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Cultivated with love for a royal family
Stephen Scourfield Local people from the hill tribes are employed to work at the Mae Fah Luang Garden at Doi Tung.

'Long Live the King." It is written around the orange plastic wrist bangle that "Yai" Suttirat Roeansung wears alongside a pink one with Thai script.

"What is that one," I ask, pointing to the second. Yai, 36, and born and raised in Chiang Saen, in the Golden Triangle at the northernmost tip of Thailand, says she buys one bangle every year, to think about the King of Thailand and support the thousands of royal projects that make real differences to people across the country.

When she says she loves King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, King of Thailand, she means it.

And when she says she loves Princess Sangwal, the King's deceased mother, she says it with a quiet and genuine devotion.

To walk around the Hall of Inspiration at the Mae Fah Luang Garden and the royal villa at Doi Tung, up where Burma leans down on Thailand from the other side of mountains and near where the Mekong River borders the country to Laos, is to begin to understand why.

The lives, principles and works of a remarkable family - and of Rama IX, who has reigned since 1946 and is the world's longest-serving head of state and the longest-reigning monarch in Thai history - are gently unfolded.

This is a man who uses just a dozen pencils a year. "Each year his Majesty requests 12 pencils - one of each month. He uses each one until it is all used up," confirms Sumet Tantivejkul, secretary-general of the Chaipattana Foundation. The king always carries the pencil, a map of where he is, a camera and a two-way radio. In one room, examples of all are shown, including his Canon AV-1 film camera with a Tokina lens. The King is a keen photographer, but this was not top-of-the-range equipment.

As children, the royals had a complete set of carpentry tools.

Doi Tung is an inspirational location. Doi means mountain, Tung means holy banner, and banners hang above me now, in a style specific to this area, flying in the light breeze, golden ribbons. At more than 2000m, Doi Tung is the highest mountain in Chiang Rai province.

The twin temple on top contains a holy relic, the left side collarbone of Lord Buddha Siddhartha Gautama, who was born an Indian prince, renounced wealth and family to become an ascetic, and achieved enlightenment.

The King's Mother's royal journey was opposite, but might be seen as parallel.

Sangwal was born a commoner but destined to become Princess Srinagarindra. She took the family to live in Lucerne in Switzerland, and that influence is felt in the villa, which was built in 1982 and based architecturally on a Swiss chalet, though with golden teak floors.

But it is the intimate details that show more of this beautiful woman. The King's Mother liked to embroider, and there is a display of her little embroidery kit, including a delightful pair of scissors shaped like a heron. There is a rack in her bedroom with just six pairs of shoes. There is a display of her little flower pressings - another of her hobbies - with poems written alongside, some in French.

There is no ostentation, just intelligence, humility and engagement with the people. And, indeed, they came here to kneel on the big carpet in the reception room and speak directly to her.

The gardens were started in 1997 on 4.8ha, as an inspiration in themselves and are now 10ha. Seven hundred local people, mostly from Akha and Lahu hilltribes, are employed in the gardens and nursery.

As importantly, they have been a focal point for the wider royal project of restoring the area's landscape.

The timber on these mountains had been clearfelled, and with the erosion that followed, landslides were common. This northern region of Thailand was where the one species of the 120 in the poppy family that gives opium was grown.

"I will reforest Doi Tung," announced the King's Mother, when she was 87.

Restorative grasses were planted to fix the soils. But today the project, and others, has seen those poppy fields replaced with teak trees, as a long-term investment, and pine trees, to yield forestry crops quickly.

Thailand is strict on drugs. We are close to the border with Burma and police are vigilant against drug smuggling. Some people trying to bring drugs in dissolve them in water, soak their clothes and then rehydrate the drugs out of them later. Others might put drugs in small plastic bags and then grow a cabbage around it.

"It's a good idea, but it's not good," Yai says. "Thailand is very strict on drugs," she reaffirms.

Yai, who speaks Thai, English and French and has been a guide for 10 years, went to school here. She has a bachelor of arts degree. Her sisters have moved elsewhere but she likes to be here, she says, because she likes the countryside and to take care of her parents.

She is specific and proud in her telling of the story of the place and its people.

The Hall of Inspiration leads to a final room, where a drop of water falls into a round pool.

"A single drop of water can start ripples that grow into ever- expanding waves," Yai says. "The compassion of the Mahidol (royal) family, like drops of water from the sky, has swelled to relieve parched heat and ease drought and suffering."

FACT FILE

>> Visitors wanting to spend a little longer in the area can stay at the Doi Tung Lodge, bordering the gardens. It is about 2400 baht ($88) to 2800 baht ($102) a night.

>> See Thai Tourism's website at www.tourismthailand.org.

>> Thai Airways has five flights a week from Perth to Bangkok, including three via Phuket.

>> For flights, see www.thaiairways.com.au and travel agents.

>> See www.thailand.net.au for general information on Thailand.