A Thousand Ways

As a continuing part of our travel/life philosophy, as well as a means to literally get our hands in the dirt, we have been weaving in stays at organic farms wherever it makes the most sense. At the last minute, we had an opportunity to make sure Thailand was no exception to that rule.

Our trusty steed, pictured above, spirited us - ok, bounced us - up and out of Chiang Mai for a few days around the 12th of November. We were headed to a place called PunPun, just northeast of the city and about 50km out. We would be part-time volunteering - paying a small amount to have our room and food covered while working about 4 hours a day. Eli and I were looking forward to some time out of a city, however small, and the sight of hills and dustier roads was welcome. As the vegetables, dry goods and random bags of supplies were emptied out at each small village stop, the back of the truck got roomier. We felt much like happy puppies in a pickup bed must, ears flapping in the breeze and eyes squinting into the sun.

The title of this post is borrowed from the poetic Thai meaning of PunPun. As an "organic farm, seed saving operation and sustainable living and learning center", which also focuses on natural building techniques and application, the name illustrates the philosophies and approach to living that PunPun embodies. As we settled in to our first afternoon, we got even more excited to spend a few days digging in and learning as much as possible about it all. Here are just a few of the terraced plots, currently home to many lettuce and tomato plants:

A group of twelve dynamic individuals are the human power for this living project - a heap of personality and knowledge rich, culturally diverse folks from Thailand, Burma, Scotland, the US and probably a few we do not have the specifics on. Each individual brings skill and intention to the table and is committed to seeing (and helping) this place succeed. Though we were only there a brief time, it was inspiring to be around a collective of people that manage this well. The myriad complexities of community living floated through my mind often as we participated in many of the ways that help PunPun tick. How exactly are these people self-wrangling? Community meetings, clarity of tasks, shared goals and philosophy, and the overall desire to be exactly where they are - and this, I'm sure, is just part of the puzzle. Now - I'm also not making any claims to having found utopia in the rolling hills of Northern Thailand. This is the result of a lot of work - and the continuous input of such, as well as the constant openness for and ability to change. Since PunPun works regularly with local individuals and farmers, there is consistent conversation about what role they play in their greater community, what education/skill-building workshops benefit all & what the future might hold. All this makes for a tasty brew, as wells just makes a whole lot of sense to the two of us.

Since the specifics of what they offer is outlined wonderfully on their website, highlighting what stood out the most to us (besides what has already been noted) is better than offering a play by play of our time there.

First, the lay of the land - a great and natural network of paths between houses, common areas like the kitchen and meeting rooms, bathrooms and showers, and planting areas. These buildings are all naturally built - mostly adobe, straw, clay and bamboo structures that have emerged over the past eight years. Our stay for the last two nights in the VIP room - which is more of a small home, minus the kitchen, felt downright luxurious:

Next, The seed saving operation here is vibrant and incredibly ambitious - and working well. To see a small refrigerator full of heirloom seeds in the middle of a jungle is both bizarre and encouraging somehow. Spreading the word, and seeds, of these special varieties ensures more diverse farming and, hopefully, more awareness of the need for a more organic approach. Additionally, the watering is all done by hand - which is an amazing forearm exercise for anyone looking for a new move to try. One watering can in each hand, each bed covered twice, equaling very sore arms and very happy plants. What is fantastic about this is the water holding tanks strategically placed throughout the property near the beds, making it quite simple to access it for watering. You can spy a few in the picture of the beds above. It is first held in collection tanks at the top of the hill or pumped up from a small nearby pond. Additionally, the shower water is heated entirely by the sun - which is possible when you live someplace with such reliable, year-round sun. Regardless, the water systems worked efficiently and simply and gave us lots of ideas:

Finally, the food! Oh Lordy, were we spoiled at this table. Fresh veggies everyday, some soup or curry, all full of flavor and spice, cooked up on rotation by a few members of PunPun. Happily, we got a chance to work in the kitchen on a few goodies one afternoon. We made some tasty fresh salad, used the gigantic mortar and pestle, grilled on the clay stove and learned some things: Butterfly pea juice, which is bright blue until you add sour and it turns more purple, is delicious with a little cinnamon in the mix. Mushrooms just look cooler when they are pulled into strips by hand. And sticky rice cooked en masse, steamed properly in a basket, can be flipped in a giant lump if you are talented enough. Basically, we had a lot of fun,even though everyone looks so serious in these pictures:

If we could have, we would have stayed longer - PunPun had a month long internship/workshop coming up a few days after our departure. For now, we are just happy to have spent the time we did. The people are incredibly open, engaging and full of knowledge. The land is evidence of hard work, attention to the details and lots of love. The thousand ways are constantly multiplying, with each eager set of hands that shows up.

Location:Mae Taeng, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Getting Our Aprons On

Above is a bowl of Tom Kaa Gai (chicken in coconut milk soup - left) and a bowl of Tom Yum Kung (hot and sour prawn soup - right). Where'd we find them? From a pile of raw fresh ingredients at our cooking class at Baan Thai just over a week ago.

Food has proven, as we sort of expected, to be one of the really interesting, exciting, challenging, fun, delicious, strange, and worthwhile sub-adventures during our travels these last months. We've only really featured it for a couple countries in our posts, but in all honesty, we probably could have done one for every place we've been - some just make themselves a little more memorable when it comes to writing about them. In that sense, Thailand has been an exceptional case. The flavors in Thai cooking were some of our favorites before leaving Boston and we've been looking forward to tasting it as authentically as possible since the day we left. We'd also heard and read about the myriad cooking schools around the country so that, too, was on our to-do list until we got to cross it off at Baan Thai under the tutelage of our ever cheerful instructor, Oun.

We started out with an informative (and entertaining and eye-opening) visit to the market with Oun patiently naming all of the unknown fruits and vegetables to our entirely western, ten person group. The seven hour class then worked like this: choose one item in each of six categories (stir-fry, appetizer, soup, curry, curry paste, and dessert) that we will then make and eat. They had warned us when registering not to eat breakfast before hand...to our half-credit, we only half-listened. Casey and I, naturally, split up our dishes so that between the two of us we came away with twelve dishes under our belts, both figuratively and literally. Our lists included: tofu pad thai, fried spring rolls, green papaya salad, green curry with chicken, fried cashew nut with chicken, the chiang mai specialty khao soi, deep fried-bananas, and one of my new all time favorite desserts, mango with sticky rice. Donning our mandatory aprons and flower print hair bandanas, we dug in.

It turns out that cooking Thai style isn't really all that different than cooking any other style (save for the profoundly adept wok handling we've witnessed). The real magic of the flavors and cooking here is in knowing the ingredients and, much like any other distinguishable cuisine, how they specifically work and interact with one another. Fish sauce, oyster sauce, crushed peanuts, Thai garlic (the small kind that goes in skin and all), Kaffir lime, galanga ginger, Thai basil, sugar, shrimp paste (which we've smelled wafting through the streets on multiple occasions), tamarind, and of course chili peppers. These are the things, fresh and local, that bring Thai food to life and lift rice noodles and broth to something unique, wonderful and delicious.

When we sat down for a light breakfast before the class started we were anticipating tasting plates of each dish. After working through the snack/fruit tasting plate they put in front of us and the first couple courses (stir fried noodle/rice dishes, appetizers, soups) we started to regret even eating dinner the night before. The beauty in really letting us cook each dish is that in doing, we learned. That said, eating six full courses of food by 3PM is not something I can recommend, no matter how good it is. In addition, the fact that we've both grown into fans of sticky rice didn't help matters, binding up our already full stomachs with its chewy, curry soaked goodness.

Fun fact number one: dry sticky rice is an opaque white but turns more translucent as it is cooked while jasmine and the other white rices operate in reverse, going from translucent to more opaque. Fun fact number two: sticky rice is only soaked and steamed - not boiled.

Before anyone goes asking us to whip up a Thai feast we'll have to do some practicing (as well as figuring out how to grow or acquire fresh Thai basil, mango, Kaffir limes, and galanga in a northern U.S. climate) but in a country where eating out is so commonplace that cooking options are slim to nil, it was a treat getting to make ourselves something delicious that we'll have at least a starter idea of how to recreate in the future.

Location:Chiang Mai, Thailand

On Explosions, Fire, and the Second Half of a Festival

Boom! Splash! Screech! Fizz! Kablam! Or for the real version, listen in HERE. Those are the follow up sounds to the last post, as this time we're talking about the Loy Krathong festival. If you were able to gather the magical and calm giddiness Yi Peng instilled, then this should be a good way to start a post about how different the two festivals are, despite being mildly linked in spirit and timing.

Almost two weeks after the floating lantern festival just north of Chiang Mai, we found ourselves still in the city and game for one more peek into the festivities and traditions that go along with this time of year in the Thai calendar. Loy Krathong is also a Buddhist festival that, while venerating the Buddha, symbolizes sending off the bad parts of oneself (anger, grudges, etc...) - in this case by floating a Krathong down the Namping river that flows down the east side of Chiang Mai.

Some days before the festival we learned of a Krathong building class at the most excellent Cafe Compassion. What better way to participate in the festival than to build our own and release them with the masses?

Build we did. It took a couple hours, but was relatively easy and, best of all, was completely biodegradable. Banana tree trunk base? Check. Banana leaf wrap and points held on with toothpick pieces? Check. Cabbage leaves, flowers and butter/clay tea candle? Check. Given that we've seen them around town made of plastic, styrofoam and/or multicolored ice cream cones(!) we were happy to go a more traditional and environmentally friendly route, knowing we wouldn't be turning any fish a bright shade of radioactive. (More documentation of in-progress and finished Krathongs can be found HERE.) Krathongs in hand, we were off to the races and totally unprepared.

Above is the crush of people along the parade route as we tried to get to the edge of the river to the left, there. Below Is Casey sending off her Krathong once we made it to the river edge, just moments after nearly receiving a prematurely released, flaming rice paper crown from some nearby festival goers. Below that one is the general scene of the place, which we stood watching in awe for half an hour or more as fireworks of every kind were launched back and forth over (or directly across, or right into the river, or sometimes not even launched at all...just lit and left).

In some ways, the chaos was almost as serene as Yi Peng. I think I was even able to get lost for two or three short moments in the steady stream of Krathongs making their way out of sight past the river bend. Overall, though, Loy Krathong is a party to Yi Peng's celebration; the flavor equivalent of a Scotch Bonnet to a slow, open-fire roasted Chipotle. Neither one is necessarily better or worse than the other and in fact I would say that each enhances the other, but their combined efforts left us both excited that we'd not only made it in time for Yi Peng, but also stayed long enough for Loy Krathong. And with any luck, some fish down the river is enjoying some banana leaf lunch on our behalf.

Location:Ratchamanka 6, Mueang Chiang Mai, Thailand

On Collectively Lighting Up the Sky

The image above is an indicator of what our evening of October 29th looked and felt like. No, we didn't have the spins from a wild night out. We went to the Yi Peng festival on the grounds of the Lanna Dhutanka temple, in Mae Jo, just about 20km north of Chiang Mai. However, it was a few weeks back and there are some good nuggets that fill out the story, so let's rewind a notch.

Way back when, about halfway into our saving spree and trip planning phase, we became great friends with two amazing people who happened to live right down the street from us. Among many other things, they had lived in and adventured around Chiang Mai (how convenient!) and, from the beginning of our many travel focused conversations, urged us (nicely implored, happily required) us to make it to this area in time for the Yi Peng festivities. We witnessed surreal images, heard impossible tales, and even sent a real khom loi on it's way one night from the backyard in Brookline. We always wonder if someone in a neighboring town might have peered up at the sky that night and thought themselves hallucinating.

Finding information on the celebrations, and specifically the local festival, is a small adventure in itself. Combing through various forums, being thankful for google translator, and "fact" checking with our friends seemed at first to produce no more an a pile of theories based on past years. To complicate things, there would be a Special Event for Foreigners this year on a different date than the true festival. If it weren't one hundred US dollars to attend (true story) we may have felt relaxed about making either event. However, we are more than glad to have had things weave themselves together nicely. Since we had to leave Bangkok so quickly after arriving, we chose to high tail it to Chiang Mai and figure out the festival-going upon arrival. With our patchwork of half details, and fingers crossed, we managed to make our way to the temple quite early and settle in with anticipation. Past a heap of signage about the forbidding of fireworks, and group after group of college students assisting the event, we found a nice spot in an open area. Note how empty the field and bright the sky:

With time to kill, we did what any reasonable person would. We perused and took our bellies to the food stalls, which were plentiful and set up along the road leading to the field. Casey sipped her Thai iced coffee, which was clearly take-away, and Eli contemplated his fried cake ball on a stick (layer upon layer of...fried cake), complete with mystery surprise at the center:

So, all of this anticipation is for what? Yi Peng is a Lanna festival for making merit held on the full moon of the second month of the Lanna calendar. Rice paper lanterns are lit aflame, filled with prayers, and sent off to the heavens. It happens to coincide with the Thai festival of Loi Krathong, which also relies on the full moon and includes things on fire, though in a different way. We will tell you more about this one in the near future.

Before the big moment could arrive we witnessed a procession of monks to the main area of the field, listened to remarks and chanting that likely touched on beautiful intentions (though we have no idea what was actually said), and observed the circumambulation of the stupa by the monks and a few hundred college students. All the while, the sun was setting and we were kneeling along with thousands of other people in the dark, next to our personal lantern lighter. From outside the temple grounds, hundreds of lanterns were being sent off and rising above the tree line. We were getting giddy:

At long last the moment had come. We were instructed to "Quiet our minds, slowly light our lanterns and wait for the signal". What was the signal? We weren't sure, but we did as we were told. The quiet minds part was more difficult due to the buzz of excitement from the crowd and the challenge of holding a three foot tall rice paper lantern without setting the whole thing, or ourselves, on fire. We invited a lantern-free family nearby to join us and were thankful for the extra sets of hands while waiting for it to fill with hot air:

Then...A FIREWORK! (remember, those forbidden things?) THAT was the signal, of course. At that moment, there was quite possibly the loudest group gasp we have heard and all of the (thousands of) lanterns slowly but certainly began to take flight. We had talked about it, seen pictures and video, and had an idea in our minds...but none of that could have truly illustrated the magical experience that unfolded. It is simply one of those things that you think you grasp - until you are under the canopy of all of these lights, so full of prayers and wishes and merit and love, listening to the ecstatic giggles (oh, that's ME laughing like an awe filled child) and staring wide eyed at the sky for so long that your neck hurts.

They gently rise like balloons, they flock like birds, they disappear into the distance as you look fondly upon them - friends going on journeys, notes of love and wishes of health sent out to their personal gods, fireflies in slow motion skimming across the lake. This continues even as you leave the field and make your way back through the crush of the crowd, into a truck ride back to the city, and out of the rain that has begun to fall. Each step you take, until bed, is full of that same airiness and amazement that was there as you let your hand fall off the lantern's edge. It is this that we wish to keep with us, pass out like candies and hold during the most boring or painful of times.

Thanks abound to Katie and Luke for motivating our attendance and to Yi Peng for even happening in the first place.

Location:Chiang Mai, Thailand