The Golden Triangle: Opium Dreams & Yaba Screams. Part 1

Table of Contents

An Introduction

I have been coming and going to the Golden Triangle for nearly 25 years, following my Thai wife to her childhood home in rural Northern Thailand. On my first visit, we boarded a night train from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong station and by sunrise we were slowly wending our way through the mountains of the north.

As we neared Lamphun Station, the train came to a slow stop well before the platform and the conductor told us we had to get off right there. I looked out the window and could only see a field with a couple water buffaloes lazing nearby. Apparently, the train was too long with our sleeper car, the last one before the caboose, to make it to the station platform. An attendant placed our suitcases onto the field and graciously helped us down off the train.

We watched the train slowly pull away onto its final destination of Chiang Mai, leaving us standing in a field, suitcases and all. Then I saw a small group of people, my wife’s family, waiving to us at the station’s end, about 50 yards away.

My wife was mad. “How dare they dump us off here!” I rolled with the punch, grabbed the suitcases, and went to meet my in-laws for the first time.

We piled into an old pick-up truck and drove off into the countryside. I watched carefully as we drove past longan and mango orchards full of fruit, endless electric green rice paddies, mangy dogs sleeping roadside, golden Buddhist temples large and small, roadside stands selling smoked coconut water, shallots and garlic, old teak farmhouses, sugar cane and tapioca fields, until we turned down a long gravel driveway, past more longan trees, that led to a big, old house on the outskirts of a village. My wife’s childhood home.

The house was built with teak and laterite stone block, the same used to build Angkor Wat. My wife’s father built this house many years ago when he was young. Now he was old and about to meet his youngest daughter’s husband, a lawyer from Los Angeles.

Enid was a successful man, who like his wife, was born in Lamphun Province before the railroad connected Chiang Mai and Bangkok. And his parents and grandparents were from here, taking the family roots well back into the 19th Century and probably far further. Little did I think then, that this house he built, I would come to think of as home as the years went by long after his death.

Dinner that night was pork stew (gang hung lay), eggplant with hard boiled eggs, sticky rice with spicy mashed green chilis (nam prik noom), and a beloved dish for such a special occasion-spicy pounded jackfruit. At the dinner table everyone watched me eat, spoonful by spoonful. They so wanted me to like their food. I couldn’t understand, but everyone spoke a language different than Thai.

It took me a while to figure it all out little by little. My wife wasn’t Thai. She was northern Tai (not a typo). My first dinner at the house wasn’t Thai food. It was northern Thai food, much of it Shan cuisine. My new family wasn’t speaking Thai. They were speaking their northern dialect, a dialect that would be incomprehensible in Bangkok.

As our train had rocked and rolled northward from Bangkok during the night, somewhere along the way as it crawled into the mountains, we crossed from the Kingdom of Siam into the Lanna Kingdom of the Golden Triangle. Where exactly, I couldn’t tell you.

As the years passed, I came to love life at the old family home. Although the old walls of Lamphun City were now nearly washed away from a thousand years of rain and floods, the culture remained. My wife was more Lanna than Thai, and I was living in a Kingdom no longer drawn on maps but still very much alive.

I was living in the southern realm of the Golden Triangle.


This is Part One of a three part history of the Golden Triangle. Part Two, “The Rise of Heroin”, will look at the years 1955-2000. Part Three, “The Modern Golden Triangle: The Rise of Meth”, looks at the years 2000 to present.

Part One not only deals with the historical legacies that formed the present Golden Triangle, it presents current events which gives context to the past. After reading Part One, you’ll have a very good understanding of the modern Golden Triangle.

My history of the Golden Triangle differs from others. I go back to ancient times to discern a Golden Triangle similar in many respects to the modern Golden Triangle. My history reveals a past that still exists in the present, and therefore will determine the future.

The Golden Triangle is more than bits and pieces of Thailand, Burma, Laos, and China that form the northern bulwark of where Southeast Asia meets China. It is more than the name given to it by economists as the Sub-Mekong region. It is a delicate blend of cultures, languages, cuisines, histories, and politics seasoned by the millennia of time.


Sprinkled throughout this history are vignettes of personal experience, historical flotsam and jetsam, and human narratives. The best way to communicate is by storytelling. (A good narration of history is good storytelling.) I can better describe the use and effects of yaba by telling a simple story of its use, than by a long pharmaceutical explanation of the effects of methamphetamine.

The vignettes, often italicized to distinguish them from simple historical narration, allow me to spice up this work. While this work is based on years of research, I hope you find the writing entertaining, and far from the pedantic style of most academic writing.


The running theme throughout is drugs, specifically opium, heroin, yaba and meth. Since the mid-19th Century drugs have been the major economic force of the Golden Triangle. Any history of this region which ignores this reality is ignoring the proverbial elephant in the room.

And drugs are more than a historical legacy. They are a modern day reality. Illegal drugs today are the most lucrative export of the Golden Triangle. The last couple years has seen an increase in opium and heroin production. More illegal methamphetamine is produced in the Golden Triangle than any other single area of the world.

I believe all drugs should be decriminalized. Drug abuse is an illness, not a crime. When the opium poppy was first domesticated in 12,000 B.C. in the Stone Age villages of the ancient Levant near the Mediterranean Sea, the human condition was improved. This strange looking grey-green plant with its beautiful red, purple and white flowers numbed pain, stopped a cough, and combatted dysentery.

Opium since the Stone Age has also been used in religious ceremonies. It seems a head full of an opium elixir brought you closer to God. Opium has been mixed with alcohol, ephedrine (speed), marijuana and other mind-bending substances and given to their disciples by the high priests of Bronze Age civilizations.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the Golden Triangle, being honeycombed with ancient trading routes, witnessed caravans laden with precious opium before the Christian Age, probably en route to China.

Opium, from which pharmaceutical morphine is derived, has propelled medical science forward. It has brought relief to people in terrible pain. Opium is not evil. It is one of the greatest discoveries of humankind. But opium (or heroin) plays to our human frailties with the result being addiction. Where evil lurked, were the colonial powers of the 19th Century which forced recreational opium use upon Southeast Asia and China. Part One delves into this shameful history.


This history is well footnoted, and many have links to the original source (an advantage over a hardcopy book). Readers who want more information are a mere click away.

Some may stumble upon this work searching the internet for information about the Golden Triangle who themselves are doing research. I encourage you to peruse the footnotes as you may find a few sources unknown to you. For the casual reader, the footnotes will take you to most of the most famous and respected works about the Golden Triangle.


A minor point: I refer to the country as Burma, and rarely use the name Myanmar. Burma is far more romantic sounding. Besides, none of the ethnicities of Burma think of themselves as “Myanmarese” anymore than they think of themselves as Burmese. I have never met a Myanmar citizen who felt insulted when I said “Burma”. (But then again, I’ve never met a member of their ruling Junta either.) So Burma it is.


Please enjoy my attempt to decipher this mysterious land. Comments are welcome, especially your personal stories of the Golden Triangle.

Opium Dreams & Yaba Screams
Enter the Golden Triangle

What Is The Golden Triangle?

The Golden “Triangle” shaded in red.

The Golden Triangle is not a triangle at all. Nor is it the point at which Thailand, Laos and Burma come together, regardless of the scads of tour operators who insist it is. Neither is it a fabled land that only exists in the imaginations of romantic adventurers. And above all else, it is not an anachronism of history whose existence has passed.

The Golden Triangle is a vast contemporary trapazoid of land that spans southern Yunnan Province in China, down through eastern Burma, western Laos, northwestern Vietnam, and engulfs northern Thailand as far south as Lamphun or even Lampang Provinces. It is a land where national boundaries mean little.

The Golden Triangle, often referred to by economists as the Sub-Mekong Region, stretches nearly 500 kilometers north to south-from Sippsongpanna, the southern most prefecture of Yunnan Province in China, to Lampang in northern Thailand. It stretches another 700 kilometers from eastern Burma to encompass the western half of Laos and northwestern Vietnam. That’s 350,000 square kilometers of mountain terrain, great and small rivers, teak forests, electric green rice paddies, cool evenings, tropical downpours and endless jungle scrub.

While there are no precise boundaries, it is as legitimate and irrefutable as the countries within which it exists-China, Thailand, Burma, Laos, and Vietnam. The Golden Triangle is about the size of France. It could’ve been an independent country, but the colonial powers of the 19th Century had different plans.

The Golden Triangle is also a land of political turmoil and silence, violence, poverty, fabulous wealth, dirt roads, high-speed rail, ethnic militias, hungry children and dilapidated one-room schoolhouses. It is still a land where it’s best to make your destination before nightfall.

It’s a region that is bound together by its cultures, languages, food, ethnic identities, the Mekong River, and above all else, an inter-connected economy. Its biggest and most lucrative economic sector today is illegal drugs. Opium/heroin and methamphetamine/yaba. And if you burrowed back in time two-hundred years, opium would still be its most lucrative commodity.

The tourists who gather at the point of Thailand, Laos, and Burma along the Mekong River will tell you matter-of-factly the Golden Triangle is where opium used to be grown, smuggled and refined into heroin. And they’d be wrong again. It still is.

Unperceived by the casual visitor, heroin and meth is made here and courses along the Golden Triangle’s roads, jungle trails and over the Mekong River on its journey to worldwide distribution.

What’s In A Name….

In 1971, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, Marshall Green, gave a speech in which he referred to a vast smuggling empire of opium through an area of Thailand, Burma and Laos as “The Golden Triangle”. 1 Sec. Green was not referring to a geometric triangle, but to a triad of countries: Thailand, Burma, Laos. His speech came just days before President Richard Nixon was to arrive in China for his historic visit, and while the U.S. was grappling with a flood of Golden Triangle heroin into its cities.

The U.S. State Department via Sec. Green was sending a clear message to the Chinese on the eve of Nixon’s visit that it no longer held China responsible for the heroin flowing from the region. For decades the U.S. had blamed communist China for the heroin pouring out of Bangkok and Saigon and flooding the streets of New York. Finally, the U.S. was beginning to admit that the Golden Triangle heroin trade was endemic to the region and that their regional allies-Thailand, Laos and South Vietnam-were deeply involved in it. 2

But was Sec. Green’s speech really the origin of the name Golden Triangle?

The actual origin of the name comes from the exchange of opium for gold bars near the conjunction of the three countries. Pack animal caravans, sometimes having hundreds of mules laden with opium, would trundle southward from the poppy fields of northern Burma and Laos to the town of Tachileik on the Thai border. There, the opium was exchanged for ingots of gold before being smuggled into Thailand. 3  Hence the name “Golden Triangle”.

Marshal Green may have been credited with the name “Golden Triangle”, but the opium for gold exchange had been taking place long before his infamous speech.

Surrounded by Machine Guns

The Hill Country near Fang, Thailand
DATELINE: July, 1999

Darkness was falling by the time my brother-in-law began driving us back from Chiang Saen on the Mekong River to his home in the hills near the frontier with Burma.

He was taking back roads that only a local would know.  The rainy-season downpour that began mid-day had finally stopped. A fog was creeping into this hill country of jungle scrub as twilight turned to darkness. No traffic. No street lamps. Just the occasional faint light of a farmstead as we passed by.

I sat in the front passenger seat rather bored by the darkness. But suddenly, as we rounded a sharp bend, I saw a red flashing light ahead. A large metal boom was lowered across the road, blocking traffic. Off to the left, partially hidden, was a soldier waving at us. He ordered my brother-in-law out of the car.

I looked around and realized that our car was now semi-circled by eight to ten soldiers gripping machine guns. A dull fear well up in me that we had driven into an ambush. In fact, we had. My wife whispered to me that this was Thai military.

A lone soldier cautiously approached, and my brother-in-law greeted him in the local dialect. A conversation ensued with my brother-in-law gesturing at me often and laughing. Within a minute, the soldiers had disappeared back into the shadows and the boom raised. Whatever they were looking for, it wasn’t us.

At the time I didn’t understand. It was my first trip to Thailand with my Thai wife as newlyweds. But soon I came to fathom this brief yet startling encounter. We were travelling the back roads at night-the smuggling routes-of the Golden Triangle.

The Land of Between: Ancient Trade Routes

The ancient trading routes (depicted in white) that traversed the Golden Triangle and connected India and China. The northern Silk Road, depicted in yellow, at the top of map.

The Golden Triangle’s economic destiny was cast in ancient times by its location between two great civilizations-China and India.

The ancient Silk Roads that connected China and Europe first began around the early 3rd Millennium B.C. 4 These were the romantic Silk Roads of camel caravans crossing the unending, windswept deserts of central Asia with shady palm tree oases placed strategically across the parched land. (See above map at top.) But there was another ancient trading route that directly connected China and India called the Southwest Silk Road. 5

The Southwest Silk Road (depicted in white on map above) was a network of caravan trails that wound through today’s Golden Triangle and date back as far as the late 2nd Millennia B.C (circa 1200 B.C.). A land route wound eastward from Bengal through today’s Bangladesh, to Assam and Nagaland in northeastern India, and then into today’s Burma and onward to Yunnan and China.

But there was a quicker way from India to China within the spider web of trade routes that composed the Southwest Silk Roads. From the east coast of India, across the Bay of Bengal to the Gulf of Martaban in today’s southern Burma, then northward through today’s northern Burma and Thailand, then onward to Yunnan and China. This popular route went through the heart of the Golden Triangle.6

This second route, a combination of land and maritime travel, is of great interest to the history and culture of the Golden Triangle. In 400 B.C. the Mon 7 founded the the Kingdom of Thaton on the Salween River just before it empties into the Gulf of Martaban. Thaton quickly established itself as a regional trading mecca and had strong commercial ties with India and today’s Sri Lanka.

Trundling north and south through the Golden Triangle, were caravans stocked with jade, furs, paper, gunpowder, ceramics, silver, cowrie shells (used as money), horses, lumber, herbs, tea, gold, copper, tin, and of course silk and cotton textiles. 8

But the Golden Triangle was more than just a conduit for trading goods between two great civilizations-culture flowed over its caravan trails. Buddhism spread from India to China and most of Southeast Asia via the Golden Triangle’s caravan routes beginning in the 6th Century B.C. 9 More specifically, Theraveda Buddhism (the type of Buddhism now practiced in Burma, Thailand and Laos arrived in Thaton from Sri Lankan monks in the 4th Century B.C. and spread onward through Southeast Asia. Visit any Buddhist wat in Thailand, Burma or Laos today and you will see that the artwork, statutory and architecture came from India.

This ancient trading dynamic still dominates the Golden Triangle today. Many trans-regional roads more or less follow the ancient Silk Roads. Even some of the ancient caravan pathways are still used to evade the authorities to smuggle opium, heroin, gold, gem stones, methamphetamine, and other contraband through the jungle and mountains.

Opium: Commodity of Ancient Caravans

Golden Triangle Opium
Fresh opium latex. Photo Attribution: The Opium Bulbs of Myanmar (2016) The Guardian

Opium was an ancient trading commodity of the Southwest Silk Road. 10 But when the opium trade began along the Southwest Silk Road is unclear. 11 By the 5th Century B.C., these trading routes were teaming with caravans loaded with fragrant oils, silks, spices, medicinal herbs, gems, seeds, gold and jewelry-high value items that were easy to transport and didn’t spoil. Opium would be such an item.

In all likelihood it was first carried through the Golden Triangle around the 5th Century B.C., and possibly earlier since opium has been discovered in Ancient India as far back as the 2nd Millennium B.C. 12 The Kingdom of Thaton was trading with India and Sri Lanka during this time. There is also evidence that Chinese doctors as early as the 4th Century B.C. were experimenting with opium as an anesthesia. 13 It seems more than plausible that opium coursed through the Golden Triangle silk roads sometime during the 1st Millennium B.C.

I am not alone in such an opinion. Martin Booth in his book Opium: A History dismisses the popular notion that opium first came to China in 700 A.D. via the east coast of China. He suggests that opium first came to China via the Golden Triangle in the 1st Millennium B.C. over the Southwest Silk Road:

Just as likely, [opium] arrived from India via Burma, where Chinese merchants were trading in jade and gemstones as early as the third century B.C. 14

Martin Booth

For a complete history of the origins of opium and it’s journey around the world, please read my post: “Following the Opium Trail to the Golden Triangle.”

Yunnan Province: All In The Family

To exclude China’s Yunnan Province from the Golden Triangle would be a betrayal of history, demographics, economics, and simple geography. In fact, many scholars place southern Yunnan Province as a part of Southeast Asia and not China. 15 Yunnan Province, especially its southern half, is fundamental to understanding the Golden Triangle as a whole.

Yunnan since the late 2nd Millennium BC has been part of the Indian Ocean economy and remains so today to a large extent. Yunnan merchants have historically exported their products southward through the Golden Triangle to Thailand, India, and the ports of Vietnam while importing goods from India, the Middle East, Thailand (Siam) northward through the Golden Triangle.

For Yunnan, it has always been cheaper and faster to transport goods through the Golden Triangle than to the more distant east coast of China. This has changed with the building of modern roads, rail transport and aircraft, but only after the 1960’s. In the 1920’s, missionaries in Shanghai found it safer and quicker to travel to Yunnan by sailing to Rangoon, Burma and then overland through the Golden Triangle to Yunnan, than to attempt the journey through southern China to Yunnan. 16

Yunnan wasn’t considered a part of China until the 14th Century. Up until 1949 (when the communists took control), the province excersized much autonomy from the Chinese central government, and was often ruled by warlords or administrators who carved out their own niches of authority and at times claimed their independence from the distant and often impotent power centers of Beijing, Shanghai and Canton.

The cultures of the Golden Triangle-the Tai (the Shan, the Thais, Tai Lue, Tai Laotians), the Hill Tribes, ethnic Han Chinese, Panthay Muslims-all lived and migrated southward through Yunnan Province before settling down across the Golden Triangle.

Beginning around 1820, Yunnan began to grow the opium poppy for commercial export. 17 What started as a trickle became a torrent. Yunnan not only supplied the opium fix for users on the east coast of China, but also to French Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos) and Thailand.

Although during the first half of the 19th Century opium was illegal in China, it mattered little to distant Yunnan. Imperial edicts issued by the Qing Emperors sitting in the Forbidden City of far-off Beijing were given little attention by the warlords who controlled Yunnan.

Yunnan’s mountainous terrain, cool climate and average rainfall, was perfect to grow the opium poppy. By the latter half of the 19th Century it was Yunnan’s most lucrative export commodity. Opium taxes filled Yunnan government coffers. When Qing rulers declared opium illegal and began a harsh eradication campaign, Yunnan shrugged and increased output.

As we shall see, in Burma from 1949-present, in Thailand during the 60’s, and in Laos during the Vietnam War, opium grows best in political turmoil. And this was certainly true for Yunnan at the turn of the 20th Century.

China was racked with civil strife. The Qing Dynasty was collapsing. Yunnan Province was again proclaiming its independence from China. The Yunnan war lords were raising armies to fight against the Chinese central government. Opium was the Yunnanese commodity that paid for their armies. So in the 1900s, while the Central Chinese government was eradicating poppy fields and executing opium traders and farmers, Yunnan was increasing its opium production.

“All aboard!”: The Opium Express

Thousands of Chinese laborers died building the Yunnan-Haiphong Railroad. Photo attribution: Le Chemin de fer du Yunnan

The best historical example that Yunnan economically identified with the countries of the Golden Triangle and not China is the Kunming-Haiphong Railroad built between 1904-1910. The railroad more or less followed an ancient caravan route of the Southwest Silk Road. Built by the French, this railroad had 425 bridges and 155 tunnels along its 855 kilometer route. At the time, it was one of the great engineering feats of the world. Thousands of Chinese laborers died constructing it. As if the French cared.

The railroad’s purpose was to export commodities from Yunnan to the Port of Haiphong in French Indochina and from there to international markets. By 1910, opium was China’s, and Yunnan’s, largest domestic trading commodity. 18 Opium and this railroad were no coincidence.

Enter Paul Doumer, Governor-General of French Indochina from 1897-1902 and future President of France. The railroad was his idea. He was also in charge of French Indochina’s sprawling government opium monopoly-a system where opium was legal as long as it was the government’s opium.

In 1899, Doumer established complete government control over all opium sales in his colony. This French opium monopoly, Le Regie d’Opium, controlled the wholesale opium supply of French Indochina down to opium sales to individual addicts at the thousands of opium dens the government operated throughout the country. To operate such a narcotic monopoly, many tons of opium was needed annually.

Doumer’s streamlining of the French opium monopoly was a desperately needed financial boon for the colony.

Opium sales accounted for the largest share of French Indochina’s tax revenue. From 1900-1920s, opium tax revenues accounted for 20-30% of total tax revenues for French Indochina. 19 Tons of Yunnanese opium was exported to French Indochina where it was distributed and sold through government owned opium dens.

The railroad was a “win-win” for the French and especially the warlords of Yunnan who needed to export their cash crop of opium. The railroad gave French Indochina a fast, economical way to transport their life-blood of opium.

For Yunnan, the railroad literally tied their economic interests to Indochina with steel bonds. The railroad was simply a continuation of an economic destiny cast in ancient times. That destiny, that Yunnan is part of the sub-Mekong region and therefore a part of the Golden Triangle, continues today.

And as we shall see, in the last 20 years, there has been a frenetic pace of building bridges, roads, railroad, port facilities and other infrastructure throughout the region integrating ever further Yunnan into the Golden Triangle region.

Yunnan’s Opium Legacy

When the Chinese communists won the civil war in 1949 and consolidated their power over Yunnan Province in the early 1950’s, the opium trade ended. From the early 1800s to 1950 Yunnan opium had flourished.

But in reality, the Yunnan opium trade migrated south into the Golden Triangle. Prior to 1950, the Golden Triangle produced only a small amount of opium in comparison to what will be produced after 1950.

By the 1950’s, Burma and Laos were beginning to produce tons of opium, and this production would increase dramatically in the decades ahead. The eradication of Yunnan opium fields spurred the commercial production of opium throughout the Golden Triangle.

Modern Snapshots of the Golden Triangle

Top photo: The old road from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. Photo attribution: Crazy Ivory. Bottom photo: Construction of the new Vientiane-Luang Prabang Expressway. Photo attribution: China Daily

Economists refer to the Golden Triangle as the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS). The GMS is made up of parts of eastern Burma, northern Thailand, southern Yunnan, northern Vietnam, and nearly the entirety of Laos. Cultures, geography and the mighty Mekong River link the region together.

As in ancient times, it is trade that is the economic lifeblood of the modern GMS.

Yunnan and Thailand dominate Golden Triangle economics with their well developed economies. Yunnan’s foreign trade alone in the GMS is greater than the total Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Laos. Thailand’s GDP is six times greater than the combined GDP of Laos and Burma. 20

This economic inequality means that Laos and Burma struggle to build their own infrastructure. The first bridge across the Mekong connecting Thailand and Laos wasn’t completed until 1994, and it was paid for by Thailand. Burma’s transnational road, Highway R3B, wasn’t fully paved until around 2010. As of this writing, Lao’s first transnational highway from Boten to Vientiane is currently being financed completely by China.

The modern Golden Triangle is crisscrossed with modern transportation routes that didn’t exist twenty years ago thanks to Thailand and especially China. But as we shall see, infrastructure compliments of China, comes with political strings attached.

Poverty is endemic to the region. It is a sine non qua of the drug trade. Without poverty in Burma or Laos, no one would grow opium. Without poverty, no one would smuggle heroin to China or Thailand for a small amount of money where the death penalty awaits them. The drug trade thrives on poverty.

Poverty is not equal. A rural farmer in northern Laos is poor by anyone’s standards. A rural farmer in eastern Burma is twice as poor. 21 The poor in Yunnan and Northern Thailand have access to schools and health care, and their electrical grids are reliable. In Laos and especially Burma, public schools receive little government support and seeing a doctor is a luxury.

Per capita income tells a similar story. Per capita income in Burma is half that of Laos. Only one-fifth of Thailand, and 17-times less than a person in the United States. 22

The Hill Tribes, the indigenous folk who live in the mountains throughout the Golden Triangle, are the poorest of any of the many ethnicities that live throughout the region. There are villages in Eastern Burma that have no electricity and homes that don’t have indoor plumbing. Such poverty is nonexistent in Thailand or Yunnan.

The most affluent of the Golden Triangle cultural milieu are the ethnic Chinese. They are not Chinese nationals. The ethnic Chinese of the Golden Triangle are citizens of Burma, Thailand and Laos whose families migrated here generations ago. They own the majority of businesses, financial institutions, and trading houses. That financial fact goes back over 200 years and is still true today.

When talking about the modern Golden Triangle, the elephant in the room is the illegal drug trade: heroin and meth. It is the regions most lucrative export product. It is the source of fabulous wealth for a few, and a source of desperately needed cash for many poor to buy food or afford a doctor’s visit.

The backdrop to this kaleidoscope of ethnicities, languages, cuisines, and nationalities is an untamed land of mountains and rivers. Even in its towns, there’s a foreboding of being on the edge. The edge of something inexplicable. Unlike Mexico, wealth and violence of the drug trade are hidden from view.

A trip to the Golden Triangle is always an adventure. Tourism is a burgeoning industry. But resist the temptation to wander off alone into the countryside. And it’s always best to make your destination by nightfall.


When I’m having dinner in Chiang Rai, I never think of China even though the red lanterns of Chinese New Year hang ubiquitously here in winter. Yunnan’s southern border, girded by the nearby Mekong River seems distant. But it’s only a five hour drive from Chiang Rai. Over the last ten years, you are more and more likely to see Chinese tourists in Chiang Rai who have driven here from Yunnan. In fact, Chinese tourists are a leading export of Yunnan to Laos and especially Thailand.

Yunnan’s foreign trade hit $30 billion (US) in 2019 23 of which nearly half was with the Sub-Mekong region. 24

Yunnan, as it’s always been, is the backdoor to China. Yunnan is so much a land of its own, that when you cross its border in the Golden Triangle, you feel as if you’re now in Yunnan, separate from China.

In 2013, China announced its “Belt and Road Initiative”. “Belt” is shorthand for the “Silk Road Economic Belt” through which China improves and develops its trading routes with the rest of the world. Yunnan Province is where China concentrates its Belt and Road Initiative for Southeast Asia and therefore the Golden Triangle.

Since 2013, China has poured money into Golden Triangle roads, bridges, railways, and Mekong ports at a phenomenal cost and scale. This transportation infrastructure, which I will detail shortly, has profoundly changed the Golden Triangle. It is the reason why Chiang Rai is flooded with Chinese tourists who arrived by car (pre-Covid).

If you’re in the modern Golden Triangle, you can announce wherever you might be, that all roads lead to Yunnan.


The biggest error people make about Thailand, is believing it’s a backward, developing country. Tourists wish for the quaint, seldom visited Thailand of the 1970s, but are met with the modern Thailand of 2020. Thai GDP in 1970 was $7 billion (US). Thai GDP in 2019 was $544 billion (US)! 25 Returning overland to Thailand from Laos or Burma, is transiting from Third World to First.

Thailand’s largest trading partner is China, and it uses Yunnan as a gateway to the Chinese market. The importance of the Greater Sub-Mekong Region to the Thai economy is a late bloomer. The first bridge to span the Mekong, the First Friendship Bridge, didn’t open until 1994, connecting Nong Kai (Udon Thani) with Vientiane, Laos.

Over this bridge and three others between Chiang Saen and Nong Kai, as well as on the Mekong River, Thailand exported to Laos in 2021 nearly $4 billion (US) in goods.26 Thailand sees Laos as a poor cousin. The language and alphabet are recognizable. The Buddhism identical. The cuisine similar. The moonshine stronger.

Thailand exported to Burma in 2021 slightly more than $4 billion (US), 27 which is roughly the same as Laos even though Burma is a much larger country. There are many reasons why Thai exports to Burma are stunted. Political turmoil and poverty are the main reasons.

Thailand’s relation to China, and therefore Yunnan, is complicated. The Thai economy is large enough that trade relations with China have much more “give and take” than China’s trade relations with Laos or Burma (It’s all one-sided). China is Thailand’s biggest trading partner, although the US is a very close second. 28

Thailand’s trade with China, combined import/export totaled slightly over $90 billion in 2021 29 It is unclear the value of Thai exports that goes through Yunnan. A fair estimate is approximately $10 billion (US) annually to Yunnan through a variety of ports, roads and air.

Thailand is the banker of the Golden Triangle. More so than China. It has a sophisticated banking system and financial services industry that has a long history of handling Golden Triangle financial needs, whether legal or illegal.


Laos is a product of 19th Century politics where it was used as a pawn in a colonial chess game. In many ways, Laos is an extension of Northern Thailand. But don’t tell the Laotians that!

Laos continues to play its historic role as a transit country whereby it gleans revenue by taxing trade, mostly between Thailand and Yunnan. In 2021, total exports were valued at $7.5 billion (US) 30 Almost all Laotian trade is with the Sub Mekong region.

Laos calls itself the “Battery of Southeast Asia”. It has built over 80 dams along its many rivers and exports that hydroelectric energy to all Golden Triangle countries, especially Thailand.

Unfortunately, all this dam building will be the death of the Mekong River. A mega-dam is currently being built up-river from Luang Prabang that will bring the Mekong River close to being nothing more than a series of step-lakes instead of a free flowing river. A Thai banking consortium is paying for this latest dam (more are planned) and will reap the benefits of cheap energy. Ten thousand people from over two-dozen villages will displaced by this single dam. 31

China has economically “captured” Laos through its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. Laos is too poor and its terrain too mountainous for the country to build its own transnational transport system. So China did it for them…and oversees their use. China built a transnational railroad from Vientiane to Yunnan’s border, and is currently building a modern freeway from Vientiane to Yunnan’s border.

Since the Pathet Lao won the civil war in 1975, Laos has had a Communist government. It is rather benign, but follows China’s lead. Therefore capitalism is permitted and the Laotians are quite entrepreneurial. Rural Laos is very poor.

Laos may be the most romantic country of the Golden Triangle. Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of the Kingdom of a Thousand Elephants draws myriads of tourists a year. And for good reason: Here you can still glimpse a time that has long past. A time not quite yet forgotten.


In 1989, the military junta changed the name to Myanmar. They figured that Myanmar was more inclusive than Burma. The people didn’t care. They were no more Myanmarese than Burmese.

Burma is what Einstein would call a singularity. A one-time event never again to be repeated. It is a land where time is warped. When you cross the border by land, you are taken back in time. In Moulmein, you may find George Orwell smoking a pipe of opium. In Rangoon, you may find Rudyard Kipling sipping gin. In the hills surrounding Keng Tung you’ll find villages that have more in common with the Bronze Age than the Modern Age.

It is a dangerous land. The government and its soldiers (the Tatmadaw) are the danger. It is a poor land. In rural Burma, the electrical grid is often nonexistent. Even in the cities the grid is primitive and fragile. Food can be scarce in the countryside. Pond algae and giant bugs are sold in rural markets as food. The children will break your heart.

The best gauge of Burma’s economy is Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita. In 2020, Burma had a GDP per capita of $1187 (US) which is one of the lowest of the world. 32 For comparison, Laos (also considered a poor country) had a GDP per capita of $2,551 (US) 33, over twice that of Burma. Thailand: $7,233 (US). 34 The United States: $69,287 (US)35

Burma is the land of Theraveda Buddhism which came in the 4th Century B.C. from Sri Lanka and spread throughout Burma, Thailand and Laos. Although there are Muslims and Christians, Buddhism dominates the spiritual soul of the country. The two most important Buddhist shrines, Shwedagon Pagoda and Golden Rock are here and pilgrims from around the world come to worship.

On February 1, 2021, the Burmese military retook control of the country after a free election soundly defeated the ruling Junta. They claimed the election was “rigged”. The Junta had previously overthrown the civilian government in 1962, but between 2011-2020 had permitted some civilian rule and acquiesced to opening up the country. That ended in 2021. Currently, it is nearly impossible to be granted a visa. The countryside is in open revolt against the military.

But economic life does go on. China supports the Junta and Burma’s bilateral trade with China is $19 billion (US),36 of which $6.6 billion is with Yunnan Province. 37 In 2021, Thailand exported to Burma $4 billion (US) and imported $2.8 billion (US) 38

Throughout this book, I call the country Burma, not Myanmar. Personally, I use the terms interchangeably. I’ve never met anyone from Myanmar that was offended if I called their country Burma. The name Burma has an advantage of history, since Myanmar is a late 20th Century name. Regardless, of all the Golden Triangle countries, Burma is the most enigmatic and tragic.

Golden Byways: Roads, Bridges, Trains & A River

Top photo: Mule caravan carrying opium in Shan State, Burma (circa 1960) Photo attribution: Transnational Institute. Bottom photo: High speed rail line from Vientiane, Laos to Kunming, China, 2021. Photo attribution: Xinhuanet News

Nearly the entire Golden Triangle is buckled and riven by mountains, hills and valleys with rivers great and small slashing through it. That’s why it’s a smuggler’s paradise. And that’s why modern transportation infrastructure is so lacking, and what does exist is fairly recent.

There are 3 main roadways that traverse the Golden Triangle from north to south. There is the Highway R3A from Boten, a small Laotian town on the Yunnan border, that connects with Ban Houayxay on the Thai border. There is the Highway R3B that cuts through Burma from Mong La on the Yunnan border to Tachileik on the Thai border. The third trans-Golden Triangle route is currently under construction. It also starts (or ends) in Boten but goes to the capital Vientiane on the Thai border.

As of December, 2021, a brand new rail line opened that connects Vientiane with Boten. From Boten the train connects to the capital of Yunnan, Kunming. Within a few years, Thailand will build a rail bridge over the Mekong so this train can connect with Thailand. Soon you will be able to board a train in Bangkok and travel by rail to Kunming, traversing the heart of the Golden Triangle.

Probably the most important artery of the Golden Triangle is the Mekong River. From the river ports of Jinghong and Guanlei in Yunnan, to small ports in Burma and Laos, to the ports of Chiang Saen and Chiang Kong in Thailand, onward to Luang Prabang and Vientiane, the Mekong River ties together the Golden Triangle. More goods are carried by the river than any other means. And that includes heroin, yaba and meth.

Let’s take a brief look at these trans-Golden Triangle transportation routes. These modern routes mimic the caravan trails of the ancient Silk Roads.

Highway R3A: Boten to Ban Houayxay

Currently, HWY R3A is the best paved and safest road to travel between Yunnan Province and Thailand. Map attribution: Mappr

HWY R3A twists and turns for 228 kilometers through the mountains and hills of northwestern Laos-prime opium country. Construction on the roadway began in 1994 and wasn’t completed until 2008. China and Thailand financed road construction. It is mostly a two-lane paved road, and takes about 5 hours to travel between Ban Houayxay and Boten.

Boten is a small border town with China whose heyday always seems to be around the corner yet never arrives, although the opening of the Vientiane-Boten rail line may finally change that. A few years back, casinos, bordellos, restaurants and hotels were being built at a crazy rate for Chinese tourists to come across the border and gamble. (Gambling is illegal in China except for Macao.) Although Boten is a Laotian town, Chinese officials put an end to all gambling which immediately vanquished the Chinese tourists.

Ban Houayxay is a small town on the Mekong River and sits across from Chiang Saen, Thailand. This rural town is in Bokeo Province, one of the busiest smuggling areas of the Golden Triangle. Not far from here in 1968, opium barons engaged in a three day firefight over 20 tons of opium. Ban Houayxay also was home to some of the first heroin refineries in the Golden Triangle in the 1970’s which were owned and operated by Laotian military general Oaune Ratticone, a powerful opium baron.39

Ban Houayxay has benefited from the completion of HWY R3A. Over the last 20 years, the village has become a town, with hotels and tourists. The town also sits next to the Golden Triangle Economic Zone which is home to the Kings Roman Casino complex. The Kings Roman Casino has been linked to money laundering, drug smuggling, and the illegal wildlife trade.

In 2013, the 4th Friendship Bridge was opened that spanned the Mekong River, connecting Ban Houayxay with Chiang Saen. This led to a substantial increase in HWY R3A being used by Thailand and China for import/export cargo.

Highway R3B: Mong La to Tachilek

HWY R3B runs from the Burma/China border at Mong La (Dalvo on the China side) down through Kengtung and finally south to the Burma/Thai border city of Tachileik (Mae Sai on the Thai side). The road is 270 kilometers and was completed in 2004.

The Burmese government made agreements with the ethnic militias of Shan State to build this highway. 40 The agreement was simple-build the road and you can impose tolls on its traffic. The government chose the Hong Peng Co. for road construction between Keng Tung and Tachileik. Hong Peng Co. is largely controlled by Bao Youxiang, the head of Wa State41 and the commander of the United Wa State Army (UWSA). Bao Youxiang was a known opium baron during the 1990s, and the UWSA was once known as the largest narco-militia of the Golden Triangle. 42

For the section of HWY R3B between Mong La and Kengtung, the government chose the Asia Wealth Co. for construction which is controlled by Lin Mingxian, who during the 1990s made his initial fortune smuggling opium and operating heroin refineries in and around Mong La.43

In recent years, I have traveled to Keng Tung on HWY R3B. It’s a lonely road. Traffic is sparse. It cuts through some of the poorest regions of Shan State. There are several tolling stations between Tachileik and Kengtung, and it’s always unclear exactly who our driver is paying. It’s best to make Kengtung by nightfall, as you never want to travel R3B after dark.

HWY R3A through Laos is a preferred route over HWY R3B for security reasons. While Laos may be considered corrupt, Burma is considered lawless. Since the 2021 military coup, fighting between the Tatmadaw (Burmese military) and the ethnic insurgents has broken out in the region traversed by HWY R3B. This Golden Triangle route has always been an adventure. It is now a dangerous adventure.

The Vientiane-Boten Expressway (Not Completed)

When completed, this expressway will define commercial and vehicle travel between China and Thailand. The Chinese owned Yunnan Construction and Investment Group is footing 95% of construction costs with China lending Laos the remaining 5% to invest in the expressway. 44 China will control all tolls on a roadway that runs completely within Laos.

This will be a true expressway with four lanes (two in each direction) and speeds averaging up to 100 kilometers per hour. When finished, the expressway will be approximately 450 kilometers long.

The first section has been completed from Vientiane to Vieng Vang which is 110 kilometers distance. Vang Vieng has a colorful opium history as it is located in an area where the Hmong Hill Tribe grew opium by the ton for over a century. During the Laotian Civil war (1962-1976) the CIA built an airfield here and its airline, Air America, flew in and out of the village. There is credible evidence that the CIA via Air America flew Hmong opium from many of these airstrips to Vientiane where heroin refineries were located.45

From Vang Vieng, the expressway will go to Luang Prabang and onward to Boten and the Chinese border. The First Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge was completed in 1994 which spans the Mekong River and connects Vientiane with Nong Khai, Thailand.

The Vientiane-Boten Railway

The Trans-Golden Triangle High Speed Rail Line. Photo attribution: GoKunming

A modern rail line was completed in December, 2021 that connects Vientiane with Boten. The railway cost $6 billion (US) to construct with China paying nearly $5 billion and loaning to Laos the balance of $1 billion.46 The railway is 422 kilometers long with 75 tunnels and 167 bridges. It was the largest construction project in Laotian history. Prior to this railway, Laos only had 4 kilometers of rail track in the entire country.

This railway, along with the Vientiane-Boten expressway, is the result of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Foremost, this railway is in the economic interests of China and Thailand. Many economists question if Laos, a poor landlocked country, can afford the billion dollar debt payments. And like the Vientiane-Boten expressway China is currently building, this rail line is controlled by the Chinese.

The railway continues onward from Boten to the Yunnan capital of Kunming. Plans are being made to build a rail bridge from Vientiane to Thailand which will then link up to rail service to Bangkok. (There is currently a small gauge rail bridge between Vientiane and Thailand, but another bridge with larger gauge rails is needed to connect to the new “Kunming Line”.

The Mekong River

Chinese ship being unloaded at Port of Chiang Saen, Thailand. Photo attribution: Chiang Rai Times

The romance, danger and intrigue of the Golden Triangle flow along the dark currents of the Mekong. It is the leading commercial conduit of the region with approximately 300,000 tons of cargo shipped on it annually. 47 All commodities destined for international trade via Thailand, including heroin, meth and yaba, must cross the Mekong whether by bridge, boat or plane.

The Mekong has a single advantage over asphalt highways-it’s the cheapest method of shipping within the Golden Triangle. But is has a big drawback-it’s the slowest. From the Port of Chiang Saen in Thailand heading up-river to the Port of Jinghong in Yunnan can take 3-5 days. Using HWY R3A, a trucker can make the trip in less than a day.

The river is dotted with ports. Starting from Yunnan and following the river downstream, there is: Jinghong and Guan Lei, China > Hsop Lwe, Burma (Mong La) > Xieng Kok, Laos > Wan Pon, Burma > Mouang Mom, Burma > Chiang Saen and Chiang Khong, Thailand > Luang Prabang, Laos > Vientiane, Laos.

The only modern, developed ports with reliable security from the list above are Jinghong, Guan Lei, Chiang Saen, Chiang Khong and Vientiane. The others, especially the Burmese ports of Hsop Lwe and Wan Pon, are isolated, small jungle ports where people and cargo come and go, often with little government oversight.

An even greater boon to smuggling are the Mekong’s infinite number of “unofficial” ports of entry. Almost anywhere along its banks, small vessels and long-tail boats (the choice of smugglers) can find safe landings. And from these covert landing areas, there are dirt trails leading into the jungle scrub.

The Mekong River has always had wildly fluctuating water levels due to the summer monsoon season. China has built numerous dams up-river that have channeled away more water and which has exacerbated low water levels. During times of low water, larger ships have difficulty navigating the river. Even the patrol boats used by a consortium of Chinese, Burmese, Thai and Laotian police and military can have difficulty navigating the river at low water flows.

Smugglers often use Thai long-tail boats that can operate in only a couple feet of water. At times of low water, smugglers can literally run circles around the patrol boats.

While Thailand and especially China have greatly improved river security over the last 10 years, the river remains a smuggler’s paradise-whether for drugs, people, gems, teak or guns. The patrols can be infrequent and understaffed. The smugglers watch the river around the clock with more eyes than the police; and they have far better intelligence about police activity than the police have of the smugglers.

The Opium-Heroin/Meth-Yaba Economy

Top photo: Golden Triangle “Double UO Globe Brand” heroin. 97% pure. Bottom photo: Sacks of Golden Triangle Yaba.

The Golden Triangle illegal drug trade is valued at more than $40 billion (US) annually.48 49 To comprehend that number consider this: $40 billion is nearly six times the value of total legal exports of Laos, or ten times the value of all Thai exports to Burma. Without a doubt, illegal drugs, heroin and methamphetamine, are the regions most lucrative exports by far.

From the Golden Triangle, heroin and meth flow in all directions. Northward into China, first to Kunming as a distribution point, then eastward to the metros of China’s east coast. Southward to Thailand and into Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Pacific Basin and Australia. And lastly, eastward from Burma into India and Bangladesh and even onto to Europe.

The flow of drugs cannot be staunched. High amounts of interdiction merely means high amounts of manufacture. The War on Drugs simply drives prices higher, making the drug trade ever more lucrative.

The greatest change in the Golden Triangle drug economy over the last 50 years is the dominance of meth manufacturing over heroin refining. Meth is cheap and easy to make. Heroin is difficult to make and an expensive high. In Bangkok, a yaba pill can cost $2-3 retail, while its production cost in Burma is pennies. A single heroin high can easily cost $10, depending on purity levels.

Heroin is a labor intensive commodity. You need farmers to grow the opium poppy to produce opium, and you need skilled chemists to make heroin. But even given that, a kilo of heroin sold at the wholesale level in Australia (70% of heroin in Australia comes from the Golden Triangle.) will have a value between $175,000-$230,000 (US)50 while the cost of the opium is only about $2,500 and the cost of refinement another $5,000 dollars.

It is estimated that as much as 700 metric tons of opium is currently produced in Shan State, Burma. 51 Seven hundred metric tons of heroin will produce approximately 70 metric tons of heroin base (#2 heroin) and approximately 55-60 metric tons of high-grade heroin (#4 heroin) annually from just Burma alone. (Laos also produces opium and refines heroin.) Only Afghanistan currently produces more opium than the Golden Triangle.

It should be noted that as of this writing, armed conflict has broken out all over Burma, including Shan State, as a result of the military coup of February, 2021. The result has been an increase in opium/heroin production in 2022 due to the political turmoil. As shall be explained in more detail, the opium poppy grows best in political turmoil and violence. 52

The drug economy is not a “trickle down” economy. The profits are not shared equally, if at all. It shouldn’t surprise us that the cartels that control international distribution profit immensely while the opium farmers and the drug mules make the least.53

In Shan State, Burma, where most Golden Triangle opium is produced, one in nine households is directly involved in opium poppy cultivation.54 On average, an opium farmer receives between $150-$250 (US) per kilo of opium although in 2021-2022 prices have increased. (Prices fluctuate substantially.) Since it takes 10 kilos of opium to make 1 kilo of heroin, the farmer(s) receives $1,500-$2,500 for a product that will have a wholesale value of $150,000-$300,000.55

Opium-Heroin. Meth-Yaba

Paint the Town White

Photo attribution: Australian Federal Police/The Royal Thai Police 56

The Port of Laem Chabang, Thailand
Dateline: July 5, 2021

Even a casual look at the bill of lading for the 20-foot shipping container #PCIU125-340S would have revealed a questionable cargo.

Two-hundred and seventy 5-gallon drums of white paint, Jotun brand, was being shipped from Thailand to Queensland, Australia? Jotun is a Norwegian company that distributes its paint worldwide, including a large distribution hub in Queensland. Shipping coal to Newcastle in a sense.

The container was 3/4 empty except for the paint drums. The cost of the container, custom’s and brokerage fees, port charges, tariffs, trucking fees and warehousing would cost far more than its small cargo of house paint.

But the Port of Laem Chabang has thousands of containers coming and going everyday. Computers look at bills of lading, not humans. Random checks of containers are worthles-nothing more than a shot in the dark. And so, container PCIU125-340S was a needle in a haystack.

In early 2021, the Australian Federal Police had set up a ruse. They covertly released “ANoM”-a supposedly encrypted app that anyone could download and use. A cyber Trojan Horse to catch criminals. Soon the police began to monitor suspicious messages between Thailand and Queensland. Even on encrypted apps, smugglers don’t speak plainly.

After a month of monitoring these cryptic messages and some old-fashioned detective work, the Federal Police finally had a solid lead-container #PCIU125-340S waiting to be loaded onto a ship at the Port of Laem Chabang.

On July 5th, the Thai Police were officially notified and wasted no time pulling the container for an x-ray exam. The x-ray showed the 270 paint drums as listed on the manifest, but it also revealed inside 130 of the drums, smaller packages, one to each drum.

The Thai police pried open a drum, reached inside the white paint, and pulled out a small plastic box wrapped in celophane. Inside was 2.4 kilos of Golden Triangle Double UO Globe Brand heroin-95% pure and whiter than the paint it was submerged in. The finest heroin in the world.

Total confiscated haul-314 kilos, nearly one-third metric ton. Value: $117 million (AU). One of the biggest heroin busts ever both in Thailand or Australia.

The container was traced to a nearby warehouse. The next day, Ms. Tukta Boonanlu, who had rented the warehouse was arrested. She quickly revealed who was behind the heroin smuggling-a father and son. Anount Aonaium, the son, was arrested the next day in Phitsanoluk where more heroin was found. Under Thai law, the death penalty surely awaits him. Aek Aonaium, the father, fled to Laos where the heroin was probably refined and has since disappeared into the Golden Triangle.

Australian Federal Police arrested two Queensland men in this smuggling scheme, but refuse to release their names, saying only they belonged to an international drug cartel.

There were whispers throughout the Golden Triangle that the 2021 opium harvest was a banner year. 2022 will be better yet. To make 314 kilos of heroin, you need 3,140 kilos of opium. The Golden Triangle produces over 500,000 kilos of opium a year.



Golden Triangle Opium Poppy
Golden Triangle poppy, lanced and oozing opium latex. (2017) Attribution: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Opium: a bitter brownish addictive narcotic drug containing morphine that consists of the dried latex obtained from immature seed capsules of the opium poppy (Papaver Somnifera).

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

While we can logically assume that opium was brought through the Golden Triangle in ancient times via the Southwest Silk Road, no one knows when the opium poppy was first grown in the region.

The opium poppy thrives in the cool mountain climate of the Golden Triangle, and loves the limey soil conditions found there. Opium does not grow in the valleys of the Golden Triangle. Therefore, the common belief is that the Hill Tribes, who live in the mountains, were the first poppy growers. On their subsistence farms, they initially grew the poppy for personal use.

Morphine is the active ingredient of opium and is effective in treating malaria, dysentery, coughs (opium also contains codeine), fatigue, and of course pain. Before it ever became a cash crop, the Hill Tribes used opium as a medicinal.

Opium became a commercial commodity for the Golden Triangle starting in Yunnan Province in the early 19th Century.57 By the late 19th Century, the entire region-French Indochina, Siam, British Burma, and Yunnan Province were all producing opium commercially to satiate the demand of millions of opium users in China and Southeast Asia.

Poppy field in Shan State, Burma. Photo attribution: Transnational Institute

In 1970, a fundamental change happened in the Golden Triangle opium trade. Prior to that, opium for the most part, was exported to Bangkok, Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore or Saigon to be refined into heroin. In 1969-1970, probably as a result of the Vietnam War, heroin refineries began to appear in the region and began producing high-grade heroin-95% pure-aka China White. Brand name: Double UO Globe Brand.

The Double UO Globe Brand (photo of a kilo brick at top of chapter heading) was first refined in Laos in the 1970’s and made a name for itself around the world as the finest white heroin. This heroin, because of its high purity, is made for injecting. Since then, heroin refineries all over the Golden Triangle, often use this name to brand their product.

The Double UO Globe Brand depicts two lions draped over the world. This is an official Shan State motif that has been used on flags, insignias, even bank notes of Shan State. 58 Shan State, located in eastern Burma, is the largest producer of opium/heroin in the Golden Triangle.

By the mid-1990’s, the Golden Triangle produced more opium/heroin than any other region in the world. But its heyday would not last long. In 2006, opium (and therefore heroin) production reached a bottom, but again steadily rose until 2014 when it began to fall again. But in 2021, opium/heroin production began rising again like an irrepressible vampire from his coffin. 59

Afghanistan is the current leading producer of opium/heroin having surpassed the Golden Triangle in the mid-1990’s. The old adage of opium growing best in political turmoil was again proven true. The civil war in Afghanistan has now ended and the Taliban has promised a crack down on opium growers. This may well spur an increase in the Golden Triangle production to satiate world demand.

Today the Golden Triangle produces anywhere between 500-800 metric tons of opium annually which can produce approximately 50-80 metric tons of heroin. The outlook for 2022 is for a bigger opium haul. The price of a kilogram of opium paid to a Hill Tribe farmer began increasing in 2021 which is a good harbinger that 2022 will see a bigger opium crop.

Yaba & Meth

Yaba: More profitable than heroin. Photo Attribution: Ye Aung Thu, Asia Times

On A Knife’s Edge

Chonburi, Thailand July 10, 2020

The glint of an 8 inch knife blade blurred across the eyes of the 20-year old wife. She was able to jerk her head away just in time so the knife only grazed the side of her neck. But it was still enough to draw blood. Siriluk instantly grabbed her kid that was clinging to her legs and ran out of the house bleeding and screaming.

Her husband was on a six day Yaba bender. Six days-144 hours-without sleep. After day three, the hallucinations started. By day six, his paranoia assured him that everyone, including his wife and child, were out to kill him. And so he armed himself with an 8 inch hunting knife.

The police quickly showed up. Her neck wound was bleeding profusely but by Buddha’s grace was superficial. The police entered the house with guns drawn.

They found the 32-year old husband in an upstairs bedroom. His body was covered with self-inflicted stab wounds and his hunting knife was protruding from his chest. Surprisingly, he was still alive and rushed to the hospital.

Scattered on the bedroom floor were those signature little red pills. The police knew what they were before they even bothered to pick them up as evidence. Each pill carried the “WY” brand-the best Golden Triangle yaba available. 60


The Golden Triangle produces most of the methamphetamine snorted, smoked and injected in the Eastern Hemisphere of the world. 61 Let that sink in.

Actually, the truth is a bit more amazing. A very small section of the Golden Triangle, eastern Shan State in Burma, produces a lion’s share of meth used in the Southern Hemisphere. 62 Whether it’s the back alleys of China, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Basin, Japan, Bangladesh or India, odds are high that the meth was made in eastern Shan State.

Facts: In 2021, 150 metric tons of meth, including yaba, was seized by police in Southeast Asia. 63 Meth production has exploded in the Golden Triangle. In 2011, only three tons were seized. 64 Experts believe that for every ton seized, ten tons goes undetected. 65 That means in 2021, the Golden Triangle produced approximately 1,280 tons of crystal meth and yaba pills.

Golden Triangle methamphetamine is mostly produced and sold as either a small, translucent crystalline rocks (ice) or yaba. Yaba is the pill form of meth.

Yaba is a fitting name. In Thai, “ya” means medicine and “ba” means crazy. Crazy Medicine. Yaba is usually smoked, sometimes ingested and rarely injected. Crystal meth is snorted, smoked, or injected. But regardless whether you’re smoking a yaba pill or snorting a line of ice, it’s meth all the same.

A yaba pill is usually 20%-30% meth and the rest is caffeine. Ice is usually 100% meth.

Meth is a debilitating drug and as addictive as heroin, maybe more so. Heroin can make you drift off to sleep forever, the ultimate pain relief. Meth can make you into a paranoid axe-murderer. They are opposite drugs. Heroin is Mozart. Meth is punk rock.

Rarely is meth prescribed by doctors. Pharmaceutical methamphetamine is legally produced under the brand name Desoxin. But its addictive qualities are so high (like heroin), and its side effects so alarming that when doctors much reach into their pharmaceutical bag of tricks, they will prescribe an amphetamine, not a methamphetamine. Methamphetamines are far more powerful than amphetamines.

Yaba appears first in Thailand in the late 1980’s, and it isn’t until the 1990’s that meth and yaba take root and spread to Laos and Burma. Today, it’s overwhelmingly used as a recreational drug, great for parties and raves. Yaba is a cheap high. Young people clubbing in Bangkok or Chiang Mai take it. Long distance truckers love it. Working people with physically hard jobs depend on it. Students cramming for exams need it.

Methamphetamine is made from ephedrine or pseudo-ephedrine (called precursor chemicals) which is smuggled into the Golden Triangle from China and India. Ephedrine comes from the ephedra plant and has been used as a stimulant since before even the Stone Age, making its use even older than opium.66 The use of ephedra as a stimulant can be traced back to 50,000 B.C.,67 where it was found in burial sites.

Methamphetamine was first produced by Japanese chemists in 1893 when the active ingredient of the ephedra plant was isolated and the organic compound was named Ephedrine. A few years later the Japanese discovered how to make the crystalline form of meth using a different synthesizing process.

World War II was the coming out party for meth. The Germans at first freely gave it to their soldiers. 68 Japanese kamikaze pilots were well juiced on it. But the Germans quickly learned an important lesson about this drug. They found that their soldiers after coming down from a meth high were worthless zombies for the next couple days. Worse yet, they noticed some of their meth-head soldiers had a penchant for gratuitous violence and at times turned their weapons on their fellow soldiers and officers. By 1940, the German army abandoned meth as a battlefield drug.

Ice and Yaba are produced and distributed by the same Golden Triangle drug lords and protected by the same ethnic militias that control and protect the heroin trade. 69 Ice and yaba production will explode in the early 2000’s and concentrate in Shan State and metastasize to Laos. 70 I will pick up the trail of meth and yaba in the 3rd part of this Golden Triangle adventure.

Cultures of the Golden Triangle: An Ethnic Soup

Take my wife….

At first glance, the Golden Triangle appears to be a cacophony of ethnic divisions, languages, cultures and nationalities. There are the Shan, the Thai, the Laotians, numerous Hill Tribes, the Chinese, the Wa, the Kokangese, and more, all having their own traditions and language. But from this apparent demographic chaos emerges a sensible order.

Take my wife.

My wife is from Lamphun Province in Northern Thailand. She speaks Thai and the northern dialect of Kham Mueang. Kham Mueang is the language of the family dinner table and the local market. It’s the dialect of Northern Thailand. If she spoke Kham Mueang in Bangkok, nobody would understand. But when she has a conversation in Kham Mueng with the locals of Keng Tung located in Shan State, Burma, hundreds of kilometers from Lamphun, she’s understood. Why?

The answer is simple: In the Golden Triangle, borders-those imaginary lines on a map-make for poor cultural barriers.

My wife’s cultural touchstones of language, food, and dress are often more akin to the Tais (the Shan) of Keng Tung than with the Thais of Bangkok. And that makes perfect demographic sense. Keng Tung, aka Chiang Dung, was part of the Lanna Kingdom which included Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai and Lamphun. Traveling from Lamphun to Keng Tung is like visiting a not-so distant family member.

This cross-border cultural dynamic applies to all the different ethnicities of the Golden Triangle. The diverse Hill Tribes of Yunnan, Thailand, Laos and Burma all maintain their cultural identities regardless of national borders. Example: The Lisu or Akha of Thailand have more in common with the Lisu or Akha of Burma or Yunnan than they do with Thais even though they are both citizens of Thailand.

The borders of Southeast Asia were mostly drawn up by Britain and France in the 19th Century for the purpose of colonialism. Even Thailand, a country that was never colonized, has borders that were a response to English and French gunboat diplomacy. Golden Triangle borders have little cultural value.

There is nothing hodge-dodge about the assorted cultures of the Golden Triangle. There is only rhyme and reason to the discerning eye. To have even a rudimentary grasp of this region, you must grasp a basic understanding of this demographic soup. The Tai, the Thai, the Laotians, the Mon, the Hill Tribes, the Ethnic Chinese, and the Panthay (Hui Muslims) are some of the ingredients of this soup.

The Tai. Not Thai!

The Shan

The Tai people began migrating from southern China into the Golden Triangle and southward into today’s central Thailand beginning in the late 1st Millennium A.D. Around 1000 A.D., they began migrating in mass probably due to political unrest and violence. By 1100 A.D., they were well settled throughout today’s Burma, Laos and Thailand.71

The Tai that settled in Burma became the Shan. The Tai that settled in Laos became Laotian. The Tai that settled in Northern Thailand became part of the Lanna Kingdom. There are Tai Lue, Tai Yuan, Tai Lao and many other Tai ethnic sub-groups, but they all originate from the Tai.

In Siam (today’s central Thailand), a curious transformation occurred with these new migrants. By the 13th Century, there were enough Tai people to challenge the power of the Angkor/Khmer Empire which controlled central Siam. A new Tai kingdom, Sukothai, rose to power and they ruled Siam for nearly two centuries. Sukothai was the first capital of Siam. The Tai of Sukothai became known as the Thai.

The original Tai migrants of 1000 A.D. lived in the valleys and flat lands of the Golden Triangle and brought with them rice farming and the concept of small city-states such as Chiang Mai, Nan or Chiang Rai.72 In today’s Golden Triangle, the Thai, Shan and Laotians mainly live in the flat lands, either in the countryside or the cities, and many still grow rice or other agricultural crops.

Shan State

The term “Shan State” can be confusing and needs an explanation, especially for those not an expert on Golden Triangle politics. Shan State is not an independent country, but it is far more than a mere province.

Shan State is a political entity within the country of Burma. It stretches from northern Thailand to the Chinese border and holds roughly a quarter of the land mass of Burma. Its population is around six million, mostly Shan, but also many Hill Tribe peoples and some ethnic Chinese.

The Shan are Tai. Nearly a million Shan live in Thailand, but they are called Tai Yai (Big Tai) not Shan. As I pointed out earlier, the Shan speak a language similar enough to the northern Thai dialect that the two groups can understand each other.

Independent Burma broke its colonial bonds to England in 1949, and the new constitution established Shan State as an autonomous region within Burma. The Shans have never considered themselves to be part of Burma. In 1989, the Burmese military changed the name of the country to Myanmar in an attempt to make its different ethnic regions more accepting of the Rangoon central government. The Shan didn’t care. They are no more part of Burma than they are a part of Myanmar. They are Shan.

Currently, approximately 80% of all opium poppy grown in Burma comes from Shan State. And most of that opium poppy is grown east of the Salween River by Hill Tribe farmers in a region called the Shan Hills. Some Shan do cultivate the opium poppy, but the Hill Tribes are the main growers.

Along the Shan State border with China are the ethnic enclaves of Wa State, Mong La and Kokang that historically have been the most prolific areas of opium production. In the 1990’s, these regions led the world in opium and heroin production which will be discussed in detail in Part Two of this series.

The Shan Hills region is one of the most isolated regions in the world. It has few roads, paved or unpaved; a spotty, and in places non-existent, electrical grid; and grinding poverty. Opium is the only cash crop available. A person of European stock will draw unwanted notice when traveling this region.

A few years ago I stood at a crossroads in a broad valley in rural Shan State. The rice fields were electric green. To the west a distant mountain range rose up across the horizon . A bumpy two-lane road wound westward and disappeared into the haze of the far-off mountains. “Are we in Burma?”, I jokingly said to our driver. Oblivious to my joke, the driver told me that no I wasn’t in Burma. But if I follow this road for three days I’d get to Burma. He then emphatically told me that I was in Shan State.

Hill Tribes of The Golden Triangle

Hmong Women
Hmong women. Photo attribution: Teseum

Throughout the mountains of the Golden Triangle, often far from any roads, from Yunnan to Northern Thailand, live the Hill Tribes. Akha, Hmong, Lisu, Karen, Yao, Lahu, Pa-O, En, Palaung, to name of few.

The Hill Tribes have distinct languages-that is to say a person speaking the Lahu language will not be understood by an Akha speaker. They have distinct cultures, cuisines, textiles, religious practices and social mores. The term “Hill Tribe” paints with a broad brush and glosses over the fact that each Hill Tribe is unique.

What they do share in common is their lifestyle, work, and socio-political rung on the Golden Triangle demographic ladder. They are by far the poorest of all the ethnicities of the region.

Hill Tribe Origins

No one can say with any specificity when Hill Tribes began migrating into the Golden Triangle. We know they came from China but where and when is unknown. Demographers will say ambiguously that Hill Tribes have been living in the region for thousands of years. But they can’t say who, where or precisely when.

We do know that the current Hill Tribes that now live in the Golden Triangle began migrating en mass starting in the mid-19th Century from southern China. Political turmoil and violence, economics, population pressures, all contributed to Hill Tribes pulling up stakes in southern China and moving to a similar environment in the Golden Triangle.

The term “Hill Tribe” only came into use in the late 1950’s when Thailand began to develop government policies toward them. 73 In Thailand, China, Burma, Laos or Vietnam, Hill Tribes have alway been last in importance for government assistance or recognition.

Hill Tribe Villages

The Hill Tribes or Hill people, live in the hilly scrub that covers much of this region. The Tai peoples live in the valleys. The ethnic Chinese for the most part reside in urban areas.

Their tiny villages, composed of one-room houses made of bamboo, sisal twine and thatched with palm leaves, are usually at an elevation around 1,000 meters high. A critical fact and no coincidence. Opium thrives at 1,000 meters and can’t be grown in the lower valleys.

Their villages are transitory by design. They are slash and burn farmers (swidden agriculture) and when their fields are exhausted of nutrients, they move on. Slash and burn takes a heavy toll on the land and air quality and governments, especially Thailand and China, have implemented programs trying to stop this lifestyle and make their villages permanent.

Hill Tribe Opium

Poppy farmer tending her field. Photo attribution: The Transnational Institute

The Hill Tribes are the poppy growers of the Golden Triangle. There are a few Shan and Tai that grow the poppy, but overwhelmingly the Hill Tribes grow the poppy and collect its opium.

In the 19th Century, when Yunnan began to commercially export opium, the Hill Tribes grew the poppy on their small, terraced farmsteads. Not only are the Golden Triangle’s hills the ideal elevation for the poppy with its cool temperatures, but its soil, rich in lime, is also ideal. It quickly became their only cash crop. When turmoil came to 19th Century Yunnan, the Hill Tribes simply moved south to Burma, Laos and Thailand. They brought opium poppy cultivation with them.

Opium has always been the perfect crop for the Hill Tribes. Plant in Fall, harvest in Spring. As a Winter crop, it doesn’t interfere with their rice, maize, beans, gourds, chilis or potato crops. And no irrigation needed. Just a little rain, not too much, will make their poppy fields bloom purple, crimson and white.

But what the Hill Tribes love best about growing poppy is that unlike other crops, they don’t have to bring their opium to the market. The buyers come to them. In fact, often the buyer pays for the crop before they even plant it. And the buyer pays cash on the barrelhead. Sometimes opium is the only source of cash for a family.

Hill Tribe Economics

Prices paid to a Burmese poppy farmer for 1 viss (1.6 kilograms) of raw opium. A viis is a common unit of measure for opium sales. Graphic attribution: The Transnational Institute.

A Hill Tribe village is often not part of any electrical grid. If a rutted, dirt road does reach a village, the villagers think of themselves as well-connected. A simple clinic or one-room school could be a couple hours walk down a jungle path. Life is tough. It’s carved on their faces.

A Hill Tribe farmer and his family in Burma or Laos live a nearly subsistence life. The average Hill Tribe farmstead is roughly one-half hectare which is a little more than one acre.74 If the family grows the poppy, they will dedicate about half their farmstead to it, or about one-quarter hectare, which can yield 4-5 kilos of opium.75 The price a Hill Tribe farmer can sell his opium to an opium merchant has fallen drastically over that last 10 years. The current price has rebounded somewhat in 2020 and a viss76 of opium sells for about $225.77 There is preliminary evidence that in 2022, due to the current political violence, that opium prices will double.78 Good news if you grow poppy.

A small Hill Tribe farmstead that produces 3-5 kilos of raw opium will earn between $600-$1,000 (US) annually in 2020. In 2022, with a rise in price, they may earn $800-$1,500. This often is the only cash income for the family. It is spent on food, medical expenses, and other basic needs.79


Simple question: How many Hill Tribe people are there? An accurate answer is impossible. It is very difficult to canvas the mountains where the Hill Tribe live and get an accurate census. For Laos and especially Burma, it’s impossible.

Yunnan Province and southern China has the biggest population which probably numbers over 10 million. Thailand could easily have a population over two million. Laos around a million. Burma is the greatest mystery because of its utter lack of reliable census data of any kind. Burma is also the most important country with respect to its Hill Tribes because it is the main opium producer of the Golden Triangle. Suffice to say that Burma has millions of Hill Tribe inhabitants-not as many as Yunnan, but many more than Thailand or Laos.

The Panthay Muslims

Photo attribution: Frontier Myanmar

An Inglorious End

The Sultanate of Dali, Yunnan.
December 26, 1876

Du Wenxiu sat transfixed. His mind lost in thoughts of what could have been. And so he took no notice when a palace attendant placed a small silver box of opium next to him as he had commanded earlier.

The end was near. His Sultanate was surrounded by the Manchu Emperor’s finest military. Their canons rained down hell-fire on his besieged city of Dali. But Du Wenxiu was at peace. He knew his course of action.

The rebellion he led against the Emperor was about to end in a spasm of bloodletting. The Emperor takes no Muslim80 prisoners. His people would be slaughtered, man, woman, and child. But it doesn’t have to end this way he thought.

In Du Wenxiu’s mind, he never led a Muslim rebellion. He led a rebellion that had both Muslim and Han Chinese soldiers. He even allowed his Han soldiers to eat pork. His desire was an independent Yunnan. Not a caliph.

His birth parents were not Muslim. When he was young, his father died and his Han mother remarried a Muslim. And so Du Wenxiu practiced Islam. Yes, he was the Sultan of Dali, but that didn’t mean his Han subjects were blasphemous heretics. Han and Muslim could live together peacefully in Yunnan.

But the Emperor despised Muslims and encouraged the Han against them. That’s what started this rebellion 17-years earlier. To the Emperor, the life of a Muslim was less than worthless. Better dead.

Du Wenxiu had one last plan. The early years of the rebellion went well for him. He captured nearly all of Yunnan. And if a town surrendered, he allowed the inhabitants to live. And so he thought that if he surrendered to the Emperor’s army, they might let his people live.

He roused himself and ordered his horse be saddled and readied. He took the silver-wrought box of opium and put it inside his tunic. He went directly to the courtyard where his last remaining captains had gathered. After a short farewell he mounted his horse and rode out of his palace alone toward the enemy.

As he rode, he took out the silver box and opened it. A black lump of opium the size of his thumbnail lay at the Sultan’s discretion. Yunnan’s finest. A fatal dose. Without hesitation, he swallowed the opium.

By the time Du Wenxiu reached the enemy, his body was slumped forward against the neck of the horse. As the soldiers gathered round, he fell to the ground. Dead.

But the commander of the Emperor’s army had his orders. The dead sultan was propped up and his head cut off. The head was then placed in a vat of honey for the long trip back to the Imperial Palace in Peking where the Emperor waited.

Du Wenxiu was wrong. His surrender did not avert a blood bath. The Imperial soldiers hunted Muslims through the streets of Dali and Yunnan, killing thousands. Maybe tens of thousands. They cut off their ears, man, woman and child, enough to fill a dozen large baskets, and sent that to the Emperor too.

And so ended the Panthay Rebellion of Du Wenxiu. 81


In Burma, they are called Panthay Muslims. In Thailand, the “Haw”. And in Yunnan, the “Hui”. They are the historic traders and merchants of the Golden Triangle. Their role in the economy of the Golden Triangle is so great they cannot be overlooked. Their role in the opium trade cannot be ignored.

The Panthay guided pack animal caravans throughout Yunnan and Southeast Asia possibly as long ago as 2,000 years. 82 Unbelievably, these caravans continued until the 1970’s, trundling up and down mountainous mule paths to trade with the most isolated villages in Burma and Laos. 83

Originally the Panthay were from Yunnan Province and they brought goods south through Burma, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam for trade. On their return trips, they would bring goods from these countries northward. They were savvy traders and made a profit coming and going. 84

In 1856, the Panthay, dissatisfied with their treatment by their Chinese rulers, declared Yunnan Province the “Islamic Kingdom of Yunnan” in an attempt to break away from China. And so the “Panthay Rebellion” was born which led to disastrous consequences. The Rebellion was eventually crushed in 1873 and the Chinese Qing rulers carried out a brutal purge against the Panthay.

The result was that many Panthays fled for safety in Burma and Thailand and continued their trading caravans in their new home countries. The Golden Triangle was now infused with an ethnic trading class thanks to the political instability of Yunnan Province.

The Panthay and the opium trade were a match made in heaven. During the 19th Century, as Britain and France were establishing “opium monopolies” in Burma, French Indochina, and Thailand, the Panthay were smuggling cheap, untaxed opium from Yunnan into these countries. The Panthay could also penetrate the rugged jungle scrub of the Golden Triangle with their sure-footed mule caravans and reach the isolated villages where the opium poppy grew. They would purchase the opium from the Hill Tribes and bring it to market.

After World War II, the Panthay were the most sophisticated smugglers of the Golden Triangle using their 2,000 year history of caravanning. They knew the secret back routes. They knew how to get by the Burmese or Thai military without being seen. They knew how to cross borders secretly. They knew who to pay.

Today, the Panthay continue their trading ways throughout the Golden Triangle, but they have left the opium trade behind. They have exchanged their mules for long distance big rigs. But the contribution of the Panthay in fusing the Golden Triangle into a single economic entity is profound.

The Mon: Buddhas and the Golden Silk Road

Take My Wife…Again

Sipsongbanna in Tai Lue: ᦈᦹᧈᦈᦹᧈᦵᦋᦲᧁᧈᦘᦱᦉᦱᦺᦑ᧑᧒ᦗᧃᦓᦱ
Ancient Mon Script: မအခဝ်လိက်မန်တြေံ
Lamphun Province in Thai: จังหวัดลำพูน
Lamphun in northern Thai: ᩃᨻᩪᩁ

As I mentioned earlier, my wife is northern Thai, from Lamphun Province more specifically. Her parents, grandparents, great grandparents are all from Lamphun. Before that she doesn’t know. Odds are her family roots go very deep in this part of the Kingdom.

She likes to believe her ancestors came from the legendary Sipsongpanna, aka Xishuangbanna, the southern-most Yunnan prefecture bordering Laos and Burma. Many Thais like to believe that some part of their family tree comes from Sipsongpanna, just like many Americans claim to have a little Cherokee blood in them.

The Tai of Sipsongpanna are Tai-Lue. The colorful banners you often see hanging at the Lamphun wats are a Sipsongpanna tradition. As is kao lam, sticky rice stuffed into sugar cane stalks and roasted over a charcoal brazier that sells at the local morning markets. Or the ubiquitous pa-sin, the simple sarong that northern Thai women wrap themselves in.85

But Lamphun Province is not solely Tai culture. It is the only place in the Golden Triangle where the Mon lived. The Mon Kingdom of Hariphunchai: 750 A.D.-1292. Downtown Lamphun City has a statute to a Hariphunchai queen. There’s a Hariphunchai museum that’s rarely visited. The remnants of a moat and city walls were originally built by the Mon, not the Tai.

King Mengrai of the Lanna Kingdom, that is Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, etc., surrounded Lamphun in 1292 ready to crush it. But tales of Lamphun’s beauty, Buddhist art, architecture, and its sophistication made him pause. Out of respect, he simply conquered the Mon Kingdom with little violence. Instead of slaughtering the vanquished, as were kings wont to do back then, he celebrated the Mon as new members of his Lanna Kingdom.

The Mon of the Hariphunchai Kingdom thereafter freely assimilated into the Tai stock of the Lanna Kingdom.

My wife may well be right that she is tied to the enchanted land of Sipsongpanna. But she probably has Mon blood flowing through her as does much of Siam.


The Mon do not live in the Golden Triangle. Mon State in Burma lies outside any current cartographical definition of the Golden Triangle. And but for one exception, the Hariphunchai Kingdom, the Mon throughout history have never lived in the Golden Triangle.

But the Mon have fundamentally shaped Golden Triangle culture in the most fundamental ways-Buddhism and international trade.

The Mon are the first mass migrants to Southeast Asia. Of course there were small Stone Age settlements that dotted the region prior to Mon arrival. But the Mon are the first to settle in significant numbers across Siam, southern Burma, Laos and Cambodia.

They originated from China and descended southward along the great rivers of the Mekong, Irrawaddy, Salween and Chao Praya beginning 5,000 years ago. (Circa 3,000 B.C.) By the time the Tai began showing up in the region, the Mon had beat them by nearly three thousands years.

The Mon Kingdom of Thaton is what draws our attention to the importance of Mon culture to the Golden Triangle, and all of Southeast Asia for that matter. This ancient kingdom was established as early as the 4th Century B.C. in today’s southern Burma near where the Salween River empties into the Gulf of Martaban. The Gulf of Martaban opens to the famed azure waters of the Andaman Sea which is part of the Indian Ocean.

It was no coincidence that Thaton instantly became a trading hub for Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean. It makes great sense to believe that Thaton was founded in this precise location because of trade. And it’s also not a coincidence that at the time of Thaton’s founding, 400 B.C., that the silk roads connecting China and India were beginning to bustle with trade. History has no coincidences.

Thaton quickly established trade with both India and Sri Lanka. Thaton had a great advantage in trade: it was a maritime route. India and Sri Lanka brought goods via ships, not via the more arduous land routes.

Buddhism originated in the 6th Century B.C. in India and quickly spread to Sri Lanka.86 Ships from Sri Lanka arrived in Thaton around 300 B.C. carrying Buddhist monks who preached a unique Buddhist dogma-Theraveda Buddhism. Theraveda Buddhism took root and became the dominate religion in Burma, Siam and Laos. Today, Theraveda Buddhism is practiced all over the Golden Triangle and remains the dominate religion.

Walk into any Buddhist wat in Thailand, Burma or Laos and look at the art and architecture. Thank the Mon.

The Thaton Kingdom gave the Golden Triangle one more attribute-the Golden Silk Road to China. Across the Indian Ocean to the Andaman Sea, up the Gulf of Martaban, to Thaton, northward following the Salween River to northern Burma and finally to Yunnan-the ancient Golden Silk Road. From Yunnan onward to China.

The Kingdom of Thaton connected China to the Indian Ocean via the Golden Triangle. Again thank the Mon.

The Ethnic Chinese

Chinese New Year in Chinatown, Bangkok. Photo attribution: Thailand Insider

There is one final ethnic group that deserves attention when deciphering the demographic mileau of the Golden Triangle-the ethnic Chinese.

Ethnic Chinese usually refers to a person of Han Chinese stock-the biggest demographic group in China. (Remember: Hill Tribes and Tai Peoples may come from China, but they don’t identify as Chinese.) Ethnic Chinese identify as Chinese, speak Mandarin or Cantonese and carry on Chinese traditions.

Through the generations, the ethnic Chinese have miscegenated into the mainstream of Southeast Asian life. The red lanterns of Chinese New Year are ubiquitous throughout the region, including the Golden Triangle. Kokang, Wa State, Mong La and Boten are all areas along the Sino-Golden Triangle border where Chinese is the lingua franca and the yuan the common currency.

The Chinese have been migrating into Southeast Asia for centuries with mass migration beginning in the mid-19th Century (circa 1850). In 1600, there were 100,000; by 1850-1.5 million; by 1940 nearly 8 million. 87 Of the entire current Chinese diaspora (those living outside China or Taiwan) 80% live in Southeast Asia88 Thailand, Laos, Burma and Vietnam today have at least 10-12 million ethnic Chinese.

The ethnic Chinese migrated to Southeast Asia and the Golden Triangle for the same reasons as did the Tai, Hill Tribes, and Panthay Muslims-political turmoil and violence. From 1850-1920 was a time of violence, rebellion, and economic depression in China.89 They came for a better life.

The ethnic Chinese played a special role in the opium trade of colonial Southeast Asia. In British Burma, French Indochina and Siam (never a colony), the ethnic Chinese were offered the franchise rights to distribute opium. These were the legal opium monopolies of the mid-19th century and the ethnic Chinese administered the different monopolies, which included running the thousands of opium dens from 1825 until shortly after 1900.90

By the late 19th Century, opium smoking was referred to as “the Chinese Habit” by Europeans. There was certainly racism attached to that description, and while millions of Chinese opium users did migrate to Southeast Asia who indeed smoked opium, there were plenty of Tai and Hill Tribe inhabitants that also partook.

Starting in the 1950’s, remnants of the Chinese Nationalists-the Kuomintang (KMT) after losing the Chinese Civil War, fled via Yunnan Province into the Golden Triangle. They immediately began dealing in opium and later in heroin becoming for a time the largest heroin cartel in the world.

The first heroin refineries set up in the Golden Triangle in the 1970’s were run by Chinese chemists who were brought in from Hong Kong by Chinese criminal societies.

Today, these same Chinese criminal societies largely control the international distribution of meth and heroin from the Golden Triangle to points all over the world. The ethnic Chinese dominate the financing, money laundering, and banking to support the Golden Triangle international drug trade.

In other words, from the mid-19th Century onwards, the ethnic Chinese have been the Golden Triangle’s finest entrepreneurs.

The Origins of The Golden Triangle Opium Trade

Queen Victoria. Reign: 1837-1901

God Save The Queen

“We have heard that in your own country opium is prohibited with the utmost strictness and severity:—this is a strong proof that you know full well how hurtful it is to mankind. Since then you do not permit it to injure your own country, you ought not to have the injurious drug transferred to another country…”91


Viceroy Lin Tse-hsu wrote this letter to Queen Victoria on the eve of the 1st British/China Opium War. Where he got the idea that England prohibited opium was wildly inaccurate. The Brits loved their opium and had no laws against its use.

On top of that, the intended recipient of his stern letter, Queen Victoria, would become a daily user of opium. 92

Queen Victoria preferred to take her opium from the Royal Apothecary in laudanum form-opium dissolved in a solution of alcohol-every morning. She also got a kick (literally) out of chewing gum laced with cocaine. She was once given chloroform to ease the pain of childbirth and said it was “delightful beyond measure.” 93 The Queen loved her drugs.

During the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) her government exported thousands of tons of opium from their colony British India to China, Siam, British Burma, Singapore, and Malaysia creating tens of millions of addicts across the Far East. This set off the Golden Triangle opium trade which today is still going strong.

God save the Queen.

God Damn the Pusher Man: The British

American newspaper cartoon showing John Bull (England) forcing opium at gunpoint on the Chinese. 1864

While science was giving us morphine, the hypodermic needle and heroin during the 19th Century, Britain and her colonial empire were forcing opium upon China and Southeast Asia through gunboat diplomacy. After all, Britain was the preeminent military power of the 19th Century and with such power comes the hubris of “might makes right”. The morality of pushing opium stood second to the profits of pushing opium.

This often told story of Britain’s Far East opium cartel and its opium monopolies is fundamental as to how and why the Golden Triangle developed its current drug economy of heroin and yaba. The tumbling dominoes that Britain set in motion centuries ago are still falling today.

“Without the drug (opium), there probably would have been no British Empire.”

Carl Trocki 94

The earliest written reference to opium in Southeast Asia is from 1366 when King Ramatibodi, the first king of Ayutthaya, codified a prohibition against its use. 95 The Kingdom of Ayutthaya (1351-1757) existed in central Siam south of the Golden Triangle region. This prohibition tells us that not only was opium a well-known commodity in the 14th Century, but that its abuse was widespread enough to codify a law against it.

The first record of Europeans bringing opium to the region is in 1519. The King of Martaban made a trade pack with Portuguese traders to allow opium to be unloaded from ships in the Gulf of Martaban (the region of the current city of Moulmein, Burma). While we don’t know for certain where this opium was destined, we can surmise that it probably followed the Silk Road from Martaban to Yunnan Province-the normal flow of trade. The fact that there needed to be a special trade agreement for opium shows that this was no ordinary commodity.

By 1650, the Dutch and English seafaring merchants were routinely importing opium into Southeast Asia. 96 But a striking change was taking place. This imported opium was not being used for religious or medicinal purposes as it had originally; it was being used for diversion and escape. And the Europeans realized a basic economic fact-that importing opium was more profitable than importing other commodities. 97

Enter the British East India Company

The British East India Company (BEIC) was founded in 1600 as a trading consortium for British commercial interests in Asia. It functioned as an arm of the British government.

During the 17th Century, the BEIC began trading more and more opium into China and Southeast Asia as they too realized the stunning profit potentials of trading a narcotic. They sourced their opium from India which the British controlled and would soon colonize. Indian opium was considered the finest tasting in the world.

In 1800, the British, through their colonial appendage the BEIC, oversaw the import of over three metric tons of opium into China. 98 By 1810, opium was the most important commodity between India and China with opium being nearly half the cargo carried by BEIC ships.99

The British had whet the appetite of the Chinese for opium by the early 19th Century. Toward the end of that century, the appetite would be insatiable.

The Far East Response: “Just Say No”100

Addiction to opium (morphine) is stark. The eyes become sallow and the skin a corpse-like pallor. Lethargy is a way of life. The body dwindles to an emaciated form as the narcotic kills hunger. Life is consumed with a single desire-suck on an opium pipe.

The rulers of China and the Kingdoms of Southeast Asia could plainly see the effects unrestricted opium use had on their subjects. And so they banned it.

In response to the burgeoning British opium trade, China and the kingdoms of the Golden Triangle banned the narcotic. King Bodawapaya of today’s Burma banned it in 1782 and threatened to pour hot lead down the throats of any opium eater. 101 Siam in 1826. Cochinchina (Today’s southern Vietnam) in 1820. And China as far back as 1729.

These prohibitions against opium use were as ineffective then as are our modern-day drug laws. In other words, they had little effect on supply and drug use. Britain was too powerful and China too weak to enforce its opium ban. The Europeans simply ignored these bans and continued to supply the Far East with an ever growing amount of opium. China had no choice but to cast a blind eye to the opium trade and only sporadically enforce its laws against its own citizens, and never against the British merchants who supplied the drug.

And so between 1800-1840, the export of opium from India by the British became the most lucrative trading commodity.

Opium Economics: Tea for Opium

When the first British traders began commerce with China, they found something that Brits in their cold, damp island loved-Chinese tea. The Chinese had other trade items the British loved such as silk and ivory, but it was Chinese tea that British merchant ships were stuffed with starting in the late 18th Century and increasing into the 19th Century.

To the frustration of the British, the only commodity the Chinese wanted in payment for their tea was British Sterling Silver. Boatloads of tea departed China, and boatloads of British silver arrived. The British soon realized that this trade imbalance would bankrupt them. Their silver reserves were dwindling.

It was at that economic stress point that the British looked to opium to balance trade. Their colony British India produced the finest opium and lots of it. The profit margins were sky-high. And so the Brits began flooding the Chinese market with Indian opium. And from the British view, since opium was addictive, such a commodity ensured an ever-growing and loyal market. And the Brits were right.

To pay for all this opium (hundreds of tons annually) China began giving British merchants their silver back. By the 1830’s, the flow of silver was reversed with the Chinese now running a significant trade deficit as a result of the British opium trade.

The Opium Wars

The Chinese Emperor could no longer tolerate the British opium trade. His kingdom was being bankrupted by the outflow of silver, and millions of his subjects were now addicted to a narcotic. And so in his mind he had an easy recourse. Enforce China’s laws against opium consumption.

In 1839, the Emperor dispatched Viceroy Lin, a hardnosed palace official, to stop the opium trade. This is the same man that two years earlier had written a provocative letter to Queen Victoria requesting she halt the trade. Viceroy Lin went to Canton, the main trading port of China, where he threatened the British opium merchants and confiscated about 15 tons of their opium and threw it in the harbor. To the Brtitish, this was an act of war.

The result was the first British Opium War of 1839. Britain sent a fleet of war ships to Canton and crushed the Chinese. After the war, China cowered back to not enforcing its opium laws. But the real prize for the victor was that China, upon British demand, gave them Hong Kong which the British would promply turn into an opium depot. So if you ever wondered how Hong Kong became a British territory, the answer is opium.

Twenty years later, a second Opium War was fought with Britain over the actual legalization of opium in China. Again the British won and in 1860 China reversed its ban and legalized opium.

These two Opium Wars opened the flood gates of opium into China. 1880 was the peak year in which the British exported about 73 metric tons of Indian opium to China. 102

The Poppy Fields of Yunnan

The flood of Indian opium into China created millions of addicts-a guaranteed consumer base. An addict doesn’t care where his next fix comes from and will readily buy from the cheapest source. And so a secondary source of opium developed-Chinese opium from southern China and especially Yunnan Province. For the first time, the Golden Triangle was being called upon to satiate millions of Chinese addicts with home-grown opium.

As the British poured an ever increasing amount of opium into China in the 18th Century, Yunnan began a “black market” domestic cultivation. While China had banned opium in 1724, enforcing such a prohibition in far-off Yunnan was impossible. As early as 1736, the opium poppy was a common crop along the Yunnan/Burma border. 103

In the 1820’s, Yunnan in earnest began commercial opium cultivation to meet the needs of millions of users on China’s east coast. Its climate and terrain were ideal. Its opium only half the price of Indian opium. By the 1860’s opium was a common commodity in the markets of Kunming, Yunnan’s capital city. 104 By 1887, one-third of Yunnan agriculture was dedicated to the opium poppy. 105 Grow it in Yunnan and smoke it in Shanghai.

After 1850, Yunnan opium was increasingly exported to Burma and Siam to meet their growing narcotic demands. Towards the end of the 19th Century, Yunnanese opium became so valuable that it was traded for pure silver of equal weight. 106 A kilogram of pure silver bought you a kilogram of pure opium.

Chinese domestic opium production surpassed Indian imports sometime in the late 19th Century. By 1900 China was the largest producer of opium in the world with a crop yield estimated at 30,000-40,000 metric tons annually, much of it grown in Yunnan. 107

What happens in Yunnan doesn’t stay in Yunnan.

As opium poppy cultivation increased in Yunnan during the 19th Century, it also migrated south into Burma and today’s Laos and Vietnam. Political strife, warlordism, ethnic violence in Yunnan Province and southern China all contributed to poppy cultivation heading south.

Opium was a 19th Century cash crop of Yunnan. Local warlords demanded it be grown to provide the needed cash to buy weapons to outfit their militias. War is expensive. (Opium for guns is a Golden Triangle dynamic that exists today more than ever.) It was a heavily taxed commodity. It is also a labor intensive agricultural commodity.

The burden of producing opium mostly fell on the indigenous Hill Tribes that eked out a subsistence living in southern China and especially Yunnan. The opium poppy grew best in higher elevations where the Hill Tribes lived. They had been growing small amounts of opium for personal or village use well before the British ever stepped foot in China. Since opium was now a cash crop, and they were experienced in growing it, the Yunnanese warlords demanded they grow it commercially.

The Hill Tribes were heavily taxed on their opium crop but paid very little for it. They were also the bottom rung on the ladder of racism and their treatment by the ethnic Chinese was abusive at best.

But Hill Tribes have never considered themselves Chinese or any other nationality. They are simply members of their tribe and national boundaries meant nothing. Added to that, the Hill Tribes had clans, extended families and villages throughout the 19th Century nations of Southeast Asia-Siam, British Burma, and French Indochina.

When political strife, abuse, economic oppression and racism became intolerable, they began migrating in mass numbers southward into the Golden Triangle in the 19th Century. They brought the cash crop of opium with them.

The best example of this are the Hmong who today live in Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. At the turn of the 19th Century (1800), the Hmong began to migrate from southern China into the mountains of today’s Laos and Northern Vietnam due to political strife and hostility of the Han Chinese majority. 108 They became one of the most prolific opium producers in the Golden Triangle. From the mid-19 Century until the 1970’s, the Hmong produced thousands of tons of opium for market. 109

Yunnan political strife also forced many Panthay Muslims to flee southward into the Golden Triangle during the Panthay Rebellion (1856–1873). The Panthay declared Yunnan independent from China which set off a civil war with the Han Chinese. The Panthay lost and were brutally repressed and so began migrating south into the Golden Triangle.

The Panthay were crucial to the opium trade. They were the merchant class that carried the Hill Tribe opium to market with their pack-animal caravans. They knew the back trails of the Golden Triangle. And they knew the opium trade. As late as the 1970’s, the Panthay Muslims were still trundling into isolated Hill Tribe villages to buy opium and bring it to market.


History reveals a direct lineage between the 19th Century British opium trade with China, and the opium production of the Golden Triangle. Had Britain never forced opium upon the Chinese, it’s possible that today’s Golden Triangle would never have developed its opium economy.

The Opium Buzz: Til’ Death Do Us Part

These six 19th Century opium pipes sold at a Christie’s auction for £26,250. 110

Opium is many things to many people. A dream inducer. A mind soother. A pain killer. A friend. A monster. A suicide elixir. But above all else, opium is an addictive narcotic. Too much will make your heart stop. So how you ingest it is critical.

The earliest form of ingestion was to eat it. That’s the most efficient use of opium and also the most dangerous. Opium can also be mixed with alcohol. The ancient Greeks mixed it with wine and called it nepenthe, while the British and Americans in the 19th century preferred tinctures of opium made with high proof alcohol. The Chinese preferred to smoke it-the safest manner of ingestion.

The Chinese didn’t invent smoking opium. Nor did the Portuguese, British, French or Dutch. An ivory opium pipe with burnt residue was found on Cypress and has been dated to 1200 B.C.111 Other opium smoking paraphernalia has been found belonging to antiquity.

But in the Golden Triangle, China and Southeast Asia, the primary manner of ingesting opium was to smoke it. The Hill Tribes who grew the opium poppy in the region did eat it, as well as smoke it. The Chinese brought their habit of smoking opium to Southeast Asia giving rise to a consumer base and thousands of opium dens. Opium smoking was referred to as the “Chinese Habit” in the 19th Century; but this pejorative term ignored the fact that opium addicts came from all ethnicities.

Why the Chinese preferred to smoke their opium versus eating or drinking it as the rest of the world is unknown. Consuming opium by smoking is inefficient and wasteful when compared to eating/drinking it. But smoke it they did, by the thousands of tons annually, and so a unique process of making smoker’s opium came into being.

Making Smoker’s Opium

When you lance the bulb of the opium poppy after the flower petals have fallen away, out will ooze a greyish latex that will quickly turn brown or black. This latex contains opium’s active ingredient morphine. But if you try to smoke this raw latex, it will burn in fits and starts and won’t taste very good. It must be refined into “smoker’s opium”.

The raw latex is shaped into balls about the size of cannon balls, wrapped in banana leaves and shipped to an opium refinery often by mule caravan prior to the 1970’s. This raw opium contains plant matter, dirt, twigs, leaves and must be “cleaned up”.

Several balls are dissolved in 10-20 gallons of hot water making liquid opium. The opium/water mixture is boiled and filtered through fabric repeatedly. It’s cooked down the same as reducing a sauce. Eventually, all the impurities are filtered out and you’re left with pure opium with its morphine content intact. The pure, filtered opium is called chandu.

The Opium Refinery and Its Products

Chandu (tjandoe): This is pure opium after refining with nothing added. It was packaged into bricks for wholesale, or also packaged into small individual amounts that would be sold directly to users. Chandu usually had a morphine content of between 8-10%.

Madat: This is smoker’s opium. It’s chandu that has a burning agent cut into it such as tobacco or other substances.  The goal of madat is to burn evenly and continually. Other additives can be put into madat that make its taste pleasant.

Dross: This is the crusty residue that builds up in an opium pipe. It is essentially unburnt opium that retains its morphine content. As mentioned, smoking opium is very inefficient and dross is the result of this inefficiency. Opium pipes were rented out to users in the thousands of opium dens throughout Southeast Asia. The opium pipes would be scraped for the dross by the owner of the opium den. This dross would then be mixed into chandu and resold to users. Dross was very lucrative to opium dens because it was essentially selling the same opium twice to two different users.

Chandu and madat were the main products of opium refineries. These opium refineries were built and financed by the government opium monopolies and their existence continued as long as opium was legally produced and sold, well into the 20th Century. Thailand didn’t shutter its Royal Opium Monopoly until 1958!

The Opium Monopolies: The Colonial Cartels

California Marijuana Dispensary. Photo attribution: Richard Vogel, Associated Press

California Gold

“Identification, please”, said a beefy man with an armed security guard standing next to him.

He thanked me as he handed back my license. I walked into a well-lit room that had a long row of glass cabinets with “bud masters” standing behind them waiting to help the next customer. My bud master was a young, 20ish looking woman wearing a very low-cut blouse and well tattooed.

To shy to look at her, I kept my gaze trained inside of the glass cabinets at jar after jar of maryjane. Lemon Lava, Sour Power, Sherbhead, OG Moonrocks, Zero Gravity, Squintz, Kiwi Sherbert, Grandiflora, Kush OG, Illuminati, Kosher OG, Area 51, Gorilla Glue, Snow White, Lamb’s Bread, Truffle Souffle, Silky Gelato, on and on. Reefer madness. I was in Greenwolf-one of the best marijuana dispensaries in L.A.

“Let me see the Truffle Souffle”. My bud master grabbed a good-sized apothecary jar, put it on the counter and opened it. I sniffed. Good pot is always denoted by its smell. But I was just playing my role as a customer. All the pot here wasn’t just good, it was the best grown in California. No need to sniff anything as the THC content was printed on the jar’s label.

“I’ll take the Kush OG. Just 1/8th ounce.”

Kush OG had a 33.5% THC content. Just one hit and you’re blotto. It was also $69.99 for 1/8th oz. That’s expensive. But that’s the rub: Buy at a legal dispensary and you’ll get the best, but it’s expensive. Buy on the street and its cheap and about half as powerful.

In 2016, the voters of California passed a law that legalized marijuana. But it was only legal if you bought it from a state approved store. The law created a marijuana monopoly for the State of California.

The state had complete control over who it granted a dispensary license, where it could be located, how many licenses would issue. A dispensary could only sell marijuana from a government licensed grower. Again, the state had complete control over who grows it, how its grown, the THC content and its labeling. To posses a dispensary or growers license was worth millions. The state handed out only a fraction of licenses that were applied for.

Taxes on legal marijuana were sky-high. Of course that was the sole purpose of legalizing the trade-to generate revenues for the state.

The California Marijuana Monopoly differed little from the opium monopolies of the 19th and 20th Centuries in Southeast Asia. The only significant difference is that opium is an addictive narcotic while marijuana isn’t.


The British and French Opium Monopolies

As the British were pouring opium into China and making a fortune, their government officials were eyeing Southeast Asia with colonial intent. In 1826, Britain invaded Burma and began a bit by bit take over that took much of the 19th Century to complete.

The French took control of southern Vietnam (Cochinchina) in 1862 and they too spent the rest of the century expanding their colonial state, French Indochina, to include all of today’s Vietnam, and much of Laos and Cambodia.

The native rulers of British Burma and French Indochina had all banned opium prior to colonization. They needed only look to China to see the frightful effects of unlimited opium pouring into their countries. But one of the first acts of colonial control by the British and French was to legalize the consumption of opium, and that was done via a government controlled opium monopoly.

The reason for these opium monopolies was simple-tax money. They generated critical revenues for colonial budgets. Colonies are expensive to maintain with their administrative and military costs. Britain and France wanted their colonies to pay for themselves. Without opium, they couldn’t. Which is the point of historian Carl Trocki’s famous quote: ” Without (opium), there would not have been a British Empire.”

Let’s look closer at the Golden Triangle nations of Burma, Laos (French Indochina) and Siam to better understand the colonial opium monopolies of the Golden Triangle.

The Kingdom of Siam (Thailand)

In 1811, King Rama II again banned opium in Siam. (Siam’s first ban was in 1369 by the King Ramatibodi of Ayutthaya.) In 1839, the next Siamese King added the death penalty to opium traffickers.

Siam resisted colonization through savvy political maneuvering, but they couldn’t avoid a British demand that they open their kingdom to opium. In 1855 with British gun boats anchored menacingly in the Chao Praya River, Siam conceded to the British demand to legalize opium. Britain demanded that Siam not only legalize opium, but would charge no tariffs against its import. 112Furthermore, Britain demanded that Siam must conveniently buy its opium from India which it controlled. King Mongkut had little choice but to accept. 113

And so began Siam’s opium monopoly. At first, Siam sold the rights of sell opium, mostly to ethnic Chinese living in the Kingdom. For a hefty sum, a person could buy the franchise rights to sell opium in the Kingdom. In 1907, Siam cut out the middle-man and directly oversaw the trade and consumption of opium in Siam, and directly operated its opium dens. 114

Soon Siam itself became addicted to opium revenues which would constitute up to 20% of government revenue. A pinnacle was reached in 1913 when 147 tons of opium was imported from India. Opium dens and retail shops increased three fold from 1880-1917. It was estimated that Siam had over 200,000 opium addicts by 1921, most ethnic Chinese.115

In wasn’t until 1959 that Thailand (formerly Siam) would abolish its opium monopoly and declare again its prohibition.

British Burma

Prior to British colonization, Burma, like Siam, had banned opium sale and use. King Bodawpaya of Burma (reign 1782-1819) issued a royal decree that the use of opium was punishable by death.

In 1824, the British arrived in Rangoon with colonial ambitions and a sizable naval fleet that could accurately fire an iron cannon ball about the same size as a standard ball of opium. Consequently they took the city and surrounding plains without a fight. They immediately established a government franchise for the legal sale and use of Indian opium in their new Burma colony. And as we saw with China, the supply of opium always precedes demand.

British colonization of Burma expanded in fits and starts for the next 50 years, ending with a tenuous grasp on the Shan States of upper Burma. Upper Burma, an unrivaled source of opium, was a colony in name only as the British had no real power over this isolated and wild region.

The British Burma opium monopoly was the least profitable of all the Southeast Asian opium monopolies, providing only 10% of colonial revenues between 1826-1899. 116 But the monopoly supplied imported opium to an ever growing addicted population.

More important to the Golden Triangle’s opium history is that the huge increase in Yunnan poppy cultivation after the mid-19th Century was spreading across the border to northern Burma. Located along its border with Yunnan, the areas of Kokang, the Wa region and the northern Shan States all began supplying homegrown opium to a black market created by the British Burma opium monopoly. Black market opium was always cheaper because it was untaxed.

By 1900, northern Burma would be supplying both Siam and French Indochina with opium-both legal pursuant to their opium monopolies, and illegal cheaper untaxed opium. The British Burma opium monopoly simply made opium grown in the Shan States a more valuable cash crop.

Laos and French Indo-China

The Refinery. Saigon, 1886

Saigon Nights. The Refinery

Dateline: Saigon (2009)

I was waiting for her to call. We spoke briefly and I scribbled down the address for dinner. 74 Hai Ba Trung.

I was staying down by the waterfront, at the old Majestic Hotel, not far from Hai Ba Trung Street. Built in 1925, the hotel oozed French colonialism.  I asked the receptionist if I needed a taxi. She shook her head, then walked me outside and gave directions. She seemed to know the address.

This was my first time in the city. Muggy. Lots of trees and motorcycles.  Steamy pho shops everywhere. Passion fruit & fresh baguettes. The Viet Nam War a fading memory. Gucci, Prada, Fendi, Armani all open in this new Saigon.

Unlike Bangkok, Saigon streets are laid out with reasonable logic. Probably the only upside to colonialism. From the Majestic it took me ten minutes to find the address. Confused, I stared at the street address. I was looking for a restaurant. This was a dark, old building with a short tunnel for an entryway. 

But just a few steps into the tunnel revealed a pleasant scene. The tunnel opened to a large courtyard surrounded by arched porticoes covered by a tile roof with long overhanging eaves. It rains a lot in Saigon.

In the courtyard, tables were set with white linen tablecloths, sterling silver tableware, cut crystal glasses and candles. Inside one of the porticoes was an ornate mahogany bar fully stocked. An army of waiters in white dinner jackets stood ready to serve the guests who quietly dined. The serenity of the courtyard stood in contrast to the chaos of the street outside.

A hand was waving at me. She was already seated at a table.

In a flash, the pieces all fit together. The Refinery. The Saigon opium refinery. Le Manufacture d’Opium. One hundred and thirty-nine years old.  From French colonial curse to upscale French bistro.  From sweaty opium laborers to rich expats. 

“Champagne”,  I said to a hovering waiter without even bothering with a wine list.


The French began colonizing the Saigon area (Cochinchina) in 1858. Piece by piece as the century progressed, they added parts of Cambodia, middle (Assam) and northern Vietnam (Tonkin) and Laos in 1887 to what was officially called French Indochina. And like the British, the French created a legal opium monopoly.  That is opium was legal as long as it was the government’s opium.

At first, the French imported Indian opium to supply their monopoly. They sold lucrative distribution licenses and hired ethnic Chinese to collect the taxes. But in 1881, they took over the distribution and tax collection themselves under the colonial bureau of Regie de l’Opium.  The colonial government built and operated opium processing factories to refine crude opium into different products that could be smoked-the preferred method of consumption.

Government opium was neatly packaged into small tins for personal use, stamped with the proper bureaucratic seal and shipped to the thousands of opium dens throughout French Indochina. The French profited on both the sale itself and taxes on sales. The Regie de l’Opium cut out the middleman and opium profits flowed into the colonial coffers.

Opium was a financial savior to French Indochina. Between 1899-1922, opium revenues accounted for roughly 20% of colonial revenues. 117 Even as late as 1939, 15% of French Indochina’s revenues came from opium 118

Today’s Laos was the last piece the French added to their colonial jigsaw puzzle toward the end of the 19th Century. The French were initially oblivious that Laos, especially northwestern Laos, was a vast wild area ideally suited to grow the opium poppy. In fact, the Hill tribes of Laos had been cultivating opium poppies for centuries on a very small scale. The French Indochina opium monopoly, like China, Burma and Siam, created a black market for cheap, untaxed opium. As a result, the opium fields of Laos went into full bloom.

Importing Indian opium was expensive. Laotian, Tonkin, Burmese and Yunnanese opium was cheaper-and made even cheaper when no taxes were collected on its sale. Black market opium soon began to compete with the official Indian opium. The poppy fields of the Golden Triangle expanded production exponentially.

By the beginning of the 20th century, France was having trouble sourcing enough Indian opium to meet demands in its colony. It had to now officially source opium from the Golden Triangle. The French even built a railway, completed in 1910, from Yunnan Province to northern Vietnam to facilitate the opium trade.

By 1911, Laos was officially producing over 4 tons of opium annually grown by 35,000 Laotian Hill Tribe farmers. 119The actual amount produced was far greater as this official amount only referred to “legal” opium used by the monopoly and not the Black Market.

Laotian opium was used to satiate two groups-the ethnic Chinese addicts of mainly urban areas in Saigon and Hanoi, and the addicts of mainland China whose Indian opium imports were also dwindling. The French were quickly increasing domestic production to meet demand. In 1928, the French sold over 32 metric tons of opium to the Chinese,120 and ironically, some of that tonnage may well have been produced in Yunnan.

The Japanese invasion of Vietnam during World War II temporarily put an end to French control of Vietnam. After the Japanese defeat, the French attempted to resurrect their colony along with its opium monopoly. But the world view of opium as a recreational drug pushed by colonial powers was becoming out of favor. And so the French from 1946-1956 continued their monopoly secretly. AKA-Operation X. 121 They purchased Hmong opium from Laos and sold it to dealers in Vietnam, using the profits to fund their war against Ho Chi Min and the Viet Minh.

The French opium monopoly ended in 1954 with their defeat at Diem Bien Phu by the Viet Minh, and they shortly thereafter ignominiously exited Vietnam.

The End of British Opium-The Seeds of Golden Triangle Opium

As the 19th Century wore on, the moral outcry against the British opium trade became strident. World opinion was against it. China and Britain signed an agreement to end Indian opium exports in 1907. The deal was to cut back exports 10% each year until 1917 when exports would be completely banned. The agreement was accelerated and in 1913 India made its last opium export to China.

The final scorecard of total British Indian opium exports from 1790-1935: 970,000 metric tons, most of it going to China and the rest to Southeast Asia. 122 God damn the pusher man.

With India cutting back its opium exports, China became the largest opium producer in the world.123 But unlike India, China consumed most of its poppy crop. There were now tens of millions of opium addicts throughout China and Southeast Asia looking for their next fix.

Finally free of “gunboat” Indian opium, China began to shut down its own opium production as soon as the Indian exports ceased.124 The Qing rulers threatened and carried out severe punishment for opium growers and traders. They attempted to eradicate the poppy crop in southern China. This is the world’s first ever War on Drugs, and like their 20th Century counterparts, was a failure.

In Yunnan Province, the royal Qing decrees against opium had slight impact at best. The Hill Tribes that grew the crop were safely isolated in the mountains, and the warlords who ruled Yunnan needed opium revenues to support their militias. The Yunnan warlords were not going to give up their most valuable commodity. When the Qing dynasty collapsed in 1911 and the Republic of China began. Yunnan warlords would eventually declare independence from China which made them more dependent on the poppy crop.

These warlords needed opium now more than ever. They ordered the Hill Tribes to increase production so they could fund their militias and fiefdoms. During the 1920’s as political violence and turmoil grew in southern China, more Hill Tribe opium poppy growers fled for the peaceful isolation of the Golden Triangle.

The result of all this attempted eradication and punishment, combined with political turmoil and strife, sent more Hill Tribes southward into the Golden Triangle where their opium was needed to supply the various government opium monopolies.

The Golden Dominoes: Morphine-the Syringe-Heroin

Opium elixirs of the 19th Century. Tinctures and paregorics are alcohol/opium mixtures. The earliest evidence of mixing alcohol and opium is from the ancient city-state Ebla located in today’s Syria dating back to circa 2,000 B.C.

Vast regions within the Golden Triangle are some of the most isolated regions in the world due to its rugged terrain and lack of modern roads. It wasn’t until 1925 that Chiang Mai was connected to Bangkok and the outside world by railroad. Before the railroad, it took about a month to travel from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, and some of the journey had to be by elephant.

It’s only been in the last couple decades that well-maintained paved roads connect Yunnan, Burma, Laos and Thailand. Prior to World War II, the Golden Triangle was isolated from the rest of the world. But although isolated, the Golden Triangle has been shaped by distant events that were scarcely noticed at the time in this isolated land, yet had profound effects on its future.


Morphine sold in drug stores in the early 20th Century. The McKesson paregoric is morphine dissolved in 88-proof alcohol. A morphine paregoric was far more potent than an opium paregoric.

The First Dominoe

In 1804, the Golden Triangle was a trove of isolated kingdoms and city-states. Northern Thailand was the Kingdom of Lanna and claimed large parts of Shan State. The region surrounding Luang Prabang, Laos was the Kingdom of a Million Elephants. Commercial opium production was dawning in Yunnan. The opium poppy was being grown in the border regions of Kokang, Burma. The active ingredient of opium was unknown.

No one knew why opium numbed pain and brought relief. But European chemists were working feverishly to solve this riddle.

In 1804, a German chemist discovered and extracted the main active ingredient of opium and called it morphium. Soon doctors and apothecaries the world over would be giving it to patients under the name morphine. Scientists initially claimed morphine, unlike opium, was not addictive.


The Second Dominoe

In 1851, the British had seized control of much of Burma and were busy making it an English colony. The French were well on their way to making their colonial state, French Indochina, from today’s Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Both British Burma and French Indochina began lucrative opium monopolies which fed the drug to their citizens. Siam would soon reverse centuries of opium prohibition and begin their own opium monopoly.

In 1851, James Woods, a Scottish doctor invents the glass syringe and hypodermic needle, specifically to inject patients with morphine. Scientists initially claimed injected morphine, as opposed to ingested morphine, was not addictive.


Marketing of Heroin in the early 20th Century by the Bayer Co.

The Third Dominoe

In 1874, the poppy fields of Yunnan are its most important crop, producing thousands of tons of opium annually. Siam’s opium profits account for such a large share of the government revenues that the kingdom can’t function without it. The Hill Tribes of Yunnan are migrating south into The Golden Triangle bringing the cash crop of opium. Chinese opium users number in the millions thanks to the British Opium Wars and they too are migrating in mass to Southeast Asia.

In 1874, a London Chemist inadvertantly discovers how to convert morphine into diacetylmorphine. This new drug is far more powerful than organic morphine. In 1885, the German pharmaceutical company Bayer begins selling to the general public diacetylmorphine as an alternative to morphine. Bayer gives their new drug the brand name Heroin. Heroin is sold at pharmacies without a doctor’s prescription for common coughs, putting crying babies to sleep (sometimes for good) and for menstrual cramps. Scientists and doctors initially claimed Heroin, unlike morphine, was not addictive.


The falling of these three historic dominoes, morphine-the syringe-heroin, will give the opium poppy of the Golden Triangle a constant, reliable market of addicts worldwide.  It will be the source of billions of dollars of revenue annually for the Golden Triangle. By the  1970’s, Golden Triangle heroin will not only dominate the world market, but it will be considered the finest heroin in the world by its users.

Through the 19th Century Looking Glass

Crossing into Tachileik, Burma from Mae Sai, Thailand

The Wormhole

wormhole a hypothetical structure of space-time envisioned as a tunnel connecting points that are separated in space and time

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Dateline: Tachileik, Burma: 2002

When I opened the door of the small, one-room immigration building, a lone custom’s officer was asleep at his desk. I intentionally closed the door loudly which woke him.

“I’m traveling to Keng Tung. Here’s my passport and visa,” I announced apologetically.

He got up and retrieved a large ledger from a shelf that contained many and sat back down. He opened the official ledger and carefully found where the next entry would go. He squinted and studied my passport, then painstakingly transcribed my name, country, date of birth and passport number into the ledger. Same for my visa. An old woman entered and offered me a glass of cool water as I waited for the custom’s official to complete his work.

A few steps outside the Custom’s Office, a young man cut me off. He carried a tray across his chest with a strap that went around the back of his neck-like the trays Chicago cigarette girls used in the 1930’s. He was hawking decks of playing cards with photos of half-naked women on them. They looked like French Postcards from 1900’s.

On the street a young girl was selling sugarcane water. She grabbed a sugarcane stalk and fed it into an old hand-crank squeezing machine. She cranked and cranked until she had filled a bottle and handed it to me. The iron crank was polished smooth by human hands. Her squeezing machine looked like a 19th Century steampunk relic.

With a toot of the horn, my driver pulled up in front of me in a 1950’s British Land Rover. Dented, dirty, a drab olive grey with a sputtering engine, this old girl was older than me. I frowned thinking the Keng Tung road is no place for a breakdown. The driver assured me we’d be fine. We needed to hurry to make Keng Tung by night fall.

We left Tachileik behind and followed the old Keng Tung road into the mountains. Soon, signs of an electrical grid-power lines-disappeared and wouldn’t be seen again until we reached the outskirts of Keng Tung.

A strange anxiety had crept into me as I crossed the bridge over the Sai River into Burma. I did my best to brush it aside. But it was becoming clearer to me that when I crossed the river, I had left something behind and entered another realm.

As we bumped along I came to a realization. That as I crossed the border into Tachileik, I had stumbled into a corridor of time-a wormhole. Where past and present touch.


Why the Golden Triangle became a leading source of opium/heroin for the world in the 20th Century is an easy question. We need only look to the 19th Century to see how opium became endemic in the region. Without the French, Dutch and especially the British there would probably be no Golden Triangle opium trade.

Demographics played an outsized role. Many Hill Tribes, opium’s agricultural soldiers, quickly adopted the opium poppy as their only cash crop. They became economically dependent on opium. When political turmoil threatened them in southern China, they crossed into the rugged terrain of the Golden Triangle and brought opium with them as a commercial crop.

The Panthay Muslims, opium’s merchant class, quickly saw the profit potential of trading opium and jumped all in. They provided the link between an isolated Hill Tribe poppy crop and the market. They, like the Hill Tribes, fled south into the Golden Triangle seeking safety.

The ethnic Chinese, opium’s main consumers and entrepreneurs, migrated in mass to all parts of the Golden Triangle in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They became involved in the various opium monopolies, buying the distribution rights, collecting opium taxes and running the opium dens.

Yunnan Province with its cycles of political instability and isolation from Chinese authority pushed the opium trade south into Burma, Laos, and Siam which followed the normal flow of Yunnanese trade. Even today, Southern Yunnan Province shares more in common with the Golden Triangle than it does with Bejing.

The colonial opium monopolies of Burma, French Indochina, and Siam created a huge black market for cheap opium initially. When imported opium became harder to source because of a world crack down on recreational opium, domestic opium production was encouraged and increased dramatically.

The geography of the Golden Triangle played a substantial part in the opium trade. The mountains of the Golden Triangle are ideal to grow the opium poppy. When the Hill Tribes fled Yunnan, they migrated to an environment they thrived in. The rugged geography protected the opium crops. The Panthay Muslims knew the smuggling routes. The opium growing areas were controlled by local headsmen or warlords and edicts by a far-off central government went unheeded.

But yet, given all the above, without the European opium pushers of the 19th Century there probably would have never been a Golden Triangle opium trade that would reach around the world in the late 20th Century.

World War II will strengthen the Golden Triangle opium trade. Opium will transition from being a consumer product to becoming the active ingredient of heroin. Smoking opium will become antiquated. After WWII, the heroin refineries of Hong Kong, Taipei, Bangkok, Saigon and even Marseille will look to the Golden Triangle for their raw ingredient opium.

The opium lords will quickly understand that smuggling opium is not nearly as lucrative as refining heroin.

WWII & The Seeds of Drug Trafficking

In the years just prior to world war breaking out in Europe in 1939, the tide of public opinion had turned against the opium trade for leisure use. India had been phasing out its export of opium since the early 1900’s and by the start of WWII was no longer exporting opium to Southeast Asian. The Indian opium juggernaut was over. But another juggernaut was about to reign supreme-the Golden Triangle.

In 1935, the prince of Keng Tung (the saobra) began supplying Siam with opium as did Yunnan Province. 125 In 1938, Siam (now called Thailand) issued its first licenses to legally grow opium.126 The Shan States now supplied all the opium needed for the British Burma opium monopoly; And the French sourced opium from Yunnan and today’s northwestern Laos to meet their opium monopoly needs. The potential for the Golden Triangle to become a leading producer of the world’s opium supply was now a reality.

World War II cut off the last two international suppliers of opium-Iran and Turkey. As things turned out, this proved to be a boon for the Southeast Asian opium trade. The opium from Iran and Turkey was expensive. Golden Triangle opium was dependable and cheaper.

To be clear, the Golden Triangle countries had always smoked and eaten opium from Shan State, Laos, Siam and Yunnan. The opium dens of Southeast Asia had always offered their clientele cheaper Golden Triangle opium along with imported Indian, Turkish or Persian opium. The difference was that opium sold by the state monopolies was fully taxed and legal. Golden Triangle opium was untaxed and therefore illegal. That was all about to change as the world plunged into world war.

The Golden Triangle was being given a green light to not only increase its opium harvest, but to excel at it. Southeast Asian governments were addicted to opium tax revenues. The Hill Tribes depended on this cash crop. The Panthay Muslims needed opium to barter goods and make a profit. And the ethnic Chinese solidified their position as financiers of the opium trade.

And as the Japanese invaded British Burma, Thailand, and French Indochina in the early 1940’s, the opium trade found a way to survive and expand.

World War II: Thailand Occupies the Shan States

Burma, along with Thailand, was occupied by the Japanese during WWII. Thailand was compliant with Japanese occupation and was rewarded by Japan allowing the Thai military to occupy parts of Shan State in and around Keng Tung. Keng Tung was and is one of the most prolific poppy farming regions in Shan State.

Keng Tung in northern Shan State was the Thai military’s command center which put the Thai army smack dab in the middle of prime opium country. Thai army officers saw close up how the opium trade worked. During the occupation of the Keng Tung region, the commander of the Thai army, Gen. Phin Choonhaven, oversaw the export of tons of opium from Yunnan and the Shan States into Thailand to supply the royal monopoly.127

The Thai military involvement in the opium trade was not illegal. They were simply supplying opium to the government’s monopoly as requested.

The Allies after heavy fighting drove the Japanese from Burma, and Thailand had to withdraw its military from Shan State in a humiliating retreat. But the Thai military commanders of the failed Shan State annexation would become the leaders of the Thai government in the 1950’s. The lessons learned about the Golden Triangle opium trade combined with their corruption would soon make Thailand a world distribution point for heroin and opium.

Yunnan Province: The End of the Opium Trade

In 1949, Mao Tse Tung and his Red Army defeated the Chinese Nationalist Army known as the Kuomintang (KMT) in the Chinese civil war. The Kuomintang had used opium, especially in Yunnan, to fund their military and to personally make their generals rich. The communist Chinese were righteously anti-opium. (Except when used for the manufacture of pharmaceutical morphine.) By 1951, the Chinese communists had swept the KMT from Yunnan and began a systematic eradication of its poppy fields. By the early 1950’s, opium production had all but ceased in Yunnan Province.

Since the early 1800’s Yunnan Province had been exporting commercial opium by the tonnage. And opium had coursed through its ancient silk roads from time immemorial. Yunnan was the Golden Triangle’s most prolific producer of opium. The Chinese communists ended the Yunnan opium trade cold turkey.

That Yunnan no longer grew opium poppies meant increased cultivation shifted south to Shan State, Laos and Thailand. These countries, especially Burma, would fill the demand vacated by Yunnan. And a ready, experienced workforce of poppy farmers moved south also. Hill tribes fled south into Burma, Laos and Thailand to escape the Chinese civil war. They were more than happy to continue growing the poppy.

Post WWII: Shrinking Sources of Legal Opium

While WWII cut off Thailand’s Turkish and Iranian supply of opium for its Royal Monopoly, the world’s attitude was hardening against the international opium trade for non-medicinal use. Opium exporting countries were under pressure to ban the trade.

The biggest source of opium for Thailand’s Royal monopoly had historically been British India. In 1913, Thailand had imported an all time high of 147 tons of Indian opium, but by 1933 total imports had dwindled to 32 tons. 128 Under world pressure, India announced it would cease opium exports in 1935.129 Iran and Turkey were also legal opium sources after the war, but both countries in 1953 signed a United Nations Protocol that banned the sale of opium for recreational purposes.

By the early 1950’s, Thailand could no longer import foreign opium (opium not from the Golden Triangle) for its Royal Monopoly. That’s a problem when the country has an estimated 250,000 addicts and the opium monopoly is still generating large tax revenues.

The answer was simple. In 1947, the Thai government authorized poppy cultivation in northern Thailand and annual opium production zoomed upward. It was never as big as Laos or especially Burma, but it brought commercial poppy growing to Thailand where it had never previously been a factor. The government would also allow Shan State opium to be legally sold through the Royal Monopoly.

Thailand, for the first time since 1855, now sourced all its opium from the Golden Triangle. The era of pushing foreign opium on Thailand had ended. The era of Golden Triangle opium had begun.

Laos: The Real “French Connection”

“The French Connection” was a 1971 movie about heroin smuggling from Marseille, France to the United States. As early as the the 1940’s, the French refineries were beginning to use Golden Triangle opium to make heroin.

In French Indochina, the state monopoly for legal opium ran into the same problems as Thailand. Their solution was the same. Cut off from opium imports from Yunnan because of the Communist victory, the French encouraged poppy cultivation in northern Laos. In 1940, Laos produced 7.5 metric tons of opium annually. By 1944 it was producing 60 metric tons. 130

The French ended their legal opium monopoly in 1946. Public pressure against the opium trade was just too much for French authorities to bear politically. So they ended the legal trade, but not the illegal trade. Clandestinely, French intelligence officers organized poppy cultivation through the Hmong Hill Tribes of northern Laos and arranged for its transport to Saigon. The drug proceeds were used to fund anti-communist militias in Laos and Vietnam. The old dance of opium for guns was alive and well.

By the early 1950’s, the French had transformed northern Laos into a major producer of opium. Much of this opium was destined for the heroin refineries in Hong Kong, Singapore and Saigon. Some even made it to the famed heroin refineries of Marseille, France thanks to the Corsican Mafia working out of Saigon in the form of crude morphine base. And from the Marseille refineries, some heroin ended up in the United States.

The Golden Triangle 1946: A New World Opium Order

After World War II, the old sources of opium-Yunnan Province, Turkey, Iran and India-were no longer available and never would be again. Yes, there was smuggled opium from these areas, but the heyday of freewheeling, legal opium was over. But the heyday of Golden Triangle opium was about to begin.

Supply & demand. Hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asian opium addicts, millions more in China, and a growing heroin addict population around the world made international drug traffickers cast their greedy eyes to the Golden Triangle. Without opium, there is no heroin. Without heroin, there is no money.

Newly built heroin refineries in Bangkok, Saigon, Hong Kong and even as far away as Marseilles, France desperately needed Golden Triangle opium. But the Golden Triangle needed a safe way to transport its most lucrative commodity to foreign heroin refineries. Small time smuggling of a few kilos here and there wouldn’t cut it. The opium trade needed something more grand from a logistical standpoint.

And so corruption, greed and the Laotian Military, South Vietnamese Government, and the Thai National Police and Army came to the rescue. They all became major players in the opium trade.

The Thai Military Coup of 1947: Opium Wins

On November 8, 1947 the Thai military overthrew the elected civilian government in a bloodless coup. It was a victory for Golden Triangle opium and distant heroin labs.

General Phin Choonhaven led the coup as its highest ranking officer.  Phin (In Thailand, political leaders are commonly referred to by their first name.) had been appointed Thai military governor of Shan State during WWII and oversaw legal opium shipments traveling south to Thailand by mule caravan to supply the Thai opium monopoly. After the war, Phin was unceremoniously cashiered from the army along with other army officers. The army was resentful of the new civilian government and so a coup was born.

Two other important Thai military officers took part in the 1947 coup and were rewarded with high ranking government positions: Phao Sriyanon and Sarit Thanasit. Both had also served in Shan State alongside General Phin and all three had contacts with the opium smuggling networks, especially the KMT, of Shan State.

Phao Sriyanon was Phin’s son-in-law and after the coup was made Director General of the Thai National Police. During the 1950’s, Phao would turn the National Police into the biggest opium smuggling organization in Thailand.

The other crucial member of the coup was a colonel named Sarit Thannatit. Sarit had also seen duty in Shan State and was more than familiar with the opium trade. For his coup participation, Sarit would be named commander of the Thai military. In 1957, Sarit would stage his own coup and become sole dictator of Thailand. Sarit wouldn’t ban opium use in Thailand until 1959. He would cast a blind eye at best to the smuggling of opium through Thailand for eventual sale to international drug smugglers for refinement into heroin.

From 1947 onward, Phin, Phao and Sarit would be the true power brokers of Thailand. No better friends could opium ever have. And it was no coincidence that all three had served in Shan State-the most prolific opium poppy area of the Golden Triangle.

Coming Next: Part 2: The Rise of Heroin

A change will come to the Golden Triangle starting in the 1950’s and accelerate in the 1960’s: Less and less opium will be smoked, and more and more will be made into heroin. Then in 1969-70, a huge event occurs: Heroin refineries begin to appear for the first time in the Golden Triangle.

By the mid-1990’s, the Golden Triangle will be the biggest producer of opium and heroin in the world.


  1. Ronald D. Renard, The Burmese Connection: Illegal Drugs & the Making of the Golden Triangle, Page 4, (Lynne Reinner Publications, 1996)
  2. Henry Kamm, “Asians Doubt that US Can Halt Heroin Flow“, New York Times (Aug. 11, 1971)
  3. Bertil Lintner, “The Golden Triangle Opium Trade: An Overview“, Page 11 (2000); See also: Bertil Lintner, Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948, (Westview Press, 1994) See photo of gold ingots
  4. David Christian, “Silk Roads or Steppe Roads? The Silk Roads in World History”, Journal of World History, Vol. 11 No. 1 (Spring, 2000)
  5. Bin Yang, “Horses, Silver, Cowries: Yunnan in Global Perspective”, Journal of World History, Vol. 15 No. 3 (Sept., 2004)
  6. Ibid.
  7. The Mon are an ancient people who migrated from China into the region circa 2,000 B.C.
  8. For a detailed discussion about the trade of Chinese silks and Indian cottons over the Southwest Silk Road see: Stephen E. Dale, “Silk Road, Cotton Road…Indo-Chinese Trade in Pre-European Times”, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 43 No. 1, (Jan., 2009)
  9. Subhakanta Behera, “India’s Encounter with the Silk Road”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 37 No. 51, Page 5078 (Dec., 2002)
  10. Bin Yang, “Horses, Silver, Cowries: Yunnan in Global Perspective” at page 293
  11. My personal correspondence with Professor Bin Yang
  12. K.S. Saraswat, “Archeological Remains in Ancient Cultural and Socio-economical Dynamics of the Indian Sub-Continent“, Paleobotanist, Vol. 40 at page 527. (1992)
  13. See: Hua-Lin Li, “The Origin and Use of Cannabis in Eastern Asia Linguistic-Cultural Implications”, Economic Botany, Vol. 28 No. 3 (July-Sept., 1974); Namio Egami, “Chinese Surgeon Hua T’O and Magi of the West”, Cite as NEgami-Orient (1971) Both these papers discuss the effects of an anesthesia used by ancient Chinese doctors which clearly describe the effects of morphine, although they erroneously argue such effects were caused by marijuana. Marijuana can not anesthetize a patient for surgery, but morphine can.
  14. Martin Booth, Opium: A History, St. Martin’s Press (1998)
  15. Between Wind and Clouds: The Making of Yunnan: 2nd Century B.C.E. to Twentieth Century CE (Columbia University Press, 2008), Bin Yang, Chapter Two: “The Southwest Silk Road: Yunnan in a Global Context”,
  16. Lawrence K. Rosenger, “Yunnan Province of the Burma Road”, Far Eastern Survey, Vol. II No. 2, (Jan., 1942)
  17. Carl Trocki, Opium, Empire and the Global Political Economy: A study of the Asian opium trade, Page 22, (Routledge, 1999)
  18. Carl A. Trocki, Opium, Empire and the Global Political Economy, Page 125, Routledge (1999)
  19. Diana Kim, Empires of Vice, Page 162 [e-book edition], Princeton University Press (2020)
  20. All GDP data is derived from World Bank statistics.
  21. World Bank: Gross National Income per capita
  22. World Bank: Gross National Income per capita. Per capita income in Burma is $4230 (PPP). Per capita income in Laos: $8150 (PPP) Thailand: $18,530 (PPP). United States: $70,480 (PPP) PPP is Purchasing Power Parity and is used to compare incomes across the world that removes price level differences between countries. PPP is not US dollars.
  23. Yuxin Fan, Hao Lin, “The research on Yunnan’s foreign trade in the context of “The Belt and Road Initiative”, Yunnan University of Finance and Economics, Atlantis Press (2019)
  24. Xinuanet News, “Cooperation Upbeat Between Yunnan and Mekong Countries” (Aug. 24, 2020)
  25. The World Bank, GDP (current US$)-Thailand Data
  26. Trading Economics, Thailand Exports to Laos: Data from United Nations COMTRADE
  27. Trading Economics, Thailand Exports to Myanmar: Data from United Nations COMTRADE
  28. Covid has severely impacted Chinese import/exports, and could result in the US becoming Thailand’s biggest trading partner in 2022.
  29. “Trade between China, Mekong countries nears $400 billion USD in 2021” Xinhua News Agency (April 11, 2022)
  30. Trading Economics, Laos Exports-2022 Data: Data from United Nations COMTRADE
  31. Neo Chai Chin, Lee Li Wan, “The Cost of Lao’s Quest to be Southeast Asia’s Battery, and the World Heritage Town at Risk“, CNA News Service (Oct. 30, 2022)
  32. World Bank, GDP per capita-Myanmar
  33. ibid.
  34. ibid.
  35. ibid.
  36. Xinhua News Service, “Trade Between China, Mekong Countries Nears 400 ban USD in 2021” (April 11, 2022)
  37. Yuxin Fan, et. al., “The Research on Yunnan’s Foreign Trade in the context of the “Belt and Road Initiative”, Atlantis Press (2019)
  38. Trading Economics: Data from United Nations COMTRADE
  39. Alfred W. McCoy, “Flowers of Evil”, Harper’s Magazine (July, 1972)
  40. Thein Swe and Paul Chambers, Cashing In Across the Golden Triangle, Page 60, Mekong Press (2011)
  41. Wa State is an autonomous region within Burma along the Chinese border. Wa State has its own military.
  42. Biographien Projekt, “Bao Youxiang”, Myanmar Institute (March 19, 2020
  43. Alessandro Rippa, Martin Saxer, “Mong La: Business as usual in the China-Myanmar borderlands, Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review E-Journal, No. 19 (June, 2016
  44. “1st Expressway in Laos Inaugurated“, (Dec. 20, 2020)
  45. For detailed discussion of Hmong opium production and CIA involvement please see Part Two: The Rise of Heroin: “Profiles in Opium: Vang Pao and the Tragedy of the Hmong.
  46. France-24, “Game Changer: Laos Opens Chinese-built Railway” (March 12, 2021)
  47. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Mekong River Drug Threat Assessment”, (March, 2016)
  48. Crisis Group, “Fire and Ice: Conflict and Drugs in Myanmar’s Shan State“, (Jan. 8, 2019)
  49. The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, “Mekong River Drug Threat Assessment”, Page 33, (March, 2016)
  50. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Heroin: Retail and Wholesale Prices and Purity Levels” (2009)
  51. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Myanmar Opium Survey 2020: Cultivation, Production, and Implications“, Page 14 (2020)
  52. See: Bertil Lintner, Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948, Westview Press (1994)
  53. For a full discussion of the socio-economic reality of an opium farmer in Shan State, please read my post: Portrait of a Golden Triangle Opium Farmer.
  54. United Nation Office on Drugs and Crime, “Opium Poppy Cultivation and Sustainable Development in Shan State, Myanmar: A Socio-Economic Analysis“, Introduction at page iii, (2019)
  55. “Heroin Markets in Australia: Current Understandings and Future Possibilities” (2005) See also: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Wholesale Prices of Heroin
  56. This true vignette is based on: “Two Sidney Men Charged Over 314 Kilos Heroin Import“, Australian Federal Police, (Nov. 18, 2021); “Cops Nap Drug Gangster Tied to Chon Buri Bust”, Bangkok Post (Sept. 5, 2021)
  57. Carl Trocki, Opium, Empire and the Global Political Economy: A Study of the Asian Opium Trade, Page 96, Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group (1999)
  58. Myanmar (Burma) Part 4, States and Divisions
  59. United Nations, “UNODC Report: Signs of increased opium production“, (April 8, 2022)
  60. This vignette is based on the following news report: Maya Taylor, Thaiger, “Man high on yaba tries to stab family after not sleeping for 6 days”, (July 10, 2020)
  61. Zsombor Peter, “2021 Another Record Year for Meth Seizures in Southeast Asia”, VOA News (May 30, 2022)
  62. The International Crisis Group, “Fire and Ice”: Conflict in Drugs in Myanmar’s Shan State” (Jan. 8, 2019)
  63. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Synthetic Drugs in East and Southeast Asia: Latest Developments and Challenges”, Page 5, UNODC (2022)[efn/note] Of the 150 tons, 128 tons originated in the Golden Triangle. [Ibid. at page 5, footnote 5
  64. Ibid. at page 5.
  65. International Crises Group, “Fire and Ice: Conflict in Drugs in Myanmar’s Shan State” (Jan. 8, 2019)
  66. The earliest discovery of the cultivated opium poppy is circa 10,000 B.C. at Kortik Tepe, in today’s Turkey near the Mediterranean coast. See: Aytac Coskun,, “New Results on the Younger Dryas Occupation at Kortik Tepe”, Neo-Lithics 1/12, The Newsletter of Southwest Asian Neolithic Research
  67. M.D. Merlin, “Archeological Evidence for the Tradition of Psychoactive Plant Use in the Old World”, Economic Botany, Vol. 57 No. 3, Page 300, (Autumn, 2003)
  68. Megan Garber, “Pilot Salt: The Third Reich Kept its Soldiers Alert With Meth”, The Atlantic, (May 31, 2013)
  69. See: Bertil Lintner, Michael Black, Merchants of Madness: The Methamphetamine Explosion in the Golden Triangle, Silkworm Books (2009)
  70. For an excellent history of methamphetamine in the Golden Triangle, see: T. Blickman, “The ATS Boom in Southeast Asia“, PDF form, Transnational Institute (TNI) (Jan. 15, 2009)
  71. Lawrence Palmer Briggs, “The Appearance and Historical Usage of the Terms Tai, Thai, Siamese and Lao”, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 69 No. 2 (April-June, 1949)
  72. Anthony Reid, A History of Southeast Asia: Critical Crossroads, (Wiley Blackwell, 2015)
  73. Vatthana Pholsena, “SEATIDE Integration in Southeast Asia: Trajectories of Inclusion, Dynamics of Exclusion, Ethnic Minorities, the State and Beyond”, National University of Singapore (2018)
  74. Opium Poppy Cultivation and Sustainable Development in Shan State, Myanmar, 2019” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, (2019)
  75. Myanmar Opium Survey 2019: Cultivation, Production and Implications“, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, (2019)
  76. A viss equals 1.6 kilograms. It is a unit of measurement that is used often in Burma for the opium trade.
  77. Deborah Eade, “Poppy Farmers Under Pressure: Causes and Consequences of the Opium Decline in Myanmar”, Page 38, Transnational Institute (Dec. 2021)
  78. ibid.
  79. For a full discussion of the economics of an opium farmer, please read my post: Portrait of a Golden Triangle Opium Farmer
  80. Muslims in Yunnan are called the “Hui”. In this vignette, I use the term “Muslim”
  81. Recommended reading: David G. Atwil, “Blinkered Visions: Islamic Identity, Hui Ethnicity and the Panthay Rebellion”, The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 62 No. 4 (Nov., 2003); Jingyuan Qian, “Too Far from Mecca, Too Close to Peking: The Ethnic Violence and the Making of Chinese Muslim Identity 1821-1871”, Macalester College (May, 2014)
  82. See: Wen Ching Chang, “Venturing Into Barbarous Regions: Yunnanese Caravan Traders”, Page 149, (2014)
  83. Ibid.
  84. For a lengthy discussion of the Panthay, please see: Andrew Forbes, “The Cin-Ho (Yunnanese Chinese) Caravan Trade with North Thailand during Late Nineteenth and Twientieth Centuries”, Vol. 21 No. 1, Journal of Asian History (1987)
  85. For a full discussion of the pa-sin, please read my blog post: “Anatomy of a Sarong“.
  86. Subhakanta Behera, “India’s Encounter with the Silk Road”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 37 No. 51 (Dec. 2002)
  87. Zhuang Guotu, “The Overseas Chinese” The UNESCO Courier (2021)
  88. Hong Liu, “Opportunities and Anxieties for the Chinese Diaspora in Southeast Asia”, Current History, Vol. 115 No. 784 (Nov. 2016)
  89. See: Joyce Ee, “Chinese Migration to Singapore”, Journal of Southeast Asian History, Vol 2 No. 1 (March, 1961)
  90. Carl Trocki, “Opium and the Beginning of Chinese Capitalism in Southeast Asia”, Asia Studies, Vol. 33 No. 2 (June, 2002)
  91. For a full version of the letter, See: Letter to Queen Victoria from Lin Tse-hsu.
  92. See: “Did This Beloved Queen of Britain Use Drugs” Smithsonian Magazine
  93. “Chloroform in Childbirth? Yes, Please, the Queen Said”, The New York Times, (May 6, 2019)
  94. Carl Trocki, Opium, Empire, and the Global Political Economy, See Introduction page XIII.
  95. Ronald Renard, The Burmese Connection: Illegal Drugs & the Making of the Golden Triangle, at Page 14
  96. Anthony Reid, Charting the Shape of Early Modern Southeast Asia, (Silkworm Books, 1999)
  97. Ibid. at page 18
  98. See Trocki, Opium, Empire and the Global Political Economy, at page 95.
  99. Ibid. at page 50.
  100. “Just Say No” was an anti-drug slogan fostered by First Lady Nancy Reagan in the 1980’s. Critics scoffed at the slogan as being naive as to why people take drugs and proved ineffective at deterring people from recreational drug use.
  101. Ronald Renard, The Burmese Connection: Illegal Drugs and the Making of the Golden Triangle, Page 16, Lynne Reinner Publishers, (1996)
  102. Trocki, Opium, Empire and the Global Political Economy at page 110
  103. Ronald Renard, The Burmese Connection: Illegal Drugs and the Making of the Golden Triangle, at page 14
  104. Ibid. at page 18
  105. Martin Booth, Opium: A History, Page 148, St. Martins Press (1996)
  106. Chiranan Prasertkul, “Yunnan: Trade in the Nineteenth Century”, Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University (1989)
  107. Trocki, Opium, Empire and the Global Political Economy at page 126.
  108. W. Randall Ireson, “Hmong Demographic Changes in Laos: Causes and Ecological Consequences”, Soujourn: Journal of Social Issues in S.E. Asia, Vol. 10 No. 2 (Oct., 1995)
  109. Please see my post: “Profiles in Opium: Vang Pao and The Tragedy of the Hmong
  110. Christie’s Auction Page, 2010
  111. M.D. Merlin, “Archeological Evidence for the Tradition of Psychoactive Plant Use in the Old World”, Vol. 52 No. 3, Page 308, Economic Botany (Autumn, 2003)
  112. Robert Bruce, “King Mongkut of Siam and His Treaty with Britain”, Journal of the Hong Kong Chapter of the Royal Asiatic Society, Page 96, Vol. 9 (1969)
  113. See: Bertil Litner, “The Golden Triangle Opium Trade“, (March, 2000)
  114. Ian Brown, “The End of the Opium Farm in Siam”, Published in The Rise and Fall of Revenue Farming, (Palgrave Macmillan, 1993)
  115. See: Bertil Litner, “The Golden Triangle Opium Trade“, (March, 2000) quoting Alfred McCoy, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, Harper & Row, New York, (1972) p. 67.
  116. Diana S. Kim, Empires of Vice, Page 77 (e-book edition) Princeton University Press (2020)
  117. Christian Lentz, “Cultivating Subects: Opium and rule in Post Colonial Vietnam”, Cambridge University Press, June 22, 2017
  118. Ibid.
  119. Ronald Renard, “Mainstreaming Alternative Development in Thailand, Lao PDR & Myanmar: A Process of Learning“, Page 21, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
  120. Diana Kim, Empires of Vice at page 120.
  121. McCoy, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, Page 95.
  122. Diana S. Kim, Empires of Vice, Page 128 (e-book edition), Princeton University Press (2020)
  123. Carl Trocki, Opium, Empire and the Global Political Economy at page 126
  124. J. Windle, “Harms Caused by China’s 1906-1917 Opium Suppression Intervention”, International Journal of Drug Policy, Vol. 24 No. 5, (2013)
  125. Robert B. Maule, “The Opium Question in the Federated Shan States, 1931-1936”, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, (March, 1992)
  126. Ibid. at page 32
  127. Sterling Seagrave, Lords of the Rim, Chapter 10, G.P. Putnam and Son (1995); See also: Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy, “Drug Trafficking in and out of the Golden Triangle”, Page 8 (2013)
  128. Alfred McCoy, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, Page 67, Harper and Row (1972)
  129. Robert Maule, “The Opium Question in the Federated Shan States, 1931-36”, Page 17, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, (March, 1992)
  130. McCoy, Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, at page 78

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