I had wanted to do some volunteering while on our honeymoon, although it seems that you can’t do anything really helpful if you don’t have a lot of time to commit. This is fair enough – I’m no fan of “voluntourism” in the way that people are charged loads of money to pretend to help with something that they have no skills in. Volunteering should always actually help the situation, and if that isn’t possible there are plenty of places on Workaway that you can kind of help out at in exchange for free, or very cheap, accommodation and food.
The Happy Healing Home is an organic farm outside Chiang Mai. For 150 baht a night, volunteers stay in bamboo huts, eat home-cooked meals and help out with the general running of the farm. This can involve cooking, shelling and roasting coffee beans, weeding, planting and harvesting, chopping wood from the forest or helping to build new bamboo huts. We only stayed for a day and a half, but some spend weeks there, finding a haven away from the usual hectic rush of life and, no doubt, finding a deep sense of satisfaction from taking active steps to meet their needs. There is something magnificently reconnecting about growing your own food rather than buying it from a shop.
The hardest part, almost, was finding the songthaew that would take us to the farm. The owner, Jim, was very vague online and did not provide too much help, although he did notify the driver that we would be coming. Basically, one bus runs to the village where the farm is located per day. It’s meant to leave at around 10am from Warorot Market, Chiang Mai, although it could be two or three hours late.
We arrived in Warorot market and tried to find this bus stop. I couldn’t tell you quite how we found it, but if you have Google maps or something on your phone – the “bus stop” is really near the Rustic Guest House, which you can find on Maps. Look for yellow songtaew. These pictures are taken near where we found them. Much to my joy, when we were wandering around, a man approached us and asked “Pang Term?” This was the name of the village, so, relieved, we set our bags on his songthaew. Using gestures and his phone he told us that he wouldn’t be leaving until 12, at least, so we walked around the market and managed to find an opticians who fixed my glasses and got Jeff some new contact lenses (they didn’t have the ones he wanted in so they got someone to roll up on a motorbike with them).
The three-hour songthaew ride was definitely something. Three hours in an open, bright pink little bus (with no toilet stops!), mostly uphill, with amazing, rolling hills in every direction. We passed a lot of elephant sanctuaries and other interesting places. When we first got in, we were joined by an orange-robed monk, who later got the driver to stop at a market so that he could haggle for an amp. After five or ten minutes, the monk and the shopkeeper had clearly agreed on a price, so the driver precariously strapped the amp to the back of his bus (with a thin cord) and carried on. The monk sat up front, leaving us alone with the amp and several bags of food. The driver stopped at various other locations to buy fruit, meat and other things – it seems that he was the village’s main connection to the “city”. I think he brought their mail, too.
Along the journey we were joined by a cynical Korean lady, who started to tell us about all the pesticides that the Thais spray on any crop that is exported. When we told her we were going to the Happy Healing Home, she laughed and said “ah, they don’t do real work on that farm – they just take tourists’ money”. We agreed that she was probably right. Our bus soon stopped again; a lorry driver had fallen asleep at the wheel and crashed into a house. This little house was in the middle of nowhere, and the lorry was now replacing a valuable pillar, clearly integral to the structure of the house. Several villagers had appeared from somewhere, and despite being seemingly in the sticks, they were all taking pictures with their smartphones.
The Happy Healing Home itself was an interesting little place to stay, although I think it would take a few days to slow down to the pace of life they have going on there. Mornings start with meditation and breakfast, which is invariably a delicious vegan meal made by Jim’s wife, Tea. Days are spent keeping the place going. I soon discovered that I was too weak to chop wood, too delicate to “weed” in the sun for too long, and basically just too much of a spoilt Western child to be able to sleep in a bamboo hut, but this was Day 1. I’m sure it would have become much easier. Water was rainwater, caught in their gutters and poured into bins for drinking and washing. The showers used (cold) rainwater and the toilets were nothing a luxury traveller would have approved of, but that’s how it goes. We had our own bamboo hut, and yes – the mosquito net was full of holes – but there you go.
We discovered that we enjoyed shelling coffee beans, which grew on the farm, roasting them and grinding them to make delicious coffee. It definitely makes you appreciate your morning brew a lot more when it takes over an hour to make (although someone had snuck in a jar of instant for emergencies). Every meal was made fresh and was delicious – tamarind curry, banana pancakes, dragonfruit and starfruit being just some of the things I remember. Food was served on tables just 6″ off the floor, with each table sharing three or four dishes, as well as one central bowl of sticky rice.
When I first sat down, I looked around, nervously, wondering where the utensils were. It was only when one of the volunteers grabbed a chunk of rice with her hands and dipped it in curry that I understood! Lovely stuff. I wouldn’t have minded staying there for longer, if it weren’t for a few things.
On the first night, I was devoured by mosquitoes. We’re talking 50+ bites. The little suckers love my blood. It was pretty hard to fall asleep on a rock hard surface with very weird frogs making noises all around me, especially when I knew that it would be a long, dark walk to the toilet if I needed to go. The cockerels (roosters) started making noise at around 4am, too. Falling asleep in natural settings, to nature’s symphony, is all very nice in theory – but do those fantasies include cockerels and laughing frogs?
On the second day, three of the fifteen volunteers were sick – sickness, diarrhoea and a temperature. It took almost everyone ganging up on Jim before he took one of them to the doctor – he was convinced that everyone just had weak, Western minds. Not at all patronising, that. Fortunately the doctors ruled out malaria or dengue fever, but one of the guys stayed in the hospital that night and we were told to always make sure we showered properly after it had rained. When someone asked whether the communal food-sharing could have spread germs, the idea was dismissed almost as if someone had suggested witchcraft. I have to admit, when a volunteer enthused “let’s do healing mantras!”, I felt it was time to go.
I’ll say this – they don’t work you hard there. They don’t seem to keep too many tabs on how much actual “work” you’re doing. There’s plenty of time to meditate, sleep, read books, write, do whatever you want (as long as it doesn’t require Internet or much electricity), while putting in a bit of work that will make you appreciate where your food comes from. For less than £3 a day for food and board, it’s a nice place to go if you need to heal a little and escape from the stress of the “real world”. I use the term hesitatingly, of course, because catching rainwater, sleeping under the stars and growing your own food is surely more in-touch with reality than the lives many of us lead. On the other hand, it can be pretty scary to be out in the middle of nowhere if you get ill, and the owner can be pretty condescending towards Westerners. Oh, and if you like soft beds and hot showers it probably won’t be your thing.
We had to be up at 5am the next morning to catch the only bus back to Chiang Mai at 6am. I woke to find a trail of ants heading into my backpack – they’d found the coconut oil (which melts at any temperature above 15C, it seems). They also bit me. I didn’t wash them out of my stuff (and they’d found their way into all MY bags and none of Jeff’s!) until Chiang Mai. And that was it, our little brush with “volunteering”, where we pretty much did nothing and hung out in what was more or less a hippy commune for a couple nights. I wouldn’t mind trying it again… maybe.