His Serene Highness Prince Bhisatej Rajani was a member of my riding club in the early eighties at the Pack Squadron Riding Club on the Mae Rim Road. He was in his sixties and I was still in my single digits, a semi-precocious child who loved horses. For the next seven to eight years we would arrive at dawn on weekend mornings, a group anywhere between five and twenty, saddling up and riding into the Doi Suthep-Pui Mountains for picnics by waterfalls, reckless cross-country adventures and more often than not getting lost for hours on end. As the only child member through all those years, I tagged along these often-tough rides…and cried a lot. Returning to base, sweaty and satisfied, our afternoons were spent on Huay Tung Tao Lake, where the only pontoon in those days was our club’s. As the adults drank beers and flirted with one another, I would often implore Prince Bhisadej to give me windsurfing lessons, a skill he was more than adept at, having sailed with His Majesty the King of Thailand for many years in the Gulf of Siam. They were idyllic days.
But even in my self-involved young mind, I had an inkling of the world around me. Many of the horses we rode in those days were scarred by bullets. You see, these were horses confiscated by Thai soldiers after attacking notorious drug lord Khun Sa’s caravans. While Chiang Mai was safe and connected to so-called civilisation by then, the mountains of the north were still dangerous territories home to drug caravans and guerrilla skirmishes.
Prince Bhisatej was a good sportsman and bon vivant, he had, by that time, also been the Director of the Royal Project for over two decades, a position he still holds today, at 96 years old.
As I walked into his small frill-free office further up the end of Suthep Road, decorated only with a plain framed photograph of the prince working with His Majesty the King, the 96 year old prince looked up with his signature straight face, “Pim? My, my, I think I have to take you excercising!”
Educated in Dulwich College, England, Prince Bhisatej graduated from Cambridge University before joining the British army in 1943, initially as a soldier, then spy. He spent much of the war engaging the Seri Thai movement, liaising between British allies and the Thai underground network to resist the Japanese occupation of Thailand, following intense training in the Himalayas. He returned to Thailand after the war and soon after met the young King, with whom he discovered a shared love of sailing. The two becoming close friends, a friendship which only ended this October, spending many years building sailboats and sailing in the Gulf of Siam.
“I used to just tag along after the king when he began to come to Chiang Mai regularly after Phuping Palace was built in the early sixties. When this idea for the Royal Project began to take shape for His Majesty in 1968, he turned to me one day and told me to set it up. What did I know about agriculture?!” he smiled, shaking his head fondly at the memory.
Mountains of Opium…and War
The north of Thailand in the late 1960s would be unrecognisable to us today. With twenty percent of Thailand’s forests having recently disappeared due to settlement and farming, His Majesty saw a potential problem stemming from lack of water resources for the entire nation should upstream highlanders continue their damaging practice of slash and burn, moving settlements every few years to clear more forest for opium. The 250,000 poverty-stricken hilltribes living in the northern mountains in those days were, on the most part, nomadic. Thailand was producing approximately 200 tonnes of opium a year enough to supply every heroin addict in the United States for three years and contributing to around 8% of the world opium supply. Today the number has been reduced to under two tonnes per year, or 0.04% of the world’s opium. Khun Sa’s deadly empire was expanding, using hilltribes to both produce and transport opium. And the Kuomintang Chinese army, cut off and stranded from allies who fled to Taiwan, had also become players in the drug trade.
Their Majesties the King and Queen, throughout the active years of their reign, spent approximately eight months of each year in their regional palaces, using them as bases to reach far-flung areas of the kingdom. According to ‘The Peach and the Poppy’, a book published by the Royal Project, one day his majesty heard of a Hmong village with poppy fields within walking distance of Phuping Palace and gathered a small group of people for a walk to the village. He had long been concerned about all the opium he saw from his many helicopter rides, but had up until then been unable to visit a hilltribe village as it was deemed too risky. That day, without them knowing he was king, he spent hours with the villagers, learning about their practice and economics. He had previously been fascinated by the grafting work being done on some local peach trees on his palace grounds in an attempt to improve their quality by a team of researchers from Kasetsart University. Learning that the Hmong hilltribes pickled these native peaches and sold them in Chiang Mai’s markets, and that that their income from peaches was not that much lower than that from opium — much of which had to go to the middlemen — he began to mull over the idea of improving the peach to replace the poppy.
Cheese and Moonshine
“Suddenly I was in charge of this new project,” Prince Bhisatej exclaimed. “It wasn’t too hard though because who wouldn’t want to help the King? So my job was to get experts to help. I asked experts in various fields from Kasetsart, Mae Jo and Chiang Mai Universities to help, and they have been helping ever since.”
His Majesty’s vision was far-reaching and his aim was threefold — to find replacement crops for opium, to improve the lot of the highlanders and to end the bad agricultural practices in the northern region. According to The Peach and the Poppy, he also warned all those involved that opium replacement would not be achievable within one generation, predicting that it would take up to 30 years. In fact, the first eight years of the Royal Project, which was founded in 1969, was purely focused on research. It was a long game he was playing and one only His Majesty himself could possibly have succeeded in.
“The King would get onto the helicopter and explore the north every second day he was here,” the Prince reminisced. “I would always have a bag with me with a change of clothes, some crackers, a tin of spam and some cheese, in case he decided to stay overnight somewhere. We were a small group, often trekking late into the night in the forests, sleeping in villages on mats. We couldn’t have armed guards or any weapons with us as it could have seemed threatening to the people were trying to reach, so yes, they were very dangerous times. But how could I complain when everywhere I went I either went with His Majesty or he had already been before me?”
Prince Bhisatej himself wrote a book about His Majesty and the Royal Project, sharing an anecdote about the King drinking some moonshine with hilltribe villagers. Prince Bhisatej was concerned that the cup containing the drink was filthy and offered to drink it in the King’s stead. His Majesty waved the price off, telling him that the alcohol was strong enough to kill the germs and continued to enjoy the drink with the villagers.
“He was a people’s King. He would sit on the floor with them, talking deep into the night, listening to their problems, learning about how things worked, and always thinking about how he could help them.”
“Sometimes it was quite terrifying,” recalls the prince. “We’d be dropped off in a village by a helicopter which would then leave, circling the skies with guns to make sure we weren’t attacked by a guerrilla ambush, but it was all worth it when the palace representatives would hand out much needed medicine to the people, and we would see how grateful and happy they were that we cared enough about them to come, some of them pulling off their silver jewelleries to try to give us as thanks.”
Higher Plain of Success
In his book, Prince Bhisatej attributes the same characteristics that led His Majesty to become a great sailor, winning the gold medal in the SEA Games, to his success in the Royal Project: The King was hard working and focused, he had endurance, an excellent memory, good humour, was observant and fast to adjust to the current, had the spirit of a sportsman as well as a teacher, was kind and compassionate, always wanting to help others and had a great vision, always accepting new viewpoints and seeing things from different angles.
“It was hard at first to convince the hilltribes to change their crops,” Prince Bhisatej recalls. “But His Majesty was patient and insisted that no one be forced to do anything they didn’t want to. He also insisted that villagers not abandon their opium crops until substitute vegetables or fruits yielded comparable income to opium. When it made sense economically, they switched. I remember when our first strawberry farmer on Doi Inthanon made 200,000 baht income in his first year, it was incredible.”
The humble peach was the fruit that blossomed into the Royal Project, which, over the years began to introduce more and cooler climate fruits, flowers and vegetables to Thailand’s mountains. As crop yields began to generate income, one type of cut flowers yielding more than 60 times that of opium, formerly reticent farmers began to flock to the Royal Project, and today the projects support more than 100,000 hilltribes throughout the north of Thailand.
“We flew over Doi Angkhang in Fang District one day and saw thousands upon thousands of abandoned opium fields,” said the prince. “There had been much fighting there at the time and the hilltribes had, bar two Lahu Villages, fled to the base of the mountain where the Kuomintang had blocked the road from their return. Our research showed that this land was fertile and optimal for growing many of our previously experimental plants and when negotiations ended the conflict, we invited the hilltribes back up to join our project.”
In 1969 Doi Angkhang became, and remains, the official headquarters of the Royal Project which now spans 38 stations throughout the north.
“You can’t imagine how rich some of those early hilltribes are now!” beamed the prince. “I am also, in His Majesty’s memory, about to open up a new station in Tak Province where there is still a fair amount of opium growth.”
The Royal Project is a success by any standards and many countries including Laos, Myammar and Afghanistan, have all looked to it as a model to emulate. However, the uniqueness of its characteristics and circumstances makes it virtually impossible to mimic in its entirety.
The leadership of His Majesty gave the project enough gravitas to elicit willing participants in both funds and expertise from all over the world, not just from within Thailand. With the Royal Project entirely funded from the King’s pocket up until 1993, it wasn’t reliant on donors who would require swift results and instant success, allowing the project to grow at a steady and organic rate, focusing not only on agriculture but the overall wellbeing of the people it was there to help (medicine, education, hygiene, infrastructure, the list goes on). Today the government sets aside an annual budget of 400 million baht for the Royal Project which generated 1.3 billion baht last year. The profits are negligible, sitting at around 11-20 million baht, turned over year on year, with most of the profits going into the pockets of the farmers themselves. His Majesty’s deep pockets also allowed for numerous trials and errors in research and development over the years. Thailand’s dizzying growth — its GDP jumped from 3.4 billion dollars in 1970 to 136 billion dollars in 2002 — meant that there was a market which could afford its prices. And with the cache of His Majesty, shops scrambled to shelve Doi Kham and other Royal Project products, opening up markets which gobbled up produce sent down from the previously opium-ridden mountains.
“I have never taken one single baht from the Royal Project,” said Prince Bhisatej. “In fact, there are 173 volunteers — many those first recruits I brought in in 1969 — who have never and still don’t take a salary.”
The Prince is getting on in years, but apparently not lagging much in energy. He is based in Bangkok with his large family, but flies up to Chiang Mai weekly for three to four days’ work where he attends meetings, oversees projects and still on occasion travels to visit the fruits of his near half-century labour. For decades, a familiar face in the city’s finer restaurants, he now prefers quiet times at home reading his books and tending to his roses. As we wind up the interview, he reminds me — as he seems to each and every time we meet whether in public or private — what a cry baby I was and repeats his message of my need to exercise. I nod sheepishly and shamefully at the virile virtual-centenarian.
He still has much to do and when I asked him, slightly waspishly, whether he thought it was time to retire he answered with slight indignation, “Why? The King didn’t tell me when to stop so how can I? I’m going to keep going until I can’t anymore.” I have a feeling that day is in the far distance.