A Mekong River fisherman casts his nets as the sun sets at Chiang Saen in the Golden Triangle. (Christine H. O'Toole/For The Washington Post)

Moonlit Caribbean harbors, ritzy Swiss resorts, jungle mountains. When you get right down to it, pirates, smugglers, swashbucklers and rogues are probably the world’s most discerning travelers, ferreting out the most stunning locales to conduct business in. Case in point: Southeast Asia’s lush Golden Triangle, synonymous with the opium trade and best explored by motorbike.

Buzzing along northern Thailand’s Route 1 toward the green peaks along the Mekong River felt like a road trip in Hawaii. Hot sun poured into the valley. Rainbows glanced off white clouds. We sped through a warm breeze. Our euphoria was appropriate, as we were on our way to the Hall of Opium.

Chiang Rai, Thailand, and the Golden Triangle area: Where to go and what to know

The high was temporary — in about eight minutes, we’d be lost and pleading for English directions — but the laid-back vibe persisted. Despite the region’s dark reputation, we found Chiang Rai, Thailand’s northernmost province, wide open and welcoming.

The city of Chiang Rai has an airport, a mall, two universities, a four-lane highway, 200,000 residents and roughly 100,000 motorbikes. It was soon to be 100,001.

We’d arrived from Chiang Mai, 95 miles south, by bus, then trudged up the entrance boulevard to Mae Fah Luang University, a half-hour north of the Chiang Rai city center. As we tried to ignore a thick dead snake by the roadside, our host buzzed up on his scooter.

“You’re in king cobra country,” Bill, an American teacher, said with a grin.

It was country, for sure. At the end of the monsoon season, the rural landscape shaded from yellowing rice fields to blue-green mountains. We’d heard the region described as the Switzerland of Thailand, and the comparison seemed apt — with the addition of elephants. And, of course, snakes.

With plenty of sun and rainfall, poppies grow well here. So does everything from rice to pineapple, with the advantage that certain crops can be grown very discreetly. The hill country, home to ethnic tribes such as the long-necked Karen, is steep, the roads few and winding. If you were inclined to collect the poppies’ seedpods, squeeze out the milky sap, cook it into opium (or its rock-star incarnation, heroin) and smuggle it elsewhere for cash — well, yes, this would be the place.

Although recently overtaken by Afghanistan, this region produced the largest share of the world’s opium supply for centuries. Burma, Laos and Thailand continue trying to eradicate poppy cultivation with security crackdowns and economic development schemes that include the Hall of Opium itself. But eliminating opium production along the Mekong may be wishful thinking.

Shortly before we visited in October, 13 bodies were found floating downstream here, victims of a mysterious attack on Chinese cargo ships by Thai soldiers. Some of the dead sailors had been bound, gagged or blindfolded. Nine Thai soldiers belonging to an antidrug task force were arrested, and China announced that it would join stepped-up river patrols.

By contrast, our explorations couldn’t have been more chill.

“Pah!” commanded Bill in Thai: Let’s go! He was urging us forward on our first morning’s adventure, a motorbike shakedown cruise. Driven by students in uniform and families with babies riding in the lead, Honda Waves are essential accessories here, Bill insisted. “You need one,” he told my husband, Jim.

I resisted renting my own. A highway safety tableau above an intersection neatly illustrated my opinion: a headless dummy astride a broken motorbike, both liberally splashed with red paint. On my first ride, I clutched Jim and the handrail with a death grip. But by the second day, I was balancing a load of laundry as we rode. By the fourth, we were trading sips of fragrant local coffee while we perched at a traffic light.

For $5 a day, the bike turned us into locals. It also put us within an hour’s ride of a week’s worth of memorable day trips. Pah.

First up: visits to the White Temple and Black House. Most local temples are ancient, created in the regional Lanna style. But at these secular shrines, two famous Thai artists have turned Buddhist symbolism upside down. Chalermchai Kositpipat’s glittering White Temple incorporates murals and sculptures studded with mirror shards and pop-culture references, including Keanu Reeves and George W. Bush. At the austere Black House, Thawan Duchanee lays eerie banquet tables with 10-foot-long python skins, surrounded by empty thrones made of animal horns, bones and hides. (Another dozen artists have opened their galleries and studios in a newly mapped tourism effort.)

On other jaunts, we rode and then hiked to Khun Korn, a roaring 230-foot waterfall in a national park. We swam in deserted mountain lakes and punched our elephant-ride ticket at the Ruammit Village, where we lurched along the Mae Kok River. But it was a trip to a hot spring that finally propelled us up 6,000 feet to opium territory.

“The hot springs? If you are riding there, you must go on to Doi Mae Salong,” said Sudpatapee Waengsee, the cherubic hotel manager at the Wanasom resort. (Throughout our visit at the spanking new resort, we had the staff’s full attention: We were often the only guests.) When his English explanations failed, he rushed online to find a description of the village above the hot springs. The mountaintop (doi means mount) embodied another bit of local opium lore.

Aside from the checkpoint where soldiers waved us through and the ancient gold temple, Mae Salong looked Alpine. We corkscrewed up the ridgetop road, whooping as each turn revealed a steeper drop-off. Mandarin signs and satellite dishes announced that we had arrived in the Chinese village, where tea has replaced opium as the cash crop.

During the 1960s, a splinter of the Chinese Nationalist Army found its way to the region. Its leader, Khun Sa, ruled as an opium warlord for two decades, fleeing across the nearby Burmese border after the Thai army defeated his militia. Since 1982, a government development project has encouraged the Chinese descendants to go straight, growing oolong on tea terraces. The results spread down the hillsides as we coasted into the dusty courtyard of the Mae Salong Resort, where a tired monkey swung with a chain on its ankle.

The collection of drab cliffside bungalows looked like a 1960s camp. It was. Unwittingly, we’d stumbled into the former Nationalist militia training camp, now a cheap refuge for backpackers. Faded photographs near the restaurant recalled the original Kuomintang settlers. At a cafe on an overlook, we made a rest stop, sipping obligatory cups of tea. My husband returned from the outhouse beaming. “That had the most spectacular view of any men’s room I’ve seen,” he declared firmly.

Despite the setting, the tea plantations aren’t attracting crowds yet. But Thailand’s clearly betting on the mystique of the Golden Triangle to boost tourism. The development project, with royal backing, has poured asphalt, concrete and money into the province. On our ride to the Hall of Opium, within sight of Burma and Laos, we saw the evidence.

When we stopped at a shop to check our directions, a few minutes past the village of Mae Chan, the owner greeted us with a beaming “Sawatdee-kaaaaa!” Shaking her head at our questions, she ran for a better English speaker, who ambled out to the curb. We’d missed the main turnoff for the Hall, in Chiang Saen, he told us cheerfully. But we could continue north to a new road that would bring us straight to the museum.

“You will find it,” he said confidently. “And if you don’t, you come back here and spend the night at my house.”

A half-hour later, we turned east on a road sizzling with fresh asphalt. We swung past trucks and rice fields until we slowed behind a steamroller and a highway work crew who waved us forward onto smooth red clay. We bumped ahead of the roadmakers, heading downhill toward a wide brown vista: the Mekong. A massive masonry sign proclaimed the entrance to the Hall of Opium, with a royal Thai crest.

The museum was vast.

Until we entered the $10 million stucco and marble edifice, we had expected — okay, even secretly hoped for— a ramshackle museum with sketchy exhibits and a kitschy gift shop. Facing an empty parking lot was a dignified hip-roofed structure nearly as large as the Smithsonian Castle, stuccoed, landscaped and blazing in the afternoon heat. For our Western-style $10 admission fee, we were about to get the official history of the drug.

Inside, we plunged into a long, evocative tunnel, its curved walls carved with figures suggesting sleep, suffering, dreams and danger.

Apart from a few pipes, bowls and uncomfortable porcelain headrests from Chinese opium dens, the Hall’s galleries proved weak on actual artifacts but strong on the weird geopolitical bedfellows that the trade had produced over the past 300 years.

The exhibits argue, in fluent English and Thai, that the British addiction to tea engendered a massive Chinese addiction to opium. (The finger-pointing toward the West is perhaps explained by the “technical assistance” credited to China for this section of the museum.) The British East India Co. held a 50-year monopoly on selling Indian opium; by the 1820s, Chinese smugglers were buying 900 tons of opium a year. As addiction grew, the Chinese emperor protested the West’s illegal sales; the English attacked. Two Opium Wars would follow, with Hong Kong as a British prize.

The museum ventures beyond the colonial history of opium to medicinal history and global addiction. An incongruous photo gallery of overdosed celebrities and a “Hall of Reflection” deliver a didactic footnote. Standing in front of mirrors, we were invited to meditate on our own anti-drug resolutions before departing. That’s important, Hall manager Prasert Thep-intha told me: He said that 100,000 guests visit annually, most of them local schoolchildren on field trips. As the government works to reduce supplies of opium, it hopes that drug education can also reduce demand.

We couldn’t leave without touching the edge of the Golden Triangle, where the Ruak River from Burma meets the Mekong. Five minutes later, we hopped on a long-tail boat, piloted by a 13-year-old, to speed along the border with the setting sun in our eyes. Fishermen cast nets from open skiffs, and a few cargo boats chugged slowly eastward. The three neighboring countries have more than the river in common. Each has contributed one grandiose casino to an otherwise blank shoreline.

We left the river in our taillights and made our way back along dark roads. The fluorescent lights of market stalls welcomed us back to Chiang Rai. We slurped huge bowls of khao soi, a stew of glistening noodles in curry paste and coconut milk. Then we used the chopsticks to trace the next morning’s jaunt on the map. A waterfall swim? The ostrich farm?

We had finally gotten the hang of Chiang Rai. There was, simply, no rush. We’d gas up the bikes and decide tomorrow.


Chiang Rai, Thailand, and the Golden Triangle area: Where to go and what to know

O’Toole is a freelance writer in Pittsburgh. Her Web site is www.christinehotoole.com.