Growing food in Thailand

Something a bit different from my usual kitchen garden posts – growing food in a tropical climate!  On October 17th, my youngest son (he is 16) and I set off on the long journey by air to Chaing Mai in Northern Thailand. We were also going to fly into Myanmar for a few days, visiting Yangon and Bagan. The week before leaving was a busy one – ‘abandoning’ my garden during such a productive time felt very strange, however my son’s school has a long two week half term break in October so we seized the opportunity. I harvested as much as possible from the allotment and garden; squashes, beans, tomatillos, anything that could be damaged by frost (which as it turns out, never came whilst I was away) and the polytunnel was transformed from summer to winter crops in record time, thanks to the help of Charles, Josh and Charlie. I moved all tender potted plants which I want to overwinter such as chillis into the polytunnel or on windowsills all over my house – I have now run out of windowsill space!

The reason for the trip is so that I could visit my dad and my son spend time with his grandad. For the past twenty years my father has lived abroad, so in order to meet up one of us has to get on a plane: first he lived in San Francisco, California, then Singapore and now in a beautiful village near Doi Saket in Northern Thailand. This is my third trip to this area (I first visited Thailand 30 years ago, spending a few days in Bangkok on the way back from Japan), so I have already visited some amazing food gardens here, including The King’s Project near Chiang Mai, an extremely impressive project to provide alternative organic agricultural incomes for hill tribes which had previously grown opium. If you are ever near Doi Saket, Chiang Mai I recommend visiting this amazing place.

These photos were taken at the King’s Project in January 2015.


In Luang Nuea, the small village where Dad lives there is Tao Gardens, an internationally renowned healing centre with a large, productive organic garden providing fruit, vegetables and herbs for the restaurant which serves extraordinary, delicious food (a huge range of vegan dishes, quite unusual in Thailand) and surprisingly a Swiss resort, Vivo Bene. It is not an ordinary holiday resort but one which specialises in care for Swiss patients with Alzheimers and Dementia. The restaurant, Rossli,  serves an interesting range of Swiss meals, fruit smoothies and has a bakery selling homemade bread (the rye bread is delicious), pastries and cakes, very popular with the ex pats in the area. Here they have started an organic food garden which is not very productive yet so can not be providing many vegetables for the resort. The salad looked as though it had been sown by scattering the seeds, a bit haphazard really.

 

It contrasts with this small garden in the same village, maintained by an older man along the bank of the canal (khlong) which runs through Luang Nuae.

The people in the village grow a wide selection of fruit and vegetables in their gardens, utilising any available space including the side of the road, growing Thai green aubergines, chillies, lots of greens, mangoes, papaya (green papaya salad is one of my favourites!), Jack fruit, Durian, Thai basil and a lot of rice. Chickens roam freely; they are slenderer than those in the UK. Water is usually plentiful in this region although this year there was a longer than usual wait for the start of the rainy season. Visiting towards the end of the rainy season in October, we were treated to spectacular dark skies with flashing lightning and threatening rumbles of thunder, but not much rain. Most days were very sunny and so warm, such a treat before the long, darker months of a British winter.

At the bottom of Dad’s garden the khlong, a narrow canal, is used for irrigating the rice fields and also filling up the water in his pond, which becomes depleted during the dry season.  In his garden they keep chickens for eggs and grow different fruit trees including coconuts, mangoes, mangosteens and also pandan leaf, a vanilla flavoured plant widely used in Thai cooking.

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At “The Organic Coffee Bus” in nearby Nong Chom, I was impressed to see a huge amount of mixed salad leaves growing organically for the restaurant, which serves a wide range of salads and juices  and to sell in bags in their shop. Most people in this part of Thailand do not speak much English – their English is more impressive than my two words of Thai, ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ however – so I couldn’t ask many questions about the growing here, but much of it looked very similar to how we grow salad in England: rows about 4 feet wide, plants mostly grown in modules and then planted at equal spacings using a dibber. Rice husks are used as a mulch to add some fertility. To conserve moisture, rice straw is spread upon the beds.

 

 

Along they edges of the salad field they grow Blue Butterfly Pea Flower, Clitoria ternatea, used to make a bright blue tea and also in cooking: it turns rice blue! High in anthocyanin antioxidants, it is said to have many health benefits including detoxifying properties, helping the memory, improving sight and circulation, for healthy hair and skin. Bags of dried flowers are sold in the markets. Here in England it is possible to buy seeds for this plant so I am going to try to grow some next year in the polytunnel.

The photos of the tea are not very clear because my camera lens broke whilst I was away – the tea is a very bright blue, rather like lapis lazuli. All of the photos of my trip were taken using an iPhone 5, those of the tea in my kitchen today using an old lens. I’m currently researching which lens to replace the damaged one with and wondering whether I should wait until the new year and hopefully buy one in the sales.

More flowers here – vibrant colours on a market in Chiang Mai. These are sold as offerings to be taken to the Wats, stunning Buddhist temples.

 

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