It’s one thing reading about permaculture on the internet and another learning in-person from an experienced practitioner. I was lucky to spend 10 days over the 2014 New Year holidays with Sandot from Tacomepai Farm in Thailand. Sandot was traveling in Malaysia to help a friend design and build a permaculture farm called the Green Forest Project at the foot of Genting Highlands. The objective of the Green Forest Project is to be a healing center for cancer patients and permaculture educational centre. Sited in a valley within beautiful forests, the founder Sharley envisions the 3 acre land to be secluded from the outside world. Food will be grown organically and served to the cancer patients who will live very close to nature in simple huts.
It was my first time meeting a permaculture practitioner. Sandot has the tan and lean build of a Thai farmer. Coming from a family of blacksmiths, he hangs a machete around his waist wherever he goes. During lessons, I noticed that his left eyeball doesn’t move even though he might be looking around. I heard that he lost that eye a few years ago when walking pass some kids playing with fireworks. Even then, he was able to hammer a nail (which requires distance perception) much better than me!
Sandot grew up on his family farm Tacomepai (north of Chiangmai) which has an interesting story by itself. Apparently his migrating ancestors acquired the piece of land from the natives with a machete and some cigarettes! He studied to become an engineer and worked as one before eventually deciding to move back home and live off the land. He recounted a story of working and living on a desert in the Middle East. They were living in containers with air-conditioning. One day, he noticed that the air-con exhaust outside his container drips water due to condensation. He planted a single plant underneath the exhaust and it flourished. He then added more, all watered by the same dripping exhaust. Colleagues from other containers started to do the same and eventually there were many irrigated gardens in the middle of the desert!
Funnily Sandot has never been taught permaculture. He learned by observing nature and other local Thai farmers. His way of thinking and designing are aligned with permaculture principles. Once, while building a hut together, he asked me if I wanted to live a simple life. Sometimes he would break into Thai songs while we work. In the evenings after dinner we would sit around the fire to listen to Sandot play the guitar, singing “Blowing in the Wind” by Bob Dylan and in Thai about the race between the rabbit and tortoise. Unlike the fable that we are familiar with, in this song the bird flies in halfway and asks them why are they competing. The song would end with the rabbit and tortoise partnering up.
Sandot was supported by another teacher Yishen. When I first met Yishen, I thought she was Thai as she was speaking Thai fluently with Sandot. I later learned that she is Malaysian Chinese and speaks also English, Mandarin, and Bahasa. Yishen has been learning from Sandot at Tacompai for a while and her permaculture knowledge is impressive considering that she graduated from university not too long ago.
Even though Sandot and Yishen have conducted many permaculture courses, it was the first time outside of Thailand. Unlike most permaculture courses held at an established permaculture farm, we had to design and turn this land into a permaculture site. We had ample hands-on opportunities. Theory lessons were conducted in the mornings and we spend the afternoons out in the field. The class was a small group of five which was great because we each get more attention from the teachers.
Anyway, enough of words and time for the photos (credit to my course mates). We did not take many photos out in the field because we were too distracted doing stuff!
Simple Life Hut
We spent many happy hours working on this structure. It’s made almost entirely from the bamboo clump behind it except for the thatched roof. Many similarities to the traditional Malay House even though it is what Sandot builds in his Thai farm.
Digging Irrigation and Paddy Fields
To grow rice, we needed paddy fields. Paddy fields need irrigation in turn. We had to locate the water source at a much higher elevation and redirect it to our paddy fields. It took many hours of digging through the forest, sometimes under huge fallen trees that we couldn’t move, to bring water to where we needed it. It was tough work but according to Sandot his ancestors had to dig with wooden tools instead of the metal ones we used! Alternatively we could have just connected a PVC pipe from the source to the paddy fields and saved ourselves lots of hard work. However, Sandot says that by irrigating through the forest, we share the water with other lifeforms outside of our intended purpose. The ugly PVC pipe definitely wouldn’t do that.
Food was a big part of farm life. We had vegetarian meals prepared with lots of organic fresh produce from the farm. On special occasions we even came up with innovative dishes from what we could harvest on the farm.