I was 26 and didn’t know any better. Bored with my job on the staff of the Peace Corps in Bangkok, I hatched the idea of a farm growing western vegetables in a fertile valley on the banks of the famous River Kwai.
My Peace Corps colleagues pitched in with capital. We bought 25 acres of land, and I hired Khun Damrongsak, a Thai Luther Burbanks whom I stole from the Siam Intercontinental Hotel, to run the farm. We were off and running – or more accurately – off and losing money. Damrongsak was a great scientist and later earned a significant award for developing delicious hybrid guavas. But like many smart scientists, his skills did not include management or profit-making.
If you want to be a gentleman farmer in the humid tropics, be prepared to lose 3,000 baht a month for every acre of vegetables you grow. That was 1972, so in today’s money, be ready to lose about $500 per acre.
Why do you think only gentlemen go into farming? Unless the government’s paying, who else can afford it?
But for all the money I lost for myself and my partners, I earned a lot of firsts. I was the first to grow broccoli in the Thai central plain. Oddly enough, of the 12 varieties I tested from seed companies around the world, the ones that worked best in the hot tropics were Sakata seeds from cold Japan. My broccoli proved very popular with the Chinese restaurant in town, and the owners became close friends, offering me a bed when I was stuck in town. Damrongsak and I also grew snow peas, baby corn, and asparagus, and for a time, I was also the “Mushroom King of Thailand.” These were relative successes. Lettuce also grew well, though not in the hot season; it has a resin which discouraged bugs without any need for pesticides. (Yes, this was the 1970’s and most of us were still merrily ingesting chemicals. )
I lived in a 4×4 meter thatch and bamboo raft that sat right on the River Kwai with windows that opened all around. Every morning I dove into the Kwai and swam across the river and back. This was indeed the luxury of nature, and when my friends found out, they wanted to come too. Especially intrepid Marcia, my economist buddy, who was an intern at Thailand’s central bank.
She organized the first overnight raft trip down the Kwai in a little bamboo raft with a canvas tent in case it rained. Somebody finally suggested we offer all this to paying tourists.
Hence the other first for the farm on the River Kwai was eco-tourism. The word wouldn’t be invented for another ten years, but we were doing it. We took our guests to meet the local villagers, who picked fresh coconuts for them and showed them how to harvest sugar cane. At evening campfires, we invited a few talkative villagers to answer questions from the foreign tourists and vice versa, with me as an interpreter. The restaurant food all came from our own and local farms. And the activities were all about nature. Thus we became an early example of an eco-resort well before it became a much-coveted and abused term in the tourism industry.
Lessons learned. There are always lessons to be learned.
1. It’s hard to be the first. Now the banks of the River Kwai are lined with floating and grounded resorts. Then none. If you’re the first, everybody else learns from your mistakes and successes and has an easier time of it. Better to be the second.
2. How to deal with the locals. It is now taught in a Ph.D. course on eco-tourism that to succeed, you involve and benefit the local people. We hired them and some of them walked off every night with our fuel and food. When we fired one, the whole village rallied to the cause of their village neighbor. Don’t believe the Ph.Ds. It’s dangerous to hire locals. Instead, let them provide transport, tours, or other needed services, and they will be your nice bridge to the surrounding community.
PS – Some Super Recipes from the farm on the River Kwai
Our cook was a genius who had worked for various embassies in the past. Using the fresh vegetables and the ducks which I herded up and down the road feeding on worms, she invented some wonderful dishes. Stewed duck with red cabbage, shredded papaya fried in coconut batter, and our signature “chicken in the straw.” Jars of Col. Sandler’s hibiscus jam sold by the thousands.
Chicken in the straw. This is a traditional Thai recipe making use of the rice straw that piles up after the rice harvest.
Broiler chicken, better on the skinny side
Maggi sauce, pepper, and garlic marinade
Stake the broiler on a wood stake in the ground
Cover with a standard, square 20-litre kerosene tin
Leave open about 2” at the bottom
Cover with rice straw, light it, and cook for 12 minutes
Fried shredded papaya
This is a recipe invented by Auntie Jeem, our cook, who almost convinced us when she said it was fried battered shrimp.
1 semi-ripe papaya
Koki breading flour
Bread the papaya and deep-fry in cooking oil
This is made from a flower common in the tropics, known in some countries as rosella. It is a member of the hibiscus family with salmon-colored flowers. As the seed pod develops, a dark red fruit develops around the seed pod (calyx).
1 kg fresh hibiscus fruit removed from the seed pod
1 kg white sugar
Shredded peel of 2 limes
Put the fruit in a blender for just a moment, chopping into small pieces
Cook in a heavy pan or pot (brass is best but not necessary
Remove from fire when still liquid as it will solidify when cool