Letter Two from Thailand

Thai_farmingSawadee ka!

Greetings from Pai, a little mountain village that has become hippie/tourist central. It’s a gorgeous location, and I can certainly understand why people are attracted to Pai. We’re in the foothills of the Himalayas – rice paddies and little farms surrounded by sweeping vistas of mountains. And that has drawn in the ‘creative’ crowd. If anyone thought Portland was a bit on the weird side, they need only come to Pai. Here there are Chinese tourists with big cameras and tiny but incredibly fluffy dogs. And there are counter-culture Europeans who have lots of tattoos, piercings, and dreadlocks and look like they haven’t showered in weeks. And then there’s the occasional hiker decked out in their all-weather khaki pants and hi-tech sunblock shirts that likely cost more than a week’s lodging in Pai. And everyone is on motor scooters – for the first time, by the looks of it. I sure hope they got the insurance.

We didn’t come directly to Pai from Chiang Mai. We spent a day at an organic farm in Chiang Dai first. We wanted the students to experience the difference between US farming and Thai farming. Lucky for us, Vicky (our host from Chiang Mai) has an organic farm in the middle of a national park on a mountainside in Chiang Dai. Yes, you read that right. This farm is quite literally on the side of a mountain. In fact, my ‘health app’ on my phone, which is tracking my steps, documented that I walked the equivalent of 57 flights of stairs that day as we traversed the fields.

As you can imagine, reaching a mountainside farm like Vicky’s isn’t easy. We boarded vans with our drivers, Chade and Ning, and drove three hours up into the mountains – stopping along the way to buy snacks and use bathrooms. I mention this, because the snacks aren’t US snacks. There are green-tea flavored Kit Kats,  dried salmon chips, lobster and cheese flavored Lays potato chips, and coconut flavored crackers – not so much chocolate. (Good thing I brought dark chocolate with me!) This was also most of the student’s first experience with squat toilets. They were not excited. Not nearly as excited as they were about green-tea Kit Kats.

When we’d reached the limits of where the vans could take us, a 4×4 pick-up with a flatbed designed to carry people carried us into the farm on a one-lane road bordered by a fairly steep cliff. The back of the truck had benches and a bar to steady people as the truck bounced over potholes and large rocks. If hiking the farm was a good way to build cardiovascular health, riding in the truck definitely required core strength and arm strength. Yes, we got our Thai workout, naturally! Eventually, the truck bottomed out, and we had to climb the last bit on foot. As one of our students so articulately put it, “You said this was a cultural immersion trip, and I am now fully immersed.”

Thai farming is made more interesting because there aren’t tractors. A tractor would just flip over on the steep mountainside. Instead, every plant is nurtured by hand. Teams of farmers go through the plants individually looking for insect larvae and removing them from the leaves. No John Deere hats and overalls for these farmers. They’re dressed in tall rubber boots, straw hats, and purple, green, and blue sequined cropped pants. Yes, you read that right. Their pants sparkle! It’s like a farmer with a sense of humor got ahold of a bedazzler and decided to spread joy to his/her friends and co-workers. It’s the opposite of macho. Don’t be surprised if I invest in a bedazzler for the school of research and graduate studies…

Organic farming is becoming a trend in Thailand. The Thai government has watched what has happened with the organic trends in Europe and the US. They believe they can export high quality organics, and increase their international trade revenue. Vicky doesn’t do organic farming because it’s better for the environment or people’s health. She sees the business side, and she plans to profit from it – the health benefits are a nice side-effect.

And that reminds me to tell you a little more about Vicky. Vicky has an MBA, and lived in London where she ran her own restaurants. In fact, Vicky has had 27 restaurants over the years. Perhaps this is why she is such an amazing chef. She now has her organic farm, and organic products company (where she makes all natural soaps, lotions, teas, and mosquito repellant). And Vicky has her guesthouse – where the students stayed in Chiang Mai. This woman is high-powered!

Vicky giving cooking lessons.

Moreover, Vicky is a philosopher. She spreads the Thai philosophy of happiness when she talks to the students. She reminds them that happiness is a choice. You choose to smile, you choose to be happy. There will always be things that go wrong, and things that are sad, or don’t work out as planned. But you can choose how to respond to them. You choose to be happy. And in Thailand, a smile goes a long way. A smile will be met with a smile. Being respectful, grateful, and kind will generate happiness. It’s a good reminder for all of us. And I have to admit, I love how the students listen intently to Vicky, trying to absorb every nugget of information.

Our day at the farm got a little long. After exploring the fields with Adam and the head farmer, Vicky taught the students a Thai cooking class. Vicky had brought aprons for everyone – from your standard industrial apron, to the frilly Donna Reed style aprons. We had hauled in everything from vegetables and spices to knives and cutting boards. The students went to work, making green curry, fried rice, Tom Ka soup, and bananas in coconut milk. It was a delicious feast– probably made more so by how hungry and cold we all were when it was finally ready. And at sunset it was time to haul everything out of the farm, and reflect on the convenience we have in US. This is decidedly not fast food.

The following day, we had the grueling drive to Pai. The road to Pai is somewhat infamous for its twists and turns as it climbs over the mountains to the valley. 762 turns to be exact (they print it on T-shirts, lest you think I counted). It’s not a great experience for people prone to car-sickness. Before the road to Pai, we had three students who were worried about motion sickness. By the time we hit the road to Pai, there were eight taking the Thai equivalent of Dramamine. But we had no sickness in our group… which is good because along the way, there were “No Vomiting” signs – yes, little yellow road signs like ‘deer crossing’ signs with a picture of someone vomiting. Ah, Thailand.

The curriculum for our students in Pai is Element Theory. This is an essential part of Thai medicine – and really an essential part of all Asian medicines. In Ayurvedic medicine, there are three doshas that represent elements, vata (air), pitta (fire), and kapha (earth). In China, there are five elements (water, earth, wood, fire, and metal). In Thai medicine, there are four elements (water, earth, fire, and wind). Even Korean medicine has element theory (Sasaang). The fact that all of the Asian medicines have Element Theory suggests to me that it is a fairly important concept.

So how does this element thing work? It’s pretty complex. Let me see if I can explain. In some of the traditions, like Ayurveda, there’s an element that represents your overall constitution. And you might choose therapies to bring that element into balance. In other traditions, the goal is to balance all of the elements. And then… um… nevermind. Let’s just say it’s complex and I can’t do it justice in a paragraph. It’s fascinating though, and I find it one of the most beautiful parts of these traditions. It’s sad that we lost element theory and constitutional typing in Western medicine because it’s so rich! It’s probably the historical version of genetics, predicting who responded to what.

Our group activity after class yesterday was to ride elephants. It was a decidedly mixed bag. While the students loved seeing the elephants and feeding them bananas, most decided that they couldn’t deal with exploitation of elephant riding and decided to walk beside the elephants. Four brave souls climbed aboard and rode elephants to the river, where the elephants promptly tossed them into the water. I wish I could say that a good time was had by all, but that wasn’t the case. The ethical piece was truly tough on this group. Here we have the novelty of elephant riding colliding with the capture and use of majestic wild animals made more obvious by the chains around their necks. And then there’s reality of the tourist industry supporting this village with elephant riding being a major revenue stream. It’s not an easy problem to solve. I personally couldn’t ride the elephants, but then, I can’t deal with zoos either. My empathy gene kicks into over-drive and I get weepy.

So, we followed up the stress of the elephants with massages. This was massage number eight for me, and it was the quite simply the best massage ever. A young woman with a mouth full of braces and biggest smile greeted me at the door, and led me back to the massage room. She told me to undress – all but my underwear. If you’re a female traveler, you’ve probably experienced what happened next. As I took off my bra, money sprung out and dropped to the floor. She looked at me and grinned. “Same same,” she said. Yep, we all do it. The bra is a great money storage device. And that broke the ice. We communicated through hand movements – ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down,’ more of this, less of that. Although I was a little wary of whether she was going to be able to get enough pressure, I had nothing to be afraid of. She used her hands, fingers, elbows, knees, feet – heck, I think she would have used her chin if she thought she could get the right type of pressure with it. She rubbed, rubbed, kneaded and squeezed my muscles for two glorious hours. When it was done, I felt high. And I wondered whether the people we had labeled as ‘drugged out’ in the village were actually just victim of their last massage.

Today is our last day in Pai. After more Element Theory, we’ll head to Den’s place to do Ethnobotany, and then to the hot springs for those who want to soak. And tomorrow, we head back to Chiang Mai. Most of the students have flights out tomorrow evening.

If I have time, I’ll write one more letter about Den. He’s worthy of his own letter… In the meantime, it’s time to finish breakfast and start class.

Sending more happiness from Thailand!