GOLDEN TRIANGLE was once the world's largest and most famous opium growing region but production has dropped dramatically—particularly in Thailand—and now Afghanistan is far and away the world’s largest illicit opium producer . Covering an area the size of Nevada and at one time the source of 60 percent of the heroin consumed in United States, it embraces the lovely green mountains and valleys of northern Thailand, western Myanmar (Burma) and northeastern Laos.

The Golden Triangle is an area of around 350,000 square kilometers that overlaps the mountains of three countries of Southeast Asia: Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. The Golden Triangle originally designated the confluence of the Sop Ruak River and the Mekong river and may have been coined to describe the payment of gold for opium. Later the term was used to describe the opium and heroin trade around the nearby junction of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar. Later still it was appropriated by the region’s tourist industry to describe the region where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar all come together.

Most of the opium and heroin is produced today in the region comes from Myanmar and to a lesser extent Laos. The section of the Golden Triangle in Thailand is pretty tame these days. Many former opium-growing areas are now popular trekking areas. King Bhumibol of Thailand has been active in promoting alternative crops to opium. Some hill tribe villages see a lot of foreign trekkers. Other are still remote and relatively untouched.

Golden Triangle and the Opium Trade

At one time about 70 percent of the heroin on the streets in the United States originated in the Golden Triangle. The region produced 3,000 tons of opium in 1996, 60 percent of the global supply. In the late 1990s, the Golden Crescent in Pakistan, Iran and particularly Afghanistan surpassed the Golden Triangle as the world's largest opium-growing area.

Myanmar produces 90 percent of the heroin and opium produced in the Golden Triangle. Laos produces some but much less than Myanmar. Thailand used to produce quite a lot but it doesn’t anymore. Many of the former opium growing areas in Thailand are now popular trekking areas. Sometimes opium harvests are lower than they otherwise might be due to heavy rains and cold winters in the area. In addition, Chinese authorities have tried to crank down on the drug production and smuggling along China’s border with the Golden Triangle area.

In 1994, it was estimated the drug baron Khun Sa and the United Wa State Army controlled 75 percent of the heroin originating in the Golden Triangle. A Panthay Chinese Muslim from Burma, Ma Zhengwen, assisted Khun Sa in selling his heroin in north Thailand. In 1996, Khun Sa retired and the United Wa State Army took over many of the areas he controlled.

According to Wikipedia: “Over the two decades of his unrivalled dominance of the Shan state, from 1974 to 1994, the share of New York street heroin coming from the Golden Triangle—the northern parts of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos—rose from 5 percent to 80 percent. It was 90 percent pure, "the best in the business", according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. And Khun Sa, the DEA thought, had most of that trade. [Source: Wikipedia]

History of the Golden Triangle Opium Trade

Opium was introduced to China by Arab traders during the reign of Kublai Khan (1279-94). The drug was highly valued for its medicinal qualities and was grow by some ethnic minorities in south China to raise money to pay tributes to the Chinese Emperors. Opium as a major cash crop was introduced to the Golden Triangle by the British in the colonial period. It was grown as a cash crop for the French as well as the British. But it was Chinese who once fought for the Kuomintang troops with Chiang Kai-shek against Chairman Mao's Red Army that introduced big time production and smuggling.

In 1852, the British arrived in lower Burma, importing large quantities of opium from India and selling it through a government-controlled opium monopoly. Not long after that opium production increased in the highlands of Southeast Asia. Some of it made its way to China In 1878, Britain passed the Opium Act with hopes of reducing opium consumption. Under the new regulation, the selling of opium was restricted to registered Chinese opium smokers and Indian opium eaters while the Burmese were strictly prohibited from smoking opium.

The British aggressively marketed opium in China. The result: lots of addicts. Some smoked the drug in opium deans. Others took opium pills. Cheap pill known as pen yen gave rise to the expression have a "yen" for something. Most of the opium was supplied by India but some came from Burma. The French produced opium in what is now Vietnam and Cambodia.

In 1886, the British acquired Burma's northeast region, the Shan state. Production and smuggling of opium along the lower region of Burma thrived despite British efforts to maintain a strict monopoly on the opium trade. Efforts by the British and French to control opium production in Southeast Asia were ultimately successful. Nevertheless, the opium trade in the Southeast Asian region, today referred to as the 'Golden Triangle', developed over time and began being major player in the profitable opium business during the 1940s.

In the 1930s, the majority of illegal heroin smuggled into the U.S. came from China and was refined in Shanghai and Tietsin. During World War II, opium trade routes were blocked and the flow of opium from India and Persia is cut off. Fearful of losing their opium monopoly, the French encouraged Hmong farmers to expand their opium production. After Burma gained independence from Britain at the end of World War II. Opium cultivation and trade flourishes in the Shan states in the late 1940s. The trade thrived even after Burma outlawed opium in 1962.

Kuomintang and the Golden Triangle Drug Trade

In 1949, the remnant's of Chiang Kai-shek's defeated Kuomingtan (Chinese nationalists) army retreated to the mountain of Burma along the Chinese border and tried to organize attacks against the Red Army. To raise money the Kuomintang encouraged peasant farmers to raise opium, which the Chinese nationalists sold for huge profits. Later the Beijing-backed Communist Party of Burma financed their operation with money from the opium and heroin trade.

Bert Lintner wrote on Asia Online: “Following Mao Zedong's victory in China in 1949, thousands of Kuomintang soldiers came streaming south, and, supported by the surviving Republic of China government in Taiwan—and the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)— they tried in vain to "liberate" the mainland from their new sanctuaries in Myanmar, then known as Burma. The Kuomintang invasion resulted in a reign of terror for the ordinary people who lived in the areas, as the nationalist Chinese collected taxes, forcibly enlisted recruits and encouraged poppy cultivation in the area to finance their "secret" army. At the age of 16, Khun Sa formed his own armed band to fight the intruders. In the early 1960s, his small private army was even recognized officially as the "Loi Maw Ka Kwe Ye", a home guard unit under the Myanmar army. [Source: Bert Lintner, Asia Online, November 1, 2007*]

"Ka Kwe Ye" (KKY), which literally means "defense" in the Myanmar language, was Yangon's idea of a local militia to fight the Kuomintang as well as local, separatist Shan rebels. The plan was to rally as many local warlords as possible, mostly non-political brigands and private army commanders, behind the Myanmar army in exchange for the right to use all government-controlled roads and towns in Shan state for opium trafficking. By trading in opium, the Myanmar government hoped that the KKY militias would be self-supporting. The warlords, who were supposed to fight the insurgents, strengthened their private armies and purchased with opium money military equipment available on the black market in Thailand and Laos. Some of them, Khun Sa included, were soon better equipped than the Myanmar military itself. *

Vietnam War, the CIA and the Golden Triangle Drug Trade

The Vietnam War was a boon for the opium and heroin business. Americans in Southeast Asia not only provided a fairly well paid source of buyers they also provided ways for Asian drug producers to export their products around the world. Before that time Turkey and the Middle East were the primary source of opium. As time went on demand increased and to meet demand production increased as more drugs flooded the market more people had access to drugs. Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet Guide of Thailand: “As the cycle expanded opium cultivation became a full-time job for some hill tribes within the Golden Triangle. Hill economies were destabalized to the point where opium production became a necessary means of survival for thousands of people, including the less nomadic Shan people.”

As part of their effort to combat Communism, the CIA allegedly helped expand the opium trade in Southeast Asia—first in Laos, then in Burma and finally in Vietnam—to help groups fighting Communism raise money and sew instability. From 1960 to 1973, the C.I.A. allegedly trained Hmong tribesmen to fight against Communist in Laos and the Hmong in turn financed some of their efforts by selling opium. There is much controversy about how deeply the CIA was involved in the Southeast Asia drug trade. If the CIA was not involved in the drug trade, it did know about it. As former DCI William Colby acknowledged, the Agency did little about it during the 1960s, but later took action against the traders as drugs became a problem among American troops in Vietnam. The CIA's main focus in Laos remained on fighting the war, not on policing the drug trade. See Opium Under Southeast Asia.

William M. Leary, the University of Georgia historian, wrote: “For more than 13 years, the Agency directed native forces that fought major North Vietnamese units to a standstill.... As Joseph Westermeyer, who spent the years 1965 to 1975 in Laos as a physician, public health worker, and researcher, wrote in Poppies, Pipes, and People: "American-owned airlines never knowingly transported opium in or out of Laos, nor did their American pilots ever profit from its transport. Yet every plane in Laos undoubtedly carried opium at some time, unknown to the pilot and his superiors — just as had virtually every pedicab, every Mekong River sampan, and every missionary jeep between China and the Gulf of Siam."

According to Alfred McCoy, a historian at the University of Wisconsin, the French administration of Indochina had financed its covert operations with the drug trade, and the CIA had simply replaced the French, to finance similar operations. He said he was told by retired general Maurice Belleux, the former head of the French equivalent of the CIA that the French military intelligence had financed all their covert operations from the control of the Indochina drug trade: “The French paratroopers fighting with hill tribes collected the opium and French aircraft would fly the opium down to Saigon and the Sino-Vietnamese mafia that was the instrument of French intelligence would then distribute the opium. The central bank accounts, the sharing of the profits, was all controlled by French military intelligence. He concluded the interview by telling me that it was his information that the CIA had taken over the French assets and were pursuing something of the same policy.

“During the 40 years of the cold war, from the late 1940s to this year, the CIA pursued a policy that I call radical pragmatism. Their mission was to stop communism and in pursuit of that mission they would ally with anyone and do anything to fight communism. During the long years of the cold war the CIA mounted major covert guerilla operations along the Soviet-Chinese border. The CIA recruited as allies people we now call drug lords for their operation against communist China in northeastern Burma in 1950, then from 1965 to 1975 [during the Vietnam war] their operation in northern Laos and throughout the decade of the 1980s, the Afghan operation against Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

“Powerful, upland political figures control the societies and economies in these regions and part of that panoply of power is the opium trade. The CIA extended the mantle of their alliance to these drug lords and in every case the drug lords used it to expand a small local trade in opium into a major source of supply for the world markets and the United States. While they were allied with the United States these drug lords were absolutely immune to any kind of investigation. If you're involved in any kind of illicit commodity trade, organized crime activity like drug trafficking, there is only one requisite for success, immunity, and the CIA gave them that. As long as they were allied with the CIA, the local police and then the DEA stayed away from the drug lords.”

The CIA set up an airline called Air America that was involved in various activities associated with the war: moving fighters, flying reconnaissance missions, dropping and picking up spies and searching for downed aircraft. Some say Air American was involved in drug smuggling.

Khun Sa Era in the Golden Triangle

The warlord Khun Sa dominated the Golden Triangle opium and heroin supply and trade in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. In the early 1970s, as the Vietnam War was winding down and coming to an end, heroin exportation from parts of Southeast Asia controlled by Khun Sa, increased and the Golden Triangle became a major source for raw opium in the profitable "China White" drug trade, which picked up momentum in the late 1970s.

In the 1980s, Khun Sa became a heroin supplier as opium production in Burma increased under the rule of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), the Burmese junta regime. The single largest heroin seizure at that time was made in Bangkok a — a 1,000-kilogram shipment of heroin en route to New York City that the U.S. believed originated from the Golden Triangle.

In 1990, a U.S. Court indicted Khun Sa on heroin trafficking charges for importing 1,600 kilograms of heroin into New York City over the course of eighteen months, as well as holding him responsible for the source of the heroin seized in Bangkok. In 1993 the Thai army with support from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) launched a campaign in which thousands of acres of opium poppies in the Golden Triangle were destroyed.

In the mid 1990s, the Golden Triangle region was the world’s leading producer of opium, producing 2,500 tons annually. According to U.S. drug experts, opium and heroin were smuggled out of Burma on drug trafficking routes mainly through Laos, to southern China, Cambodia and Vietnam.

In January 1996, Khun Sa "surrendered" to SLORC. The U.S. didn’t believe it and thought it was just a deal in which Khun Sa agreed to end his 30-year-old revolutionary war against the government in exchange for retaining control of his opium trade.

Opium and Heroin Production and the Golden Triangle

Most of the opium produced in the Golden Triangle is grown by subsistence farmers on two acre plots of land. Opium is usually raised as second crop after their main food source rice is planted in May and harvested in September. On average the farms earned about $650 in the 1990s from five kilograms of opium crops. The money was used to buy everything from fertilizer to guns. In many places where opium is grown, the land is too high and too cold for rice and corn grown there doesn’t taste good.

A 2013 United Nations report said that just over 9 metric tons of heroin was seized in East and Southeast Asia in 2012, compared to 6.5 metric tons in 2010, while 2.7 metric tons of opium was seized in 2012 compared to 2 metric tons in 2010.

The opium harvesting season is in January and February. In Southeast Asia opium is usually in wrapped bundles called jois. Each joi weighs 1.6 kilograms (3.5 pounds), the amount of opium produced by 3,000 poppies. In Thailand about 2.2 kilograms of raw opium is grown on one rai of land (1,600 square meters).

Much of the opium grown in the Golden Triangle in the 1970s, 80s and 90s was refined into a super-pure form of heroin known as China White (also known Heroin no. 4). Favored by intravenous drug users in the United States, it was stronger and cheaper than heroin from Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan that circulated during the 1960s. Golden Triangle opium was also made into Heroin No. 3 smoking heroin, favored by addicts in Southeast Asia.

Most of China White has been refined from opium in remote but sophisticated jungle laboratories. In the 1990s these laboratories also began producing amphetamines such as "ice" which are very popular in Asia as well as in Europe and the U.S.

After the crackdown on opium and heroin production in Thailand in the 1980s most of production was done by opium farmers in Myanmar and heroin labs in Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. Thailand remained a key link in the smuggling.

There was a steady increase of opium production in the Golden Triangle in the 1980s and 1990s. About 4,000 tons of opium was produced in the Golden Triangle in 1995, most of it from northeast Myanmar. At that time it was estimated that two tons of f heroin was smuggled through Thailand, with only about two percent of it being intercepted by authorities despite a large DEA presence in the area.

These days governments are promoting alternative crops to opium. Doi Chaang Coffee is cultivated and processed in the high mountain of the Chiang Rai province of Northern Thailand inside the Golden Triangle.The Thai area of the former triangle is full of small quiet villages where the most exciting thing that happens is the arrival of the next tour bus. The area is full of beautiful natural scenery and ancient temples, so it isn't like its not worth a visit.

Opium Production in Myanmar, Decline in Opium Production in Myanmar , See Myanmar. Opium Production in Thailand, See Thailand. Opium Production in Laos, See Laos

Opium Smuggling and the Golden Triangle

For a time much of opium and heroin smuggled out of the Golden Triangle was carried by mule trains. In the past much it was transported through remote mountain in Thailand beyond the reach of police and trucked to Bangkok, where it was transported on commercial ships through Taiwan to North American cities. As routes between Burma and Thailand were shut down, new routes opened up through China, Vietnam, Laos, India and Cambodia.

Now much of the opium and heroin smuggled out of the Golden Triangle goes through China and to a lesser extent Laos, Vietnam and India. Some leaves through Yangon and is shipped to destinations in Australia, Europe and the United States.

Much of the opium grown in the Golden Triangle is purified into heroin in jungle laboratories and smuggled into the Yunnan province in China, where it is delivered to Chinese syndicates who ship the heroin to Kunming and then to Shanghai, Hong Kong and other coastal cities where it is loaded onto one of thousands of ships bound for North America, Europe and some intermediary point.

According to a U.S. News and World Report article: "A broker...might be approached by another broker representing a Hong Kong businessmen who wants to invest in a shipment of heroin...the investors strike a deal with a group of ethnic Chinese in the United States—for example, New York businessmen who own legitimate restaurants or retail stores. The heroin may change hands several more times between these U.S. importers and street retailers, who for the most part are not Chinese but Italian-American, African-American and Dominican."

The famed French Connection bust in the 1960s seized only 110 kilograms of heroin. In comparison China alone seized 40 times that amount in 1995.

Trekking in Northern Thailand

Hill Tribe and Jungle Trekking in Thailand has become one of the kingdom’s most popular activities, as Thailand’s mountainous north offers spectacular forests with exotic animals and unique tribal communities. Treks are offered by numerous groups in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, Tak and other towns and cities in northern Thailand. Nearly every guest-house and hotel in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai will offer single and multi-day treks into the surrounding mountains.

Be aware that the quality of Chaing Mai Trekking tours and the villages they visit vary greatly. Some operators focus on smaller groups and are more concerned about the impact they are having on tribal communities and the environment. Be sure to ask about the level of difficulty of various treks and current weather conditions, as the mountains get considerably colder than most parts of Thailand and appropriate clothing is recommended. It worthwhile doing a little background checking—on the Internet and talking to other travelers— and arranging a trek with a trekking company with a good reputation.

Good treks are led by guides, fluent in English and the hill tribe languages, and who introduce trekkers to the tribes in an intimate yet unobtrusive fashion. Bad treks are led by guides, who don't speak English or the hill tribe languages, and who take visitors to villages in the suburbs of Chiang Rai, where the people quickly throw on their costumes before minibuses arrive at their appointed time, pose for snapshots, and then take the costumes off when the "trekkers" are hustled back into the departing minibuses.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2020

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