The Opium Gardens of Thailand

by Sandra Phinney

Escape to the East

Isn’t it amazing how some seemingly insurmountable problems are overcome? This happened in Thailand. In many sections of the country (notably in the north), there was a time when slash-and-burn was the norm in order to grow fields of poppies and feed the opium trade. Aside from tipping the ecological balance through the practice of clear cutting, many Thais got hooked on opium; families suffered.

In 1969, His Majesty King Bhumibhol Adulyadej initiated the “Royal Project”—a series of initiatives encouraging hill tribes to shift from growing poppies for opium to growing other cash crops and to reforest or beautify the hillsides. Now, 36 projects in five provinces involving 100, 000 rural Thais are in full swing, and open for visitors to explore.


Each project is unique. For example, about a 90-minute drive into the mountains on the outskirts of Chiang Mai city, Hmong hill tribes started growing alternative crops after the king visited in 1972 and the Nong Hoi Royal Project Development Center was established in 1986.

Currently it’s one of the largest producers of herbs and vegetables in the country and also features plantations of plums, grapes, strawberries and cab gooseberries. It’s also famous for its hydroponic vegetables and there’s a research centre on site.

Aside from going “ooh” and “ahh” a lot when wandering around and enjoying the panoramic view, I loved watching the children romping around in the gardens in their native garb.


The food and craft stalls the women operate were also fascinating. Corn on the cob and sweet yams never tasted as good as the ones here roasted on an open fire. It was also lots of fun to see folks driving down the hill on wooden “speed cars, ” using only wooden handles for brakes. I regret not giving this a try but I was too busy gawking at the exquisite embroidered clothing made by the Hmong women. I settled on dresses for twin toddlers in our family—a huge hit back home.

Another related project that has a “wow” factor of 10 out of 10, is the Doi Tung Development Project on the northwest border. The project spans 37, 000 acres and encompasses 29 villages made up of six ethnic groups.


The beloved Princess Mother (Mae Fah Luang) started this project in the 80s, again, to replace the opium and trafficking trade. The site includes the Royal Villa (tours available), and the Mai Fah Luan Garden—10 acres of extraordinary beauty. It also includes the recently-completed Hall of Inspiration, a series of seven large rooms that that tells the story of this unique family. It’s one of the most impressive and heartwarming exhibits I’ve ever visited.

On our way back to our lodgings, we stopped at a small roadside restaurant for Khao Soy (a big bowl of curried chicken noodle). We also lucked into women making deep fried pea custard and a sweet dish made with cooked/ground black rice cooked over hot coals then laced with brown sugar and condensed milk. The entire lunch was about a dollar each—the perfect way to top off a perfect outing.

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