Travel to Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest peak and home to one of Thailand’s most frequented Royal Project sites
A few miles before you reach the top of Thailand’s highest mountain, Doi Inthanon, where the temperature suddenly plunges and an alluring mist encroaches on to the winding road, you’ll find an enduring example of the legacy of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. This is the Royal Agricultural Station Inthanon, the brainchild of the recently deceased monarch.
The research station, located in Khun Klang village, is one of four such stations in Thailand. It was part of His Majesty’s vision to promote farming sustainably as well as diminish poverty and deforestation in Thailand by inculcating highlanders with knowledge of farming various crops; sharing the latest innovations and technologies with these farmers, while supporting a good standard of living for all in these remote areas.
The station in Doi Inthanon was established in 1979, 10 years after the King had started the Royal Project initiative. Its aim was to solve myriad social, economic and environmental problems all in one. The station now consists of gardens, ponds, nurseries, greenhouses, all of which are places of work as well as a busy tourist attraction. You can actually rent a small bungalow just yards from where—at the time of our visit—the staff (members of local hilltribes) were unloading sacks of fertilizer.
Jakapan ‘Tao’ Jantasee, the Project Coordinator at the station, spoke at length about the King’s intention when opening the research station, as well as its day-to-day functioning. We sat drinking Royal Project coffee on a crisp Saturday morning, taking in the panoramic view of layered hillsides—which, Tao explained, were where roses and chrysanthemums were presently growing.
The centre here focuses on growing mainly temperate vegetables, ornamental flowers, and fruits, as well as farming fish. The flowers cultivated could eventually end up decorating grand gardens in Bangkok, while the produce might one day be feeding passengers on Thai Airways flights, or simply lining the shelves of the nation’s supermarkets.
For the most part the farmers working at the station are members of hilltribe communities, either of Hmong or White Karen ethnicity. Prior to the introduction of alternative crops, one of the main sources of income for these hilltribe people was the production of opium. For some ethic groups the consumption of opium was also a part of their culture, something the Thai government wanted to change. In 1958 Thailand declared the prohibition of the sale and consumption of opium in the kingdom. But as opium production was a vital source of income to some ethnic minorities—especially those living in the areas in and around Doi Inthanon—Thailand found itself in a position in which it had to sever a means of survival for an already impoverished group of people.
As the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) pointed out in a 1963 paper entitled ‘The Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand and the Opium Problem’, which detailed this predicament, hilltribes were quite aware of the negative effects of opium on those who became addicted to the drug. At the same time the demand for opium was constant, and so in spite of the anxiety of being arrested for supplying it, the risks seemed worth it, according to the UNODC paper. Another setback was continual movement due to the degradation of soil were opium grew. The UNODC paper concluded, “If a change is necessary, the tribes would welcome it if it could be convincingly proved to them that it is a change for a better life for all.”
It took some years to convince farmers that indeed sustainable, and profitable farming was possible outside of farming opium. Under the advice of the King, who visited the hilltribes all over the north on many occasions, this did eventually change. Opium might still be found being farmed illegally in some parts of Thailand, but for the most part hilltribes now produce other crops, thanks to the King’s work. Hilltribes now practice sustainable methods of farming, as well as learning about post-production issues such as marketing and price fluctuation.
Reflecting this change are the workers at the Royal Agricultural Station Inthanon, some of whom look like they are old enough to recall the days when they were first told that they should stop producing opium and move to a different, alien, area of farming. Beside one of the plant nurseries at the project are half a dozen women packing rosemary plants into newspaper cones to be taken to Bangkok.
“I’ve been here 30 years,” one woman says, “working and also living at the project.” As Tao and I leave them to their rosemary we hear one of woman proudly say to another that they are going to be in a ‘farang’ newspaper.
“We take care of the local community,” Tao points out, over coffee, explaining that farmers work in one of four sections of the Royal Project devoted to either farming fruit, fish, vegetables, or coffee beans. The project is home to many people whose entire families live here, he added, and in return for work they are paid a wage and are given free accommodation—that includes meals—at the cost of B500 per month. At the moment the project is full, and there is a waiting list to get in, he went on to say.
“We offer a school of learning, teaching not only farming but also social values and education about health,” Tao tells me. “Part of the school is dedicated to vocational training where local hilltribes can study English, tourism, and learn how to do restaurant work or become a guide. “Oh, and you can learn how to cut hair,” he added with a smile. On the weekends the camp is visited by around 100 hilltribe children, each learning about farming or one or more of the aforementioned vocational skills.
Tourism and work activity at the park are not exclusive—tourists and workers mingle—so it’s a great chance to see agricultural life in action. At the same time, a stay in the park offers far more than the experience many tourists have, which is often just driving up the hill, taking a selfie at the ‘Thailand’s Highest Mountain’ sign, and driving back down again.
In addition to the educational value, the park itself is gloriously eye-catching, decorated by the work itself—hillsides festooned with flowers and ponds home to swans languorously paddling about. There are also a number of nature trails starting from the project, perfect for daytime hikes.
There are currently more than 4,100 Royal Project developments in Thailand, a number so large that the Office of the Royal Development Project Board (ORDPB) was created in order to maintain it. This covers not only coffee cultivation, but also research centered around food and water resource management in order to tackle such things as malnutrition and poverty.
This is aligned with His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s ‘Sufficiency Economy’ theory, which not only focused on sustainable development but also encapsulated an almost epicurean philosophy which His Majesty hoped would be followed by the people of Thailand. The basis of this was to live within one’s means, and if the country practiced sustainable development then the people of Thailand would always have enough.
At the same time the King understood the importance of education and the need to address a lack of it in some of Thailand’s poorer communities. Farmers were introduced to other ways to gain additional income, through the making of handicrafts and furniture, much of which can be seen in markets throughout Thailand, whose customers are often foreign tourists. The Royal Project initiative also included healthcare initiatives and educational initiatives, all aimed at offering a better life for people in remotes rural areas. For this and other work the King was given the United Nations Development Programme’s first Human Development Lifetime Achievement award in 2006 by the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
But the King’s vision encompassed not only those living in difficult economic circumstances, but all that lived in Thailand and around the world. Sufficiency Economy was to address the problems that arise from over-consumption in a world with finite resources, and the problems this can inflict on the world, such as environmental crisis and over-dependence of consumer products.
“Development must burst from within,” the King once said, emphasizing that a better world starts with personal choices.
Doi Inthanon National Park is 108 km from Chiang Mai, taking route 1009. The journey takes about 2.5 hours.
To get to The Royal Agricultural Station Inthanon head up the mountain for 31 km until you see the sign for Khun Klang Village on your right. Take the turning and follow the road up for about five minutes. The project is signposted. For info call 053 286 773, or visit www.royal-inthanon.com (Facebook: The Royal Agricultural Station Inthanon).
Where to stay
Moderately priced bungalows within the national ark are available for overnight stays. For more info call 053 286 771-2, or send an email to: [email protected].
By James Farrell