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Newshawk: General Pulaski
Pubdate: 13 Mar 1999
Source: Associated Press
Copyright: 1999 Associated Press
Author: Steven Martin and Chris Fontaine, Associated Press Writers


MUANG SING, Laos (AP) The dealers hang around the edge of an open-air restaurant bustling with backpacking tourists, most of whom spent two days getting here over barely passable mountain roads.

They know why the foreigners have come. The least eye contact triggers a pantomimed puff on a pipe and insistent sales pitch: "Oh-pee-um! Oh-pee-um!"

Opium, at 50 cents a dose.

One by one, the tourists Americans, Canadians, Europeans, Australians, Japanese head off to smoke their fill through a bamboo pipe under a tree or at a makeshift den.

"I'm doing a drug tour of Southeast Asia," said Gareth, a 21-year-old Australian whose T-shirt is stained ocher from road dust. "I've been to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, but so far, Laos is tops."

Nestled in the Laotian highlands near China and Myanmar, Muang Sing is the hottest new stop on an informal but well-trod trail through Asia for travelers whose main aim isn't a suntan or the sights, but sampling the various ways of getting high.

The trail stretches as far as India and Nepal, from where hippie tourists in the 1970s took home stories about turning down cheap, fist-sized chunks of hashish since marijuana was freely available.

But the core trail for dope-seeking tourists nowadays is Thailand and Indochina. They arrive in Bangkok on cut-rate air tickets, check in at seedy guesthouses on Khao San Road, buy cheap tie-dye T-shirts and cotton trousers, and head out.

One of their stopping places is the $2-a-night Number 9 guesthouse formerly the Cloud 9 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Travelers there said a common odyssey can involve cavorting with the party drug Ecstasy at an all-night "rave" on a Thai island, followed by a trek through the "Golden Triangle" opium country in northern Thailand, then crossing into Laos.

For them, "Laos is tops" because opium is cheaper and more openly available and thus far police seem unsure how to handle the drug trekkers.

The trail then shifts to Vietnam, north to south, where narcotics are more discreet, then crosses into Cambodia, where marijuana can be had at a Phnom Penh market for $2.25 a pound.

"I heard smoking marijuana was OK and that you can do it in the street with no problem," said Charlotte, 23, a Frenchwoman puffing a cigar-sized joint as she lounged in a hammock at the Number 9.

The marijuana is so cheap and plentiful most travelers never smoke all they buy and leave the leftovers for others.

Relatively few drug travelers do the full circuit, and there are no statistics on their overall numbers.

Saengdaern Boonlert, president of the Trekking Association of Northern Thailand, an umbrella group of 100 tour companies, estimates that in Thailand alone drug travelers account for a fifth of the 150,000 people a year who take organized trips through the northern highlands.

Saengdaern likens the drug tourists to a few rotten fish stinking up the barrel.

"A group will go to a trekking operator and say, `We want to do a trek, but there has to be opium.' If the operator says no, they go find one who will," Saengdaern said.

"We've been talking with the police about this for 10 years," he added. "They say the only solution is to completely shut down trekking."

But treks are important to the local economy a three-day, two-night expedition typically runs $50 a person and most tourists never touch opium.

Drug travelers include a small minority of burnouts with thousand-yard stares. Gareth, the Australian in Muang Sing, was unable to talk of much besides opium, Ecstasy, speed and marijuana.

Most, however, are kids from affluent families taking a break from college, or young workers on a fling, indulging in what they see as adventure in an exotic locale where no one knows them.

They don't give full names to journalists, fearing attention from authorities when they head home.

Linda, 24, a Canadian, was making the tour after a year of teaching English in Japan. Wreathed in hill-tribe silver jewelry, she planned staying at Muang Sing a week on $5 to $10 a day.

She'd never smoked opium before. The first night, she was violently ill.

"It wasn't what I'd expected," she said, still pale the next morning. "I thought it was going to be a much more out-of-body sort of thing. I just felt like laying there and thinking. Any time I moved around, I thought I would get sick again."

Laotian communists shut down opium dens and most contact with the outside world after taking power in 1975. But visa controls have gradually eased and the government hopes to double the number of visitors to 1 million during 1999, which has been dubbed "Visit Laos Year."

One result is an influx of opium-seekers.

In Muang Sing, opium is sold by local addicts increasing their dependency on the drug for income but the whole town shares the prosperity. The tourists are the only source of hard currency.

"Not long ago, there was only one television and one generator in this town," said Seng Maka, who just opened a 10-room hotel. "Now there are many. Every year, the number of tourists is growing."

Police in Muang Sing show distaste for the scruffy travelers, but little sign of hassling them. Arresting tourists wouldn't promote Visit Laos Year.

But the U.N. Drug Control Program's representative in Laos, Halvor Kolshus, said at a news conference Feb. 23 that he had told officials that Laos risks a damaged image if it becomes seen as an opium haven.

"We have yet to receive a formal report from the narcotic authority regarding the matter and haven't reached any conclusion," said Sanya Abhay, vice president of the National Tourism Authority.

But if opium tourism "becomes a trend, it would be really bad for Visit Laos Year," Sanya said.

Authorities are working on brochures to warn foreigners of Laotian laws, Sanya said. Smoking opium is punishable by three to 10 years in jail; possession of less than a kilogram (2.2 pounds) is two to seven years.

Drug trekkers generally stay away from the countries that are toughest on drug use Singapore and Malaysia, which warn travelers as they disembark planes with signs announcing the death penalty applies to narcotics smugglers.

But drugs are illegal everywhere in Southeast Asia. Many travelers mistake their easy availability and infrequent arrests with official acceptance.

Thailand's prisons are filled with hundreds of foreigners serving life terms for drug trafficking in overcrowded cells where, former inmates say, eating rats and cockroaches is necessary to survive.

In a foreign environment they seldom understand, travelers seeking a big score can easily run afoul of guesthouse owners or the police, who may have a stake in the business.

Still, Cambodian police Gen. Skadavy Math Lyroun, deputy secretary general of the National Authority for Combatting Drugs, says drug-using backpackers are a low priority.

More important, he said, is rooting out police corruption -- rival gangs of anti-drug officers and military police battled with guns in Phnom Penh last year over drug turf and shutting down big drug shipments.

That will take a few years, the general estimates. Then, his plan is to move against low-level drug sellers and users, including foreigners.

"We know where they are," he said. "In the guesthouses, the night clubs and in the casinos. We still have time to change things."

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