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.

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  • 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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Phayao & Chiang Saen: Temples, freedom and a Thai style night out

I left the temple about 9am, Ajahn & his friend left me pretty inspired. Next stop Phayao … some 200km away. It was still a bit chilly (well, it is winter after all … also in Thailand), but the scenery made up for it. I was on some sort of highway and the road was actually really decent. Much better than what I’d come across on Koh Phangan. 

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There was an abundance of possible stops on the way including many temples, waterfalls or simply nice views of the often hilly and always green Thai country side. The kilometres were just flying past me and the little 125ccm beast was using up the petrol pretty quickly. The tank is small (c4l) and I had to get petrol 4x on my 380km tour today. But that basically meant 4x 100THB … so EUR11 all in. Not too bad. 

Once in Phayao i was one of only a handful of tourists. The first thing that you’ll find is the lake. The largest in Northern Thailand. I stopped to take a picture of the double dragons (Kwan Phayao) and returned later for lunch and a peep at the island not too far off the shore line with the sunken temple (though I skipped having myself rowed over). My research suggested one temple in the city to visit (Wat Khomkam), which had the largest Buddha statue I’d set yet. Pretty impressive. 

Afterwards, I visited Wat Analayo located some 10km outside Phayao city. Its a nice climb up the stairs decorated as large the dragon tails. Up on the hill are temples galore! And more huge statues. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. Best temple yet. And some nice villages to pass through on the way back to Phayao. Loving the freedom on the bike. Every bit of it.

After lunch I felt like using the time on the bike a little more and listened to Spanish podcasts … advanced level and hence not easy, but I got the gist of it. In theory i wanted to stop at Phu Sang national park on my way to Chiang Saen though the late time meant I skipped it and head straight for the town close to the golden triangle. As the sun set, I kept on stopping to take in the scenery. Amazing. Rice fields, mountains, clouds, the sun … you name it. Freedom again. The most important thing in my life was abundant here!

Eventually I made it to Chiang Saen following the mighty Mekong river for the last kilometers with Laos situated on the other side. Check in to the hotel was quick and off I went to downtown. I figured the 6am start, begging with the monks & 380km ride deserved at least one beers and helped myself at the first 7Eleven I came across. Then dinner at the market (pork noodle soup … delicious) and I felt already much more energised.

The Mekong River

The Mekong is one of the items on my bucket list. I would love to paddle it all the way from its source on the Tibetan plateau all the 4,350km to its delta in Vietnam. Its the 12th longest river in the world and fascinates me. But this has to wait.Different to other rivers I intend to paddle (like the Yukon), this one is considered one of the wildest in the world, has rapids and waterfalls and is not so straightforward to navigate. Depending on dry and wet season, the river can actually change flow direction in the golden triangle area.

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On the way in to Chiang Saen I had spotted two bars, a bit outside the centre, and decided to have a look after dinner. It was Friday after all. Both had life music (either Thai or english cover) and not one tourist (at the market I saw maybe 7-8 foreigners). After some time listening to an amazing singer in the first bar, I moved over and got in touch with a few locals though with little english skills. We could talk football at least as my chelsea shirt gave me away. Turned out to be a fun night and also the first time i really felt to hang out with locals. Thanks to DJ Em Harry for giving me a lift home.