Drugs in Asia and the Golden Triangle

Soldiers patrolling opium fields in Myanmar

A massive drug operation is based out of the Golden Triangle region of SE Asia. Heroin was once the biggest moneymaker here, but methamphetamine (‘yaba’) has taken over in a big way. It fuels the growing appetites of slum dwellers in Thailand and a burgeoning middle class in China.

The Golden Triangle’s rise as an illicit drug producer began in the 1940s (post WWII). Cut off from sources in India and China by the war, the French Opium Monopoly reversed its policy of suppression and encouraged poppy cultivation among its colony’s hill tribes, particularly the Hmong of Laos and Tonkin.

Between 1940 and 1944, opium production in the region grew from 7.4 tons to 60.6 tons annually.

Today, Thailand’s northern borderland region is a key part of the Heisenberger-era Golden Triangle. Drugs get produced and packed in the freewheeling northern reaches of Myanmar. Thailand also serves as the gateway for old-school heroin, bound for the streets of Tokyo, Hong Kong, Sydney, Shanghai and other major cities in the region.

Permpong Chaowalit, Secretary General of the Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB), told reporters that Thailand is the center of a massive narcotics industry. First, precursor chemicals get shipped to Myanmar from China and India. Then, bundles of meth, heroin, marijuana and amphetamines get regularly smuggled south into Thailand for international distribution.

Drug Shipping Routes from Myanmar

In Myanmar, armed ethnic groups such as the Wa and Kachin control the drug trade. They also control smuggling routes into China, in cooperation with officials on the Chinese side. However, deals are in place to not smuggle drugs into China, and the ethnic groups are careful not to cross that line.

Therefore, drugs for sale in China also pass through Thailand before getting rerouted.

It is believed that the drugs are actually produced near the Chinese border, and then shipped south to the southern stronghold of the United Wa State Army (believed by Thai and American authorities to be the top drug overlords in Myanmar). From the Thai side of the border, Wa Army camps are visible.

Once the drugs are delivered to the Thai side, they’re sent to either Bangkok or Phuket. In Phuket, yachts are sometimes used to smuggle the drugs overseas. Some parcels then head further south towards Indonesia and Australia, some go to China and the rest are believed to go to Europe.

According to a report in the New York Times, the most lucrative product are yaba tablets, of which around 1.4 billion are believed to be produced annually.

Expatriates and Drugs in Asia

While expats having been coming to Asia to get high for decades, recent crackdowns makes drug holidays a much more dangerous proposition in 2015.

Today, there are thousands of expats in Thai jails for drugs. It’s essentially a death sentence: crowded conditions, scraps for food and extreme danger. Your embassy may visit you, but they won’t do much else. You can either buy your way out or do the time.

This reporter spoke to a drug user named ‘Mitch’ in Bangkok about the drug scene there:

“I’ve seen people with drugs like weed, shroom shakes and opium. But few places tolerate it. Thais really believe it destroys families and societies. Thais will always rat you out, and often make deals with the cops to split the money you pay them to avoid jail.”

Drugs available to expats in Asia

  • Marijuana: it grows locally in many places in the continent, including India, SE Asia and China. It’s sometimes processed into hash, mainly in Nepal, India and Afghanistan. A local appetite for high-end bud started in Japan, and is now growing in popularity among affluent young Chinese.
  • Yaba: this variant of speed was originally manufactured by the Nazis to help keep their troops alert. The drug usually comes in pill form (often red/orange, sometimes green) and produces a potent mix of visuals and intensely euphoric highs. Be warned that this stuff is extremely addictive (comedowns are harsh), and with prolonged use, your brain will turn to mush. Thai addicts can be easily spotted, just on the basis of how filthy and brain-addled they appear.
  • Opium: poppies are planted in Myanmar in September and October, then harvested in February or March. A few days after the petals have fallen, the outside of the flower pod is scored with a three-bladed knife, to exude a white, sticky sap. This oxidizes and turns into a brown gum, which is scraped off, formed into balls, then wrapped in banana or mulberry leaves and buried to cure. Wholesale, opium sells in the Golden Triangle for between USD $300-$500 a kilo. The general effect of the drug depresses the higher centers of the brain, which generates euphoria. Sensations of fear, apprehension and inhibition are reduced, the sense of ego is expanded, and there is a general sense of well-being.
  • Heroin: about 50% of the opium produced in the Golden Triangle is converted into heroin, although it takes six kilos of opium to make one kilo of heroin. A kilo of heroin sells for around $1,000 in the Golden triangle. By the time it reaches Bangkok, it’s valued at around $5,500. Be careful of this stuff: when heroin first infiltrates a person’s body, the brain’s natural chemistry reacts with the heroin toxins to create what users describe as a feeling of ‘euphoria’. Once a user comes down off the high, the desire to reclaim that feeling becomes an obsession. With repeated use, the body develops a higher tolerance to the drug, meaning that more is needed to experience the same high.
  • Cocaine: mostly smuggled into Asian countries through the airport or postal parcels. For some reason, in many countries it seems like Singaporeans and Nigerians have cornered this market. In all Asian cities that draw expats you can find coke. Expect it to be of around 20% purity and around $100 per gram.
  • Ketamine: it’s a horse tranquilizer, which produces “womb-like feelings of bliss combined with intense visuals”. It’s very popular among locals in both Thailand and China, especially among high society clubbers. It’s usually snorted, but can also be smoked “chase the dragon” style. Most of it comes into countries from Pakistan and India.

Getting caught with drugs in Asia

Expat women arrested for drugs in Cambodia
Australian Ann Yoshe Taylor, right, and French teen Charlene Savarino, busted for drugs in Phnom Penh

In Thailand and South Korea, possession is not the only way to get arrested for drugs. Cops can demand a hair or urine test at any time. If it’s positive, you get charged for possession.

Here’s a clip from Reddit about a guy with drugs in his system ordered by Bangkok street cops to take urine test after a routine traffic stop. The took him into the toilet and made him drop his pants:

“They bring me back into their little toilet and keep the door open while the guy practically molests me. He’s pulling on my dick, cupping my balls and checking around my asshole. Still can’t piss.

Wait a little while and at this stage I know I can piss. So I piss the smallest amount I could into their jar… then he tells me he’s going to check for Marijuana.

He pours a wee drop onto this dipstick drug test… 20 seconds later, we have a winner. And it’s not me. Sign is positive.

At this stage they are telling me I will have to go to court and then to jail for 6-12 months. But once there is a mention of 80,000 Baht.”

German busted on Khao San Road

Here is another account from ‘Peter’, a German tourist who got busted at a guesthouse near Khao San Road in Bangkok:

“I was having a smoking holiday in Bangkok, and smoking only in my room. One day, I heard heavy boots climb the stairs. Someone banged on the door. It was the police. I had around 5 grams in my room, plus a bong. They left the stuff, drove me to an ATM, and demanded 80% of my bank balance.

I paid them around USD$1,000. Then they let me go, and told me never to smoke again.”

Who controls the SE Asia Drug Trade?

Pasuk Phongpaichit, a Cambridge University-trained economist and author of the book Guns, Girls, Gambling, Ganja: Thailand’s Illegal Economy and Public Policy, has told the media that Thailand’s drug trade is controlled by Thailand’s elite. She cited a case in 2005 in which a police raid was conducted on the home of notorious Thai yaba baron Surachai Ngoenthongfou (aka Bang Ron). Though the target escaped, he left behind mounds of evidence. Cops seized 758,000 pills, and documents linking the dealer with several high-ranking policemen, army officers and influential members of Parliament.

One officer told the media: “We found evidence at Bang Ron’s house that proves connections between uniformed men and officials that are involved in his network.” Surprisingly, no “influential” members were arrested, although several officers were either demoted or transferred out of province.

Drugs laws in Asia

  • Thailand: The punishment for possession of marijuana is a maximum of 5 years in prison and/or a maximum fine of 100,000 baht (USD $2,800). Thus, cops are always on the lookout for suckers that they can demand a bribe of anything less than the official fine.
  • Philippines: Harsh laws are in place that prohibit the consumption and trade of marijuana, crystal meth, ecstasy, and opium/ heroin, but enforcement is lax. However, there are tons of poor people in the Philippines and drug stings (they sell to you, tell the cops, then collect a fee) are common. If the cops pinch you, expect them to drive you right past the local jail to an ATM.
  • Singapore: Traffickers (2 grams of heroin, 3 grams of coke, 15 grams of marijuana, 10 grams of hash) face a mandatory death penalty. For consumption, it’s a maximum of 10 years in jail and/or a fine of S$20,000 (USD $13,000).
  • Malaysia: This is not a good place to get your fix on. From the US Department of State : “Malaysian legislation provides for a mandatory death penalty for convicted drug traffickers. Individuals arrested in possession of 15 grams (1/2 ounce) of heroin or 200 grams (seven ounces) of marijuana are presumed by law to be trafficking in drugs.” In addition, there is a provision for caning as punishment for lesser offenses.
  • Cambodia: This is a good place to party: legally, persons caught consuming ‘narcotic plants or substances’ face a rather light imprisonment of between seven days to one month, plus a fine of between 25,000 riels to 100,000 riels’ (100,000 riels = roughly USD $25.00). — Cambodian drug laws PDF However, those caught trafficking (anything over 10 grams will be considered as such) face jail terms ranging from five years to life. Typically, you shouldn’t expect many hassles (nor police stings as in Thailand, where they’ll drain your ATM account in exchange for your freedom) if you keep a low profile and treat the locals respectfully.
  • Thailand: The punishment for possession of marijuana is a maximum of 5 years in prison and/or a maximum fine of 100,000 baht (USD $2,800). Thus, cops are always on the lookout for suckers that they can demand a bribe of anything less than the official fine.
  • Vietnam: Although traffickers face the death penalty, punishment for drug use is lax, and it is currently being proposed to make personal drug use and administrative violation (ie you pay a fine) rather than a criminal one.


There are a lot of drugs available in SE Asia, although the risks are severe. Common punters, if they choose to indulge in weed, should be prepared to get shaken down and deported at best or jailed at worst. Aficionados of the harder stuff (heroin, and yaba, mainly) should expect serious problems if caught or tested as positive.