Closing my eyes, I let the sun’s rays warm my face. The morning had been cold, something I didn’t expect to encounter in Thailand, a country known for its heat and humidity. Opening my eyes, the mountain peaks awed me again, with lush green crops on every peak, under the first blue sun I’d seen in a week.
I was in Doi Ang Khang, a three-hour – and very windy drive – from Chiang Mai, on the Thai/Myanmar border, in search of Thai tea.
I ran my fingers over the bushes, the leaves ready to be picked, or rather ‘plucked’, in just a few days.
“Do you know how to pluck?” Pui, my guide to the plantations and tea specialist at the Royal Project Agricultural Station 1, asked as she walked to the other side of the bush I was admiring, grinning at me curiously.
I shook my head. I’ve only seen it done when I was in Nuwara Eliya – Sri Lanka’s tea lands – but didn’t try.
Her eyes glanced over the top layer of leaves and she pulled at the bush while explaining – “Stems must be short. Long stems are too hard to…” she paused, “…process?“
She looked at me awaiting confirmation she’d used the right word. English wasn’t Pui’s second language and she was more comfortable speaking Mandarin or Taiwanese – picked up from trips to Taiwan to learn about tea cultivation – than English.
I nodded as she held out two bushels with different stem lengths she’d plucked, “which one is correct?“
During the 1960’s, Thailand was branded with the title of drug capital of Asia. The mountainous region of Northern Thailand was considered one of the most dangerous places in the world, with as much as 200 tonnes of Opium poppies – the main ingredient in heroin – grown across the fertile terrain each year.
In the process of growing these cash crops, farmers used a ‘slash-and-burn’ farming technique that, despite providing new crops nutrient-rich ash to grow in, contributed to the deforestation of hundreds of hectares of land and soil erosion.
It was when His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej – the current King of Thailand – was visiting the King’s Palace in Chiang Mai that this problem was noticed. While out on a walk he came across an opium-growing hill tribe village called Doi Pui, just an hour outside the city.
Alongside the opium crops, farmers grew cool weather peaches that aren’t able to be grown in the warmer lowlands and earned them far more income than the opium poppies. It was the discovery of these peach trees in the Doi Pui village that brought about the start of the Royal Project.
The first Royal Project Agricultural Station was established in 1969 in Doi Ang Khang, the very same site I was standing on. The landscape has changed vastly over the near forty years it has been running, as more research has been conducted to choose the best species of plants and flowers for the program, those whose crops will yield the best quality and quantity in the cooler climate.
In that time, more than 297 villages, or 172,309 people, have been supported by the 38 development centres across northern Thailand.
The Royal Project is run with help from countries around the world who provide plant specimens or tools. Roses have been provided by the Netherlands, fast growing trees – like maple or pine trees – have been given by Taiwan, and both Taiwan and China have provided tea plants or machinery to the plantation. Canon has even provided a small wind turbine that’s placed near the tea-tasting point.
On the 8 hectares of land surrounding Pui and I were groves of tea, tended to by the Palong people, one of the four hill tribes living in the area. Each year, 50 people from the tribe work the land to produce and package 40,000 kg of tea. Other members of the tribe oversee the growth and cultivation of the rose gardens.
Two varieties of Chinese tea are grown at the station and created into four products – Green tea, Red tea, Oolong number 12 and Oolong number 17. You can taste all of these at the Tea-tasting Point overlooking the plantation when visiting the Station.
The tea business is a year-round affair, with the plants grown and plucked from April to November with drying, roasting and packaging happening year-round.
Alongside agriculture, tourism is an important part of the Royal Project’s success. Currently, 200,000 visitors, both domestic and international, visit the Doi Ang Khang Station each year to taste and see flora that can’t be grown in other areas of the country, experience the cool weather (yes, this is really is a reason Thai’s come to visit!) and support the hill tribes.
Visitors can wander the flower gardens – the most popular being the rose or bonsai garden, take a walk along the nature trails, go bird watching, climb to Doi Ang Khang’s highest peak, take a mule or bike ride, visit the local villages, or see across the Thai-Myanmar Border from the Thai Army Base. You can also eat, a lot!
The Royal Project’s on-site restaurant and cafe use the products from the Station to create Thai and international dishes, and they even run the AngKhang resort with 75 rooms decorated with local Thai fabrics, flowers and fruits, next door to the Station and who have committed to employ at least 50% of its staff from the local hill tribes.
If you want to taste something a little more local, the villages and town have dozens of small restaurants selling local Hill Tribe food from the Shans, Burmese and Chinese-Yunnanese. I tried the Bann Khum Village’s Chinese-Yunnanese-style food at ‘Thing Thing’ (pronounced ‘Ting Ting’). The owner, Phairoje, explained to me that the restaurant’s name meant ‘delicious’, and I’d definitely agree with that!
There has been some criticism that, with the influx of tourism, some tribes have begun to abandon their traditional way of life. Wandering around Nor Lae Village – the village of the Palong tribe – you’ll see village people in traditional clothing with mobiles, TV satellites, and, as my guide Jaa pointed out, houses made from brick instead of the more traditional wooden structures. She later explained that farmers that work with the Royal Project receive double the income of farmers outside the project.
While Jaa, my guide at the Royal Project Doi Ang Khang, told me they have successfully eradicated drugs within the Project’s agricultural station, I wanted to know about outside these stations.
There are drugs produced and their ingredients grown in Thailand – something which is actively trying to be stamped out by the local army and police – but more often, Thailand is now the importer. One of the most common places these drugs come from are from across the Myanmar (Burma) border.
“The small ones,” a local from the Chiang Mai province, who spoke little English, indicated with his hand their tiny size, “methamphetamina… headed to Bangkok.“
On the road from Doi Ang Khang to Chiang Mai, I passed through two army checkpoints. At one, a vehicle had its doors, bonnet and boot opened, with three men in army uniform actively searching the vehicle. These searches aren’t in vain. In 2014, one search found ฿1,000,000 (approx. AUD$40,000) worth of methamphetamines.
Even with a haul of that size, one Special Forces colonel tasked with leading the drug search branch of the army in northern Thailand estimates that less than 30 percent of the total amount of drugs being smuggled in are actually intercepted by Thai forces, though some authorities are celebrating since twice as many drugs were captured and destroyed – 9.5 tons worth nearly USD$600 million – than in the previous year.
Reading the latest United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) report it encourages governments and groups to find alternatives to growing these illicit crops, and that’s exactly what Royal Project Foundation will continue to do, as research continues to seek the best crops to grow and better farming techniques to improve both quality and quantity.
The Royal Project Foundation have set up shops in multiple locations around the country under the Royal Project brand. They also have stores at the airports and a Farmer’s Co-op at the Chatuchak Market in Bangkok. At these stores, you can find products grown from any of the 38 projects across northern Thailand, including body balms, handmade soaps, fresh produce, juices, rice, yoghurt, milk, cheese and even cereal bars!
Despite the slightly higher costs, locals – especially expats – come to shop at the store for the quality, taste and to know the products are truly organic.
“Unlike stores, we have three checks. One – in the field. Two – when packaging. Three – in the store,” Palm told me as we sat down for coffee, made from the Royal Project grown Arabica coffee beans, as she explained why people liked shopping at their stores.
If you prefer experiencing Thailand’s food cooked by the locals, the Royal Project Foundation Restaurant in Chiang Mai serves up dishes using products from the 38 projects across Northern Thailand. The food mixes the cool climate almost European-style foods with a Thai twist; think Pad Thai with vegetable flavoured pasta, fresh salads with Buffalo Feta, or yoghurt topped with dragonfruit, cashews or mulberry jam. Many of these recipes were developed by Jurutat Swidwongse.
“Next week a former contestant from Masterchef New Zealand is coming here. I’m expected to teach them to cook Thai-style when the food is [with Western influences]. I don’t cook!” Jurutat joked over lunch.
Jururtat has developed a number of the recipes on the restaurant menu and is in charge of the dairy division of the Royal Project Foundation. From buffalo feta to yoghurt, it’s all created under his watchful eye and served to the public each day.
Of course, if you can’t wait for your favourite cool climate fruit or vegetable to be in season or to see the cool-climate blooms, a cup of tea can be enjoyed in Doi Ang Khang or at the Royal Project stores across Thailand all year round.
Royal Project Agricultural Station – Doi Ang Khang
Ang Khang Nature Resort
Royal Project Store and Cafe – Chiang Mai
Address: Suthep Road, at the intersection with Canal Road, the shop is located inside Chiang Mai University (CMU).
Royal Project Restaurant Chiang Mai
Address: to be confirmed
Open: Wednesday 8:30am – 5pm
I visited Thailand as a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
Bitten by the Travel Bug retains 100% editorial control.
All thoughts and opinions are, as always, my own.