Scooters and agriculture in northern Thailand

This is a post that comes a bit more from the PhD side of me than the cook. I’m excited to write about the food and drink we encountered during the last leg of our trip, but first I thought it was best to bring up a couple of the issues surrounding agriculture in northern Thailand. Before we get going, here’s some shots of our really cool Thai motorcycle helmets.

After I last wrote, Alex and I rented a couple scooters and headed out from Chiang Mai, the biggest city in northern Thailand, up to a smaller town called Chiang Dao.

We only planned on staying a night or two, but we were having so much fun up in the mountains and riding around the scooters that we ended up spending 10 days on them…with only our overnight bags (and no netbook, which totally dashed my plans of frequent blogging…ah, well).

Because we spent so long on the scooters, we didn’t make it to Laos or Cambodia on this trip, as we had initially hoped. But, that was OK. After 10 days riding through the North, I felt like I was only beginning to understand the lay of the land in Thailand.

Very different from the rest of Thailand, the towns in the north-central area are primarily populated by two different kinds of people: hill tribes and Chinese refugees from the Yunnan province (who mostly migrated to Thailand in the 1960s, after a stay in Burma). A friendly Chinese man told us that the only Thais in the area are policemen and teachers. That was probably a bit of an exaggeration, but not totally off-base.

Up until about 30 years ago, northern Thailand was both culturally and geographically isolated from the rest of Thailand. It was culturally isolated because the bulk of the people in the hills weren’t Thai citizens, often didn’t speak Thai, and didn’t pay much attention to the Thai government. It was geographically isolated because many of the villages are secreted away among the mountains and were difficult to access. (And, actually, not too much easier these days – even with the paved roads my scooter’s chain broke on one of our first steep pitches.)

One of the negative results of this isolation was that illicit poppy cultivation and opium production flourished, particularly among the hill tribes. As you might imagine, opium production was highly destructive. Beyond the warring drug factions, massive income stratification and extreme poverty, there were significant environmental consequences. Poppies were typically grown using slash and burn agriculture. In the process, hillsides were rapidly deforested and eroded. Once a field was spent, a new field was burnt down and the old area was left behind.

In the 1960s and 70s the Thai government made a big push to quash opium production. They drove the reigning drug lord out to Burma and actively introduced alternative, high-profit crops to the area. This included coffee, tea, fruit trees and macadamia nuts. One way they did this was by inserting several Royal Agricultural Project stations in many of the most remote areas. From the Project station, the government taught new agricultural methods and kept a watchful eye on the area. We visited the Royal Project up in Doi Ang Khang (in the very, very north of Thailand, a couple miles from the Burmese border), which was both a research station and a garden designed to attract tourists (though, I don’t think it’s been too successful in the tourism regard, mostly because of those access issues).

Thankfully, poppies are fairly conspicuous, so it seems that enforcement combined with promoting substitute crops has been pretty effective — as far as I know, opium is more or less gone from the area. (I’ll limit that to “pretty effective,” though, because we heard that methamphetamine trafficking is going on throughout the North now, which is much easier to hide than opium).

In any event, the result is that now, in northern Thailand, there is some damn fine coffee. This was a huge surprise to us because, in our first stops (Bangkok and Koh Phi Phi), there was nothing but instant Nescafe. When we found great coffee in the North, we happily drank up!

We drank coffee at the Royal Project (while reading a Thai Martha Stewart Living, obviously):

We drank it at some beautiful American-style coffee lounges:

And we even drank it at stands on the side of the road. The coffee was seriously fantastic.

But, one of the things that was notable was that I saw few Thais drinking coffee. There were some, but most people were farang (the Thai word for gringo) and Asian tourists (who I took to be Taiwanese, though I could be wrong). I was totally conflicted about how to feel about that. I still am. On the one hand, coffee (an expensive export crop) likely brings in a good amount of money to the area. On the other hand, a couple Thai talked to us about rising food prices and how many couldn’t afford to buy much beyond rice (I’d assume this would include the hill tribes, which is still a very poor demographic), and I started wondering if a crop fit for domestic consumption wouldn’t be better for the nation as a whole. I’m pretty sure a similar debate of export versus domestic crops rages in the US (specifically regarding corn), so maybe it’s a difficult question without a clear answer. In the short term, I think buying coffee from the local hill tribes is probably a decent way to support the communities, but maybe there’s a long term, policy-based solution that supports more diversified agriculture. At least, I’m curious if there is. I’m interested in learning more.

So, with that as background, I have a couple northern Thai food posts coming for you. Next up: a post about the one and only cup of civet coffee Alex and I will ever drink (well, probably).

2 thoughts on “Scooters and agriculture in northern Thailand

  1. Allison, What a cool adventure you guys are having! We never have made it to the Thai mountains so I especially enjoyed your photos and writing on this untrampled ( at least for me) ground. Looks fascinating.
    Am also looking forward to reading more about your tasty Thai eats:)
    -Erin

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