When foreign tourists mark Chiang Mai on their Thailand itinerary, they conjour up ideas of riding elephants, shopping at night bazaars, enjoying colourful northern dances or soaking in the morning mist on top of Doi Suthep. As for local tourists from the urban jungle of Bangkok, they look forward instead (besides the shopping that is) to experiencing the fresh cool weather, sampling the northern mealtime delicacies, listening to the soft northern dialect and for the men, admiring the fair-skinned northern ladies.
Very few folk however, whether they be foreign or Thai, even contemplate seeing for themselves any of His Majesty the King’s royal projects which have brought hope and prosperity to the hill-tribes of the north.
Once upon a time, the northern hill-tribe region of Thailand was considered a world-leader in terms of opium production and it wasn’t until 1959 that the government finally decided to stop turning a blind-eye and actually ban the practice. What the government failed to realize, however, was that the hill-tribes knew of no other way to earn a living – and so, while some simply carried on with their illegal opium activity, others turned to quick slash-and-burn farming techniques.
After a trip to the hill-tribes in 1969 and witnessing for himself the plight of the folk there and an almost environmental disaster, His Majesty the King stepped in and established, with his very own cash, the Royal Project Foundation. Bringing together local government agencies, university academics, volunteers and foreign governments, the foundation aimed at; assisting the hill-tribes for humanitarianism and raising the standard of living, reducing the destruction of natural resources, halting the cultivation of opium, conserving the land, stopping encroachment and producing cash crops for the benefits of both the local and national economies.
One out of all the 37 development centers now operating in the north of Thailand is the Doi Inthanon Agricultural Station located just 17 kilometers from Thailand’s highest peak. On a drive there recently, after shivering at the top of Doi Inthanon with no jacket on, we were immediately struck by the surrounding natural beauty. Previous to this, I had always envisaged a tour of a royal project area as rather more of a field trip than a fun day out. I couldn’t have been further from the truth. We were able to witness with our very own eyes, production once virtually unknown to Thailand such as; peach, plum, apricot, Chrysanthemum tea, seedless grapes and ornamental pot plants like African Violet, Ivy, Peperomia and Fuchsia.
After admiring this unique area, we were treated to a fantastic lunch at the station’s organic restaurant with prices on a par with those of your local street stalls. The vegetables with their vibrant natural colours were beyond a doubt the freshest and crispiest I have ever seen and tasted during the whole of my ten years or so in Thailand. For those wishing to stay overnight and lap up the gorgeous rolling hills and star-filled romantic skies, there are also tastefully built stilted bungalows for rent. All proceeds earned by the station’s restaurant, souvenir shop and lodgings go directly into agricultural research, so as the Thais would say “Besides having a fun time, you are also making merit”.
The next day, before arriving in Chiang Rai late, we headed instead in the direction of another royal development project area, Doi Sam Muen and Huai Nam Dang National Park. Again, besides simply admiring the terrific work being done by the Royal Project Foundation, we were amazed by some picture-on-a-postcard geographical wonders such as Doi Gew Lom and its spectacular viewpoint. So beautiful is the place, the Late Princess Galyani Vadhana had one of her very own palaces built there.
So, with all that said, the next time you are vacationing in the north, get off that same old well-trodden tourist-track and head for one of the royal project development areas. Not only will you be able to learn, enjoy and bask in the area’s beauty, but you will also be doing the north and her hill-tribes’ people a huge favour.
For more information on staying overnight at the Doi Inthanon Agricultural Station, call 053-286-770-7 or send them an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The station is located at Ban Khun Klang, Ban Luang Sub-district, Jom Thong District, Chiang Mai.