Lychee lover cultivates living museum in heart of capital
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Lychee lover cultivates living museum in heart of capital

Porntip Thiensup, the owner of Poomjai Garden in the Bang Khunthian area, often inspects her lychee orchard to check for pests and bugs. (Photo by Thiti Wannamontha)
Porntip Thiensup, the owner of Poomjai Garden in the Bang Khunthian area, often inspects her lychee orchard to check for pests and bugs. (Photo by Thiti Wannamontha)

Covering an area of seven rai on Soi 28 of Rama II Road, Poomjai Garden is designed to serve as a living museum that will reflect the way of life of fruit growers in the Bang Khunthian area.

Scheduled to open on Nov 5, some of the things this orchard will have to offer will include showing how the Bang Khunthian lychee, which has a long history that goes back to the King Rama III era, is grown.

Not many may have heard about the Bang Khunthian lychee orchard as most tend to think of lychees being grown in the North where the weather is usually more suitable for cultivating this particular type of fruit than in Bangkok.

However, lychees have been grown in the capital for a long time. There are two known places were lychees can be picked — Yannawa and Bang Khunthian, where Poomjai Garden is located.

Despite being in Chom Thong district, the Poomjai Garden, located next to Klong Bang Khunthian is most commonly identified as being in the Bang Khunthian area.

Over time, lychee growing in Bang Khunthian has declined and knowledge of the Bang Khunthian lychee among most Bangkokians has faded away.

But this might be about to change as the Bang Khunthian lychee was recently awarded geographical indication (GI) status giving the fruit a specific geographical origin, under the Commerce Ministry’s so-called one province, one item project.

The project is aimed at supporting and encouraging people in localities nationwide to produce distinctive products, which will add more value to their goods in terms of product marketing.

Porntip Thiensup, the current owner of Poomjai Garden, said she inherited the land from her grandparents. The land title deeds were granted to her family during the reign of King Rama V.

“The land was mainly owned by wealthy people back then. The species of lychee grown in this area is an indigenous one,” she said.

Recent discussions with historians has led her to believe that the Bang Khunthian lychee is a variety that has been grown in this particular area since King Rama III’s reign.

The idea to preserve this lychee variety came to her about a decade ago when several lychee trees on her land started dying.

The overall state of the land and the orchard, however, was pretty poor then, the 54-year-old owner said.

“I was inspired by King Rama IX's and his theory on the sufficiency-economy lifestyle looked like the ideal solution,” Ms Porntip said.

She began by cleaning up the orchard which was literally a massive pile of rubbish with trash from the canal having been dumped during floods or by the wake of boats passing by. Disposal of the trash took a long time and required a huge number of people to do it, she said.

The next step was to revitalise the orchard by removing undergrowth, improving the soil and nursing the fruit trees back to life — or replacing them in some cases.

“As an accountant working for a private company, I started out with zero knowledge about agriculture. I had to learn it all by reading books, research on the internet, asking experts and enrolling on agricultural courses. So, now I can even do plant propagation by myself,” said Ms Porntip.

The work to save the orchard was completed only a couple of years ago after which some buildings were constructed as part of the plan to turn the orchard into a living museum.

At the same time she persuaded relatives to sell her their land surrounding her orchard, telling them of her ambition to preserve the Bang Khunthian lychee.

Ms Porntip has raised public awareness about the Poomjai Garden and her project by uploading on YouTube tutorial videos on cultivating plants and various growing techniques.

Through this and other internet-based media, she has been encouraging people to visit and conduct activities in the Poomjai Garden that show them what its like to be a fruit grower.

Visitors, for instance, can cook meals for themselves using ingredients picked from within the garden and orchard and take trips along Klong Bang Khunthian.

Currently, there are about a hundred lychee trees in the orchard. The oldest is about 100 years old — an indigenous variety called kalok bai yao or kalok fai mai. Other varieties grown in this orchard include krathon phra rong, kalok bai or and khiew wan. The best known is the kalok bai yao variety.

“The Bang Khunthian lychees are not as juicy as the typical lychee. They contain less juice but are very sweet with a hint of acidity because they are grown in the slightly saline soil found in Bang Khunthian,” Ms Porntip said.

Changing weather conditions in Bangkok tends to affect her annual yield of lychee, she says. A long cold spell from November until January means a higher yield can be expected during March or April, she says.

Poomjai Garden saw a bumper year in 2014, a year which also brought a great sense of pride.

About two tonnes of fruit were picked and although not enough to be a major commercial success they kept relatives and local people happy for a while. 

“But what made us proud of our lychee orchard that year was that we had the honour to go to Klai Kangwon Palace to present our fruit to His Majesty the late King,” Ms Porntip said, pointing out that the word poomjai means "proud" in English.

When the orchard opens officially on Nov 5, it will be able to receive 30 visitors per day as its owner wants to ensure that her guests can fully enjoy the experience of visiting a preserved fruit orchard while not disturbing the way of life of locals or adversely affecting the orchard itself.

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