A Switzerland on our Doorstep

"I will reforest Doi Tung," said the Princess Mother in 1987, and with those words, the fate of the 'red mountain' changed.

By | Thu 1 Sep 2011

Nestled in the midst and mist of the mountains of northern Thailand is a remarkable Royal Project – so remarkable in fact, that it was opened to the public as a tourist destination in 1992 just four years after it was started.

The Doi Tung Development Project is just one of the many projects which fall under the Mae Fah Luang Foundation’s efforts to provide the people of Thailand and neighbouring countries with sustainable and licit livelihoods. The late Royal Princess Mother herself was responsible for starting this not-for-profit organisation in 1972 in an attempt to “tackle poverty and lack of opportunity” via a model for development known as Sustainable Alternative Livelihood Development (SALD). She appropriately named the foundation “Mae Fah Luang,” which was the affectionate term given to her by the local people she served, and translates as Royal Mother Sky. HRH saw the sickness, poverty and ignorance of these people as a self-perpetuating cycle and she believed that fighting these key social problems could help eliminate other spin-off issues such as human trafficking, the spread of diseases and more specifically to Doi Tung, environmental degradation and narcotics cultivation.

On one of her frequent visits to the border police schools in Mae Sai, the Princess Mother spotted the “Red Mountain,” a local name for Doi Tung which accurately described its barren appearance. Further investigation revealed that the treeless mountain had been the victim of slash and burn cultivation, a farming technique used by the 29 different villages illegally inhabiting these 150 square kilometres of nationally owned land. These nomads had fled threatening governments in surrounding countries such as Burma, Laos and China. Their refugee status and lack of identification eliminated their options for employment in Thailand, and so they created lives for themselves in the mountains, planting rice and other foods to survive. The cool climate of the high altitudes allowed the villagers to grow opium for healthcare, but its purposes quickly exceeded the medicinal. Thais from surrounding villages would trek to the top of Doi Tung in search of this sought-after drug and the villagers would happily sell it to them in return for some much-needed cash.

“I will reforest Doi Tung,” said the Princess Mother in 1987, and with those words, the fate of the ‘red mountain’ changed.

With the SALD model as her guide, HRH relocated the 8,000 villagers to the surrounding lowlands. She believed that human, environmental and economic development could all be achieved by helping the nomads to help themselves, while simultaneously helping the environment. The refugees were trained in forestry and educated in new methods of cultivation that did not harm their surroundings. Over 500 of the villagers were also sent to rehabilitation centres to overcome their opium addiction in hopes that they would one day be able to healthily contribute to society.

For one baht per tree per year, they were able to rent the reforested trees from the government. Thanks to the pleasant weather provided by the high altitude, they could grow macadamia nuts, arabica coffee beans and chestnuts. Competition from China limited the benefits of growing the last, however macadamia nuts and arabica coffee turned out to be very fruitful investments. Whatever was not used by the villagers themselves was sold in local markets for a profit that benefitted the land and the people.

Apart from forestry and cultivation, the ex-nomads were also trained in the fields of handicraft work and business. Factories were built to create products such as carpets, ceramics and clothes, while some were also built for coffee roasting. These factories gave rise to the Cafe DoiTung shops and DoiTung Lifestyle stores which can now be spotted around Thailand.

What sets this royal project apart from any other is that it is the only one which can also be considered a major tourist destination. With the mountain reforested, the addicts converted and the community thriving, HRH decided that it was time for Doi Tung to take the next step. The project was opened up to the public in 1992, in hopes that it would create more jobs in hospitality and generate funding for the project itself. The three main attractions at Doi Tung are the Royal Villa, the Mae Fah Luang Garden and the Hall of Inspiration. We recommend visiting them all, and don’t worry about time, because it will only take you half a day!

The Royal Villa was built by the Princess Mother as both a place of relaxation and a camp out for her visits to the project site in its early years. Having spent most of her life in Switzerland, she developed a special affinity for its temperature and continued holidaying there even in her old age. Doi Tung, however, provided the vacation spot in Thailand that she always needed; somewhere quiet, with a cool climate and a beautiful view where rest and relaxation were a mere plane ride away. The villa is elegant in all of its simplicity. Built with teak and pine wood, all recycled and donated to her by the Forestry Organisation of Thailand as a gift of appreciation for her hard work in Doi Tung. It is decorated with her very own handicrafts, or with gifts given to her by many of those whose lives she touched. One such example is the impressive ceiling of the main reception hall where HRH’s favourite astronomical signs are carved into the wood; a gift presented to her by the Astronomical Society of Thailand. The view of the mountains from her balcony is breathtaking and her presence can still be felt as you reverently walk through her halls.

At the Mae Fah Luang Garden, the brilliant colours and rare species of flora are mesmerising. The Princess Mother wanted Thais who could not afford to travel abroad to be able to experience the beauty of a winter garden. The cooler climate of Doi Tung proved perfect for such a garden and so the villagers went to work planting the flowers and selling the excess in local markets or to tourists visiting the site. The flowers and their arrangements change yearly so tourists who fall in love with the garden the first time can come back year and year again to see what changes have been made.

The final attraction is the Hall of Inspiration, a well designed museum that walks you through seven rooms where you can learn about the Royal Mahidol family from inception to present. The museum traces not only their lives, but their accomplishments as well. Testimonials along the walls from locals who have been directly affected by the efforts of the Mahidol family attest to the important role they have played in developing Thai society.

Whether the breathtaking views have stolen your attention, or the serenity of the mountain top is too difficult to part with, if you decide to stay at Doi Tung for more than a day, you can. The DoiTung Lodge provides simple, yet clean and well-equipped rooms for you to rest and the two restaurants on the grounds will leave you asking for seconds. There’s even a little bit of shopping to be done at the DoiTung lifestyle store where you can buy anything from a post card to a new business suit, all hand-made and unique to the Doi Tung culture. After a long day of walking, give your feet a rest and sip on a delicious Macadamia Nut Frappe at the Cafe DoiTung (one of the 25 outlets found in Thailand). If the mountain hasn’t tired you out yet, stop by the gym in the evening for a game of badminton or take a jog around the track to unwind. Your options abound!

The Doi Tung Development Project is just one of the three such projects in Northern Thailand. The Mae Fah Luang Art and Cultural Park and the Hall of Opium in Chiang Rai complete the trio. Originally a centre for the preservation of Lanna and Greater Mekong cultures, the Art and Cultural Park serves today not only as a cultural safe house, but also as a home to hundreds of youth with no access to education. There they can gain practical skills to improve their communities, as well as contribute to the protection of their traditions. The Hall of Opium is a museum dedicated to reducing the demand for opium by educating the public about its 5,000 year history and its effects on the individual and society as a whole. True to her beliefs and goals, HRH insisted on tackling the problem from its roots, insisting that education is the key to development.

A trip to Doi Tung, even if just for a day, is sure to provide some much needed relaxation, a wonderful view and delightfully tasty Northern Thai cuisine. All proceeds go to the continuation of the project as government funding stopped in 2002, so take a trip off the beaten path (preferably between October and April), it’ll be good for you and for the environment. Literally!