Molly spent a summer backpacking through Thailand. Her goal is to share her unforgettable experience through stories and tips about Thailand
A Unique Experience
I spent the first five days of my eight-week journey in Thailand at a self-sustainable farm in the rolling hills of the northern countryside. With the help of Workaway, a website that connects budget travelers to locals and host families in other countries, my two travel companions and I were able to get in touch with Jim and Tea, the owners of Happy Healing Home. With years of experience in running a successful organic farm, Jim and Tea educated us on farming, building huts, cooking in the traditional Lanna style, forest survival tactics, and Buddhist philosophy.
Each day held unexpected adventures and a unique wealth of knowledge. From plowing fertile fields to preparing meals, there was endless work to be done, and everyone was able to contribute. Visiting a self-sustainable farm allowed me to experience the interdependence of the home, family, farm, and land that is necessary to survive and flourish in that environment.
What I gained from this memorable experience is not quantifiable or categorical. While this glimpse into my experience will undoubtedly fall short of expressing the sense of enlightenment I felt, I hope to encourage you to step out of your comfort zone and into a new experience of your own.
Learning to Live With Less
A grass hut with a bamboo floor known as "The Meditation Hut" became a home to the three of us. It didn't have electricity to charge our gadgets, and without a light, activities were limited after sunset. Without a door, we learned to appreciate the mosquito nets that hung from the thatched roof of our hut, the window that brought in a breeze, and the sturdy roof that kept out the rain.
Next to the Meditation Hut was a bathroom hut with an American toilet. The porcelain throne sat next to a vat of water with a scoop for hand flushing. There was a thatched roof supported by strips of bamboo that provided shelter, and a concrete slab for a floor. While it seems like a basic accommodation, the toilet was a luxury that we didn't always have while traveling in Thailand. American toilets were often advertised in more rural locations to attract travelers and became something we looked for when seeking accommodations.
The main hut, pictured below, was the main living space that everyone shared. Jim, Tea and their son lived in a room off of the main area which also served as a kitchen. Together we ate three meals a day, read books, and played guitar on the bench during downtime. There were no windows or sealed-off walls, but the hut stayed cool under the shade of the trees. The hut provided a shady nook to relax in during the day and a cozy shelter to sip tea and tell stories in at night.
Learning Moon Meditation
One night after dinner, Jim asked us to gather around on the floor of the hut. He told us to close our eyes and focus on a moon. Our moon could be yellow, white, green or red, but not pink, black or blue. He set a timer on his silver flip phone for 15 minutes and we sat in silence as insects chirped all around us. Bugs fell into my lap and fluttered against my shoulders as I tried to remain still and focus on my moon. I imagined myself on an episode of Fear Factor, covered in creepy crawlies as onlookers gasped and looked away in disgust. I struggled not to let my mind wander, not to imagine the enormity of the insect on my left knee. I tried to imagine nothing at all, nothing but my moon.
After an eternal period of focused meditation, the timer rang and I suppressed the urge to jump up and shimmy in delight. My skin tickled with the phantom bugs I still felt crawling all over me, and my body was stiff from sitting on the hard floor. As difficult as the meditating was, it was an unexpected challenge that I made a goal to improve.
Applying Meditation Every Day
After struggling with my first attempt at meditation, I realized the importance of mastering a skill that allows you to control your mind and focus your energy. Practicing meditation strengthens your ability to control your mind by training it to focus on one thing and learning to tune everything else out. The moon is your goal, your future, your success. On a smaller scale, the moon is your escape, your relaxation, your peace. Learning to meditate at the start of a trip that threw me out of my comfort zone became a tool I used frequently throughout my journey. I used meditation to escape from a difficult physical situation, and also to admire the beauty all around me.
Meditation is a tool unique in its ability to take the mind away from the body and to join the mind and body in a harmonious state of awareness. Whether you are trying to forget about something, or trying to soak it in, your mind has the power to take you where you want to go with the help of meditation.
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Go to the Mountain and Eat a Lot
Preparing food was a time-consuming task, and we worked as a team to put every meal on the table. Tea was the master of the kitchen, politely giving directions and teaching us how to cook traditional Thai food. Someone ground the garlic and chili while someone else cleaned and cut the vegetables. We were taught to trim vegetables with haste, wash them well and remove the dirt. We picked what we needed from the field and never wasted anything. We fed what little scraps there were to the chickens, who, to my horror, ate chicken as a part of their diet.
Each meal we sat down to eat, cross-legged on the floor, looking to Jim at the head of the two long tables. We sat knee to knee, waiting for the words of wisdom that ritually began each meal. Jim would lead us in a form of prayer to prepare us for each meal, always ending with the same instructions: "Go to the mountain and eat a lot."
The mountain, or a large pile of sticky rice, centers every meal. Smaller bowls of soups, fruit and vegetables, sometimes chicken, surround the mountain of rice. To eat, we were taught to roll a ball of sticky rice into our hands and dip it into the different dishes. Most of the dishes were spicy, and the ground garlic and chili added an extra kick. For this reason Jim taught us to eat plenty of rice to balance the heat from the other dishes. Eating became one of the many balancing acts we learned during our stay at the farm.
Eating meals family style reflects the importance of community in Thai culture. Eating with our hands allowed us to interact with the food and the people we shared it with. We worked together to prepare the meal and we went to the mountain together to enjoy it.
Medicinal Herbs and Horticulture
Jim took us on a long walk through the farm town pointing out different plants and their uses. We rubbed minty leaves on our teeth and blew bubbles out of the stems of flowers. Some leaves could be made into tea to soothe headaches and sore throats. Others had high nutritional value and we ate them right off the stem. The forest was a gigantic medicine cabinet filled with an endless supply of remedies.
At the back of the property, a trail lead us up a steep wooded hill. We grabbed onto branches to pull ourselves up the steep grade as our feet slipped on the muddy trail. When we reached the top of the hill, the foliage was burnt and black with soot. Earlier that month Jim started a controlled forest fire to produce firewood for the farm. Burning the trees made it easier to collect firewood, and we gathered sticks and large branches, making several trips up and down the slippery hillside.
Using Our Resources
On another walk through the woods, Jim showed us the many uses of bamboo, a plentiful resource in the forests of Thailand. Bamboo is a strong wood that can be used for building homes, floors, pipes and even dishes. He chopped down a tall stem and used a saw to cut an 8-inch piece of bamboo. He made the cut right after one of the rings in the bamboo and turned it around to show us. Each ring in the bamboo seals off the hollow stem making it easy to create a cup. We each took a turn sawing a cup out of the stem and carried them with us throughout the rest of our trip.
In the woods, Jim found a beautiful red log with smooth wood reaching out in knobby, twisted stems. The red wood, or rosewood, is a sturdy, handsome wood that has many uses. Jim broke a big piece off that he later sanded down into a knife handle. He broke off a few smaller pieces and began to carve away at them with steady strokes. He then showed us the slim and slender piece of wood and said it was for our hair. He gave us a few pieces of the wood to work on when we got back to the hut, and we later sanded them into smooth sticks for our hair.
Focusing Our Energy
In the extreme heat of the day, there is not much work that can be done outside. Jim would tell us to go "into the shadows" and rest until the hottest part of the day passed.
At dusk, we learned to plow the field and prepare it for planting. We weeded the long grass using hoes that quickly blistered our hands. Jim taught us to let the weight of the hoe do the work for us, not to waste our energy by yanking it through the weeds. We fell into a rhythm, working together to plow the field. It took hours to make progress but we could see the result of our efforts in the new field. As the sun sank behind the treeline, the earth exhaled the heat of the day into a colorful sky. We continued to plow as the day grew long, sticky with sweat that never seemed to dry.
After a few days work, the field was ready for planting. Since we had done the work to prepare the field, Jim let us choose what we wanted to plant. Of the thousands of crops to choose from, we made the decision unanimously: We would plant banana trees.
There are 150 species of bananas in Thailand. Of the five or six that we tasted on the farm, each had a unique taste and texture that differentiated it from the next. Some were softer than others, while some were sweeter. One banana tasted like it was stuffed with apple pie filling and had a green, gooey center. The idea of planting a crop that would produce an unpredictable fruit was exciting. Bananas were a taste of home and simultaneously something new and exotic.
After we planted our banana trees, Jim told us they would be ready to eat by the time we came back to visit him. It didn't cost us much to stay with Jim, but knowing our hard work would feed his family and visitors in the future made the aspect of volunteering come full circle.
Jim shared his home, his food, his family, and his knowledge with us without reservations. There was no mention of money before or during our stay, only a recommended donation of a few dollars a day to be paid at departure. Jim and Tea treated us like family and expected us to treat them in the same way.
One day, as we picked Morning Glory in the field under big straw hats, Jim asked, "What makes you happy?"
A world away from my family and a culture I understood, it struck me how similar our needs and wants as human beings are. Jim worked hard to support his family and shared his knowledge with eager travelers like myself. He taught strangers he treated like family, and created an environment where everyone benefited from one another in an endless cycle of learning.
It isn't my answer or your answer to Jim's question that matters most, but the question itself. What makes you happy? Make that a goal. If you don't know where to start, start somewhere far away from all you're familiar with. Start with a trip, even a trip to a small farm in northern Thailand. Sometimes turning your world upside down allows gravity to pull the important things back down.
Your trip to happiness doesn't require a 17-hour flight to a third-world country. It is a lifelong journey of acquiring new knowledge, making relationships, challenging yourself and remembering what is most important. My short stay on a self-sustainable farm in Thailand was a memorable chapter that reminded me to strive for happiness throughout my journey in life.