Grief is a sentiment that is expressed in different ways. Some people convey it through emotive paintings, some pour their feelings into touching melodies, and others perform good deeds to help – and heal – each other. I chose a very different manner to mourn the passing of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. I chose to walk.
To make this walk purposeful and significant, I decided to humbly follow the footsteps of the late King at one of The Royal Development Projects which he initiated. The late King initiated an extraordinary 4,000 of these projects nationwide ‘For the happiness of the people’ throughout his 70-year reign, implying that there is no land in this country that HM King Bhumibol hasn’t stepped upon.
An avid walker, I contemplated the geographical area between the northern highlands and the coasts in the south, and it hit me just how much of an immense effort, perseverance and vision it took, over a lifetime, to initiate and oversee The Royal Development Projects tailored for different regional environments and communities.
Mae La Noi became my destination. A small border village in northern Thailand, it’s not well-known even amongst Thais owing to its distant location – it took a four-hour drive along tight winding roads from Chiang Mai to get to the site of Mae La Noi Royal Development Project. My complaints dissipated once I was told that their Majesties the King and Queen visited this village in 1970, and that the late King walked for a whole day to reach it.
At the time of the first royal visit over 40 years ago, Ban Huai Hom was remote and desolate with no electricity or asphalt roads. Home to the Pakakayor ethnic tribe, this village was where opium was the most widely grown crop. Due to his concerns about the quality of life of the local community and the extensive deforestation in the surrounding areas, the late King initiated the Mae La Noi Royal Development Project to replace opium with highland crops and coffee. By heeding to the late King’s simple instruction: ‘Where live the people, there need water and forests’, the village become rich in natural resources once again and poverty turned into sustainable income, followed by well-being and happiness for the villagers.
I begin my walk by following Maliwan, a local who plays a vital role in the development project, to her coffee plantation. ‘HM the King introduced us to growing Arabica coffee beans, which became a major income for the village,’ she tells me. The royal development project provided the initial batch of seedlings, and also transferred their knowledge of agricultural techniques and products to the villagers. Today, with the support of relevant authorities, a portion of these chemical-free coffee beans sit on the retail shelves of the international Starbucks chain. The villagers also roast their own coffee blends, and these are sold under the Huai Hom brand name, a certified four-star OTOP product.
After sipping a cup of good mellow coffee at Maliwan’s house, I continue my walk to her sheep farm. It provides the raw materials for elaborate woven wool cloth. ‘Sheep were first brought to our village by the missionaries. We weren’t familiar with how to take care of them, and making yarn from their wool requires a lot of practice – therefore, many villagers gave up,’ Maliwan continues. However, her family did not and when Their Majesties visited the village at a later date, her family offered a gift of their woven cloth.
Noting her family’s open attitude, perseverance and capabilities, HM the King then gave 70 Bond-breed sheep from Australia to Ban Huai Hom as well as arrange for knowledge transfer about breeding, in order to improve the wool’s quality. Huai Hom Traditional Weaving Group was founded and now sells a variety of products even to overseas, all dyed with natural materials – like ground coffee, tree leaves and indigo – and certified as five-star OTOP products. Income derived from woven wool cloth has dramatically improved the lives of the villagers.
It is a long walk following Maliwan around the Mae La Noi Royal Development Project, and I cannot fathom how barren and difficult to navigate the terrain was 40 years ago, and the depth of HM King Bhumibol’s vision to develop a self-sufficiency community starting from scratch. The late King’s empathy for his people and dedication to development ‘For the happiness of the people’ sings out clearly to me. ‘We have come so far since that day,” says Uncle Boonsom the village headman. ‘Anyway, we keep reminding ourselves that well-being doesn’t imply a lot of money, but means sufficiency and sustainable happiness. That’s one of several things we have learned from HM KingBhumibol Adulyadej.’