The only spare rooms were in the local brothel. My mate’s girl had a club foot. We lay there in bed that night – there was only a thin partition between the rooms – and listened to the sound of machine guns quite close by. It was an incentive to stay laying flat.
The opium caravan was guarded by Kuomintang soldiers from Burma. I don’t know which side of the border we were on at the time, no one could ever tell. Maybe you could today, with a GPS. But it still wouldn’t matter.
We spent a week in the jungle, carefully detouring around the camps of the insurgents, sharing cigarettes with the soldiers guarding the caravans when they stopped for a rest, their AK-47’s slung over their shoulders. The smallest caravan had fifty pack mules. Our guide was a bespectacled Thai with a wicked sense of humour who people said worked for the CIA on the side. He certainly knew his way around.
We stayed up in the Golden Triangle for about ten days, sleeping in the hill villages overnight, smoking opium, watching them harvest the poppies the next day. They never touched opium themselves. It was just for the old people and the sick, they said. They grew it because they were farmers and that was the crop the Chinese traders paid them the most money for.
They were Meo, Aka and Lahu. They were very friendly people. By way of greeting one of them pulled down his pants and bent over to show us the abscess on his butt. They wanted to know if we had medicine. I apologized and said no, we didn’t, but that my mate Alan would kiss it better.
That night we listened to the young girls pounding rice in the dark. Then one of the young men excused himself and went outside. We heard him talking to one of the girls. Then the pounding stopped. He was clearly a smooth talker and she was obviously good at pounding rice, because it’s a very important quality in a wife up there.
In those days the triangle provided the base for most of the world’s heroin. In the last ten years, of course, it has switched to Afghanistan. Wars enable drugs, and they finance them. It’s always been that way.
But when I sat down to write the OPIUM series I didn’t have any political point to make. Sometimes it shocks people to learn the role that American government agencies have played in the development of the drug trade they are supposed to be fighting. But no book is ever going to change that. No nothing is ever going to change that.
It was years later that I came to write the books. I went to Laos and Vietnam and Hong Kong, interviewed triad and drug squad detectives in Kowloon, old time Corsican traffickers in Vientiane.
But the interest first started with the sickly sweet smell of opium in a musty bamboo hut somewhere in the Burmese jungle.
It s about a man who sells his soul to the devil, and the woman who loves him. It is about getting everything you ever dreamed of and living to regret it.
It is a book about their love affair, but it is also about my love affair with Asia. I hope you’ll read it, and live with Baptiste and Noelle through that other time, and that other place, and perhaps also wonder what you would have done if you had been faced with those very same temptations.
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