After leaving Mindful Farm on the second day of 2015, we once again hopped on to our neglected motorcycle and went on the road. After taking a few wrong turns, getting lost, and asking around, we finally got to our next destination – Maejo Baandin. Maejo is the name of the village, “baan” means home in Thai, and “din” is earth. Not surprisingly, we were greeted by many beautiful mud structures in the premise.
Maejo village is a remote village located 2 hours drive North of Chiangmai city. In this village within walking distance to one another, there are three places that promote sustainable living – Maejo Baandin, Pun Pun, and Panya Project. Pun Pun promotes mud building and seed saving for self-reliance. Panya Project is a community of volunteers and they regularly teach permaculture courses.
Maejo Baandin is a homestay teaching natural building, traditional Thai cooking, and organic farming. It was started by Pi Thongbai (Pi means teacher) about 8 years ago. She left Maejo village at the age of 15 without any education to make a living in Bangkok. After many years of hard work in the capital city of Thailand, she made it into a big corporation. Even though she had a cushy job, Pi Thongbai realized that it did not make her happy. She started missing the simple village environment that she grew up in. She recounted that her friends thought that she was crazy and asked her to see a psychiatrist. Most people in the villages aspire to move to the city and she was doing the opposite. Eventually, she followed her heart and “dragged” her husband to her hometown village.
When we first saw Pi Thongbai, it was apparent that she is one who is athletic and healthy. Despite being a mother of two kids who have graduated and are working here, she moves with an easy confidence and walks with an upright posture. Her eyes sparkle and she smiles from ear to ear. Ever since she learned the art of adobe building 8 years ago from Pi Jon (the founder of Pun Pun), she has been building with mud all over Maejo Baandin. In fact, she is even spreading her building skills around the region. Quite recently, she was in Myanmar teaching the local villagers how to build their own house. She has built adobe houses for forests monks in the forest. These forest monks will be solitary in the forest and they move between the adobe houses.
Here are some of the adobe buildings at Maejo Baandin.
I was very keen to learn adobe building from Pi Thongbai. My experience in permaculture has been largely farming because of my job at Edible Garden City. I have had a chance to help build a bamboo hut during my permaculture course at Malaysia but building with mud was something new. It was also dry season in Chiangmai therefore the perfect time for building. Pi Thongbai was in the process of making and accumulating adobe bricks to use in future projects. They had dug a hole in the backyard which they flood with water in the mornings. By the evening, the clay would have absorbed the water and turned into mud to be molded into bricks. This is the funnest and dirtiest part probably!
We also had the chance to follow Pi Thongbai to a local school to help finish up an adobe building. The structure has already been built with adobe bricks and we were to plaster it. Plastering is applying a layer of finish onto the surface of the wall to make it smooth. Other than for aesthetics, plastering prevents dust particles cracking and falling off from the wall. It was not done at the mud house we stayed at Mindful Farm and I noticed dust collecting on my belongings. Plastering also keeps moisture away from the wall structure for it to stay dry and hard over time.
The Home Garden
For a good few days, we were treated to delicious vegetarian meals cooked by the kitchen team at Maejo Baandin. They are a bunch of cheerful young folks and include Pi Thongbai’s son. Pi Thongbai says that she wants to provide decent employment to the youths in the village so that they don’t have to move to the city to find jobs. She certainly got her wish and both her son and daughter are helping out at Maejo Baandin.
Most of the ingredients for the cooking are freshly harvested from their home garden. Other than the abundance of tropical fruits and vegetables, the big and healthy hens lay about 20 eggs everyday! The secret to their diet is simply our food scraps from the dining hall.
Occasionally a neighbour would share her surplus harvest from the nearby fields. The amazing steamed sweetcorn that we devoured during one of the dinners was a gift from a friend. Pi Thongbai also tends the veggie plots for Pun Pun and in return she harvests some of their veggies. Such is the trust that the community thrives on. Their relationships are frequently gift-based and does not involve monetary transactions like a modern society.
During one of our conversations, Pi Thongbai lamented that about half of the villagers are still using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Those villagers notice a decline in their health and illnesses with the use of chemicals. They are slowly learning about the benefits of organic farming. However, despite wanting to switch back to organic farming, they sometimes cannot afford to do so. The soil in their farms would have been damaged and lost its fertility. With bank loans and mortgages looming, they are not able to bear with the drop in productivity over a few years if they farm organically. The soil and nature takes times to restore fertility but they don’t have the privilege to wait for that day. This information comes direct from a local, not a book or research written by academics…
Working the Fields
We got a tan helping Pi Thongbai in the fields one morning after our routine sun salutation yoga followed by breakfast. It was the dry season and Pi Thongbai was growing soybeans on the rice fields. While she did not explicitly said it, this traditional crop rotation sounded like using soybean as green manure to add nitrogen back into the soil.
We went to a field full of young soybean seedlings, probably about 3 week old. I noticed that they were growing much slower than the green manure I sowed at a school rooftop in Singapore. The weather at Chiangmai was much drier compared to the monsoon season that coincided with my green manure experience in Singapore, which explains the difference in growth rates. I think that soybean deals better with dryness compared to other legumes though. I did ask Pi Thongbai about mulching to retain moisture and keeping the grass out. She was open to it but mentioned that some villagers think that the mulch would harbour pests.
The soybean seeds were painstakingly sowed by hand into holes an inch in diameter and then covered with risk husks. What a big difference compared to my broadcast sowing! I guess that they are more careful with their non-GMO heirloom seeds which were painstakingly saved from the previous harvest.
Since we mentioned weeding and grass, I would like to share with you a wonderful grass called vetiver that I found at Maejo. It is widely promoted across Thailand by the King’s Royal Project to protect soil and guard against erosion. I came through vetiver a few times in Bill Mollison’s permaculture manual as well. It is a tall grass that looks similar to lemongrass. Vetiver protects the soil by drilling its roots vertically down into the soil, sometimes reaching 2-4m! Check out the photo below with the transparent case showing the deep roots. Vetiver is frequently planted along river banks, steep slopes, and terraces. It also slows down water runoff with its thick and tight clumps, allowing water to infiltrate into the soil. The roots have a fragrance and are medicinal. Lastly, it’s great for mulching too!
We enjoyed the stay at Maejo Baandin thoroughly. If you are looking to start WWOOFing, this is a good way to ease into it. The WWOOF farms in developing Asia can vary widely in comfort. Maejo Baandin is definitely comfortable with its wonderful food and homestay environment, without sacrificing on the farm work.
Maejo Baandin also takes in less people compared to her more famous neighbours Pun Pun and Panya, which we visited as well. Those places easily house over 20 guests when there are courses. Other than spending time with Pi Thongbai, we also got to know the other guests and the wonderful children. There was a Belgian family with one of the sons starting his own permaculture farm in Belgium very soon. There were two Canadian families that really cement the stereotype about Canadians being extremely kind and nice. One of the Canadian families run Au Petit Boise, a 14-acre low-tech farm in Quebec Canada. Michelle teaches yoga and runs the farm while Kory teaches at a university and is an experienced meditator. It’s on the other side of the earth but hopefully I can visit someday. They are a wonderful family so if you want to WWOOF in Canada, do look them up.
We also met a young Thai-Israeli musician couple that just bought some land in Maejo to retire on. We spent some time helping them establish the fruit forest on their bare land. More on that next time…