Day 104: Walking the Hall of Opium

Opium isn't necessarily all bad, but man does it have a dark side. Walk with me through the valley of darkness... I mean... the Hall of Opium. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

THIS morning, I find myself afraid nothing interesting will happen today.

It's not that nothing will happen. The fear should be of not seeing it when it does, as something happens everyday, I remind myself. A poor at attempt at a pep-talk.

This is the issue with not making any rolls the night before and having no plans for what will happen. If it's storm, as it is this morning, I can't be bothered to leave bed.

Last night was full of fitful bouts of sleep and lots of ass itching – a sign of me being anxious, or at least that's the theory. There is also the possibility that I'm starting to go through a bit of a sugar withdraw. There is also the fact that's raining this morning, like yesterday morning.

Unable to clear the cobwebs from my mind, I begin packing in a haze. Searching the room in an attempt to figure out where to start, I pick up a single item, a pair of dirty underwear, and try to figure out where in my pack it goes.

Eventually, and I do mean eventually, it all gets where it's supposed to be going. The system is already being refined since leaving Chiang Mai. My camera neck strap now hangs out of the tank bag for quicker access and the essential items are all ending up in the right places. However, I've yet to figure out what to do with my dirty clothes, besides wear them, which is the current modus operandi.

The black t-shirt I pull on smells of sweet mildew and sweat. My other shirts are already packed. I resolve to make this the last day in this shirt, which I've been riding in for four days on the trot.

The owner of Mae Sai Guesthouse waves me off after I inform him that I don't know where I'm going, which is true.

It's strange to hit the road with no clear purpose. I vaguely figure that I'll stop to see the Golden Triangle Park, where it's possible to view Thailand, Myanmar and Laos as they all converge along the Mekong River.

A sign reads: Hall of Opium.

Why not, I think. I've got no plans.

Pulling in, guards direct toward the parking lot, past a large pond with well-manicured bushes that read HALL OF OPIUM.

This place takes its opium seriously, though given the history of the region, it should come as no surprise.

The museum is a stark, modern building, angular, using form for expression rather than color, though it toys with natural lighting. It's not just a building, it's piece of architecture.

I pay my 200 baht to a young Thai woman behind a counter and sign in.

I'm ushered into a tunnel. The cave like tunnel swims in a dark blue light with dim violet lights dangling from an industrial-style ceiling.

A switch is hit. Music, birds, nature, the sound of dripping water echo through the cave. Sculpted into the walls are anguished faces and destitute bodies tangled and destroyed.

It's a long hallway. I slowly walk, absorbing the mood created by the museum designer.

The hall stretches on and on, lights bring to life the pain and destruction on one section of the wall and than another.

I am impressed. If this is the beginning of the exhibit, this place is on a completely different level than anything I've seen in Thailand.

A worry begins to nibble at the edges of my consciousness along with its dear friend disappointment. Maybe this is it. Maybe this is the Hall of Opium, a single art instillation.

I resign myself to the very real possibility.

Not far from the Hall of Opium is the Golden Triangle Park. Video: Isaac Stone Simonelli. Music: Glenn Simonelli

I love museums. I studied the origins of them and even museum ethics, in addition to multiple museum curating practicum classes through the Mathers Museum at Indiana University. Museums, specifically the underwater museums, dominated my focus during my final years at university, culminating in me designing and creating an exhibit at the Mathers Museum about underwater museums around the world. I, of course, relied heavily on the work being done by my adviser Charlie Beeker and the underwater science program through which I was conducting my major in underwater archaeology.

The Mathers Museum, which I remember walking through with my father as a child, is an wonderful university establishment. This, however, is a state-of-the-art museum.

There are so many levels on which one can appreciate a museum exhibit. There is the base level, which is looking at the objects and being impressed by them. Then there is layer after layer of appreciation for the history and information presented for which the objects stand, as they act as catalysts for the conversation being driven by the curator. And then there is the exhibit itself: how it's put together, the flow, the story, the installations, the chemistry, the magic.

The Hall of Opium has magic.

Stepping out of the tunnel I'm greeted by a young woman who introduces me to a cursory background of the Poppy plant, of which there are many species, though only one is widely used in making opium. I slowly read through a display thick with easily accessible information in both Thai and English.

Next, I'm seated in a theater. Alone in the large room, I an introductory film is played, covering the basics about opium, why the museum was established and explaining the layout. The third floor is dedicated to the history of opium and the second floor the history of Opium in Siam, it says. There is then a section on the social impacts and medical use. In conclusion, there is a room to sit and contemplate what the visitor has seen and reflect on the impacts of opium on individuals and society as a whole.

The history of opium, outside of it local medicinal use, starts with the history of tea. Or rather the British addiction to tea, so this is where we as the museum's guests begin.

As I am not devote tea drinker – though I have tried oolong – and only a former Brit, as us Americans with a hint of colonial heritage are bound to be, I feel completely justified in not knowing that it was Queen Catherine Braganza's fascination with tea that sent the world down the rabbit hole we know find ourselves, though, to be far, plenty of others have helped along the way.

(If you are an upstanding British citizen and a lover of tea, it can only be assumed that you are familiar with the wife of King Charles II, Queen Catherine of Braganza. If not, lower the Union Jack and join the Boston Tea party, you're a disgrace.)

Simply put, Queen Catherine defined tea drinking culture in England, which trickled down from royalty to the commons.

It was along the same trade routes the British used for spices and tea that opium traveled. However, the single trade flow that left the British on the wrong side of a shitty stick was their trade with the Chinese, despite their slowly declining empire.

This all changed as the Brits pushed large amounts of opium up through British controlled India into the lungs of the Sleeping Dragon. The East Indian Company began an official policy to sell opium to China in 1816.

The Chinese fought against the import of the substances, leading to the Opium Wars. But there is far too much history to get caught up in all the details.

And that is impart what is brilliant about the exhibit. It balances the long historical narrative with why it matters to us now, giving plenty of details without leaving a visitor comatose.

I am engrossed as I stroll through the exhibits alone.

The installations themselves, including walking through the belly of an English merchant vessel with the sounds of the birds and men at the dock playing in the background did their part in keeping visitors engaged.

At one point, animatronic historical figures speak out about the trade and the world.

From the ruffles of his collar Sir John Bowring proclaims the dictum he coined, “Free trade is Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ is free trade.”

"No Taxation Without Representation,” I should have shouted back at the Brit, in celebration of our little tea party. Just as us Americans had our tea party, the Chinese had their opium party. In 1839, 1,000 long tons of illegal opium seized from British merchants was destroyed and flushed out into the sea by the Chinese.

If I had a choice of which sea water I was going to drink after a party, I think I'd stick to Boston.

In Siam, opium imports were illegal. However, the Bowring Treaty in 1855 between the British and the Kingdom of Siam opened the flood gates, as it destroyed import duties and allowed the substances to be brought into the country in unlimited quantities.

However, Siam maintained distribution, making it legal only to sell to ethnic Chinese. In 1897 internal tax revenue from the drug made up more than 24% the Kingdom's tax revenue.

Again, the narrative being powerfully spun in the museum brings these details to life as a few hours slip by, as if I had taken a hit from an opium pipe, blissfully unaware of how uncomfortable a porcelain pillow really is – there my friends is a historical example of unpleasant design.

The Hills Tribes in Northern Thailand and throughout the Golden Triangle, were encouraged by Thailand to grow poppies, scoring the pods so that a thick, milky substance oozes out and can be harvested. The demand for local supply came when WWII cut off access to Indian opium.

Of course, there is the creation of morphine – the creators wife ended up dying of an overdose – and then in hopes of replacing it with something less addictive: the heroic drug. Meet heroin.

And at this point, like so many points before it and after it, the webs of human history are so entangled that they captured, killed and destroyed so very much. Sadly, the seeds planted in the fields hundreds of years ago continue to give bloom to unanticipated and devastating consequences.

The museums giving me a crash course in drugs before I end up learning first hand about these things in Laos. (Not that heroin, morphine or meth are on my to-try list.)

I know I should stop and sit in the Hall of Reflections, but I was already starting to breeze through sections of the museum by the end of it. I did pause and play the computer game they have set up where you click to find where the people in the airport are hiding drugs, but I've hit my information saturation point.

I do read the inspirational quotes on the pillars in the high ceiling, white room.

Out of all of them, it's the words of Argentine novelist Julio Cortazar that resonate within me, each level of their meaning holding true to the story the museum tells.

“The evolution from happiness to habit is one of death's best weapons,” he says.

It's getting late, nearly 4pm by the time the shuttle at the exit of the museum drives me back around to the parking lot. Not too far up the road is the Golden Triangle Park.

The sign is perhaps the most interesting part of seeing all three countries meet. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

A small strip of guesthouses, resorts and restaurants, a few of them high end, cluster round the Golden Triangle Park. Up the Mekong River is Myanmar and across it is Laos. However, they both look like the Thailand I'm standing in.

I drive past the Myanmar crossing point and then the Laos one, and then there isn't much else to see. So, I loop back, passing the giant golden Buddha image in the park, which is in fact just a bit of tiled ground with an arch, a map and the Buddha shrine. Up a small hill looking out over the river, I order a cheap meal.

I had sat at one of the restaurants closer to the park, but the prices were outrageous. After food, I step over to the next local open-air venue, a little cafe.

A gray cloud, like those in the sky above the three countries and the Mekong, settles over me.

It's a vague sense of loneliness, nothing deep or powerful, just me skirting along the edges of the feeling, but even at that distance, I'm trying to avoid it. I pick up my phone. I put it back down. Why not enjoy this feeling? Why run from it? Ironically, I recently finished Kurt Vonnegut's novel Slapstick, in which the main character, Dr. Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain, runs on the presidential platform of “Lonesome No More!”.

I keep the phone face down, my eyes lost in the reeds and tall grass along the Mekong, Myanmar one direction, Laos the other, me situated, if not firmly, at least physically, in Thailand. But my eyes don't focus on those places or even on the birds zipping along the river's bank. They look at nothing and I think about loneliness, aware that I'm hardly feeling it at all.

Mindlessly, my hand caresses a cactus as if it were a baby hedgehog. My fingers and palm rake across the hundreds of sharp needles, softly; then too hard, and a jolt of pain, minute pain, causes my hand to retract before again returning to pet the plant.

I drink my coffee, petting the adopted cactus and thinking how disappointing the view is. It should be no surprise that the three countries look like the same place from this vantage point, as they have only been divided up by men. The river provides nutrition to all three banks and the weather doesn't play favorites either when it comes to rain and sun.

I settle on a town to sleep in after checking a map on Google. However, the town, which I thought was an hour away. Is only five minutes away.

Wanting to keep moving, I give the dice 1-in-6 chance to stop me. They don't.

An hour later, I roll into the popular Laos crossing point of Chiang Kong. I book a bed in the enormous, nearly empty, dorm room at Funky Box Hostel. However, I don't buy a ticket to cross the Mekong.

Chiang Kong's popular, but it's not where the die told me to cross.

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