The War of Drugs
by Dave Tomory
[ places - november 05 ]
This morning, at the Hall of Opium at the other end of this tatty tourist town, the taxi man said he'd be back to collect me in a couple of hours - at the exit. The Hall of Opium is so big that it has to run a car shuttle service from one end to the other. Its superseded competitor the House of Opium can be found in this huddle of wooden buildings near two empty apartment blocks and not far from an abandoned deluxe resort and a gutted supermarket. Some time before the financial crash of 1997, some Thai developer bet too much on Sop Ruak's potential for marketing bygone sin. The very signs on the road up here from Chiang Mai read: Golden Triangle, 54 km. The tourist buses have Golden Triangle rendered all along their sides in gold mock-antique script, and even the humble public bus from Chiang Rai has Golden Triangle lettered across its windscreen, as if there were a giant triangle bestriding the road, something like the arches of McDonalds, to triumphantly drive through, when instead there is only Sop Ruak.
The House of Opium's tickets are illustrated in colour. One of them shows women in tribal finery scoring opium pods with vicious-looking knives like miniature billhooks. According to the first information board inside the entrance, the term Golden Triangle comes from the days when the only trusted currency was gold, when opium was worth its weight in gold and you cut into the gold and the opium both, to check them for quality. The board goes on to say that the Triangle centres on a junction of the Mae Khong - Mekong - and Ruak rivers where Thailand, Burma and Laos meet. Thus the dread sign outside reading Sop Ruak, Heart of the Golden Triangle. Just across the road, the Mekong, a swimmable width over to the forested Lao shore, bears right, taking Laos with it, while the Ruak tributary bears left, taking Thailand with it and leaving a triangle of forest dead ahead between the two rivers that is the tip of Burma, with a new casino the size of a city block rising out of the bush front and centre. My hotel receptionist swears to hearing gunplay over there at night, probably during skirmishes between the Burmese army and the local smuggler-tribesmen, who have seen Sop Ruak and would rather go down fighting.
My next destination after Sop Ruak, the hill town of Mae Salong on the northwestern Thai-Burmese border, appears on the museum's big map of the Triangle. Other old opium towns are omitted. The Triangle has only ever been a zone of activity, never a geographical or political entity, and its blurred borders ensure that no two maps will ever agree. This one has the Triangle's southern point touching Chiang Mai, its northern point touching Kengtung in Burma, its eastern point edging into Laos.
Only the Thai segment of the Triangle is convincingly policed. It has museums of opium, while the Burmese and Lao segments have guilty mansions in the jungle. In their unreformed hills opium remains in competition with the legal drug, tobacco. A legend of the Akha, a prominent cross-border tribe of the region, tells that once upon a time an old woman died and was buried at a crossroads - as ever, a numinous spot. From her breasts grew tobacco, from her sex grew poppies, and people who tried them both thought the tobacco tasted sweeter. The moral of this story can be found in the intense rivalry between the tribes of the Triangle. Opium poppies grow best at altitude, tobacco lower down. If the Akha tobacco-growers of the hills wish to smoke opium they have to buy it from mountain-dwellers like the Hmong, whose life on their hermit ridges has always tended to set them apart; and they were latecomers to the region, migrants from the 1870s who brought their skills from the original Asian poppy lands, Yunnan in south China. The Triangle grew few poppies until they came.
Akha opium pipes, simple bamboo tubes with little blue medicine bottles for bowls, lie in the museum's vitrines next to Chinese chased silver pipes 'for showing guests'. A world of craft separates them. Yunnanese traders brought the intricate artefacts of the opium den - miniature sea monsters of brass as gram weights, ivory and jade pipe mouthpieces - to what was to them a wilderness, along with the pleasure and the pain relief of the drug that must have seemed a revelation to the tribes on their rude hillsides. It never mattered that the smokers' pillows were made of wood or earthenware or basketwork: after a few pipes, the caption says, it was “like resting your head on a cloud”.
In the Hall of Opium in its park up the road they'd never speak so free, not in that grand reproving memorial planted on the grave of the late Thai Golden Triangle. The Hall's remit is to educate. The first thing you do there is enter a tunnel symbolic of initiation, A Journey Through Opium, the brochure calls it, where the innocent may sense the dark power without actually inhaling. Accompanying you down this passage through the junk mysteries, along with music that is suitably otherworldly without being too weird for the school parties whose cries faintly echo through the airconditioning ducts, is a frieze along both walls in bas-relief, only partly visible in the gloom, of gaunt naked souls of the damned, gasping, agonised, strung-out, clawing in vain towards the light, failing, sinking back. You get the point.
A relief to be in the humble House of Opium. In its old-fashioned way, it simply exhibits things. But just as something was missing in the Hall, it is missing here too: the story, warts and all, of how the drug created the Golden Triangle. At the Hall, opium history is on splendid interactive display, sea shanteys rollicking across the decks of a virtual Calcutta clipper laden to the gunwales with wooden chests each holding four balls of opium the size of your head, each ball wrapped in leaves, all shipshape and Bristol fashion and headed for China... Which is represented not only by opium paraphernalia and grainy photographs but by a lifesize reclining dummy smoker in a seedy den, raising and lowering the pipe and coughing.
This is the story everyone knows. Odd that the one about the Golden Triangle is not so plainly told. Exactly how did a jungly tribal hill tract on the Southeast Asian mainland come to be heroin capital of the world? Hints can be found here and there in the museums, of the 'galloping Chinese', those Yunnanese horseback traders, trotting towards the Burma ports, scanning the landscape, making connections for future poppy-growing compatriots - who came and grew poppies, but not enough to make a name for the place. By the end of World War II this Mekong backwoods junction of three countries was still obscure.
And twenty-five years later, in the mid-1970s, it was the world-famous Golden Triangle, whose only rival was Afghanistan. Twenty-five years changed everything. Soon chemists would be arriving from Hong Kong to begin the processing of half the world's illegal heroin, most of it in the refineries of the Yunnanese-Shan warlord Khun Sa. The House of Opium has two big portraits he commissioned of himself in the heroic mode he naturally preferred, as Liberator of the Burmese Shan states. The portraits face the museum's collection of the arts of the opium den, an institution which Khun Sa, a very modern drug entrepreneur, helped to kill off. The den community, its old-world rituals and antique artefacts replaced by the loner with his needle and spoon... By the end of the 1970s, fumeries everywhere were closing.
A last look around this museum of the old drug reveals pictures of impassive smuggler-tribesmen, hill women bleeding poppy pods, Khun Sa in his pomp. But not even he created the narco-colossus called the Golden Triangle. He merely feasted at its table.
I am being driven away from the House of Opium by the taxi man when he says, “You're interested in opium.” Reasonable for him to state this, not ask it, to assume after a day of opium museums that he is transporting an opium tourist. His intonation is American: innerested.
To me, opium tourists are people who buy replica pipes for the mantelpiece and pose for jokey pictures under the Heart Of The Golden Triangle road sign. All that interests me about opium is the part it played in the Indochina wars. I'm a war tourist - not the ghoulish kind, more the remorseful kind. Let's put it this way, I tell the taxi man: for me the wars are unfinished business. I realised this on my first visit to Indochina a few years ago. As I travelled around, each place, each name - Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam; the Plain of Jars, Phnom Penh, Hanoi - came as a shock of recall. Through an entire decade, three decades ago, I had heard these names on the radio, read about them in books and newspapers, seen them on television: 'Vietnam', the war, had been the great political event of my youth, for my generation. And then when the war seemed to be over I had turned away and almost forgotten it - only to finally arrive thirty years later in Indochina for a rude awakening. Indeed it was. In places that once had lived vividly in my imagination I kept meeting people who had lived through the real thing. Most were bemused or amused to hear that their horrors of thirty years before had been intently followed by people like me, from countries that were neither France nor the United States, the only western countries everyone in Indochina had heard of.
I tried to explain that the war had engaged the whole world, even the South Pacific. I was fifteen in New Zealand in 1965 when the first American combat troops arrived in Vietnam and the world woke up to the struggle. On went the struggle, for years, through the death of Ho Chi Minh and the 1968 Tet Offensive, escalation and 'Vietnamisation', Johnson and Nixon, until the Paris peace accords were signed and American forces left Vietnam - an event echoed two years later by the famous helicopter flight from the rooftop of their Saigon embassy. 1975, that was the critical year. A decade had passed, I was twenty-five years old: from childhood into adulthood the war had trailed on, analysed and execrated by myself and my friends, and now the Americans were gone, leaving Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to be ruled by communists. It was The End, a virtuous end, it seemed at the time, and the right time to tune out. When rumours began of the Khmer Rouge terror in Cambodia, it was just bad news. For me, the war was over.
This cartoonish picture of their worst-ever disaster greatly entertained people on that first visit of mine to Indochina; sometimes I would have preferred their rage. They talked not of a war, but of wars, not neatly bracketed by the years '65 and '75, but beginning after World War ll: first a French war, then an American war and finally a Vietnamese-Khmer Rouge war in 1979. Which, people told me, was not in fact final. The Chinese then attacked Vietnam, the Vietnamese occupied Cambodia for nine years, there were the 'boat people', the Lao-Hmong battles. Some of my interlocutors had indeed been through the American war - everyone called it that - in Vietnam, but others remembered the one in Laos in the Fifties or in Cambodia in the Eighties. By the end of my visit I knew Vietnam had been the fount of it all but had never been all of it. This was the myth, that the war of Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket and The Deer Hunter had been all there was, when it had been the second of three wars, all related, each botched result setting up the next. No idea, I said in a bar in Vientiane to a Lao-American in a baseball cap, I'd had no idea. Like so many Indochinese I'd met, he thought this was pretty funny. Just like the Americans, he said: they too thought of the wars as 'Vietnam'.
Mighty America, broadcasting her preoccupations to the world... I suppose your response to those preoccupations depended on how close you were to the action. New Zealand in the late Sixties was pretty close: she was in SEATO, supposedly a southern-hemisphere equivalent to NATO, and there was always the possibility of conscription. But I don't remember that being the real horror for us. The real horror for my generation of teenagers in New Zealand, a small largely-immigrant nation of the late British empire, was the spectacle of our cultural idol coming unstuck in Asia. We were outraged and embarrassed. We had always turned for inspiration to America, the largest largely-immigrant nation: for all our Ho-Ho-Ho-Chi-Minh, Vietnam-is-going-to-win, it was America we really cared about. How strange, to be right in opposing an unrighteous war, but out of a rage of disappointed idealism which was then so satisfied by the apparent victory of virtue in 1975 that by the time the virtuous were unmasked most of us had our eyes shut tight. It became clear during my first visit to Indochina, from everyone I talked to and everything I read, of whatever persuasion, that the communist regimes that seized power in 1975 had been unrighteous too. Had been unrighteous from the late Forties when they hijacked the independence struggle against the French and dressed up in its clothes.
For an old protest kid, unfinished business indeed... On Cambodian television one night it was fascinating to see the second Rambo movie, the preposterous revenger on his return to Vietnam plaintively asking, “Do we get to win this time?” I too wanted to win this time, though not like that. Or rather, I wanted someone else to win: the good guys, the Indochinese who'd had thirty years of war visited upon them. They were all kinds of people: housewives, gangsters, petty officials, tour guides, pensioners, boatmen. Possibly even taxi men... Dense myths still blanketed the wars, but they knew the true stories those myths had hidden; they still lived in the places where the wars had been. I knew from my first visit to Indochina that the wars could be followed. That they could be felt. Admittedly, in some places tourism and official myth-making had turned battlefields and museums into a kind of theatre, filled them with irony and made feeling more difficult, but in others the wars were barely over. In Cambodia, for instance. Plenty of people must remember the wars even here, in Thailand.
“Thailand?” The taxi man breaks in suddenly. He has this knack of stillness, almost disappearing.
All I had known about Thailand, I tell him, was that countless American servicemen had taken their leisure in louche Bangkok, but now I knew a little more. I was starting my five-month tour in the Heart Of The Golden Triangle because, as I'd said, what interested me about opium was its role in the Indochina wars. Those twenty-five years, 1950 to 1975, that had transformed the Triangle from jungle obscurity into heroin capital of the world, coincided with the period of the first two of those wars - and not by accident, either. So here I was, prowling the museums like an opium tourist. And tomorrow I'd be off to those old opium towns, Mae Salong and Hin Taek.
The taxi man declines to notice that last name. His face is blunt and unreadable, like the cover of an old book with the lettering rubbed off. But he must know I've been fishing, trying to draw him out. That little town up on the Burma border isn't called Hin Taek anymore; that was what it was called when it was home to the heroin king Khun Sa.
Hours later we are halfway down the road to Chiang Rai, and my hotel, when the taxi man decides to speak.
He started out in Namtha province in Laos. In the Fifties the French were fighting Ho Chi Minh's communist Viet Minh in Vietnam, and in Laos they were fighting them on the Plain of Jars in the east of the country, but in Namtha, in the far west, the taxi man never once saw a Frenchman. The only westerners were American missionaries. Namtha is a tribal province of hills and forest across the Mekong from Burma, and at the time few lowland Lao lived there; the tiny provincial capital was full of hillmen, many of them Christians like himself who learned their English from the missionaries as their fathers had done. The boy sitting beside him in class, as they repeated the precise phrasings the taxi man uses - I had not seen the light - was from Yunnan. He and his family and thousands of other Kuomintang nationalists had been driven out of China in 1949 by Mao's communists, only to finish up in Burma, where they spent years vainly trying to break back into China before the boy's father died of malaria and the Burmese drove the Kuomintang, the KMT, across the river into Laos. Some of his relations gave up the struggle and left for Taiwan; the boy and his mother stayed on.
In the summer of 1962 they moved to Thailand, to Mae Salong, where the boy was to join the KMT military. The little town they arrived in, a pioneer affair of wood, sheet iron and mud, sat on a forested ridge with spurs trailing down toward the plains. In this rugged roadless borderland ruled by the local hill tribes, with Burma no distance away, the KMT were wary. They cleared another ridge above their settlement for a redoubt and dug in there against whatever enemy might come.
None ever did. In the formal gardens of a plush new hotel off the highway, Akha women in kilts, long socks and metal helmet-like hats place sprinklers round the ornamental clock, trim the borders, snip away at the topiary. Mae Salong dozes away the morning amidst its hills and dales, orchards and tea gardens set between clumps of feathery bamboo and stands of pine. There are pines still around the old redoubt up the hill, a resort now, where a couple of trenches have been preserved, and a one-room museum of soldierly memories. The late afternoon light makes the photographs almost too dim to see: old soldiers fading away. Beneath stoical photographs, stoical captions. 1961 to 1968 was a period during which... units of Mae Salong improved themselves and underwent training while waiting for an order. Impossible now to imagine Mao's China falling to the ragtag KMT, but it was not until 1982 that the men were stood down. By then they had been in Mae Salong for twenty years, and for their children it was home.
At dusk a snake of lights begins to uncoil from the big schools at each end of town - a column of little motorbikes, Honda Dreams and Waves. Every kid above the age of ten seem to have one, to get them to Thai school at eight in the morning, Chinese school in the evening, and then home to do the homework that often doesn't get finished until eight at night. KMT grandparents may console themselves that at least their descendants were born to win. The mobile phone shop, run by a man in a Grateful Dead t-shirt, is besieged by pale intent children in baseball caps and designer camouflage. They lean on a wall poster of Thai Spice Girls all in white, nod along to the shop's speakers, glance at the Chinese news on the television.
A short man comes trotting up to the guesthouse porch and begins to gabble at the tall man I am talking to. His eyes slide away when he sees me watching; he walks off to squat and smoke a cigarette and twirl his keys at the top of the street that runs downhill by the phone shop. The tall man says the short man is taking a break from a two-day mahjong session. He seems to be some kind of operator: sundry local men come up to him to speak quietly and then scurry off down the narrow unlit street. A fragment of song lyric comes to mind. There's something happening here, but what it is ain't exactly clear. Yesterday I covertly observed the oldsters in blue baggy trousers and black slippers who lounge all day in the back of the Yunnanist Noodle Shop, smoking long bamboo bongs - and one made from blue plastic plumbing pipe - but the scent was of tobacco. When the town goes to bed, though, at the mountain-village witching hour of eight, maybe then the streets fill with laden pickups, files of ponies, dark figures hissing into mobiles...
The short man gets to his feet and comes trotting back, gabbles some more at the tall man, then hails a passing Honda and disappears. To the mahjong game, the tall man says to me. On ya ba, I say to myself. Ya ba is methamphetamine, speed. We sit drinking small cups of local-grown Oolong tea mixed with hibiscus flowers from a nearby bush. The tall man lights another cigarette. Isn't it peaceful, he says. It wasn't always so peaceful. The checkpoints, the helicopters... But now smuggling is down, artillery exchanges with the Burmese are down, the border is patrolled and secure and there is nothing theoretical any more about this area's identity. Have I seen the chedi? He means the new Buddhist monument on the other side of the hill. Pointedly it is planted between Chinese Mae Salong, turbulent Burma, and the lands of animist tribes that know no borders, and if that white steeple soaring to heaven could speak, it would say: You're In Thailand.
When his friend left school in Namtha province in 1962 and went off to be a soldier in Mae Salong, the taxi man wanted to leave school too. He was old enough, his father said to his missionary teacher, who agreed, and soon the taxi man had a job in Vientiane, the Lao capital, as chauffeur and gofer for an important foreigner. These American pastors had some pull. Naturally all of them were dead against godless communism; suspicion was that from their postings conveniently near the Chinese border they must have been reporting to French Intelligence, as now they must be reporting to the Americans now the French had gone. The taxi man didn't get that job with the important foreigner - no names, he insists - just because he spoke English and was easy around Westerners, but because he'd been cleared by someone.
Trusted men were rare in Vientiane. With the coming of the Americans, behind its somnolent French-provincial facade the town was coming alive. As the taxi man arrived with his father's suitcase and his mother's protective amulet, the hotels were filling up with soldiers of fortune, moonlighting Foreign Legionnaires, chancers and adventurers and intriguers. They gossiped in bars until everyone knew who they were: the unofficial staff of a secret war being run from the aerial-festooned USAID and CIA compound down the road at Kilometre Six. Eastern Laos had been infiltrated by the North Vietnamese military, many of them engineers clearing a north-south corridor along the border that would come to be known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail; while in western Laos, in the taxi man's own province of Namtha, a native communist offensive was underway. To thwart this enemy on both flanks, Kilometre Six was ordering in bombers from Thailand and the eastern airbase at Long Tieng. Laos was in a war that officially was not happening, according to the combatants, because the Geneva Accords of 1954 had declared the country to be neutral. It was a neutrality that couldn't last. The taxi man says there were bars in Vientiane - which had never seen such business, not even from the French - where Lao neutralists could be seen drinking away their forebodings alongside officially nonexistent American flyers and Thai mercenaries drinking away their danger money.
For the employee of the important foreigner, day followed dutiful day. At infrequent intervals the taxi man received a routine letter from his boyhood friend in Mae Salong - until one day in late 1967 when he opened an unusually fat envelope and found inside it a furious tirade. His friend would never soldier again: his left leg had been shredded by bomb shrapnel during a 'mad' battle with Shan smugglers on the Lao bank of the Mekong. He was outraged to have been crippled in what the press was playfully calling The Opium War. Heartfelt sympathy for your injury, the taxi man had a Chinese letter-writer write back to him. No doubt a way will be found to compensate you. He kept the letter brief. Until the pain had passed he could hardly write, The KMT always believed the ends justified the means. Why this rage? Even in your letter you recognise that the ends and means had become one and the same.
For his friend must know what the KMT's business was. He was Yunnanese. Arms had to be bought, the campaign to retake China financed, troops paid: the KMT had to make money, and from Yunnan in the Forties to Burma in the Fifties and now Thailand in the Sixties their most dependable moneymaker had always been opium. For thirty years, mile-long caravans of mules, hundreds of mules, marshalled by KMT men with walkie-talkies, had borne tons upon tons of opium from hill villages down to merchants in river towns. The Yunnanese were old hands at this. In 1945 Ho Chi Minh had known just what to present a Yunnanese general in Hanoi when he needed to keep him onside: a solid gold opium pipe. Once installed in Mae Salong, the KMT's caravan masters had begun crossing into Burma to collect opium for dens in Bangkok and refineries in Laos and Vietnam. Cover for the trade had been easily got from the Thai military, as fervent in their anticommunism as the KMT themselves and equally close to the foreign patrons who had backed them all these years.
And helped them sink, as the taxi man's friend put it, to being a pawn in the war game. KMT complicity with the CIA had made sense, once. In Burma in the Fifties, without Agency toleration for their opium business, the Yunnanese exiles could never have kept up the struggle; and in fact, as the taxi man now says, nor could any of 'the minorities' the Agency recruited in the Fifties and Sixties. Opium and the war had been yoked together from the start. Most of the Agency's tribal allies came from the poppy-growing hills of northern Indochina that had become a war zone when the communists took China in 1949 and the Bamboo Curtain fell. Tribal leaders - Vietnamese montagnards, Lao Hmong and Lahu - had already collaborated with the French, and the CIA stood ready to do what the French had done: help them sell the opium that would finance their warriors. As the KMT knew, and the Agency knew, and every hillman knew, in the mountains there was no way to make real money except with opium.
And so a marriage of convenience contracted at the outset of the Indochina wars gave birth to the Golden Triangle - a veritable young Frankenstein that its creators could never acknowledge and would one day have to assail.
The leaders of the hillmen had less reason to fight than did the KMT exiles. They had no country to try to win back, their struggle was as much with meddlesome national governments as with communists. This gave them more leverage with the CIA. The Agency had to recruit local men; they could hardly use Americans in any numbers in a secret war. The deal the hill chiefs made was for their manpower in return for transportation of their opium by air to the refineries and markets that would enormously increase its value. Airborne mule caravans... The hillmen did not think this one up, and nor did the Americans. French agents and adventurers and Corsican racketeers had been airlifting Xieng Khouang opium, supposedly the finest in Asia, from eastern Laos down to Saigon since 1950. And the key idea, of financing warfare with drugs, had never been French or American in the first place, never an idea of capitalists, but of Vietnamese communists, who in the late 1940s had begun buying Lao opium and selling it to Chinese middlemen in Hanoi. By the fall of 1953 the famous American covert warrior Edward Lansdale was able to note that in Xieng Khouang province, Vietnamese and Lao communist campaigns always tended to commence around poppy harvest time.
Once the Americans got into the business in the Sixties, though, it went industrial. Indochina had never seen reach and resources like theirs. In time the poppy fields of Burma, Thailand and Laos became incorporated into a single zone of production for refineries whose morphine and heroin was then flown by the CIA's Air America to Saigon, from whence it proceeded to, among many other places, the United States. The CIA had no opium habit and assuredly wasn't in it for the money: the only object on their radar was the war on communism. The war on drugs could wait.
In his letter the taxi man's friend was frank. For years his part in the war on communism had been to set off from Mae Salong into the Burmese hills every October with his comrades and strings of mules. Even with the help they were giving the Thai military to put down the local communists, the KMT were doing more smuggling than soldiering. In the mid-Sixties their mules were bringing back almost all the opium Burma could supply, and their supposed base for the retaking of China was becoming one big warehouse. Mae Salong was making money and gentrifying itself. The opium trade had started out as aid to the cause, the letter confessed, and now it was the cause, and worse, because the American war for Indochina was all over the radio and the war for China never so much as mentioned. He had “ruined his life in a war of drugs”, he wrote. Once he'd thought himself a man of principle but since that battle with the Shan opium smugglers he'd known he was a stooge instead. He'd lost a leg, and nobody could tell him what he had lost it for.
The General, is all the taxi man says. Well before his friend's letter had arrived he had read about the battle in the foreign papers; they had been excited by this fight over drugs in exotic Laos. The story was that the entire KMT force in north Thailand had been ordered to intercept a competitor, a Shan mule train about to cross the Mekong, but while the fight was underway around a Lao riverside village called Ban Khwan both sides had been bombed by the Lao Royal Air Force, after which Government troops had arrived to carry off the spoils - sixteen tons of opium and some heroin and gemstones.
The perpetrator could only be Air Force General Rattikone, amassing product for his refineries. The taxi man knew something of the plump General's doings from his driver, a celebrated bar-room chatterbox. Having concluded a couple of years earlier, in 1965, that the once merely regional opium business was going global, that the old Corsican connection in Saigon was being overwhelmed by the volume of business and the Chinese of Cholon were taking over, Rattikone had cleverly eased the last Corsican flyers out and brought Air America in. Probably it was he who had bought from his onetime boss, General Phoumi Nosavan, the famous opium den in Vientiane whose signboard read Detoxification Clinic. And now he was moving into the refinery business, those sixteen tons of opium were going to be useful. In that battle in Ban Khwan, Rattikone had been the clear winner. The KMT had been discomfited and his friend injured - but speaking commercially, the taxi man says, the real loser had been the owner of the intercepted mule train, the warlord and coming man in Burma opiates Khun Sa.
Three years later the Burmese would find him enfeebled enough to put in jail. His hatred of Rattikone and the KMT must have been white-hot. The General was out of reach but the KMT were not, and one day he would get to them.
At the end of my tour of the opium museums, when I'd told the taxi man that my next destination after Mae Salong was to be Khun Sa's old base at Hin Taek, he'd said he'd like to hear about it. So we arranged to rendezvous in this restaurant. It is one of those spaces under a flat roof you find along the Thai side of the Mekong, no walls, just a bar and tables with a view of the river. Up the road, facing Ban Khwan across the river, is despondent Sop Ruak and its museums, and down the road is Chiang Khong and the ferry dock for Laos.
At six in the evening the bugs worship the striplights and then sacrifice themselves in your beer. Behind me a boy with a hose is filling a tank full of gasping river fish and tiger prawns with blue forearms. A buzzard comes winging in from Laos as the blue hills behind her sink into deceiving twilight and the lights of those guilty mansions begin to wink from the jungle. There are others downriver, in Houei Xai. On my first visit to Laos I was in Houei Xai just long enough for a student to begin practising his English on me in the street - fortunately right outside a plush new villa behind a steel gate topped with razor wire, so to distract him I asked if this was what they called in Laos a 'heroin house'. No, sir, he said, it wasn't fancy enough to be a heroin house: it was only an opium house.
Laos has no signs reading Golden Triangle, and doesn't need them. Instead she has those misty hills and naughty winking lights, a smugglers' sandy shore, and just starting up, the loudspeaker propaganda voice that comes squawking out of the jungle every evening, straight out of Apocalypse Now. On that side, things may still go on by night, while on this side what they do by night is tot up the day's takings. Maybe that accounts for the air of frustrated entitlement, as if everyone had expected old notoriety to make their fortunes. The barmaid, for instance, has a repertoire of rusty old opium jokes she hopes will entertain the farang, the westerners, though the only one still with any bite to it is the one where she asks her father, 'What did you do in the Golden Triangle, Daddy?'
The taxi man is late, but I'm not alone here anymore. At this end of the restaurant you can drive off the road right up next to a table and be served there in your car. Someone has done this, a man in a beige suit who lounges with his door open, toying with a beer and his mobile phone. At another table a portly matron in a white turban is already on her second Coke. The three of us all face the river, pretending not to see the local dishevelled madwoman - she was outside the House of Opium the other day - wandering about groaning to herself and blowing on her bamboo pan pipes. Now the taxi man does arrive, in his sensible Toyota. He joins me at the table, we order a couple of beers, and they haven't even arrived before the madwoman comes up lurching and groaning and starts blasting away on her pipes straight into the taxi man's ear. He doesn't start or look away. He does the opposite: turns in his plastic chair, slow and impassive, holding up the palm of one hand like a policeman stopping traffic, and the madwoman drops the pipes from her lips and backs off.
Neither relief or amusement show in the taxi man's face. That knack of stillness... The face that made him invisible during the secret war, an invisible man at the wheel of an important foreigner's Mercedes, and with sufficient French and English to understand what went on in the back. By early 1971 he had heard enough to make up his mind. It was time to be looking for a way out. Fine to be a pawn in the war game - in his letter his friend had called himself that - so long as you remembered that pawns were for sacrificing. Also, he was not a true believer like his friend, but an ordinary man of the Lao hills who had been taught to serve a war fought in the shadows. And for a decade he had served it, this struggle unknown to most of the world, unknown to most Americans despite their government's part in it. It had been the CIA's biggest-ever operation, a great engagement of the Cold War. But now it was lost. It must be. The foreigners who paid for it were leaving. American troops were gradually leaving Vietnam while the B52s pounded eastern Laos and Cambodia to cover their exit. After that, everyone who knew the communists feared that one day, revengeful from years, from decades, of suffering, they would emerge from the jungle to take Saigon, Phnom Penh, Vientiane...
That winter the taxi man quit his job and decamped with his savings and several kilos of good Lao coffee to Chiang Mai. Thailand has always been a refuge for Lao in distress: the two peoples are close in blood and speech, and the river is not so wide. Nevertheless the taxi man found another world over there. The Thais had been clever, they had played their hand well. All Asia admired the way they had avoided colonisation by playing the would-be colonisers off against each other. Then in the 1950s, when American believers in the domino theory had told the Thais they would be next if South Vietnam and then Laos toppled before the communist juggernaut, the Thais had agreed to collaborate with the Americans - up to a point, because too much collaboration might provoke the communist juggernaut it was supposed to prevent. Now the Thais were profiting handsomely from the American war without it being their war too.
In Chiang Mai the first break for the taxi man was a contract to drive KMT official visitors up to Mae Salong. The smooth drive on the all-weather road just built by the US military made more than one passenger remark that inadvertently the road must be a great help to Mae Salong's export trade, though of course the advantage of remoteness was now gone. To start with, some of these passengers were westerners, who tended to be jolly, backslapping types with crewcuts and briefcases, until their war faded away and they were replaced by the odd missionary or anthropologist, KMT relatives visiting from Taiwan, Thai officials - the taxi man is coy here, some of them must still be around - and various silent men from Bangkok and Laos and even Hong Kong. Word was that the latter were master chemists coming to upgrade the town's refinery. It was capable of manufacturing No.3, a crude greyish smoking heroin affordable by the average Southeast Asian man, but the potent white No.4 for export to the West required more difficult chemistry.
Three years after his move to Thailand the taxi man got married. With enough work in town now it was time to give up the Mae Salong run, among whose discredits was his old friend, who was still there, and being a nuisance. He had begun to drink and beat his wife and limp about shouting at people for giving up on the cause and selling out. The taxi man couldn't understand it. The man's letter of 1967 had been angry but honest about his bit part in the KMT 'sellout', and now he was just angry. Perhaps he was feeding on the bitterness of injury; the bad leg had never quite healed. One evening he had begun drunkenly yelling at the taxi man, calling him “an errand boy for drug dealers”. You didn't do that in the main street of Mae Salong. The taxi man had driven him home and told his wife he wouldn't be back for a while.
1975 came, the year all the newspapers and soothsayers said would bring a grand climacteric for Indochina. Things would never be the same again. Sure enough, the US Ambassador was helicoptered from his embassy rooftop in Saigon and communist governments took over everywhere. The second Indochina war was over. Most émigré Lao like the taxi man refused to believe that the new rulers of his country would behave as rumour said the Khmer Rouge were behaving in Cambodia: residents of Phnom Penh fleeing to Thailand were claiming that their city had been evacuated. But the lack of hard news from Laos was worrying, until his wife ran into some friends of friends who had just arrived. These were not farmers or mountain folk, but French-speaking townspeople in nice clothes from the elegant little royal capital of Luang Prabang. Boatloads of people with proper suitcases were crossing all down the river, they told the taxi man, down south they were crossing over from all the big Mekong towns - Vientiane, Thakek, Savannakhet, Pakse. It was an exodus of the once-comfortable. Some of them, the taxi man supposed, had actually believed in an Indochinese Pax Americana, some had been enriched by the Americans, these people his wife had brought home had done no more than staff their offices, but all of them had cause to fear the victorious Pathet Lao. Khmer Rouge the Pathet Lao certainly were not, but they had been cooped up for nine years in caves in Hua Phan province, out in the sticks, just dying to bring the revolution to the bourgeoisie.
No peace for Laos, then; just the absence of war. Don't expect to go home any time soon, the refugees told the taxi man, Right has been outfought by Left and now Laos is no place for us, no place for you. The taxi man heard them and a few days later applied for Thai nationality, began to build a room on his house for the new baby, drove his taxi and saw no more of the war. He never regretted his change of country, he says: if he'd stayed in Laos, his work for the wrong side would have condemned him, the refugees had said, to a samana, a 'seminar', a re-education camp in the forest where a common outcome was death from malaria. He had taken a side and had to leave. At least his choice had been simple. It had been worse for these Luang Prabang people who had never taken a side. For a long time Indochina had been no place for the neutral: once it had been the French, then the Americans who suspected them, and now it was the communists. For the neutral, everything had changed in Indochina and nothing had. Lucky Thailand, a country winged by the war but never hit. It could be bloody enough with the communists and the military and the students, but these were fights between political people. They didn't drag everyone in.
That was what the taxi man liked about it. Years could go by without anything happening. In 1981 the Chiang Mai winter was delightfully cool and Christmas a few days off - when his idyll was upset by a phone call, from his old friend's wife in Mae Salong. Her husband had gone missing.
Driving up to the hills for the first time in years, the taxi man felt like a tourist. In the forests stretching mistily away to Burma he saw raw hillsides cleared for power pylons and farms. Little cows with bells foraged at the road edge. In Mae Salong concrete buildings were supplanting wooden ones - not yet the landscape of today, he says, but getting there. He and his friend's wife drove up the hill to lunch in what once had been the KMT officers' mess and was now a public restaurant: the old barracks was being turned into a resort. Just like Thailand, she said. A topical joke, this, but with an undercurrent of anxiety. Mae Salong Chinese like herself had never really considered their town part of Thailand. Many like her had Taiwanese passports and spoke no Thai, though most never suffered as much as her husband had from Refugee Syndrome, that stubborn belief in the certain return to China that never made it seem worth going local.
She spoke of her husband, says the taxi man, in the past tense.
As well she might. A week ago he had rented a motorbike, and when the renter asked where he was going, he said Hin Taek: he was going to Hin Taek to ask Khun Sa, who was half Yunnanese, after all, to help him mount an invasion of Yunnan. The man knew he was the town nutcase and just laughed and let him go.
An invasion of Yunnan thirty years after the communist takeover, the poor woman said to the taxi man, by the KMT, with Khun Sa for an ally... After his reverse in the 1967 Opium War and four years in jail, if there was anyone Khun Sa loathed it was the KMT. As for them, they were being demobbed this year and their barracks turned over to tourists. For years her husband had complained of betrayal, and perhaps this final blow to the cause had sent him over the edge. Perhaps it had, the taxi man said. Now they were both speaking of him in the past tense - and so they gave up the conversation and attended instead to their pork and preserved vegetables. This time of year Mae Salong was too cold for tourists, and the cavernous mess room full of big round tables was empty except for the two of them sitting by the window in the weak December sun.
Nothing to do afterwards but drive back to Chiang Mai, where a week after Christmas the taxi man would read in the papers that as well as being demobbed, the KMT were being told to go straight. They'd had a good run. Mae Salong had been an opium town for nearly twenty years. The drug had made the KMT generals rich in the French war but richer still in the American one, because the more the war failed, the more money it made. At the beginning of the Seventies the American military had known the war would end not in triumph but in a deal, and morale had begun to sink. No one had wanted to die for a deal and far from home: the futility and pain of it all had persuaded something like ten per cent of all enlisted men in Vietnam to turn on to the prince of painkillers, heroin. With the military appalled and the CIA gone from opiate airlifting, the time had come finally to turn on that monster, the Golden Triangle. In 1971 President Richard Nixon had declared the first War on Drugs.
After which, official tolerance in Thailand for opiates had begun to drop towards zero. The death of the KMT's General Duang had been timely: in Mae Salong I remember climbing the wide ceremonial steps up to his tomb, a hefty marble slab in a portico with patriotic inscriptions and the familiar faded photographs on the walls, to find the flame tended by a young guardian in non-designer camouflage. From his belt hung a topless empty waterbottle, and his shoes didn't match. A purely symbolic wardrobe; but he was very serious, and politely demanded a contribution to the incense fund.
By the time of the taxi man's visit to his old friend's wife in the winter of 1981 all the foreign experts visiting Mae Salong were Taiwanese tea-growers. The opiate business out of which the town had diversified was making a fortune for Khun Sa forty kilometres away at his military-industrial complex in Hin Taek - but in a Thailand now intolerant of such business the warlord's habitual overreaching caught him out. He boasted of his contacts; he did a couple of gloating interviews for the Bangkok papers. In fact, his contacts weren't so good anymore, and barely a month after the taxi man left Mae Salong the Thai military descended on Hin Taek and drove Khun Sa across the border into Burma. With Laos gone communist, where else for an old drug baron but tolerant Burma? Soon afterwards there came the call to the taxi man that he'd been expecting, from his missing friend's wife in Mae Salong. The Thais hadn't actually found her husband among the dead in Hin Taek, she said, but one night she had caught his ghost peeking through the kitchen window.
It is October, the month when the mule caravans used to collect up the Burma poppy harvest, and now the month when the Thai government declare annual war on drug trafficking. The papers think that this year it will be ‘brutal’ - in contrast to last year when it was merely severe and only 2,500 traffickers died. The war will be waged chiefly on methamphetamine, ya ba: opium in Thailand these days is a matter chiefly for museums. In Mae Salong it is a matter for amnesia. In the one-room KMT museum, a newspaper article of the Eighties on the town features a photograph of a Yunnanese general with a new Thai name, up to his knees in tea bushes. After the 'hell' of the past, he is quoted as saying, the future will be in Oolong. In that full-page article there is no mention of opium. The road that once trucked it out carries minibus-loads of weekenders in to take the mountain air and cruise the street market - which used to sell guns and teak coffins, the taxi man tells me. Now it sells tea, coffee, mushrooms, and Golden Triangle t-shirts.
New names for a new start: Mae Salong itself has been renamed Santikhiri, meaning Hill of Peace. No one actually calls it that - though after Khun Sa's flight from Hin Taek that little township was renamed Thoet Thai, and everyone calls it that, especially if they live there. (The taxi man says that my using the old name on our first meeting confirmed his suspicion that despite my disclaimings, I was in fact an opium tourist.) In Thoet Thai the Khun Sa connection is something everyone would like to forget, though the town's one likely tourist attraction is the remains of his headquarters. Something dark still emanates from there. Police checkpoints, I tell the taxi man, are manned all along the country road that twists through a confusing landscape of low-level brush down into the valley and the mist.
In 1974, a time of licence and official turpitude enough to gladden any smuggler's heart, Khun Sa came to the outskirts of the erstwhile Hin Taek to set up heroin refineries and follow his dream, which was to sort out the chaotic Shan separatist movement and lead it to full independence. First he built the little wood-and-tin pagoda that stands on stilts in a big brown pond by the approach road: it was important, in this place of exile, to keep the faith. Then, to be practical, he built the dank bunker with gun ports that squats at the other end of the road, and behind it the tunnel that leads away through the hill - a place for a last stand, a run for the bush and the border. Between the pagoda and the bunker lie the buildings that survived the Thai military blitz of January 1982. They have the blank desolation of all abandoned institutions. A few outlying houses have been squatted, there is a little parade ground and a cluster of blockish brick and corrugated-iron headquarters buildings where Khun Sa lived. His own rooms are marked Bedroom and Prayer Room; another, unnamed room has Love Rambo graffitoed on the wall, which seems about right.
The biggest room has been left as a token museum, of tacked-up, plasticked-over photographs - of the man himself, of his men goose-stepping in jungle green, of maps of the Golden Triangle with the Free Shan States longingly coloured in. There is a portrait, painted after a photograph, of the chiefs of all the Burmese states, with Aung San Suu Kyi's father at the signing ceremony for some Agreement of the 1940s “which was later abrogated”, and another photo of a Shan leader who vanished into a Burmese jail, with an indignant caption beneath. Betrayal and frustration wail from these abandoned walls. Shan independence wasn't just camouflage for Khun Sa's heroin business: your average billionaire drug baron would never live somewhere like this, in a boot camp in the woods on a red dirt road to nowhere. It was an aspiration to something higher than drug baronism, and unsurprisingly it came to Khun Sa upon his discomfiture in the Opium War of 1967.
He never forgot the War. It took him seventeen years, but in 1984, two years after the Thai military drove him out of Hin Taek/Thoet Thai, he revenged himself on the KMT for the shame of '67 by blowing up the Chiang Mai house of their top general. It was not because the KMT were any longer his competitors. For another decade his refineries at Homong in Burma, defended by 20,000 men, would be responsible for manufacturing half the world's heroin, including the deadly famous China White, until his swaggering, his separatist plotting, his outraging of world anti-drug agencies became too much even for the Burmese military regime. A pretend surrender was arranged and Khun Sa was condemned to languish in a splendid Rangoon mansion. If the joke was bad, the effect on Burmese national politics was decisive: Khun Sa's noble cause, the emancipation of eight million Shans, collapsed. His business did not. With profits like that any business gets Faustian. Souls are sold. The KMT ran opium to pay for the retaking of China, and became an opium army. Cold War rivals ran opium to finance their Indochina campaigns, and helped create the Golden Triangle and its biggest, wildest creature, Khun Sa.
Who before his 'surrender' in 1996 made a last business move, into a new product.
If the Hall of Opium and the House of Opium in Sop Ruak are in reality Khun Sa's memorial, then in time a third will join them: the Hall, or House, of Speed. Methamphetamine, ya ba - 'crazy medicine' in Thai - was Khun Sa's inspiration. Ever an entrepreneur of genius, his speciality was the modernising of illegal drugs for a changing market - heroin for outmoded opium, for instance - in the same way that conventional consumer goods are modernised. In the early Nineties he found in ya ba a product decidedly cheap to make and therefore affordable by a hitherto unexploited mass market, the urban poor of Southeast Asia. Methamphetamine gives the swiftest, hardest kick of all the amphetamines. And unlike the opiates it can be made in secret: a pill factory is easier hidden than a hillside clothed in white poppies.
In Southeast Asian cities in the Nineties ya ba became a craze comparable to the craze for opium in Europe a century and a half earlier, and for the same reason, the move to urbanisation and modern life. Both these previously unimportant drugs were taken to bigtime by rural people trying to adjust to city pace, social disruption, timekeeping, and repetitive industrial labour that demanded high quality for low wages. Laos could have the same ya ba problem as Thailand, but it doesn't, because it has nothing like Bangkok. Khun Sa well understood his market, the demographics - and as he directed his energies into the ya ba business, his dream of Shan freedom drifted away. His one-room museum in Thoet Thai, its display of bygone passions, exactly mirrors the one-room KMT museum in Mae Salong.
Her husband must be in the KMT graveyard at Chiang Khong, his wife said in her final phone call to the taxi man. She saw his ghost only that one time, so he must have found rest. Now she too has found rest, and the taxi man thinks graveyards are creepy, so I find myself going there, to that hot hillside overlooking the Mekong, to hold three sticks of burning incense between my hands and bow three times in the Chinese way. Ritual seems the right way to round off the story of the taxi man and his friend - a story that seems especially worthy of remembrance in a place with much to forget.
Also, Chiang Khong is on my way to Laos. Three beats of a gong echo across the water from a Buddhist wat on a hill. An old green boat, wooden and boxy and narrow like all Lao river boats, flies its red-star flag over a cargo of blue motorcycles and yellow cases of beer. A launch passes it on this side, flying the Thai flag. Everyone has a flag to fly on this border that has no painted line or razor wire, just the Mekong running brown and steady, soaking up the light, reflecting nothing. Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia: in each of them I will see the great river flowing without remembering through the lands of the lost wars.
The gate in the boundary fence around the KMT graveyard and its monument is locked and the fence wire barbed, all secure for the military dead. But there is a hole in the wire. The tombs lie in ranks along the hillside, under a veil of dusty leaves. All of them have the same motif on the front, like a little door, and they all face the same way, towards China, so that some day their inhabitants may emerge in ghostly array and all go marching home. Duty to the dead has been done here and there, old joss sticks and dead flowers stand in glass jars - duty, but not much attention, it seems. The past has been put away, the guilty interred together with the innocent, the naïve, the taxi man's friend. History has been layered over with military honour, family pride, omerta; the dignity of the men lying here will never be at risk.
Off to the lands of the lost wars. Early in the morning I am ready in the queue for the ferry across to Houei Xai. From there it will be a two-day journey by boat down to Luang Prabang and then an hour by plane to Vientiane, where I have an introduction to someone the taxi man once knew. A last favour from him... Now us tourists - families and backpackers, temple tourists, food tourists, sex tourists, opium tourists, penitent war tourists - walk through the last gateway on the Thailand side, under the sign that reads Gate to Indo-China, and climb into our narrow longtail boats. Laos is invisible in the morning mist, hiding out. The pilot guns the outboard and we are swallowed by the mist, like Laos, like contraband.