With an estimated 40,000 temples in Thailand, it’s rather easy for travellers to find themselves templed-out,
awe-inspiring architecture losing lustre the more you see.
Buddhist-inspired Places of Peace
By Lena Desmond - Photos by John Price
From Opium to Oolong:
Chiang Rai and the Infamous Golden Triangle
Just an hour north of Chiang Rai, the Golden Triangle covers some 950,000 square kilometres of dense jungle. Overlooking a scene that would otherwise be so serene, I was shaken.
We had just left the Opium Museum where we learned, not only about the devastating effects the drug has on individuals, but the trail of destruction it’s left across the world. Our tour began with a wander down a disturbing tunnel, artfully displaying the cycle of destruction that becomes a person when opium’s clutches take hold. The figures that surround you morph from happy, healthy human beings, to screaming, skeletal souls desperately reaching out from the walls.
Here, we learned how the opium trade spanned borders and centuries, crossed rivers, oceans and entire civilizations. Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt; 17th-century China, the United States and of course the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
The drug itself has been all things. It’s been a medical saviour and a recreational pastime round the world; a source of capital when the East India Trading Company gained control of India; an economy for indigenous farmers; a weapon used by the British at one point, turning one in 30 Chinese people into addicts. Of course, it’s also been a desperate crutch.
History and other factors like Thailand’s proximity to Myanmar (Burma), which is the world’s second-largest producer of opium following Afghanistan, ideal growing conditions and the poverty of the hill tribes have all influenced opium production and consumption in the region.
In the late 1980s, Thailand’s Princess Mother Somdet Phra Srinagarindra Boromarajajonani began the Doi Tung Project, which set up a drug rehabilitation centre in Chiang Rai. The project sought to create safety nets for the people who relied on the income they received from opium.
Instead of criminalizing farmers, the project worked with locals to determine and develop transferable skills so that as Thailand’s opium production ceased, the people wouldn’t be left in a vacuum that would leave them unsupported, increasingly impoverished or otherwise turning to criminal activities.
TAN YOUR MIND...DISCOVERING THAILAND WITH LENA AND SUE
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!)
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.