The Royal Project of North Thailand

Table of Contents

The fascinating Royal Project of Thailand

The legacy of King Bhumibol Adulyadej

His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej passed away on October 13, 2016. He was the ninth monarch of the Chakri dynasty, known as Rama IX. His reign lasted from 1946 until 2016, making him the longest-reigning monarch of Thailand. He was born in the United States in 1927. The King initiated the Royal Project in 1969 after a visit to the Hmong village Doi Pui. The Hmong people have settled on Doi Suthep after World War Two. Some of them came from the Doi Inthanon area, some from other areas in North Thailand. In 1961 a palace was built to accommodate the Royal Family during visits to Chiang Mai.

King Bhumibol Royal Project

The start of the Royal Project in North Thailand

The story goes that during one of his visits the King ventured out of the palace and visited the nearby Hmong village Doi Pui. It is not sure that the village was at its current location. The King was shocked at the poverty in which the Hmong people were living. They were cultivating opium, which was illegal in Thailand since 1958, and destroying the forest at the same time. His Majesty realized that alternative crops including fruit trees as a major component could be used to substitute opium. This would generate higher income for the hill tribe people and solve the problems of poverty, opium cultivation, and deforestation. Visits to Royal Projects are an important ingredient of many of our tours. It is a very interesting development initiative that improved the life of communities of ethnic minorities in the highlands of Thailand.

Two women in traditional dress Hmong hill tribe
Baan Khun Chang Khian Hmong women, ca.1975. Picture by Werner Röpke.

The Royal Project on Doi Suthep

The Hmong villages on Doi Suthep

Doi Pui is the most well-known Hmong village on Doi Suthep. The other two Hmong villages we work with on Doi Suthep are Baan Chang Kian and Baan Mae Sa Mai. These villages are the best example of the impact of the Royal Project on the lives of the Hmong people. They were much smaller in 1969 than they are now and probably located higher up the mountain. The government forced them to move to their current location at a lower elevation because they were destroying the watershed area. This government policy was also implemented in other areas in North Thailand, such as Chiang Rai province. For instance, the people of the Akha village Baan Apha moved several times to new locations lower down the mountain. In 2017 I visited the first location these Akha people settled on the mountain Doi Bo.

Four children in traditional dress royal project Hmong hill tribe
Hmong children at Baan Khun Chiang Khian, early 1970s. Photo by Werner Roepke.

The Hmong villages in the 1960s and 70s

It is hard to imagine how Doi Suthep must have looked in the 1960s and 70s. The American tourist Nick Dewolf visited one of these villages in 1972 and took pictures which you can find on his Flickr page. German Werner Roepke was a volunteer at Chiang Mai University in 1973 and became involved in the Royal Project on Doi Suthep. He took pictures in the village Ban Chiang Kian, which he allowed me to share on this website. In October 2019 I took prints of about 20 of the photographs and delivered them at the village. All the pictures show the dismal situation in the Hmong villages on Doi Suthep. The difference with the current situation, 50 years later, is striking. The village Doi Pui became a popular tourist destination but the other two see very few visitors.

Below is a video Werner made of the Royal Hilltribe Project at Ban Khun Chang Kian in 1973.

Our tours to Hmong villages

You will learn about the legacy of His Majesty King Bhumibol during our tours on Doi Suthep. Our Opium Trail trek is the most interesting and fascinating day trek out of Chiang Mai. You will pass old opium fields and traces of former Hmong settlements higher up the mountain. Before you reach Baan Mae Sa Mai you will pass through agricultural fields and fruit plantations of the village, all part of the Royal Project. If you are not that much into hiking we also the Hmong Experience.

In the village, there is a large Royal Project compound with greenhouses and experimental agricultural plots. Unfortunately, this interesting Royal Project has been closed for visitors since the coronation of the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn, Rama X, son of King Bhumibol. We also offer a two-day/one-night trip to Baan Mae Sa Mai, a fascinating village. The village is an important destination for our educational school and university trips.

Trekking group listening to guide
Hmong guide Win explains to student group

The Royal Project on Doi Inthanon

Conservation on Thailand’s highest mountain

Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest mountain, is a very important tourist destination but also an essential watershed area for the surrounding lowlands. Probably for centuries people have lived in the area that authorities declared a national park in 1972. Large mammals, such as tiger, elephants and rhinoceros, used to live in the wilderness of Doi Inthanon. The people who settled in this unforgiving and hostile environment were Karen and Hmong ethnic minorities.

They are probably not the only people responsible for the extinction of large mammals but they carved out their agricultural fields on the mountain range. The Hmong did this at a higher elevation because they establish their village on or close to mountain tops. I believe they are responsible for the deforested area that is now part of the popular Kew Mae Pan Nature Trail.

The Karen establish their communities on the slopes of mountains or even lower. They traditionally engage in rice cultivation on irrigated terraces such as the rice terraces of Baan Mae Klang Luang. The Hmong people cultivated the opium poppy in the open areas close to the summit of Doi Inthanon. Remember that the Hmong communities on Doi Inthanon were remote and hard to get to. Roads were in poor condition until the construction of the Royal Chedis at the end of the 1980s.

greenhouses with waterfall
Royal Agricultural Station Inthanon with Sriphum Falls in the background

The Royal Agricultural Station Inthanon

In 1977 the Royal Agricultural Station Inthanon on Doi Inthanon was established in the spirit of the Royal Project of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. By this time the Royal Project had become a national undertaking, driven by the inspirational King. It seems that the Royal Project on Doi Inthanon was from the start also intended to attract tourists.

Apart from that the main goals were the same as the project on Doi Suthep: improving the quality of life of the ethnic minorities, eradication of opium cultivation and conservation of the watershed area. The Royal Agricultural Station is located just outside the Hmong village Ban Khun Klang. You can spend easily two hours in this beautiful and interesting compound.

Few people who are on a day tour have time to stop at the Royal Agricultural Station Inthanon unfortunately. It features in our two day Ultimate Doi Inthanon Tour but we can also customize a day tour to make time for a visit to this interesting Royal Project.

Tea plantations
Angkhang Royal Project

The impressive Royal Agricultural Station Angkhang

A remote mountain range on the Burmese border

The remote Doi Angkhang area came to the attention of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 1969 when he visited a hill tribe village by helicopter. This was probably Kob Dong, a black Lahu village, that is still there. He encountered the same situation as on Doi Suthep: tribal people living in poverty and cultivating opium poppy. He initiated the establishment of the Royal Agricultural Station Angkhang, which grew into one of the biggest and most popular Royal Projects. This project became a very important experimental research institute for highland agriculture.

Part of the project was a 74-room hotel which was managed by the Amari Group: The Amari Angkhang Nature Resort. This put Doi Angkhang firmly on the map as a tourist destination  for local and international tourists. Most tourists only stayed there for the night and visited the Agricultural Station, the Lahu village Kob Dong and the Palong village Nor Lae. The Agricultural Station offered small accommodation and there were guesthouses in the nearby village Baan Khum.

Woman working on plantation
Doi Angkhang Royal Project

Recent changes on Doi Angkhang

In recent years the situation at Doi Angkhang has changed drastically. Why this has happened is not entirely clear. Authorities demolished the hotel in early 2019 and closed all other accommodation on Doi Angkhang. The only place where you can spend the night now is the camping ground. Doi Angkhang has become part of Doi Pha Hom Pok National Park in recent years. This might be behind this policy. Doi Pha Hom Pok National Park is the northernmost national park in the country.

These changes have allegedly resulted in a drop in visitors of the Agricultural Station. People told me that the Royal Project had to fire hundreds of staff. Even though there is no decent accommodation anymore on Doi Angkhang, it still is a fascinating and interesting place to visit. The drive from Arunothai via Tham Ngob is lovely and the villages are worth visiting as is the Royal Project. Doi Angkhang features in our Ancient Caravan Expedition.

people working on vegetables
People working on the Royal Project

The Royal Project in villages

Royal Project activities in Palong and Karen villages

There are numerous smaller Royal Projects in villages all over the North of Thailand. There is a small Royal Project office in the Palong village Pang Daeng Nai in Chiang Dao district, for instance. Knowledge, obtained by research in larger Royal Projects such as the one on Doi Angkhang, is implemented at a local level.

Huay Khao Lip, the Karen village in the hills of Mae Wang National Park, has a Royal Project where they grow different kinds of vegetables. On some of our tours we visit this project and, if time allows, we will help out and get our hands dirty.

Another Karen village in the Doi Inthanon area is Baan Bon Na. It has an interesting Royal Project where they grow flowers and vegetables. This Royal Project features in our educational tour, during which we engage in community service.