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The first year I lived in Chiang Mai I saw a documentary that looked at a few permaculture communities across Asia and India. I had never heard of the concept or knew such communities existed and was particularly inspired since two of the communities profiled in the film were located just a couple hours outside of Chiang Mai: Pun Pun and The Panya Project.
I had already felt like Thailand was a land of abundance when it came to fresh produce and tropical fruits all year round, but watching the film I started to realize just how special the area I had chosen to call home for a while really was, especially when it came to farming.
Fast forward five years and I still had never made it to either Pun Pun or The Panya Project despite their relative proximity. I had met many people who spent time at the communities and was familiar with Pun Pun’s vegetarian restaurants in Chiang Mai that use produce sourced from the farm, but still hadn’t made it to one of the farms myself.
So when I was hosted by Chiang Mai local, Nuthvaree of Withlocals, to join her tour looking at the region’s sustainable living and farming culture I was really excited.
Typically to stay at Pun Pun or The Panya Project you need to sign up for a certain period of time to volunteer or take a course but I haven’t had the time to be completely disconnected for days or weeks. By going on the outing with Nuthvaree, whose nickname is May, I could not only visit Pun Pun but also experience it through the eyes of someone who has lived and worked there and deeply knows Chiang Mai’s permaculture community.
This type of intimate, private experience is what Withlocals – an online marketplace connecting travelers with local people who host their own experiences, tours and dining options – is all about. Though the site now offers experiences in countries around the world, it first launched in Southeast Asia so there’s a particularly wide range of experiences in the region. In Thailand, there are experiences available in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Nakhon Sawan and, of course, plenty of private local tours in Bangkok ranging from market visits to leather crafting workshops.
The day started with May and her friend picking me up at my house and going to grab lunch at a small vegetarian restaurant nearby. Here May explained the permaculture scene around Chiang Mai and we shared some banana leaf salad – one of those Thai dishes you don’t easily find outside of the country.
Normally May takes her guests to the Pun Pun community, but since I was joining her in the middle of one of the worst hot seasons on record when things were incredibly dry and the farm had just harvested, we ended up driving about an hour away to the village of Mae Mut, just south of Chiang Mai, where they still had fruit and vegetables growing. So, I have yet to make it to Pun Pun, but the farm that we did go to offered an even more intimate and local experience.
Run by a Thai-Italian couple, Nok and Marco, Mae Mut Garden is their home and ongoing passion project. They’ve turned their land into an almost entirely self sustaining plot with rice fields, a pond with fish, chickens, their home – complete with an outdoor pizza oven that Marco regularly bakes focaccia in! – additional buildings for food storage and visitor rooms, and plenty of mixed garden space.
Without any prior experience, Nok and Marco started constructing their home using adobe, or earthen bricks. Adobe provides insulation against both hot and cold temperatures, and is a natural and cheap material. Working together with the local villagers, they figured out what worked well with their space and needs and, after the house, continued to slowly build other structures incorporating bamboo roofs that also allow for natural air conditioning and are mesmerizing to look at.
Aside from their tomatoes, instead of having clearly defined growing areas for different fruits and vegetables, several things are grown together across the property. When we first drove up to the farm, it didn’t look like what I had imagined. There were few obvious crops or gardens and the hot, dry weather made the land seem tired.
Once Nok started showing me around the property however, I soon realized that there was food growing EVERYWHERE. We would wander and Nok could randomly stop to yank out a bamboo shoot growing low to the ground, then fresh holy basil growing in a cluster of herb plants, then look up to point out the ripe papaya just over our heads.
Not only was I surprised by the amount of produce, but the variety. Banana, mango, jackfruit, papaya, limes, rice, tomatoes, green beans, lettuce, onions, garlic, potatoes, carrots, chilis, basil, lemongrass, ginger…it was all there.
Eating and sharing food plays a big role in Thai culture. It seems like people here eat constantly and snacking is essentially a national pastime. No matter where you are in the country – whether it’s the center of Bangkok or a rural village – you’re never far away from food. At the farm, Nok was handing me things to taste and try all day. A papaya and lime smoothie here, sun-warmed tomatoes there, a piece of Marco’s freshly baked focaccia with homemade jam… I was full.
And then we started making the somtam.
It certainly didn’t feel like a “tour”, but like I was simply visiting as May’s guest and being naturally included in anything that was going on while at the same time being able to ask any and all questions that I had about farming, permaculture and Thai food. Nothing was rushed and when we were ready to leave after several hour, May drove me back into town to drop me off at my house as she told me where to go throughout the city for organic markets on different days of the week.
Usually, I have a bit of an issue with different tours and experiences touting themselves as “local” or “authentic” because, really, what does authentic even mean? But the experience with certainly did feel more real and less planned than most tours – it wasn’t a tour, I was just along for the ride!