Travel To Muang Sing, Laos

Opium And The End Of The World

I was traveling on a minibus in Laos with seven tribal Akha women. Laos is said to be the world’s 10th-poorest country. We were in what could be Laos’ poorest region, the remote northwest near the borders of China and Burma. These seven Akha women on the bus lived in tiny mountain villages without running water, without any plumbing at all. Their homes were thatched shacks with straw roofs. They burned wood for fuel.

As the saying goes, this wasn’t the end of the world, but we could see it from here.

So naturally these seven tribal women spent their bus time chattering on cell phones.

We were all headed to Muang Sing. I wanted to see Muang Sing’s huge local market. Akha and other hill tribe women gather at a 6 a.m. market every day to sell vegetables, fish, meat, noodles, and rice. I was also told they sell the area’s most traditional product: opium.

Opium’s sordid history in East Asia started with the British, who, in the 18th century, shipped opium from British India to China. Opium solved a big problem for the British in that China had much to sell the British but nothing to buy from the British. Enter opium, and, voila!, the balance-of-trade problem was solved. The Chinese emperor’s later ban on opium imports led to the opium wars.

Opium production in Laos flourished when the region formed part of French Indochina, and later during the Vietnam War. Twenty years ago Laos was the world’s third-largest opium producer. The raw material for the French Connection in Marseilles came from here. And back 20 years ago, Muang Sing’s market was opium central.

A local woman told a friend of mine she was so happy for Muang Sing’s new hospital. “Before the hospital the only doctor in town prescribed only one medicine: opium,” she said.

As I wandered around the market elderly Akha women approached me trying to sell woven bracelets. Young backpackers had told me that the bracelet women actually sell opium, hashish, and “ganja” (marihuana), using the bracelets as a front. But they never made me–a white-haired old guy–a direct offer. For my part, I never inquired.

Estimates vary as to how many locals in northwestern Laos still smoke opium, mostly old men who became addicted during the war and its aftermath. The Lao government pretty much leaves them alone, but comes down very, very hard on outsiders who pursue the drug.

I figure eradication efforts here have been largely successful.

While at market I saw a bus come in from China. The bus stopped and offloaded directly at market, rather than in the bus station across the street. Passengers spent 10 minutes or so retrieving their cargo. Vicki and I entered Laos on a similar bus last week, and in our case the Lao customs people searched neither passengers nor cargo.

On my market visit I saw perhaps 10 women and girls with jugs of cooking oil. They poured from large jugs, possibly filled with cheap, used cooking oil from China, into smaller bottles and sold them. I wonder how much money hill tribe women can make taking oil from big bottles and selling it in little bottles, especially with so much competition. Very, very little, I figure.

Muang Sing’s market overflowed with Chinese goods, and the items I checked (water, whisky, noodles, cookies, and other snacks) had about the same price as we saw last week in China. Apparently borders these days mean little, just lines on a faraway map, as carrying goods across adds little to the cost.

Finally, to my surprise at the end of the day all of Muang Sing erupted in the Chinese Mid-Autumn festival. At the Buddhist temple devotees paid their respects to the Buddha, leaving money and flowers in baskets. Tables offered carnival games. The local municipality presented a fireworks show. Unlike every other fireworks show I’ve seen, this one went on all night. Canons blasting fireworks into the black sky woke me up at 1 a.m. and again at 3:30 in the morning.

In the early morning I revisited Muang Sing’s market, and then took the bus back to Luang Nam Tha, just under two hours away. We traveled on bumpy roads that curved through the end of the world.

I felt lucky that I could afford to live without pouring cooking oil from big bottles into little bottles.

Paul Terhorst