During our recent weekend in the Golden Triangle, the Nikkei film crew asked if they could film the Hall of Opium museum, adjacent to the location where they filmed elephant conservation and elephant polo footage. It was very clear that was not possible for a host of reasons. However, we did sneak a picture of the exterior of the museum and having visited it in the past can attest that the museum is quite interesting and well worth a visit.
During the sixties and early seventies, the Golden Triangle was the heart of the opium trade for much of the world. Opium was grown by ethnic hill tribes in the nearby mountains of Thailand, Burma and Laos and exported through various routes to be refined into heroin. A popular export site was the otherwise quiet airstrip at the small village of Ban Houei Sai, Laos located across the border from Chiang Khong, Thailand, a short drive from the Hall of Opium museum. It was here that Corsican DC-3 chartered “commercial” aircraft flew raw opium to Saigon to be refined into more usable heroin. Passengers often lined up under the wings of a Lao Air Charter DC-3 to avoid the blistering sun while it was determined how many of them could be taken given the more precious opium cargo which would be loaded first.
Eventually, an increasing amount of the refined product wound up in the hands of U.S. troops in Vietnam becoming a serious problem in the long, dark days of the Vietnam War. Nonetheless, the proceeds of the opium trade enabled the Hmong ethnic people to fight a surrogate war on behalf of the U.S against the North Vietnamese in Laos. Air America, under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Development, provided logistical support to the Hmongs. The end result to the Hmong people was the loss of some 39,000 Hmong fighters in the war and some 230,000 others who suffered a similar fate following the cessation of “hostilities” resulting in their virtual eradication in Laos.
Vang Pao led the Hmong forces from their formation until their defeat in 1975. He is shown below in the early sixties in his jungle fatigues.
General Vang Pao managed to escape the fall of Laos in 1975 and live to the ripe old age of age 81 in Clovis, California though he continued to attempt to raise a force to go back home and create a democracy in Laos.
On our flight back to Texas, we saw the newly released movie “Kill the Messenger, “a “Hmong/Laos redux” in Nicaragua where allegedly cocaine was exported by unmarked DC-3’s to various places in the U.S. on behalf of the Contras under similar arrangements to those in the old Lao days. In order to accommodate the massive volumes of cocaine supply available to a rich man’s only market, the concept of a much cheaper cocaine/baking soda blended product called crack was created which quickly spread throughout impoverished neighborhoods in the U.S. The author has personal knowledge of the Laos days but never drew the comparison to the Nicaraguan repeat performance, a further example of American unintended drug addiction following subversive war finance efforts.
Check out the movie “Kill the Messenger” as the life of Gary Webb, the reporter who stumbled on the Contra story and broke it, did not work out much better than that of the Hmongs. Remember the refrain from the Pete Seeger/Joan Baez song “When will they ever learn?” A follow on question might be, where did all the Air America men go? A number of them likely went to South America flying “cargo” as one told me. However, today many of them are gone by natural causes or otherwise. Below is a picture of an Air America DC-3 or C-47 B-829, the technical term for the military version, in Laos.
The Air America pilots and kickers in Laos were, and those who remain with us, a brave, colorful, fun group of daring guys! A special remembrance to the Air America crew who spiraled a DC-3 down to the airstrip in Phnom Penh while dodging incoming Khmer Rouge rockets to rescue my friend Suphapong during the fall of Cambodia. Further thanks to Rocky who flew my friend Dick into Saigon in a DC-3 as it was falling to rescue his young brother-in-law and sister-in-law. Rock’s beverage and meal of choice the night before flying was Jack Daniels and a can of jalapenas with the last shot of Jack mixed with the remaining jalapena liquid for breakfast before departing in the morning. There you go tough guys!
In memory of the Hmong fighters and their Air America support system who both disappeared into oblivion forty years ago, The Elephant Story has acquired vintage Vietnam era jungle warfare jackets and decorated them with vintage Hmong fabric which are available on our website.