Still somewhat dazed from the previous three days of silence, we headed back to Koh Samui with the intent of getting to Chiang Mai as soon as possible. Given our enjoyment of the night train on the way down, we decided that we were going to take back-to-back night trains and skip spending another night in Bangkok, just push on through and head north in readiness for our Thai boxing camp in Pai.
The familiar combination of bus, boat, mini bus once again punctuated our day-and we managed to get to the train station and book a ticket with no problems at all, despite the efforts of one ‘friendly local’ who advised that we should get the bus through him, as trains get booked up 4 months in advance. Always worth checking for yourselves in Thailand, often being friendly and helpful is a ‘commissioned service’!
Anyway, our train journey was notable simply for the fact that Jo and I absolutely chewed two poor lads ears off, after three days of effective isolation-they really didn’t stand a chance sat opposite us, we just didn’t shut up until it was apparent that’d we’d induced them both into a waking coma!
Arriving in Bangkok and we increased our traveller kudos rating by plumping to use the showers in Bangkok Railway station…Something of a necessity to pull off our B2B journeys without offending fellow travellers with our ‘aroma’. Showers safely navigated, definitely something of an ‘experience’, we spent the day in Bangkok and set off on our second night train on the bounce. Again we had the opportunity to talk to our hearts content with a few patient listeners on the journey to Chiang Mai, and quickly the morning came round and the quite beautiful scenery surrounding us greeted our morning gaze. The landscape was quite different now, and we were now treated to gorgeous countryside and rolling mountains-welcome to the North of Thailand, and Chiang Mai.
Many people rave about Chiang Mai as one of their favourite cities in Thailand, and it’s easy to see why once you’ve spent some time having a walk around. Unlike the chaotic and daunting nature of Bangkok, Chiang Mai is a much more relaxed city-and at its centre there is the ‘Old City’, a former walled area which used to form the epicentre of this northern Thai kingdom capital. Within the old city you have a myriad of temples (no surprises there!) and a number of funky coffee shops and bars to explore, as well as some great street markets to grab some bargains from. For now our exploring of Chiang Mai was going to be short a sweet, as we were due to arrive with Willow in a couple of days-so more about this city in a later post. Of course I got the opportunity to take some snaps to share though……
Having done a little exploring of the city, and destroying a porcelain soap dish in the hotel bathroom with my head (!), our next mission was to navigate our way to Doi Saket, and the hill tribe permaculture farm found by Jo on AirBnB where we were going to be spending the next couple of days. After falling foul of my increasingly poor navigation skills, it seems that my internal compass has gone completely haywire since we have been in Asia, we found our way to Warorot Market and got on the bus to Doi Saket. The instructions to get to the farm were simple, “get off the bus by the Seven Eleven in Doi Saket and find a taxi to go to Willow and Buti’s farm, all the taxi drivers should know where it is”.
Sounded easy enough-we managed to get the bus there no problems, then the fun started. First up, there are no ‘taxis’ in Doi Saket as you or I would think of them, there are only motorbike taxis. Secondly, there seemed to be a distinct lack of motorbike taxis when we arrived, and after about twenty minutes or so we managed to locate one…Just the one though, and obviously he had no idea where Willow & Buti’s farm was! No great problem as he borrowed someone’s phone to call ahead and get directions, and soon enough it was decided that Jo would hop on and get to the farm, and then he would come back to pick me up. At this point is dawns on you that you’re about to discover what a ride on the back of a motorbike would be like when carrying a ruddy great big rucksack-obviously Jo got to experience that first hand straight off the bat, while I sat on the street and contemplated it for the next 25 minutes or so while I waited for our trusty steed to return! Eventually another taxi turned up and I was ushered onto the back, and what followed was a full on white knuckle ride as I held on for grim life on the back of this bike…All the time hoping that if I did fall off, then I would be lucky enough to land on my back pack and just be left in the road doing an impression of a turtle on it’s shell! A few wrong turns, and a couple of random farms later, and we finally arrive at Willow & Buti’s, and little did I know what we were about to discover.
Obviously Jo had already been there for about twenty minutes as I arrived, and as I walked to the kitchen she was already in deep conversation with our host, Willow.
Now Willow wasn’t what I expected whatsoever, but more fool me for having any expectations anyway! He is an 84 year old fantabulous story teller, originally from California, and having lived quite the incredible life. Immediately I was greeted with warmth and excitement, and instantly quizzed on my date of birth so that he could ascertain my Taoist birth animal….As it turns out I am a Golden Sheep, and only 24 hours from being a Horse, something quite spectacular it would seem! Willow was a Horse himself, and Jo is a Fire Snake-apparently each animal has a very specific set of characteristics and this was his way of immediately understanding those who come to visit….He seemed pretty happy with our arrival, and so our education began.
First of all a snippet of Willows life, he used to be a psychiatrist in San Francisco and lived in Haight Ashbury through the summer of love-he had a life full of material riches but had his own form of enlightenment though hallucinogenic experimentation and gave it all up to live the life of a hippy, and to travel the world and experience life in its fullest. For three years he lived without speech, and he travelled through India and Nepal living as a sadhu-from there he has travelled extensively and set up communities for off the gird living in many locations. When 9/11 hit, he was in Hawaii-and the disaster was the prompt for him to leave the United States and come to Thailand, that and some disagreement with the police it would seem….
As with all great story tellers, some of the tales were beyond comprehension, and it was difficult to believe that one person had led this life-but if you met Willow then I would be surprised if you were not captivated as we were.
Buti is his wife who is part of a hill tribe in this area of Thailand, and she was an absolute force of nature! Rather regrettably, she was leaving the farm for a family funeral on our arrival at the farm, and she returned the day before we left-so we didn’t get to know Buti as well as Willow. For sure in just the small amount of time that we did have we appreciated the sheer energy and knowledge of the woman as she buzzed round the farm and demonstrated her immense cooking skills on the open fire.
This brings me onto his life today, and the farm that he and his hill tribe wife are building. This permaculture homestead has everything that you would need to return to village life, take yourself off grid, and lead a wholly sustainable life. Fruit and vegetables grow all around you, there are chickens and ducks, a swimming pond and various quarters for people to stay. Basically they invite people to stay at the farm and work with them on projects in return for subsidised food and lodgings. We had happened on the place through AirBnB so we were ‘luxury guests’ to begin with, but soon enough we had agreed to stay on a couple more days as helpers! For £8 a day we got three meals and accommodation for the both of us, and we simply had to help with things like watering the farm, feeding the ducks & chickens and joining in with the cooking duties for everyone.
Others we met there were there longer term and had the freedom to take on projects of their own; for example a French couple who were there had built a pond, a British/Australian couple had started developing a couple of ‘Jacuzzi baths’ from some concrete cylinders that were left over from a well, and just prior to our arrival a guy from Australia had installed a drip feed irrigation system!
Jo and I felt that this was our first real living experience on our travels, something that we could envisage as a way of life rather than a ‘holiday novelty’. Simple things really made the difference, Jo learnt how to build a fire for us to cook on, and we managed to go to the local market to get supplies for the group for the evening. That may sound simple, but three of us were going to the market and there were only two push bikes, so Jo and I volunteered to run a leg of the journey each-no mean feat at 8km in the Thai sunshine. Jo set off on the outward journey on foot first, and made remarkably good time-actually arriving at the village before I got there on the bike, having given her a thirty minute head start. Once at the market we set about our business, bought the supplies we needed as well as some cake…and some crickets to eat for later, yeah that’s right, we decided to give eating bugs a go as well-we were getting seriously native! Having had the luxury of two wheels for the journey to the market, the second leg of my duathlon was upon us and I set off on the run back-this being notable simply for the meanness of Jo an Ivan, breezing past me on their bikes, and then slowing to an equal pace to me only when they were about 50m ahead. Seriously, for ages they were coasting along, chatting away having a nice ride in the country, while I was pounding the hard yards behind them, trying to catch up and join in. They claim that this was non intentional….But as the sweat poured down my brow I was pretty sure that they were just teasing me!
Everyone we met there was really interesting and lovely, and it was great to find this alternative way of travel that so many were experiencing. For us it has opened up a door to sustainable travel, and now we are registered with a website called HelpX and are looking at similar permaculture projects in South America to get involved in. This definitely wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but for sure it opened our minds to something a bit different. I suppose it’s just about finding luxury in the more simple and natural things, and taking yourself away from mass consumerisation….As Willow would say, it’s about getting back to village life….And yes, part of that may be eating bugs, and as it happens-they were OK, a good source of protein, a little nutty, and crunchy in texture!