Written by Pua Xin Er
Xin Er is a creative storyteller and course designer at Skillseed and is currently developing courses in Chiang Mai, Stockholm & London. With a background in architecture, she is also the resident designer and welfare head of our social enterprise, and a sucker for bunnies, spaces with natural daylight, fried chicken, and fresh bananas.
HOW IS IT that in the city we accept poor quality foods simply because it is convenient? What does it mean to live off the land?
One of the core things we believe in at Skillseed is that learning is an ongoing process. Together with my colleague, Yeehui, we embarked on a week’s trip to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand to find out more about the communities we are working with, what they do, and to experience what it means to live off the land in a way that is truly sustainable.
Over the course of six days, we visited villages that rely on Community Based Tourism (CBT) to generate income for their communities, each with a different focus. Learning about food and community health from the Baan Rai Khong Khing and Mae Tha communities impressed upon me the importance of Farm-to-Table, of knowing our food source and the painstaking process of food production before it reaches our dining table. Being able to eat fruits picked by hand was a novel experience, but what was really shiok was throwing these fruit peels and seeds back onto the ground because they could act as natural fertilisers for the plants.
FARM TO TABLE
Baan means ‘home’ in Thai, and at Baan Rai Khong Khing we were welcomed with a delectable lunch consisting of fragrant fried rice, warm flavourful soup, and a sweet violet drink. Prepared with fresh ingredients, herbs and flowers from the garden, every mouthful of rice savoured was a refreshing change from the junk food I tend to go for back home. This was what wellness meant: fresh food that was tasty and did not need any artificial taste modifiers.
At the Mae Tha subdistrict, we visited a community that was previously riddled by problems with opium, drugs, and tobacco, but has now become one of the leading organic farming groups in Chiang Mai. Hearing personally from a farmer himself, it was sobering to learn how hard it is to grow high quality vegetables. Great costs were incurred from using pesticides which yielded crops that were neither great in quality nor good for health, landing them in debt. Subsequently, a focus on organic farming techniques slowly helped the farmers to break out of poverty and debt.
In Chiang Rai, visiting the Suan Pa village made us feel like survivors in a jungle on National Geographic. We hiked along muddy paths to get to a clearing that was occupied by a passionfruit and rambutan plantation and a modest bamboo structure stood amidst the farm, forming the only shelter from the light drizzle. Climbing onto the raised platform, Archai, the village head, passed along huge banana leaves to be laid out. This was our lunch; We had freshly plucked fruits, and salt-grilled fish and fish soup made from ingredients gathered from around us, including 3 catfish caught from a pond nearby. Knowing where our food came from seemed to make the food taste better - it was a sense of knowing what we have is from the earth, and that we were only taking what we needed.
THE VILLAGE MAN WHO WEARS MANY HATS
Meeting Yohun the tour guide, entrepreneur, father, son, and builder, Yeehui and I were constantly surprised by Yohun’s many sides. This enterprising young man from the Akha hill tribe is only 31, but he has big dreams, and is already on his way to achieving them. In spite of, or maybe because of, my architecture training and background, I was incredibly impressed by how he designed and built the mudhouse museum and homestays without a blueprint, engaging only himself, his father and some fellow villagers in the construction process. Even more impressive was his innovative idea to collect glass bottles thrown into the jungle which he incorporated into the mudhouse architecture to bring light in, such that a sense of spirituality pervaded the space.
From the deck of his housing compound, we also had a great view of the vast expanse of green spread out before us, and I came to appreciate the slow life as my travel companions and I conversed about the little things we observed and experienced over a sweet but lightly flavoured jungle tea served in sustainable bamboo cups.
The next morning when we left, we passed through the village where many of the villagers, some dressed in traditional wear, were getting ready to go for church service. Many of the Akha are Christian, and life not just in the mountains of Thailand but in Myanmar, Laos and Yunnan as well. Visually, the first thing one would notice about the Akha people would be their women, and for good reason. Spectacular headdresses that define age or marital status are worn by the Akha women, each of which are unique, decorated with silver balls, coins and feathers by their owners. To look beautiful in the Akha world is to dress in the most carefully crafted Akha costume possible, and this piqued my curiosity as I admired the elaborate dress, with its vibrant colours and embroidered cuffs and lapels.
Back in Chiang Mai the next day, we had more to do and visited Akha Ama Coffee, a social enterprise founded by a young man called Lee Ayu Chuepa. Another entrepreneur from an Akha hill tribe, Lee had no airs, but projected confidence when he spoke. It was interesting to learn from Lee’s experiences as he shared with us over coffee how he came to start Akha Ama, a quaint cafe in town that has already been in business for 6 years. As a child he faced the challenges of moving to the city to seek an education so he could improve the lives of others and became the first man in his village to enter university. It is remarkable how his efforts have paid off, having come a long way grappling with learning Thai from scratch when he moved to the city, in addition to mastering English! Today, his business supports coffee farmers in his hometown and produces high quality coffee beans that consumers enjoy. It is difficult to not be inspired by the spirit of excellence he embodies and his stories of success.
At the end of the trip, the communities we visited were mostly villages, but contrary to our expectations, the rural villages did not always mean a backward setting with poor sanitation or starving kids. Quite the opposite - plenty of amenities were available, the mobile network worked just fine, and the villagers had full access to Facebook, just like we urbanites do. However, there are key differences between the city life I lead back home in Singapore and life in the progressive village community. So much of city life is built on a culture of excess and convenience, where people are always asking for more, more, more. Conversely, the village, as I see it, thrives by using only what it needs. There were many questions that I asked during the trip, but one of my greatest takeaways was being triggered to ask, “Where does my food come from?”
The idea of food has been something I have been taking for granted and hardly a thought has gone into the impact that my own consumption has on the world around me. Accessibility to good food has become so easy, as long as one can afford to pay for someone to cook for us. But what goes into that food and how many of these different ingredients have been processed before reaching our dining tables? How much thought have we given to the people who grow these crops? I reflected upon the amount of food wastage in Singapore; 10% of waste generated comes from food, and I think that a great deal of it is because our society is ignorant of the tedium and processes in food production. I feel that it is increasingly relevant to educate the next generation about the importance of being a Good Consumer, and with hope, to have our first bunch of participants to come onboard to learn about this together with us in our inaugural Culinary course - Food for Futures - in 2016!