A royally initiated project inspires hill tribe people and tourism

Bangkok Post
February 14, 2008

Poppy flowers lend colour to Mae Fah Luang Botanical Garden on Doi Chang Moop in Mae Chan district of Chiang Rai. The garden is part of Doi Tung development project initiated by the late Princess Mother in 1988 to improve the lives of ethnic hill tribes through sustainable alternative farming.

The garden sits on a 250 rai plot and 50 kilometres from there in Chiang Saen district of the province is the Hall of Opium where visitors can acquire in-depth knowledge about poppy, its use and its role in history.

Not long ago the plot on which the garden sits was a denuded forest, the result of slash-and-burn tactics the hill tribes employed to clear land for poppy cultivation. Doi Chang Moop is around nine kilometres north of Doi Tung royal residence of the late Princess Mother. It is 1,509 metres above sea level towering like a sentry over Thailand's border with Burma.

Mae Fah Luang Foundation, that operates the project, then set about improving the land and with cooperation from the Forest Department, the Provincial Electricity Authority and the Tourism Authority of Thailand it relocated trees 100-400 years old and planted them there, following expansion of Phaholyothin Highway (Chiang Mai-Mae Sai) in 1992. The garden boasts 5,000 trees representing 88 species that were selected carefully from all parts of the country.

A stroll around the gardens is like a walk in the woods with beautiful flowers and tall trees dominating the view. There are pines and the Himalayan wild cherry (Prunus cerasoides) whose pink flowers bloom in January, decorative plants such as red, pink, white and orange rhododendrons, and a variety of orchids. And poppies too, but the species are devoid of resins associated with anesthetic or sedative/addictive properties.

A foundation staff told us Iceland and California poppies it cultivated were meant to educate visiting tourists.

Iceland poppy is native to North America and Asia. About a foot tall, its bowl-shaped flowers come in shades of orange, yellow, white and pink, but more eye-catching are the pink ones with white border. The California poppy, on the other hand, is native to the United States and Mexico, drought resistant and grows to a height of two feet. The flower has silky texture, four petals and conspicuous by its yellow and orange hues.

Visiting the Hall of Opium in Chiang Saen district, one learns that of the 250 species of poppy found around the world, Papaver somniferum is the most sought for its opium. "I haven't seen one for real," confided a staff, saying all there's is to see were dry buds and seeds of the species mentioned above.

Thanks to the army's policy to eradicate poppy farming and support from the US Drug Enforcement Agency, opium production in Thailand dropped dramatically from 20 tonnes in 1990 to six tonnes in 2001, according to a UN Office on Drugs and Crime report. These days, it is almost wiped out from the Thai soils.

The same office reported lower opium output in Burma and Laos. In 2001, it said, Burma's output was 1,097 tonnes but in 2006 it was down to 315 tonnes, while Laos' dropped from 134 to 14 tonnes over the same period. The report also said since the year 2000 Afghanistan has been the world's largest opium producer, its estimated output last year 7,137 tonnes.

Poppy farming, however, is not totally banned because of its medicinal value. Its cultivation is allowed in Turkey and the Australian state of Tasmania, but production is strictly regulated.

The Hall of Opium occupies 5,600 square metres. It was built with financial support from the Japanese government. It's like a museum where you can learn about history of the plant dating back 5,000 years until the Opium Wars and beyond to the present day.

It has 16 rooms dedicated to various aspects of the plant and its uses, backed by case studies, more than 100,000 pictures, state-of-the-art multimedia presentation and real equipment such as antique Chinese opium pipes and storage boxes. At the end of the visit you will understand better why poppy is a symbol of both sleep and death.


- Mae Fah Luang Botanical Garden opens 7am to 6pm every day. It is on Highway 1149 off Highway 1 (Chiang Rai-Mae Sai). After passing the entrance gate of Doi Tung royal residence, keep driving for another nine kilometres to reach the garden. Entrance fee is 50 baht per person.

- or more information, call Mae Fah Luang Foundation at 053-767-015/7.

- The Hall of Opium is in Chiang Saen district on Highway 1290. It opens Thursday to Sunday during December to February and Tuesday to Sunday during March to November. The entrance fee is 200 baht for adults and 50 baht for students and senior citizens (more than 60 years old).