Methamphetamines are widely used and abused in Thailand. The drug is known as yaba, which means “crazy medicine” in Thai. Pills sold for about 50 baht ($1.10) to 100 baht ($2.20) a piece in the early 2000. They are often orange and candy-coated. The tern yaba usually refers to a combination of methamphetamines and caffeine also known as Nazi speed. According to official figures, more than 1 billion amphetamines pills are sold annually and are 300,000 people are addicted. By one count there are 3 million regular used (5 percent of the population), making Thais the world’s large per capita consumers of the drug.

Methamphetamines is usually taken orally or smoked. Some people snort it or wear Nicorette-like patches that allow them to absorb it into their skin. There have even been reports of bars that get customers high by circulating amphetamine smoke through the air conditioner. Many people smoke methamphetamines by burning a tablet on a piece of foil and inhaling the smoke through a straw. Others smoke it in water pipes. When consumed this way it produces a crack-like rush that lasts for a couple of minutes. A quarter of a table is consumed at a time and users stay for up hours or even days smoking it at regular intervals.

Richard S. Ehrlich wrote in the Asia Sentinel, “Methamphetamines are more popular than any other illegal drug in Thailand, which is burdened with an estimated 1.2 million addicts who also include consumers of opium, heroin, marijuana and other drugs, according to the Office of the Narcotics Control Board. Thailand's meth users include thrill-seekers at nightclubs, concerts and parties, alongside students cramming to pass exams. The pills are also swallowed by exploited workers at construction sites, fisheries and other industrial zones. Slum-dwellers, transport drivers, diet-obsessed people and others are also buying the roughly produced pills which sell for about $6 each and are swallowed or smoked. [Source: Richard S. Ehrlich, Asia Sentinel, May 4, 2012 <+>]

Methamphetamines abuse is so widespread that elephants are sometimes force-fed the stimulants to make them work longer hours while hauling logs, entertaining tourists, or performing other tasks. Thailand's government, media and public popularly describe methamphetamines as "yaa baa" or "crazy medicine" because users sometimes exhibit bizarre or psychotic behavior. Occasionally, a frenzied addict will seize a victim in public, and hold a knife to the person's throat, while screaming demands before being subdued, arrested and imprisoned. <+>


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History of Amphetamines in Thailand

Methamphetamines were first used mostly by long-distance bus and truck drivers who needed to make sure they stayed awake during their all-night runs. For a long time it was sold openly at trucks stops next to cigarettes and caffeine drinks.

The popularity of methamphetamines surged in the mid-1990s—when Thailand’s economy was booming—among working class people. Farmers and factory workers used the drug to remain alert during the long hours of work that were demanded of them. Students took it to study for exams, A drug official in Bangkok said, "there is a definitely link in this part of Asia between amphetamine use and economic development."

By 1996 methamphetamines had become the most widely abused drug in Thailand and displaced opium and heroin as the main products of the Golden Triangle in Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. People began smoking it rather than swallowing it to get a more intense rush. More people became addicted. The drug epidemic that ensued that was not unlike the crack epidemic in the United States in the 1980s. The government responded by classifying amphetamines as a dangerous drug and instituted the death penalty for dealing it.

Amphetamine Users

Amphetamines are used by all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons in Thailand. It is not limited to a certain culture or group of people. An official at a drug rehab center told Time, “Yaba is affecting every stratum of Thai society, from fashionable city kids, to laborers and truck drivers, to housewives and schoolchildren...It is tearing Thai society apart.”

Methamphetamine are widely abused by high school and middle school students. They refer to smoking the drug as keng rot, meaning “racing,” a term originally used to refer to racing around on motorbikes. One survey found than 10 percent of monks were addicted to methamphetamines. The drug has even been given to elephants to make them work harder and faster.

A worker at fast-food restaurant told the Independent, “Most of us are on yaba. Everyone in the kitchen, most of the cleaners and half the cashiers. We smoke in the storeroom, just half or so each. The supervisor doesn’t mind. It makes us faster, happier and no one eats the free food.”

Some users say it increases their sex drive. One British user in Bangkok told the Independent, “By day two all you can think about is sex...I am talking about having sex for 20 hours, stopping only to top up on yaba. Of course you can not come. It stops being fun. You feel like a hamster on a wheel...usually three days up, and I crash that a normal binge—any more I feel sure my brain would explode.”

Amphetamine Addicts

Describing an amphetamines addict,Karl Taro Greenfeld wrote in Time, “Jacky’s cheeks are sunken, her skin pockmarked and her hair is an unruly explosion of varying strands of red and brown. She is tall and skinny. It has been two days—no, three—without sleep, sitting in thus hut and smoking the little pink speed tablets from sheets of tinfoil stripped from Krong Tip cigarette packets. Nw, as the flushed of artificial energy recede and the realization surfaces that there is no money anywhere in her hit. Jackie is crashing hard, and she hates everyone and everything.” [Source: Karl Taro Greenfeld, Time magazine, March 4, 2001]

Jacky came to Bangkok from a small town. She has two kids, who live with her uncle, and worked as a motorcycle messenger until the Asian economic crisis in 1997 put her out of work. Now she works as a bar girl. She told Greenfeld, “Smoking yaba pushes thoughts about my children to the back of my mind. It’s good for that. Smoking means you don’t have to think about the hard times.” A friend chimed in, saying, “When I smoke, it means everything seems a little better.” [Ibid]

Thailand, Laos and Vietnam use compulsory detoxification and punitive detention to combat methamphetamine use.

Problems Caused Amphetamines in Thailand

Methamphetamines are a serious problem in Thailand and have been blamed for the collapse of traditional values in the country. Almost everyday there are stories about gang violence, deaths and personal tragedies associated with the drug. Two thirds of all urban crimes and one third of all traffic accidents are connected with the drug. It provides jobs for gangster, dealers, and corrupt police and has been called “the greatest threat to the nation since Communism.”

Newspapers have run stories about an unemployed man who was high on amphetamines and stabbed himself in the stomach with a knife on a train platform; about a mother who had her policeman son assassinated because the drug had turned him into a “monster”; and about one user who stabbed nine people after his television set was stolen. There are also stories of users who stay up 96 hours, 168 hours even 192 hours without sleeping.

One of the worst incidents, in December 1999, involved a man who had been up three days straight doing amphetamines and was walking aimlessly down the street mumbling to himself. When police stopped him he grabbed a two-year-old girl and but a knife to her throat. After the media arrived on scene, he panicked and slit the girl’s throat. Images of the bloodied girl, with her neck sliced open were shown on the evening news and placed on the front pages of newspapers, sickening the nation. The man ended up committing suicide by running as hard as he could into a wall.

Female Thai Student on Death Row in Vietnam for Smuggling Amphetamines

In August 2012, the Bangkok Post reported: “Charge d'affaires Boonrong Pongstiensak said that the Thai embassy in Vietnam is working to help Preeyanooch Phuttharaksa, 23, a Thai college student from Bangkok who was sentenced to death for drug trafficking by Ho Chi Minh City court in June 2012. Preeyanooch was arrested for trafficking three kilograms of methamphetamine pills from Nigeria's Benin city into Vietnam through Saigon airport in October 2012. She was arrested after the drugs were found in a false bottom of her suitcase. She told the court she was paid about US$1,570 (about 50,000 baht) by a Nigerian trafficking ring to smuggle the drugs. [Source: Bangkok Post, August 14, 2012 *\*]

Mr Boonrong said Preeyanooch had appealed for a reduced sentence on the advice of the Thai embassy in Vietnam. He said the embassy was waiting for the Vietnamese president's decision on whether to reduce her death sentence to life imprisonment. But Mr Boonrong said a reduced sentence would be difficult to obtain as drug trafficking is considered a most serious offence in Vietnam. Mr Boonrong said four other Thais arrested for drugs trafficking are now being detained in prisons in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. *\*

Mr Boonrong said he had received information that many Thai women are being deceived into trafficking drugs by international drugs gangs. Permpong Chavalit, deputy secretary-general of the Office of the Narcotics Control Board, said the Foreign Ministry recently reported that about 100 Thai women are currently being detained for drug trafficking in several countries, including China, India, United Arab Emirates, Spain, Brazil and South Africa. Some of them had married citizens of African countries and were forced to become involved in the trans-national drug trade, while others were willing to act as drug couriers due to the high pay, he said. He said African drug syndicates are using Thailand as their base, and that African gangsters used different tactics to dupe Thai women into the drug trade. Mr Permpong warned Thai women to stay away from African men to save themselves from being tricked into becoming a part of the drug networks. *\*

Koh Phangan Full-Moon Parties

All-night ecstacy-driven “full-moon” parties are held on Haad Rin beach on Koh Phangan near Koh Samui held each month on the night before or after every full moon. The events attract partiers from all over the world. Some draw tens of thousands of people to the island.

The first Full Moon Party was improvised at a wooden disco not far from the beach in 1985, and was attended by 20 to 30 travelers. The parties gained fame through word of mouth and became a must-attend event among backpackers traveling around South East Asia. The event now attracts a crowd of between 20,000 and 30,000 every full moon and continues past dawn the following day. Bars and DJs on the sunrise beach play psychedelic trance, drums and bass, house, dance and reggae music. Among the attractions are fire skipping ropes, alcohol 'buckets', and a drug culture. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Full Moon Party is more a bunch of small parties than one-large concert-like event. Oliver Benjamin and Phoowadon Duangmee wrote in The Nation: “The sheer variety of moon-theme parties on Phangan is amazing, each one touted on loud psychedelic flyers and posters all over the island — the Half Moon, the Black Moon, the Shiva Moon — and each one a bacchanal of all-night techno music, half-naked foreigners and unabashed drug and alcohol indulgence. Generated by huge loudspeakers, the dance music can shake the ground for a kilometre in all directions, and for years it seemed to have deafened everyone in authority to whom complaints were directed. [Source: Oliver Benjamin and Phoowadon Duangmee, The Nation, March 22, 2008]

Although the Full Moon Party generates a lot of money for locals not everyone on Koh Phangan likes the event. While it may be wild, once-in-a-lifetime happening for party-goers, for farmers and residents involved in everyday commerce—people who like to get to bed early—it can mean yet another sleepless night.

The Full Moon Party was featured in the films The Beach, Last Stop for Paul and the Thai film Hormones . It was also the subject of the first episode of the Comedy Central TV show Gerhard Reinke's Wanderlust . In 2011, the island's parties featured on Tourism and the Truth: Stacey Dooley Investigates , a documentary investigating the negative impacts of tourism on local people and the economy.

Koh Phangan

Ko Phangan (half hour boat ride and 15 kilometers north of Koh Samui) was once a quiet place but now it hard to come up with a place—during certain times anyway—that is any noisier. Dominated by backpackers, hippies and ravers from all over the globe, its famous for its ear-piercing and mind-numbing Full Moon parties—all-night-all ecstacy-driven dance events. Among the drugs available here are marijuana, heroin, magic mushrooms, ecstacy, opium, LSD, amphetamines and a variety of designer drugs. Many restaurants specialize in magic mushroom omelettes. If this doesn’t sound very appealing the island is big enough (190 square kilometers) there are plenty of quiet places. Many people come for both—some hard core partying followed or preceded by some relaxation time.

Located in the Gulf of Thailand a short boat ride from Koh Samui, Koh Phangan (pronounced pun-ngun) is a large, mountainous island covered with coconut trees and surrounded by white sand beaches and aquamarine waters. While each month thousands of young people flock to the world famous Full Moon Party in Haad Rin, where local and international DJs play music on the beach, there are dozens of other beaches in varying stages of development that are alternatively occupied by five-star beach resorts, budget beach bungalows, and a number of yoga, meditation, and health retreats.

Thong Sala is the main town. The center of the drug scene is Sunset Beach. The drug-infused Full Moon parties are nearby near the village of Hat Rin. "Ko Phangan's appeal lies in its combination of sun and near-total permissiveness," wrote Jeff Wise in the New York Times magazine. "Probably nowhere on earth have so many drugs been consumed so openly by so many for so long. Large in backpacker lore, Sunrise beach is no more than 300 yards long. The southern half fronts a rocky shore...Riddled with cigarette butts, soiled by dogs and rimmed with tideborn debris it maintains a ravaged dignity.

“A crowd of topless sunbathers clusters along the northern half, where the sand is soft and bleached white and slopes gently into the turquoise waters...A scruffy trio of Israelis follow the narrow dirt lane past rows of open-air shops down the water's edge, where a crowds is gathering. A German woman with brightly painted breasts pushes through to greet a group of white Rastas who are clambering down from a motor launch and wading ashore. A faint musk of marijuana graces the air...In a place like Ko Phangan, where the old Woodstock virtues of openness, generosity, and lack of purpose still hold sway, chronic vagrancy is badge of honor...Every year the scene there looks less and less like a "happening" and more and more like a psychedelic frat party."

Efforts to Shut Down the Koh Phangan Full-Moon Parties Early

Oliver Benjamin and Phoowadon Duangmee wrote in The Nation, “The fat-moon parties used to be lawless enough that huge signs advertising "special mushroom omelettes" and "amphetamine tea" were tolerated, but the local cops began cracking down on drugs and other craziness in the mid-1990s.” But the efforts didn’t produce lasting results. Later there were other attempts to limit collateral damage. “The administrators of Baan Tai School complained about the Black Moon party, and the event was moved into the dense woods of Baan Khai jungle - but attendance dropped, so it was promptly shifted back to its original location. There was considerable publicity when an irritated nun at Wat Khao Tham managed to shut down the Shiva Moon party, but then she mysteriously withdrew her objections and the techno-thunder resumed as usual. [Source: Oliver Benjamin and Phoowadon Duangmee, The Nation, March 22, 2008]

In 2008, “suddenly Koh Phangan's rave parties were shut down early. Residents of the village of Baan Tai wrote to the governor of Surat Thani complaining that the parties were depriving more than 100 households of sleep. "What's worse is the drug dealers who hang around the guesthouses pushing marijuana to the tourists on party nights," they said, adding that theft was becoming common and more sober-minded tourists were shunning the island.

“The police showed up at the Half Moon Party in Baan Tai and ordered the organisers to shut it down because it was "after hours". The next night they did the same at the Baan Sabai Day party. The exact cause for the policy change wasn't immediately known but, given the massive amounts of money involved, local residents are skeptical that the mandate will hold. "The governor of Surat Thani is concerned about the complaints," says Colonel Wuthichai Hanhaboon, head of the Koh Phangan Police Station, "so the police stopped several parties and ensured that the revellers would cause no trouble."

"We try to bring some order to the parties, but the organisers don't listen - they're making a fortune," says Threerayuth Plaisuwan, head of the civic administration in Baan Tai, home of the original full-moon parties. "They get Bt300 per ticket, and the corrupt authorities get a Bt100 cut to turn a blind eye to the problem." Thus, a handful of people on Phangan bank a bundle of cash from "techno-tourism" while the vast majority suffer the headaches and sleepless nights with nothing to show for it. "The communities earn hardly anything from the parties since we can't tax the organisers," Threerayuth says. "And then we have to pay for the beach clean-up afterwards too!"

A "party zone" has been suggested. Instead of staging the events in or near the central villages of Baan Tai, Baan Nok and Baan Nuea, organisers could get together and carve out a specific area in the dense jungle environs some distance away. Choosing a spot behind natural hillside would muffle the sound. Critics of the monthly noise assaults find it ironic that the raves are festooned with messages of multiculturalism, tolerance and "getting along". It's a message the locals wish the revellers would take to heart - so they can get a decent night's sleep.

Full-Moon Party Safety Issues

Although drugs are consumed by many partygoers, drug laws are strict and police enforcement is stepped up during the parties. There are undercover police on patrol and even the drug dealers themselves may report drug users to police. [Source: Wikipedia]

In January 2005, seven people were killed, including four foreign tourists (including an American and an Israeli) and 23 were injured, and 17 were missing after an overloaded speedboat capsized off Koh Samui. The boat was returning to Samui from an all-night party on Koh Phangan. Forty people were on the boat when it capsized a few kilometers from Koh Samui. The boat was not allowed to carry more than 30 people.

In July 2010, forty-two people were injured after two boats carrying Thai and foreign tourists collided near Pha-ngam island. The boats were ferrying tourist too and from the island’s “full moon” parties. The boats collided around midnight in rough seas during a rain storm.

A number of crimes in which foreigners have been the victims have occurred at the all-night Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan. In recent years, there has been an increasing number of assaults, robberies, muggings and sexual attacks on tourists in the in bars and the area surrounding Haad Rin on the island. Break-ins at hotel bungalows while partygoers are away from their rooms sometimes occur as well. Many Thais from Bangkok do not visit the Samui archipelago because of its reputation.

The British Embassy in Thailand has warned that western tourists have been victims of vicious unprovoked attacks by gangs in Koh Phangan. "These attacks are particularly common around the time of the Full Moon parties and generally occur late at night near bars in Haad Rin. Exercise caution when walking in this area at any time, especially after dark."

This wasn’t the only murder on Koh Phanga. In 2004, three Thais were gunned down in a fight on Haad Rin beach. In April 2007 Israeli tourist David Kakitelashvic, 31, died after being stabbed eight times with a knife at the beach’s Drop Inn Bar. A gang of teenagers, including the son of a local politician, were the chief suspects. In March 2008 an Indian tourist was stabbed to death trying to break up a fight during the full-moon party.

The British Embassy in Thailand has warned that western tourists have been victims of vicious unprovoked attacks by gangs in Koh Phangan. "These attacks are particularly common around the time of the Full Moon parties and generally occur late at night near bars in Haad Rin. Exercise caution when walking in this area at any time, especially after dark."

Koh Phangan Full-Moon Party Murder

On New Years Eve 2012, 22-year-old British tourist Stephen Ashton was killed by a stray bullet. Victoria Ward wrote in the Telegraph, “Ashton was killed as he danced with friends at a beach bar on the popular island of Koh Phangan. He is believed to have been caught in the crossfire when an argument between two groups of youths suddenly escalated. [Source: Victoria Ward, the Telegraph, January 2, 2013]

Mr Ashton, a junior City trader, had quit his job in November and had planned to travel from Thailand to Australia. Local police spokesman Lt Col Somsak Noorod said: "He was shot in the side while he was dancing on the beach." He was rushed to Bandon International Hospital on the neighbouring island of Koh Samui, but was later pronounced dead.

The suspect, named locally as Ekkapan Kaewkla, 26, was subsequently arrested and was found in possession of a homemade gun. On his arrest, Ekkapan admitted he had fought with another group of men at Zoom Bar but denied firing the fatal shot, according to local reports. A few days after the murder Ekkapan Kaewkla appeared in court. Police Colonel Kittakarn Kramothong, said: “Stephen was not involved in the fight.”

Around 300 revellers attended the Countdown party at the Zoom Bar on Haad Rin beach on Monday night. Witnesses said that two groups of Thai youths got into an argument which escalated into a fist-fight at around 4am. As one of the groups ran from the bar, one man turned and fired a shot back inside. Ashton was shot in the torso.Sophie Harwin, a graphics editor from Surrey, had spent the evening nearby but left the area before the shooting occurred. “I just met someone who said loads of people were trying to save him,” she said. “Very sad."

Mr Ashton had been staying with a group of friends at Pink's Bungalows, a series of basic wooden beachside properties in the fishing village of Ban Tai, not far from Haad Rin. He had posted a photograph of himself and two friends drinking beers in a Thai bar on Facebook on December 13.


Thai opium production peaked in the 1960s at 200 tons a year. In 1983 it produced only 40 tons; in 1995 only 20 metric tons. In 2000, less than 3.7 tons of opium was grown on only 33 hectares of land. Even less is produced now. Illegal opium production (tons in 2000); 1) Afghanistan (3,276); 2) Burma (1,087); 3) Laos (167); 4) Columbia (88); 5) Mexico (22); 6) Pakistan (8); 7) Thailand (3.7); 8) Vietnam (2).

Even though production has dropped dramatically, much of the heroin produced in the Golden Triangle passes through Thailand on its way to Europe and the U.S. Most of the Golden Triangle opium comes from poppies in Burma and to a lesser extent Laos. Heroin is produced in labs in labs in these countries then smuggled through Thailand. At one time this heroin—some of it the infamous China White—accounted for more than half of heroin sold in the U.S. but much less is produced now.

In the 1980s and 90s opium was grown in Tak, Mae Hong Son, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Nan, Phayao, Phitsanulok, Phetchabun and Loei Provinces in Thailand. The opium season is between September and February. Opium is still grown in the hilly areas of Tak Province. In 2007, soldiers were shown destroying a crop there on a search and destroy mission aimed at opium.

Much of the opium produced in Thailand has traditionally been grown by hill tribes such as the Hmong and Lisu. Joe Cumming wrote in the Lonely Planet Guide to Thailand: “Although the Thai government outlawed the opium trade in 1839, any hill tribe settlement may legally plant a limited crop pf opium poppies for medical consumption. Small plots of land are sometimes ‘leased’ by opium merchants who have allowed production to decentralize in order for poppy resin collection to appear legal.”

King Bhumibol said: "Opium was for the hill tribes men both a way of life and natural source of income. Then it grew into a monster because other people entered the scene—the opium traders who have roots in all sectors of society—official and unofficial." In the 1970s the king said, "We don't deny that there is still opium grown in this country, but there's a very small quantity. The problem of opium is the traffic through the country." In terms of stopping opium production he said, "We have to be patient. If we just destroy the poppy, the people will be hungry and wonder why we are against them. They could become insurgents. But it takes follow-up.♦

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See Myanmar

Myanmar, Thailand and Drugs

Some have insisted that drugs coming from Myanmar, particularly areas controlled by the United Wa Army, is the single biggest source of economic, political and social trouble in Thailand. In some ways Thailand having Myanmar as its neighbor would be like the United States having Columbia across it border.

It is believed that many of the chemicals used to make drugs in Myanmar are exported from Thailand. In the early 2000s, police seized 180 kilograms of magnesium stearate—enough to produce 72 million amphetamine pills—at the border in Mae Sot. The owner of the chemicals, a Myanmar national, was given 30 days to prove the chemicals were intended to be used for something other than making drugs to avoid arrest.

Thai Politicians and Drugs

It has been said that sale of heroin and opium "greased" the Thai economy in the 1990s and that many the skyscrapers built in Bangkok at that time were financed with drug money. Even cabinet ministers have been tied to the drug trade. Asian historian Stanley Karnow told Time, "Drug dealers in a Thai Cabinet? There's nothing new about that. We didn't mind when the generals ran the opium shipment because they were lovely anti-communists.”

Thanong "Thai Tony" Siriprechapong, a former legislator from Thailand's Chart Thai (Thai Nation) party, was extradited to the U.S. to face charges of smuggling more than 45 tons of marijuana into the U.S. The owner of a hotel and restaurant chain in Thailand, Thanong was indicted in 1991 on three counts of smuggling marijuana between 1973 and 1987. In 1993, a house in Beverley Hills, a Mercedes and other assets in the U.S. were seized. In 1996, he was extradited to the U.S. to face drug charges there. In the early 2000s he was allowed to go home after serving 3½ years in a U.S. prison.

Two other members of the Chart Thai party were denied visas in 1995 for their suspected links to drug trafficking. In 1992, the head of the Chart Thai party, Narong Wongwan lost his chance to become prime minister when it was discovered that he too was denied a visa for suspicion of drug trafficking.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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