Golden Triangle: How opium shaped world history

The golden triangle is only a few km away from Chiang Saen and close by is the highly interesting museum ‘hall of opium’ where I learned so much about the opium trade, its impact on geopolitical history and how London was #1 dealer! Did you know the German company Bayer gave Heroin its name? I didn’t. Ahh yes … I was also pleased to find a decent pizza place (Mekong Pizza) that offers thin & crisp pepperoni pizza (some 300THB, but worth it) – a welcome break from padthai!

What is the Golden Triangle? There are many golden triangles in the world, usually where three countries intersect as is the case here (Thailand, Laos, Myanmar). The golden triangle here where the Mekong and Ruak rivers confluence, however, became famous due to its significance for global opium production and trade. Whike no longer the top producer (Afghanisthan takes the top spot by some margin), it remains the second largest opiate growing area (>100,000ha) globally and a source of opiate/heroin supply for China & SE Asia.

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The hall of opium – great museum! The hall of opium is part of a wider effort of the Mae Fah Luang foundation to foster social development, social entrepreneurship and education. Having been initiated by her Royal Highness the Princess Mother it stands under the patronage of the Royal family. I have to admit that I learned a great deal. I won’t go into all the details, but a few interesting facts:

  • UK was #1 opium dealer: It was mainly the UK that led the global trade in opium in the 18th & 19th century growing it in India and exporting it to China. The British East India company was the key player in the trade (taken from the Portuguese). Opium sales finally balanced the chronic trade imbalance created by western demand for Chinese produce such as silk, porcellain and tea (rather than paying with silver/gold). Eventually opium related taxes/revenues contributed vast amounts to government budgets (10%ish for global powers, 20-25% for Asian countries like Thailand).
  • Singapore & Hong Kong born out of opium while imperial China fell: Modern Singapore was founded 1819 by the British. The development of Singapore is closely related to the evolution of the opium trade as a key trading post for the UK in Asia. Likewise, Hong Kong was secured for the British after the Chinese lost the first opium war. As so often in history, this large pot of money is worth fighting for, but I leave these facts to wikipedia. Fact is, China had a huge drug problem. By 1838 an estimated 4-12m (of 360m) inhabitants were addicted and imports huge. Eventually, the Qing dynasty and with it 2,000 years of dynasticn rule collapsed as a result of opium trade and the subsequent wars, which forced opium imports & adverse trade deals on this large country. The century of humiuliation for China (as it is still taught in Chinese schools today) had begun.


  • Heroin … a non addicitve replacement for morphine? Heroin (then still called diamorphine) was dicovered by the British chemist C.R. Alder Wright in 1874. However, it was the German pharma company Bayer that suggested Heroin could be used as a non-addictive substitute for morphine (morphine addiction was widespread then including famous people like US president Benjamin Franklin). Heroin was actually up to 2,5x more potent than morphine and was named “heroin,” based on the German heroisch, which means “heroic, strong”. It was available over the counter for many years.

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