Sustainability Study Trip Part I

So you’re probably thinking, “geez, they haven’t been blogging much, what’s the deal?” We cut the internet umbilical cord and have been staying in rural communities in Thailand for the past two and a half weeks and have had an amazing time. We were really fortunate to have found a sustainability study trip (yay power of the internet!) that focused on talking directly with farmers and communities who are involved and practicing the principles of sustainability and self-reliance. It’s something that we’ve both been interested in for a long time and have wanted to learn more about it. Of course I can’t forget to mention the people who organized the trip, Jo Jandai and Peggy Reents. They’ve been very active in the earthen building movement in Thailand and started Pun Pun farm a few years ago (more about that later). They’ve been the most gracious hosts and teachers, and we’ve gotten a deep cultural perspective on Thailand that wouldn’t have been possible without them.

The trip started off in a rural village called Ban See Than in northeastern Thailand, close to Yasothon. The area is very flat, and at this time of year it’s hot and dry. The air feels thick from all the smoke that people create from burning vegetation in the dry season, and the sun feels like a leaden weight in the sky in the middle of the afternoon. It’s a province that mostly subsists on farming, and traditionally people don’t grow much in the dry season. Empty rice fields of cracked earth stretch as far as the eye can see.

Many farmers have jumped on the monocropping boat, where they buy seed and fertilizer for a single crop from big agribusiness. The seed may be cheap and the yield good the first year, but each consecutive year the farmer needs more and more fertilizer to get the same yield while the prices for seed and fertilizer skyrocket. The farmers then get caught up in a cycle of debt that’s impossible for them to get out of, and the fertility of their soil plummets. Often their children move to the big city to look for work to support the family because the farm income is not enough, and soon many villages are only comprised of old people and babies. It’s a familiar story in the United States that’s already played out in small towns across the country.

But the farmers and communities that we visited have rejected the monocropping model, are doing things in a radically different way and have proven the success of these methods without a doubt. From single farmers to communities of five hundred, they’ve decided to follow organic and permaculture methods that call for diversity in crops and building the fertility in the soil over a long period of time. In addition, they’re self reliant in many aspects – meaning that they build their own homes, grow food and medicinal herbs for themselves and make various products for sale. They also earn income through running training sessions to teach other farmers these methods so they can move away from the monocropping model.

One farmer we visited, Paw Jo, has created an oasis out of his land and is a great example of this new model. He set up a large pond to water his crops throughout the dry season and to provide fish to eat. He’s also kept part of the forest on his land, so he’s able to gather wood when he needs and can retreat into it when the heat is too much. He has a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and herbs growing so that he can provide food for his family without needing to spend money at the market. He produces so much that his wife often goes to the market to sell the excess, thus bringing in additional income. And there is so much to do around the farm that his children don’t need to move to the big city to find work.

We also found that people who have turned to this new model of self-reliance have done it for many different reasons. Some, including Paw Jo, had left their villages and worked in the big city for a while and found it draining, and they wanted to try a different way of living. Others, like the Santi Asoke or the people involved in the forest temple were doing it for religious reasons and are following the precepts of Buddhism. They have also formed networks of like-minded individuals to help spread new techniques, like a new rice-sowing method that takes twenty minutes instead of a whole day. Regardless of the reason for turning to self-reliance and permaculture, all of these groups and individuals are involved in education for the community in spreading the viability of these ideas and that it’s actually easier than most people think it is.

We also discussed the reason why there is a lot of momentum in this particularly in Thailand, which I found to be fascinating. It has something to do with the character of the country and the financial crisis that had happened back in the late 90s. Thailand is a developing nation, it’s between a traditional rural culture and the fast and glitzy Western consumer model. When the Asian stock market crashed, a lot of people in Thailand lost their jobs in the city and a lot of money. Instead of despairing, many people returned home to their villages and realized that maybe Western-style living is not all it’s cracked up to be. So there is the recent memory of the crash. There is also the sense that Thailand is independent and that it was never colonized, and that Thai people are very proud of that and want to be independent.

There is so much more that I want to say about our experience but I won’t cram it all into one blog post! So more about the second part of the study trip in another post.

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Thailand Essentials

So here’s the silly yet obligatory blog post about what we’ve found to be essential in Thailand.

Flip flops – regular shoes, or anything you have to tie or buckle, are completely worthless when you have to take off your shoes every time you enter a home/temple/whatever is considered indoor space. Besides, it’s way too hot to wear regular shoes. I actually wish that I had a pair of Crocs or something similar – they would have made me feel a bit safer when I was hauling logs up the hill or hammering bamboo stakes into the ground.

Packet of tissues – for the toilet. It’s almost never provided as people just wash themselves. I suppose perching/squatting skills are also required but it’s something you learn to do after a while.

Hand sanitizer – soap in the bathroom is also a rare beast.

Phrases – We’ve managed to learn how to say “Hello” (sawadee ka/kup), “Thank you” (khab khun ka/kup), “Delicious” (aroy or say ap depending on the province) “How are you?” (sabaidee mai), and “Good night” (fun di). Counting would be nice too but gesturing and pantomiming seems to work OK. Next phrase to learn: “Where is the bathroom?”

Mini wash board – we picked this up at muji right before we left. when doing your own laundry, it’s definitely handy to have to get stains and stubborn crap out of your clothing.

Extra cloth bags – great for collecting your laundry in, extra shopping bags, general carrying bags. And they fold down so small that it barely takes up any room in our suitcase.

Motorcycle skillz – If someone offers to lend you a motorbike so you don’t have to walk two hours to the internet cafe, you say “yes sir!” and hop on the bike. Because of course you know how to use it!

Bug spray with DEET – yes, I know you are saying, “DEET? Really? Isn’t that stuff poisonous?” Of course it is. But after being bitten I don’t know how many times in a single afternoon to the point where my ankles got swollen, I am totally going there.

Headlamp – Frees up your hands to carry stuff while still being able to walk back to your hut without tripping on loose adobe bricks.

Immodium/traveler’s diarrhea pills – for when street food beats you into submission.

Linen – loose clothing made from linen rules. Shirts, pants, skirts. It breathes, wicks away sweat, and then you don’t have to look like a schlubby American. It’s good for working outside and going out to dinner. And you can pick it up pretty cheaply here.

What we didn’t need:

Three pairs of jeans – jeans are a pain in the ass to wash by hand. And three is just too many and too heavy.

Eight books – god, what were we thinking? Yes, two guidebooks but we’re going to leave at least half of the rest of the books at Pun Pun.

Malaria pills – our doctor will probably officially not agree with us, but really, NO ONE takes malaria pills here and there is no malaria afaik. And we’ve been in the sticks most of the time we’ve been here and have been eaten alive by mosquitoes and I haven’t died yet, last time I checked. Not that we are giving you any kind of medical advice.

iPhone – I’ve used it exactly once to convert farenheit to celsius. So far it’s been deadweight but maybe it will prove to be useful as a translation tool in China.

Wayne will probably think that we didn’t need a lot more stuff than I’ve listed because he’s carrying the big backpack. 🙂

What I could have used more of:

Tank tops/wife beaters. I only brought two and I should have brought four – I usually wear it under a loose shirt to absorb the sweat so I only have to wash the tank top and I can wear the loose shirt multiple times before it needs a wash.

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