Floods have left the garden somewhat unkempt and
disorderly, but to the practiced eye, the earth still offers fragrant
treasures. My guide and the owner of the garden, Khun Umpawan Chutima, bends
down periodically to pick and offer me herb samples.
small houses were built in the herb garden for guests and for massages by
those of Khun Umpawan’s classmates who focused on this area. The thatched
structure in the foreground serves as a welcome area for groups of village
trainees or student classes.
"Citronella grass," she says and when I comment
on the resemblance to lemon grass, she quickly goes to another bush and
plucks a new herb. "No, no, they’re not the same—can you smell the
difference?" I think I can and we move on, breathing in deeply the
aromas of herbs and spices and fruits: ginger, krachai (no common
English name, boesenbergia pandurata holtt), turmeric, mangosteen,
neem and many more.
Khun Umpawan is one of the members of a small group of
herbal enthusiasts in Chiang Mai at the forefront of a move to found a
northern cooperative dedicated to Thai herbs and medicines. The eleven men
and women had discovered their mutual predilection for herbs and
"traditional" remedies three years ago while taking a course on
Thai medicine at the Ministry for Public Health’s provincial branch. These
individuals, all with middle-class backgrounds and supported by full-time
jobs in other areas, chose the course for various reasons—most frequently
declining health or the wish to revive the old arts.
Health problems led Khun Umpawan to take the course and,
motivated by the success of her studies (much-improved health!), she
dedicated an eighteen rai plot of her family’s land in Hang Dong to all
things herbal. The jovial Lung Lern and a team of five or six villagers
taking care of daily maintenance have transformed the previously empty land
into a fertile herb garden.
In Thailand today, more and more people like Khun Umpawan
are joining an "herbal movement", causing local herbs and plants
to experience an unstoppable come-back. Important signs are projects like
the one-tambon, one-product ventures, small-scale individual endeavors
Chiang Mai residents can sample during the Sunday Thapae Road Fair and
frequent media coverage given to related issues. There also seems to be an
increase in large-scale events, such as the Third World Congress on
Medicinal and Aromatic Plants for Human Welfare, hosted by Chiang Mai
University during the first week of February 2003. The fact that this
congress was held in northern Thailand exemplifies the significance accorded
to herbs here. Much of the attention is of course business-related, but this
can go hand in hand with preserving and/or revitalizing valuable local
knowledge and expertise.
As our tour through the garden continues, Khun Umpawan
tells me how this can be done most effectively. She has initiated various
activities, including twice-monthly classes teaching schoolchildren about
their magnificent inheritance in the plant-world.
reservoir was created to irrigate the whole herb garden.
Umpawan in front of a tent where herbs are grown by her classmates and in
preparation for the new Cooperative.
"These children have often been raised in urban
areas and know little about nature," she explains, "so we send
them on searches to identify different herbs." I realize now why there
are white signs with herb names in Thai lying beneath bushes and plants.
Furthermore, she offers free monthly training to
villagers of the surrounding communities who want to learn how to use herbs
to produce beauty and healthcare products. Although open to both men and
women, mainly women take advantage of the offer, as the focus on cosmetics
is not considered "men’s work".
An offshoot of Khun Umpawan’s involvement has been the
gradual "conversion" of her youngest daughter to the herbal cause.
Arunee Chutima (known also as Dawn) is now the manager of Herb Basics, a
small store on Thapae Road that sells the wares created by the
mother-daughter team. It is for the goods sold here that the women trained
at the herb garden provide the ingredients.
"It’s an ideal combination," Dawn admits,
"the women learn a useful trade based on knowledge of the local
environment and they immediately have a market to turn to, while we benefit
from the steady supply of high quality products."
Open less than a year, the shop is every gift-seeker’s
paradise and equally enticing with regard to pampering oneself, thanks to
its warm atmosphere, tastefully arranged interior and, of course, the very
affordable stars of the show: hair and bath products, aromatherapy oils,
perfumes, soaps and other items whose modern, fresh design attract both Thai
and foreign customers. Based mainly on conversations with interested
customers, Dawn also sells wholesale to individual stores located in North
America and Europe.
Although she admits she has been too busy to create a
long-term vision in terms of environmentally sustainable practices in
production and sale, Dawn welcomes new ideas and has made a commendable
start. The ingredients for some goods are 100% natural, chemicals are only
used when absolutely necessary (preservatives and thickening agents always
avoided), liquid goods such as shampoos and shower gels can be refilled and
plastic wrapping is used only when needed to prevent aromas from dissipating
too fast (bath bags, massage balls and teas).
In the meantime, Khun Umpawan never tires of her passion
for herbs. Parallel to her personal ventures, she continues to support the
cooperative project, whose offices—a building already constructed with a
meeting room and space for medical check-ups—will be fittingly located in
a designated, rent-free section of her herb garden. Official registration as
the "Co-operative for Herbs and Thai Medicine" is planned for
perhaps May 2003.
Concerning general membership, Khun Umpawan herself is
characteristically optimistic. "We have been talking to the community
members of the nearby villages and at least a hundred people have already
agreed they would sign up once the cooperative gets going. Many more are
The project is special for another reason as well: although a cooperative
for Thai medicine (paed paen thai) already exists in central
Thailand, this one will apparently be the first cooperative in the country
dedicated to both Thai medicine and local herbs (samunpray lae paed paen
thai). Its members will be true pioneers—and hopefully make the
cooperative bear as many fruits (and herbs!) as the garden surrounding it.