The first sections presented small-scale dioramas of the early opium trade, featuring red-coated toy British soldiers pushing dope on unsuspecting Burmese. An enormous model of a poppy, towering like a mature cousin of the bloodsucker in Little Shop of Horrors, leaned against a wall. Nearby, gorgeous antique pipes, resembling delicately carved bone flutes or magic wands, were mounted behind glass.
Other dioramas and displays depicted military operations to break up drug gangs and destroy their crops and facilities. From the museum’s portrayal, you’d think the army was merely busting evil drug lords. The rest of the story goes unmentioned: for some ethnic minorities that rely on farming, poppy cultivation brings in easy money (while legitimate crops don’t), and proceeds from drug sales have fueled ethnic rebellions on Burma’s periphery. The government wants to destroy the poppy fields less because it hates heroin than because it aims to subdue those who don’t submit to its power.
I studied the exhibits slowly—too slowly for the guides. They eventually gave up, slumping in their chairs and leaving me to wander alone, supplementing natural light with the glow of my cellphone. My footsteps echoed through the museum, where the only other sounds were the soft whistling snores of the staff.
One docent perked to life, finally, when I reached a locked door. She retrieved a key and escorted me wordlessly into a dark corridor. I looked back to see her grinning mischievously in the gloom. She turned on a crackly soundtrack—an Elgar violin piece playing in the background as a Burmese woman began softly speaking in almost entirely incomprehensible, robotic English. The lights came up dimly, and the voice proceeded to narrate a gallery of horrors designed to scare me off junk forever.
The hallway was lined with a series of life-size dioramas depicting chapters in a macabre tale of addiction. The first scene, staged with stiffly posed mannequins, looked like a particularly lame house party, with some young kids playing guitars and a single whiskey bottle filled with a colorless liquid nearby on a coffee table. On the soundtrack, thumping electronic music took over where Elgar left off, and then, with an ominous change of mood—I half-expected to hear canned laughter from Vincent Price—the next scene presented a dank underground cellblock. A few men in rags sat chained there, too weak to fight vermin for supper. In the next diorama, addicts lay sprawled on the ground in the dark countryside. The leg of one of them had been hacked off at the knee.
For minutes I was left to contemplate the grim odyssey. From classical music to guitars to dungeons and finally gangrene—these are your legs on drugs. The music switched to Mendelssohn, perhaps to remind me of the superiority of a drug-free, violin-based lifestyle. When the soundtrack stopped entirely, the docent invited me to press a button to activate the last scene. This was a trap. I pressed, and triggered a loud whirring. A mechanical claw—it looked like it had come off a plastic dinosaur—reached out from the diorama to grab my hand. Death had arrived, and I was startled enough to smile. The whirring stopped, the claw retracted, and the docent gave a shrug to signify that the show was over.