Pun Pun, Thailand
17.12.2011 - 21.12.2011
During our trip we wanted to get under the skin of the countries we were travelling to and to understand how some of the macro issues translated into micro issues facing the poor and vulnerable. From a documentary on TV we heard about a project called ‘Pun Pun’ and so we set out to meet a community that claimed to live as a model of sustainability on a large plot of land near a village in the Chiang Mai province. We made contact with the folks there and arranged to spend some time with them, working and living as part of the commune in exchange for accommodation and ‘three hot meals a day’.
So we set out early one morning in Chiang Mai city on the hunt for a pick-up truck bound for the Pun Pun farm and to Pajee village. We were told that the unmarked pick-up returns from Chiang Mai to the village packed full of people and goods at mid-day, every day, we just had to find it and get a lift.
Our instructions were to find ‘JD Cosmetics’ and to walk down an alley near to it where we would find the truck. Little did we know that JD Cosmetics had closed some time ago and the locals had since forgotten about its existence. We unknowingly walked straight past the alley straight into a wholesale market selling mostly flowers. A couple of km later we started to get quite hot, tired and a little frustrated, lugging our backpacks around in the mid-day heat, we were also worried we would miss the once-a-day chance to get to the village. Eventually by a stroke of luck, Sully remembered that he saw some cotton buds being sold in a shop and made a tenuous connection with cosmetics. So we trawled back and spoke to the shop owners who didn’t have a clue what we were talking about. We could not believe that we were given specific instructions on this shop and could not find it! We took a chance and walked down the alley next to this shop and sure enough the pick-up was there, full with people in the back, goods under their legs and goods packed on top and ready to drive off. We had made it, but at first there did not seem to be any space inside for us or on top for our backpacks. Little did we know that the 6 passengers in the back would double before we reached our final destination!
On our journey we were joined by some other English guys, one was an artist and the other a ‘free spirit’. We trundled through the city traffic and out onto the bumpy and dusty countryside roads. Along the way we picked up more passengers and more goods. Just when we thought we could get no more in, some old wrinkly-faced ladies hopped on and us ‘youngsters’ were soon relegated to hanging off the back of the truck on the ladders that take you up to the roof. We never knew how much fun this would be (or how dangerous, we are sure the DVLA would tell us). Soph managed to intertwine her limbs onto the ladder so she could hang on and free up her arms whilst snapping away on her camera. Sully carried on shouting ‘Helllooo’, ‘Swadeeekaa’ and ‘What are you up to today?’ to unsuspecting Thai country folk.
What would normally have been an hour’s journey, turned into a 4 hour extravaganza, picking people up, dropping tomatoes off, picking up a lamb in a sack, dropping off an old lady who wouldn’t stop waving until we disappeared over the horizon and then finally we were thrown off at the end of a dirt path in front of some rice fields with hills and endless fields lining the horizon in front of us. The other English guys were dropped off at a different farming project called ‘The Panya Project’. As we walked up the path and into the field we bumped into a couple of people from Pun Pun waiting for the pick up on its return leg to Chang Mai. One man was going to visit his pregnant wife in hospital and we think the other lady took the opportunity to head in to the city as the other folks did every now and then to stock up on worldly supplies and grab a cheeseburger – we think?! They pointed us in the right direction for Pun Pun farm where we would meet the rest of the community. With our backpacks on, and in scorching heat, we walked through the rice fields we crossed a small stream over a plank of wood and further along another until we finally saw some buildings made from earth bricks and wood. We had reached Pun Pun!
We were shown to our humble accommodation, made from bamboo sheets. Inside was a simple homemade bed made from bamboo with a thin sponge mattress on top and topped by a mosquito net. There was a notice advising us not to bring any food into the room so as to avoid unwanted visits from animals and insects, we quickly realised that we were about to become ‘at one with nature’. We could see through the gaps in the wooden structure and the sun was shining in on us. “’It’s like camping” we assured each other. We don’t do camping.
Our hut was away from the rest of the farm; 100m down a track through lots of trees and foliage. Beyond this were palm trees, shrubs and other greenery over the rolling hills. Toilet facilities were, naturally, outside of the hut around 50yards away. They were the composting hole in the ground style toilets. To go in the night, a head torch was required – luckily Tim and Charlotte had got us some good ones before we left the UK! Showers were also an eco-warrior’s dream, a row of outdoor cubicles complete with solar panels, which did a great job, albeit briefly, when everyone rushed for the shower at the end of the working day. The aim was to shower before sunset when everything becomes pitch black. Even our soap was home-made and actually was very nice and minty as Sully kept praising throughout our stay.
Once settled, we started to explore the rest of the area and we found the farm pretty much deserted. We soon realised that it must be siesta time as the sun was high in the sky and so we carried on exploring this intriguing place, keen to learn more about the simple structures and tools we saw around which formed part of everyday objects for these guys to get by with. A couple of caucasians came down the hill and we were pleased to know that we were still amongst civilisation and, as Sully insightfully remarked, that we were not on the menu for Pun Pun folk that evening. The German dude was cycling around SE Asia educating others on - and exploring the benefits of -solar energy. The other was an American from Colorado, a PhD student spreading the love of homemade coal and water purification! They were both spending some time at Pun Pun to explore these sustainable living processes.
Slowly the Pun Pun massive crawled out from their slumber like worker ants and congregated in the communal building. We introduced ourselves and were quickly put to work in the fields separating seeds from a dried up lemon basil plant. We talked to ‘Ta’ a mixed race Thai-Laotian guy who became our mentor and good friend while we were there. Ta explained to us the history of the Pun Pun farm and its community and some of their principle objectives.
One man and his family own the Pun Pun land and they live and work on the land. Over the years, various other people have come along and spent some time there too. Those that stay longer are invited to build themselves a house on the land and are welcomed to stay and join the community. They stay for free but are expected to work and contribute in sustaining the farm. There were Thai people there but also western people who had moved there for the lifestyle. There are families of adults and children too. The children, born there, speak Thai and English (with strong American accents) and are home educated.
The people spend their time here working on the fields, growing crops, doing daily chores, maintenance, building more homes etc. There is a loose routine for the day based around the sun - wake up when the sun is up, a gong sounds to let everyone know that breakfast is ready in the communal food area, after breakfast everyone starts working, around midday the lunch gong goes off, there is a break to avoid the hottest part of the day, more work in the afternoon, quick shower just before the sun sets, dinner gong and socialising in communal area whilst eating, off to bed.
There is nobody ‘incharge’ at Pun Pun, everyone knows what needs doing and they just work hard every day to get things done. They have occasional meetings to discuss issues and priorities but they have a very relaxed atmosphere, despite all the hard work they do. This took us a while to get used to as there is so much land and so much work that needs doing every single day, it was difficult for our ‘corporate’ minds to comprehend. We kept wondering ‘what happens if someone doesn’t do any work but just lives for free and eats the food etc.’, ‘if nobody is co-ordinating the work, won’t things get missed?’, ‘how do you know who is doing what’, ‘who decides what needs doing or what to plant where’. Somehow it all works really well and everyone seems to know what’s going on, but we’re not sure how they manage it! Perhaps we have a few too many meetings at home; do we really need them?!
So, our first job was ‘seed saving’. This is one of the main objectives at Pun Pun. They aim to save seeds of plants to avoid them becoming lost for future generations. We learned that this is important for various reasons. For those interested to know more it is explained much better than we could on Pun Pun’s website: LINK. Aside from the science, our job was to sit in the sun on a patch of mud and rub the seeds from a huge bush into a tray so that they can be frozen for future use and also distributed to other farmers in Thailand. The task took four of us a whole afternoon, and it was just one plant. Still, the work was not physically challenging and we could relax and talk whilst working, learning about why it was so important to do this. We asked what Pun Pun actually means in the Thai language and were told that it is not something that is very easy to translate but it was described as meaning ‘a million varieties’ and ‘something quite random’. The name refers to the seed saving process and the aim to keep alive (by seed saving) many plants which would otherwise become ‘extinct’. Apparently we have already lost so many different types of vegetables and fruits and, importantly in Asia, various different types of rice have also been lost. The problem is not just losing variety of food to eat, but that different types of rice can grow in different climatic conditions. The aim is to avoid being dependant one only a few types as this is not a sustainable food source, which is becoming a global issue.
At the evening gong for dinner, we were the first to arrive at the communal room for food. No surprises there! We had arrived too late for lunch that day and there’s no snacking outside of set meal times, so we were really hungry! One of the guys was sitting outside playing guitar and singing. The food was cooked in the large kitchen and served up in huge dishes. Everyone arrives out of the darkness from their mud houses and queues up with a plate to take their serving of food. There’s always more than enough to go around and the food is absolutely delicious. Everything was fresh and healthy and much of it picked from the Pun Pun land. As well as growing crops, the community also has a large chicken coop, they exchange milk with a nearby farm and often buy fish and other stocks from a nearby market that takes place once a week. Every meal we had at Pun Pun was delicious! One evening we asked to help in the kitchen with the preparation of the food so that we could learn a new dish. We really enjoyed cooking and were so pleased to sound the gong and call everyone for dinner that night.
You’ll all be pleased to know that the other work we did whilst at Pun Pun was more physically challenging. We spent a whole morning clearing grass from soil to make a growing patch. We then had to dig over the tough soil, break it up and build it up into beds before watering it. It was really hard work. They do not use the spades and forks we are used to in England, instead they hack at the ground with a curved spade by swinging it high up above their head and smashing it down into the turf below. Sully managed much better that Sophia, who had nasty blisters after the first 30 minutes. We both had aching backs and were amazed at how easy the young, petite, Thai men were making it look. They gave us sympathetic smiles and offered us plenty of breaks. Ha!
Another task we had was helping to made bricks so that more buildings could be put up. We were told that they need 2000 bricks to make one small house. It took 8 of us a whole day to make 80 bricks. With our society’s mind set it seemed like so much effort for such slow progress but despite the slow processes involved, we were impressed that they build their own houses from materials that are free on their land; it takes lots and lots of time but doesn’t cost any money. In spite of the hard work, they are peacefully free from the constraints of capitalist society; it was quite refreshing to see. It’s not a lifestyle for us ‘softies’ though!
To make the bricks, it takes a couple of hours to dig up enough mud and break it until it is soft. Luckily this hand-blistering work was done by the time we arrived. Next, we helped to fill large metal cans of water from a central tank, carry them two-at-a-time over to the mud and pour it over. Once it was soaked through, we rolled up our trousers and walked in the mud to mix it smoothly into the water. It was good fun once we got used to having the mud squelching through our toes! After this was done, rice husk was added to the mixture and this was ‘walked in’. The mud became quite thick and smooth in texture. When declared ready (at the point a footprint stays in place and it makes a certain noise), we spent two hours filling and carrying the mud in buckets over to a flat piece of land on a hill where it was scooped into a wooden frame to form brick shapes, four bricks at a time. Now both our hands and feet were covered in mud! After all this work, the bricks must be left for over a week to bake in the sun and become set hard. We didn’t dare ask what happens if it rains!
During a break one afternoon we wandered through some fields in search for civilisation. We were told that there was a reservoir nearby and after a long walk in the heat we found a huge reservoir backed by hills where the water was completely still and shimmering in the sun. It was very peaceful. Although we were keen to explore, we had a secret agenda – we wanted tea! At Pun Pun they only seem to drink water. We found some supplies in a small village and headed back. On the way we passed a temple where we saw a monk relaxing in the courtyard. There was also a monkey tied to a tree. Soph got too close for a photo and he pounced onto her camera and bit her hand with his sharp teeth! Ouch! If you don’t hear from Sophia again, she may have rabies!! (Only joking, she managed to punch the monkey off before it pierced her skin…!) We made it back to Pun Pun and sneakily made a big mug of tea each. For some reason we felt really guilty but not sure why!!
Each evening after dinner we walked back to our hut, staring up at the black sky. The view of the stars was crystal clear, we had never seen anything like it in our lives, it was amazingly beautiful and we stood there staring until our necks hurt! What a reward after a hard day’s work!
We spent a few days at Pun Pun, we were warmly welcomed, we worked hard and we ate well. We were impressed by the lifestyle that the community have chosen and the good endeavours that they pursue and were in awe of their freedom from material requirements. The people here work very hard but they are fit and healthy and seem very happy together. We were waved off before sunrise as we walked across the rice fields towards the small road to flag down a lift back to Chiang Mai city.