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Thursday, 23 January, 2003, 02:17 GMT
New Thai museum addicted to opium
Visitor studies information about opium poppies and where they come from (copyright Mae Fa Luang Foundation)
The exhibits explain how opium is made

Thailand's new $10m opium museum is a brave attempt to uncover the mysteries of a poppy that has conquered the world.

Located near Chiang Rai in the fabled Golden Triangle, a remote and lawless region of South-East Asia, the Hall of Opium will open to tourists later this year.

Exterior shot of museum (copyright Mae Fa Luang Foundation)
The museum is located in the fabled Golden Triangle
Built by a royal foundation with Japanese assistance, the museum covers 6,000 square metres (60,000 square feet) on a grassy hillside overlooking the Mekong River.

Visitors enter the museum through a dark, misty tunnel that leads to the first exhibit - a neat flowerbed of red and white poppies.

This is where the trail begins, with a plant whose white sap is extracted and boiled to make black opium.

This sticky substance is later refined into heroin which users will smoke or inject.

Controversial history

Opium has been used as a pain-killer for millennia, and was legally available in many countries until the start of the 20th Century.

As the museum makes clear, the opium trade has long fuelled wars and revolutions, while generating huge profits for merchants and governments around the world.

Among the most memorable exhibits is a mock-up of a British clipper ship used to carry opium from India to China, where it was exchanged for tea and other spices.

This trade sparked resistance from China's ruling dynasty, which was rudely crushed by British forces in the Opium Wars of the 19th Century.

Visitors can walk inside the galleys of the ship, listen to fiery speeches by gung-ho British envoys and examine reconstructions of the Chinese battlefields.

Reconstruction

Elsewhere there are exhibits showing how opium is prepared and smoked, and video documentaries about real-life victims of drug abuse from around the world.

One of the museum's directors explains that a film about opium preparation is actually a reconstruction based on the experiences of an ex-opium farmer.

In the limited confined space of a few halls the history and tragedy of this part of the world is well represented

Antonio Maria Costa, UN Office on Drugs and Crime
"When we did this movie we had somebody who had done it during the war to show us how, and we used sugar and coconut instead of the real opium, but the consistency is the same," said Than Phuying Putrie Viravaidya.

The museum has taken 15 years to construct, and has employed researchers from around the world, including China and the United States.

Organisers say they want to entertain foreign and Thai visitors, at the same time as opening their eyes to the moral hazards of the opium trade.

"Education alone is boring and entertainment alone is costly, so let them pick up what they see from this place and then they can absorb it themselves," explained curator Mon Rachawon Disnadda Diskul.

"In the last room you see one mirror. Look at yourself, what are you going to do to help this narcotic in a bad way. That's our intention."

This approach to a complex issue is a far cry from the bombastic messages normally used to fight drugs by many countries in this region, where it is not uncommon for traffickers to be sentenced to death.

Drug problems

Thailand is currently struggling to stem a booming trade in illegal methamphetamine pills, known locally as "yaa baa", or crazy medicine.

Yaa baa has quickly overtaken opium and heroin to become the nation's biggest drug problem.

Interior painted ceiling, representing ancient cultures that used opium (copyright Mae Fa Luang Foundation)
Designs represent the ancient cultures that used opium
Officials say that millions of Thais are addicted to the pills, which cost a few dollars each, and they accuse ethnic armies in neighbouring Burma of trafficking them.

Opium poppies once grew in the lush fields around the "Hall of Opium", but have mostly been eradicated by decades of crop-substitution projects.

Probably the most successful is run by the Mae Fa Luang Foundation, which also designed the museum. Around 10,000 villagers live on its 150 square kilometre (60 square mile) site.

Antonio Maria Costa, head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna, praised the foundation for helping local farmers to switch to alternative crops such as coffee and macadamia nuts.

He recently joined a small group of reporters touring the museum and pronounced himself impressed by what was on offer.

"Mankind stands to learn from history and in the limited confined space of a few halls the history and tragedy of this part of the world is well represented and I believe that will send a massive message to everybody," he said.

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