With its mist-shrouded mountains, rolling hills and dense forests, Northern Thailand feels worlds away from the country’s popular beach destinations. However, it’s not just the spectacular scenery and cooler temperatures that make it a tourist hit. The region’s transformation from a hub for the illicit opium trade to agricultural success story entices a special type of outdoor enthusiast.
In a remote valley straddling the Thai-Myanmar border sits the Royal Agricultural Station Angkhang, the first research center founded by His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej in 1969 in a bid to rid Northern Thailand of opium fields and alleviate poverty. In league with Kasetsart University, HM the King implemented a series of permaculture initiatives designed to eliminate ecologically damaging slash-and-burn cultivation and help farmers to grow high-value, low-yield fruits, flowers, vegetables and other plants.
Supatra Limprapakornchai has been working with the Royal Project Foundation since 2008. Every day, she sees the incredible produce as it gets taken from the farms and into Chiang Mai for wholesale. “In terms of quality, all products are tested to ensure that they pass the United Nations’ GAP [Good Agricultural Practices] standards. Inspectors from the Royal Development Study Centers will visit farms one week before harvesting to check for any chemicals, and then they will check again when the produce is brought to the centers to be sold,” she says.
Supratra has also seen how dramatically the Royal Projects have grown, from a single station on Doi Angkhang to a network that expands across the north of the country. “There are 39 Royal Development Study Centers established in six northern provinces that conduct research and assist farmers, who are mostly hill-tribe villagers, with adopting more sustainable and environmentally-friendly agricultural methods,” she says.
Almost 50 years after opening, the Royal Agricultural Station Angkhang remains the flagship for the Royal Projects, and is now a thriving tourist destination replete with landscaped gardens, slopes lined with fruits and bright flowers, as well as boutique accommodation. Its temperate climate helps ensure a diverse bounty of fruits such as raspberries, peaches, plums and strawberries, plus more than 60 species of vegetables, including carrots, Brussels sprouts and peas.
For tourists, the station presents an extraordinary opportunity to see decades of scientific research come to fruition, not to mention some stunning views. A three-hour drive from Chiang Mai, Doi Angkhang is also testament to the late king’s vision and dedication to bettering the lives of his people. Those who crave cool weather will be delighted to note that temperatures in the valley, which sits 1,400 meters above sea level, sometimes drop below zero during late December and early January. Here’s everything you need to know to visit this remarkable area of the country.
On the 2.2-kilometer ring road around the Royal Agricultural Station Angkhang, you can hop out and visit plantations where they grow various kinds of cool weather fruits. Don’t miss the Japanese apricot plot, where apricot trees dot a lush green carpet-like field. For flower lovers, this is paradise, especially during Dec-Jan, when the English Rose Garden and Bonsai Garden are in full bloom. When the afternoon arrives, a visit to the Tea Storage is a must, where you can ride by mule around the fields. Late November is the perfect time of year to see the Japanese sakura blossom, while the local praya suekrong (Thai cherry blossom) blooms in late December or early January.
Kha Moo with Man Tou
You don’t need to search far and wide for good food at the Royal Agricultural Station. Head to Angkhang Club for a true taste of the valley with a long list of dishes ranging from hill-tribe specialties to produce from the Royal Projects. Their kha moo with man tou (braised pork with fried Chinese buns) is particularly delicious, as is the nam prik Angkhang, a dipping sauce made using the hilltribes’ fermented soy bean paste recipe. Salads are also highly recommended thanks to ingredients picked fresh from the station. Other dining options require a bit of exercise, but if you head to Ban Luang Village you can try the tasty khao soi (curry noodles) made in the Yunnan style at Ali. The soup here is clearer and not as thick as the typical Northern version. Their salapao (stuffed Chinese buns) with black bean are an adventurous dessert you have to try, too.
There are three main villages where visitors can get a glimpse of local hill-tribe culture, the most popular being Nor Lae village. The villagers belong to the Palong or Dara-ang tribes and are the main people responsible for growing the produce at Angkhang station. The Nor Lae military base sits on the hill above the village, providing another panoramic view of Myanmar’s mountains. The next stop, Khob Dong village is home to the Mu Ser Dam tribe, who live here in bamboo houses dotting the hill. The slightly more developed Ban Luang village, meanwhile, is a Yunnan settlement to which a lot of Chinese migrated during WWII.
Angkhang Military Base
There are many spots to catch the sunrise, the easiest to reach being the Angkhang Military Base, near the camping point on the way to Nor Lae village. Choose from the wooden terrace at the military compound or the small hill at the camping point. After watching the sun come up, stretch your legs on the 30-minute Nor Lae trekking route, which offers great views of the mountains over in Myanmar. Another perfect way to spend the morning is by paying a visit to the strawberry and tea fields of the 2000 Plantation—nothing like a view of a misty mountainside to start the day. You can also spot mountains carpeted with rhododendron some 4.5 kilometers from the station.
1220 Moo 5, Maengon, Fang, 053-969-431. Open daily from 7am-5pm.
Angkhang Nature Resort