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"Chasing the Dragon: Into the Heart of the Golden Triangle "

Henry Holt & Co., 1996

"When the tide recedes on the glut of travel and adventure books over the last two decades, it will leave behind certain works as distinguished landmarks: some will testify to experiences of epic endurance, others to a lustrous prose style or the exposition of new knowledge. Chasing the Dragon will take its place among these landmarks with a triple accolade." --New York Times Book Review


"The hilltribe women back slowly through the sloping fields. Bulbs the size of bird's eggs sway atop vein-thin, chest-high stalks, dancing in the soft highland breeze like tentacles of a poisonous sea anemone. In the late-morning glare, the women work carefully, mindful of their harvest's value. The earth is soft and warm beneath their feet, which rustle the dead ruby- and amethyst-colored petals blanketing the mountainside.

Wielding curved, tri-bladed knives as sharp as an eagle's talons, they gently pinch the poppy pods between thumbs and forefingers and make quick, vertical incisions. In the heat of a brass-brilliant winter sun, tears of chalk-white sap soon well in the shallow cuts. Opium. The latex will ooze during the day; the droplets will coagulate and darken overnight. The next morning, while it is still cool, the women will return to painstakingly scrape the henna-colored gum from the pods with semi-circular blades, then deposit the treasure into metal cans hanging from their necks like amulets.

This year, the spirits have smiled upon their mountain village. The earth the menfolk ate the previous spring to test its quality had been sweet with alkaline. A good place to burn the forest for the mineral-rich ash. The summer monsoon watered the cover crop of maize; autumn, dry and cool, was perfect for the poppy seedlings. The women descend through the fields. Gradually, their metal cans grow heavy with the weight of the blackened beads that bring both dreams and despair. Beneath their burden, the women smile. There will be opium enough to barter for salt, sugar, tobacco, and cloth. They know not where the opium goes, only that it brings merchants to their distant huts, that the fruit of their fields is coveted by the powerful men whose soldiers walk the dragon-toothed mountains. They know their hard, simple life will endure another year. Their ancestors knew the same rituals, endured the same risks, kowtowed to the same unseen, omnipotent warlords. It has always been thus in a land as wild as the waves of a raging typhoon.''

From Publishers Weekly:

Perhaps 60% of the heroin in the U.S. originates in the Golden Triangle, where Laos, Thailand and Burma (Myanmar) meet. But when Boston Herald reporter Cox went to Southeast Asia in 1994, his aim was to enter Shan State in eastern Burma, a section run by warlord Khun Sa, depicted by the DEA as the evil demon of the heroin trade. Cox was accompanied by his friend Jay Sullivan, a veteran obsessed with finding American POWs and MIAs in the region and aided by an American wheeler-dealer whom Khun Sa trusted. Cox portrays Burma, a brutal police state, as eager to share in drug profits. Thailand has converted itself into a vast bordello, where the number of HIV and AIDS patients may soon reach two million. Khun Sa, according to Cox, sought to make Shan State an independent nation and to phase out heroin production, but the world would not help. Edgy and told with dark humor, Cox's report is richly informative. Illustrations not seen by PW.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.


chasing the dragon
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"Pol Pot's Toilet" from "Tales from Nowhere: Unexpected Stories from Unexpected Places," edited by Don George

Lonely Planet Publications, 2006

Every year Lonely Planet produces a literary anthology of the highest quality, spotlighting some of the travel world's most renowned authors…Simon Winchester brings home an unsought souvenir from Equatorial Guinea, while Pico Iyer finds nothingness in greater abundance than he'd hoped for on Easter Island, and Christopher Cox confronts lethal mines and memories en route to Pol Pot's Cambodian hideout.


"After we had been rattling around on rocky, rutted roads for four hours, the smooth track along the ridge of the Dangkrek Range came as a relief. Level and shaded by lush jungle from the dry-season sun, it prompted my driver to push his battered Nissan truck to nearly 50 kilometers per hour -- warp speed for a byway in one of the most abject provinces in Cambodia. In the dappled midday light, he didn't see the studded, soda can-sized object in the middle of our route until it was too late to stop. No use swerving off the beaten path; red stakes jutting from the undergrowth meant the road's shoulders hadn't been de-mined. As the Chinese-made Type 58 fragmentation mine disappeared beneath the pick-up, I thought: It's only big enough to cripple, not kill.

Blame it on Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge tyrant who took Cambodia to a dark place where as many as two million people were executed or died from disease, starvation, and exhaustion. Those wretched excesses were now the stuff of memorials – complete with gift shops – that made this traumatized nation a global leader in holocaust tourism. It was a morbid niche market, for sure, but it annually attracted thousands of foreign visitors to Choeung Ek, a notorious Khmer Rouge killing field outside Phnom Penh, and Tuol Sleng, an old school in the capital that became their horrific torture center. If the package tourists would pay to see a glass tower of bludgeoned skulls and rusted bed frames where prisoners bled to death, then why not Anlong Veng, where Pol Pot and his murderous henchmen made their final stand?

So it came to pass that Prime Minister Hun Sen designated a dismal district in a far corner of Cambodia for tourism development. The authoritarian leader (himself a Khmer Rouge officer in the 1970s) wanted to preserve the site -- a thickly forested, heavily mined mountain range on the Thai border -- as a vast Khmer Rouge theme park, presumably without club-wielding re-enactors or interactive self-criticism sessions. Of the hundreds of thousands of tourists who annually traveled to Siem Reap to see the ruins of Angkor Wat, there were bound to be half-baked world travelers who would tramp a further 140 kilometers north to visit Genocide World. See Pol Pot's villa! Marvel at his ash heap! Experience Year Zero today, in Anlong Veng!

And a few half-baked writers as well. I was sitting in the Ivy Bar, just off the Old Market in the revitalized colonial quarter of Siem Reap, nursing a happy-hour Angkor Beer and considering the drive up to Anlong Veng (bound to suck) and the destination itself (bound to suffer drug-resistant malaria). Perhaps I could convince my editor to take a travel story on the beach resort of Sihanoukville instead. The roads to the coast were excellent; the lobster dirt cheap. But something on the pub's wall caught my eye: a framed toilet seat. And not just any toilet seat. A small label proclaimed this to be Pol Pot's toilet seat, retrieved from Anlong Veng.

"The seat of power for many years," read the label. "Even Pol Pot had shitty days."

I ordered another Angkor Beer and tried to imagine Brother Number One copping a counter-revolutionary squat atop his bourgeois commode. This xenophobic despot had advocated the liquidation of anyone who spoke French, wore eyeglasses, or had technical training -- let alone shat like a foreigner. That his Western-style porcelain throne might still be out there in the jungle was an irresistible notion; my Sihanoukville seafood dinner would have to wait."

tales from nowhere

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"Beauty & The Bomb"

Audubon Magazine, November-December 2006

For years much of this lovely little extension of Puerto Rico was off-limits to all but the U.S. military. Now, with the Navy gone, nature – white-sand beaches, mangrove-rimmed lagoons, and a bioluminescent bay – is restaking its claim to Isla Vieques.

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A Pa-O hilltribe farmer with a 1.6-kg brick of raw opium in off-limits Shan State, Burma.

chasing the dragon

The author inside Pol Pot's bunker in Anlong Veng, Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge's last bastion.