David Whitley learns the history of heroin in northern Thailand, but finds that you’re more likely to find tea than opium in the infamous Golden Triangle 

Once upon a time, the hillsides of northern Chiang Rai province were a happy blooming ground for a particularly troublesome flower. The region, reasonably remote and close to the borders with both Myanmar and Laos, was where opium poppies grew with scarcely concealed abandon.

The region became known as the Golden Triangle, and the name has stuck. So has the reputation, even though its one time role as the hub of the global heroin trade has long passed on to Afghanistan.

It might not be the best place to stash up on high grade smack (and resultingly find yourself facing a death sentence in a Thai jail) any more, but it is a fabulous place to learn about the global heroin trade.

There are a couple of attractions in Sop Ruak that are devoted to all things opium, but my education came from a surprising source. The Hilltribe Museum and Education Centre in Chiang Rai is aimed at educated visitors about the hill tribes that live in Northern Thailand. There are problems with language barriers, assimilation, lack of Thai citizenship and education but one of the major issues has been getting enough money to stay out of poverty. In the Golden Triangle’s boom years, a lot of that money came from growing opium poppies.

The history of opium is a colourful, bloody one. The poppy originates in what is now Iraq, and has spread throughout the world from there in the hands of people who realised how nice and woozy the sap from it made them feel. Britain and China fought wars over opium, with Britain being utterly aggrieved that the Chinese wouldn’t let its India-based front company make obscene amounts of money by flooding China with the stuff. China lost those wars – and Britain got Hong Kong as a result.

It all ratcheted up somewhat in 1895, when German pharmaceutical company Bayer had a play with the poppy juice in the chemistry lab. They came up with a version of diacetylmorphine, which they decided to market. Bingo, they thought – a non-addictive alternative to morphine that people could use to treat nasty coughs. Bayer lost the rights to the brand name after World War I – it was a name that may be familiar. Heroin, anyone?

It turned out that it wasn’t quite as non-addictive as first thought. In fact, it was so more-ish that as countries around the world banned it, a lucrative trade emerged in satiating the demand of addicts.

But soon it was the turn of the French and the Americans to take on the epic bastardry baton from the British. Despite being occupied during World War II, the French had enough time to worry about blocked trade routes. They didn’t want India and Persia to have a monopoly on opium production, so they encouraged the Hmong tribal people in the Golden Triangle to bump up production.

Then came the Vietnam War. The French and Americans needed all the allies they could get in the region. With Laos, Vietnam and China all a bit too Communist for their liking, they started forming alliances with tribes. And arming the drug lords who didn’t particularly like the anti-opium Red menaces around them either. Essentially operating under protection, these not entirely pleasant types ensured production boomed. A flood of heroin arrived in the West, gleefully lapped up by US in particular.

A lot of opium is still grown in Myanmar’s chunk of the Golden Triangle, but it has been mostly eradicated in Thailand – partially due to Thai government crackdowns on drug use. In 2003 alone, Thailand imprisoned 92,500 drug users and 43,000 dealers.

But it’s also partly due to eradication programmes. Laos and Thailand have both declared themselves officially poppy free (although not exactly every corner has been thoroughly inspected, and there’s still a steady trickle coming through the mountains in Myanmar).

So where does this leave the people of the area? Well, nowadays you’re more likely to sea tea plantations in these hillsides. Other substitution crops range from rice and coffee to peach trees and asparagus. And tourism plays a part too – the more people that go trekking around the hillsides of Chiang Rai province, stopping to buy food and drink in the villages, the less likely the villagers are to indulge in a spot of highly risky poppy-planting.

In Thailand’s sector of the Golden Triangle, at least, the heroin problem has been dramatically reduced. But it’s like pushing a dead mouse under the carpet to another part of the room. While the growth of opium poppies remains so lucrative – largely due to it being illegal – someone will grow them. We should look forward to trekking tours around the tea plantations of Helmand and Kandahar in about forty years’ time, while the opium-growing shifts to the world’s latest lawless basket case.