New Internationalist

Anything That Will Help With The Pain

Issue 140

new internationalist
issue 140 October 1984

Anything that will help with the pain

In the north of Thailand, hill-tribes like the Yeo grow and smoke their opium.
In the capital, Bangkok, people turn instead to heroin.
But everybody takes the Tamgai powders sold in the local shop.
Anything that will help with the pain. Debbie Taylor reports.

Blessed pipe of peace. Precious poppies. In August it’s fin dor, the first crop, when petal veils of crimson and white crumpled, flimsy drop away one by one from fat green seed-pod bellies. In February it’s fin bei, the main crop: flowers dipping and swaying like butterflies above the coarse stubble of winter’s corn harvest.

They grow waist-high so you have to bend a little to reach them, scoring their taut green skins with tiny curved knives. Three careful cuts and on to the next. The bitter white blood that seeps from the wounds will dry, sticky and brown by tomorrow: a tiny scrape of resin from each green belly, collected and wrapped in banana leaves. From one rai of poppies maybe three quarters of a kilo in banana-leaf bundles. From three quarters of a kilo maybe 1,500 baht (65 dollars).

You spend your whole life bending. But poppies are easy. It’s the paddy fields that kill you.

You must bend double till your wrists reach your ankles and you kiss your reflection in the muddy brown water. Each vibrant green seedling needs plucking and planting - from nursery pool to the churned-up mud of the irrigation fields. And the skin of your hands and feet bloats pale with water, while your back bends and burns in the sun.

Here is a Yeo hut. Inside it’s dark, the blackness pierced only by a needle of sunlight that forces itself in through a crack in the wall.

Outside that same sun sucks steam from the rain-soaked greenery. This is an untidy village, its huts squatting negligently in the mud, thatch dripping, pigs snuffling in doorways. How different from the trim teak houses, towering cleanly on stilts, neatly fenced, in the villages near the main road. In this Yeo village even the banana trees are ragged: their leaves hang brown and broken, dropping the last of the rain into the mud.

Inside, lying on a slatted bamboo platform, her face blurred in the golden glow of her oil lamp, is Liu. I, Liu, came to this place from the mountains, with my mother and my children, eight years ago when my husband sold our land and left me. Seven years ago I started to smoke. They said it was good for the pain.

Eyes intent, fingers deft, the tiny resin ball is rolled onto a long spoon to heat over the lamp’s flickering flame. The lorng-deng, the hunger begins at eight am. It’s a hunger no food will fill. If I don’t smoke I am weak, with no will to work; it’s a weakness in my body, my heart and my spirit. But when I smoke then I’m fin, I’m bin, I’m flying. In less than an hour I’m ready for work.

I remember my grandfather. He said smoking made him strong; strong enough to lean his weight behind the oxen 14 hours a day; ,forcing the plough to churn straight and deep through the heavy ground. Work on the rice fields kills you. You wake and your back aches a back ache you just can’t imagine. But you have to get up: the ploughing, the transplanting, the weeding, the harvest, won’t wait.

Here is the pipe heavy, carved, wooden lying in the litter, in the lamplight, on a soiled tin tray. There’s a cigarette too, and a stained silver spoon: a sachet of Tamgai pain power.

When I work I just smoke in the morning, but they only employ you at harvest: 12 hours of bending, bending, for 20 baht (90 cents). Pain powder’s two sachets for one baht, but I can smoke all day for five baht.

Outside the broken banana leaves drip in the sunlight. Inside Liu blacks out the day.

High on a hillside, in a flat space cleared deep in the jungle, where only government and CIA helicopters and smugglers’ mule trains can reach, there’s a fire and a big crowd. The Governor of the province is there, and the men from the US Drug Enforcement Agency; all watch with satisfaction as the people of Viengpapao hurl their pipes and their lamps into the flames.

The pipe makes you sick, says the Governor. He wants other things grown in the poppy fields like coffee, tobacco and tea. But he’s frightened to upset the hill people; it’s too near the communist border. And you know what the communists are like. They’ll pounce if the people get angry and make rebels of our peaceful Thai citizens. The enforcers from the US Drug Agency nod. Yes, we’ve got to stamp out the drug trafficking: the money buy’s guns for the communists. But be careful not to upset the people. Leave them poppies enough for their own pipes and spend money on curing the addicts.

Iron beds in rows are reflected dully in the linoleum. Outside white concrete dazzles. Inside it’s cool and clean; very clean; the nurses wear white, the orderlies brown, the patients in dark blue listlessly lounging on their neat row of beds. I, Prommin, came here two weeks ago. I’m a farmer with 20 rai of rice and longen fruit trees. Two weeks is a long time without soopfid, the opium, but there’s been tincture for the lorng-deng, the hunger, and aspirin for the pain; something strong for the diarrhoea; and valium for the sadness. When you try to make it through cold turkey, it’s the hunger and sadness and pain that send you running back to the soopfid.

It was pain made me start eating soopfid too. Those rice fields can kill you. 20 rai for ploughing and planting. Irrigation canals to be cleared. My back ached enough to make me cry. I took money to the doctor who sent me for medicine. It helped ease my back but made my stomach bleed. That’s when I started with soopfid. They said you can use it like medicine. And it helped all my pain – stomach, back, head.

Hill tribes originally from Tibet and China grow most of the Golden Triangle's opium crop.
photo :
Brian Eads / Camera Press

But 11 years is too long to eat soopfid. This year it’s been 30 baht and three times a day. Too much, too much. Time to stop.

On the plains of the Punjab and the lowlands of Africa; on Indonesia’s islands and Thailand’s flat valley’s: everywhere there’s water, there’s rice. Its seeds spatter on the water's surface; then flush the brightest green through the ripples. Then the months of back pain begin.

Far away in a different hospital there’s a ten-year-old boy lying motionless, a tube pumping life into his arm, his body burning with fever, his skin speckled red with the tiny haemorrhages of dengue injected into him by the rice field mosquitos. And there’s a pale young mother with glazed eyes, her husband patting her brow with a folded cloth, his own eyes clouded with worry.

And between them an old woman smiles shyly, her shoulders hunched narrowly, her betel-stained gums making her grin ghastly. I, Malee, have suffered my pain since I was old enough to carry water from the canal to my mother’s big earthenware jar. The sun made my eyes ache, the rice made my back ache, the children made my womb ache, their deaths made my heart ache. But the betel and Tamgai powders used to help.

At the district store you can buy every kind of medicine: a hundred traditional medicines; a hundred thousand modern ones. Tamgai was all I could afford. Even betel’s expensive these days. But Tamgai is just one baht for two.

They said it was good for the pain so I started with just two a day. Then they started to sell it in the village store. And I was soon eating 12 every day. Every time I got tired I would take one. Nobody said it would hurt me. But last week I was vomiting blood.

Five million people and one million motor cars fill Bangkok’s air with noise and fumes. Here’s where heroin is injected into 300,000 veins. Here there are one million people in slums. Here every street is a market and there are jobs paying more than you’d dreamed of: just one day hauling stones up a ladder and camping out nights on the building site pays you more than a week in the rice fields. Yes, there’s riches here if you get lucky.

Khun Surat hair slicked black with pomade, square glasses resting on his flat nose and over his hooded eyes is one of the lucky ones. His Teck Heng Yoo company makes Tamgai, a mixture of aspirin and phenatecin, with codeine thrown in to make it addictive. Tamgai makes Khun Surat about 13 million dollars a year. As a sideline he’s deputy Prime Minister.

Yes, there’s riches to be made from painkilling. Five million dollars would buy Thailand’s poppy harvest. Eight billion is spent in the drug stores, where you can buy anything on the shelves.

1, Rohim, have blue scars on my arms from injecting the precious white powder. They call it the millionaire’s comfort: four comforts a day for 100 baht. I started eight months ago; but I’m no millionaire. They said it would help with the pain.

I was studying, but the work was too difficult. My teacher got angry. I tried to drop out. But the powder made me forget. It’s not all I take though. I buy pills from the drug store: valium to grind with the heroin; and one we call ya ma, the horse pill, to keep me awake when I’m studying. The valium makes comfort last longer; and when my eyes and nose run, and my body aches and sweats, and my hands shake when I can’t buy the heroin, the valium helps me then too.

Six factories turning a sticky brown resin into a pure white powder, making raw poppy pus into ‘super one hundred per cent heroin’, were discovered and destroyed late last year. But Khun Surat’s factories keep on working.

Having ground the two powders together crystals of heroin, tablets of valium — Rohim rolls up his sleeve. We use the same words for them both. Tcheed ya means any white powder. Anything that will help with the pain.

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