WWOOFing in the North Thai Wilderness
I abandoned my job teaching at a school in Thailand to volunteer at an organic farm. I’d heard about a beautiful property outside this place called Chiang Rai; it was described to me as “a little volunteer community in the mountains with rice paddies, yoga and organic food”. Sold.
I pictured myself working in the field – my tanned, fit body glistening in the sunshine, sexily holding a machete and cutting down organic bananas. I would live there for the rest of my years and grow out my hair, speak the language fluently and become an earth goddess with gorgeous Thai babies.
Getting there was an adventure in itself. I said goodbye to my class and chucked my rucksack on my back, went to stand on the side of the highway and caught the first bus to Bangkok. From there, I jumped on a motorbike taxi to a bus station way outside of the city and asked for the next bus to Chiang Mai, a 15-hour ride. The first bus was full so I spent the night lying on a sprawled-out sarong in the bus station between a monk and a woman with no toes.
When I arrived in Chiang Mai, another bus awaited me en route to Chiang Rai. By this point, I was past caring how long that took. I had a blurry map and directions in Thai on a piece of paper covered in satay sauce. I started walking to the main road and began my adventure hike to the mysterious organic haven. 10 minutes passed and my legs hurt. I stuck out my thumb and a few cars later, an old local woman in a beat-up ute picked me up.
Driving through the lush forest and hillside, I began to smile and couldn’t stop, all the way up the driveway and to the main hut. There were plantations all around and chickens and cows, rice paddies, tomato vines and a herb garden; along with veggie patches, banana trees, pineapple plants and beautifully detailed mud buildings. Volunteers in purple fisherman pants and gumboots looked like colourful little ants working in the field and the air was fresh with the smell of health and un-deodorised underarms.
I had arrived just in time for the morning meeting and everyone gathered in a circle under a large meditation hall. They looked around at me, smiling and warmly acknowledging the newcomer.
Suddenly, a western dude stood up and started violently yelling, “Bastards!” The strange thing about this was that everyone kept calmly smiling and looking around like there wasn’t a crazy person losing his shit. The leader of the group arrived, barefoot with prayer beads around his neck, and over the top of the screaming he said, “Welcome, you have all done very well this week.”
Fuck. Was this a cult? I wondered. The monk then started talking about residents and how their counselling went, and mentioned something about an AA meeting after Tai Chi with Kun Ma. I couldn’t have been more confused if I witnessed a duck having a conversation with my granddad.
Turns out I had arrived to volunteer at an organic farm; however, little did I know it was also a drug and alcohol rehab retreat.
But the thing is, apart from the anger-management dude and a drug dealer from London who wore diamond bling and groped my ass as I walked past, you couldn’t tell who was a resident and who was a volunteer. We all had chores preparing food or an assigned job on the farm. We all ate together, joined in activities together and hung out together.
After a few days of settling in, I started sitting in on group talks about anger and addiction, depression and abuse. I enjoyed taking part in AA meetings and listening to my new friends’ stories of struggle and triumph and their plans for when they return home sober. I joined sunrise yoga classes and sunset meditations. I lived with this beautiful and fascinating community and felt part of something deeply purposeful.
I learned invaluable lessons at the retreat. One, not to do drugs (a lot); and two, that mindfulness is powerful for your soul. I also learned that eating food from the earth that your bare hands have harvested is unbelievably rewarding and taking the time to appreciate the goodness we feed our bodies is important. I realised we lose connection with nature and people we share our lives with in our Western societies. We push away and isolate those who need our help the most.
I buy food from Woolies and don’t think twice about where it’s come from or who put in the hard work growing it. We hear a story of an alcoholic, or a drug addict, and we shun them instead of reaching out a hand.
Sometimes, we need adventures like this to awaken our minds to what’s important in life. Here’s to the hippies, to the ones who love this life for what it is and here’s to unknown experiences. Where everything works out and happens for a reason.
Cover by Siamak Djamei