Jennifer Gampell
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Sampanthawong
Bangkok 10100 Thailand
Tel/Fax: (66) 2-237-3362
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April 11-13, 2003

Smokin'
Thailand's Best Museum Is an Unopened Hall
by Jennifer Gampell

CHIANG SAEN, THAILAND

The two opium museums in a three-kilometer stretch of Mekong River in the northern Thai boonies are the only two you'll find in the country. And no wonder. This little bit of riverside near the town of Chiang Saen adjoins the infamous Golden Triangle (the shared border between Laos, Thailand and Burma), which heightens its druggy mystique.

Interestingly, neither venue bills itself as a museum. The 15 year-old House of Opium in the tourist trap village of Sop Ruak encapsulates everything that gives the "M" word a bad rap in Thailand. It is a decrepit building with fusty rooms and bad lighting. Objects are crowded into dusty glass cabinets and the quaint signage is hand written in fading magic marker.

A few minutes westward in the province of Chiang Rai lies The Hall of Opium. The state-of-the-art space was conceived by the royally-supported Mae Fae Luang (MFL) foundation and funded with Japanese loan money. Whenever it finally opens, this US$10 million project should significantly raise the standards of Thai museum-ology.

The MFL foundation was started in the 1980s by mother of King Bhumibol Adulyadej (mae fah luang means princess mother in Thai) who championed the cause of Thailand's disenfranchised ethnic minorities. She set up schools for hilltribe children and instituted programs to help their parents grow legal cash crops instead of opium poppies.

A year before the princess mother's death in 1995, the foundation hired American academic Charles Mehl on a six-month contract to gather data on opium for a museum project. More important than debunking the museums-are-boring myth, MFL wanted to show that historically opium cultivation wasn't part of hilltribe culture. Also on the agenda was dispelling the notion that Asia was responsible for the West's drug problems. Anxious to sever as many implicit as explicit connections with the infamous substance, the foundation named the space Haw Pipinitas in Thai (roughly, Hall of Exhibition Hall.)

Nine years later and still working on the MFL museum project, Mr. Mehl has amassed the biggest collection of opium-related reference materials outside of Cornell University. "They'll form the core of what we hope will become a major information center for anyone wanting to do research on narcotics," he says. Mr. Mehl created the innovative presentations together with well-known Thai production designer Buranee Rachjaibun of Ovation Studios. One of the biggest challenges was synthesizing so much information into two large floors' worth of instructive and entertaining multimedia presentations.

I had my private tour of the hall one morning in early March during the height of the Thai government's much publicized drug crackdown. Not that the reality of roadblocks everywhere and random shootings would ever jar the rarified ambiance of the museum. The imposing reception/ticket building connects to the main exhibition floors on the other side of small hill via a spooky 127-meter long tunnel--complete with ghoulish bas-reliefs along the walls to represent the spirits of dead addicts. Emerging into an antechamber with a Star Trek-esque golden triangle illuminated on the floor, I proceeded to the vast lobby atrium. One windowed wall forms a greenhouse of verisimilar opium poppies. Huge lit panels present cogent bilingual English/Thai text along with gorgeous photos, illustrations and maps all related to the best known of the 200 species of Papaveraeae.

One introductory video (the first of three) later and and I was gazing up at twinkling constellations on the domed ceiling in the "The First 5,000 Years" room. As each of the four quadrants lit up in sequence, the voiceover narration traced the history of opium from Egypt, to Europe in the Middle Ages, the renaissance and on to Asia. The whistles and bells displays were unlike those at any other Thai museum, hall or whatever I'd ever visited.

The next section, "From West to East," shows how the industrial revolution and colonial expansion changed trading patterns, with Indian-grown opium replacing tea as the British Empire's most lucrative commodity. I stepped from a simulated British dockside onto a recreation of an East India Company clipper ship. The ship leads to Chinese garden and then a red-floored "Opium Wars" section that includes life-sized talking statues of Queen Victoria, John Bowring and the Daoguang Emperor. Beautifully designed explanatory charts, maps and battlefront dioramas leave no doubts about which country benefited from the opium trade (Britain) and which one suffered (China).

Down a floor to the "Opium in Siam" section and on through various rooms dealing with contemporary drug issues, the exhibition remains visually arresting but loses focus. Perhaps the curators balked at showing too many of the depressing realities of drugs in Thailand.

The replica of a Bangkok Chinatown shophouse where supposedly both rich and poor opium addicts gathered looked impossibly pristine. The well displayed opium paraphernalia (a much smaller collection than the one at the original House of Opium) seemed out of context. In the "Hall of Excuses/Victims," the photo gallery of celebrities who have OD'd on drugs consists entirely of westerners (John Belushi, Billie Holliday, Kurt Cobain, etc.) apart from a couple of Chinese (Zhu Jie).

The last room is the "Hall of Reflection." Tall triangular pillars covered with gold leaf and inspirational quotes from 10 secular and religious sources (Ghandi, Crowfoot, the Quar'an etc.) are supposed to make visitors reflect on the enormity of life and the global drug problem. My thoughts were more concerned with when this fascinating not-museum would finally open to the general public.

The King and Queen of Sweden, members of the Thai royal family, and many more important personages than me have already visited it. Mr. Mehl says it will definitely open before the end of the year and that if you're part of a group the MFL head office at Doi Tung can arrange a private tour. But for now, the Hall of Opium remains almost as well-kept a secret as certain other aspects of the drugs issue in Thailand.

Ms. Gampell is a Bangkok-based journalist

Copyright 2003 Asian Wall Street Journal/Jennifer Gampell