Doi Tung

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Doi Tung Royal Villa

The Princess Mother’s summer retreat in Doi Tung. No photography allowed once you’re inside. Photo by David Lansing.

After days and days of travel the most enthusiastic traveler morphs into an international Willy Loman of sorts who desires nothing so much as an appointment-free afternoon and a long nap in a quiet hotel where beers from the mini-bar can be happily expensed. Sometimes, as you climb a slick hill in a steady rain to go have a look at the summer home of the woman who was the mother of the king of Thailand and died 18 years ago, you have to give yourself a sort of mental slap and say, “Snap out of it, punkie! You’re in Thailand! In the middle of the Golden Triangle! At a royal villa! Go enjoy yourself!”

I’d like to tell you that the Princess Mum’s Royal Villa in Doi Tung was amazing. That I only wish I’d had more time there. That I saw things inside I’d never even imagined existed. But I’d be lying.

If anything the Royal Villa reminded me of the rustic ski lodge at a very third rate ski resort. For a royal villa, it was rather small. And boring. Taking a peak at the “social room” where the Princess Mum relaxed with her family, you couldn’t help but think that it looked exactly like a family room in some mountain-oriented cabin in Montana or Vermont where mom and dad read their summer novels while the kidlets played Parchesi. The furniture looked like what you’d find in any farmhouse in Iowa—simple, threadbare, sun-faded.

One bonus: the Princess Mum had a dental office in the house (evidently she had constant problems with her dentures). But other than that, it could have been any Swiss-chalet-style summer cabin anywhere in the world.

I’d show you interior photos of the place but no pictures were allowed. Not that there’s really anything to take a photo of. Which is maybe why they don’t want people taking shots—it might discourage tourists from visiting.

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Thai coffee

Photo by David Lansing.

About 25 years ago, the King of Thailand’s mum (known as the Princess Mother) decided to build a summer retreat on the top of Doi Tung mountain in the far north of Thailand. There was a reason she chose Doi Tung; Thailand was trying to convince the local hill tribes to stop growing opium poppies but they really didn’t have a lot of other choices. So the Princess Mum thought, maybe if I have a royal house here and try and help the people, they will stop growing opium flowers.

Mum got very involved. She set up schools, clinics, and encouraged funding of new crops to replace the opium growing. It took awhile, but these days the hill tribes are known for their macadamia nuts and coffee (neither of which is indigenous to Thailand). In fact, Doi Tung coffee is now so well known that it’s now sold all over Thailand.

This afternoon we made our way up the steep, winding mountain road during a magnificent downpour to visit the Royal Villa at Doi Tung (the Princess Mother died in 1995 at the age of 94). While we waited for the rain to ease up, we had coffee at the Café Doi Tung.

If you ask a Thai if Doi Tung is the best coffee in Thailand, they’re likely to tell you it is number one. And then if you ask them if Doi Chaang, another famous brand, is as good, they’ll say, “Doi Chaang number one.” In fact, you’ll probably get the same replay about any Thai coffee.

“This is excellent coffee,” I said to Ketsara as we sipped our coffee watching the rain come down.

“You like?”

“I think it’s the best coffee I’ve ever had.”

She nodded.

“Do you think it’s the best?”

“It’s very good.”

“But not the best?”

“Maybe the best. Maybe some other.” She said she could think of a couple of other coffees that were as good. I asked her if we were going to be in the areas where those coffees were sold. She thought about it for a minute and then said, “Ye-s-s-s-s-s.” Which means maybe. What it really means is, It wasn’t on the itinerary but let me see if I can make it happen.

The rain let up. I paid the bill and bought a bag of just-roasted Doi Tung coffee beans. I told Ketsara that I would also buy Thai coffee beans at the other places and when I got home I would sample all of them and tell her which was the best. I did this to insure that she would find the other coffee stores.

“Maybe not just one best,” she said as we headed up the hill to the Princess Mother’s summer retreat. “Maybe all good.”

Maybe. We shall see.

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