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Tradition of Tea Culture in Thailand

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While the world map of tea cultivation generally offers a rather stable appearance with few changes over the past centuries, a new spot had to be added to it just recently: Northern Thailand. Where opium fields dominated the mountainous terrain’s altitudes beyond 1,000 meters until about 20 years ago (making the area an integral part of the infamous Golden Triangle), today a highly diversified variety of cash crops covers the slopes, among them fruit, nuts, vegetables, coffee, and, last but not least, tea.

Unlike many other Southeast Asian countries, such as China, India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Cambodia, or Taiwan, the nation of Thailand and the Thai people traditionally don’t have a tea culture of their own. Only some hill tribes that had migrated from China to Northern Thailand around 200 years ago and the ethnic Shan people native to the border region between Northern Thailand and Burma used to collect tea leaves for their own consumption from a local, large-leaved sub-species of Camellia sinensis that grows wild in the area in form of trees. Apart from that, tea culture was only rooted in a small class of Thai-Chinese, mainly business people representing a minority within the Thai population. Until recently, tea was even widely unavailable in Thailand.

However, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the opium cultivation and trade were increasingly challenged and relevant laws were enforced by the Thai government, police, and military, mainly driven by a campaign of the Thai Royals. The mountain population in particular had to find and pursue new ways of generating income.

Two factors played a key role in the initiation and development of the commercial cultivation and processing of high quality teas in Northern Thailand:

1. Thai Royal Projects

It was clear that Thailand, in a bid to boost its international reputation as a developed and modern country, had to put an appropriate regulatory framework in place and enforce it. However, the king of Thailand knew that it wouldn’t be a sustainable solution to deprive people of their source of income without offering them another way to earn their living. Thus, a range of Royal Projects were initiated to be instrumental in identifying, researching, and promoting a variety of cash crops that would thrive well under the region’s diverse geographic and climatic conditions. For higher altitudes, inhabited mainly by hill tribes and Chinese migrants, such crops included coffee and tea.

2. Ethnic Chinese Communities

A second key factor in the development of Northern Thailand’s tea cultivation were the ethnic Chinese settlers of the mountain enclaves Doi Mae Salong and Doi Wawee. They were established during the early 1950s by remnants of the Chinese General Chiang Kai Shek’s Kuomintang army. They were looking for a new home in Northern Thailand after having failed their resistance against Mao Tse Tung’s Cultural Revolution in China. While the two settlements are said to have been major players in the Golden Triangle’s opium trade before, the Chinese millennium-old tradition and knowledge of tea cultivation and processing came out when these communities tried to make a virtue out of “The Taiwan Connection.” Those Kuomintang Chinese introduced the crucial momentum into the development of a thriving tea cultivation and processing culture in Northern Thailand.

thailand-sm.jpgInitial experiments with the above-mentioned local tea species failed to produce a tea that would be marketable outside the country. Then, the ethnic Chinese populations of the Doi Mae Salong and Doi Wawee communities remembered their old ties with their counterpart Kuomintang settlements in Taiwan’s Alishan mountains. These people had been successful in the growing and processing of oolong and green teas that had already gained worldwide popularity. In 1994, the Thai Chinese imported plants of some of the finest Formosa Oolong tea species, especially the hybrids No. 12 and No. 17, from the Alishan mountain region into Northern Thailand and began cultivating them.

With the millennium change from opium, these plants produced their first harvests. The leaves proved to produce high quality teas, but they still had a long way to go to comprise the diversified tea portfolio that Doi Mae Salong and Doi Wawee offer today. Besides the larger, Royal Project-driven tea cultivation and processing ventures at Doi Tung, a multitude of small-to-medium family-run tea productions emerged in and around the two Chinese communities. These benefited from the Chinese settlers’ expert knowledge, trade connections, and work and business attitude. Moreover, the rather small local tea factories impress with state-of-the-art production facilities and machinery.

Doi Mae Salong led the way in developing a broad portfolio of tea products. These include high-quality Chinese green teas and Taiwanese classic oolong teas such as “4-Seasons,” “Dong Ding,” and “Oriental Beauty,” and a range of scented or flavored teas, including Jasmine, Osmanthus, or Rice Tea (a Northern Thai/Shan area specialty).

There are also some herbal “teas” made from such local plants as the Chinese “immortality herb” Jiaogulan and from safflowers. Just recently, Doi Mae Salong has even started producing a black tea that is often compared to a Darjeeling by tea connoisseurs.

These teas initially were produced mainly for the local Thai market. The teas sold to and via China of Northern Thai teas did not initially enjoy a reputation of their own. However, this has started to change recently due to the producers’ accumulated expertise and experience. Now, teas from Northern Thailand are about to establish their own name in the industry, with more and more international and smaller traders and trademarks now adding “Thai Oolong” teas in their portfolio. This trend is strong and continuing, fueled by the ethnic Chinese Northern Thai producers’ constant quality enhancement and product diversification efforts.