When planning our post-Korea travels, I knew I wanted to do some volunteering along the way. Jumping from sight to sight and constantly being on the go will exhaust us quickly. Being just a tourist isn’t appealing to me either — to better understand the environment, I wanted to immerse myself in it, connect with locals, and try to make a contribution.
Volunteering can do more harm than good sometimes, and I did a lot of reading on this topic. One quick read I recommend is the The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook. So I kept all of this in mind when seeking opportunities to donate my time.
That being said, we recently volunteered on an organic farm in the mountains of northern Thailand. I don’t have any other farming experience with which to compare, but this one was more like a homestay where we helped around when needed, but not exactly labor intensive as their produce is only to be consumed by the family and volunteers, not for sale.
Happy Healing Home began about a decade ago by Pinan Jim and Tea. From an empty field with a few trees, they transformed the place to include herbs, vegetables, fruit trees, a rice field, huts, open air kitchen, pond for fishing, clean water source, and pens to keep the chickens, buffalo, and pigs.
Pinan means “human”. You address someone as Pinan “First Name” to acknowledge that this person is a fellow human, a friend to be trusted.
Their lives revolve around being self-sufficient and living off the land which they cultivate. Seemingly every plant has a purpose. Over 4,000 volunteers have stayed with the family to help with various projects to make what it is today. Not only does the family receive help, the volunteers also receive numerous benefits.
Benefits to the Family
- Helping hands. Obviously, the family can receive much needed help in maintaining their home as there is always work to be done. Living off your land is certainly a romantic idea, but it isn’t easy to be totally self-sustaining. Volunteer help helps ease the workload significantly.
- Cultural exchange is another benefit. The family may not be in a position to travel (they actually expressed that they did not have the desire), but the world can come to them through the volunteers. Subsequently, their English language developed well. Each volunteer has a skill or interest to share whether it be creating art from recycled material, building a water-powered energy source, helping with computer and website work (as Adam did). The family received a computer from a past volunteer, perhaps their first computer, and it was difficult for them to learn how to use it because it was all in Portuguese. Adam was able to fix that though.
- Monetary income. The family does take a little bit of money ($6 USD per person per day) from volunteers to offset the costs of accommodation and food. This tiny bit of money seems to be the only source of income for them. They don’t need much money to survive, but it is still needed for small purchases and land costs.
Pinan Jim, Tea, and Tung
Benefits to Volunteers
The benefits to us as volunteers are also numerous.
- Learn. We received lessons on various topics — basically, if you have a question, you shall receive an answer! You can learn about meditation, Buddhism, guitar, survival, organic farming, etc., which I will discuss below.
- Authentic Thai experience. There’s a debate on what “authentic” means when travel. If it wasn’t for westerners coming to vacation in Thailand, Khao San Road, tour companies, and elephant pants probably would not exist. Then again, all of this is how Thailand is today. But I understand the need to get away from that and the desire to interact with locals on a different level. The northern region of Thailand was the Lanna Kingdom so there’s a unique culture and language that we got to experience. Most of our time was spent with the family learning in the intimate setting of their homes.
- Save money. This is a side benefit to volunteering. For about $6 USD, we had a roof over our heads, three fulfilling organic meals a day, and learning a lot long the way. One can extend their travels and personal growth further by seeking such opportunities.
The following is a summary of some of the activities we participated in and lessons learned.
I was considering a Thai cooking course which would have been $30 USD, but there isn’t a need anymore as I’ve helped prepare meals every day with Pinan Tea. She taught me how to fetch certain fruits and vegetables and prepare them to make delightfully flavorful meals. They tasted even better knowing they’re grown right there! We even ate the fish that we caught in the pond. I often found myself using the mortar and pestle to make chili paste, grind toasted sesame seeds, and pummel down herbs. All seeds are saved and skins are thrown in the compost.
Food is cooked over a small fire slowly burning wood. Preparing food took quite a long time — no fast food or processed food allowed. There isn’t any refrigeration, so leftovers are stored at room temperature and reheated over the fire the next meal.
I had a go at making banana bread from the given ingredients, sans baking soda. Pinan Tea doesn’t usually bake, but some past volunteers left over some flour. They also have a brick oven that was built by past volunteers, so I used the opportunity to make some of my famous banana bread! Pinan Tung never made banana bread nor tasted it, but he challenged me to a competition of the banana breads. The ambitious and creative nine-year-old whipped up his own batter of flour, eggs, and bananas and experimented with heat and time. My banana bread didn’t come out as it usually does, but the family seemed to love it as it was gone by the evening. Glad to have shared a taste of home with them.
Each meal of the three meals consisted of several dishes and always a mountain of sticky rice in the center. We gather around the table while Pinan Jim blesses the meal with “going to the mountain (eating a lot) and living a long life.” After saying “namaste”, dig in! Table etiquette is a mix between Korean and Indian. Use your fingers to grab a ball of sticky rice and dip into the communal sauces and soups. No chopsticks are used – just a spoon. This etiquette isn’t applicable to all people in Thailand. Rather, it’s more common culture in the north and closer to Laos.
It is proper to just reach over a table — don’t pick up a dish to take what you want. I really enjoyed the food and felt healthier and purer as my body rid itself of chemicals, pesticides, and excess sugars I consumed. Pinan Jim taught us to check if we have too much sugar by seeing if ants are in the toilet (squat style in a bamboo hut) after we go to the bathroom. If there are ants, there was a lot of sugar in your urine, even after flushing! I did see ants in the toilet the first few days, but not after the week.
I was intrigued to eat banana flower as well as banana tree stem. Nothing goes to waste. Some new foods I couldn’t bring myself to eat are mashed worms (the ones that live in bamboo) and minced raw pork. It was my understanding that Buddhists, especially monks, do not eat meat, but that is not true for all. The little meat the family consumes is of high quality though. The chickens roam around freely and the pigs eat healthy foods. The animals aren’t pumped with hormones, stuffed in cages, or fed unnatural diets. Pinan Tea said they usually prepare meat with turmeric because it kills bacteria and aids in digesting.
During the season we were there, there wasn’t much work as far as planting, but we did clear a grassy area that will be used to grow sweet potatoes. Their garden is already vivacious and thriving. Before meals, Pinan Tea showed me how to identify and pick fruits and vegetables such as mulberries, morning glory, guava, lemongrass, papaya, and chilies. They taught me a bit about the seasons in which different plants thrive as well. They also took me to the sticky rice field with a massive amount of tall green grass soaking in water. It won’t be ready for harvesting until March, but the harvest should last them all year. Next time, I want to learn more about how to even start such a garden. It is my romantic idea to one day eat salads out of my garden.
Trekking & Survival Skills
Another common activity to do from Chiang Mai is trekking. Tour companies are aggressive in selling trekking tours to see heavily-visited hilltribe villages and ride elephants whose care is questionable. I haven’t done one of these tours and they definitely vary based on the guide, but it sounded gimmicky to me. While at Happy Healing Home, we all went on a hike through a forest. It didn’t seem to get much foot traffic because we were slipping and sliding through grass without a marked path. When we reached the creek at the bottom, we (well, I wasn’t successful) caught fish and roasted them over a fire that Pinan Uncle started. When I thought I couldn’t be more impressed by their survival skills, he chopped down bamboo, filled it with fresh water, and picked leaves and certain kinds of wood from the forest to make medicinal tea. When I thought my mind couldn’t be blown more, he chopped individual bamboo cups for us to enjoy the tea. Volunteers can learn survival skills like fetching and chopping firewood (they made it look easy, but it was really hard for me to chop!), starting a fire, discriminating poisonous berries from tasty ones, and so forth. Pinan Jim would be more than willing to teach volunteers survival skills. He said that he taught a volunteer these skills and put him on a test by sending him to the forest with just a few tools. He lasted for two days. Perhaps either the forest spirits, wild cats, or snakes scared him off!
Pinan Jim and Tea are Buddhists. Jim was actually a monk for sixteen years. One might be skeptical about this as he has luscious long locks, chain smokes, and eats meat. He has a child with Tea, but they were never officially married (they still love each other just the same without the piece of paper!) My preconceived notions of how a monk looks and behaves were smashed like bamboo worms. This is good. I love when I meet people to defy stereotypes, thus expanding my mind further. I thought Hindus didn’t eat beef, this isn’t true for everyone, as I learned in India. Anyway, here are a few takeaways I learned at Happy Healing Home:
- Don’t think too much. This piece of advice was repeated several times by different people in the village, such as the 85-year-old smiley man who looks decades younger. They don’t mean to avoid engaging in critical thinking and creativity, but to not overthink simple things as it can lead to stress. You can keep searching for the answers, but you might find that it’s simple and right in front of you.
- Take your time. Life is slow at the farm. There’s no set schedule. They often forget the date, even their own birthdays. They don’t live by a clock. Rather, intuition guided daily life. Listen to your body. When engaging in any activity like working or eating, fully immerse yourself in the moment. Concentrate and be mindful of every motion. This is much easier said than done for me. My brain is often distracted and I eat my food quickly. I’m working on taking my time and not watching the clock.
- You can meditate anytime, anywhere, doing anything. Meditation doesn’t have to be about sitting in an uncomfortable position for long periods of time focusing on your breath. You could be walking, eating, or working. Just be present.
There weren’t any big projects going on during our stay, so work was minimal and made for a relaxing week. After lunch, everyone took a nap and woke up to work for a little bit and then prepare dinner. Life was slow, which was a good exercise for someone like me who has almost too much energy. Every volunteer’s experience will be different. Adam and I were the only volunteers at the time, so we spent a lot of time with the family and our leisure time reading. During busy season, however, they host up to 12 volunteers at once, so there may be more active projects going on. I would recommend Happy Healing Home to people who want a unique experience and wanting to learn new skills as well as using their existing skills to help the family. Adam helped revamp their entire website, for example.
Bring bug spray, a torch, and keep an open mind! Enjoy.
My photos aren’t of the best quality, so I would recommend checking out the website for some more from past volunteers!