Category Archives: Tourism Authority of Thailand

Royal Projects & the Beauty of the North

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 The station is located at Ban Khun Klang, Ban Luang Sub-district, Jom Thong District, Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai Mega Fam Trip: Day 2

Day One of the Trip Can Be Found Here >>>

The first day of the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s Mega Fam Trip to Chiang Mai ended after our tram travels around the Night Safari well past 11; the kind of time which I’m used to getting to bed at, in my hometown of Suphanburi. Having flown from Bangkok at mid-day, been taken around to see elephant mahouts, hill-tribes and witness the splendour of five-star service at the Oriental Hotel, I for one was pretty knackered. As for the travel operators who had been on the road even before the chickens had woken that day, well… they really must have been shattered.

Even though breakfast was laid on at our hotel the next morning, I just couldn’t be asked and decided instead for a coupla cups of coffee in the privacy of my own room while watching ‘match of the week’ – PAD vs The Thai Cops on the BBC News. Now, first thing on the agenda for Mega Fam Day 2, was a seminar at the Holiday Inn Hotel on turning Chiang Mai (well….. hopefully anyway) into the Aviation Hub of South-East Asia. As this kinda thing wasn’t really my cup-of-tea, I can honesty say that didn’t really get too much out of it besides a big complimentary mug of cappuccino. One thing I did find interesting however, were some of the statistics on offer.

I hadn’t realized before that foreigners only actually make up 30% of the tourist arrivals in the Rose of the North (Chiang Mai), with the rest being Thais. Contrary to other figures that I have seen posted in the English language press, here we were informed that foreign tourist arrivals have actually decreased over the past couple of years by almost 15%+. With tourism from the likes of Japan, US, UK and Germany being affected most; that’s to say dropping by 20%. As for the amount of Thai tourists arriving, that has stayed more-or-less the same.

Nonetheless, we were to learn that Chiang Mai Airport is still doing big business, seeing to 3 million passengers a year; and, unperturbed by the recent tourist stats, are aiming to entice a phenomenal 6 million passengers plus within the next few years.

So, just how come foreigners seem to be side-stepping Chiang Mai more often these days? One answer to this could be the recent explosion in the popularity of Pai District in near-by Mae Hong Son Province. Once quaint, quiet and relatively unknown, Pai has turned itself into the hippest and hippiest destination north of Had Rin Beach on Ko Phang-ngan. Living in Bangkok for a few months this year and hanging out at Khao Sarn Road quite a bit, I soon figured, from many of the backpackers I spoke to, that the most fashionable ‘hippy’ thing to do was to jump straight on a bus to Pai – so completely bypassing Chiang Mai altogether.

The popularity trend of Pai is incredibly similar to another very similar looking place (in terms of natural beauty) Vang Viang in Laos. When I first visited Pai in 1998, all right there were some guesthouses, but the number of backpackers was still low enough that within a couple of days you knew most of the whitey faces around. If my memory serves me right, there were about two bars – now I ain’t been back to Pai since 2003, but even then the place was completely transforming itself into the backpacker haven of the north. The same goes for Vang Viang in Laos, I was there with a chum in 1996 and there were like three guesthouses and not a single bar just a tiny drinking hole that had Beer Lao on tap at 30baht a jug! If you been to Vang Viang lately you may have noticed just a slight change!

Back on track, and to see what the TAT had in mind to boost tourism in Chiang Mai and the rest of the north (doubt though, Pai needed it!) we headed for the Chiang Mai and the North Tourism Forum at the site of the successful Ratchapreuk Royal Flora Festival a couple of years back. By the time we arrived shortly before the opening ceremony by the TAT Governor Phonsiri Manoharn, the place was absolutely packed out with foreign travel operators who had come along to inspect for themselves what the local travel businesses had on offer. As you an also imagine, the press were there in hoards too for this well-publicized event.

One of the biggest themes on offer it seems to be in Chiang Mai now is spa tourism, and there were tens of booths selling all kinds of related packages at their flashy resorts. And, if you wanna know just how huge the spa market is, overall in Thailand, just Google ‘Spa in Thailand’ to find out for yourself. In fact, Thailand has turned itself into arguably the biggest destination in the world for spa over the past few years. Leading the way in Chiang Mai & Spa is the Four Seasons Hotel which was recently voted the World’s Best Spa. Chiva Som in Hua Hin has also won a similar award.

Perhaps second to health and spa servicing resorts and hotels at the Forum, were travel adventure operators. The variety of activities was just staggering, everything from motor-touring to rafting to game-fishing to even rainforest canopy tours. According to a couple of major operators I spoke to the most popular activity was elephant safari (especially at the Mae Sa Camp as mentioned in Day One’s previous blog). I went on to learn that rock climbing was one activity that had grown immensely popular lately and so had eco-friendly. In regards to eco-friendly tourism, one operator explained “As this activity has escalated in popularity, many back-alley agencies are just adding the name ‘eco’ to every tour they have on offer”. So, it seems that if you really wanna go on an authentic eco-friendly adventure it’s better to stick to the well-established operators who have been in the business for years.

So, even if the backpackers aren’t coming like they used to, to Chiang Mai, it seems, from what I learnt at the Forum, the destination is now attracting a bigger-spending type of tourist. One who prefers a hotel bar brandy to a water-hole Beer Chang. Another ever increasing market, though not mentioned at the Forum, was one which I have written quite a bit on recently, and that is Retirement in Thailand and especially Chiang Mai. The stats available on the number of retires settling in Chiang Mai over the past few years have literally doubled – so perhaps that market has to be focused upon a little bit more.

All in all, it was an interesting afternoon out and I managed to secure enough contacts for plenty more potential write-ups. Got a few excellent inspection invites too, and one will be mentioned in my next Mega Fam blog. As for the operators I interviewed, they seemed more than happy with the Forum and all reckoned that for a ‘first’ of its kind, it was more than a success.

After the Forum, it was time to take a trip around Ratchapreuk by tram while looking forward to the evening munchies. Never to be disappointed by the hospitality of the TAT, we were treated to a buffet dinner in the Ratchapreuk grounds laid on by the Amari Hotel. There was also a groovy trumpeting band to keep our ears in good company. The food was of course decent enough, but after having fusion food for the past couple of days, myself and colleagues decided that something just a bit tangier and spicier was called for and we headed after to a Somtum shop!

Chiang Mai Mega Fam Trip: Day 1

As Richard wrote in his previous blog, he and I were invited by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) to witness for ourselves last Wednesday the delights of the Visit Amazing Thailand 2009 Press Conference at the Queen Sirikit Convention Center. And on top of that, to join the Mega Fam Trip consisting of more than a thousand international travel operators and media.

At first, the TAT organizer planned to send us both to Chiang Mai but since there was little point on both of us writing at on the same destination, Richard eventually got the go ahead to venture to the Isarn region instead.

Well, after kipping at the Paknam Web gaff in Samut Prakan the night previous, I was up fresh, but not so early (perhaps due to the free bevvie available at the Press Conference) to get the plane to Chiang Mai City. Arriving at Suvarnaphumi Airport chuffed at a having a freebie ticket on Thai Airways, I was met by the TAT organizer and another news writer from TR Weekly, the lovely Miss Noina.

Maesa Elephant Camp

After landing in Chiang Mai, the first thing planned was to jump on a Chiang Mai TAT passenger van and quickly follow-up with the 200 or so travel operators who had already left for the Maesa Elephant Camp in the gorgeous Maesa Valley just outside of the city. Established in 1976, the Maesa Elephant Camp is the home to an incredible 78 elephants, incredible in the comparative sense that there are only about 3,000 of the pachyderms actually left in Thailand. We were shown around by the friendly son of the camp co-founder, K. Peter (Preechaya) who explained that the aim of the camp was to protect, conserve, breed and offer visitors the opportunity to learn about Thai elephant culture, history and their keepers (mahouts). Unlike the pitiful elephants waddling the streets of Bangkok, the elephants at the camp are provided with the best nutrition, health-care and environs possible.

The camp has ISO 9001 accreditation and all their mahouts have been qualified by the national Livestock Department. Chatting with K. Peter, I was struck by not only his knowledge of the beautiful beasts, but also his care and commitment towards them. Enthusiastically, he told me in detail about the camp’s care projects which include Estrous Cycle and heat detection and the study on the “Developing Semen Freezing Technique for Artificial Insemination Project”. In fact, the camp was selected for the project by the Institute of Zoo and Wildlife Research, Berlin, the Smithsonian Institute and a host of other veterinary centers at some of Thailand’s top universities.

According to the camp’s website on elephant training, it has this to say about Thai elephant culture “Thai people have long had a place in their hearts for elephants. Whether they worked together to log timber, travel across harsh terrain or lead troops into battle, Thai people have had a close relationship with elephants for centuries. Kachasart is a branch of study dedicated solely to elephants, and this local wisdom has been passed down from generation to generation covering such facts as to how to teach mahouts to train elephants, how to build life-long relationships and communicate with elephants and how to care for them. The art of elephant training requires much endurance and time as well as an intimate and considerate relationship between each elephant and its mahout”.

“At Maesa Elephant Camp, all elephants are trained to get acquainted with human beings and especially their mahouts as a basic platform for other advanced training. During this period of three months, the mahouts will teach their elephants how to communicate with them, at the same time building an intimate relationship with them by such activities as bathing, jungle walks and other activities”.

And on the subject of activities, besides visitors just having the opportunity to take a few snaps of the beasts, the camp offers folk the chance to join one of their Mahout Courses (1-3 days). The courses include: learning how to bathe, ride, handle and give basic commands to the elephants. Wanna-be mahouts are also afforded, free-of-charge, a funky traditional mahout outfit.

Walking around the camp, impressed by the sight of so many happy pachyderms, K. Peter soon asked me if a wanted to try riding one of the elephants myself. An offer I turned down, as I once spent an entire day a few years back riding 10 foot high for a Singha Beer TV Commercial. An experience I had to endure after having downed a complete pitcher of free Singha an hour or so before with the production team. My performance must have been pretty impressive however, as that darned commercial was on TV every night for the next year; luckily but, you only got to see my back!

Anyway, believe it or not, the camp is actually in the Guiness Book Records as the only place in the world with realistic paintings drawn by elephants – and I’m not joking, these beats can definitely paint a better bouquet of flowers than myself! Not only that, they play football, give Thai massage and dance. For more information on Maesa Elephant Camp see

Well, after an afternoon out, it was time for a Khao Soi noodle snack and to find out where I would be staying for the next three nights. Presuming it would be some average place, I was soon to be dazzled at an executive business room at one of the city’s top hotels, the Centara Duang Tawan. Not bad, but this treat was simply nothing on what was to come next in the evening.

Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi

I have to admit, since I had been to the Oriental Hotel twice before in Bangkok (once for a dinner review) I wasn’t exactly on the edge of my seat waiting for the buffet and show at the sister hotel in Chiang Mai. Dhara Dhevi however, as I was to witness in total awe, is one of Asia’s most breath-taking hotels. Unfortunately, the TAT operator explained that there was just no way they had enough budget to have the travel operators and us media stay there. I mean, charges range (after service charge and govt tax) from around 19,000 baht for the least expensive villa/suite to ten thousand US dollars for the 6-bedroom Royal Residence. From the pic posted here though, you can simply see why!

We all had an extremely pleasant evening, and besides the endless supply of beer, we were treated to a terrific international buffet and a traditional Lanna performance made up of dancers, boxers and fire-breathers. It was also a great time to meet some of the local media, and these included Margaret Bhadungzong who has been publishing the Chiang Mai Magazine for more than twenty years and Mike Atkins from Bangkok 101 and the newly released Chiang Mai 101. Well… after a couple of hours at the Dhara Dhevi, it still wasn’t over…… there was the Chiang Mai Night Safari to attend! I’ll do a bit of a write-up on that a bit later – I mean this blog is long enough as it is!