accordingly, unknowingly crossing borders as it sweeps past the banks of each country.

Subsequently, purse weaving, coffee farming and tea plantations were among the industries developed here. Of course, while infrastructure has been put into place to combat the opium problem, it should also be noted (especially by foreign travellers) that today’s drug punishments in Thailand are markedly more severe than Western countries—with “life in prison” and “death” commonly distributed sentences. (Again, traveller beware!)

chiang rai golden triangle

Buddha overlooks the Golden Triangle. (Outpost/John Price)

We headed to Do Mai Salong, about an hour west of the Golden Triangle’s junction. This sleepy town, with it’s perfectly groomed fields, was once the main producer of Thailand’s opium. Now instead of opium fields, tea plants and other horticulture operations like mushroom farms occupy the lolling hills.

We also visited Choui Fong, an oolong tea plantation, which boasted endlessly about the health benefits of oolong—and felt in stark contrast to the devastating physical effects of opium, to say the least. The partially fermented green tea is said to have cognitive benefits and to prevent cancers, inflammatory disorders and heart disease. Rich in antioxidants, it’s also said to improve bone density, skin and dental health.

While Sue joked that her tea smelled like “perfumed bathwater,” she wasn’t far off. Oolong is known for it’s floral, sugary notes.

As we sat getting buttered by the sun, taking in the pleasingly neat, orderly rows of tea plants, in another world (or maybe just another era?) I imagine Sue and I lost somewhere in our consciousness, smoke dangling in the air as we set our futures aflame—instead of sipping sweetly from our icy cup of leaves and honey.

From opium to oolong, the Golden Triangle’s complex and heart-wrenching history is most definitely worthy of a closer look.