Opened in 2004, the magnificent Hall of Opium is a dazzling white stucco, glass, marble, and aluminum building nestling in a valley above the Mekong. The site of the museum is so close to former poppy fields that a plan is still being considered to extend the complex to encompass an "open-air" exhibit of a functioning opium plantation. The museum traces the history of the entire drug trade (including a look at how mild stimulants like coffee and tea took hold in the West). It even attempts to give visitors a taste of the "opium experience" by leading them through a 500-foot-long tunnel where atmospheric music wafts between walls bearing phantasmagoric bas-relief scenes. The synthetic smell of opium was originally pumped into the tunnel but the innovation was dropped after official complaints.
The entrance tunnel emerges into a gallery of blinding light, where the nature of the opium-producing poppy is vividly described on an information panel erected in front of an imitation field
of the insidiously beautiful flower. It's an arresting introduction to an imaginatively designed and assembled exhibition, which reaches back into the murky history of the opium trade and takes a long, monitory look into a potentially even darker future. The Hall of Opium is so large in scope and scale that two days are hardly enough to take it all in. A visit is ideally combined with an overnight stay at one of two hotels within walking distance: the Hall's own Greater Mekong Lodge (double rooms from B1,800, including breakfast) or, for a sheer splurge, at the luxurious Anantara, just across the road.