While taking a gap year before grad school, I have foregone the traditional route of hostel hopping until the credit card runs out! I’m now one month into a three month stay on a 10-acre organic farm in a small village 55 kilometers southwest of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. While my bank account will still be slim when all is said and done, I can say without a doubt that my experience in Chiang Mai has been rich indeed.
The farm, Mae Mut Garden, is owned by Marco and Nok Tosi, an Italian Thai couple working to bring permaculture possibilities to visitors and locals alike. I discovered the farm through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), a fantastic organization for finding long term stays paid for only by the sweat off your brow – i.e. volunteering! Mae Mut Garden, Chiang Mai is tucked in a beautiful mountain valley. It’s misty in the morning and piping hot by afternoon. My only income shows up in the steaming bowls of okra and garlic picked each day from the gardens and a room with a porch view of blazing sunsets over Doi In Thanon, the tallest peak in Thailand. I feel pretty darn wealthy.
My day to day life on the farm has allowed me to leap into Thai culture and sustainable lifestyles. Songs to the children at the local preschool, conversations with the local workers on the farm, and lessons with Marco have allowed my Thai language skills to grow much more quickly than they would in a classroom. I’ve learned countless skills from the workers here such as mixing clay bricks with my feet, whipping together a bamboo extension for the back of the truck in five minutes flat (I think most people here could write a book on 100 ways to use bamboo and where to find it), cooking up delicious traditional northern Thai dishes, piling up a steaming compost hot water heater, and keeping countless fruit trees watered and happy.
On my days off, there is a surprising amount of fantastic experiences within reach. Here are just a few that have filled up my time: I have fed bananas to a rambunctious teenage elephant and bathed in the river with her. Many afternoons have been spent near a beautiful and secluded river just a kilometer up the road. I have released paper lanterns with giggling children from the village as monks blessed the completion of the local crematorium under a starry sky. This past New Year’s Eve was spent sharing homemade rice wine and barbecued pork with everyone living around the farm. These are all experiences I know I would have missed out on had I been hopping from spot to spot too quickly. The workers and villagers have become my friends because I have been an active participant in their lives rather than a drive-by observer.
My favorite time of day is at four in the afternoon as the sun loses its intensity. At this hour, the entire valley shimmers in a golden honeyed light. Time seems to take a breath as I also pause and contemplate my day. So far, my trip has been much the same – the opportunity to slow down and experience different facets of Thai culture and a sustainable lifestyle that I would have missed out on if I had opted for a conventional holiday. I have come to Thailand ‘to live’ rather than simply ‘to visit’. As a result, I have been richly rewarded. For anyone with the time to give it a try, I highly recommend traveling through volunteering with an ecologically sound mindset. It opens the door for so many amazing and unique opportunities. I promise you won’t regret it.
Author: Sam Peters of Filling in the Gap Year