Volunteering at Farms

Northwest & Northeast Thailand

July – August 2018

One of the greatest things about Thailand is that it hosts many volunteering projects and farms. Volunteering enables a close interaction with the locals, therefore it is a good way to explore the culture, traditions and the environment by all means. It also educates you according to your interests, gives you inspirations on the subjects that you regard. Besides you benefit financially from this collaboration as food and accommodation is offered to you for free in return for your work.
Now I am going to take you to 3 different projects I’ve visited in Thailand. Two of them; Pun Pun and Mindful Farm were around Chiang Mai in northwest and the other one, Mindfulness Project was near Khon Kaen in northeast Thailand.

I want to begin with Pun Pun Farm which I have been knowing for some years because of our mutual enthusiasm on seed saving. Located 60km north of Chiang Mai (close to Chiang Dao) it is surrounded by the beautiful landscape of northeastern Thailand, lush green hills, rice paddies and many water resources.
Pun Pun is a small organic farm, seed saving center and sustainable living and learning center. The community tries to find more ways to live a more self reliant lifestyle by growing organic food, building their own natural homes, experimenting with low tech technologies and hosting workshops, internships and trainings on sustainable living.
For further information: www.punpunthailand.org

It was such a pleasure to meet Pi Jon (Jon Jandai, above) the co-founder of Pun Pun and talk to him about our mutual interests like farming, seed saving, sustainability, community building or how to create a meaningful life. You can read from his eyes, from his attitudes how a pure loving heart he has. I listened from him their story, how they founded the farm and set up their lives here.
They first started 15 years ago by planting many banana trees and in between them many fruit trees and herbal edibles. They have been building up the soil and practicing organic gardening since then without the use of any chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides. They propagate their own effective micro organisms and make their own composts. In the farm land and garden zones they grow rice, vegetables, herbs, local perennial edibles, fruit trees, and have fish ponds and egg laying chickens.

They also built by hand all the structures they needed to support community needs. These structures are serving as meeting hall, dining hall and kitchen, coffee shop, seed saving centre and huts for community members and visitors. They only used local and natural materials like adobe (sundried mud bricks), straw, strawbale, clay, cob, bamboo and stone. With all the experiences they have gained they organize many workshops on natural buildings now.

The main reason that brought me here was that one of the most significant action of Pun Pun is seed saving work. Up until my journey started in October 2017, I was also working as a seed saver for almost 4 years. So why are seeds this much important? Because seeds are the source of life and the first link in our food chain. In its essence the seed is all of the past evolution of the earth. Unfortunately in global scale we have lost many varieties to a great extent due to the new laws, industrial and monocultural farming, chemicals, GMO and hybrid seeds, decrease in the number of small scale farmers etc. So seed saving is an ethical urge to defend life’s evolution. Conserving seed is conserving biodiversity, culture and sustainability.
For further information on seed saving, I invite you to check one of my essay in India; On Seed Saving & Navdanya Movement.
Pun Pun is also seeking to bring the tradition of seed saving back into the hands of farmers and growers. So they set up a seed center for which they collect rare and indigenous seeds from Thailand and all around the world. They multiply them at the farm and when they have enough they distribute them through their network of other organic farmers and communities.
It was a pleasure to swop seeds with them. I presented them a set of seeds I’ve brought with me from my library. And the seeds they gifted me have already been planted in a farm in southwest Anatolia.

I love to be in the nature. It is my home.
So you can guess how happy I was as being here. I enjoyed each of my days and nights, working, resting, sharing, exploring in this little piece of heaven. What an abundance the monsoon was bringing to mother nature. This lush green environment was a pure source of happiness for me. I was staying in a small and humble room by a little pond. Hundreds of frogs living next door (pond) were performing their oratorio and accompanying me while I was reading or falling into sleep.

Above are some of the lovely members of Pun Pun. Pi Jon, Pi Daeng, Peng, Rampai, Greg, Mandy, Pai, Thip, Lisa, Rocky, Jack, Ailsa, Krit, Sheena, Nada, Tao, Nang. I was touched by the beauty, happiness, contentment and harmony of these people. Everyone is working or helping eachother in loving kindness. Yes work is important but they regard meaningful action. Without getting overwhelmed by many goals, simply in a natural flow they live peacefully together.
Once I was interested in community building, read, researched and inquired quite much on this matter, visited some communities here and there, even took some steps in the direction to cocreate a community. Pun Pun was like a manifestation of what I was seeking for. I was so happy to see here as a beautiful example. There may be many reasons for this harmony but in my opinion culture has a great influence. Here I find the egos less dominant compared to West and the people look more mature spiritually.

I had the chance to give my support on so many different works. For the first time in my life I did weeding in a rice paddy. It was quite an interesting experience to work in the mud up to my knees. During our work Tao told me how to prepare EM (effective microorganisms) that are used to benefit and protect the soil and plants. On these days Tao and Nang’s house was on construction and we also worked on plastering and implement clay on the walls.

We harvested longan fruit as it was exactly its season. What a chance it was to find fresh and organic tasty longans in abundance. Nang (above, left) is the caretaker of the seeds at the farm. We worked together with her on taking the new seeds and classifying some of the varieties. I also helped in preparing natural shampoo from kaffir lime (above). Members are making several seasonal products at the farm including shampoo. Products are available at the coffee shop at the farm and at various shops in Chiang Mai.

As having a farming background I enjoyed working in the vegetable gardens, planting seedlings, preparing soil and mulching. Daily works also consist of feeding the animals and milking the cows as the farm hosts 3 cows and around 100 chickens. Chickens are there just for their eggs and the milk is used for making yoghurt and cheese.

The daily harvests from the garden were so diversed creating that day’s menu. Nourishing and delicious gifts of nature. Longan, banana, rambutan, custard apple, star fruit and mangosteen were the types of fruits of the season. Mushrooms were in abundance joining almost each day’s meal.

Each meal was a feast. Everything was super tasty and I was more than happy to eat fresh organic food. When the turn was mine to be in the kitchen team I was enjoying to learn and cook Thai food. Daeng and Krit were my cooking masters.

During my stay here I assisted a 4 day long fermentation course. We hosted around 20 people. The programme consisted of not only teachings on fermentation but also practices on how to prepare fermented food recipes. I learned and benefited a lot from it. Pun Pun’s kitchen is kind of a laboratory. There are many fermented preparations they make here. We see kombucha above in the jars.

By the work of the symbiotic community of bacteria and fungus, fermentation basicly changes the chemistry of the food that brings more nutritions and helps us in digestion. It also helps preserving the food for long times and brings very good taste. Some of the fermentation types are probiotics and they create diversity of bacterias we need in our body.
We see Kimchi preparation above, with onion, spring onion, garlic, cucumber, cabbage, radish, carrot, ginger, chilly powder, salt, sugar and soya sauce.

During the course we prepared many recipes like kimchi, garlic chives, banana vinegar, ginger beer, yoghurt, kefir, tempeh, fermented mushroom, damuji (Korean radish pickle), kombucha and cheese. The pictures above are from the cheese making session in which we learned how to make paneer and mozerella.

We see fermented mushroom preparation above. It is a simple recipe made with mushroom, sticky rice, garlic and chilly peppers, all rolled in banana leaves.

Tempeh is a traditional Indonesian food made with soybeans. It is a great vegan protein. As we see above it is prepared by rolling in banana leaves. It is a bizarre looking food but it is so tasty. After it gets ready it is marinated with different sauces and herbs then either deep fried or baked.

There is another important farm located just a few kilometers away from Pun Pun, that is the Panya Project (above). It used to be one of the most remarkable farms of Thailand which was designed according to permaculture principles. They used to open volunteer programmes, courses and workshops on permaculture. At those days when I was there it was not functioning but if you are interested you can still check it out if they are open or not and pay a visit to this well designed land.
It was now a good example of how nature dominates in time when there is no human intervention. All those permaculture implementations and food forests were covered by jungle. Nevertheless the beautiful examples of natural buildings were still standing up right.

I was thankful for my peaceful days here. With a still mind my attention was in my moments. In the simplicity of life I was silently letting myself feel the real love that is always and already there in my heart. Just at that moment a butterfly landed on my hand. I felt she was saying lovingly; ‘Welcome to the reality.’
Thanking all the lovely people I met here, wishing their well being always, I left Pun Pun with many nice memories in my heart.

To visit the second project I went to northeastern Thailand (Isan) that is largely isolated from the rest of the country by a large mountain range. These plain lands are the home for Lao-speaking majority, as well as primarily agricultural societies. There I was in the country side of a new region, about 40km away from the city Khon Kaen. My destination was Mindfulness Project.
Mindfulness Project is a non-profit organization with a spiritual foundation. The core of the project is to create a sustainable, healthy and ethically conscious community. One of the foremost goals of the project is to bring ethical behavior to all levels of life using both science and spirituality. Their approach to spirituality is influenced by mainly Buddhist teachings, meditation and mindfulness.

Since January 2016 they have been building their current land from scratch. They host events and courses where you can learn with hands-on experiences like; water harvesting structures, natural buildings, starting permaculture gardens and installing alternative energy. Attending a volunteer programme, you will also get daily teachings on yoga, meditation or on topics like psychology, non-violent communication and permaculture.
For further information you can visit: www.mindfulness-project.org

All of a sudden I found myself in a big group of 40 lovely people. Frankly speaking this is so rare that I go into big groups of people. It is not that I resist but my solo journey was unfolding in such a way that I was mostly in my solitude and silence. So this was quite a new environment to me that unexpectedly reminded me of the healing power of human joy. All these beautiful people, with their laughters and lively energies brought happiness and joy into my moments. That was really nourishing.

Daily schedule was starting with yoga and meditation. After the breakfast the silence was over and we were starting working in divided groups according to the needs of the project. Every evening there was a talking circle and a teaching on different topics. It wasn’t a tight schedule giving us many spare times to be alone or socialize. We also had some adorable cats and dogs living with us. They were also a source of joy for me.

The main work at the project was the construction of a multi functional natural building. We primarily prepared adobe dried mud bricks. The collective energy of the group was so joyful turning the quite hard work to a fun.

To be in the cooking team of the day was giving us the chance to cook together the most creative food we could. As putting our love into it, the result was always delicious meals putting a happy smile on the faces.

The space was open for the people to offer their gifts. I offered guided meditation to the group and took some Thai massage lessons from dear Maya. The project regularly takes the volunteers to a monastery in Khon Kaen for one night stay. It was again a beneficial experience to be in a Buddhist ground, listen to some teachings from the monk and attend some prayers and ceremonies.

In the relative and dual nature of life just like there is joy and happiness there is also sadness or pain. One morning I came across with the dead body of the little kitten who was living with us. He was not well during the last days. I took him in my arms and carried to a slient spot near the fields. I sat beside him and meditated for his soul to be free. Whenever I do this kind of a ceremony or whenever I remember the souls I waved goodbye from this life, the wind blows onto me. At that moment a soft breeze reached me from the fields like a proof of our communication. About 4 months ago when I was in Shivananda ashram in India I experienced a similar story with another little kitten. Just like I burried her with a little ceremony, we burried this little one under a beautiful tree with our prayers.
I have experienced the death of many beloved souls in my life. After all these, I find my perspective more mature in the acceptance of this phenomena. But this doesn’t mean that there will be no tears. Death has a great significance for us to understand life and realize love and wisdom. One day our body will cease to function and decompose into the earth, bringing life to other beings. Impermenance is the fundamental law of nature. The deep understanding of impermenance enables a release to the suffering and brings a deep okness to whatever life offers us.
When the time came for me to leave the project, I was knowing that I had many new sisters and brothers. They were my gift.

Mindful Farm was another place I volunteered for. It is located 100km northwest of Chiang Mai in the amazing lush green typical landscape of north Thailand full of rice paddies. It is a small scale farm open for volunteers. The farm land was so abundant and expansive. There were many varieties cultivated in the well designed vegetable gardens. The care, effort and hard work was so remarkable in the land.

Pi Nan (above) is the founder of the farm who is a former monk. He was spreading the teachings of Buddha from the heart and teaching meditation to the volunteers. He was speaking on the Buddhist core topics like desire, attachment, illusion, death, impermenance. I liked the way he oftenly emphasized the care we need to take for mother earth. I respected his intention to put wisdom seeds in the people’s minds.
Although the vegetable gardens were so abundant, the diversity in the area was also remarkable. The basket above consisted of 9 different edibles freshly harvested from the wild. What a gift, isn’t it? I enjoyed working with this old man above who was coming to work at the farm with his wife. He was not only funny but also so cool when he was smoking tobacco rolled in banana leaves.

Completing my discoveries in north Thailand now I am going to take you to south Thailand, to magnificent islands and shores.

The Author