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On a rain-drenched day in Yangon, Violet and Kate spared a few hours to learn about local culture with a trip to the city’s Drug Elimination Museum. It truly confounded their expectations.
There is, perhaps, nowhere in the world as weird as Yangon’s Drug Elimination Museum.
You might well wonder why, in a country so full of beautiful, interesting, and exciting cultural sites, I found myself in a place as dour-sounding as the Yangon Drug Elimination Museum. The very name suggests a depressing mix of hardline social conservatism, dissent-stifling propaganda, and a heavy dose of dullness.
Indeed, a cursory glance at Tripadvisor seems to confirm such suspicions: “nothing to be seen”, says one reviewer. “It was a mistake”, writes another. “Waste of time”, write several more.
But the thing was, Kate and I had nothing better to do. It was our third stop in Yangon in as many weeks, and the monsoon had finally broken. It had been pelting it down with rain (“big ol’ fat rain”, as Forrest Gump would have called it) all morning, putting paid to our plans to visit the city’s parks and lakes.
So, not wanting to while away our final afternoon in a hostel dorm, we decided that a trip to the museum might be – if not exactly enjoyable – at least kind of interesting. And we weren’t wrong.
Drug Elimination Museum
Occupying a huge, grandiose building in the north-west of the city, the Yangon Drug Elimination Museum looks more like a Communist-era city hall than a museum. With its long, sweeping driveway and spacious front lawn, it manages to be at once ostentatious and austere. It is bolshy and hubristic in the way that Soviet architecture used to be – and in the way that some Chinese architecture still is.
Clearly, whoever designed it had great things in mind: a grand, patriotic showcase of the achievements of the military administration against the evils of drugs… but somewhere along the way, something went badly wrong.
What’s so bad about it?
Where should I begin?
The collection, such as it is, is spread across three vast floors, with a huge atrium at its centre. Despite its grand size, however, the whole thing is so poorly lit that many of the displays are left almost entirely in darkness, and if it hadn’t been for the listless docents hiding in gloomy corners I could easily have believed it abandoned.
The exhibits consist chiefly of displays of photographs of men sitting in meetings, shaking hands, and ceremonially incinerating hoards of seized contraband. Not exactly riveting stuff – but it gets better.
Besides these photo displays there are a number of large, propagandising murals and numerous dusty dioramas, each replete with sallow-looking waxworks arranged in singularly un-lifelike tableaux. In each corner of every floor, meanwhile, there was a huge topographic map of some region of the country, with LED lights blinking spasmodically to indicate… well, it was difficult to tell what.
As Kate and I wandered about (we were the only visitors apart from a pair of backpackers from Manchester) we tried to guess when the thing had been built, and decided that it must have been in the early 1970s. We were shocked to discover that actually – unbelievably – the collection was put together in 1997, and opened to the public in 2001.
Everything was in miserably poor condition. Signs hung off their displays, cardboard labels were half-devoured by mildew, and the building itself seemed to be falling apart at the seams. On the top floor we wandered amongst pools of rainwater beneath ominously bowed ceiling tiles, while creatures (mice? rats?) scuttled noisily overhead. Here, in addition to being covered in a thick layer of dust, the displays were also plastered in pigeon shit. A nice touch, I thought.
Amongst the other noteworthy “attractions” were an “education” section that looked like a vision of the future from the 1950s; a series of deformed foetuses and body parts pickled in jars; a collection of mildewed display cases containing actual drugs (“heroin” mysteriously missing); and giant model of a pair of hands grasping a syringe, a bunch of cigarettes, and some ecstasy pills.
It was all just too odd for words – but just when we thought it couldn’t get any stranger, it did.
Wandering into a dark tunnel, we flicked what we thought was a light switch. A moment later, something very like the Jaws soundtrack starts to play over the tannoy, and the walls of the corridor light up red with anguished faces. It soon turned out that we had wandered into some kind of house-of-horrors-style, anti-drug bonanza, designed (an employee told us) to scare children straight. I shan’t give away any more of its surprises, but I will say that it involves animatronics and zombies. Suffice to say it didn’t have quite the sobering effect on us that it intended.
We left the museum after an hour or so, utterly bewildered. Why would anyone ever build such a thing? How could a museum go so badly wrong? Why hasn’t this place been closed down already? These were just some of the questions we were unable to answer.
The Yangon Drug Elimination Museum may not be everyone’s idea of a fun day out (or even most people’s – let’s be honest), but I personally couldn’t have asked for a more amusing afternoon. So if you have an appetite for the offbeat, check it out!
Yangon has a lot more going for it than this museum, trust us.
Although… if you would like to include a trip there we can help plan that too. Contact our team of experts for some friendly advice.