The North of Thailand is a strange place. The cloud forest of the highlands pushes up between Laos and Burma (which now insists on calling itself Myanmar). Neither neighbour is very friendly to Thailand. But the hill tribes know nothing of the borders. They wander more or less where they want, slashing and burning and leaving sterile black holes in the deep green of the hills. This is the Golden Triangle, where most of the world's opium comes from. The forests are dotted with heroin refineries and crossed by mule tracks along which the cargoes go out to the ethnic Chinese syndicates in Thailand, and, increasingly, Myanmar and Laos, which feed the world's markets.
It is hard not to see evidence of the trade. When the poppies are in flower and hillsides glow red, and in the hot season travellers marching to the villages crash through fields of bent stalks. Some of the bell-like heads containing the seeds are still there, and the seeds rattle inside the pods as you brush past.
Many of the tribesmen themselves smoke opium, and addiction is an increasing problem amongst the young. Cynics in the towns say that there are two types of tribes: the poor and happy ones, who smoke opium and don't sell it; and the rich and stressed ones, who sell but don't smoke. Commercial prudence and personal opium consumption are not found together. The smokers use opium for relaxation, sex and medicine. Two pipes produce a sense of well-being. Five pipes are said to increase male sexual stamina. The tribesmen say that regular smoking prevents malaria and, more believably, that it eases the pain of their constant gut diseases. Apparently thirty pipes kill.
All ages and both sexes use the drug, and venerate people with high opium tolerance as |opium professors'. At night, on the bamboo floors of the stilt houses, the pigs still grunting a few feet below, the users melt the resin and use a thin stick to smear it onto the pinhole aperture of a carved wooden pipe. Then they lie down, heads resting on a rolled blanket, to pull the sweet-smelling blue smoke. For then baht a pipe (about 20p) they let the sillier travellers try.
Opium cultivation in the Golden Triangle is a relatively new industry. Arab merchants introduced the Chinese to opium in the late thirteenth century, and its medicinal value soon created a demand which was met by the hill tribe cultivators of southern China, who found that the poppies grew well in their thin soil. For a number of complex reasons the hill tribes migrated south. Many did so after the Second World War, because China and Burma, never tolerant of inflammable minorities, became brutal. The tribes took their poppies with them, and cultivation began in the triangle which is formed by Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. The triangle was not yet Golden: it took the Vietnam war to do that. But the foundations for a big industry were laid. Chief amongst its architects and later chief amongst its princes was Khun Sa, the grand opium warlord of South East Asia: part Chinese, part Shan. He has ridden the turning tides of Indo-Chinese politics very cleverly. His first appearance was with the Kuomintang (KMT), the exiled nationalist army of Chiang Kai Shek which had taken refuge in Burma. Their money for the continuing was against Communist China came from the CIA sponsored smuggling of opium. And that was where Khun Sa was useful. During the 1950s and 60s he was a crucial adviser to the KMT. But did not remain an employee for long. In the early 1960s he set up his own opium-running venture in northern Thailand, using the contacts gained during the KMT years. Since then Khun Sa has spoken with a number of alternating and contradictory voices. Sometimes he has been a principled Shan nationalist, and has used the rhetorical power of nationalism to bind an exiled people closely and bloodily to him. He developed and armed the Shan United Army (SUA), which now acts as his personal bodyguard and finances …