The Drug

A low, resonating clang fills my left ear. I glance in that direction to see a long line of monks moving in single file down the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street, their shaved heads and deep purple robes creating a pattern that cadences with the ringing of their bell. Their bare feet move across the cement without making a sound, their journey across the city a silent one. In my right ear, I hear a loud, English voice exclaiming, “Rolls him into the full nelson, BOOM! And that’s why they’re the Smackdown tag team champions folks!”

Jayad looks across our short table at me with a smile on his face. “Many people in our country think this is real,” he says, motioning with his head toward the corner of this open-air restaurant where a television is sitting and all eyes in the place are fixed on the WWE Smackdown, a Sunday morning tradition here in Techileik. I can’t help but smile at this. “Ours too,” I reply. Jayad squeaks his lips together to call the waitress, the same as I would at home to call a dog. I pay for our breakfast and we begin walking west from the center of town.

Jayad always gives me an excuse to keep in mind if we run into the Burmese police and they stop us for questioning. Today we are going to “the furniture shop,” where Jayad tells me they “make lots of wooden furniture … especially coffins.” In fact, we are headed toward a cemetery on the outskirts of town because I’m told that this is where many of the area’s drug addicts hang out. Or rather, we’re going to a hill overlooking the cemetery, because Jayad tells me we can’t get too close, much less go inside. He says that the men there – the addicts – will do anything for money to feed their habits. He says that they wouldn’t hesitate to kill me for 100 baht (US $2.50).

On the way up to the cemetery Jayad asks me if I would like to meet a drug addict. “Sure,” I tell him, “as long as he won’t kill me, that is.”

We approach a small, circular building on the side of a mountain. It looks like a military turret, like an overgrown sandcastle shaped from concrete. It seems to be two levels with a peaked roof contraption covering the top half. Jayad hollers something in Burmese toward the building and a raspy voice responds. Jayad pushes open the gate, constructed from a piece of tin siding nailed onto a couple pieces of wood and overgrown by some sort of creeping vine. We have to step down, ducking our heads to enter the room where a skinny man of about 35 sits on a wooden couch with a dank, burgundy cushion.

The man is addicted to a drug homegrown in Burma called “yaba.” The name is conceived from two Burmese words, yami meaning horse, and mami meaning medicine, a reference to the extraordinary boost of strength and energy it gives its users. It’s basically a potent dose of methamphetamine laced with caffeine. The man shows me one of the pills. It’s tiny – smaller than an aspirin – and red with the letters “wy” crudely stamped into one side. The wy, the man supposes, stands for “Wa yaba,” a sign of the army that produced it. The man takes the lining from a box of cigarettes, a very thin tin foil like a gum wrapper. He then tears a piece out of a magazine and rolls it into a small tube. He places the pill on the foil and holds a lighter underneath it, causing it to begin sizzling and evaporating into a misty, white smoke. He uses the tube he rolled to suck the fumes down into his lungs. He’s been sucking this smoke for over a decade. For the next three hours he will have the strength he needs to work in his garden, harvesting tomatoes and ginger.

But the addicts in this town are really just the run-off of a bigger problem. The drug is produced here, some estimated 800 million pills a year in 2003, to be shipped into Thailand where it will easily draw more than double the price. The further south the drug makes it, the more it will be worth, drawing figures around 400 baht ($10.50 US) per pill near Phuket. An Associated Press article from just four years ago states “The drug has caused what officials have called a national epidemic, with the Thai Health Ministry estimating that as much as 5 percent of the population, or 3 million people, regularly use ‘yaba,’” 90 percent of drug-related arrests being a result of the so called “crazy pills.” Originally it was sold illegally at gas stations to long distance truck drivers who used it to make their long trips without falling asleep. But now its reach has grown, showing up commonly in night clubs as an alternative to Ecstasy all over Thailand, places in Europe, and as far as the suburbs of Sacramento.

Just a few years ago, the Burmese were finding it very hard to push their drugs over the border thanks to a no-holds-barred crackdown spearheaded by recently ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. According to the Christian Science Monitor, Thai police went on a virtual killing spree in early 2003, with an alarming figure of 500 people being killed during the first three weeks of the crackdown. Alarming, but effective. However, according to a source in the Mae Hong Song region of northern Thailand, yaba is again on the rise. I spoke with a man in Techileik who told me that now the drugs commonly get re-routed through Laos and into Thailand, or even all the way into Cambodia, through Laos and into Thailand due to more lax border watches and restrictions. The man was very clean for the city he was in with short, combed hair and a crisp polo shirt. I was told that he is half Indian, and his English was impeccable. As he walked away after we had been talking, I turned to my local contact and said something to the effect of “Nice man. Very knowledgeable about these issues.” He responded by telling me that he should be knowledgeable, considering the fact that he is one of the area’s biggest drug lords. Nothing like getting your information straight from the horse’s mouth, I suppose.