Follow the farm-to-table trail in Thailand

Once used to grow opium, the tiered farmland in northern Thailand is now devoted to organic produce.
Once used to grow opium, the tiered farmland in northern Thailand is now devoted to organic produce. Photo: Sharnee Rawson

It's a good time to be a chef in Thailand. In November 2017, the first edition of the Michelin Guide to Bangkok was released, and restaurants such as David Thompson's Nahm, along with Gaggan and Bo.Lan, scooped the awards pool, gaining worldwide attention.

The nation has always been obsessed with food, and agricultural projects established by Thailand's late king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, have fuelled the fire.

Many travellers will already have an excursion to the northern hills firmly marked in their itinerary. Travel roughly an hour outside Chiang Mai, towards the Myanmar border, and you reach lush rainforests interspersed with farmlands and tiny villages.

Khao soi curried noodle soup with chicken, a popular northern Thai dish.
Khao soi curried noodle soup with chicken, a popular northern Thai dish.  Photo: Shutterstock

Tourism and agriculture form the core of the hill tribes' economy. Until the 1990s, the land was used for opium farming, part of the Golden Triangle (a mountainous region that overlaps Thailand, Myanmar and Laos). Thailand's late king made it his mission to intervene, establishing six Royal Agricultural Stations throughout the north to wean the farmers off opium as a cash crop, and instead provide them with sustainable and organic farming practices.

The gentle rolling hills make for good hiking, one of the region's attractions. An easy two-day trek will take you through the jungle and small villages, across a river and past small farms. Take change for the local vendors, whether it's someone brewing local coffee beans over an open fire, or women weaving colourful scarves.

It's incredible to emerge from the jungle to fully formed, impossibly green, tiered farmland. Between the fields, there are greenhouses for incubating seedlings and signs about identifying pests and how to remove them naturally. In the heat of the day, after the crops have been harvested, women carefully wash and bundle fat green stems of bok choy and crunchy beans for export.

Chiang Mai restaurants showcase the distinctive sour, bitter and smoke-touched barbecue flavours of the north.

Vegetables are just the beginning for the project, which started in 1969. The farms produce roughly 500 different ingredients, from sturgeon eggs and crayfish, to banana blossoms and Bresse chicken. The organic produce fetches top dollar in Singapore and other markets, but the benefits spill over to the local fine-dining scene.

Chiang Mai restaurants showcase the distinctive sour, bitter and smoke-touched flavours of the north, which come to life with the hill tribes' produce.

There's khao soi, the delicious coconut curry broth of slow-cooked chicken, served with bitter pickled mustard leaves and fresh lime. The famous sai oua (the lemongrass and kaffir lime-spiked pork sausage), which vendors carefully turn over glowing coals on each corner. And of course, nam prik ong and nam prik noom – fresh chilli dips – served with fresh sliced vegetables, and all manner of fermented pork.

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The northern capital is much more laid-back than the craziness of Bangkok, or tourist-central Phuket. Here, it's more about beautiful temples, artsy coffee shops, and a never-ending roll call of dishes to sample.

In the old quarter, Rachadamnoen Road hosts a rowdy night market every Sunday, turning the surrounding streets into a playground of stalls touting food, fashion and everything in between. Slip down Soi 5 alley to Farmstory House to escape the crowds.

Here, the menu is centred on simple dishes using organic produce from the family's farm in the hills. For breakfast, the shrimp paste set gets you a chopped omelette of local greens, crisp whole mackerel, organic black sticky rice and plenty of chilled cucumber rounds for only 99 baht ($4). Chemex coffee is the house speciality, with single-origin beans from the northern city of Chiang Rai, Nan and Tak provinces, and abroad.

Fancy Thai iced coffee at The Baristro in Chiang Mai.
Fancy Thai iced coffee at The Baristro in Chiang Mai. Photo: Sharnee Rawson

On the island of Phuket, Sri Panwa is another happy customer of the Royal Project. The six-star Cape Panwa peninsula resort uses the produce at all 10 of its on-site restaurants.

The resort – a 12-hectare playground of infinity pools and blue-on-blue landscapes where sea meets sky – feels a world away from the dense jungle of the north, but the Thai obsession with food remains constant.

In the morning, your breakfast – taken at the pool club, with its infinity-edge pool overlooking the ocean – ranges from truffled eggs benedict and made-to-order waffles to fish kidney soup and miang (betel) leaves stir-fried with egg and pork belly. Whatever your choice, it's best taken with a cooling Thai iced coffee in hand.

A vendor brewing local coffee beans over an open fire in Thailand's north.
A vendor brewing local coffee beans over an open fire in Thailand's north. Photo: Sharnee Rawson

High on the hill overlooking the ocean, Baba Soul Food's menu showcases the breadth of Thailand's many regional cuisines, combining Royal Project produce with seafood from the surrounding Andaman Sea. The nam prik dips of the north are on the menu, alongside Andaman crab meat in a delicate yellow curry sauce, and miang leaves dressed with diced shrimp.

The onsite Cool Spa might be the best example of the obsession. Local herbs are crafted into aromatic body scrubs, and mango and tamarind blended into full body wraps. The lush body treatments are world-class, followed by another Thai obsession – rigorous but relaxing massage.

DETAILS

Take breakfast by the pool overlooking the ocean at Sri Panwa resort.
Take breakfast by the pool overlooking the ocean at Sri Panwa resort. Photo: Supplied

Farmstory House

7 Rachadamnone Road, Soi 5, Mueang Chiang Mai District 7

Sri Panwa Phuket

88 Sakdidej Road, Vichit, Muang, Chang Wat, Phuket