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Last Updated: Saturday, 6 December, 2003, 12:00 GMT
Drug tourism in the Golden Triangle

By Kieran Cooke
BBC correspondent in the Golden Triangle, Asia

Lawann - in Thai her name means Wild Jasmine - is being a little difficult. She can't decide where to go. I suggest a gentle stroll - no response.

I try tickling her behind the ear. Lawann gives an exasperated shake of her head, snorts as if to say "Men, huh", and slumps down in the deep red, dusty, earth.

Elephants are not the only tourist attraction in the Golden Triangle
It's 0600 in a jungle clearing in northern Thailand. I'm taking a crash course in being a mahout - or elephant rider.

It's just one of the things the modern day traveller can do in the area. Somehow, as I desperately cling on to Lawann's flapping ears, I don't think I have a great future in the mahout business.

I'm less than a mile from the meeting point of three countries - Thailand, Burma and Laos - an area known as the Golden Triangle. A few miles up the road is the southern China province of Yunnan. It's a region of staggering beauty.

Like the outcrops in Chinese scroll paintings, craggy limestone hills rise abruptly from the surrounding jungle and rice paddies, conjuring up images of dragons' heads and rearing horses. A long veil of mist hangs over the nearby Mekong river.

Smuggling operation

But these parts are not known just for their beauty. For years something far more sinister has been going on here.

The Golden Triangle, encompassing remote mountainous lands in four countries, is one of the world's primary sources of opium, which, when refined, is turned into heroin.

Only Afghanistan is now believed to produce more raw opium than this area.

Every day, sacks full of heroin, from opium poppies mostly cultivated in Burma and refined into white heroin powder by chemists at laboratories deep in the jungle, are smuggled out by mule train, by boat, by truck and small planes.

Opium field
Only Afghanistan exports more raw opium than the Golden Triangle
It is destined to be sold on the streets of Hong Kong, Bangkok, New York and London.

Yet something else, rather strange, is going on in the Golden Triangle: the region has been turned into a tourist attraction, a sort of theme park. There are road signs proudly pointing the way to the Triangle.

There's the Golden Triangle restaurant, the Golden Triangle bar, the Golden Triangle hotel.

In one border town I even came across the Golden Triangle massage parlour, which has a rather puzzling slogan: "Your apprehension is our utmost appreciate".

"The thing is," explained a Thai tour operator, schooled in American style marketing skills, "the Golden Triangle is a great brand. Full of mystery, a hint of danger. People love it."

What's next on the tour operator's agenda? A "Come and Watch the Bombs in Baghdad Expedition", perhaps?

This might be true, but it does all seem a little odd. After all, aren't we supposed to be fighting a war against drugs just the same as we are fighting a war against terrorism, aids, poverty and numerous other ills?

What's next on the tour operator's agenda? A "come and watch the bombs in Baghdad expedition", perhaps?

I take a short boat ride, then a mile-long run in a golf cart, to a Burmese border post. A man in military overalls and flip-flops fills in a form and takes $5 and my passport.

Gambling is illegal in Thailand. Just inside Burma, right on the banks of the Mekong, Thai businessmen have built a gambling complex, called - yes, you guessed it -The Golden Triangle Casino.

Opium museum

It stands out, in an area of such beauty, as a building of stultifying ugliness. Bored, pale-faced gamblers play blackjack and cut-price pornographic DVDs are on sale in the duty free shop.

Far more uplifting is the just opened opium museum on the Thai side of the border, located in The Golden Triangle Park. I was the only visitor. A long dark tunnel through a hillside leads you into a tropical greenhouse full of poppies.

The history of opium is charted: according to Mao Zedong the opium wars and the battle against British traders would eventually give way to the Chinese revolution.

Heroin destined for the streets of the West
There are displays of the way smugglers conceal their lethal cargoes - tins of peaches with condoms stuffed with heroin inside, teddy bears full of white powder and a statue with white dust poking out of its nose.

There is talk of mafia mobsters roaming the hills, of the CIA's sponsorship of the heroin business during the Vietnam War and interviews with warlords at their jungle camps.

Yet, coming out into the sunshine, I have a slightly uncomfortable feeling about the Golden Triangle. The heroin trade that goes on in these parts is a nasty business and it's a trade that's flourishing.

But it's easy to be moralistic. Maybe everything should be up for grabs in the search for more tourists. Maybe eventually the opium growers of today will be tomorrow's tour guides.

Though, with the traffickers still making hundreds of thousands of dollars out of drugs, and demand as strong as ever, that's a very big maybe.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 6 December, 2003, at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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