The High Lands: Exploring Drug Tourism Across Southeast Asia

"I'm not keen on drugs and wouldn't really recommend drug taking because of the dangers that are associated with them," David wrote me. "But the locals from all areas seem to accept it as kind of a traveler's right of passage to experience drugs from other countries." Yet the dangers David speaks of become all the more perilous when consumed in an uncontrolled environment. This raises the question of how travelers rationalize drug-taking abroad. Uriely and Belhassen claim that drug tourists "cope with their fears by believing that being a tourist protects them from hazards, including the possibility of arrest, being labeled a deviant, and becoming a drug addict."

One potential hazard is regulation. While Southeast Asia has harsh laws against local smugglers and dealers (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand all prescribe the death penalty for drug trafficking), travelers are largely ignorant of them, limiting their ability to fear the consequences. Moreover, most Westerns understand the economic importance of the tourism and drug industries in Southeast Asia. These facts eliminate fear of arrest as most travelers assume local authorities will not want to obstruct either revenue channel.

One study participant, a 30-year-old Israeli with experience at Full Moon parties in Thailand, explained in "Drugs and Risk-Taking in Tourism" (PDF) that:

Everybody knows that tourists who participate in these parties are loaded with drugs. I noticed the presence of the police at most of these parties, but I felt they were there to protect us rather than arrest us.... There is a kind of 'silent agreement' between tourists and police at the destinations hosting these parties ... the tourists spend their money and their drug-taking is tolerated.

Several travelers shared stories of bribery. "Police would dress up and go undercover and try to sell people weed or something," volunteer Kara told me of her time purchasing marijuana in Thailand. "And if the people bought it, then they would basically tell them, 'Hey, we're the police. You have to pay this amount if you don't want to go to jail.' So they would rip them off $650 or something like that ... or take all the money you had on you."

Nam Xong River at Vang Vieng in Laos. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

"Corrupt police officials, that's a reality, a byproduct of this whole system," Dan said, having purchased prescription drugs and marijuana while in Thailand in 2007. Even so, none of the travelers I spoke to seemed discouraged by the threat. Western travelers, Dan told me, can generally talk their way out of the situation. Others who faced the fines seemed to think of the experience as an engaging tale to share with friends when they returned home, not a deterrent against purchasing or using drugs.

Another attraction to drug use is a sense of one-time opportunity. Even though many of these drugs are available at home at an affordable price, the catalysts of drug use abroad are far more psychological than economic. Drug tourists believe that if using abroad they will avoid being labeled a "druggie" or "drug user"; they are simply part of the pack, a "backpacker," nothing more. Additionally, several travelers commented that their fears of addiction were overridden by rationalizing the low likelihood that they would seek out these drugs at home.

In countries such as Myanmar, where opiate production is declining, investments in methamphetamines are on the rise.

It is easy to see that the drug tourism industry is only just beginning. As the Internet allows travelers to share information about backpacker finds, including opium dens and dealers, drug tourism will continue to grow, finding new markets, most likely beginning to spark the interests of the those previously oblivious to the opportunities available to them.

With no indication of tourism slowing, the local drug markets must respond to demands, local addiction, and government crackdowns. With several local governments beginning to shut down manufacturers and investing in rehabilitation, the focus on opium is fading. Yet in countries such as Myanmar, where opiate production is declining, investments in methamphetamines are on the rise. A former insurgent group, the United Wa State Army is believed to be the largest producer of methamphetamine tablets in the world. Known as "yaba" or "yama," the pills mix methamphetamine and caffeine and are rampantly gaining hold in the neighboring Thai culture. A 2004 report by the Institute on Narcotics Control in Bangkok states that, "an estimated five percent of Thailand's 62 million people are addicted to methamphetamine."

Yaba is swallowed, not smoked or injected, thereby avoiding the stigmas often correlated with drug use. Additionally, the drug is commonly viewed as helpful rather than harmful, with users associating it with increased work ability and the rave scene, upping the sexual libido. Unlike opiates or cannabis, Amphetamine-Type Stimulants (ATS) can be manufactured anywhere and are not reliant on natural plant sources. Yaba also draws in higher profits, manufactured for roughly $0.25 and selling for over $2 a pill. The UNODC reports that the Mekong Delta, running between Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand is swiftly becoming one of the key ATS trafficking points, disseminating the new product from the Golden Triangle.

Thais are not the only buyers. The draw to yaba and other versions of methamphetamine, such as crystal meth, ecstasy, and speed, are growing throughout Southeast Asia. In 2008 it was estimated that roughly half of the world's 15-16 million meth users were located in Southeast and East Asia. In 2007, a report by UNESCO found that 80.9 percent of all illicit drug users in Cambodia used ATS. In the 2011 report, the UNODC labeled ATS the "main illicit drugs threat in East and Southeast Asia," with half of the worlds ATS and meth seizures in the last year. The number of meth labs busted in East and Southeast Asia was nearly 10 times higher in 2009 than in 2005. Pill seizures in China, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand jumped from 32 million in 2008 to 133 million in 2010.

The statistics are stark and worrisome, not just for the local inhabitants but also for the visiting tourist populations. It's natural to wonder how long it will take for yaba to catch on as a local drug delicacy the way opium intrigued backpackers in years past. Opium has devastating addictive qualities and methamphetamines do as well, sometimes causing permanent brain damage, hallucinations, aggression, anxiety, and convulsions. With an even lower price tag and seeming ubiquity, the question is not if, but when, the meth derivatives will hit the drug tourism scene. "In my opinion, the line between what we call soft and other drugs still exists. But I'm not sure about it. I don't know," said researcher Natan Uriely. "It's a new generation, maybe things change."

The danger, it seems, is not that visiting backpackers will start injecting themselves with hard drugs, but that the less invasive, if friendly version of meth, yaba, will entice young travelers wanting a taste of what the locals are using. The effects could be devastating.

From a wider perspective, what these trends indicate is a larger shift in the tourism market. As drug use becomes more commonplace when abroad, due to a desire to escape or connect, the future of travel becomes more diverse and simplified at the same time. These trends are giving rise to both a culturally focused tourist experience and de-territorialized tourism where geography becomes irrelevant. It is easy to see tourism taking on a new role. Soon vacationers may not pick the destination for the local sites but the local drugs, medical procedures, or adventure sports. Vacation brochures will not boast of the beauty of an island but the adventurous or illicit activities that are accepted and welcome. Those seeking an alternate culture, whether it be through rave scenes or backpacker havens, are losing contact with the land they have traveled to. Soon enough, a rave in Goa or a rave in Ibiza will be viewed as the same trip, the country itself becoming irrelevant to the tourist experience.

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Eve Turow is a New York-based freelance food and travel writer. Her work has appeared on NPR, in The Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere.

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