Mae Fah Luang - A Lifetime of CaringThree years ago, on the 18th July 1995, the Thai people were stunned to learn of the passing away of Her Royal Highness Somdej Phra Sri Nakarindra Boromarajjonnani, Mae Fah Luang, the Princess Mother at the age of 96. Unique in the history of the Chakri Dynasty, The Princess Mother and her husband, Prince Mahidol, the "Father of Thai Medicine", were the parents of two of Thailand's Monarchs. Following the tragic death of their elder son, King Rama VIII, their younger son, Thailand's present King Bhumipol Adulyadej, the beloved King Rama IX, ascended the throne. Throughout His Majesty's long and illustrious reign, Mae Fah Luang worked tirelessly to assist the King's constant efforts to help his subjects, especially the poor. Even in the later stages of her life, she continued to maintain her arduous schedule, visiting even the most remote villages, often accompanied by her daughter Her Royal Highness Princess Galyani Wattana. She always displayed remarkable vigor and a keen interest in all His Majesty the King's subjects and was loved and revered by them in return.
Her main interest was always the furtherance of her late husband's lifetime work, to improve the medical care and welfare of those from even the remotest and most humble hamlet. Realising that one of the most serious problems facing the rural poor was the dearth of medical facilities such as clinics and medicines, and of trained doctors and nurses, she paid particular attention to the needs of this disadvantaged sector of society. She was the devoted patron of The Princess Mother's Volunteer Flying Doctor Foundation, which pioneered free medical and dental care for those living in remote areas. This Foundation, established in 1969, has saved hundreds of lives, and alleviated the suffering of untold thousands, while reducing the burden on the overstretched resources of the Public Health authorities.
Another of the Princess Mother's keenest concerns was for the welfare of those serving in the Border Patrol Police and their families. Realising that this unit was the most vulnerable of all the armed forces, constantly stationed in often inhospitable terrain and under threat from terrorists, drug traders and cross-border incursions, she established The Foundation for the Welfare of Border Patrol Police in 1967. The Foundation has, since its inception, always played an important role in the lives of families of those serving in Border Patrol Police units, providing care and financial support to the disabled and the dependents of those killed in action.
Just like her son, His Majesty the King, Mae Fah Luang was remarkably talented as both a sportswoman and as an artist. She was an accomplished tennis and badminton player, and an inveterate horse-rider and hiker. Whenever opportunity presented itself, she loved to ski, even up to her 80th birthday. Although her interests were numerous, her artistic skills were best demonstrated in five areas of speciality. She painted on porcelain for many years, with her favourite themes being flowers and the heavens; she created a wide range of ceramic works; she extended this skill to the creation of simple yet beautiful Buddha images, specializing in green-glazed creations in the half-lotus posture; she had a love of needlepoint, again favoring the subject she best loved, wild flowers; and finally she had a consuming passion for pressing and preserving wild flowers and creating gifts from these.
The Princess Mother always had a fondness and deep concern for the peoples and countryside of the north of Thailand, and in 1971 she founded the Mae Fah Luang Foundation, originally the Foundation of Hilltribe Products Promotion, expressly to preserve northern culture and arts and to provide training, employment and knowledge in these fields. Located at Doi Dtoong, one of the most northerly points in Thailand, close to the Burmese border, this foundation has continued to contribute much to the economic development of the area surrounding Doi Dtoong. Some of the results that have emanated from this project have been of great cultural and economic worth, for example the recording of the histories and cultures of the various hilltribe peoples, the preservation of Lanna arts and culture, and the development of hilltribe products, especially handicrafts, with the tribes-people themselves empowered to reap the benefits of their own marketing.
The selection of Doi Dtoong arose out of the Princess Mother's concerns about the dangers of deforestation in the far north, brought about by the continuing shifting cultivation practices of the hilltribes, which had severely denuded the once lush forest cover. She chose Doi Dtoong as the site for a Royal hilltop villa as a base for activities to arrest the process of forest loss, and, largely from her own generous financial contribution, the villa was completed in late 1988. The location of Doi Dtoong was of particular significance to the Princess Mother, as its location brought back poignant memories of years past in Switzerland, while being firmly and tangibly anchored in Thailand.
The Royal villa itself is remarkable, having been designed and built to reflect a number of distinct styles. It is at the same time a part of Switzerland, a part of Lanna and a part of Thailand. While much of the construction is of finest teak, the walls are made from pine panels from packing cases originating in colder climes. The finer points of decoration, especially in the woodcarving, reflect Mae Fah Luang's lifelong love of flowers and the stars and planets. The gardens of the villa are also truly remarkable. Beautifully maintained, they, like the villa itself, reflect the tropical and temperate, the Thai and Swiss, that have been the references by which Her Royal Highness lived her life. Villa and gardens alone are a major tourist attraction in themselves, but they are not just some ornate yet shallow window-dressing, but are the focal point of the achievements of the Princess Mother's life.
The Mae Fah Luang Foundation has not only improved the lot of the people of the hills and of northern Thailand in general, but has also, together with the Chai Pattana Foundation, had an enormous and profound impact on the environment, with an estimated 640 square kilometers of denuded land having been economically reforested. This has not just been some major planting exercise, but has emphasized throughout the need to encourage hill farm families to bond with their trees for the mutual benefit of both.
As a token of their love and respect for the Princess Mother, the people of Thailand built and presented the Hawcome Mae Fah Luang to her on the occasion of her 91st birthday. This unusual and symbolic structure is strongly influenced by the architecture of the north. It is not designed as a residence but as a showcase for the northern arts and culture that Mae Fah Luang helped to protect and restore. Like this building that was inspired by the people's deep appreciation of the Princess Mother's life time of care and dedication, her Mae Fah Luang Foundation will also endure beyond her passing, and belongs not just to her memory, but also to the nation.
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