Daniel Fraser, of Smiling Albino, takes visitors on exciting and enlightening tours of the Royal Projects
Canadian-born Daniel Fraser, the co-founder and current Managing Director of Smiling Albino—a Bangkok-based travel company specializing in creative adventure experiences in Thailand—has put together customized journeys for a slew of A-list celebs and rockstars, as well as wholesome families and adventurous travellers looking for something decidedly different. His tours often involve visits to the various Royal Projects, and his affection and admiration for these regions invariably rubs off on the visitors he brings there. Interestingly, Daniel’s own association with the Royal Projects dates back to his very first trip to Thailand, long before Smiling Albino was even conceived.
You first came to Thailand at the age of 21. What brought you here?
I was in university in the US back in 1995 and I had this incredible opportunity to come to work for the royal family of Thailand. The philanthropic wing of the university had a 30-40 year relationship with the King and Queen of Thailand, helping in the Royal Projects since Day 1. But the funding for this foundation at the uni fell apart, and that’s when H.R.H. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn stepped forward and basically said, “Look, this uni has been sending people for so long to help work with our projects, send a couple of people to work directly under my auspices and I will pay the bill”. So, lo and behold, with a couple of weeks planning I arrive in Bangkok with one other guy, working at the Chitlanda Palace. I was there for a year and my main job was high school English teacher in the King’s private school. I also worked at the Chaipattana Foundation, which is a Royal Project for the development of agricultural sustainability projects all over Thailand, mostly for hilltribe people and the rural poor who generally lack water resources.
So when you arrived in the 90s, the Royal Projects were already a firmly entrenched entity?
Absolutely! And my role in this thing… I was a glorified English tutor to some of the staff. But it was fantastic. I was spending time with farmers, machinists, and engineers, helping them perfect their English. And in so doing I learned about what they were doing, which was fascinating. It was creating a sustainable backbone for this country, outside of government and NGOs. I was hooked. I thought, this is the ultimate benevolent monarch.
But you eventually went back to North America, correct?
Yes. I was here for one year teaching, and I fell in love with Thailand and vowed to return. I felt I had spent a year here quite unlike anyone else—I wasn’t a tourist or an expat. I was in this epicenter of amazing culture and people. So I went back to school in the US, returned to Canada, went into advertising, and finally came back in 2000 with a friend of mine to start the travel agency Smiling Albino, which is what I do now.
I know I’m not the first person to ask but, where did that name come from?
The sacred royal Thai elephant—the white elephant—is an incredible animal that I was fortunate enough to feed many times when I was in the palace. I wanted a name that was synonymous with what’s unique about Thailand—the albino elephant—and “smiling” because it’s the “land of smiles”. So the idea being that we wanted to expose Western travellers to the real Thailand.
Which Royal Projects are best suited for visitors?
The most obvious one, that really is an ideal place for tourism—because it’s an education centre and it has hands-on activities—is called Doi Tung. You can visit rehabilitation training centers, vegetable farming centers, and textile and bead centers. There’s also a world class ceramics center, as well as the King’s Mother’s home and garden. In addition to all that there’s the Hall of Opium, which if you’ve never been to, is a must! It’s a very well done, pretty honest, 5,000 year chronology of the opium trade.
How do the projects fit into the Smiling Albino tour itineraries?
We don’t take people to the Royal Projects as a destination. They are their stops along the way, on a journey learning about Northern Thailand. Education is an integral part of our trips, and our clients are genuinely interested in how Northern Thailand has developed and how the Royal Family has managed to buffer the opium trade, and communism, and many other things, to create sustainable livelihoods. But when these tourists are in Northern Thailand they also want to know “who are these ethnic groups?”, and the best way to learn about them is at some of these Royal Projects, because they tend to be populated largely by ethnic groups. It becomes a self-feeding enterprise. People are interested enough at the beginning to hear about it, then once they’re there they want to learn more. But it really takes a great guide to bring it to life.
Is it easy for people to join in on some of your tours?
I’d say virtually all of our trips are customized—95% of our clients come directly from overseas—but it’s possible to join a trip of ours as long as it hasn’t been sold as a private trip. Some clients are fine to have joiners. And next year we have a plan to create a few “weekend getaways” that are a little more in line with visiting traditional Thai areas.
Are the Royal Projects easy for the average visitor to find?
Doi Inthanon is obvious, because it’s the highest mountain in Thailand, and Doi Ang Khang, a highland forestry station, is one of the original projects dating back 30 some odd years, with this incredible vista overlooking the Chiang Mai/Chiang Rai frontier. Most people know those places are there, but most people don’t know there’s a lot more to see and do once you’re there. It’s an onion, you peel back a layer and you find something else. In the early days of Smiling Albino we used to take people on motor scooters up to Doi Tung and we’d stop at the Royal Gardens, and visit the house. We’d have a great lunch—the food is fabulous, it’s from the organic farms—and then we’d drive out and it’d be an hour long in-and-out experience. But then some clients expressed interest in really digging deeper and learning about the handicrafts, and visiting the textile factories. They’d say, “I’d like to see how they make coffee”, or “I’d like to see how they make these bowls and ceramic pots and things”, so then it got a little more in-depth, which is why from time to time we go behind the curtain and into the factories.
Do you personally have any favourite Royal Project areas?
Kung Krabaen Bay in Chanthaburi province! They do a lot of projects there that are great, and also great for hands-on learning and experience by visitors. It’s largely about developing sustainable marine life—oysters, squids, crabs—but includes everything from planting seed grass, to fortifying the sandbanks with mangrove forests. And, of course, I love Doi Tung. There’s so much to it. In addition to fabulous mountain biking and hiking, they also make the best brownies in Thailand up there.
Do you think the projects will change now that The King has passed away?
I think had the King passed away in the mid 70s or 80s, when a lot of these projects were still finding their own direction, a lot would have changed. It would have left a lot of people helpless. But the King has left behind great structure, great incentive, and great motivation. I think most of these projects will continue. The country has so much to gain from them. Enough people are living better lives to know that now would not be the time to shift course.
Did you ever meet His Majesty?
I was “presented” to him once, at an event in the palace, but it wasn’t like a conversation (laughs). I was presented, I bowed, someone introduced who I was, he nodded, and that was it. But it was a real honour. He had a presence like no other person on the planet—gracious, respectable, dignified, and curious.
Find out more about Daniel and his team of skilled travel specialists at: www.smilingalbino.com