Sunday, June 29, 2014

WWOOFing in a remote village in northern Thailand.

With two full months on our Thailand visa, we knew we would want to step off the tourist route and volunteer at least once. A thorough search on Help Exchange and WorkAway gave lots of interesting options: eco-lodges, beach hostels, English schools, meditation retreats, monasteries, a homemade soap business, and several organic farms. We thought about it quite a bit...

seriously, there was even a spreadsheet involved

In the end we decided to reach out to Yuki and John, who own a homestay/organic farm in a small Karen ("kuh-RIN") village about four hours northwest of Chiang Mai. Yuki's listing promised interesting work around their 100% natural home and a heavy focus on making the experience a learning opportunity. Between that and the coincidental name of our favorite PDX sushi restaurant (hey, we're all about serendipity), we were sold.

Luckily our timing worked with their schedule and we were able to stay with this warm, welcoming family for just under a week. Here's a little insight into our brief time on the farm...

John built the family's stilt house using lumber and bamboo from the village. It features a large common area and kitchen, three bedrooms and two bungalows by the garden (with a clay hut coming soon). The garage and storage area are under the house, the bathroom is a few meters away. There are a few amenities that other Karen village homes don't have - solar power for charging electronics, Internet access, and a full shower in the outhouse, for example - but otherwise the setup is basic but functional like other village homes we've seen. The bedrooms just have a mattress and mosquito net, the kitchen has a fire pit stove and just enough shelf space to hold essential spices and oils, and the common area has ample seating for the family and guests without the need for a table or chairs. No TV, no refrigerator, no dishwasher, no washing machine.

our bedroom

the common area

the "recliners"
(and not a bad backyard, eh?)

John, Yuki and their adorable son Misato live in just one of the bedrooms but the extra rooms don't stay empty for too long - during our stay, the family also welcomed two sets of two volunteers, a homestay guest, and two family friends visiting from Chiang Mai. In addition, John's family and friends from the village stopped by daily. The house was always busy but somehow it never felt crowded... All the open walls and cooking around the campfire probably helped in that regard.

Speaking of cooking, meals were communal and everyone participated in the prep. John usually organized, everyone chopped, everyone washed, someone cooked, someone set the table, and we all enjoyed the fruits of our labor.

pounding fresh chili paste
(the more chilis, the more likely John
and Patrick were to pile it onto their dinner)

always onions, always leafy greens,
always all-hands-on-deck

Friday's lunch

Every meal included a protein, vegetable, and rice. Nothing is wasted and everything is an opportunity for deliciousness (or just nourishment), meaning we ate some interesting food during our stay.

cow skin salad was one of the more unusual dishes
... it was surprisingly tasty

We also ate lots of pork fat with the pre-dinner rice whiskey. (Like the Polish, these guys have learned the trick of using greasy fat to absorb liquor. When we get back we are eating a plate of bacon before any happy hour... It totally works.)

moonshine rice whiskey for the win

Snacks were plentiful and usually consisted of fruits fresh from village trees or boiled peanuts (30 minutes in the shell with a little salt - so easy, who knew?).

"Jack not name, Jack fruit!"

sort of mangosteen-ish

Yeah yeah yeah, enough about the food. So what WWOOFing stuff did we do? First the unusual tasks...

One day we hiked several kilometers and spent a few hours edging paddies in the rice field.

squish squish squish

Not sure how much we really helped - I suspect our host wanted us to have the experience more than he actually needed our help - but this was one of the reasons we wanted to WWOOF here, and it was really cool to see the fields this close up.


Afterward we enjoyed lunch from the rice field. It's common practice for the workers to take a container of rice and catch the rest of the meal from whatever shows up that day. Our lunch that day featured crab/mushroom soup (both from in/around the rice field), frogs, and rice.

crabbing for lunch

baby frog appetizers - eat the whole thing
(didn't taste like chicken, exactly
but didn't NOT taste like chicken either)

who needs plates when you've got giant leaves?

Oh, and then Patrick shot a homemade rifle.


That was kind of a surreal, crazy day.

On two other occasions we helped John cut down trees. One was a tree near his driveway, which they wanted to trim in case of high winds. John climbed the tree barefoot and chopped off branches left and right with a small ax. No ladder, no rope, no safety, no chainsaw... Don't try this at home.


... after

The other tree-chopping occasion involved four ginormous bamboo trees. Bamboo is used for everything you could possibly imagine - walls and floors, drinking cups, childproofing open-air balconies, food (mmmmm bamboo shoots) - and everything in between. We didn't get photos of the bamboo tree-felling adventure but we'll just say that watching a 20 meter bamboo tree topple, and then watching John chop it into bits in just a few minutes, is a sight we won't forget anytime soon.

One morning we slung mud in John's clay hut. Unlike the cob houses we were familiar with, where boards were stacked and a combination of mud/straw/newspaper/whatever was shoved between the boards and left to dry, this one was made from stacked clay bricks slathered in mud. The "slathering" part involved throwing mud at the wall. It was pretty fun... and terribly messy.

no photoshop here

the aftermess

The rest of our tasks were typical. We planted some vegetables. We turned the compost piles. We weeded. And for two days we weedwhacked the entire backyard using handheld machetes. John showed Patrick how to make a longer handle for a few of the machetes using one of the machetes..

weeds chopped down
now you can see the banana trees

Jen spent some time each day wrapping new pumpkins in thin fabric to protect them from fruit flies. And one day she and another volunteer made banana leaf planters that could be seeded and then just popped in the ground when ready to plant.

no chemical sprays on this farm!

newly made...

...after a few weeks

There are several experiences that no WWOOF gig would be complete without. One is chopping wood.

day #1 - let the blisters begin!

Patrick somehow avoided the ever-present WWOOFing task of fence mending, but he did get to build a trellis from felled tree branches.

he was really proud of it

he took lots of pictures of it

And really, no WWOOFing gig would be complete without a trip down to the local water source for some refreshing R&R. Usually it's a river but this time it was a couple of pretty waterfalls a few kilometers from the house.

however, this was a WWOOFing first

a nice way to end the week

We come out of these WWOOFing gigs bruised, blistered, sore... and grinning ear to ear. We keep in touch with all of our hosts who treated us like family and taught us so much, whether we were there for four days or fourteen. Not only do we learn, we sometimes teach, too - during this visit we were able to share tips from our compost-making experience during our very first WWOOF gig back on Gabriola Island. Perhaps during a future WWOOF gig in Australia or New Zealand, we'll be able to share homemade trellis-making or the art of turning chili, lemongrass, salt and onion into an awesome sauce.

Or maybe we will share tips on how to live with less. Self-sustainment is not a treehugger fad or even a choice, really, in hilltribe villages - it's a way of life. There are obviously no Home Depots or Whole Foods here; the small village shop is not always open or stocked, the closest major town is two hours by car, and the clay road leading to the village sometimes gets washed out during the rainy season. So if you don't have something, and your neighbor doesn't either, and you can't improvise or go without, chances are you don't really need whatever it is.

We have no delusions of living this simply when we get back to the States. But each WWOOF gig reinforces that we want to be more thoughtful about the "things" we acquire, and the food we eat every day, and how we spend our work days and our free time, when we return. Because this "time of our lives" that we're having right now? It doesn't have to end in February...

pura vida!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Chiang Mai - we get it now.

Bigger cities have become places where we try new foods, window shop at all the various markets, pick up necessities, and maybe get in a little culture. Otherwise we rest up, hunker down, and try not to spend money... Easier said than done when consumerism is all around you!

Two necessities specific to Chiang Mai were a trip to the US Consulate for Jen to get more passport pages (the only city where this could be done for the foreseeable future) and a long-time-coming routine dental cleaning (Thailand is THE place to go for dental care, it seems). Figuring those things would take two days, and seeing a long list of "must see/do" activities in the area, we decided to plant ourselves for a week and check out the city that everyone seemed to think we would love.

We weren't sure what to make of the Old Quarter, our home for two nights. Graffiti-lined streets with cafes, tuk-tuks wanting to take us to the local temples and waterfalls, tour agencies with treks and elephant camps, a pretty gross "tourist bar row", and a market everywhere you turned... It felt a lot like everywhere else we'd already been.

OK, this was a little different

elephant aht

But thanks to a friend of the family we got an apartment to ourselves for almost a week. Staying about a 15 minute walk from Old Quarter - instead of in it - was a much more pleasant experience. We ate at local noodle shops, we cooked at home, we meandered a lot, and we enjoyed the local Saturday flea market featuring everything including work clothes for our upcoming WWOOF gig and the kitchen sink.

third home cooked meal that day

khao soi, done local -
and therefore right

no, really - the kitchen sink

And we got out a bit too. Elephant tours are a big draw in Thailand but we weren't interested in riding. Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for injured or otherwise rescued elephants (and dogs and cats), came highly recommended by our animal loving friends so we hemmed and hawed for three days and finally, begrudgingly, shelled out the $80 each on a day trip figuring this was our only chance to be this close to these enormous-yet-gentle creatures.

it. ..





We fed the elephants fruit, toured the grounds, ate a ginormous buffet lunch, "helped" the elephants bathe in the river, fed the elephants more fruit, observed the nine-month-old baby, hugged a few elephants, and watched a few educational videos. Many more pictures can be found starting here... The highly structured day went by very quickly and we left feeling good about our donation to the cause. (For about $400 a week you can volunteer at ENC - next time!)

Chiang Mai's temples are a big tourist draw, so we spent a day wandering around the Old Quarter admiring the architecture. Pictured below is the main temple area downtown; we meandered into several other wats as well. They're all pretty, but like European churches and Turkish mosques, they do all start to blend together after a while.

stupa at Wat Chedi Luang

Wat Chedi Luang -
90m before an earthquake in the 1600s
now a mere 60m

We didn't visit Wat That Doi Suthep because of the many cautions about it being overrun with tourists (and also because we were lazy and fairly watted out).  But check out the photos in the link above - it looks pretty cool.

The city also recently completed a sort of triple crown of museums - the Lanna Folklife Museum, History Museum, and Arts and Culture Museum (180 baht gets you into all three if the ticket is used within a week period, and they're all right next to each other so there's no reason not to visit all three). The Arts and Culture Museum was a bit lacking in descriptions and exhibits but the other two were really informative about the Lanna culture and Chiang Mai's history, particularly with regards to the trade industry back in the day and how India and other regions influenced the local culture.

hologram diorama at the Lanna Folklife Museum
(it was in Thai so we couldn't understand the dialogue
but a hologram diorama?? how cool!)

archaeological dig at the History Museum

Another Chiang Mai draw is the Sunday night walking market. It was indeed massive...

just one of the many blocks of vendors

if only we had a wall to hang one of these

... but since we weren't shopping, we spent most of our time deciding which delicious foods to try.

banana wonton snack for the win!

bacon-wrapped tiny mushroom deliciousness

Those are just two of the many snacks we tried - most were gone before I could pull the camera out. The Saturday night market was equally fun in that regard.

street stalls next to the Saturday night market

While visiting the markets we saw a particularly odd thing that we couldn't really photograph. A loudspeaker announcement periodically came on and everyone would immediately stop walking or stand up while the national anthem was played. As soon as the anthem was finished everyone resumed activity. It was almost sci-fi movie-like, as if a "pause" button was pushed and then released. We didn't see this in Chiang Rai so we're curious to see if this is specific to Chiang Mai and all its patriotic glory.

Anyway. We didn't rent a scooter and go to the limestone waterfall, we didn't go trekking in the hills, and we didn't take a cooking class - we planned to WWOOF in a small village the following week and then head to mountainous Pai so we figured we'd be covered on some combination of these pricey outings sooner or later.

We did finish a couple books, catch up on blogging and photos, sleep a lot, and do laundry whenever we wanted. If our friend's apartment had a hammock and a kitty, we would probably still be there right now.

Food notes: see above. Also...

loads of fruit from the many street markets

a "Thai omelette" (with ground pork) -
not terribly exciting

a deliciously spicy mystery dish from one of the market areas
(two nice Thai men helped us order)

several awesome but pricey breakfasts
at the Blue Diamond Breakfast Club while we stayed downtown

Lodging notes:
  • two nights at Kikie's House was enough - the location and price were fine and Kikie was really nice, but our private room was pretty musty and the grounds had more of a dorm environment than we would've liked

  • but six nights here was awesome

So while we aren't quite ready to ship our meager possessions overseas, we do understand the draw of Chiang Mai. It's an easy, mostly friendly, comfortable city with culture, great food, and all the modern conveniences one could need.

However. There's very little green space within walking distance. There's a small park in the southwest corner of Old Quarter, and the city itself is of course surrounded by beautiful mountains, but we didn't run across any other urban open areas where we could just sit and enjoy the view. Vietnam had this down, and that was a big reason we loved visiting the cities there (as much as we can love visiting cities).

Next up: a week in the hills with a Karen village family going for self-sustainment.  Time to make up for the lack of green space!