“Travel is about being moved, and if we are moved far enough from the easy ways in which we define ourselves, we can live more comfortably with uncertainty and surrender.”
2 – 21 December
We were nervous about going to a place we knew next to nothing about. We just heard of Panya (neighbors with Pun Pun) at Esalen, and though we were told we would like it, we had no idea what to expect. Guided by our intentions to live in communities oriented around sustainability, we signed up for three weeks! We met many of our new mates at the east gate of Chiang Mai’s old city and quickly began getting to know each other during the two hours in the back of a pick-up truck while heading into the hills of rural northern Thailand.
Relieved to not be asking each other what we should do each day and free from consulting a guide book or website for suggestions on where to eat every meal, we quickly relaxed into our new home. Most of all, we were happy to be in community and to be learning in this way again. This place is inspiring. And rustic – a way of living that has aspects of Burning Man and Esalen. We lived in open-air, earthen-built structures, used composting toilets and drank collected rain water.
Permaculture grew from dissatisfaction with street protests as a tool for change. “We know what we don’t want, but what do we actually want?” Or so the story goes. But what does it mean? Permaculture used to mean “permanent agriculture” but it has transformed and now could be closer to “permanent culture,” as in creating a culture that can go on permanently (ie, sustainably).
It’s about working with rather than against nature, honoring the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems. The Occupy movement likes to say permaculture is “a revolution disguised as organic farming.”
When we arrived at Panya, we didn’t know any of this. 3 weeks is a long time to commit to any one place and after Esalen, the bar was high for living in community. We were hoping for the group dynamic to be skillfully nurtured. We were also hoping the eating and sleeping facilities wouldn’t be too rough.
Apparently I had forgotten how much I loved living outside and running around barefoot. It was sweet and easy to be at Panya. It was better than fine, it was even ecstatic – a beautiful place to call home. I loved reading in my room and listening to the animal noises – chickens, geckos (which make noises like cartoon bubbles), frogs, and the village cats and dogs.
There weren’t any large animals or poisonous plants to worry about, and there were gardens, forests, roads, and a neighboring seed-saving farm (Pun Pun) to explore. There were spiders and scorpions and ants, but nothing deadly. I was startled by gunshots, though – apparently from villagers hunting, or bird scares going off in the rice fields. The best part about living in a mud house with a dirt floor and no doors and windows (we had a mosquito net, though) was that there wasn’t really any point in cleaning. Everyone and everything was pretty dirty, but not in a bad way. There was no need to ever be super clean, since we worked with mud everyday and there was no way to keep the dust out of the open-air living areas. I washed most of my clothes myself by hand in a bucket (although they could also be sent to the village washlady).
After weeks living with solar outdoor showers and a composting toilet, “humanure”, and drinking rain water, I actually didn’t really want to go back to using non-sustainable systems. The one thing that was hard was washing all our dishes “Burning Man” style (using no running water). And…sometimes it rained so much that it was hard to ever get anything (clothes) to really dry. Once we dried them using the wood oven (after making homemade pizza).
The residents at Panya take sustainability seriously. We made our own soap, yogurt, kombucha, cheese and tofu, ate bananas and papayas from the farm’s trees, lettuce from the garden, and bought only local produce. Kitchen greywater was filtered in a pond and reused to water the garden. There was a tiny refrigerator that couldn’t hold much, so leftover food had to be actually eaten instead of tossed. There was a system that could produce enough gas from manure and coffee grounds to heat water for coffee (the new grounds went straight into generating more gas). Additionally, they try not to bring plastic or things that generate a lot of trash (packaging) to the farm. As Troy (or “Toy” as the Thais call him), an ex-marine and head of Appropriate Technology, says, the most important of the “three Rs” is “Refuse”, ie, don’t buy the thing (or take the plastic bag) in the first place.
Our group for the “Permaculture in Practice” course, where it was all about getting our hands dirty, was from all over the world (South America, Europe, South Korea, Australia, Africa, America), and everyone showed up with admirable openness and we soon learned to love each other. Brief morning check-ins (or “emotional chickens” as one teacher liked to call them) helped, but so did movie nights, cocktail night, yoga classes (taught by me!), a contact dance workshop, and a hugging workshop. There were hoops lying about that some of us would dance with together. The rad woman from western Australia (Jemma) even fire-hooped.
The 5 permanent residents (from England, South Africa, and America) were charismatic, committed, talented, and fun teachers to boot. We danced in the mud pit for adobe brick building, hauled rocks, dug holes, and plastered and tiled sides for the new wicking beds in the garden, built compost piles, and designed and built a new adobe bench – tearing down an old building (ahem, the old toilet) to harvest some bricks in the process. We made plaster with tapioca, fermented straw (stinking up the dining room for days!), and iron oxide, and painted red details on the main building. We mixed and poured cement and threw mud on each other and then jumped in the resevoir in our t-shirts (local custom did not permit bare shoulders). We grafted trees, propagated plants, and built guilds in the food forest. There was no internet, so at night we cooked our vegetarian dinners sharing what skills we could remember: burritos, veggie burgers, homemade ravioli, and curries from scratch for 20 people emerged from the simple kitchen with 2 burners and a wood-fired oven.
I remember at one cooking session looking up to appreciate my fellow cooks: a Scottish girl, a man from South Africa, a guy from the Netherlands and me, all working together pounding and chopping ingredients for a Thai curry for dinner. A girl from South Korea wandered in to discuss cooking the chicken we had plucked and gutted after the dog killed it (a rare non-vegetarian meal). It’s the kind of thing that makes this journey worth it.
After Bangkok, we thought we were eating well in Chiang Mai, which really is a vegetarian’s paradise. But then I took a cooking class at Pun-Pun, the farm next door to Panya (a 5 minute barefoot walk away). The inimitable Yao (author of “The Yao of Cooking”) taught 10 of us to make curries from scratch, tofu, and our best-loved Thai dishes (kao soi, papaya salad, pad thai, mango sticky rice…), and I knew the greasy street food would never be the same to me again. Jacob came by to “observe” occasionally, usually right as we were serving lunch or dinner.
I was impressed that people from so many different parts of this planet and such diverse backgrounds could come together and live and work in conditions that were unusual for all of us and have so much fun, so much to share, and relate so well. We all got our hands dirty together with great enthusiasm. It showed me a beautiful side of humanity and gave me hope for a sustainable future.
At the end of our stay, our friends from San Francisco, Matt and Lisah, came to find us at Panya. They loved it so much they didn’t want to leave. We all hope to go back someday, to this life of slowly wandering through the fields, rolling green hills all around, friendly cats, and kids running underfoot as the warm sun slowly sets. Someone plays the ukulele, the geckos make their bubbly gecko noises, and we gather in houses built with our own hands to cook food we grew in our own garden, using our own poop as fertilizer.