CHIANG RAI – The Mountain of Doi Tung in Chiang Rai highlands will be ablaze with color next weekend and for once it won’t just be the flowers in Mae Fah Luang Garden providing the stunning hues. Visitors will also be able to enjoy a colorful bazaar as the six ethnic groups living in the mountains demonstrate their sustainable lifestyles and explain how they were weaned from their traditional opium poppy cultivation to become the proud farmers of coffee, fruits and vegetables.
Scheduled for two periods – Friday through next Sunday and again over the New Year holiday from December 27 to January 4, the bazaar will involve some 80 ethnic people from 29 villages in the Doi Tung Development Project run by the Mae Fah Luang Foundation under royal patronage.
The “Colours of Doi Tung” festival offers a rare opportunity to see the Shan, Akha, Lahu, Tai Lue, Lua and Chinese clad in their traditional attire and a chance to buy their authentic foods, agricultural produce, textiles and handicrafts as well as tea and coffee from the plantations.
Traditional performances and games will also presented, with Akha men demonstrating how to throw tops, children walking on bamboo stilts and musicians playing bamboo organs.
“These people are proud to present their ways of life, culture and art and demonstrate how poverty, illiteracy and drug trafficking can be alleviated through a sustainable lifestyle,” says the project’s chief operating officer Thanawat Srikhirin.
The 80 Akha people residing in Baan Phahee village today earn a good living from coffee. They currently produce about 200 tons of “parchment coffee” – dried but unhulled coffee beans – a year, which sells for about Bt20 million a year, ensuring a sustainable income. Giant coffee brand Moccona and Doi Tung Coffee are among their patrons.
“Doi Tung is at an altitude of about 1,200 meters and we produce 100-per-cent Arabica coffee under the shade of lychee trees. We converted from the opium poppy to coffee in 1981 under a government-initiated project and have been self-supporting ever since. The project has been a great success,” says villager Sorapong Pornjaratchot.
In 2002, the villagers set up their own community enterprise to ensure better quality control and a stronger brand and also set up the Phahee coffeeshop in Huay Krai sub-district of Chiang Rai’s Mae Sai district. The roasted beans sell for Bt250 for a 500-gram bag.
The area that makes up the Doi Tung Development Project was once all bare hills, infertile soil and parched streams. That changed once His Majesty the King’s late mother, revered across the nation as Somdej Ya, set up the Doi Tung project in an attempt to help the people around Doi Tung find another means of sustenance besides growing and selling the narcotic. She initiated the Doi Tung Development Project in 1988 – she was already 87 at the time – to guide the struggling and vulnerable communities toward self-sufficiency and independence and reforest the denuded hills.
“No one wants to be a bad person,” Somdej Ya once said, “but not everyone has the opportunity to be good.”
The products that are marketed under the Doi Tung brand – coffee, macadamia nuts, fabrics and ceramics – attest to the success of the project in eliminating opium cultivation in the heart of the notorious Golden Triangle. Farmers are instead trained as skilled artisans and experts in alternative agriculture.
Cultivated in a forest spread over 3,000 Rai, the Doi Tung Arabica coffee beans are advertised as “single-origin”, since they come solely from these hills – at elevations of 800 metres or more above sea level. They can produce about four million tonnes of unprocessed coffee a year, which sells for about Bt15 million to Bt20 million. The site has set up its own factory and it is here that the coffee beans are roasted ready for sale at the more than 20 branches of Cafe Doi Tung around the country.
Another 1,000 rai of the forest is home to some 35,000 macadamia trees. Growing at 800 meters above sea level, they yield around 250 tonnes of nuts in the shell per year, or 50 tonnes of nut kernels. A kilogram of nuts sells for Bt1,600. Roasted, they’re a hit with consumers and come in various flavors including wasabi, honey, salted, seaweed and even pizza.
The biggest attraction of Doi Tung is the 30-rai Mae Fah Luang Garden with its breathtaking landscape of many varieties of flowers. Located on the former Akha village of Pa Kluay, once an important route for opium caravans and those involved drug and weapon trafficking, the garden was built on the instructions of the Princess Mother to provide all Thais with an opportunity to enjoy a temperate flower garden. The flowers are grown and nurtured by local villagers and bring in a substantial income.
The garden is also home to indigenous wild plants and flowers that bloom year round as well as the sculpture titled “Continuity” by the late female artist Misiem Yipintsoi. Visitors can explore the newly built maze or learn how to plant in the nursery while orchid lovers get to admire the Princess Sangwan Lady’s Slipper – a beautiful orchid endemic to Doi Tung.
For the first time in its history, Mae Fah Luang Garden will be open on New Year’s Eve to host a special candlelit dinner for about 150 guests. Diners will be greeted by a hill-tribe welcoming ceremony and entertained by music, dancing and flying lanterns.
The set dinner is being designed by Dr Narumol Jotivej, a member of the foundation’s advisory board, with sharing in mind. Among the Northern-style dishes are nam prik ong (spicy minced pork and tomato dip with fresh and blanched vegetables and pork crackling), miang pla (fish salad) and gaeng hang lay (pork curry with garlic).
“Nam prik ong has been chosen as an appetizer rather than nam prik num (a traditional spicy dip based on roasted green chilli, onion and garlic) because it’s not too spicy and the tomato base will be familiar to most diners,” says Narumol.
The spicy paste for the gaeng hang lay is made from red chilli, red onions, lemongrass, shrimp paste and is braised with pork chunks from the rump cut until tender. Pickled garlic and santol are added to help overcome any oiliness.
Miang pla is not the usual herbal tidbits wrapped in leaves, but fried diced snapper with a spicy dressing topped with chopped lemongrass, chopped lemon and chilli.
Kids have their own menu featuring fried chicken with brown sauce, fried minced pork ball, fried snapper and fried rice with ham.
DINING IN THE DARK
“Colors of Doi Tung” will be held for two periods – December 5 to 7 and December 27 to January 4 – from 8am to 6pm.
The dinner at Mae Fah Luang Garden takes place on the night of December 31. It’s priced at Bt1,500 per person. Early reservations are recommended.
Call (053) 767 0157 or visit www.DoiTung.org By Khetsirin Pholdhampalit