School is in session

More than 100 types of herbs are grown in Ban Dong Bang community.

We walked on a narrow path in a large herbal garden belonging to Samai Koonsuk, 57, chairman of the Ban Dong Bang Organic Herbal Community Enterprise in Muang district in Prachin Buri. I felt like we were ducklings following a mother duck. Instead of making “quack, quack” sounds, we asked questions like “What is this leaf?”, “What is that flower?”, “Can we eat it raw?” while pointing at various plants.

Samai smiled and never tired from our curiosity. He answered every question we had and encouraged us to try some herbal plants.

“You can make your backyard into a medical herb garden. When you have a trivial illness, you can use them for curing yourself,” he said.

Holding a betel leaf, he noted that despite its bitter taste, the leaf has good smell and health benefits. The betel leaf can reduce blood sugar levels, he said, and that the phet sangkhat (Cissus quadrangularis) can cure haemorrhoids and help increase bone mineral density.

Samai Koonsuk leads a tour of his 40 rai herb garden.

He pointed to another plant, the saled phangphon tua mia (Clinacanthus nutans), noting it could treat herpes and shingles.

The plant was the starting point for villagers in Ban Dong Bang to turn their interest in growing herbs to making a living.

This interest began in 1986 when Chao Phraya Abhaibhubejhr Hospital successfully made its first ready-to-use herbal medicine — Clinacanthus nutans glycerine — to cure oral herpes in children. The medicine was developed by Supaporn Pitiporn, who today is the chief pharmacist at the hospital. The hospital is located in Prachin Buri’s Muang district and about 13km away from Ban Dong Bang.

“When I learned about the success of the herbal medicine based on saled phangphon tua mia of the hospital, I realised that the plant was commonly grown in many houses in our village. It inspired me to bring our old wisdom back to our daily life and to take care of our health when we have simple illnesses,” he said.

Ban Dong Bang was founded about 80 years ago. In its beginnings, people grew rice for a living before expanding to orchards. Around 40 years ago, many farmers switched from growing rice and fruit trees to growing flowers and other ornamental plants as prices were soaring.

A tree tunnel in the garden.

Eventually prices of decorative plants dropped over supply and demand issues. The farmers turned to growing herbal plants about 20 years ago. Villagers formed the Ban Dong Bang Herbal Group in 1997 and signed a contract with Chao Phraya Abhaibhubejhr Hospital to supply organic herbs.

Samai said the hospital provides a team of educators to help teach the farmers organic farming techniques. “They also keep samples of our water and soil to check for chemical contamination,” he said. The hospital also provides regular testing to ensure that the herbs are organic, he added.

While the group started with 30 families two decades ago, today the total is 12. Organic farming requires devotion and knowledge, and some farmers held on to the old belief that without chemicals, yields would be low, he said.

Originally started to help farmers earn extra income, today the herbal plants are the main source of income for the members of Ban Dong Bang Herbal Group, which recently changed its name to the Ban Dong Bang Herbal Community Enterprise. Each member can earn more than 20,000 baht per month.

“The hospital informs us in advance what kind of plants they want in the next two years so that we plant the right herbs,” he said.

The entrance to Ban Dong Bang’s herbal trail.

They sell more than 20 kinds of herbal plants for the hospital such as fa thalai jone (Andrographis paniculata), which is used to treat the flu and sore throat and kidney tea plant (Orthosiphon aristatus) for treating kidney stones.

Every harvest must be washed three times before being dried in a large greenhouse. The group also has a large drying machine to make sure the process is clean and that no mould develops.

Apart from being the source of herbs for the hospital, the village serves as a learning centre for those who want to grow plants organically.

Starting from groups of students and government agencies, today visitors also include families, individuals and foreigners.

In addition to herbal knowledge, visitors can also learn about King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s sufficiency economy philosophy.

“We follow the sufficiency economy of the late king in that we do not grow only one kind of crop. Every family grows large and economically viable trees like yang na, pradu (Burma padauk) and phayung (Siamese rosewood), which helps for retirement. But we also plant fruit trees so that we can have income after the first three years when the trees bear fruit. Lastly, we plant vegetables and herbal plants that we can have daily, weekly and monthly income,” he said.

The group also produces their own herbal products such as teas, inhalers and soaps. They can also arrange workshops for making those herbal products for tourist groups.

“Our gardens are not beautiful, but they are fully dotted with numerous herbs. If you want to have knowledge, you are most welcome to visit us,” he said.

Travel Info

  • Ban Dong Bang herbal garden is open daily from 9am to 6pm. There is no service charge for small groups of visitors.
  • For a group of 50-80 people, the fee is 2,000 baht for a speaker and tour guides to lead the group inside a herb garden. For a group of at least 80 people, the fee is 2,500 baht. Each member of the group is required to pay another 20 baht for their visit.
  • The villagers can prepare lunch for tourist groups. The price is 150 baht per head including three side dishes, rice, dessert and unlimited herbal drinks.
  • If a workshop is required, the fee is 500 baht for each course excluding raw materials. Costs are 20 baht per person for making a herbal inhaler, 50 baht for herbal soap and 80 baht for a herbal ball.
  • For more information, call Samai Koonsuk, chairman of Ban Dong Bang Organic Herbal Community Enterprise, at 087-087-5039.

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