A humble hero, with a Thai-French ancestry, Ritthee Bunnag has been instrumental in the success of the Royal Projects in Northern Thailand, especially the coffee growing portion. In this interview, Ritthee talks about his goodwill work, his inspiration, and his views on life in Bangkok.
It’s not every day you get the chance to meet a modern day hero, especially when that person tends to shy away from publicity. The humble hero in question here is Ritthee Bunnag, the Deputy Director of the Arabica Coffee Department of the Royal Project Foundation. Ritthee has volunteered for the Royal Project Foundation for nine years now, and his contribution has been instrumental in maintaining a better livelihood for the hilltribe people of Northern Thailand.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born to a Thai father and French mother. I was studying in Thailand until I was 15 years old, and then I did high school in France and university in England. I currently live in Bangkok, and go to Chiang Mai for work twice a month. I’m a volunteer, working as Deputy Director of the Arabica Coffee Department, Royal Project Foundation.
How, and when, did you get involved with the Royal Projects?
About ten years ago I had a chance to visit Doi Ang Khang in Chiang Mai. I was impressed by the hilltribe people who used to grow opium, but became organic vegetable farmers. They live a happier life now, with a sincere smile on their faces. After that, I started helping a friend, who is working for the Royal Project Foundation, improving the menu and the management of a restaurant at the Royal Agricultural Station Ang Khang. Since that project was successful, the Chairman of the Royal Project Foundation gave me a chance to work in the Arabica Coffee Department. It has already been about nine years since I began work there.
What are your main roles and duties?
To give to the farmers both the knowledge and the techniques about how to produce a good quality coffee crop. I also ensure that we buy the coffee from the farmers at a fair price, and work to sell the green coffee beans and roasted coffee to our customers.
Are there some Royal Project items being grown/cultivated that might surprise people?
Since the beginning the Royal Projects have been set up to eliminate opium production by encouraging farmers to grow temperate crops. Most of the crops grown in the Royal Project area did not exist in Thailand before. We did all the research in order to be able to produce viable crops, and we extended this knowledge to the farmers. Now the hilltribes can produce about 200 kinds of vegetables, 30 varieties of fruits, and 20 different kinds of herbs. Some examples, that you might not associate with Thailand, include artichoke, rhubarb, beetroot, mizuna leaves, vanilla, cape gooseberry, and blueberries, as well as farmed animals such as pheasants, crayfish, and even sturgeon to make caviar.
Many Bangkok restaurants and cafés use Royal Project produce. How do chefs and restaurateurs go about getting involved?
They can order directly from our sales department, by calling 02 579 4747 (email: [email protected]). They can also visit our flagship store in Bangkok at Aor Tor Kor Market in the Chatuchak area, or they’re welcome to check out our website at www.royalprojectthailand.com.
Of the Bangkok restaurants using Royal Project produce, do you have any particular favourites?
Three that spring to mind right away are Sühring, Fillets, and Quince.
What are some of your other favourite spots in Bangkok?
I like to go to Lumphini Park in the early morning for jogging. I like any peaceful places with lots of big trees. Bangkok needs more green spaces.
Do the Royal Projects also impact the lives of the city people of Bangkok?
Supporting what the Royal Projects produce means that you are helping the hilltribes to conserve and better cultivate the nature of Northern Thailand. In addition, all the fruits and vegetables produced by the hilltribes in the Royal Project area have the Global Good Agriculture Practice certificate. By consuming these goods, it makes Bangkok people healthier.
What does the future hold, both for yourself and for the Royal Projects?
I will continue to work for the Royal Project Foundation as long as I can. I believe that the concept of Alternative Development could improve the livelihood of hilltribes and all Thai people.
Interview by Samantha Proyrungtong