Blog // Tales from the trail

09 Oct
2015

Practising Permaculturalists, Thailand

By Keith

It was in Siem Reap (Cambodia) where we first learned about permaculture, whilst helping out with the plucky Green Geckos on their farm. Fresh from a Permaculture Design Course (PDC), they were keen to share their newly acquired knowledge and put it into practise on their land; in the process providing the Geckos with some tasty, 'chemical-free' veggies to munch on.

Whilst these thoughts were part consciously, part subconsciously carried for the next couple of months, it wasn't until now - as we tentatively sat around a tree in Chiang Mai (the meeting point) with a number of other, equally anxious individuals - that they had finally manifested into something tangible. As more people steadily joined the group, some common themes emerged; baggy clothes, long-haired males, short-haired females and tattoos galore, we were starting to wonder if we would fit in with everyone and also exactly what our expectations were of the intense PDC we'd signed ourselves up to.

No time to panic, as Mai (a half Dutch, half Vietnamese volunteer from the Panya Project) had just announced her arrival by throwing her arms wide open and bellowing, "Hallo everybody!". Formalities complete (ticking our names off a scrumpled-up list), we all bundled aboard a pair of bright red songtaos and we were trundling on our way to Panya, our home for the next couple of weeks.

Arrival at Panya was as clear an introduction to Permaculture as one needed; the neighbouring farm (dependent on synthetic fertilisers and pest control) had cleared one half of the hill to mono-crop row after row of mango trees, whereas Panya's half resembled more of a natural forest and it definitely looked the more inviting of the two locations!

Panya (left) versus the mono-culture culture (right) - spot the difference!

Panya (left) versus the mono-culture culture (right) - spot the difference!

Tours and introductions complete, we needn't have worried about fitting-in; we were amazed at how many different and diverse angles people had come from to find themselves on the same course and we couldn't have hoped for a warmer or more open bunch. A common underlying theme tying us all together however was a general feeling that there was something not quite right with the disassociation between food production and consumption and a desire to break that disassociation and be a positive change.

Now our only real concerns were surviving the next 15 days with a limited supply of coffee and a purely veggie diet!

Not that we had much time to worry, each day was jam-packed with lessons, activities and evening entertainment - topics widely ranging from permaculture principles to soil science, ethics to sustainable natural building, grey water systems to map-making and integrated ecosystems; all culminating in a group design project at the end.

Much to my delight, it smashed my expectations; not only can I say it is most definitely a science, but its principles (proposed back in the 1980s) I found aligned with good systems-engineering practices used today on cutting-edge projects. Although at this point, I feel I must also apologise to my fellow students (and sprout) for any long-winded comparisons I may have made during the course!

As the days progressed, we found ourselves becoming more comfortable to the way of living at Panya, having our fill of the delicious vegetarian food, coming to terms with a composting toilet and befriending young-Frenchman-Fred, not least so we could plunder his supply of fresh coffee!

All in all the course was both enlightening and inspiring and we learnt many lessons and skills and above all gained the confidence to start applying them. Also I'm not sure I can recall such happy contentment than our days spent at the beautiful space that is Panya, perhaps fueled by the new and inspiring knowledge, the simplicity of time or maybe it was the morning chants, stretches and the circle of trust.

Either way, it was a pleasure to learn from Lola, Kyle, Ben and the other Panya crew and I have no doubt what we learned will shape not only the rest of this trip but in some way our life to come.

Here's a few fun snaps of our time at Panya; hope you enjoy and for now peace, love and 'Grow the Revolution!'.

Yeeeaaaaahhhhh, WICKED!

'The dorms'

The Sala, the focal building at Panya

The Sala, the focal building at Panya

Examining the results of a soil test

Examining the results of a soil test

Creating a

Creating a 'lasagna-bed' that composts as plants grow

Team adobe-brick-building

Team adobe-brick-building

Eagerly awaiting the clay

Eagerly awaiting the clay

Life in the clay pit

Life in the clay pit

Glen, wins the award for

Glen, wins the award for 'consistently the most-muddy'

He had some strong competition however, note: Corallie, not impressed!

He had some strong competition however, note: Corallie, not impressed!

Things started to look a little primordial...

Things started to look a little primordial...

Ah, bricks, that

Ah, bricks, that's what we were doing - Corallie administering the first load

Smoothing the mix out into the moulds

Smoothing the mix out into the moulds

Bricks - done!

Bricks - done!

Enjoying a sunset at Panya

Enjoying a sunset at Panya

A visit to the local falls on our day off

A visit to the local falls on our day off

Keith taking an over-due shower at the waterfall

Keith taking an over-due shower at the waterfall

Casual stroll back to Panya

Casual stroll back to Panya

Campfire-stargazing, one of the extra-curricular activities

Campfire-stargazing, one of the extra-curricular activities

A beautiful example of natural building at the neighbouring Pun Pun Project

A beautiful example of natural building at the neighbouring Pun Pun Project

Seeding saving at Pun Pun, the project

Seeding saving at Pun Pun, the project's main aim

Corallie harvesting some lemon-basil seeds

Corallie harvesting some lemon-basil seeds

Extracting the seeds for drying and preservation

Extracting the seeds for drying and preservation

Kyle and Callilah

Kyle and Callilah

Pilau, our excellent cook for the stay

Pilau, our excellent cook for the stay

Ruairi (pronounced Ruuurrey), 50% of team Scotland

Ruairi (pronounced Ruuurrey), 50% of team Scotland

Team Awesome-Sauce

Team Awesome-Sauce 'working' on their design project

A tough day at the office

A tough day at the office

Preparation for final design presentations in the Sala

Preparation for final design presentations in the Sala

Creative-cob pizza ovens, ready for our final-night party

Creative-cob pizza ovens, ready for our final-night party

Corallie preparing her pizza

Corallie preparing her pizza

Lola, Ben and Kyle at the graduation - we passed!

Lola, Ben and Kyle at the graduation - we passed!

The view from Panya hill

The view from Panya hill

Permaculture Basics

Permaculture, as coined by Bill Mollison and his student David Holmgren in 1978, is

'a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.'

In most situations, it is more or less a case of common-sense, a return to small-scale and sustainable farming practices that we used to use. Invariably, times have changed and things are not so simple; the global population can no longer be supported by small-scale farming practices. However the principles are sound and can be incorporated into today's food production systems to encourage: less waste, more efficiency, fewer chemicals, increased biodiversity and healthier and therefore more robust systems. All of these things are good things, even if it means investing a little more time and slowing down the pace of growth in order to achieve better outcomes and that includes tastier and more wholesome food - now that's an incentive in our books!

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