The Kingpin of the Golden Triangle
Story and photos by James Michael Dorsey

Sometimes spirits must linger where their corporeal bodies spent their time on earth, unable to leave until coming to terms with past deeds.


In the steaming jungle mountains where Thailand, Burma, and Laos collide on a map, there is a complex of crumbling structures, overgrown with climbing vines and monitored by a praetorian guard of monkeys that loudly denounce visitors. It is not an ancient ruin like so many others in this land but a modern ruin in more ways than one. It is a monument to ruined lives and dreams. It is called Ban Hin Taek, “Village of Broken Stone” and many spirits dwell there.

kingpin shrine home

It is the former operating base of Khun-Sa, a peasant and illiterate thug who rose to become one of the most powerful and wealthiest men of his time. Born to a Shan hill tribe mother and Chinese father in British Burma in 1937, he was the self-proclaimed “King of the Golden Triangle.” In his time, he had more power than Pablo Escobar, and more fame than “El Chapo” Guzman. Heroin was his trade.

The jungle grapevine announced that a giant outsider from the west has come. The locals are diminutive people, rising barely to my belt buckle and the women openly laugh at my size. They are the color of saddle leather with the gnarled hands of laborers. These are the people who for at least two centuries have supplied both criminals and hospitals with heroin. They encircle me as both a curiosity and a celebrity. I am a rare distraction from a harsh life.

Statue of Khun Sa

After brief introductions I follow them into an adjoining room and there before me sits the man himself. Upon his death, a local artist was commissioned to create a full-sized statue of Khun-Sa. He is made from plaster but meticulously painted so that in low light he appears ready to rise from his chair. On a table before him there is an ashtray with a pack of his favorite cigarettes, one half smoked, and a fresh bottle of water. Behind him is a framed photo of him sitting jauntily on his favored horse, a pistol on his hip. He now sits forever like a Buddha on a throne, in the room where he once gave orders that ended lives.

Khun Sa began life as Chang Chi-Fu, a teenaged recruit with the Chinese Nationalist Kuomintang army not long after the Second World War. During the Chinese civil war the Kuomintang, under Generalissimo Chang Kai-Shek, were defeated by Mao’s Tse Tung’s communists and retreated to the island of Taiwan. Splinter groups fled over the border into northern Thailand and Laos in the Shan state. It was in these mountains that Chang Chi-Fu assembled a rag-tag army of about 600 men. In return for arms and money from the Kuomintang, they began to fight a guerilla war against communists on both sides of the border.

Poppy Bud Army

Heroin poppies have driven the economy of these mountains since at least the early 19th century when the demand for morphine for wounded soldiers of the occupying British army was paramount. More than half of that production went into the illicit trade. Local hill tribes—the Akha, Hmong, Lahu and Yeo—grew the plants and harvested them for the highest bidder, be that a drug lord or military officer.

The sheer quantity from the area was so vast and profits so immense as to spawn the name still in use today, “The Golden Triangle.” This illicit wealth did not trickle down. A handful of drug lords became rich while those at the bottom of the food chain remained trapped in lives of poverty and hard labor.

With no more wars to fight, the Kuomintang assimilated into local life, transitioning from soldiers into “tax collectors” levying a charge on local drug smugglers for crossing their lands. They survived on the dream that their new enterprise would one day fund an invasion force to re-take their ancestral homelands to the north. Chang Chi-Fu refused to pay this levy and began open hostilities against the Kuomintang. By 1963 he had expanded his personal army, changed his name to Khun-Sa (Prosperous Prince), and turned on the Burmese government also. He took control of vast mountain areas while expanding the growth, harvesting, and processing of heroin poppies. Other minor thugs joined Khun-Sa under the protection of his personal militia and by 1967 he was challenging the Kuomintang for outright control of the area.

Fall and Rise of the Kingpin

After a three-day battle, both Khun-Sa and the Kuomintang were both betrayed by a Laotian air force commander who carpet bombed the battle site and made off with most of the heroin, effectively ending Sa’s operation. In 1967 he was captured by the Burmese government and languished in prison until 1972 when he was released in a prisoner exchange. His henchmen had kidnapped government officials in order to secure his release. After that he dropped out of sight, covertly re-building his personal army and re-establishing his drug connections.

inside of the kingpin house

In 1976 he resumed full growing and smuggling operations. During this time he became the local equivalent of Robin Hood, understanding that the mountain people would protect him if he treated him well. Like those who followed in his footsteps such as “El Chapo” Guzman and Pablo Escobar, Khun-Sa insulated himself from the arm of the law by lavishing wealth beyond imagination on the local people. A pittance to him was a fortune to the peasants who worked in his poppy fields but it was enough to win their allegiance and love. In effect, it provided him with a separate army, who directed officials in the opposite direction, warned of raids, and gave him countless hiding places if necessary in local villages. The uneducated people of these mountains probably had no real concept of where their product goes or what it does, either then or now. It was and is simply a way to make a living by doing the bidding of their kindly master.

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Read this article online at: The Kingpin of the Golden Triangle

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2017. All rights reserved.

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Books from the Author:

Vanishing Tales from Ancient Trails

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Tears, Fear and Adventure

Buy Tears, Fear and Adventure at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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