Golden Triangle in the eyes of early western explorers

view from hill on the Golden Triangle

A view on the Mekong in the Golden Triangle

After Highway 118 from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai was widened and sealed in the late 1970s, Thailand’s corner of the Golden Triangle soon became a major tourist destination. Nowadays busloads of tourists frequently stop off at the village of Sop Ruak on the confluence of the little Ruak river and the vast Mekong. Many of these visitors board long-tailed speedboats for a brief outing, almost touching the Laotian and Burmese banks of the Mekong before returning to the dozens of Golden Triangle souvenir stalls lining the Thai side. A little opium museum is another attraction, while the huge, new Hall of Opium opened its doors in October 2003.

As a matter of fact, the magic spell of the name ‘Golden Triangle’ is hardly older than the beginning of the tourist boom. As opium historian Ron Renard points out in his study Opium reduction in Thailand 1970-2000, the term was coined by United States’ Assistant Secretary of State Marshall Green in 1971. This happened on the eve of Nixon’s announcement of his intention to visit China, and amidst serious worries about the surge of heroin addiction in American cities, along with major initiatives to interdict the drug at its sources in Asia. ‘Green’s calling the region a triangle (Burma, Laos, Thailand),’ as Renard puts it, ‘implicitly recognized the absence of opium in China.’

The Chedi Luang in Chiang Saen.

Chiang Saen's Chedi Luang, 8 km from the the 'Golden Triangle'. Travellers in the former days, such as Bock, often removed artifacts from the ruins.

Since then, the term has taken on a life of its own. For some, ‘Golden Triangle’ simply means the place where the borders of Burma, Laos and Thailand meet. Others reserve it for an area of about 40,000 square kilometres notorious for opium cultivation, including Thailand’s Chiang Rai province, a large part of Burma’s Shan State, and the Laotian provinces of Bo Keo and Louang Namtha. With a certain amount of imagination, one can visualize it as a triangle, with Sop Ruak at its centre. This certainly was, and still is, a major production region, but other important poppy growing areas are excluded when the term is thus defined.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, poppy-growing tribes began to settle in the ‘Golden Triangle’. Yunnan, in Southern China, was in turmoil following the suppression of a wide-spread Muslim rebellion, driving various hill tribes deep into Burma and bringing gangs of plundering Haw Chinese to Northern Laos. In the meantime, Lan Na (Northern Thailand) was still at war with Burma, while British and French colonial encroachments had become another threat. Large parts of this region were deserted and depopulated.

The travel accounts of the first westerners venturing into the area offer glimpses of this chaotic situation. These fascinating documents also show that the tough travellers of the past were of a different breed than the roaming backpackers of the twenty-first century.

On his way to the region, Norwegian Carl Bock became irritated by the apparent lack of cooperation from the charge d’affaires of a local prince, so he dealt the elderly man two blows on the back with his stick. ‘The effect was magical,’ Bock stated with satisfaction. On the other hand, some modern travellers may be regarded as being a bit too respectful when making a wai to their samlo driver after arrival at their destination.

The new, pompous monument at the Golden Triangle.

The new, pompous monument on the Thai bank of the Mekong at the Golden Triangle.

Akha children

Akha children from nearby villages selling souvenirs.

Frenchman P. Neis crossed Northern Laos in 1883 when marauding Haw gangs had turned the life of Lao villagers into a nightmare — many of them were living on rafts in the middle of a river, ready to cut the rattan moorings and let themselves float away with the current as soon as warning of the imminent arrival of the Haw was received. Neis narrowly escaped a gang, but lost most of his luggage and valuables. However, he could luckily turn to the king of Luang Prabang for the loan of some bars of gold so that he could continue his trip. Modern travellers who have run into financial problems are less likely to meet with such compassion, even at their own country’s embassy.

Heading for the ‘Golden Triangle’, Neis left Luang Prabang in January 1884. Because of his losses and the outlaw gangs, he had to renounce the ‘honour of opening the route between Upper Laos and Tonkin’ (Northern Vietnam). Instead he returned to Bangkok. ‘I had been far from successful…this return was in the end a retreat, a half-failure,’ he confessed. On his way to Chiang Khong, he met up with a group a armed Lao villagers descending the Mekong in order to join up with the royal forces marching to expel the Haw bandits.

The large Buddha at the Golden Triangle.

The large Buddha at the Golden Triangle.

In Chiang Khong, Neis admired the Mekong, a vast and grand water course. He subsequently entered the plain northwest of it, formerly populous and fertile, but by then almost deserted. Only the village of Chiang Saen was no longer the deserted mass of ruins seen by a French expedition in 1867.

In 1882, Carl Bock had reached Chiang Saen from Chiang Mai, and was much delighted by the scenery: ‘The country round the settlement was most beautiful — the most charming, I think, that I met with during my travels in Indo-China. The river flows along its deep channel…the mountains rise terrace above terrace, range above range…hills and valleys, clothed with magnificent forests of teak.’

Bock had entered this most northern town in the dominions under the rule of the king of Siam with as much éclat as possible. Displaying the Siamese royal standard from a pole in the stern of his boat, however, was no guarantee of the cooperation of the local ruler. Bock’s enthousiasm about the scenery sharply contrasted with his dislike of the local people, who were unwilling to prepare his excursions: ‘They were altogether about as churlish a community, as a whole, as I have ever come across.’

These people were nearly all exiles, banished from their homes in Lamphun and Chiang Mai and sent to this remote spot on suspicion of being possessed by evil spirits. Their minds were likely unsettled by rumours about a Burmese army in the mountains a few miles off, busy making powder and bullets, with the intention of recapturing Chiang Saen. The expectation of imminent hostilities forced Bock to leave for Chiang Mai, but not before extracting a rare Buddha statue from a ruined pagoda, causing him trouble again, as the local believed that by approoriating this trophy he attracted spirits that cause illness and bad luck.

kampans in the Mekong

Dawn in Chiang Saen. Mekong River with kampans from Laos.

long-tailed speedboat in the Mekong

A long-tailed boat in the Mekong.

Interestingly, neither Bock nor Neis observed poppy growing in the Chiang Khong and Chiang Saen area. The latter, however, had observed it in the mountains northeast of Luang Prabang. ‘Meos flood the country with their poor quality opium which they sell much cheaper than the opium from Yunnan is sold.’ He speculated that these hardy people would be resourceful smugglers for the future French Tonkin opium excise depertment to deal with. The Meo (Hmong) had a peaceful relation with the invading Haw, sine, living in the mountains, they couldn’t be easily attacked.

A year later, British cartographer James McCarthy observed poppy growing in much of northern Laos, this being the chief occupation of the Meo and Yao living on the mountain tops. ‘In the months of February the poppy-fields are in full bloom,’ McCarthy wrote, ‘and the large blossoms, tinged with every shade from pure white to deep purple, present a magnificient appearance. Here, also, women are employed, and may be seen moving from plant to plant with china cups, collecting the opim that has been thickly oozing from five to six incisions in the pod…Like all who cultivate the hillsides, these villagers spend several months every year in felling trees.’

A man smoking opium. Opium Museum, Golden Triangle.

A man smoking opium. Opium Museum, Golden Triangle.

In following years, Haw invasions forced a great number of Lao families to seek refuge beyond the Mekong, many of them settling in the valley of the Nam Lao near Chiang Kham under the authority of the Yuan prince of Nan. Many Lue from Yunnan had already settled there. After Luang Prabang had been taken by the Haw in 1887, many Khamu settled in Nan as well, where there was also a growing population of Meo and Yao. Nan extended its influence over parts of formerly Laotian territory, energetically supported by the Siamese.

Meanwhile, Meo and Lao also bagan to settle in the Chiang Khong area. During a visit in the early 1890s, McCarthy observed: ‘Eight years ago the Meo were not to be found on the right bank of the Mekong, but in the interval they had been swarming down.’ When McCarthy met some of them on a mountain top, they shook hands with the local prince of his company in a ‘jolly good fellow’ manner, ‘this method of salutation not being customary with either the Meo or the Lao.’

In 1894, when Frenchman Lefèvre-Pontalis made his incursions in the region, the situation was very ambitious. Following France’s previous year’s ‘gun boat diplomacy’ in the Chao Phraya, all the territory on the left bank of the Mekong was officially under French rule, but local rulers were confused by contradicting territorial claims. ‘Whom should we obey?’ one put it, aware that he could not serve two masters at the same time.

Travel in the former days.

Travel in the former days was usually on the back of an elephant, while cargo was transported by means of caravans of mules. Picture from P. Neis, Travels in Upper Laos and Siam (1884)

A drawing of a Yunnan trader.

A Yunnan trader leading a mule caravan. Drawing by Carl Bock, in Temples and Elephants (1884)

As an explorer, Lefèvre-Pontalis had his share of bad luck as well. All his belongings were destroyed in a fire, forcing him to dress himself like the locals, while a travel companion was shocked to discover a cobra in his bed. The charming appearance of Chiang Khong was only apparent, since the harvest of 1893 was so bad that 400 Kha (Khamu) had died of hunger. The huge plains of the Ing and Kok were still deserted, considered as unsafe for settlement. Lefèvre-Pontalis also observed settlements of Lahu in the mountains and contrasted their and the Hmong’s and Yao’s progress — the migrants from the west and north — with the misery of the Kha, the original inhabitants. He lamented the carelessness of the Hmong (Meo) migrants in deforesting the mountain slopes ‘without the least worry about conservation of the sources or soil fertility.’ However, no mention is made of the opium trade.

On the eve of the World War I, opium cultivation was firmly established in present day Chiang Rai and Phayao provinces. Crossing the region on the back of an elephant British diplomat Reginald Le May more than once spotted far up on the hillside ‘patches of vivid green, evidently the work of mountain tribes, trying to grow a little opium on the quiet, in the hope that the difficulty of approach would prevent the authorities from taking any active steps against them.’

Arriving at Chiang Saen, Le May was also impressed by the Mekong, comparing the beauty of this vast awe-inspiring volume of water with the view of the Himalaya from Darjeeling. Within the walls of the old city, overgrown with teak and thick secundary growth, tigers and rhinoceroses were still roaming. Just south of Chiang Rai, Le May came upon a party of gendarmes leading a number of ‘picturesque ruffians’ to captivity. The captives, who were Hmong, had been surprised in the act of smuggling illicit opium on their pack-mules, and had resisted arrest by opening fire.

Akha women working in a tea plantation on Doi Mae Salong.

Akha women working in a tea plantation on Doi Mae Salong. Growing tea has been promoted in the Golden Triangle as a substitution for poppy cultivation.

However, it was only after the Japanese occupation of Thailand in the 1940s, a chain of events mainly instigated by the colonial superpowers of the day, that the Golden Triangle turned into the Number One drugs centre of the world — but this is quite another story.

Since the late 1970s, the Thai, using force as well as crop substitution programmes, have been successful in eradicating poppy cultivation, reducing its production to less than ten percent of the yield of the former days. Paradoxically, the overall output of the Golden Triangle has hardly been affected, and Thailand is still a major centre of the drugs trade. Diversification into amphetamines in the Burmese areas controlled by the Wa armies has even led to a surge in speed addiction in Thailand, which as a social problem eclipses the former opium and heroin ones. In 2003, at the cost of hundreds of human lives, concerted actions by police and military have brought the amphetamine trade in Thailand virtually to a halt. Whether this success is just temporary or not remains to be seen.

© Sjon Hauser: text and pictures

Many of the travel classics of the region, including the works of the above-mentioned authors, have been reprinted by White Lotus (Bangkok), Silkworm Books (Chiang Mai) and some other Thai publishers. Most are available in Chiang Mai’s Suriwong Book Centre (