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Khun Wang Royal Project

AS THAILAND BECOMES MORE industrialized, Hilltribe villages in various parts of the Kingdom become more vulnerable to exploitation and poverty.

About 30 years ago, H.M. King Bhumibol embarked on a personal fact finding mission to see what could be done to improve conditions for people living in Hilltribe villages. Accompanied by H.S.H. Prince Bhisatej, the King made his first observations in the mountains northwest of Chiangmai.

What he saw appalled him the terrible beauty of millions of blossoming opium poppies swaying gently in the breeze. This was the "cash crop" for the Hilltribe peoples and very meager cash at that, as drug warlords were exploiting them. Villagers were also unknowingly destroying their own environment by using "slash and burn" agricultural techniques. To let either practice continue would ultimately bring disaster to Thailand. The King's personal solution to the problem was the birth of the Royal Projects Program and the establishment of an agricultural research station at Doi Angkhang.

Since then, the King has installed several Royal Projects Programs throughout the Kingdom to benefit Hilltribe peoples. The program aims to provide an initial financial boost to villages as well as advice and guidance to get them started on the road to self sustaining activities such as farming and the sale of handicraft work. Members of the Royal Family frequently visit these Project sites to track progress and hear village concerns. Some villages even open their doors to journalists and foreign ambassadors to show how their communities have flourished under the Royal Projects Program.

Recently the "36 Projects for 365 Days" campaign was launched to remind Thai holiday makers there are plenty of destinations to visit within Thailand.

Khun Wang Royal Project

On the launch of the "36 Projects for 365 Days", we recently visited the Khun Wang Royal Project, (Wang is pronounced with as Waang) located in the mountains near Doi Inthanon National Park about 60 kilometers southwest of Chiangmai. Royal Project staff turned us over to village guides for a 2-day tour of the various activities installed by the Royal Project that have given villagers profitable work and a better livelihood.

The village Pu Yai Baan, or the village leader, gave a welcome speech. His father was the Pu Yai Baan ten years ago, when the village barely subsisted by harvesting opium. Today, there are 743 villagers involved in a variety of activities to earn income, and a primary school has been established.

Macadamia Research

The Khun Wang project is also home to a research center devoted to studying the uses of macadamia nuts they are more than just a yummy snack with a high retail price! The nut is an antioxidant so the body doesn't retain the nut oil. The oil is also said to fill in the wrinkle lines around the eyes, making it a good component for anti-wrinkle cosmetics. The trees were imported from Australia and Hawaii, and produce about 1 kilogram of nuts after 5 years. At about 8 years, the trees produce a good amount of nuts twice a year. It's not necessary to climb the tree to pick the nuts, just pick them up off the ground.

Produce and Flowers

An efficient method of planting flower beds of colorful flowers, all ready to cut within 10 days after planting, offers good income potential for some of the village families. Other crops include coffee beans, peppers, lettuce, cucumbers, and other vegetables. The village has its own packaging plant to prepare the flowers and produce for shipment.

Semen Bank

Bull semen, that is. The Royal Project imports bulls from abroad for the purpose of each producing 5,000 vials of semen, which is then processed in a modern laboratory on site and shipped throughout to beef cattle farms to artificially inseminate cows. Although the station does not take any more semen from the bulls after 5,000 vials, the bulls are not destroyed but taken care of until their natural death. Some live until the age of 14 years. When the onset of leg and ankle pain or infections occur, they instinctively stop eating and die.

Customs & Traditions

Villagers greeted us in traditional costumes-the men wear beautiful black velvet trousers and bright, short jackets with long sleeves. Nearly a hundred silver coins dangle in neat rows from the jacket and sleeves. A type of loincloth is worn over the long trousers. The women wear a similar outfit, with a longer, darker jacket and a colorful headdress. No, they don't wear these clothes every day, only during special occasions like their New Year Festival.

We were invited into a home for a typical New Year feast. At the door, a village elder called for the propitious spirits to enter, enticing the spirit with a pot of cooked chicken and a bottle of corn whiskey. At the table with the village elders, we enjoyed shots of this corn whiskey although it was only 11:15 a.m. Hey, it was a special day! Steamed fatty chicken, roasted three layer pork pieces, a soup of green mustard vegetable (the clear broth turned to lavender once it was ladled into a bowl) and steamed big grain Hilltribe rice were laid before us at the table. We ate with bamboo spoons, and when the women thought we weren't eating enough, they would come around and put food directly into our hands. And empty bamboo shot glasses were refilled again and again.

After dinner, the senior men and women tied sacred string around our wrists to keep the good spirit within us, then inspected the discarded chicken thighbones on the table. If they found one or two holes, toothpicks were inserted and fortunes told.

Then, one of the elders of our group presented a thank you contribution to the host of the grand feast. The villagers accommodated more than 40 visitors for this propitious spirit ceremony.

After lunch we relaxed with fresh brewed coffee while the children entertained us with games. Young boys competed in striking out spinning wooden tops. Older boys and girls tossed soft velvet balls back and forth, using only one hand to toss and catch. Most of the group trekked to a nearby waterfall to visit the bamboo rafting sites and elephant camps on Mae Wang river.

I opted to tour the agricultural station (Hey, that's a lot of walking too! With less mosquitoes and leeches). A young woman was using a Y-shaped wooden tool to pick up seeds to place into cups with high quality growing "media." The pure media is imported and very expensive. The villagers then mix it with coconut, sand and compost as a starter for seed pots. I was shown tall shoots of tomatoes, broccoli and lettuce that had been growing for only 10 days. They use natural pest control rather than toxic insecticides, by breeding insects that eat other insects harmful to flower beds and food crops. A 10-year-old grapevine was dormant at the moment, but luscious grapes are expected to be harvested and ready to sell by the winter season Royal Project Festival at the Quadrangle Expo 2002.

After dinner, nine elementary school girls performed on hilltribe Kaen bamboo instruments for us. That evening, we stayed overnight in a lodge containing four metal camp beds with coconut stuffed mattresses. There was no hot water, but we did have a western style toilet.

We were certainly very pleased to be able to visit such a bright, beautiful and thriving Royal Project! When King Bhumibol first flew over Doi Angkhang, he envisioned just how beautiful and productive his Royal Projects would become, not only for that region, but also throughout the Kingdom.

For reservations: "36 Royal Projects in 365 days" Tel. 053-277094, 053-278332, 053-278204.

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