From Paddy to Plate

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MID summer and Thailand’s mounting humidity is threatening to chuck a torrential tantrum any day now. And I’m traipsing around the country’s only organic resort in search of a salacious story, one which will take my taste buds from paddy to plate. Curious about the tropical property on which I find myself, I ask my guide whether there are any snakes here: “Of course,” he says with trademark Thai honesty. “Are they poisonous?” I tip toe my thonged feet tentatively through the cackling grass. “Of course,” he replies.
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I recently travelled to Thailand’s Sampram District, 45 kilometres west of Bangkok, the kind of country where bare-chested men crack open coconuts plucked fresh from the tree with their huge hands. (OK, he may have had a big knife, and was actually wearing a shirt, but a girl can daydream). On this occasion, I’m exploring the organic farm of Arrut Navaraj. Like so many of the best ideas, this concept was born of one simple action. Fifty-two years ago, Arrut’s grandmother was travelling through this district, when she saw an old bullet tree which needed saving from falling into the river. She ended up buying the 0.4ha of land on which the tree still stands today, built a house and starting growing roses as a hobby. But the story doesn’t end there.
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In fact, it’s only the start. Arrut’s grandmother went on to build an open-air restaurant where the menu was limited to just two items: Pad Thai and coconut ice-cream. But that was enough to lure Bangkok’s expat community to the property which they nick named Rose Garden. Arrut’s grandmother even taught her rose gardeners how to dance to perform for the tourists. And this is where the story takes a delicious twist. Arrut himself was a chemical engineer for Shell, working on the “dark side” if you will, before he decided to take over the family property, and transform it into Thailand’s only organic resort.
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These days, it’s called Sampram Riverside Resort, a 160 room hotel with 6 traditional Thai houses, which employs 450 people and stands on 28ha which includes Botanic Gardens, a Thai Village and Rose Gardens. But the highlight is a green market on the weekends where only organic certified products are sold.
“Our concept is based around the traditional Thai way of life. We wanted to expand more into our local community and into organic agriculture,” Arrut says.
“Unfortunately farmers use a lot of chemicals in central Thailand and we want to reverse that trend. We’ve been doing that for the last four years. We are the only hotel in the country to receive funding to do this.
“We want to promote Sampram as a new destination and hub for organic producers and travel. It’s been going quite well.”
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“Quite well” is a bit of an understatement for this concept which is about to expand with an “urban farm shop” in Bangkok and with Sampram in talks with a number of luxury hotel chains and top supermarkets to promote their products.
“We weren’t professional farmers. We started approaching them and found most of them used chemicals and there was no incentive for them to not use them,” Arrut says.
“They were only getting cheap prices so we thought we needed to start being a market ourselves to buy from them.
“The Thai Government doesn’t look at this as a way of life, as a supply chain. It’s been a long process between us and building trust with the farmers.”
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Arrut says no one else is the country is offering anything similar and those hotels or resorts who claim to be organic are mostly paying lip service to the ideal. The next stage of the business is to work on “The Sampram Model” where stakeholders will form a Memorandum of Understanding on their various roles, rights and responsibilities within the supply chain.
“A lot of hotels have organic gardens but that is really for show. To sustain a whole hotel is a different story. We know the people who grow the fruit, the rice…we are in touch with about 200 farmers at the moment in our province,” he says.
“It is a leap of faith to do organic farming. I started eight years ago and I thought it was impossible. In the end I had to come back to myself and you learn from your practice and get better and better. You learn to get the best balance in your farm.
“My big dream is for the Sampram district to become chemical free. The market wants organic and the government has failed miserably by not paying the farmers and they are now switching to the organic. “
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Arrut also wants to use the 0.8ha of roses grown on the property to produce the first Thai rose oil in the world. And he’s sure his grandmother, who is now 91 and living in Bangkok, would be proud of what he’s achieved.
“She’s happy with what I’m doing. She was a keen gardener. She believes we have to adjust with time. Everything we are doing is based on the traditional Thai way of life.
“Every Thai feels now, after the coup, is the time for change. I’ve never felt like this before in my life.
“It is karma. We went right to the bottom, the only way is up.”
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The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand. http://www.tourismthailand.org
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