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Tobacco curing barns

A novel northern "cure" by Peerawat Jariyasombat. Bangkok Post

Cool mountain breezes, typical Lanna cuisine, teak furniture, elephants working in timber camps, generous and friendly people and colorful hilltribe settlements are the things most tourists associate with Chiang Mai.

But modernization has taken its toll on many aspects of northern culture - authentic Lanna-style homes and elephants have been among the casualties.

Another northern mainstay that has faded from many people's memories is the tobacco business, which once played a pivotal role in the regional economy. Tobacco farms and curing barns, with their distinctive aroma that used carpet the North each winter, are fast disappearing. But Thawat Cherdsthirakul is determined to ensure that at least a few reminders of the old days remain.

Stepping onto Mr. Thawat's property is like stepping back in time. Nestled under shady trees along the Chiang Mai-Hot Road are 18 tobacco-curing barns that have been converted to 36 comfortable guest rooms on a farm reborn as the Kao Mai Lanna Resort.

"When other tobacco-curing barn operators saw what I had done with my barns, they said I must be mad," Mr. Thawat recalled of his novel project. Looking at the barns from outside, one can see the roofs made of corrugated steel sheets, while the old red-brick walls remain the same as they have been for the past 50 years. But once you step inside it's a different world - two-storey guest rooms, each equipped with modern facilities including television, refrigerator and a bathtub.

A guest can enjoy a comfortable sleep in the upper-floor room on a Lanna-style bed built on the raised floor, or on a genuine teak bed in the ground-floor room.

Because each tobacco curing barn was built in a different size, all the rooms have different interior decorations, from the windows to the curtains, beds and sofas.

The rare teak furniture from the northern provinces and Myanmar includes old- fashioned Thai-style dressing tables and khong lekae (wooden boxes for carrying costumes used by Thai folk drama troupes).

"Indeed, it would have been much cheaper to destroy all of these barns and rebuild them with guest rooms inside. But I wanted to keep these old curing barns just as they had been for the past 50 years," Mr. Thawat said.

Hundreds fashioned tobacco-curing barns made from brick and bamboo walls were a common sight in most rural areas of northern Thailand half a century ago, all introduced to the region by the British.

Tobacco was a big foreign exchange earner for northern provinces at that time. Each operator had privileges from the government to run the business without competition within an eight kilometer radius of his farm.

In Chiang Mai alone, there were more than 50 prosperous tobacco businessmen, and they were all known as phor liang or millionaires.

The northern tobacco industry began going into decline more than 10 years ago, when cigarette makers turned to buying tobacco from other cheaper sources such as southern China. The number of tobacco agents dropped to two from 21.

Now, just a handful of tobacco farms in the outskirts of Chiang Mai can survive. Most curing barns have been replaced by fruit plantations and real-estate projects.

Mr. Thawat bought the 18 barns that had stopped operating and turned them into resort accommodation. He also transformed the 43 rai farm into a big garden to supply decorative trees to the booming real-estate sector until the property bubble burst.

But the resort remains a comfortable haven and a viable business. Besides tropical gardens and large shade trees, a vineyard and passionfruit trees covering the long corridor linking each barn provide an appealing setting.

Swarms of bees fly around the flowers. Many varieties of palm trees abound, along with wild orchids hanging from big trees, big clumps of bamboo. The fresh air in the big garden made me

think of winter - only the high-pitched noise of cicadas reminded me that it was mid-summer.

Large trees also shade a big Lanna-style teak house that was built on stilts in the resort, as if to

hide it from the fast-moving world outside. But this seems impossible as thousands of items of hand-made cotton products on sale are attracting tourists to this ancient home everyday.

The property has turned into a shopping paradise for visitors, especially the Japanese, to the resort.

"We bought these naturally dyed cotton clothes from a remote village where we began offering training six years ago. The villagers weave according to our own designs. Now it is the main source of income of the village," said Maneerat Kittiyavong who operates the clothes shop.

With dyeing techniques from north-eastern Thailand and modern design, the Kao Mai Lanna brand has become popular - so much so that the designers must keep coming up with new ideas to fend off copycats.

Hundreds of hand-woven cloth rolls in different shades and designs, ready- made apparel, toys, souvenirs and many other home decorative items are on display. The tea pot is always filled with green tea to serve Japanese Visitors.

For customers exhausted by the rigors of shopping and bargaining, sustenance awaits at the country-style restaurant nearby. Decorated with wooden furniture in rural style, the 80-seat restaurant serves delicious local northern cuisine.

Window to Chiang Mai