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From Poppy to Coffee — Trek at Thailand’s Highest Mountains

Aek pointed out something on the ground. “Look at that. Do you know why the people of Thailand love the King so much? Because of that,” he said. I tried to understand what he was trying to say because the road was narrow and muddy. It was not until we got to a clearing and saw the length of the humble irrigation system that ran the whole side of the mountain we just trekked. This is why I came to Thailand. I may not have met the King. But I witnessed how he changed the lives of his people, through irrigation, through agriculture.

I was about nine years old when I chanced upon a copy of a Mabuhay magazine with Queen Sirikit in the cover. I was smitten, she was so beautiful and elegant. I immediately learned all the Thai phrases at the back of the magazine. From that day on, Thailand has become an obsession. It would become my passion project in my Asian history class in college that my teacher, a teacher that was so terrifying no one would even dare wear sleeveless tops in her class, graded A+. Thailand in my mind is a land of golds, pinks, silks, and orchids. Of beauty.

I nodded in silence at Aek’s remark. We started that day with a cup of coffee at the Wachirithan Falls. Water from the falls feed the Mae Ping river in the city of Chiang Mai and a dam. It was drizzling that day and when we got to the top of Doi Inthanon, Thailand’s highest mountain, it was 10 degrees celsius and raining. Getting to the top of Thailand was easy — all you need to do is drive an hour and a half from Chiang Mai and walk less than a hundred meters up. At the peak is a memorial for one of Chiang Mai’s last king who would be remembered as one of those who fiercely protected the forest trees. In 30 minutes, we were back in the car to check out the twin chedis built for King Bhumibhol and Queen Sirikit.

As if mirroring the gloomy emotions of the Thai people as the burial of their beloved King for 70 years neared, the skies were so dark and the fog so thick. There was general sadness even in the tourists who were visiting. No one was speaking as we entered the King’s chedi. The flowers in bloom on the other side, at the garden beside the Queen’s chedi, gave us a little lift of the spirits. Time to go, Aek said. We had to shake away the sadness with lunch.

Our guide, Aek, spoke really good English, with a hint of an accent. I thought he was a great tour guide. Aek is our type of man. He promotes local. He has been working as a tour guide for over two decades, gave tips on where our next destination in Thailand should be (hint: no tourists, simple accommodations, great Thai people), talked about his country, talked about his love for the tourism and eco-tourism industry, was friends with the people we met (meaning he has been working with them many times), shared jokes, and led us to an unassuming road side eatery where we were the only people and ordered the real pad thai with heaps of chili flakes.

After that sumptuous local lunch, we drove back down to meet our trek guide, a local man, whose name I cannot pronounce and spell (sorry!). I was prepared for a long and tiring walk in the forest, along a big waterfalls, and across a river. What I did not expect was getting to know Thailand a little deeper.

Thailand is part of the infamous Golden Triangle, the largest producing area of opium poppy. In the 1990s, there was massive efforts to clean Thailand off the poppy-growing label and the King’s Royal Projects was helpful in transitioning the people’s farming from poppy to coffee. In the middle part of our trek, we saw rice terraces and small greenhouses growing flowers. There are also huts and home stays in the middle of the field. At the end of our trek, we were treated to a cup of coffee by another local man. Displayed in his hut were pictures of the King and the Queen. When other tourists have left and it was just Joel, Aek, our guide, our coffee host, and I left, I know the Royal Projects have helped the people a lot, but I also knew the people helped the Royal Projects a lot. It was a two-way street.

Thailand’s transition from poppy to coffee took decades to produce good results. It is well documented that this transition was also bloody, but I could no longer feel it while sipping my third (or fourth) cup of coffee our host cooked in front of us. This serenity, at the foot of Thailand’s highest mountain, through his people, I felt I met the King.

We booked a whole day tour with Destination Chiang Mai for 3,200baht per person. It was a private tour that included an English-speaking driver/guide, transportation by air-conditioned car, all entrance fees and guide fees, lunch, and 2-hour trek.

Credits to Joel Lopez for the images.


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