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Hill Tribes, Poppies and History

by Walter and Cherie Glaser

Although we were interested in the fertility temples, many other tourists come to this area to satisfy their more basic curiosity. Northern Europeans, especially in Germany, are led by their media to think of Thailand as the place to find opium or exotic ladies of pleasure in the "Emanuelle" mold. "Emanuelle's" grand-daughters are living it up in the bars around Bangkok's Patpong Road, but for those who want to see why Burma, along with Afghanistan and Lebanon, is still a major supplier of the world's opium, a trip into the Golden Triangle with a border crossing into Myanmar can be interesting indeed. But be warned! If you're anything like me you will come away depressed, and wondering about the folly of man. When governments that have it in their power to put a very quick stop to the "merchants of death" that drug dealers really are, fail to do so out of sheer greed, it is indeed a sad situation for the whole world.

Chiang Rai in the Golden Triangle is not yet on the mass-tourism circuit, but it won't be long before this part of Thailand is included in every South-East Asian package tour. Perhaps then it will not be as easy to go that bit further from Chiang Rai and cross over the border into Myanmar. It is there that the wartime Chinese K.M.T. Generals founded their family opium dynasties a generation or so ago, and that is a story in itself.

The Museum of Opium in Chiang Rai is probably the only Thai connection with this dreadfully addictive drug that most tourists will see when they come to the Thai-ruled part of the Golden Triangle. But even in this Museum it is clear that opium and its traffickers who are responsible for creating local wars in Asia and major addiction epidemics in other parts of the world have a lot to answer for.

And for those who know little about opium, this Museum, with its links to the days when opium was the major cash crop in Northern Thailand, will be an eye-opener. The Museum, hidden behind a clutch of road-side shops, has displays of all kinds of opium pipes, dried opium poppies and complete paraphernalia associated with the crop. It also emphasizes the important role that opium has played in the economy of this area.

When I ask our driver and guide, Sahneh, if there is any chance to see actual fields where opium poppies are being grown, he explains that very little of the crop is to be found in Thailand, thanks to a successful Government campaign to eradicate it here. A conversion program involving cash rewards for growers who switch has transformed the poppy fields into crop-lands of tobacco, rice and soya beans. Educational instruction for villagers shows them how to maintain income with alternative crops which also provide food their tables.

So successful has this conversion program been that today it is estimated that the opium crop in Thailand has been reduced to around fifteen tons per annum for the whole country, mainly grown by hill-tribes for their own use. By contrast, estimates for the crop in Myanmar and Laos exceed one thousand tons per annum and are believed to be on the increase.

So, Sahneh explains, he cannot not show me any opium field in Thailand, but yes, he could take me to the crop growing over the Burmese border. However it would be an unofficial crossover into that country, which implies a small risk. But if I am prepared to go, so is he. And we would leave in the morning!

The People's Republic of Myanmar was, until very recently, intent on keeping foreigners out. Only a few tightly-supervised and limited packages of six-day tours were possible, and were always accompanied by Government "minders." At that time the Burmese Golden Triangle area was completely closed to all but Thai nationals as it was a constant scene of pitched battles between armies of the drug barons and not-so-Democratic Burmese People's Army.

They say that "getting there is half the fun." Well, our trip to the opium-poppy fields is certainly memorable. The first half-hour is on a sealed bitumen road, but the second half which begins on a serviceable unsealed surface sees this deteriorate into a slippery, pot-holed mountain path -- great for goats -- but deadly for all but 4-WD's. Very quickly our Suzuki Jeep is up to its "ankles" in six inches of glue-like mud, causing us to slither and skid alarmingly along the steep winding mountain track that snakes along the high side of a steep valley.

In compensation, there is a wonderful view across apparently unspoiled jungle-clad mountains. Below us a precipitous slope is covered in trees choking under vines, and at the bottom of the valley a fast flowing river that would make the heart of a white-water rafter jump with excitement, goes racing down the mountain.

Praying that our driver can hold the Suzuki on the road, we curve into a corner and the gradient mercifully decreases. We pass a row of trees with trunks all marked to an even height. "Myanmar!" says Sahneh, our driver, "Most foreigners still think name is Burma." I do not comment that to some Burmese in opposition to the army regime, the name will always be Burma.

Around the next bulge of the hillside, a village appears. As we enter, there is a flurry of chickens, pigs and dogs scattering in all directions. Only the curious semi-naked children hold their ground, staring wide-eyed at our Suzuki and its occupants. "Not many farangs (foreigners) come here," says Sahneh. "We come back later -- visit people. Very friendly, very smile."

A little farther along the road we see a field aglow with large white, red pink and purple flowers. It is a beautiful sight. It is also our first glimpse of the fabled -- and dreaded -- opium poppy. Ironically, when the pods are left to dry after they have been "milked’ and the opium is produced, the seeds that are left are similar to those we all know in poppy-seed cake and are in no way narcotic.

The tribes that grow opium here are still very superstitious. While they sell their opium latex to the Generals, they always keep back one block of this relatively expensive material, placing it in the middle of the poppy field. The area is then off-limits for two weeks so that the spirits can enjoy their block of narcotic resin in peace.

The K.M.T. Generals, the hill-tribes and their combined involvement in the Golden Triangle opium trade is a story that is as lurid as any Hollywood thriller. At the beginning of last century most of this countryside was uninhabited. For whatever reasons, various migrations of nomadic peoples decided to settle in the area around that time. Some tribes came from as far away as Mongolia, yet others from China and Tibet. This explains why these hill-tribes all wear completely different costumes and have their own languages, traditions and cultures.

It is estimated that half a million members of various hill-tribes live in Thailand and more again in neighboring Myanmar and Laos. The Akha, the Meo, the Yao, the Lahu and the Lisu are the main tribes found in this area today. They have mostly built their villages in high, inhospitable pockets of the rugged mountain terrain, using the slash-and-burn methods in their farming. Many of these tribes-people smoked opium, and some still do, so they had become expert poppy farmers, and for those in Myanmar opium production is still the major cash source.

In the Sixties, when the Communist Chinese were chasing remnants of the Nationalist Kuomintang (K.M.T.) forces out of China, a number of K.M.T. Generals fled with their armies into this area which was still virtually uninhabited.

They settled and married local girls, and after converting their troops into their own private armies, they moved into the drug business. Khun Sa, son of a K.M.T General and a Thai mother, was considered the most powerful of the Drug Generals for several decades. His personal army was said to consist of over 80,000 soldiers. More recently, Khun Sa has handed his fiefdom over to the Burmese Army, but cynics say the opium is now just being grown for a different General.

The United States, horrified at the amount of high-grade opium entering USA from this region, sent a team from the US Drug Enforcement Agency (D.E.A.) to the Golden Triangle but this was not, at that time, under complete Thai control.

A highly-placed Thai had earlier told us his version of how the D.E.A. made a very serious effort to combat the enormous amount of damage done by the opium traffic in these parts.

He went on to explain that this was not an easy task. Opium brought big money to the hill-tribes, and while the D.E.A. was fighting opium production, the Generals were encouraging it and buying the crops as the hill-tribes produced them.

With the finish of the Vietnam War, United States Armed Forces moved out of the area, leaving the D.E.A., in conjunction with the Thai Government to attempt the almost impossible task of cleaning up the opium trade. It was not uncommon to see Thai police and armed forces arrive at hill-tribe villages with flame throwers to burn poppy crops. The Thai Government then followed this up with financial grants combined with education programs to show villagers how to maintain income with other crops, and the strategy has worked.

Our informant continued, "When Khun Sa's agents ambushed and killed a senior D.E.A. official in Chiang Mai in the Sixties, it was too much for the D.E.A. They successfully persuaded Thai authorities to lean on the villagers to grow crops other than opium poppies." On the Thai side of the border they succeeded. And as roads were built, people were educated and law and order were implemented, the drug problem in the Thai-controlled areas was virtually solved. But not so on the Burmese side. There the drug trade was alive and well, and the Generals were marketing every kilo of opium the hill-tribes could grow.

Our mind spinning with the story of intrigue we leave the opium fields and head back, stopping at the hill-tribe village. We saw women lying around on the first floor of a house on piles of straw used as mattresses. They seemed fairly spaced-out. Perhaps they had been smoking Chandu.

An old man is hammering an iron blade under the stilt house, making a harvesting knife. A small home-made furnace allows scraps of metal to be melted down, and the liquid iron is then poured into a crude sand mold. He beats this metal ingot into a rough shape, forming it into a blade and sharpening the edge with another old knife.

Meanwhile Sahneh has been chatting with locals, and soon two young girls have donned their traditional tribal costumes so we can take their photos. These costumes have a history of their own. Sahneh explains that each girl starts to work on her own costume as soon as she is old enough to learn the intricate needlework. The costume will become her wedding dress. The costumes are worn for weddings, special holidays, and excursions down to the larger towns.

The superb embroidery that is evident in these costumes requires many, many hours of close work. Each girl makes only two outfits to keep for herself, the rest being sold at market. But things are changing here too. Later, as we get closer to Chiang Rai, Sahneh will take us to a village that has just been connected onto the electric power grid. Here the lifestyle has changed overnight. Instead of working on their embroidery, the young girls of the village now lie on the floor of the common-room where the village's large television set is booming out the sights and sounds of far-away Bangkok. One doesn't have to be Nostradamus to realize that one generation down the line the whole fabric of old traditions will have gone into tatters.

We take our pictures, wave goodbye and head back to our resort, our head spinning with the sights, sounds and stories of the infamous Golden Triangle. As the dramatic changes in South-East Asia unfold, this multi-faceted corner that covers Thailand, Myanmar and Laos will also undergo many more changes. Eventually the highway linking Singapore to China will be completed and with this the Golden Triangle as one sees it today will be a matter of history.

But for now this area has an enormous fascination -- the result of the mix of many traditions. And the experienced traveler who goes there with a questioning mind will find the experience extremely interesting -- even if some aspects will be quite disturbing to those expecting a world of righteousness and fair play.

Getting there:
Thai International is an outstanding airline that will fly you to Bangkok and then on to Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai. There are now several 5-star resorts in this area, which is a safe and comfortable destination. Going over the border into Myanmar unofficially is not recommended for the average tourist as it does carry some risks, especially as the Myanmar Army rather than the Opium Generals is now in control. To go across to Tachilek in Burma can be arranged through most hotels and travel agents in the area. Take your passports and US dollar notes.

When to go:
Around Christmas is an excellent time of the year. The weather is not too hot and the monsoons have not yet started.

Plenty of any medication you may require, bring plenty of duty-free film and loose, comfortable cotton clothing.


Walter & Cherie Glaser are an international travel-writing team based down under in Melbourne, Australia.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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