If you’ve ever trekked in the forests of Northern Thailand and occasionally looked out over a vista of tree-covered slopes, stretching to the horizon, you may have presumed that this region has been relatively untouched until modern times – the primaeval realm of Mother Nature. But the truth is that these hills have long been home to a wide array of tribal people – half a million in number, living off the land, cultivating crops in small holdings and doggedly preserving their unique customs and cultures.
These hill-tribes are thought to have migrated from China and the Tibetan Plateau over the last few centuries to settle in Myanmar, Lao PDR. and Thailand. Now they make up six major groups – the Akha, Lahu, Karen, Hmong or Miao, Mien or Yao, and Lisu; each with a distinct language and culture of their own. Until recent years, these hill-tribes led a pastoral life raising animals and growing crops, including small amounts of medicinal opium. But as the modern world intruded, and the Vietnam War gathered pace in the 1960s, modern communications exposed the hill-tribe communities to a more unscrupulous outside world and opium became a cash crop with all the misery that entails.
So the Nong Hoi Royal Project Development Centre, Chiang Mai in Mae Rim sub-district was set up in 1984 by His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej to help the tribal people in the region to move on from the production of opium while improving their lives and the reputation of the country. The Project has been a resounding success – new farming methods, training and equipment, brought in by experts, have meant sustainable and saleable crops are now grown on slopes once reserved for opium poppies.
Much of this success is due to the fact that the region in which the tribal people live, lies between 850 and 1,460 metres above sea level and has a mean temperature of 21 degrees Celsius, perfect for growing a range of crops that can’t be cultivated on the hotter plains of Central Thailand. These fruits and vegetables include artichokes, lemon thyme, mint, chamomile, rosemary, plums, seedless grapes, strawberries, red olives, herbal teas and tomatoes – many of these fresh ingredients are sent directly to Chiang Mai’s restaurants and hotels, which seek out sustainable and high-quality food sources.
Because this is such a lovely area, coupled with the unique local lifestyles, Nong Hoi has become a tourist attraction in itself. In the fresh clean air of the hills, there are amazing walks to enjoy, stunning views and the chance to learn about sustainable development. Book a visit in advance and a specially-assigned staff will give your group a briefing on the Project’s background, and you’ll get to taste some of the fresh goods and herbal teas which grow all around.
Perhaps the most important building at Nong Hoi is the Royal Project Crops Development Centre, where experiments are carried out in an effort to increase the types of temperate climate fruit and vegetables that can be grown by local hill tribe farmers. Government scientists and students often come here to conduct research, but visitors can also stop by to have a look, and there are some fascinating demonstrations of organic and hydroponic growing techniques for herbs and vegetables.
But the Royal Projects are about much more than food production. There’s a drive to ensure that hill- tribe communities thrive and remain self-sufficient. This should ensure that fewer young people feel pressure to leave the hills and seek work in the cities instead of staying to preserve the local culture. People now have real pride in their origins – folk activities regularly take place in the villages around the Royal Project and visitors are welcome to join.
You can tour the plantations and see the terraces where crops are grown. But if you are in the mood for a hike (and this really is the region for it) then head into the hills. And at Doi Mon Chaem, there are spectacular viewpoints and occasionally you’ll come across the hill-tribe people themselves, some in colourful native costume and always wearing a smile.
It’s all very tranquil, but if you’re seeking more adrenalin-fuelled fun, then you can’t miss out on the local Formula One races – Hmong style. These wooden go-karts are how local people get their kicks and you can join them, hurtling 400 metres down the hill with only a crude break to control your speed. Okay, these vehicles may not reach the speeds of Formula One cars, but when you’re heading downhill, around tight bends, just a few inches from the surface of a bumpy, unsealed road on a rickety hand-made kart, it’s a white-knuckle ride all the way.
Whether you’re seeking crazy thrills or chilled out walks, there’s plenty to do in and around the Nong Hoi Royal Project. Remember, this is just one of many such Royal Projects in Thailand’s North, each one giving a different insight into the cultures of the local hill-tribes, all of which deserve recognition and protection. So, if you’re around Chiang Mai, take time to support these projects, learn the stories of the people and enjoy a new perspective on the cultural tapestry of Thainess.