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Hall of Opium quite sobering
REUTERS/SUKREE SUKPLANG A Thai soldier removes opium poppies from a hilly area of Tak province.

There are 250 species of poppy but only one yields the white sap that is opium and can be made into heroin. And those poppies, Papaver somniferum, once covered the hillsides of the Golden Triangle.

This mountainous northern tip of Thailand was renowned for its opium growers, heroin factories, drug lords, opium wars, for its porous border with Burma, for smuggling and death. The Golden Triangle, straddling the Mekong River between Thailand, Burma and Laos, produced more than half of the world's illegal heroin, which spread its tentacles through Asia, Africa, Europe and America.

And in 1988, Her Royal Highness Princess Srinagarindra, the late Princess Mother of His Majesty the King of Thailand, drew a line in the sand. She initiated a project to restore and reforest the land in the Doi Tung area, and to offer the hill tribes here who were just trying to eke out a living (the growers rather than the drug lords), new industries and incomes.

The King's Mother, who died in 1995 aged 94, didn't stop there. She then initiated a project to build the Hall of Opium just north of Chiang Saen, at the spot which is physically the centre of the Golden Triangle, and where I now stand on the bank of the Mekong River and look across to Laos on the opposite bank and Burma to the north-west.

The Hall of Opium, in Golden Triangle Park - one of more than 3000 royal projects in Thailand - is there to bring alive the opium history of the Golden Triangle. The hall, jointly prepared by the Tourism Authority of Thailand and the Mae Fae Luang Foundation, shows its physical, social and economic toll. The scene is set by walking through the 137m-long dark entrance tunnel, walls sculpted with contorted figures depicting addiction.

Opium has a 5000-year history. It was used by Egyptians, early Greeks and Romans, and for 300 years as laudanum. Laudanum is opium dissolved in alcohol and the word means "to praise" in Latin.

The exhibition also details the Opium Wars between Britain and China and how, by the mid- 18th century, 13 million of the 40 million people in China were addicted to opium. At one stage during the reign of King Chulalongkorn between 1868 and 1910, the Opium Tax on its legal production represented 25 per cent of government income in Thailand. An opium department was established in 1906 to process the poppy's produce and in 1943, the government was buying opium from hill tribes. Now, opium poppies can only legally be grown in India, Turkey and Tasmania.

It was only 60 years ago that opium became a big illegal trade. Hall of Opium displays warn of the personal and social effects of addiction. Those who have admitted heroin use include Diego Maradona, Eric Clapton, Robert Downey Jr, Charlie Parker and Kurt Cobain.

It tells the story of a beautiful, dangerous plant that brought vital pain relief for hundreds of years, and misery to millions.

>> The Hall of Opium is open from Tuesday to Sunday, 8.30am to 4pm. Entrance is $7.20 (200 baht). See www.maefahluang.org.