In his 70-year reign, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, his wife Queen Sirikit, and other members of the royal family, worked tirelessly to promote community development projects throughout Thailand. They range from the obscure to the high-profile, from small and local to projects whose ripple effects reach every corner of Thailand. Most of them are in Thailand’s north and northeast, areas that have borne the brunt of deforestation, droughts, and economic stagnation.
Almost all of them were initiated after a thorough examination of the problem and its potential solutions, and in every case, locals from the affected area were asked to help manage the projects. However, not many visitors know that many of the projects are superbly interesting tourist attractions in their own right, providing the opportunity to understand Thailand’s economics, demographics, and history on a whole other level.
Here are several of our favorites…
The Doi Tung Development Project, Chiang Rai
The area north of Chiang Rai known as the Golden Triangle was the center of the opium epidemic for decades, with all the seedy and tragic elements one would associate with major drug production. But in the mid-1980s, under the guidance of King Rama IX and his mother, the area and its population was transformed in a shining example of alternative development. Opium was replaced with coffee, marketable skills were taught, and the quality of life for locals was vastly improved. Today, the Mae Fah Luang Art and Culture Park in Chiang Rai is a museum, botanical garden, and architectural showcase, highlighting the skills and traditions of the ethnic minorities that have called this area home for centuries.
The Kung Krabaen Bay Royal Development Study Centre, Chanthaburi
Established in 1982 to study agricultural and marine life ecosystems, this amazing seaside mangrove forest is a living museum. Not only can you stroll along a one kilometer boardwalk under the shade of cork and mangrove trees, looking down on mangrove roots and the viscous mud that is home to all manner of bizarre creatures, but you can follow the trail to an educational pavilion that juts into the ocean to learn how this project has made eco-tourism a centerpiece of local lifestyles.
The Royal Agricultural Station Inthanon, Chiang Mai
High on the hills of Doi Inthanon – Thailand’s tallest peak – sits one of the most beautiful of all the Royal Projects. Created in 1979 to research and promote sustainable highland farming methods, it has given locals the skills to grow, create, and market their own livelihoods rather than rely on opium producers for money. Make sure to have an empty memory card when you visit – the site boasts an impressive waterfall, some gorgeous hiking trails, and enough gardens and floral displays to give anyone’s green thumb a run for its money. Don’t miss the displays of nearly extinct ferns, as well as a great collection of carnivorous plants.
Pang Kha Development Center, Phayao
Bordering Laos, Phayao has an incredible history of peoples, ethnicities, and traditions going back thousands of years. This area has long been a hotbed of migration and trade, and it shows in the Pang Kha Development Center. Its most famous attraction is a 500-acre lychee orchard, but visitors can get up close with Hmong and Yao hilltribe traditions – hand-made fabrics, silverware, and musical instruments, among others. Stock up on organic veggies and go for a swim at the bottom of the three-storey high Khun Nam Ton waterfall. When it’s bedtime, don’t bother with a hotel – rent a tent and sleeping bag and sleep here under the stars!
Huai Tin Tok Development Center, Chiang Mai
When it comes to lush flora and a superb way to lose yourself in nature, you really can’t beat Huai Tin Tok. There are a huge number of culturally important – and delicious – plants here, from coffee to vanilla to orchids and the beautiful Himalayan cherry tree. The major crop here is the miang leaf (used to wrap up coconut, lime, peanuts, and assorted other ingredients into a neat little ball and pop in your mouth). There are even a few houses that you can stay in – stash your gear and head off on some of the area’s incredible nature walks.
The Hall of Opium, Golden Triangle Park, Chiang Rai
The Golden Triangle area was infamous worldwide for its poppy fields, drug smugglers, and opium warlords from the 1960s to early 1990s. In 1988, HRH the Princess Mother created The Hall of Opium museum to help educate people on the dangers of opium – directly supporting the various other Royal Projects to eradicate opium crops in the region. The world-class exhibition covering an area of 5,600 square meters follows the 5,000-year history of opium cultivation, trade and use and is a fascinating way to spend a morning or afternoon. It is captivating and entertaining while being very informative.
Smiling Albino can include guided visits to any of these projects when designing your Thailand adventure. Contact us here for more details.