Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Thailand 2016 Day 5. The Golden Triangle

It has always puzzled me why it is that museums are not open at 7 am. Don’t the tourism authorities realize that daylight is burning?

So I had to wait until 8:30 am for the National Museum in Chiang Saen to open. Fortunately I had sacrified two of my socks (the ones with holes) as towels to clean my motor bike, and by the time the museum opened it was back to its sleek condition.

A very fine museum it is, although when they call it “national” they are of course referring to the time when Chiang Saen was a city state. The museum has a small but interesting collection of Mesolithic and Neolithic implements, and a great collection of stellae documenting the history of the city. A suitable number of artifacts from the 12th to the 18th century are displayed, and then the tenor of the exposition changes to become more ethnographic, with an excellent collection of textiles and every day implements from the many mountain tribes from the surrounding area.

I had vowed not to visit another temple, but I couldn’t resist the ruins of Wat Pa Sak, where besides the foundations of a very large temple complex there is a fabulous chedi still standing. It is all brick work, and hence quite different from the gold and silver temples I have seen so far, but clearly was a grandiose structure in its time. And then there is more of the city wall to follow, and then there is another temple, and then … basta! Clearly I could spend the whole day here, going from one archaeologic site to the other.

My next stop was the epicenter of the Golden Triangle; that is, the point where Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos come together. It is the beautiful confluence of the Mekong and Nam Ruak Rivers but its main claim to fame is its checkered past as one of the main producing areas for opium and heroine. There is no real town here, but its dark history is commemorated by two museums: The House of Opium and the Hall of Opium. The first one is the brain child of a tourist shop and is a little bit dinky. Still, it has samples of the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum (sorry, Californians, but our golden poppy is not even in the Papaver family), which is a big, purple flower, which after a few days discards its petals and leaves behind a seed pod the size of a lime. The opium-bearing sap is produced by cutting slits lengthwise on the pod, out of which oozes a white sap. The sap is left to harden overnight, and the following morning the brown dried sap is scraped with a curved knife and new slits are cut in. After a dozen slits have been cut the pod is left to dry, and a few hundred seeds are collected from each for planting the following year (the poppy seeds have no opium in them, so those of you that pretend getting high on poppy seed muffins can cut it out).

The scrapings of sap (a tiny fraction of a gram each) are compacted together in the from of 1 kg bricks, with each farmer being able to produce about one brick per acre. The bricks are brought to market, and that is where the fun begins. In the old times the bricks were dissolved in hot water, and filtered through cloth several times. Once clean of impurities the opium soup would be boiled down to form a thick gum, which then rolled into balls and be ready for distribution. At the place of consumption little pieces of the gum would be rolled into a small, pellet size ball, ignited in a small burner, dropped in the bowl of a pipe, and the vapors would be inhaled by the addict, who would typically be laying on his side, with his heels up his buttocks (seems undignified to me, but apparently that was the accepted practice). The small museum ends with an amazing display of scrapers and pipes, and a “tribute” to one of the last drug lords of Thailand, who was still hard at his trade in the 1970’s.

The second museum is called The Hall of Opium, and is the brainchild of the Princess Mother (deceased), who made it a mission to free her people of the addiction to opium (and its derivative heroine). It is a dazzling museum, which you enter through a tunnel where eerie music plays as you pass scenes of the type you would expect at The Gates of Hell. With wonderful displays you are taken through the history of opium (from the Mediterranean to Samarkand to India to China to southeast Asia), the Opium Wars between China and England, the medicinal uses of opium and its derivatives (morphine, laudanum, and heroine), and the nightmarish world of addiction. With remarkable candor the museum retells the story of the exploitation of opium by Thailand for income purposes (the Tax Board was once called the Excise and Opium Board, when 20% of the national income came from the opium trade) until the 1970’s, when Thailand joined the rest of the civilized world by outlawing opium. This is where the Princess Mother (i.e., the mother of the current king) comes in: Aware that the tribes of the north had relied on opium as their sole cash crop, she made sure that extension services were available to help these tribes to diversify their agricultural base, and work hard to provide schools, health facilities, education, and opportunities for the mountain tribes.

Today Myanmar is still an important source of opium gum, with minor quantities being produced by Thailand and Laos (and Mexico, for that matter). The main producer, however, is Afghanistan, which surprised me very much. I cannot imagine a greater difference of climate between the luscious mountains of north Thailand and the bare, rocky canyons of Afghanistan, but Papaver somniferum seems to be a very hardy plant, and as long as there is a rainy season for the initial stages of growth, it does not seem to mind a dry maturation stage. But enough about opium. It was time for me to abandon the highlands and head south, in search for new adventures.

It was a hard slog south. I thought to stop in Chiang Rai, but I had already been there, so I pushed forward the Pha Yao, which turned out to be a pretty town by the shore of large lake that reminded me very much of Chapala or Yuriria in central Mexico. I got here about 6 pm, just in time to book a room in a nice hotel, go for a sunset walk along the lake shore, and eat a very fine catfish dinner.

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