It doesn’t matter what I do. My hands are still dirty.
After a week on a farm in northern Thailand, it’s become difficult to let go (a multitude of soaps be damned). I woke up this morning expecting to be back in the Dome, a big bamboo hut in the yard, to look up and see tiny pinpoints of sunlight sneaking in through the thatched walls like tiny constellations…but found myself in an old hostel room.
Instead of looking out the window to see bright mist rising off the fields, there was just the hint of a sunrise emerging between apartment blocks.
I spent two hours catching up on e-mails, but became irritated by the insular, tunnel-like feeling of staring at a screen, and stopped working early to get back to a book.
Today, I’m back in Chiang Mai, a sizeable city of about 170,000, after a week on a farm in a small village out west. Chiang Mai usually feels like a small town, but now it feels as riotous as a capital. While the population at the farm got up to 20 people during my time there, there was still enough quiet to go around. In the morning, whether it was coffee in the house or meditation in the fields, there was a stillness as we woke up slowly – and I’m finding it hard to adjust out of it.
Our farm spoiled us, forcing no obligatory periods of work, but rather giving us the freedom to choose our own projects. If there was hard work we had planned, we’d do it before the heat of the day. The patriarch of the farm was a local ex-monk, so our hardest project with cramped hands and cramped backs came from building a series of meditation platforms in the forest.
We cleared bamboo, carved posts, cut steps and built supports, with no-one as the leader, everyone just working together and figuring it out as we went along.
With the construction plans for the day finished, we’d head back to the farm (long paths in the forest, speckled with sun, over streams with the black beads of tadpoles swimming back and forth) to help cook lunch. Some would pick greens from the garden, others would set out the tables, and the remainder would help cook over the two wood-burning stoves.
Afternoons were our own. We could weed the garden, take a walk to the village, or try and pin down the head-honcho to talk Buddhism and learn about the medicinal qualities of the farm’s herbs. Feeling inspired by all the vibrant, intricate mandalas around the house, I picked up their son’s coloured pencils to draw.
Those afternoons, for the first time in my life, I saw fresh coffee beans. We ground the red pods to separate the beans and skin, then soaked and let dry for three days. After shelling the dried beans, they were thrown over the fire to roast and brew later with ginger and lemongrass.
Some afternoons, maybe the yoga-teacher-turned-volunteer would lead a workshop, ironing out vinyasas and reminding us to plant our shoulder blades and engage our core.
There was music at all times from the house, whenever someone felt like grabbing the drums or guitar or ukelele, so you could even practice a few chords if so inclined.
At the farm, there was never an opportunity to be bored. There was constantly the opportunity to learn.
In the evenings, depending on the availability of electricity, we could sit inside with tea hot from the boiler, or alternately slave for a hour trying to make one damn fire to put the kettle over. If we faltered, the family would rarely come to save us – they wanted us to figure things out for ourselves. This was a trait that I appreciated…though there were many points at which I’d glare stubbornly at my damn fire that kept going out, thinking ‘My home state burns to the ground every year…how can this be so hard?!’
And every night, the stars blazed. Out of the city, we were reunited with the riot of the night sky.
One night, we set up the sauna, cramming eleven people into one tiny white dome, and completely shut ourselves into darkness. Our master of ceremonies poured water mixed with sage onto the hot stones, and as the temperature rose, our breathing deepened, became louder, and gradually rose as a chorus of vibrations from every end, oms and hums, wrapping around us entirely, leaving our throats and diving straight back into our chests as the energy grew upwards and out.
It was trippy. And gorgeous.
Every single day on the farm represented a multitude of new opportunities. At any point, I could try something, do something, learn something new. There was a community there, sharing skills and ideas, trading information and answering questions.
I wish I could have stayed for longer. I so, so desperately wish I could have stayed for longer.
Tomorrow, I head back to the countryside, but in a different direction, for a different experience – a permaculture course, to be exact. Being back in the city feels strange, and there’s a pressure to hold on to everything I learned, to retain that curiosity that I felt every day, and cultivate it now that I’ve left.
I don’t think it will be difficult. There’s still so much out there to explore.
There are an abundance of work and volunteer opportunities on farms in Thailand, especially up in the northern region around Chiang Mai and Pai. Tacomepai, the Panya Project and Rak Tamachat are some of the bigger ones, but if you’re looking for a smaller experience like the one described here, check out WWOOFing and Workaway for the best selection!