ON THE TRAIL OF A MULE - A Drug Run Through The Golden Triangle.

Rod Page

Jan 7, 2010

In riding through The Golden Triangle I am struck by the lack of information at ground level about "The Golden Triangle". A little research may even suggest that such lack of information is clearly designed.

The Golden Triangle merits more detail on the characters & places that made it so (in)famous. Most know the basic background to the name "The Golden Triangle" & its association with drug production & trafficking but many are unaware of those behind the operation, the reported reasons for their involvement, who grew the opium, where it was grown, the relevance of certain towns & villages on routes along which many pass regularly.

I have sought herewith to provide additional information for a tour through the areas concerned to give those passing this way a better insight into where they are travelling in the hope of adding enjoyment to their adventure. I have prepared the trip to start from Chiang Mai following a chronological order of sorts related to The Golden Triangle's history. The trip will take you through The Golden Triangle as it relates to Thailand, Laos & Myanmar.


The Khun Sa Museum in Thoed Thai - difficult to find but providing a fascinating insight into what lies behind the Golden Triangle. Thai authorities shy from its promotion.


- Until after WW11 all countries in SE Asia ran government controlled opium monopolies.

- From 1950 the CIA, in its push against communism, trained Hmong tribesmen as soldiers & pilots & used Nationalist Chinese (KMT) in counterinsurgency & intelligence gathering.

- In the 1960's USA pressure on Turkish opium production, American military intervention in SE Asia, corrupt governments & international crime syndicates saw SE Asia's opium trade grow so massively that by late 1969 opium refineries in the Golden Triangle were supplying heroin to tens of thousands of American GI's in Vietnam & ultimately to drug addicts in America. By 1970 unlimited quantities of heroin were available at every USA base in Vietnam!

- In the 1970's the withdrawl of US troops from Vietnam saw prices & production sky-rocketed as syndicates, in particular the Chiu Chau syndicate, started exporting to the USA & the world. The Chiu Chau had been involved in narcotics since the late 1800's through a contract to sell opium in Shanghai's French concession. In the 1920's they opened illicit heroin laboratories supplying some 10 million chinese addicts. In 1949 the Red Army forced them to flee to Hong Kong where they built further laboratories supplied from the Golden Triangle. By 1970 Honk Kong had 100,000 heroin addicts or 2.6% of its population; the highest rate of addiction in the world.

- As an indirect consequence of American involvement, by 1972 the Golden Triangle had grown to produce the largest share of the world's opium & a limitless supply of heroin. Although the Golden Triangle would remain the world's largest source of narcotics for 40 years, the USA failed to grasp the complexities of its opium trade - the US Bureau of Narcotics only opened a Bangkok office in the late 1960's, some 20 years after opening in Rome!

- Thailand too played a role in the Golden Triangle's emergence through a corrupt political system, a corrupt police force lacking in professionalism & a military whose strategic & financial needs were met by transit traffic of narcotics through Thailand.

- Burma propped its junta & failing economy up from the vast amounts of black money flowing from opium, encouraging trade hoping it would also produce in-fighting amongst rebel militia in the Shan States. When the DEA implanted tracking devises in the rears of mules the Burmese Army was still 'unable' to locate the caravans even when supplied with precise intelligence from the CIA! To this day the Burmese military operating in the area are required to finance themselves through the very operations they are sent to eradicate.

- One last statistic - in 1971 Hmong farmers in Laos received $400-600 for 10kls of raw opium. This would yield 1kl of morphine base which when processed into no. 4 heroin was worth $2,000-2,500 in Bangkok. In the USA a wholesaler would receive $18,000-27,000 for the same kilo which when diluted & resold back onto the street would return $225,000!


Chiang Mai - Doi Mae Salong - Chang Khong/Houei Xai (Laos) - Ban Kwan - Muang Meung (&/or optional route to Luang Namtha/Muang Sing, Phonsavan/Long Chieng) - Houei Xai/Chiang Khong - Chiang Saen - Sop Ruak - Mae Sai/Tachilek(Burma) - Thoed Thai - Hua Mae Kham - Doi Larng - Nor Lae - Tham Ngop - Arunothai - Kae Noi - Piang Luang - Lak Taeng - Pang Kham - Mae Hong Son - (Ho Mong (Burma)).

The above route broken down into convenient stages:
2. DOI MAE SALONG to HOUEI XAY (LAOS) with optional extra travel.
3. HOUEI XAY to CHIANG KHONG & on to TACHILEK (BURMA) across the border from MAE SAI.
8. MAE HONG SON & surrounds.

The route can be taken as a whole but, more importantly, provides interesting background information for anyone simply cruising through any of the areas concerned.


Looking up the Nam Kok & onto Wat Tha Ton.

Pass by Chiang Dao & Fang (see below) to Tha Ton which in the days of British Colonial Burma was the end of the road - Siam ended at Tha Ton's Nam Kok river & what lay over the river was part of the British Shan States.
Head on up to Mae Salong & stay at The Little Home GH - proprietor Som Boon was a young boy & his father an officer in the KMT when they crossed over into Thailand from Burma; he is a wealth of knowledge on matters surrounding the KMT. No-one knows the back-roads around Mae Salong & Thoed Thai better than his son, Vit Toon, who can guide those looking to travel deeper into 'poppy-field territory' without accidentally straying over the border, a risk you should not take.

The Golden Triangle's greatest drug warlord was Kun Sa who at his peak controlled an area along the Thai-Burma border extending from Mae Sai to Mae Hong Son. Other insurgent groups operated in the area, waring for greater control over the lucrative drug business, none of them more feared than the Wa. Khun Sa once said of the Wa that they were the fiercest foe he ever met; they fought to the last man, to the last drop of blood.

The Wa were feared headhunters - as late as the mid 1970's headless corpses had been found on the road to Kengtung (Burma), whilst 300 human skulls lined the road to the Wa village of Laklai. The Wa believed the skulls afforded them successful crops & hunting, fertility, & warded off evil spirits - the heads of stangers were particularly prized as the Wa believed that the spirits would be unable to find their way out of the mountains thus rendering a greater level of protection to the village.

In brutal battles between Khun Sa & the Wa in the late 1980's & 1990's both sides would take their injured down into Thailand for hospital treatment. An intriguing consequence was that the Thai authorities, in an endeavour to ensure the sides did not simply ressume hostilities from their hospital beds, would direct Khun Sa's men to Chiang Dao & the Wa to Fang!


Now a hotel, this position in Doi Mae Salong was a greatly coveted outpost offering surveillance over a vast area.

MAE SALONG (& THAM NGOP) - In 1949 the KMT were driven from China into Burma, the greatest producer of raw opium in the Golden Triangle. From 1950 the KMT started moving virtually all of Burma's opium into the tri-border area of the Golden Triangle for distribution, processing & export. By imposing a burdensom system of taxes on any opium passing into Thailand the KMT forced hill-tribes to grow an ever increasing amount ultimately seeing many hill-tribes flee into Thailand.

In 1961, the KMT were driven from Burma - around 4,200 of them were repatriated to Taiwan but 3,600 were 'abandoned' in Laos. Of these, in mid 1962, 1,800 established a base at Mae Salong under General Tuan whilst 1,400 set up at Tam Ngop under General Li. The KMT immediately resumed trading in Burma's opium which by the late 1960's approached 700 tons annually. Add to this 200 tons from Thailand & the Laotian input, then consider that at the time American addicts were consuming only around 10 tons annually!

Khun Sa's loss in the 1967 Opium War (see below) strengthened the KMT's position within the Shan States but complicated their relations with a Thailand sensitive to conceal their involvement in the opium trade. With the uprising in 1968 of hill-tribes around Chiang Rai, however, the Thai army, ill-suited for mountain warfare, turned to the KMT for help - this would leave the KMT as the unchallenged leader in the area's opium trade. The KMT maintained control of some 90% of the Burmese opium trade & by the 1970's was operating one of the three biggest refineries in the Golden Triangle from Mae Salong & a smaller refinery at Tham Ngop.


Arrive in Chiang Khong in sufficient time to permit the completion of immigration & customs requirements & to transfer to Houei Xay (do it now whilst crossing is by sanpan before the bridge is built!). From Houei Xay there are 2 options:
i) An extended tour taking in ii) below & continuing up to Luang Namtha & MuangSing before crossing to the Plain of Jars & Long Chieng;
ii) the area N-NW of Houei Xay covering Ban Kwan, Muang Meung & the 1967 Opium War.

Laos was an impoverished nation lacking any economic or political criteria for nationhood; as the countries Finance Minister Sisouk told the BBC in 1975: "the only export we can develop here is opium".

Despite its Indochina opium monopoly being abolished in 1950, France continued until 1954 to purchase the annual opium harvest of Hmong farmers in Laos & to transport it on military aircraft to Saigon. After France's military withdrawl in 1954 certain Frenchmen who remained in Laos started what was colourfully called 'Air Opium' to continue the access to Saigon's markets. The most famous was probably Gerard Labenski who managed the Snow Leopard Inn in Phonsavan which doubled as an opium warehouse. Regular flights were made to towns such as Xam Neua, Luang Nam Tha, Muang Sing, Phongsali, Xam Neua, Xayaboury & Houei Xai to collect product where Chinese shopkeepers traded odds & ends with village growers for opium to on-sell. Another prominent french actor in the business was Bonaventure 'Rock' Francisci who used to drop 20kl watertight tin crates wrapped in life jackets into the Gulf of Thailand to pre-arranged pick-up vessels.

From the late 1950's Laos was involved in marketing locally produced opium & in the transit traffic of Burmese opium. Local production was mainly in the north-east in an area comprising the Plain of Jars & most of the Hmong highlands extending from the northern rim of the Vientiane Plain to the North Vietnam border.

In Laos the CIA maintained for 15 years a secret army of 30,000 men, mostly CIA trained Hmong farmers, from what became Laos second largest town with the busiest airport in the world without it ever appearing on any map (!). CIA 'assets' controlled the opium business direct & used the CIA airline, Air America, based in Long Chieng. I strongly urge you to view the documentary 'The Most Secret Place on Earth'.

In the 1960's as the opium caravans carrying large quantities of Burmese opium commenced crossing the Mekong into north-western Laos, refineries opened along the Mekong. Simultaneously, as American bombing along north-eastern Laos commenced & the communist Phatet Lao advanced Laos opium trade moved from the Plain of Jars to Houei Xai.

HOUEI XAI - The biggest refineries in the Golden Triangle & the major point for processing of opium & in turn distribution was in & around the village of Houei Xai. The operation belonged to General Ouane Rattikone, Commander in Chief of the Royal Laotian Army - the only army in the world, other than the USA army itself, entirely financed by the US government! Whist the USA government financed the anti-communist Royal Laotian Army, the CIA at the very same time was financing the Communist Pathet Lao!

In the mid 1960's General Ouane decided to monopolise the opium trade & refused landing rights in north-eastern Laos to all bar Air America (ironically it would be these same pilots from the likes of 'Air Opium' who in the early 1970's, once the Laos laboratories could produce no. 4 (90-99% pure) heroin, would provide the link between the refineries & the USA).

BAN KWAN & MUANG MEUNG - The 1967 Opium War - General Ouane started placing orders for opium with Shan & Chinese opium brokers operating out of Thailand & Burma, including a particularly large order with rising drug warlord Khun Sa. By June 1967 Khun Sa had assembled 16 tons of raw opium, the largest shipment on record, & set off for Houei Xai some 400 kms away with a caravan of 300 mules & 500 armed guards that extended 2kms along the narrow mountain trail.

The KMT worried that their 15 year domination of the opium trade was being threatened sent 1,400 troops into Burma to intercept him, but Khun Sa eluded them, crossing the Mekong into Laos & heading down the old caravan trail from Muang Meung to Ban Kwan some 40kms northwest of Houei Xai (slightly up-river from where the casino is found today above the confluence that marks the Golden Triangle) where he dug in for the fight, fortifying a lumber mill of General Ouane's where the transfer of opium was pre-arranged to take place.

After several days of indicisive fighting General Ouane entered the fray bombing both sides & sweeping the battle field with a battalion of 1,800 men. The KMT in forced negotiations departed to the north whilst Khun Sa retreated over the Mekong leaving the 16kilos of opium to the General. The profits from the confiscated opium were considerable & General Ouane showed his gratitude to his men by giving each man in the battalion enough money to build a house on the outskirts of Vientiene!

Laos was now the most important opium processing centre in the Golden Triangle processing 100's of kilos a day & supplying raw material to other laboratories throughout the region. At the same time as buying product, General Ouane would exchange arms for opium with the smaller but more ideological warlords desirous of a free Shan State; arms he obtained from the CIA by inflating the number of troops under his command, inflation which also increased the size of the payroll he received which he also put to 'good' use.

In 1971, the CIA estimated that the largest of the 7 heroin factories surrounding Houei Xai produced 3.6 tons of heroin per year. Remember the total useage at the time in the USA was 10 tons annually! In 1973 the CIA reported that 7 of 21 opium refineries operating in the Golden Triangle border area were producing no. 4 heroin (90-99% pure); the 'big three' being in Houei Xai in Laos, Mae Salong in Thailand & Tachilek in Burma - areas controlled by paramilitary associated with CIA couvert operations in the Golden Triangle.


Cross back to Chiang Khong from Houei Xay; stay at Tammila on the Mekong before heading up the Thai side of the river.

Chiang Saen - The KMT moved their raw opium caravans across the mountains of Burma & over the Mekong near Muang Mueng into Laos just upstream from the tri-border area. Most of the caravans continued on to Houei Xai where the opium was processed & then distributed through Thailand. Up until the Opium War of 1967, however, certain KMT caravans of up to 600 mules would periodically cross directly into Thailand near Chiang Saen, crossing the Mekong in broad daylight & moving fully armed down the towns main street as the opium moved towards Bangkok. (Have a massage on the promonade over-looking the Mekong to Laos & envisage the mules crossing!)

Sop Ruak - Look across the Mekong from Sop Ruak to Bankwan on the point opposite where the Nam Ruak meets the Mekong & visualise where the 1967 Opium War took place & from where Khun Sa fled across the Mekong back into Burma. The new casino in Laos by the way is backed by another major drug-lord - Lin Mingxian.

Mae Sai & Tachilek (Burma) - In addition to Khun Sa & the KMT there were hundreds of other 'petty' warlords, armies, insurgents & rebels operating in the Golden Triangle. These militia processed raw opium into smoking opium, morphine or heroin at militia refineries in the Tachilek before shipping the product - around 30 tons of raw opium in 1970 - across the border into Thailand for distribution.

One such 'other' warlord is worthy of mention - Olive Yang was an aristocratic leader of the Kokang district in Burma. Known as 'Miss Hairy Legs', she commanded an army of some 1,000 men. Former classmates claim their parents warned them: "Stay away from Olive, she has a revolver in her schoolbag." Having left school she proudly carried a pistol on each hip. Backed by the KMT, "warlady" Olive became the first warlord to send opium down to the Thai border by convoys of trucks rather than mules protected by heavily armed Kokang troops known as "Olive's boys". She was known to spend her profits on lavish gifts for her actress lover Wa Wa Win Shwe.

Tachilek also had the only airport on the Burmese side of the Thai-Burma border. It was not an unusual sight to see Burmese military officers arriving by plane in the morning & to then cross the bridge over into Mae Sai to effect their banking of considerable sums of cash into the comparatively secure Thai banking system!

Today Tachilek remains a player in the drug business. One interesting character operating out of the area is Naw Kham a hilltribesman formerly in Khun Sa's army & known as 'the Pirate of the Mekong' due to his at times daring endeavours to extract payments from those running drugs along the river.


Growers - mainly hill-tribes who growing poppies & earning a pittance whilst being 'taxed' by insurgents & paying bribes to government officials.
Insurgents/militia - operating the poppy-growing areas & collecting the taxes. Some like the Shan State Army (SSA) were more politically than commercially motivated.
Merchants - bought the opium from producers & paid tax to the insurgents who they also hired to transport the opium to refineries. They were & still are (!) 'respectable' businessmen who live openly & freely in their communities.
The Ka Kwe Ye (KKY) - Burma's home guard units who often transported the merchants product, but also their own, usually down through Tachilek where it was exchanged for gold bars - hence the name 'Golden Triangle'.
The KMT - a buffer & unofficial border police for Thailand, they collected intelligence for Taiwan, the USA & Thailand.
International narcotics syndicates - usually Chinese who supplied the chemists to the laboratories whilst taking care of drug distribution world-wide. With vast amounts of money, they buy protection, perpetuate the situations which make drug production possible & make sure that drug enforcement agencies concentrate on 'the small guys'.


To get a true feeling for the Golden Triangle poppy-growing area take the exhilerating & sensationally scenic back-road from Mae Sai along the border via the Akha villages of Pa Mi & Pa Hi (check the view!) & on to Doi Tung. Doi Tung is a former major poppy growing area now boasting a successful Royal Project initiated to reduce hill-tribe dependance on producing opium & home to the Queen Mother's Palace.
At Thoed Thai stay at Rim Taan where proprietor John, a one-time translator for the CIA in Laos & who was instrumental in the building of the Khun Sa Museum, is a wealth of knowledge.

Apart from the KMT certain mainly muslim chinese traders mostly from Yunnan tied opium growers in the hills to heroin laboratories on the Thai-Burma border through a network of debt & credit & through managing the laboratories. The greatest were warlords who mobilised armed guards for their caravans & the largest amongst them was Khun Sa whose caravans stretched for miles along the ridge-line with enough opium to supply all of America's illicit demand.

After his loss in the 1967 Opium War Khun Sa was eager to rebuild & from the early 1970's maintained a camp & major heroin refinery at Hin Taek (later named Thoed Thai) with an army of 3,500 men & caravans hauling 70 tons of raw opium a year. From Hin Taek Khun Sa would take opium territory from the KMT & recover his old territory in the Shan States. With a Yunnese father & Shan mother Khun Sa grew up in two cultures & was uniquely placed to bring some sort of order to the bands of waring insurgents across the opium growing region of Burma.

Motor out along one of the most pleasant rides in Thailand to Hua Mae Kham, the largest multi hill-tribe village in Thailand, the very hill-tribes that grew poppy for Khun Sa, & valued look-out point set magnificently in the mountains that form the border with Burma. Khun Sa had refineries near-by in Burma. Take a guide (Lisu) if you wish to proceed closer to the border & to ensure you dont get into trouble.

A series of political manoeuvres then dominated events before, in June 1977, the charasmatic Khun Sa when speaking to the press without reservation or regret about his burgeoning heroin business so embarrased the Thai government that they unsuccessfully bombed Hin Taek in 1980. Now exposed the Thai army supported by airfire again stormed Hin Taek in 1982 seeing Khun Sa retreat into Burma - but not until he'd sent 200 men to sack Mae Sai where drivers were taken from many cars before the cars were torched. Displacing smaller ethnic groups & attacking rebel armies in the area Khun Sa set up base at Doi Larng & quickly re-established his heroin factories. For the next 4 years the Thai military mounted outposts overlooking Khun Sa's position yet never interferred with his refineries or caravans.


The best way to see the area & undertand its importance is to take the road just south of Wat Thaton up past Pang Ton Kong & Pang San Khrua before continuing through the restricted area around Doi Phahompok & up to Nor Lae - the most magical road in Thailand! This has long been a dangerous area/road adjoining sensitive drug producing & drug trafficking areas; those who built the road were heavily armed to defend themselves. Remember that of the 2,400km Thai-Burma border only 58kms was ever agreed - don't wander off the road towards Myanmar; in crossing a border, you could be playing with your life. The road is impassable for certain vehicles - see my report Caution: Very Steep/Dangerous Road Collapse/ Restricted Area Dangerous Road The sensational ride up to Nor Lae is the toughest road in Thailand & only open at restricted times.

On the road up behind Wat Thaton, the first village you will pass is the Lahu village of Ba Gui. Not far down the hillside a number of tin roofs are still visible across the border which locals allege was Doi Larng village housing one of Khun Sa's heroin factories. Further up the road at Pang Ton Dua there's a Burmese-style white Chedi atop a hill but well hidden from view. Around the Chedi are a number of bunkers formerly used by Khun Sa. It is unknown when the Chedi was built but it is believed that Burmese troops who once occupied the disputed territory erected it to demarcate the border. Burmese troops ask to cross every year & pay tribute to the Chedi.

Just over 3kms from the control point near Pang San Khrua along the 'road' to Nor Lae lies Doi Larng. It is undoubtedly the most notorious mountain & mountain-ridge in Thailand yet seldom visited by foreigners & Thais alike due to its restricted & difficult access, lack of information on maps, on-going disagreement as to where the border-line actually lies & particularly, in the case of Thais, as the area is held to be dangerous. From Doi Larng, Khun Sa controlled the militarily important high points along the mountain ranges linking Thailand with Burma as well as providing direct access for drugs into Thailand - Khun Sa called it his 'backdoor to Thailand'. There's a ladder climbing up to a military bunker from where the summit can be reached via a track which runs over the border into Burma down to the village of Doi Larng then up a slender path cut 2m into the ground - its exhileraiting up there commanding views in every direction.

In 1981 the KMT joined with the Lahu militia & attacked Khun Sa. Although defeated the Lahu maintained a strong presence in the area establishing Doi Larng village into a notorious town full of gambling dens & heroin refineries. The town was raided & torched by the Burmese Army.

In the late 1980's a loose Thai-Burmese alliance & then in particularly bitter fighting, the Wa, attacked the bastion & took control of around 30 strategic high points along the border, though Khun Sa held Doi Larng. Khun Sa saw the move as sufficient reason to move his refineries to north-western Laos & its drug sympathetic government. Under his leadership Burma's opium production rose from 550 to 2,500 tons in the 1980's; between 1984 & 1990 the SE Asian share of the New York city market rose from 5% to 80% with Khun Sa controlling over half the world's heroin supply.

Nor Lae is a rare Palaung hill-tribe settlement, & another strategic high point held by Khun Sa. Nowadays the Thai army occupies the spot surrounded in close proximaty by 3 Burmese positions.

Doi Ang Khang is where KMT General Li crossed into Thailand from Burma in 1961 before establishing his headquarters at Tham Ngop. The mountain-sides here too used to be covered with poppies but is now home to a successful 'alternative cultivation' Royal Project.


This is a spectacular & exciting run from start to finish. You'll pass through many control points. Proceed sensibly on the road out past Kae Noi avoiding any detour towards the border that could be dangerous.
Tam Ngop was the home of KMT Third Army leader General Li. His home sits atop the town alongside a former parade ground & officer's mess. There's now a restaurant to one side of the parade ground operated by General Li's daughter who if there, may give you a fascinating tour of her father's home.

An interesting story surrounding General Li was the arranging, by General Kriangsak who would later become Prime Minister of Thailand, of the burning of the KMT's 'last 26 tons of opium'. In March 1972, in a spectacle staged by the DEA on behalf of the CIA, US television cameras filmed Li's troops deliver 100 mules laden with 'opium' which was then set on fire. The CIA then couvertly paid the KMT $1.8million for the opium to susequently learn that only 5 tons had in fact been opium!

Arunothai (Noon Oook) was another startegic KMT settlement providing useful access to Burma via the border crossing at Khiu Pa Wok. For many years the town was closed off before entry being permitted in day-light hours only, due largely to the fact that the border crossing was used at night to move masses of teak logs & opium across into Thailand, something Thailand did not wish the world to see. There were also frequent clashes between the Burmese, Khun Sa & the Wa who all held positions near the border.
Just out of Arunothai at Mai Sa Ma Ki is the only Kachin village in Thailand - when fighting the Burmese in the 1960's & 1970's the Kachin started a base here to trade jade (& probably opium) with the KMT for arms.

Shortly after moving to Doi Larng, Khun Sa established himself at Piang Luang & rebuilt at Ho Mong in Burma across from the Thai border town of Mae Aw in Mae Hong Son province. From these three bases Khun Sa rose over a period of 14 years to a position of unprecedented power, building his army, expanding the drug traffic, allying with Shan rebels, eliminating rivals & skilfully balancing Thailand's opposition by courting Burma.

The route across to Piang Luang via Kae Noi was a drug distribution route into Thailand. Kae Noi like many KMT border settlements was a drug smuggling village set amidst poppy fields & opium processing refineries. It was an area of cross-border bandits & robbers with intermittant attacks & shelling from the Burmese Army; where 'farang' could easily be mistaken as 'spies' & be quickly in trouble - with constant battles along the border, access to the area was strictly prohibited until the late 1990's. Be aware that 'mules' carrying speed, ice & ecstacy still infiltrate Thailand through this area so stick to the principal route avoiding detouring towards the border. Given the road's varying quality & surfaces it is suggested you look at my report 'The Chong Loop' The Chong Loop The road passes through Muang Na, another former KMT outpost, & then onto the small Lahu village of Jia Chan which was relocated here from higher up on the mountainside after a number of villagers were killed reportedly in disputes with drug warlords.

Piang Luang lying in a mountainous & relatively isolated part of Thailand had it all - illegal logging, opium growing, heroin trafficking, subterfuge immigration, contraband, communist insurgency, fugitive criminals & a KMT massacre by Thai authorities. It also, at Lak Taeng, marked one of the few vehicle crossing points into & out of Khun Sa's territory & offered a myriad of distribution routes into Thailand including those through Kae Noi, through Wiang Haeng & through Pai. At both Doi Larng & Mae Aw (near Ho Mong) Khun Sa's position was compromised by adjacent Wa positions, but at Piang Luang he was in sole control - Piang Luang was truly the jewel in Khun Sa's crown.

By 1985 Khun Sa dominated the Shan-Thai frontier; his trafficking flourished as did his army now equipped with an impressive array of arms purchased on the market in Thailand. Burma desperate for the black money turned a blind eye whilst simultaneously moving masses of illegally logged teak across the border at Piang Luang. The drugs crossed the border in pick-ups & in secret compartments in the logs with plenty of heroin for kick-backs to Thai army & police. The restricted access to the area ensured the easy relationship between Khun Sa & Thai officials & the co-operation between Khun Sa, Burma & Thailand in the internationally condemned teak logging would not be seen by the world.

The $2million bounty put on Khun Sa's head was laughable in these circumstances, so much so that no-one even bothered to try to collect it. In terms of any official Thai position Khun Sa said: "If you feed them, they are friendly....why should they fight or capture their money tree?" Around 1987, however, Khun Sa wished to clean-up his image & started inviting visitors to his Ho Mong headquarters where with an astute, articulate & affable style he'd treat them to French Brandy, satellite TV & Taiwanese pop songs whislt showing them his orchid & strawberry gardens. He'd remind journalists of his offer several times to the USA that they buy his entire crop for $US100million & thus stop the flow of heroin into the USA in return for economic aid.

During the early 1990's the United Wa State Army (UWSA) moved southwards along the Thai-Burma border & started attacking Khun Sa's positions in bitter fighting. With Doi Larng compromised at the end of 1993 Khun Sa in a change of mind proclaimed an independant Shan State at a meeting at his headquaters in Ho Mong. The move forced the hand of Burma who sent thousands of troops to the Salween River area. Fighting started opposite Piang Luang forcing hundreds of refugees, in particular Lisus, to flee over the border at Piang Luang. In early fighting the Burmese, with the CIA & DEA looking on, would claim to capture 2 refineries of Khun Sa but it was later found that the refineries had actually been hastily built by the Burmese so that they could be 'captured' to impress US officials present with the aim of securing further funding for Rangoon...... the offensive duly petered out!


7. PIANG LUANG TO PANG KHAM (via Kong Lom & Mae Lana) & up to Loi Tai Leng (Burma)
This 'track' initially follow's Khun Sa's distribution routes into Thailand through Pai. It demands an experienced rider (forget a car) on a suitable bike - see my report A Dirty Affair. The route aligns itself with a still wild, potentially dangerous area of Thailand; an area where methamphetimines still pass into Thailand; an area where as recently as 2007 when Ian/Bungy (X-Centre, Mai Rim) rode through he came across a man hung from a tree by wire.
Take the turn-off at Kong Lom. About 1.3kms before Muang Noi swing right, from where its 4kms to the Mae Pai hydro-electric power plant. Continue on this loop around to Mae Lana where the road reaches R1226. Stay at Cave Lodge - proprietor John Spies knows more about this area than anyone!
The run out to Pang Kham is a beautiful one gripping the Thai-Burma border along Golden Triangle opium producing country out towards the Shan camp of Loi Tai Leng in Burma - see the thread Video Shan State

(Be EXTREMELY careful if considering entering Loi Tai Leng; if you don't understand the dangers - dont go!)

The Shan are the largest ethnic minority group in Burma with a population of approximately seven million. In the brutal war that has been going on for nearly sixty years the Burmese junta have occupied Shan ethnic villages to control the rural populations. Rape, torture, murder, slavery and forced relocation are common. Parents are often killed or separated from their children, leaving tens of thousands of orphans living in refugee camps in Thailand or IDP (internally displaced people) camps in Burma.

Loi Tai Leng is the headquarters of the Shan United Revolutionary Army (SURA), under the command of Yewt Serk (see below), home to several thousand soldiers who guard the camp, approximately 3,000 IDPs who have taken refuge there & several hundred orphans. The base is set high upon the ridgeline, on the Burmese side of the border with Thailand.

The soldiers, refugees & orphans seek to rebuild their shattered lives whilst the war in Burma rages around them. The camp comes under constant attack, regular artillery barrages and, despite being mined, frontal assaults from the SPDC and United Wa State Army. They have built a meeting hall, a temple, restaurants, and a school. The children are educated in both English and their native tongue to keep their cultural traditions.

The Shan people are part of the Tai ethnic group & as such consider themselves to be related to the Thai. The King of Thailand is credited with providing most of the outside aid to the Shan but to maintain good relations with Burma, Thailand cannot officially or openly endorse the Shan resistance.

We arrived at Loi Tai Leng to be asked to ensure our GPS was turned off - such a device could be tracked to provide a potential target for enemy bombing.
We departed knowing that when children go to sleep parents leave a light on so that the children won’t be scared, yet in Loi Tai Leng all lights are turned off at night for fear of providing the enemy with a target for artillery attack.

8. MAE HONG SON (Ho Mong (Burma)).
We will end our trip conveniently at Mae Hong Son where Khun Sa kept an office throughout his period of power. From Mae Hong Son it is but a short trip north, not far as the crow flies from Pang Khong & some 12kms over the border crossing out past Houai Phung (R1285), to Ho Mong in Burma where Khun Sa would lay down his arms. From the well sited Ho Mong, Khun Sa had not only protection against adversaries but also access into Thailand through the mountains over to the route to Pang Khong, via the border crossing mentioned above & through Rak Thai (Mae Aw) another town which played a significant role in drug trafficking.

It took a near-perfect alignment of global, national & local forces to topple Khun Sa, but basically his mid-life change from drug warlord to Shan nationalist saw him literally lay down arms in 1996 at Ho Mong (Burma) to an atagonised Burma in a spectacle that outraged the USA as Burma advocated forgiveness to Khun Sa. Khun Sa turned over an impressive arsenal including surface-to-air missiles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, machine guns, mortars, AK-47 rifles & so on.

Control over the border passed to a collaborating Burmese & Wa with Burma largely controlling the crossings & the Wa everything in between including Tachilek, territory opposite Mae Fah Luang, the refineries opposite Hua Mae Kham, all the vantage points around Doi Larng with the exception of Doi Larng itself which was in Burmese hands, positions opposite Arunothai & Doi Ang Kang except for Nor Lae which the Burmese held, both sides of the Burmese controlled Piang Luang crossing, & the areas opposite Pang Mapha & Mae Aw. It was business as usual & the Golden Triangle would remain the world's leading opium producer until 1998 with production steady at around 2,500 tons per annum.

Though overshadowed by the military drama, Khun Sa's closing economic manoeuvre left a legacy for the Golden Triangle - methamphetamines. In the 1990's, under pressure from Burmese forces, with his caravan lines cut & with gobal markets saturated, Khun Sa introduced a new drug - methamphetamines - to service local clientele unleashing an epidemic that soon swept SE Asia & made the Golden Triangle's drug trade even more resiliant. Where the Wa are so are the drugs & its certain that Wa heroin refineries & methamphetamine laboratories are operating along the length of the border.

WEI XUEGANG is now unquestionably the heroin kingpin & overlord of most of the methamphetamine production in the Golden Triangle. Ruthless & brutal, he has a reputation for knowing when to make or break alliances. A former KMT-CIA operative in the 1960's & then Khun Sa's financial controller through the 1970's & 1980's he moved in 1989 following a fall-out with Khun Sa to join forces with the United Wa State Army (UWSA) where he quickly established himself as a Commander, a member of the Central Committee & financial controller of the UWSA.

He took his drug trade connections to the UWSA, allied himself with fugitive Thai drug-lord Bang Ron (see below) & set up a heroin-amphetamine operation at Mong Yawn, not far across the border from Mae Salong, building a city of 30,000 from the jungle with paved roads, dams, clinics & schools. More laboratories along the Burmese side of the border with Thailand & in north-western Laos followed.

With the demise of Khun Sa the Burmese communists took control of the poppy fields selling their opium to Wei whose refineries along the Thai border turned it into heroin. From 1999 Wei started moving tens of thousands of Wa from their traditional homelands in the north relocating them in traditionally Shan territory in the south, establishing new towns along the Thai border, & driving out the Shan many of whom fled to Thailand. By mid-2000 the Wa were trafficking 2000 tons of raw opium per year but also operating 60 methamphetamine laboratories in the Thai-Burma border area exporting some 600million methamphetamine tablets worth $2.8billion annually to Thailand. Wei has also more recently established laboratories in north-western Laos with a view to producing ecstacy.

Little is known about Wei's private life - he has never given an interview & only 2 photos of him exist in the outside world. Highly paranoid he avoids public gatherings for fear of being photographed, cooks his own meals afraid of being poisoned & wears a bullet proof vest at all times. He doesn't drink, smoke, use drugs or womanise & rarely sleeps before daybreak, reading & watching TV & videos through the night. He never leaves his residence without at least 100 armed guards & constantly changes cars during trips. For most of the 2000's, Wei constructed a highly fortified mansion whilst in residence with underground living quarters, bomb shelters & soldiers barracks at Nalawt, a UWSA controlled remote village in northern Burma. Surrounded by an immense concrete wall it was manned 24/7 by at least 200 heavily armed elite guards. When it neared completion in late 2009 at a cost of around $US60million, Wei finally decided not to live there following unwanted media coverage, instead giving it to the UWSA. Wei holds Burmese citizenship & has a Burmese name - Sein Win or 'Shiny Diamond'!

The most recent developments suggest that the Burmese junta is endeavouring to exploit the differences between a nationalist UWSA & a 'business only' Wei, pressuring Wei to turn his forces into a government backed militia under a veiled threat that attack from Burma & maybe also Thailand would be 'bad for business'. Such a move would cause severe financial difficulties for the UWSA & for their nationalist aims. Whilst Wei reflects on his position he may well consider the precedent set by Khun Sa who 'retired' comfortably to Rangoon.

BAO YOUXIANG is Commander of the UWSA & has made a fortune from drug trafficking. He once built a bowling alley, in the village of Panghsang where a school or clinic would have been better received, keeping a lane permanently reserved for himself. Paranoid like Wei, he suffers from trichinosis which he treats with Chinese herbal medicine but not before his doctor consumes half of the potion prepared daily for him.

Under the influence of Burmese propaganda Bao has his concerns that Wei might sell-out the Wa in exchange for a comfortable retirement but at present Bao & Wei need each other - Bao provides the physical control over a large area for Wei, whilst Wei provides Bao with the networks necessary to traffic his illicit products.

Both Wei & Bao have ploughed profits back into airlines, banks, telecommunications & so on.

YAWT SERK - When Khun Sa layed down his arms not everyone followed suit. One commander, Yawt Serk (Shan for 'best at war') returned to the hills around Piang Luang & ultimately Loi Tai Leng building up an army & bases along the Thai-Burma border despite clashing with the southward expanding Wa. Thailand, keen to have someone in the area to monitor developments in Burma including methamphetamine laboratories sold arms to Yawt Serk & even supplied him with men, releasing Shans arrested for illegal entry into Thailand if they agreed to join his army.

The Thais, however, did not fully trust Yawt Serk knowing that he needed the revenue from taxing methamphetamine consignments passing through his territory eminating from the very laboratories that the Thais sought that he destroy.

Khun Sa's family, by the way, now run the family business of gems, casinos & drugs (2 major methamphetamine laboratories still operate out of Ho Mong) from Tachilek & Rangoon.

International pressure on Burma, the collapse of their economy, drought, competition for heroin markets from Latin America & new-found co-operation between Thailand & Burma (with Thailand's move away from military government & Burma granting Thailand lumber concessions along the border from the Three Pagodas to Tachilek), saw Golden Triangle opium production drop (though it still produces sufficient to service international markets).

Attempts at amphetamine reform followed with reports showing alarming rates of addiction & HIV in SE Asia but the Golden Triangle amphetamine production continues to supply a booming world demand for synthetic drugs. Thailand remains the principal market due to a quicker/higher return, easier supply routes/ less risk associated with smuggling, a differentiated product & little international pressure - in 1997 when the government estimated 69.35 billion baht was being spent annually in Thailand on speed, 22 million speed pills were seized; in 1998 30 million, in 1999 40 million & in 2002 95.9 million. In 2003 Taksin mounted his heavy-handed 'War on Drugs' which saw 2598 people killed & despite much controversy put a dent in trade.

Burma is increasing the pressure on the insurgents to lay down their arms; the insurgents are preparing for a possible resumption of hostilities. Whether China will back the junta or opt for a buffer zone between itself & an erratic junta is still unclear. The UWSA notwithstanding has re-armed with anti-aircraft systems, portable air defence systems, 14.5mm anti-aircraft guns, 120mm mortars, 130mm field guns & 122mm howitzers amongst others whilst at the same time installing a complex system of underground command centers. To further sure up their position the UWSA has also now moved into regional arms trading. Like the Was, the Shan who have been fighting for autonomy since 1958 & the Karen fighting since 1949 would never accept a unitary state.

It is a volatile wait-&-see situation which could well erupt at any moment......those following this tour should be aware of the above & up-to-date with the current situation.

- Moralising about drugs & blaming insurgents or former insurgents will not solve the problem; for as long as Burmese ethnic conflicts continue & whilst Myanmar remains under stifling military rule drugs from the Golden Triangle will continue to flood the world.
- The USA targets warlords as its principal weapon in the war of drugs; Khun Sa's surrender had little effect on traffic.
- The circumstances that created Khun Sa are being replicated by the USA elsewhere across the planet.
- The USA refuses to address the moral & political cost of investing the CIA with extraordinary powers; a CIA that operates without legal restraint or legislative oversight; a CIA that survives, its files sealed, its crimes unexamined.

(In a second report to follow I will add commentary & photos from a number of sources I talked with whilst undertaking the above trip).
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Dec 14, 2010
Thanks for sharing, the post puts today's situation into perspective.


Jul 25, 2010
Hey Rod, you have been busy. I thought you had taken up knitting as there were no reports from you for a while. This report is absolutely fascinating and you have obviously taken a great deal of time to unravel the complexities of the whole situation. Good stuff indeed.


Oct 12, 2005
Great read, your time put into the post is greatly appreaciated.

for those interested in the subject there is also a book entitled Merchants of Madness available in Thailand that goes into the modern production of amphetamines in Burma.


Oct 6, 2006
Thanks for your epic post!
Too much good info and history for a quick read; I've saved a copy to use as a future reference!

Rod Page

Jan 7, 2010
'Knitting' - flattery will get you nowhere, Ron.

History - the definitive reference is Alfred Mc Coy's "The Politics of Heroin" (revised 2003). "Merchants of Madness" (2009) is an informative paperback covering the methamphetamine saga. I also found some of the writings of Christain Gooden most useful. I drew heavily from all sources.

Trip Report - the idea was not to regurgitate history but to draw from it & through a number of stories formulate an enjoyable ride through the Golden Triangle.
* Parts of the ride are seldom visited by others yet are absolutely fantastic - Hua Mae Kham, the road around Doi Phahompok (indeed these two dont even figure on a map if you dont have the GTR map), the stimulating ride out past Kae Noi (when talking of Khun Sa who would think of Piang Luang rather than Thoed Thai as the key town in his 'success'), the fabulous back roads out behind Pang Mapha (also only on the GTR maps!)..........
* The history is one thing but to actually find some of the spots concerned is another - Ban Kwan in Laos & the site of the 1967 Opium War, the 'White Chedi' near Doi Larng (no book tells you where this little gem is found.....the reward is to get out there & find it for yourself), Doi Larng itself (the books all talk about it but none tell you exactly where it is), Loi Tai Leng (another place you'd only find via word of mouth). Thailand, embarrassed by its own involvement in the whole affair is of little help!
* No need to follow the trip in its entirety - just ride off on any part that suits you at any time & hopefully the information herein adds to the enjoyment of your ride.

It continues.......................

Three Die In Burma Border Clash
Bangkok Post - 28/09/2010
A Thai defence volunteer and two Wa soldiers were killed in a clash on Monday night between a Thai border defence unit and an armed unit of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) near the Thai-Burmese border in Doi Lang.
The clash took place about 9pm when the Thai border defence unit spotted about six armed soldiers of the UWSA carrying backpacks believed to contain drugs entering the Doi Lang area from Burma. The Wa soldiers opened fire when the Thai soldiers ordered them to stop for a search . The Thai soldiers returned fire. A Thai defence volunteer was killed. The Wa soldiers retreated across the border, leaving behind two dead bodies.
The 63-square-kilometre area around Doi Lang is under dispute between Thailand and Burma. It has been declared a "no man's land" by both governments.

Large Drug Seizure on Burmese Border
Bangkok Post - 01/06/2011
Soldiers of the Pha Muang Force seized a large quantity of drugs while on patrol along the border with Burma in Mae Sai on Tuesday night.
Thai were patrolling along the Sai River in Mae Sai district, about 2km north of the 2nd Thai-Burmese Friendship bridge, when they spotted six men each carrying a backpack walking on the river bank. When the soldiers tried to stop them for a search, the six men ran across a narrow, shallow part of the Sai river and fled back into Burma, leaving behind their backpacks.
The soldiers found 900,000 methamphetamine pills and 25kg of “ice”, or crystal methamphetamine with a street value of about 150 million baht in the backpacks.


Nov 2, 2008
Great entertaining post, thank you very much for taking the time to share with GTR!!

I found myself flicking through the web, whilst reading your post, to varied stories of opium production and American involvement in Southern Iraq and Afghanistan. Certainly shows that the USA never learned any 'positive' lessons from their Golden triangle meddling.

Rod Page;268760 wrote: The KMT immediately resumed trading in Burma's opium which by the late 1960's approached 700 tons annually. Add to this 200 tons from Thailand & the Laotian input, then consider that at the time American addicts were consuming only around 10 tons annually!
That's an amazing amount! With only a few kilos of opium collected annually from an acre of poppy fields, that would translate into several hundred thousand acres of opium poppy fields - even more if that tonnage includes opium refined into any kind of 'base' product before shipping. Haven't read about how much in field, farming villages refined there opium before transport; in the 1960's or before. Was it was simply dried as much as possible before transport to a refining local?



Nov 7, 2007
Awesome post!!

As for policy it's been obvious for many years that the war on drugs is a failure. I think the solution would be government monopolies on the stuff. You won't have fewer addicts but youd know who they are and more importantly would take all that drug money from the criminal networks around the world. A large percentage of all crimes would disappear overnight.

In related news I recently read that Mexican cartels have infiltrated US border guards, bribing them with cash and sex... The problem has now truly come home to roost...


Staff member
Jan 16, 2003
Chiang Khong
1st class report Rod. Thanks for taking the time to put it together & then write it up. I am sure so many guys will find it interesting & get them out riding a bit more & noting with interest the places they are riding through.

Another interesting character is Lao Ta, from Lao Ta's Lisu village just north of Tha Ton. He has just opened his new Lao Ta coffee shop & re-opened the petrol station again.
One year model village headman for North THailand, then next year one of the most wanted. Arrested several times, but he is always released to carry on looking after his village community.
THere is a recent Bangkok Post article we could quote.

I & a few others might also have some happy snaps hanging out in Lao Ta's Lisu village 25+ years ago on the trekking homestay route....
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Staff member
Jan 16, 2003
Chiang Khong
Davidfl;268877 wrote: 1st class report Rod. THanks for taking the time to put it together & then write it up. I am sure so many guys will find it interesting & get them out riding a bit more & noting with interest the places they are riding through.

Another interesting character is Lao Ta, from Lao Ta's Lisu village just north of Tha Ton. He has just opened his new Lao Ta coffee shop & re-opened the petrol station again.
One year model village headman for North THailand, then next year one of the most wanted. Arrested several times, but he is always released to carry on looking after his village community.
THere is a recent Bangkok Post article we could quote.

I & a few others might also have some happy snaps hanging out in Lao Ta's LIsu village 25+ years ago on the trekking homestay route....:-o

Lao Ta Coffee & History
Bangkok Post

Miguel's Nong Hoi
Eradicating drug trafficking is impossible and setting deadlines to clean up drugs is unrealistic, says Lao Ta Saenlee, 74, a former Kuomintang fighter accused of being involved in the illegal trade.
Jailed for four years as he fought charges of trafficking, attempted murder and illegal possession of weapons, the infamous Lao Ta was released three years ago.
He is now pursuing a new business venture _ his own franchise of Lao Ta Coffee shops in the North.
Although the courts dismissed the trafficking and attempted murder cases against him, Lao Ta was found guilty of illegal possession of weapons.
Lao Ta’s name has been associated with the now deceased “Opium King”; Chang Chi-fu or Khun Sa, and the current drug baron Wei Hsueh-kang of the United Wa State Army. He knows Wei, as he knew Chang, but denied any drug links with them.
He is sceptical of the government’s current anti-drug campaign.
“You cannot set deadlines in solving the drug problem. It is not possible.”
“In fact, I don’t believe you can solve the problem,” Lao Ta said in an interview recently at his village coffee shop in Ban Huay Sarn of Chiang Mai’s Mae Ai district.
“The rich want the drugs and the poor traffic them,”he said.
Lao Ta predicts heroin prices will increase this year, as adverse weather conditions in Burma are likely to hit opium production.
He also predicts that trafficking and the use of new drugs will increase.
Pornthep Eam-prapai, director of the Office of the Narcotics Control Board in the North, says the number of addicts and small-time sellers there has increased 30-40% over the past three years.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva spoke to drug authorities in the North recently when he expressed concern over drug addiction and use of drugs among youth, especially in Chang Mai and Chiang Rai.
In response, authorities are now monitoring places where youths tend to gather, such as internet shops and cafes, entertainment spots and karaoke lounges, and student flats and housing.
They are also monitoring the movements of suspected sellers and traffickers, Mr Pornthep said, adding that many new faces had popped up in the drug trade. About 100 individuals are being monitored _ including Lao Ta.
Lao Ta says the war against drugs led by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was too severe, as officials abused their authority.
“No one agreed with it. They gave police too much power and this led to abuse across the country. They killed over 2,000 people,” he said.
The Abhisit government has launched a probe into deaths under Thaksin’s war on drugs.
“When I was in jail, many hilltribe villagers who visited me complained about the abuse,”Lao Ta said.
“Abhisit is not decisive but his approach to the drug problem is better. His government has launched its own campaign, but it is not violent. At least the Abhisit campaign lets the judicial process take its course,”Lao Ta said.
Like many former KMT soldiers, Lao Ta fought the communist insurgents before being allowed to live in Thailand. He has consistently denied being involved in heroin trafficking although he admits that he used to trade in opium in the 1970s.
And he has his own theory as to why he was the target of Thaksin’s war against drugs which resulted in him being jailed for four years.
“Because I worked for the Thai government and fought against the communist insurgency, certain members of the Thai Rak Thai Party, some of whom were former insurgents, wanted revenge. They wanted to get me,”he said.
Another reason is that he refused to lend Thai Rak Thai any political support.
Lao Ta wields considerable influence in his village and surrounding hilltribe villages.
“They know the hilltribe people of my villages and I do not support them because they are former insurgents.”
“They also asked for my support in local and district elections, but I refused. That’s why I was bullied,” he said.
“I never thought I would be arrested for trafficking, as I have never been involved in heroin trafficking.”
“If I ever meet him [Thaksin] I don’t think I could control myself,” he said.
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Rod Page

Jan 7, 2010
Fishenough - some additional information to help you with your calculations....dont forget that acreage is traditionally measured over a 'flat' surface & does not take into consideration the rise & fall of the topography:

A hill-tribe group of say 5 adults can cultivate around 2 hectares of opium poppy per year (with good land supporting cultivation for 10 years or more without fertilization, irrigation, insecticides, or needing to be left fallow). Towards the end of the rainy season they prepare mountain slopes with sandy loam soil at elevations above 800m & with a slope of 20-40 degrees for good drainage. With around 12 plants per square metre being preferable growing conditions, a hectare will have between 60,000 to 120,000 poppy plants producing 120,000 to 275,000 pods. Opium yield will depend largely on weather conditions and the precautions taken by individual farmers to safeguard the crop.

Some pods will be tapped up to 5 or 6 times with an average opium yield per pod of about 80 milligrams. The dried opium weight yield per hectare ranges from 8 to 15 kilograms (raw opium is sun-dried, weighed in a standard 1.6 kilogram quantity, wrapped in banana leaf or plastic and then stored until ready to sell, trade, or smoke).


Oct 23, 2009
Thank you Rod for posting this great piece on information and sharing it with GTR. It's very well documented and utmost interesting. I am reading it from Switzerland and will bookmark these data and return several times. It is a excellent addition to McCoy's classical, helping to understand what was and is still (secretly) happening near to us.


Aug 22, 2005
Great post!

Both David and I, and perhaps a few others, were around back in the 1980s, still the heyday, or perhaps the swan song years of the opium trade. I was running a guest house north of the Kok River, not far from Laota's village. One never knew whether the campaigns against Khun Sa were for real, or just dog and pony shows designed to impress the US government.

In the Fall of 1983 a group of Thai irregulars took over the small Border Patrol camp in the Karen village of Muang Ngaam, just east and down the road and river from Thaton, about 10km. They operated along the border behind Laota's village for a few weeks supported by air strikes from the OV-10 Broncos stationed in Chiang Mai. These guys were not wearing regulation uniforms, were covered in tattoos, dripping with grenades and amulets, and carried the same assortment of arms that the rebels across the border were using. In other words there was plausible denial that they were not Thai troops. These were guys that nobody would miss if they did not return home. Yet little became of that operation. Khun Sa moved a few kilometers away and Laota stayed in business for years to come. And contrary to many opinions, it was not Laota's village that was used as the major transhipment point but a neighboring village not easily seen from the road.

Speaking of roads, many of the roads that Khun Rod mentions were still trekking trails back in the 1980s. From the area near Laota's village one would trek to Mae Salong along a trail that served as the basis for the current road. At that time no tourists were trekking into the area around Doi Lang.

Speaking of Doi Lang, that was a more significant military action, around 1986 or 1987. That time it was not Thai irregulars but regular troops, based around the Amphoe offices of Mae Ai District, who were supported by artillery and air power. It was rumored that two Thai planes were lost, but since no official comment was received one can only speculate as to whether it would have been from enemy fire or just pilot error. Around the same time, in 1987 (?), there was a bombing in Chiang Mai of a large home reputed to be that of a major player in the drug trade. All dependents and non-essential personnel at the US Consulate in Chiang Mai left for Bangkok for several months. More rumors included a hastily arranged meeting in Chiang Mai between Prem and then Vice President George H Bush. I can only attest to two odd events from that time: an unmarked 737 circling low around the city for a good four hours; and a contingent of US security men dressed in suits providing professional protection for some American VIP ( was that David Rockefeller?) in the restaurant of the Orchid Hotel , the top hotel in the city at that time. Again, when all was said and done, not much changed after Doi Lang other than Khun Sa moving to yet another new location.

As for Laota himself, I have been acquainted with him since 1981. I would rather not say too much as my wife is friends with Laota and his larger family and his family has always been good to us. I will try to track down some older photos, but back then I was shooting slides, an ancient photographic format. I must say that back in the early 1980s, the Lisu New Year at Laota's village was outstanding!

Again, a click of the heels and a tip of that hat to Khun Rod for a great post.

Rod Page

Jan 7, 2010
I just received the below from Auke - intriguing stuff & much appreciated, Auke. It goes a way to explaining David Unkovitch's comments to me when I first visited the Chedi that I was "probably in Burma!" It also explains the sensitivity of the on-going border issue & the need to be prudent not to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Went yesterday to the White Stupa and some waterfalls. With regard to the White Stupa the plot thickens a bit. On the old Thai military maps (around 1980 or so) the stupa is clearly in Burma and on the older GPS maps made by ESRI Thailand the stupa is also in Burma. On the latest ESRI Thailand map the Thai border has shifted considerable to the north and the stupa is now suddenly several kilometer inside Thai territory (see attached map). The stupa was completely overgrown but at the same time it was clear that people visited the stupa from time to time.

On the black and white Thai military map, the red line is the border according to the previous GPS maps and the light blue line is now the new border line according to the ESRI GPS map V 11.1 The green and yellow lines are my GPS tracks of yesterday. Actually on the old military map the Thai border is even a bit more south and Wat Chom Khiri would then also be in Burma. On my trip yesterday I did not notice any border patrols except for the turnoff from Rd 1314 which goes to the collapsed road. The other picture is from the latest ESRI map which shows that everything is kilometers within Thai territory.

Went to the stupa along a very steep trail but once there, I noticed a dirt road going down the mountain and there were motorcycle tracks visible. Guess you can do it even by truck. The access road is in the village (sorry can't remember the name at the moment) and the dirt road is signposted for the wat in the village. Google Earth shows the stupa clearly and GE also has the border more or less at the same place as where the latest ESRI map shows the border. No idea why the old Thai military map showed the border much more to the south and why now suddenly the border is shown further up north.

Will put a trip report with pictures on the RideAsia forum and will let you know when it is up together with the URL.

With regard to the 1967 Opium War Site Visit, this probably will be next week - still haven't decided if I start in Chiangkhong and then work myself down to Vientiane or do the trip the other way round as I have some GPS mapping to do in a few places to update my Laos GPS map (will go in my truck).



Rod Page

Jan 7, 2010
This arrived from davidfl yesterday:


There's more than just drug-running for travellers in this wonderful region. Not just beside Chiang Mai province but indeed along the full length of the Thai-Burma border the multitude of ethnic armies there have been recently recruiting & buying arms & ammunition in anticipation of a full-out attack by the Burmese military junta who are seeking to compel by force all the (nationalistically minded) ethnic armies to join a single border-control squad.


Dec 9, 2008

Fascinating stuff. I live so close to many of these locations, so will be looking closer for the villages and places you note, on future runs. That bit about the white chedi is really interesting......

Thanks for posting


Oct 23, 2009
Rod Page;272710 wrote: This most interesting link covering the (heroin) drug trade over several decades by none other than the leading expert on the topic, Alf Mc Coy, was just sent to me by Ron Webb.

So guess who has been the king-pin in the world's heroin trade for decades!

Yes, these are fascinating informations, particularly when rambling the GT. My McCoy is second edition (2002), I am curious to know how things evolved, in the region, in the 10 last years. The "energetic" Taksin action was variously appreciated ... then he was gone! I have crossed some mules, in Laos mountains, a couple of days ago, they seemed to do harmless business. I am always interested in additional references. Thank you for the link.

Rod Page

Jan 7, 2010
Certain Matters Continue (gleaned from 'The Economist')

Chiang Saen's serenity was shattered on 5th October last by the sight of corpses floating down the river.

Thirteen Chinese from two commercial vessels had been shot dead near Chiang Saen & their bodies thrown overboard.

Onboard 920,000 amphetamine tablets were found. Subsequent investigations saw nine Thai officers charged with murder; thai authorities insist the group acted for known drug-lords...............


Staff member
Jan 16, 2003
Chiang Khong
Rod Page;273619 wrote: Certain Matters Continue (gleaned from 'The Economist')

Chiang Saen's serenity was shattered on 5th October last by the sight of corpses floating down the river.

Thirteen Chinese from two commercial vessels had been shot dead near Chiang Saen & their bodies thrown overboard.

Onboard 920,000 amphetamine tablets were found. Subsequent investigations saw nine Thai officers charged with murder; thai authorities insist the group acted for known drug-lords...............

The full story
if ever the full story will be known.


Staff member
Jan 16, 2003
Chiang Khong
Davidfl;273647 wrote: The full story
if ever the full story will be known.

A bit more news on this amazing story:


Yesterday, ASTV Manager Online, that has for years been reporting on news in the Golden Triangle, presented a clearer (but still incomplete) picture of what happened to the two Chinese cargo ships and their crew last October.

According to the report, the two ships were seized by Naw Kham, “the freshwater pirate”, who has been running a protection racket in the area since 2007, on 4 November. One of the crew women had then made a call to Thailand’s Chiang Saen to inform about what had taken place. This had sealed the fate of herself and the rest of the crew, it says.

On the next day, the two boats were stormed and taken by the Thai Army’s Pha Mueng Task Force.

On 6 October, Pha Mueng and the Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) officials held a press conference to explain the previous day’s events.

According to them, Pha Mueng received information at 06:00 on 5 October about the hijacking of the two boats and had accordingly organized a team to intercept them.

At 10:30, the two ships turned up and seeing the Thai officials trying to head them off, the unidentified armed men on the ships fired at the officials and later escaped in a speedboat. The catch, Pha Mueng and ONCB said, included 1 dead armed man and 920,000 pills of “yaba” (methamphetamines).

On 7 October, the dead crewmen and women started floating up on the river one after another.

On 28 October, Thai police summoned 9 Pha Mueng officers to face two charges: killing of 13 Chinese crewmen and women and concealing evidence, which the officers had promptly denied.

However, there are still two Jigsaw pieces missing, the report says: two well known men living in the nearby Maesai district: “Uncle N” and “Mr S”, who is Uncle N’s relative. (A source in Maesai told SHAN “Uncle N” was none other than Olarn Somphongphan aka Chamras Phacharoen, a known “Chao Paw” (Godfather) in the district.

Due to the disappearance of the two who are believed to have gone underground, at least three questions remain unanswered:

Where did the drugs originate?
Who seized the boats and killed the crew?
Who would be the recipient of the drugs?

A local who wished to remain anonymous said one way to find it out is to look at the year’s events that had made headlines in the area and piece them together:

4 April 2011
A ship belonging to Kings Romans Casino on the Laotian side of the Mekong seized and 19 crewmen abducted. Zhao Wei, the casino owner, was reported to have paid a hefty B 22 million ($730,000) ransom to Naw Kham

21 September 2011
Burmese and Laotian security forces attacked Naw Kham’s men at Sri Dorn Mee island, 25 km north of the Triangle. 20 of his men were said to have been killed, while 4 of the wounded came to Chiangrai for medical treatment

26 September 2011
Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister announced that Kings Romans was raided and 20 sacks of yaba pills were seized

5 October 2011
Pha Mueng seized two cargo ships, one either belonging to Zhao Wei or his associate Ah Ming

Updated (1 December 2011)
According to ASTV report, 30 November, there were 4 boats manned by an unknown armed group escorting the two cargo ships into Thai waters on 5 October. 9 Thai officers who are under investigation meanwhile say they had only fired warning shots.


Dec 6, 2005
Thanks you especially to Rod, and then to everyone else who has contributed to this thread since...

It has been a great read, but I must say it has done nothing to quell my current wanderlust, which alas must go unsatisfied for the near future...

Thanks again Rod,



Nov 3, 2011
As a merchant navy officer myself, this is a heartbreaking story. Pirates boarding a ship is akin to burglars coming into your home.
Very sad.


Dec 9, 2008
And some more news today 12 Dec 11;


CHIANG RAI: Three Burmese soldiers were killed during a clash with an armed group of criminals on the Mekong River during an international joint river patrol, according to security sources.
The sources said a joint patrol force of Burmese and Lao soldiers clashed with a group of criminals believed to be led by Nor Kham, leader of a border drug gang, yesterday at Ban Don Sam Pu about 20km north of the Golden Triangle, near the spot where 13 Chinese sailors were killed on the river on Oct 5.
The clash took place as China sent armed police on 11 boats to escort nine private cargo ships sailing from Guanlei port in Yunnan to Chiang Saen port in Chiang Rai, with Burmese and Lao soldiers deployed to provide security along the Mekong River.
China has deployed more than 300 armed police to patrol the Mekong in boats in collaboration with Burma, Thailand and Laos after the death of the sailors. Thai authorities will join river patrols from Guanlei port in China to the Golden Triangle and they will be solely responsible for patrols from the triangle to Chiang Saen port.
The 13 sailors were killed on a section of the river south of China's border, raising concerns in Beijing for the safety of crew and cargo sailing south through an area rife with drug warfare and smuggling.
Thai police have detained nine soldiers suspected of killing the Chinese sailors.
The nine officers, attached to the Third Army Region's Pha Muang Task Force, were charged with murder and tampering with evidence.
They denied the charges and maintained a drug-trafficking gang from Shan State in Burma led by Nor Kham was responsible.
One initial account says the nine army officers intercepted the Hua Ping and Yu Xing 8 ships as they entered the stretch of the Mekong and found 920,000 methamphetamine pills. When the bodies of the sailors turned up in the water, the soldiers became murder suspects.
Pol Maj Gen Sitthiporn Srichanthap, deputy chief of the Police Region 5, yesterday said the case against the nine soldiers had now been submitted to the Office of the Attorney General for consideration.
A team of prosecutors and police have been set up to look into the case and they have made good progress, Pol Maj Gen Sitthiporn said. The investigators would still need to question some witnesses in foreign countries, he said.


Staff member
Jan 16, 2003
Chiang Khong

Book Review: Cashing In across the Golden Triangle
Thursday, 22 December 2011 09:24 Reinhard Hohler

Thein Swe & Paul Chambers:
Cashing In across the Golden Triangle
Published in 2011 by Mekong Press, Chiang Mai, 192 pages, Baht 450
A Book Review by Reinhard Hohler, Chiang Mai (21.12.2011)

The study “Cashing In across the Golden Triangle” began in 2005 as an idea to understand Thailand’s economy in the North and is a comprehensive analysis of Thailand’s northern border trade with China, Laos, and Myanmar. The book’s cover dramatically shows a Chinese freighter at the port of Chiang Saen in Thailand’s Chiang Rai Province, hinting on the ever-growing influence of China there. Due to Mekong Press in Chiang Mai, the book is just out in the right time, when China also flexes its muscle into Laos and Myanmar.

The authors Burmese Dr. Thein Swe and American Dr. Paul Chambers are occupied with research at the South East Asian Institute of Global Studies at Payap University in Chiang Mai and are well-prepared to give a valuable overview and assessment of the impact of the new transnational road networks called the “North-South Economic Corridor” (NSEC), which was masterly created by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in Manila/Philippines within the framework of the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) Project since 1992.

The book’s contents are divided into a foreword, preface, introduction, eleven chapters, and conclusion with an appendix, notes, bibliography, and last not least and index. There are also a list of tables and figures, abbreviations, and two helpful maps.
While the foreword was written by the “Father of the GMS” Japanese Noritada Morita, in the preface and introduction the authors note the origins of the Golden Triangle, where today the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet. Being for a long time an important focus of the narcotics trade, the Golden Triangle has been finally developed to promote trade and logistics, including electricity, communications, agriculture, and tourism. The authors explain that there are a dozen questions to ask, especially how have the new routes R3A through Shan State/Myanmar and R3B through Laos influenced and affected Thailand’s border trade with China.

To facilitate discussion, in Chapter One the authors examine different theories on cross-border trade and regional co-operation and highlight “postclassical realism” and sub-regional economic zones (SREZ), while in Chapter Two they survey Thailand’s general role in regionalism and border trade in the Mekong River Basin. In this context, they mention that Bangkok intends to establish Mae Sai, Chiang Saen, and Chiang Khong – all in Chiang Rai Province – as special economic zones. Chiang Saen is important for the free passage of commercial ships on the Lancang/Mekong River up to Guanlei in Xishuangbanna/China and further on.

Chapter Three traces the border trade between Myanmar’s Tachilek and Thailand’s Mae Sai, mentioning ethnic Chinese business networks and “casino” tourism, while Chapter Four follows the route all the way from Mae Sai to Mongla via Kengtung in Eastern Shan-State (275km), where trafficking in people, wildlife and narcotics is still rampant. Interesting to note is that international tourists cannot normally cross the Myanmar/China border behind Mongla to Daluo.

In Chapter Five, there is described in detail the border trade between Houayxai/Laos and Chiang Khong/Thailand. Also, there is a nice photograph of the new upcoming Friendship Bridge (page 75) where around a growing Chinese presence is already felt. Furthermore, Chapter Six discusses the ramifications of the route from Chiang Khong to the Boten/Lao-Mohan/China border and further on to Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan Province. Actually, Boten Golden City is – “pure and simple” – a Chinese town (see photograph on page 87). In the near future, a bus service should take only some 24 hours to connect Bangkok with Kunming (1,943km)!

Chiang Saen comes into the picture in Chapter Seven as a river portal linking Thailand to China. The authors mention China’s damming of the Lancang/Mekong River and the ambitious “Kings Romans of Laos ASEAN Economic & Tourism Development Zone’’ (see photograph on page 111). By the way, the use of gaming seems to become the engine of economic growth. Thus, in Chapter Eight and Nine, the importance of Chiang Rai Province as Northern Thailand’s gateway to China is highlighted in close competition to Chiang Mai, which until now still remains the economic core of Thailand’s North.

Last not least, there is now a kind of “Economic Quadrangle” not to be underestimated within the GMS, which also includes Cambodia and Vietnam further south. Political decentralization as well as labor migration and sociolinguistic challenges in Thailand will follow (see Chapter Ten and Eleven). In conclusion, if a kind of regional stability can be reached in the not-to-distant future, all the participating parties and countries in the GMS will “cash in” accordingly.

The very useful bibliography at the end of the book should encourage scholars and students alike to dig even deeper into this neglected but prominent theme of border trade and frontier commerce. Also, the book should not to be missed in any library with books about the GMS and the future of ASEAN or Southeast Asia.

Reinhard Hohler is a Ph.D. candidate of ethnology, geography and political science at Heidelberg University in Germany