Farmers, resorts help organic tourism take root in Thailand

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Brothers Arrut and Anak Navaraj run the Sampran Riverside resort in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand, which sources its food from organic farmers
Brothers Arrut and Anak Navaraj run the Sampran Riverside resort in Nakhon Pathom, Thailand, which sources its food from organic farmers
Yeoh Siew Hoon
Yeoh Siew Hoon

One of the things most visitors love about Thailand is its food, and for the past few years, it's been acknowledged as the fastest-growing cuisine in the world in terms of popularity.

Indeed, there are few cities in the world today where you cannot find pad thai or tom yum kung should you so desire.

One man, however, wants to bring back the authenticity and purity of Thai cuisine as he remembers it from his grandmother's days. It was a time when farming was organic (even though that word had not been invented yet), and you bought direct from the farmers for your everyday cooking, long before "farm-to-table" became fashionable. 

Meet Arrut Navaraj, the managing director of the Sampran Riverside, a resort that used to be called the Rose Garden. It was founded by his late grandmother Khunying Valee Yuvaboon. 

Navaraj's latest initiative is the organic tourism movement, which means persuading hotels and restaurants in the country to source produce from the collective of 170 farmers that he's formed so that "you, as the traveler, get to eat directly from the farmers."

"We are what we eat, and we eat so often that we should care more about what we eat and know the people who bring us our food," he said. "We should know the farmers, and when we buy directly from them, we cut out the middlemen, and the farmers benefit. We don't pay more, but the farmers get more."

One-third of Thailand's population -- around 20 million people -- are farmers, and "we should support them," he said. "We have personal trainers, personal doctors. Why shouldn't we have personal farmers?"

In a video produced to promote the movement (https://youtu.be/lv-1XXLQaCg), a farmer talks about how she lost her farm as a result of dwindling margins and being cut out by middlemen and how the organic tourism movement helped her get back the deed to her farm.

Hoteliers who have come onboard include Chooleng Goh, general manager of the Athenee Hotel Bangkok, and Marisa Sukosol Nunbhakdi of Siam Hotels.

Navaraj is trying to get different clusters in Thailand to adopt the Sampran model -- sustainable business based on community partnerships -- to facilitate organic food relationships between travelers and farmers.

Putting together the Sampran model wasn't easy. Navaraj's interest in organic farming started when he began working with the three-generation family business at the then-Rose Garden and aspired to source local produce for the resort's restaurants.

He visited farms nearby but found almost all had given up organic farming methods for faster, commercial means. Over time, however, he managed to persuade them to revert to their original, natural methods of farming.

"I told them I'd buy whatever they grew, direct from them," Navaraj recalled. "That means no middlemen. It doesn't increase our costs, and they get more money for their vegetables."

Over time, more farmers joined the collective, and today, more than 170 farmers are part of the Sampran Collective.

Assembling the collective turned out to be challenging, because it was such a fragmented network of individuals, each with his or her own interests.

But Navaraj persevered, winning awards from institutions such as the Pacific Asia Travel Association and the Tourism Authority of Thailand as well as grants to help farmers find their commercial footing while they switched to organic methods.

His latest project is to apply for a grant to use blockchain technology to help with the distribution and authentication of food produced by the collective.

"With blockchain," he said, "we will be able to help farmers connect directly to buyers, and we will be able to authenticate the origin of produce to remove fraud."

Organic farmer Prayud Pancharoen is featured in a video promoting the movement.
Organic farmer Prayud Pancharoen is featured in a video promoting the movement.

The organic tourism movement is the latest in a series of initiatives Navaraj and his brother, Anak, have implemented since taking over the family business.

Their mother, Suchada Yuvaboon, came into the business in the early 1980s and grew it into a destination in its own right, attracting nearly 20 million visitors to its Thai cultural show until it closed this July.

The show site will be closed for six months and will be converted into the Patom Organic Village, showcasing a farmers market, an open factory and an organic farm.

The name change from Rose Garden to Sampran Riverside was symbolic of the direction the grandsons wanted to take the business. (Sampran was actually the original name of the plot of land bought by his grandfather as a home away from Bangkok for the family.)

"We wanted to bring back its roots," said Navaraj, who came into the family business in 2005 after a career in investment banking. "We didn't have roses anymore anyway, and it felt strange when people came to the Rose Garden and asked, 'Where are the roses?' The type of travelers we were getting to Thailand was changing, and our generation was also changing. There's a newfound awareness and appreciation of the Thai way of life."

If you've been to Bangkok's Chinatown lately, you'll know the veracity of his words. Lots of hidden bars, cafes and restaurants have opened within the old shop-houses, embracing a Thai-ness within their modernity.

Walit Sitthipan, the food and beverage director for the Sampran Riverside, also appears in the video.
Walit Sitthipan, the food and beverage director for the Sampran Riverside, also appears in the video.

To bring their products closer to the urban market -- Sampran Riverside is a 45-minute drive from Bangkok -- they built the Patom Organic Living Cafe within the grounds of their grandmother's house in Sukhumvit Soi 49.

All it took was one Korean media fam trip and the social media world was set alight with the cafe, which is now frequented by women travelers mainly from South Korea and China. Fifty percent of the customers are local Thais, proving the brothers also have a home hit.

The cafe sells simple Thai food as well as their range of Patom organic products, which now account for a substantial portion of revenue. That income was essential as the accommodation and incentive business slowed down.

"Thai food is loved by so many travelers, and organic tourism is one way to ensure that the authenticity of Thai food and agriculture is maintained," Navaraj said.

As for what he feels is the most overhyped Thai food, he points to pad thai. And the most underrated? Thai local vegetables.

"Get them direct from the farmers, and you will know the difference," he said.

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