Hands in the dirt: 2 weeks at a permaculture course in Thailand

Studying at a permaculture course on New Land Farm, Thailand

‘Naomi,’ Kate said suspiciously, whipping around and looking me over, ‘why do you smell…clean?

I looked down. My freshly laundered shirt was the only thing around us not covered in dirt and sweat.

Making a permaculture garden in Thailand Getting dirty at the secret hotsprings in Pai, Thailand

If my time in Thailand had a theme, it was definitely getting dirty.

By working on farms, I mean!

(……alright, that pun sucked.)

Permaculture course on New Land, Tacomepai, Thailand

The most awesome gardener in all of Thailand

I’ve told you about the first farm I stayed at, just outside of Chiang Mai, but not yet about the real test of roughing it – 2 weeks out in bumf*ck nowhere, cut off from town, electricity, reliable water, real showers, buildings that weren’t bamboo shacks, any semblance of privacy, and – gasp – any sort of cell or WIFI signal.

New Land, Tacomepai, Thailand

Permaculture course in Thailand schedule

I was taking a permaculture course in Thailand, outside of Pai, a happy little hippie town up in the far northwestern corner of the country, on a plot of land that was almost completely a blank slate.

And despite its challenges, I have to say – in this whole year of travel, that has been one of my favourite adventures.

Maybe it was getting in the dirt, learning new skills, pushing the boundaries of my comfort level or just meeting the most curious, inspiring figures, but it’s become an experience I find myself more and more drawn to repeating.

New Land farm, Thailand

Gardening on New Land Thailand

We did our permaculture course on New Land, a sister property to the Tacomepai farm in Pai. In contrast to Tacomepai, which is a well-established farm with (most of) the comforts of home, New Land was…a different beast.

To start, it was 12 km outside of town, and 3km away from the highway down unpaved dirt roads. You couldn’t call it a farm just yet, as there was barely anything there. We slept in tents or small bamboo shacks – with, at most, two walls – and the largest structure was just a rambling bamboo kitchen hut at the entrance.

Bamboo cutlery and dish from Thailand

Banana cutlery in Thailand Permaculture farm bike pump in Thailand

When we cooked, it was over a wood-fire stove, and we ate out of bowls that were made from half-split stalks of bamboo.

The water system was managed by two wells, one solar powered, and one bike powered – to get water from the latter, you had to hop on the bike pump and pedal it out of the ground yourself. Water was scarce out on New Land, and though there was always enough to drink, we couldn’t always wash or water the garden.

When there was enough for a shower, you had use a bucket or the bike pump shower.

Ingeniously, but sadly on the last day, some gals built a shower using a tree, a tarp, a garden hose, and a plastic bottle poked with holes and filled with lemongrass. Dammit! Why did that farm spa action come so late?!

New Land farm solar power, Thailand

Jungle food in Thailand

Our power supplies were limited to the kitchen solar panel, which could barely turn on the one lightbulb at night, and a truly miraculous solar-powered oven – just a thick metal box with four reflecting panels to direct heat inside. Our project manager and chef extraordinaire, Bank, turned out some killer cookies and bread from that thing. They were our little touches of luxury.

So, on this dusty piece of land, little more than camping in the fields, in the midst of the dirt and the dust and the sheer possibility of this new land, was where we’d do our permaculture course.

And that was, without a doubt, the appeal.

Permaculture course in Thailand

Making soap on a farm in Thailand Making soap on a farm in Thailand

In the mornings, when we sat in the classroom hut, we’d talk food forests and look out to where the mango trees could grow.

We’d study swales and then walk through the hills to map where to put them.

Getting soap meant going out and picking the plants ourselves (with soft, oily green leaves), then putting them to boil with soapnuts.

Plotting gardens meant grabbing a machete, hoe and spade and going to clear the lower valley.

Learning to make traditional leaf roofing in Thailand

Building a water tank on a farm in Thailand

Making a garden bed

We were enmeshed in the land we were studying.

We were covered in dirt and sweat, waking up to the sun on our faces, walking around barefoot with tiny scratches on our legs, and disconnected from Facebook and Buzzfeed. I’d say we only got into town maybe once a week. I had a large burn on my leg from an earlier accident, and had nothing but Thai antibiotics, some bandages, and massive leaves of aloe vera, split down the middle and taped directly to my skin, for treatment.

To my surprise (and relief…), it worked! Now I just have an badass souvenir scar.

Our morning view on New Land

At the secret hotsprings in Pai, Thailand

And you know what? I loved every second of it.

I loved being outside, waking up with sunrise and the morning mist over me, being enmeshed in fresh air, really far out there in the ass end of nowhere, learning from the land as we were in it.

I loved rolling out of bed and into morning yoga, the amazing vegan masterpieces Bank whipped up in our little kitchen, and even the nights that rainclouds rolled in hard and broke open over the land, chasing us into our little huts (or, conversely, right into the rain to get a bit of a wash).

But, most of all, I loved disconnecting from the outside world, and connecting with this crazy group of people.

Lucy being awesome

Hong-Ahn salvages the Marmite Tiny white gardening gloves...

We came from all over – New Zealand, Thailand, Japan, Spain, France, England, Germany, Australia, Sweden, Canada, America. We were all there to learn, but everyone wound up teaching at some point as well.

Classes quickly diverted off-topic into discussions of aquaponics and chinampas, and a completely novel vocabulary went flowing through my head each day.

Playing ukelele on a farm in Thailand

Serenading in Pai, Thailand

And in the evenings, after work or class, when in our former lives we might be curled up in front of a movie or aimlessly dicking around online, we found entertainment just in our time together.

A fire pit appeared pretty quickly, and musical instruments soon followed, so some nights we’d just sit outside, having easy jam sessions with a guitar, ukelele, didgeridoo, drums, voices…and even a few mouth harps.

Campfire at New Land farm, Tacomepai, Pai, Thailand

Uncertainly, one night, Asia walked into the main hut and asked, ‘Uhm, is it OK if I crack a beer in your moon goddess circle?’

The lot of us girls had gathered and were playing with mana cards, dowsing crystals and reiki energy. Maybe we only half-believed it, but the full moon was approaching, and the men were coming by periodically to bring offerings of mango, chips and beer…so why not?

Hell yeah, we’d have a moon goddess circle!

(Y’know, as often should be.)

Cooking in the jungle of Thailand

Buddies on a permaculture course in Thailand

But the most striking element of all? During our evenings together, not once did someone pull out a smartphone to idly check their apps, the pale blue light of a subtle snub illuminating their face.

During the past year I’ve been struggling a lot with balancing connectivity in my life – the majority of my work and my creativity takes place online, but, to be honest, I actually feel uncomfortable online for long periods of time – and mildly awkward around people who are always on their mobile devices while you’re having a conversation.

Though I’ll often spend long afternoons in a cafe to catch up on writing and photo editing, it later builds up to a point where I find myself wishing that I could do more work offline, away from a computer screen.

Making a compost pile

At the secret hot springs in Pai At the secret hot springs in Pai

I crave being present. I crave being connected to what is immediately around me.

And that’s one reason why I loved this time on New Land so much. We were completely disconnected while we were there, and if there’s anything my time on these farms has shown me, it’s that that makes me feel more alive.

Making soap

Making coconut oil A permaculture course in Thailand

I notice more, take deeper breaths, and spend each day feeling that much more aware of my surroundings.

I’m not constantly distracted. There’s nothing else calling my attention away.

And now, I miss that. I can try to recreate the feeling by choosing to go on walks around Luang Prabang after work, closing my laptop and exploring the neighbourhoods with nothing on me but my keys and my camera – but those same online assignments will have to get done later (because the work never ends, even after my day job does).

It’s become part of a dilemma that I’ve been facing when thinking about my plans for the next few months, and the future of this blog.

But we won’t worry about that just now; ABH ain’t going anywhere.

For now, work is almost over, and it’s time to turn off the computer and reconnect.

Our first garden sprouts!!

Have you even gone totally off the grid? A little farm in the country is optional ;)

25 Responses to Hands in the dirt: 2 weeks at a permaculture course in Thailand

  1. Leo 15 August, 2013 at 01:03 #

    Love it Naomi. Especially love the conscious not of how great it was to disconnect from technology and connect with everything else.

    I’ma subscribe!

    • Naomi Alyssa 16 August, 2013 at 14:33 #

      YAY! Glad you liked it. You guys made the experience what it was. Have fun dis/re-connecting at Burning Man!! ;)

  2. Katrinka 15 August, 2013 at 05:15 #

    Oh gosh I go through this too– it’s so important to be PRESENT in life but it’s hard to disconnect from the internet, especially when obligations (and friends and family and so on) make it a necessity. I’m not sure where the balance is! (So let me know if you find it…)

    • Naomi Alyssa 16 August, 2013 at 14:35 #

      Yessssssss to this. Also, I feel like you and I are on the same page like, all the time, so it makes me REALLY excited to hang out with you at TBEX!! Win!

      • Katrinka 16 August, 2013 at 19:21 #

        I know, right? It will be terrific. :-)

  3. Alana - Paper Planes 15 August, 2013 at 06:23 #

    I love how everyone is just BEAMING in these photos!

    • Naomi Alyssa 16 August, 2013 at 14:38 #

      We were on fire! We had such a good group! I miss them… <3

  4. Andi of My Beautiful Adventures 15 August, 2013 at 08:13 #

    I agree with Alana — everyone is glowing! What a magical experience!!

    • Naomi Alyssa 17 August, 2013 at 22:00 #

      Thank you kindly Andi – it definitely was!

  5. frank 15 August, 2013 at 14:33 #

    Naomi, you quit on the Aloe too soon It would have healed with no scar. But then no New Land Tattoo. Glad you had fun in the real world.

    • Naomi Alyssa 17 August, 2013 at 22:04 #

      FRANK!! I have become a complete aloe convert since you shared the magic. I literally just walked past a neighbour’s house with an aloe plant with MASSIVE leaves outside, and tried to mime to them if I could have a leaf. Preemptively. You never know when you’ll need aloe! Thank you for spreading the knowledge!! :)

  6. Helen 15 August, 2013 at 23:57 #

    what a lovely post! I can totally relate! Nothing better than to switch off for a while and just… be. And be in the moment with the people you’re with, sharing incredible moments!

    Looks like you had an amazing time there!

    Helen x

  7. Jane Has A Backpack 17 August, 2013 at 05:39 #

    Everyone enjoyed. Just look at those smiles. It is beaming. I had been to farms also and no one escapes being dirty. Are those from bananas you use as plates?

    • Naomi Alyssa 17 August, 2013 at 22:12 #

      One of them is – a chopped down bamboo stalk :)

  8. Julian 17 August, 2013 at 23:31 #

    Hi there,

    After being an alien to the world apart from my home country for almost a quarter century (I’m turning 24 this year), and faced with negativity and criticism from parents– I finally decided to travel, all at my own expense! I am proud of myself for the decision I made.

    I will be landing first in Istanbul, and guess what– I am going to Georgia! This is in big part thanks to the influence from your blog entry :)

    Would really appreciate some advise from you:
    – Language: would it be easy to get by with just English? Or do the locals speak English in general?
    – Currency: is it more advisable to change the local currency (Georgian Lari) once there? Or do they accept Euro/ USD?

    Accommodation wise, I will be staying in a hostel, as I haven’t built my ‘reputation’ on Couchsurfing yet.

    First time travelling– alone, and Georgia is in my itinerary!


    • Naomi Alyssa 18 August, 2013 at 20:31 #

      Hey Julian! Great to hear that you’re heading to Georgia :) English is more common with the younger generation, and Russian with the older. I got by with traveller’s phrases in Russian and Georgian (like, the simple stuff you can learn online), plus English and body language. Pretty much a solid combination ;) Also, change to lari when you get there. I don’t recall ever using Euros or USD – and for the establishments that do take it, like some upscale hotels or restaurants, it’s probably a worse rate anyways.

      Have fun and happy travels! What an exciting adventure :)

  9. John 19 August, 2013 at 00:40 #

    fantastic photos!

  10. Adam - Tropical Nomad 19 August, 2013 at 19:19 #

    This looks like such a cool thing to do in Thailand! I have looked into going to Clazy house where they build huts out of natural clay and have a strong community there.

  11. eloratour 1 December, 2013 at 14:57 #

    That’s great moment Naomi …
    Our earth need more wise peoples, back to nature life

    Indonesia also have a foundation that practicing Permaculture: Permanent culture & permanent Agriculture : IDEP Bali …

    You know Bali ?
    Amazing place with warm peoples ? …

    Indonesia also have Lampung, a province with ‘complete’ destination …
    Not famous like Bali, but that the plus point: most place still virgin … :D
    Hope some day you visit our home land, then tell its story to this blog …

    Warm regard

  12. Nina 23 January, 2014 at 20:59 #

    This is great! I have been living in Thailand for over 2 years and I haven’t done this… I’m totally jaded, Oh no! lol I’ll have to do this one day. Looks fun!

    • Naomi Alyssa 6 February, 2014 at 15:41 #

      It really is – and such a good opportunity!

  13. ellie 19 May, 2014 at 23:22 #


    I know you are off the grid right now and I am completely jealous (as always) but I am so excited after reading this article again (esp. the no phones bit) because I am going to Tacomepai! I am so excited to finally be going up to pai, gotta love month long teacher holidays! Ill only do a week and will not be able to be anywhere near as badass as you out there making the dang farm but excited to get back to nature! i met bank here in bkk and was so inspired as i remembered you were at new land too, so it is a sign. CANNOT WAIT! also can’t wait to reconnect with you when you come back to the dark side. but man i am sure you are enjoying the light! lots of love sister!


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