Tucked into the remote mountains of northern Thailand, at the very end of a barley passable road, sits Suan Lahu, a certified organic farm and traditional coffee grower and roaster run and maintained by the traditional Lahu hill tribe community.

The Lahu are one of the several highland peoples indigenous to the Southeast Asian highlands. While they have shared the highlands with other ethnic groups for centuries, this specific village is home to distinctive sub-group of the Lahu, the Lahu Sheleh, who live in less than two-dozen village communities scattered through the north.

In the later half of the twentieth century, as a modern and largely westernized world spread into the highland and mountain regions, government pressure began to phase out the growing of opium, a traditional cash crop for the Lahu people. Along with this push towards sedentary agriculture came the more culturally harmful enforcement of a ban on traditional hunting. These, coupled with further restrictions from the authorities, had a devastating impact on the lives, livelihood and cultural practices of the Lahu people.

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More recently, large agricultural companies have begun to push new, and often harmful, products onto these communities with little regard for the long-term effects on the people or land. As a result, the Lahu people have made an intentional pivot toward organic, community-based, farming practices and have been working to ensure local residents have the knowledge and skills required to protect their land while improving their economic situation.

The Suan Lahu farm grows a variety of fruits and vegetables that are sold both locally and in the lowland regions of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. The Suan Lahu’s largest crop is coffee, which is slowly gaining notoriety in both local and international markets.

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When visiting the northern Thailand, heading out into the mountains is a must. A well known saying in the region is that for every couple of kilometres you head out from the main cities, you travel back in time at least a decade, if not more. As a result, traveling out into the mountain villages and the hill tribe communities can provide for a great opportunity to explore Thailand’s wilderness and learn about the traditional practices of the diverse peoples who live there.

Unfortunately, this draw has caused many smaller communities to become revolving doors for tourists who have little regard for the impact of their presence there. With Suan Lahu, you can find trips that meet your criteria for adventure while providing an opportunity to support a burgeoning organic agricultural industry and Lahu’s quest for economic and environmental sustainability.

For more information on Suan Lahu and their program, visit their website.

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James MacDonald

James MacDonald

James MacDonald is a Canadian photographer, photojournalist, cinematographer and multimedia producer who has been bouncing around Asia, the Caribbean, the South Pacific and the Americas. James first picked up a camera in 2004 following high school, as he traveled and worked his way through Europe. While completing university and working more and more behind a camera, he soon realized that a history and anthropology degree could only hold his interest for so long. Following a year working as the photo and graphics editor for the University of Guelph's newspaper the Ontarion, an internship with Canadian Geographic Magazine in Ottawa, and then an internship with The StarPhoenix in Saskatoon, he moved back to Toronto to begin freelancing full time, and has been lucky enough to be making pictures since. James moved to Asia in the fall of 2013 to continue freelancing, as well as to work on and develop long term regional stories and projects. He is currently based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Departful is a travel magazine that provides accessible, relevant, and thoughtful travel tips and ideas to inspire people to explore the world around them. We feature travel articles, travel tips, and photography based on our own experiences from over 100 countries covering all things adventure, culture, food and drink, technology, and gear. Made with ❤ in Toronto.

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