Royal intervention and the seeds of change
The real “discovery” of the moment in Thai travel is found two hours outside of Chiang Mai, inside Doi Inthaion National Park. Though it is filled with challenging hiking trails, waterfalls, indigenous villages and other adventure travel delights, the best find is the presence of the first Royal Agricultural Project, established by King Rama IX (Bhumibol Adulyadej) in 1969. At that time, the opium trade and cultivation had economically, environmentally and culturally devastated the region and its occupants, including indigenous tribes such as the Karen and Hmong as well as refugees from Yunnan in China and Black Musers.
Rama IX invested in a large swath of land 1,200 m above sea level to establish this breakthrough agricultural research station to plant orchards for temperate fruit, vegetable gardens, trees and flowers as well as engage in major reforestation efforts. As a result, 45 years later, the area is flourishing economically as well as providing foodstuffs and flowers to restaurants and markets around Thailand.
The project now encompasses the Royal Agricultural Station Angkhang, opened in 1979 and (for the moment) attracting mostly Asian tourists along with a smattering of guests from Europe and the UK. Amid the hills, waterfalls, and rivers, hikers at all fitness levels will behold green orchards, vibrant flower plantations and vegetable fields that add colour to the already achingly beautiful landscape. Along the trails, we amble into villages to purchase simple, freshly prepared snacks and witness cultural traditions restored thanks to the monies coming in from the project. There’s even a coffee roaster on one of the trails. A cluster of shacks arises out of a random clearing in the woods. A few feet away from us, we see four Italian visitors enthusiastically purchasing dozens of bags of freshly roasted and bagged beans: a very telling sign the coffee must be amazing. Indeed, the brew is so flavourful it doesn’t require milk or sugar.
In order to further preserve the area’s integrity, the Angkhang Nature Resort has cabins outfitted with just the basics for a two- or three-day stay. The focal point of the resort is its terraced restaurant whose kitchen uses produce from the projects’ farms and showcases recipes from northern Thailand. There’s also more of that marvellous coffee at breakfast, as well as cooking lessons later in the day. Our two-day stay allows my group to try almost every item on the menu, served family-style.
While some foodies insist the soul of Thai cuisine can be found at urban night markets, food stands and restaurants, we decide the heart and roots of Thai cuisine (the north, anyway) can be found at Angkhang. Between mealtimes, farming sites and roadside markets, we’re positively immersed in the essence of Thai cuisine.
Rolling on the rivers
Midway to Anantara Elephant Camp, a five-star resort with some of the most achingly beautiful views and vistas, our guide has us stop at Charin Garden, an inn and restaurant located in Mae Suai, along the Ruak River. The bakery case looks like something out of a coffee shop along US Route 66—and with good reason. Owner Charin Singkarat perfected the art of creating perfect American-style pies in Los Angeles for 18 years before returning home to fuel her inn’s guests and the many travellers passing in from the Chiang Mai–Chiang Rai Highway. The peach and mango pies quench some seriously spicy soups and red curries that start sweet and build in intensity on the palate.
At Anantara, the Thai and Italian offerings as well as the cocktails are superb. Their Spice Spoons Cooking School experience lives up to its reputation, especially when lessons are delivered in the property’s scenic rice paddy. Five minutes outside the resort, Sriwan Coffee and Restaurant, like the resort, overlooks the border towns of Laos and Myanmar. The recipes blend influences of all three countries, with a big emphasis on area seafood, such as mixed seafood curry served in a coconut, tod mun goong (fried prawn cake with plum sauce), and pan-fried steamed ruby fish, which can only be found in this area of Thailand, according to the guide.
However, its heart and soul is the on-site mahout (elephant trainer) village, founded in 2003 in tandem with the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation. The foundation, which rescues endangered elephants and performs street rescues, provides a sanctuary for the gentle giants, training for mahouts, as well as veterinary and environmental studies’ students from around the world. While guests can partake in elephant rides in many parts of Thailand, interaction with elephants here is meaningful with Anantara’s Elephant Learning Experience (learning the essentials hands-on with a research assistant from Think Elephants International) or the Mahout Experience (spending an early morning learning the correct, humane way to ride an elephant and elephant care basics).
The Hall of Opium Museum (literally across the road from the resort) may at first glance sound like a kitschy tourist trap where one may find a recreation of an opium den. It indeed does have a room recreating an opium den as well as other rooms with antique paraphernalia. However, it’s what you don’t expect inside the contemporary building that will profoundly surprise and move you. The museum is a fully interactive, high-tech experience that weaves together world history, science and art to fully explain the rise and fall of the opium trade in Asia. While detailing the profound social consequences of opium on Thailand and the world, it also is a reminder that social change requires many individuals to step forward to make a difference.
While Thailand’s culinary and fashion influences are embraced throughout the world, it would be nice to think that the uniquely Thai take on social change may also catch on. •
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