Thursday, September 21, 2017

Nope to dope: Thai museum strikes blow against opium trade

They sat hunched motionless in the corner or sprawled on a mattress, eyes closed or gazing dully at nothingness. Only the fumes moved, curling from the opium pipes, upward to the low ceiling. The Chinese dope fiends, emaciated, listless, abandoned, were losing their tenuous grip on life.

A life-size diorama depicts a typical dope fiend sinking into sweet, sweet oblivion in an opium den. Photo: Khin Su WaiA life-size diorama depicts a typical dope fiend sinking into sweet, sweet oblivion in an opium den. Photo: Khin Su Wai

Indeed, they were not alive, but models in a diorama portraying the disastrous effects of the mid-19th-century Opium Wars.

Hundreds of thousands of tourists are drawn to the Hall of Opium, a 40-hectare Golden Triangle theme park in Thailand’s Chiang Rai province, a mixture of museum, exhibition space, art gallery, culture park and historical re-enactment zone 10 kilometres north of Chiang Saen.

The 200 baht (US$5.60)admission fee will get you access to the 5600-square-metre opium hall, an elegant white building set amid lakes and hills, and deceptively peaceful-looking considering what it has to portray.

The sensation of being wrapped in a drug-induced fever dream begins as you traverse the long entrance tunnel, its walls deepening in colour from violet to vivid green, amid images of narcotic enslavement, addiction and death.

Then you are in the open air, but the relief is transitory, because all around you is a replica of a genuine poppy field, similar to those planted by hill tribes in the region.

Opium plants thrive in the Southeast Asian sunshine. Photo: ShutterstockOpium plants thrive in the Southeast Asian sunshine. Photo: Shutterstock

Visitors can step inside a small theatre to see black-and-white movies chronicling the heroin trade and interviews with opium traders, many of them speaking Myanmar.

One chamber is devoted to narco-artefacts, the playthings of wealthy addicts in ivory and gold, the silver weights used to measure quantities, and pictures of artists afflicted by the poison.

Here are the paintings, the waxworks, the models of the wooden cargo ships that conveyed the raw drugs to their destination, cargoes of scented death.

You can even see the sales contracts from the various countries engaged in the trade, often legal even when lethal, and the advertisements that appeared in the newspapers. That was when I saw the scale models of the shanties, little two-storey houses. You can climb a ladder and look into the windows, into the cramped and claustrophobic rooms, to see the addicts in the grip of the drug, killing themselves softly one day at a time.

Despite its theme, the exhibition is far from being addictive. One visit was enough for me.