From Opium to Java: Thailand’s Golden Triangle Converted to Coffee Farms

March 24, 2021Jennifer Lewis
coffee mill thailand

A coffee mill in Chiang Mai province. Photo by LannaPhoto, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Thailand, arguably one of the most beautiful destinations in the world, is also one of the most visited with more than 35 million tourists annually. The country sits within Southeast Asia, bordering Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia, and is known for its magnificent food, wildlife preservations, and utopian beach resorts.

One region in particular, known as the Golden Triangle, is the primary target of increased tourism. With a lush jungle climate, this scenic area lies precisely where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet, at the junction of the Ruak and Mekong rivers. As beautiful as it might appear, the Golden Triangle is much more than a charming nickname. The CIA coined it based on the area’s reputation for producing opium, despite Thailand’s strict laws against growing narcotics.

thailand golden triangle coffee
The Hall of Opium in Thailand’s Golden Triangle. Photo by Jpatokal, courtesy of Wiki.

Through the years, opium trading in the region became more common — and more dangerous — causing a divide in northern Thailand with locals fearing for their safety at the hands of violent drug cartels, human traffickers, and more. In the 1970s, opium production was reaching its height. Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, or King Bhumibol the Great, devised a plan to replace opium with coffee in hopes of helping communities within the Golden Triangle redeem territory and end the violence. 

Though plans were underway to replace opium, the cartels were becoming more powerful than ever. By the 1980s, notorious drug lord Khun Sa led operations that produced as much as 70% of the heroin that made its way to the United States. Khun Sa would retire in 1996, but while his control was on the wane, the Doi Tung Development Project was founded in 1988. Aimed at displacing the opium cartels, this initiative administered drug rehabilitation centers, provided training and medical care, and supported locals with basic necessities including food, water, and clothing. The remarkable project was established by Princess Srinagarindra — better known as Mae Fah Luang, meaning “Royal Mother from the Sky,” or Princess Mother — who had witnessed the atrocities of the drug trade firsthand and vowed to improve the conditions of her country. 

thailand coffee golden triangle
Photo by topcools tee on Unsplash.

The project’s biggest accomplishment was the reclamation of land, providing locals the chance to break free from opioid farming and to harvest something of their own — something just as sought after but not deadly or illegal. Coffee made its way into the Thai culture in the 1970s but soared in production once the drug cartels were forced out, giving our favorite commodity the chance to bring peace and fortune to a plagued society

In the 1990s, the Thai government and the United Nations took Princess Mother’s vision a step further and launched the Integrated Tribal Development Foundation (ITDF), organized to improve water supply within the Golden Triangle and formally replace opium production with coffee. The ITDF became Thailand’s first fair trade certified coffee co-op, with a goal not only to replace the opioids but to harvest, grow, and produce high-quality coffee in hopes of bringing economic relief to the strained region.  

To date, the ITDF stands strong with support from California’s Lanna Coffee Co., as well as some household names including CoffeeWorks and Starbucks. More than 150 Thai villages are part of the sustainable specialty coffee industry, and as of 2014, Thailand was ranked third in Robusta coffee bean production.

Jennifer Lewis
Jennifer Lewis
Jennifer Lewis is a contributing editor for Coffee or Die. A native of New York, Jennifer is a media relations manager in the music industry and a freelance writer who specializes in true crime, entertainment, and culture. She’s traveled throughout the world not only to find her own story, but to also hear the stories of those longing to tell them. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her cat, Avery.
Follow her on Twitter and Instagram
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