Central Thailand might be wilting under the summer heat, but up north in the small town of Fang, it's still pleasantly cool. Visitors are pouring in to breathe the fresh air and admire the scenery. Ripe strawberries spread out as far as the eye can see, interspersed with the type of colourful flowers and vegetables more often found in temperate rather than tropical climes.
Standing 1,400 metres above sea level, this mountainous region was once covered with opium poppies, from which the local hilltribes earned a meagre living. That changed in 1969 when His Majesty the King spent his personal funds and set up the Royal Agricultural Station Angkhang to provide alternative sources of income for the villagers, through the growing of such temperate fruits as peaches, Chinese pears, kiwis and strawberries.
Today the mountain is home to 30,000 families of Thai Yai, Lahu, Palong and Yunnan, many of them farmers, for whom the station provides sanitation and health facilities.
"This was the first royal agricultural station in Thailand," says Mayurin Yodsriwan, coordinator of the Angkhang Station. "Here we focus on research into temperate fruits and plants and are now able to produce more than 300 species. We also educate the local people on new agricultural technologies and we have a training centre open to farmers from all the country. The Royal Forest Department donated the cultivable plots and each family received one rai to plant strawberries and cabbage."
"We buy all the agricultural produce and the proceeds after expenses go back to the villagers. They can earn Bt400,000 a year for their strawberries, while those who grow vegetables get Bt70,000."
"To encourage that young people stay on and follow in their parents' footsteps," Mayurin says, "we sent two young farmers to Japan to learn about organic agriculture. When they came back they worked with us and shared their knowledge with other villagers."
The agriculture station is tourist-friendly, with trams transporting visitors on tours of the bonsai garden, bamboo forest, flower gardens, plum orchards and a vegetable garden that's been turned into an al-fresco coffee shop. There's even a souvenir shop offering dried fruit, fruit juices, jams and local handicrafts.
While the mist obscures much of the Himalayan cherry blossoms, which have been delighting visitors since late December, it's clear and bright in Ban Yang, home to a large Yunnan-Chinese community as well the first Royal Factory operated by leading food supplier Doi Kham.
Founded in 1972, washed away in a flood in 2006, and then rebuilt, the factory produces high-quality agricultural goods, such as ready-to-drink fruit juice, juice concentrates, dehydrated fruits, jam, canned fruits, tomato paste, frozen fruit and soya flour.
"We support residents of Ban Yang in growing plums, strawberries, peaches and cherry tomatoes," says Doi Kham director Pipatpong Israsena. "This was the first royal factory, established to resolve agricultural oversupply and under-pricing. Our aim is to improve the local quality of life while conserving traditional culture. We have two other manufacturing bases - one in Chiang Rai's Mae Chan district and the other at Tao Ngoi in Sakon Nakhon."
The factory is ecologically sound, equipped with steam generators powered by liquid petroleum gas. The canteen, which draws on classical Chinese architecture, was built with autoclaved, lightweight concrete. It remains cool even on the hottest days thanks to clay roof tiles and sheeting that reflects the sunlight. Behind the canteen, Yunnan wisdom and cuisine are showcased in the replica of clay house.
The Museum of the First Royal Factory at Fang, set up in 2009 to tell the story of the community and the history of organic farming.
"In 2006 the village was completely flooded and the original factory was destroyed," Pipatpong explains. "We spent several years restoring the buildings. Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn came up with the idea of a green factory that relies on solar energy and liquid petroleum gas. She also wanted us to create a community museum like the one at Biwa Lake in Japan."
Designed as a "living museum", it's divided into five zones, covering first the Ban Yang community and the beginning of the Royal Project Foundation. There's a "typical" Chinese room of stone, furnished with antiques. Bamboo walls display black-and-white photographs of His Majesty exploring Fang district and having dinner with local folks. Others show the villagers in times past.
The souvenir shop here sells Doi Kham cherry tomato and mango juice, dehydrated strawberries, kiwis, longan and cherry tomatoes. Fresh strawberries can be purchased at Manasnan Ramaitachapol's nearby farm. He's been cultivating the strawberry species designated 80 and 329 for five years.
"I used to grow oranges, but disease set in. Today I have three rai devoted to strawberries. The 329 variety is the original genus and the fruit is slightly sour, ideal for making jam or dehydrating. The 80 species, which was developed by Royal Agricultural Station, is sweet and soft."
A short walk into the heart of the community there is Usa, a grocery offering noodles made with Australian wheat flour, pickled bean curd and kimchi, as well as organically grown Chinese herbs said to reduce fat, sugar and blood pressure and relieve muscle tension.
The Royal Agricultural Angkhang is in Moo 1 of Chiang Mai's Fang district. Find out more at (053) 450 107-9 or visit www.AngkhangStation.com.
The Royal Factory is in Moo 72, Fang district. It's open daily from 8 to 5. Call (053) 051 021 or visit www.FirstFactory.org or www.DoiKham.co.th.