Mae Fah Luang

Mae Fah Luang, or “Royal Mother of the Sky,” is synonymous with Chiang Rai.  The local airport was recently renamed the Mae Fah Luang – Chiang Rai International Airport; the Mae Fah Luang University is in Chiang Rai as well as the Mae Fah Luang Art and Culture Park; and about 50 KM north of Chiang Rai, there is Doi Tung, home to the Royal Villa, the Mae Fah Luang garden, and the Hall of Inspiration.

As noted in the Chiang Rai in Brief post, Mae Fah Luang is a reference to Srinagarindra, the mother of the current King of Thailand (King Bhumipol Adulyadej or Rama IX). She is also referred to as The Princess Mother, and her story is fascinating.

Garden sculpture of the Princess Mother at the Mae Fah Luang Art and Cultural Park in Chiang Rai

The future Princess Mother was born a commoner in 1900 and given the name Sangwal.  She was an orphan by age nine and she began nursing studies at age 13.   After graduating in 1916, she went to work in a Bangkok hospital. In 1917, she was awarded a scholarship by the queen to further her studies in the U.S. She arrived in Boston in 1918 where she met Prince Mahidol Adulyadej, her future husband, who was studying Public Health at Harvard.

In 1921, the two were married and they moved to the U.K. where there first child, Princess Galyani Vadhana, was born.  In 1925, their first son, Prince Ananda Mahidol, was born in Heidelberg Germany.  In 1927, their second son, Prince Bhumibol Mahidol, the current king, was born in Cambridge, MA (at Mount Auburn Hospital.) When the family returned to Thailand in 1928, the prince began work as a doctor in Chiang Mai and his patients referred to him as Doctor Prince.

In 1929, the Doctor Prince died from kidney and liver problems and his 29 year-old widow was left to raise the thee young children. The Wall Street crash in 1929 pushed the world into recession and Siam (Thailand) was not spared. In 1932, a bloodless coup d’etat replaced the absolute monarchy with a constitutional monarchy. Fearful of what was to come, many royals left the country including Sangwal and her children in 1933.

In March 1935, King Pradhipok (Rama VII) abdicated and went into exile in the U.K.  The National Assembly chose Prince Ananda Mahidol, the 9-year-old son of Sangwal and the deceased Doctor Prince, as the new king, Rama VIII. Far too young to rule, the child king remained in Switzerland to study while a council of regents ruled in his place. The regents’ power, however, was greatly diminished during World War II as Siam was invaded by Japan and its fascist government allied itself with the Axis powers.

In late 1945, the war was over and the now 20 year-old king returned to his homeland accompanied by his mother and siblings. In June 1946, seven months after arriving in Siam, Rama VIII was killed and his younger brother, Prince Bhumipol, became king (Rama IX). In August 1946, the Princess Mother returned to Switzerland so that young King Bhumipol could complete his education. In 1951, the now married king returned to Siam with his wife and young daughter. The Princess Mother, however, continued to live in Lausanne until 1963 with only occasional trips back home.

When the Princess Mother finally returned to Siam, she went to live in the northern part of the country, which has a terrain similar to Switzerland.  At this time, she became acutely aware of the poverty and lack of opportunity for the residents, most particularly the hill people. At an age when many would retire, she began a series of projects to provide and promote education, health care, economic development, and environmental protection.  Using her own funds and raising money from private donors, she was responsible for starting hundreds of schools, hospitals, and clinics. She also organized teams of volunteer nurses, doctors, and dentists to provide health care in these rural areas.

Banners (tung) at Doi Tung commemorating the Princess Mother who was born in 1900, the Year of the Rat

At age 87, the Princess Mother began her last major project, the Doi Tung Development Project.  Doi Tung is a mountain in northern Thailand that had been devastated by the over-harvesting of teak and other woods and by the slash-and-burn agriculture of the hill tribes.  Because of the world’s demand for opium and heroin and the lack of other ways to earn a living, the hill tribe people grew Papaver Somniferum, the single species of poppy from which opium can be extracted. Through the Doi Tung project, the Princess Mother took on the problems of opium production, deforestation, poverty, illiteracy, poor health, and lack of economic opportunity. She recognized the interconnectedness of these problems and that a holistic solution was necessary. Not only did she organize the reforestation of 4,000 acres, but she set up drug rehabilitation programs, and helped choose and establish economically viable crops and handicrafts that can provide ongoing income for the hill people.

The Doi Tung mission is: “To ensure that the people of Doi Tung are economically self-reliant and able to continue the process of their own development as responsible citizens, amid an ever-evolving globalised world, without compromising the environment or their own cultural values.” The key to the success of this project is an understanding that the foundation and government can provide opportunity but that individuals ultimately need to be responsible for themselves.  While Doi Tung has a well-established brand, its products (coffee, macadamia nuts, clothes, paper, and handicrafts) sell because of their premium quality; they do not rely on a sense of pity or guilty to sell. For more information on Doi Tung, visit the website: http://www.doitung.org/

The front of the Royal Villa

The Princess Mother had a Royal Villa built at Doi Tung, her first real home in Thailand, from which she worked and led this project. The home (picture on left) was built from concrete that is covered by wood from discarded teak trees and from pine that came from crates used to ship materials up the mountain. The villa is simple but stunning, although not palatial.

The V-shaped carvings on the top of the house are called kalae. The kalae are carved from teak wood and are typical of the Lanna Thai architecture of Northern Thailand. The origin is unclear but some claim that they represent buffalo horns. The Royal Villa has many sets of kalae and all are different designs.

There are four sections inside the house — the Princess Mother’s private bedroom, a private area for her daughter and granddaughter, a reception area, and a kitchen. The ceiling in the reception area shows the night sky on the night of the Princess Mother’s birth with carved constellations and small light bulbs for the stars. Unfortunately, pictures cannot be taken inside the house.

There is a large balcony deck out back and rooms below for the staff. The deck is decorated with hand-carvings of native animals and of the signs of the zodiac, as can be seen below.

The views from the deck onto the nearby mountains and flower gardens are breathtaking.  It is difficult to believe that 30 years ago the sight was one of denuded and barren mountains.

In addition to the Royal Villa, Doi Tung today also contains the Mae Fah Luang Gardens and the Hall of Inspiration. The garden covers 10 acres, has water features, vast variety of plants, and a fabulous enclosure that contains a wide variety of orchids.  Prior to the Doi Tung project, this land contained a village, inhabited by the Akha people, that was used in the trafficking of heroin and opium.  Below are lots of pictures from this garden as well as a link to many, many more pictures from Doi Tung.

Additional pictures can be found at: http://cid-7f0356bdd6b7671b.skydrive.live.com/redir.aspx?page=play&resid=7F0356BDD6B7671B!721

The Hall of Inspiration tells the story of the Mahidol family. The hall illustrates much of the story told above with pictures and artifacts. Above all, it shows the Mahidol family’s philosophy of understanding the problem, not treating symptoms but rather going to the root of the problem, and applying appropriate development tools. If you are interested in learning more about the Princess Mother, the wikipedia article is quite informative: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Srinagarindra

Off to Europe for a week.

Kop Khun Krab.

© 2011 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.

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One Response to Mae Fah Luang

  1. judy says:

    just gorgeous! thanks for sharing your adventures with those of us back in reality!

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