It’s dawn, the sun just barely peeking out from the eastern mountains, and the morning colors are subdued by the mist trapped in the peaks. I am standing with Wat, a Karen farmer, wrapped in my scarf against the morning chill. We are looking at his fields of beans and passion fruit as he turns on the sprinklers.
“Little bit, little bit” he says to me, as we discuss the progress we’ve made over the past few weeks. “Soon the whole field is finished, and then we start the next one.”
I’m working on Wat and his wife Poh’s farm, high up in the mountains west of Chiang Mai. I found this family farm through the WWOOF organization, a network that connects volunteer farm workers with small organic family farms. Though I have WWOOFed in America, this is my first time abroad. Thailand’s network is new, but growing quickly- just like Wat and Poh’s small farm.
Wat and Poh are Karen, living in a Karen-dominated stretch of the mountains. The Karen people number around 400,000 in Thailand, making them the largest minority people. They are originally from Mongolia, and more recently from Burma, and there have been successive waves of immigration to Thailand. Many of the Karen that used to clash with the northward-expanding Thais are, today, Thai citizens.
The area, once relatively undeveloped due to strained relations, is now flooded with development projects- new schools, earthquake monitoring systems, and scholarships for Chiang Mai University students. Construction and teaching apprentices from Chiang Mai do volunteer work in the villages. For the farmers, irrigation and water management projects, and seed and distribution grants are funded by the monarchy.
These projects are encouraging development, but they also carry messages of assimilation. One cool night, Wat and I sit around the fire, talking about the Karen language. Like many non-majority languages around the world, the Karen language is under pressure. Books and reading materials published in the Karen alphabet are so rare that few people can read or write it anymore. Wat’s two young sons learn Thai in school taught by Thai teachers. Scholarships and promises of work and a Thai lifestyle lead many young people to move to Chiang Mai, away from the village. It is a story that can be told in many places in the world.
The changes of development keep coming- Wat’s farm will soon be connected to electricity for the first time. The concrete poles have started to line the long, winding road from town, and the electric cables are due to be connected in a month.
I ask Wat if he thinks it will change much. He already has a solar-charged battery, enough to charge our cell phones during the day and some lightbulbs at night. What will he do when he has access to more electricity?
He shrugs, “I don’t need more electricity.” He reconsiders. “Maybe I’ll buy a water heater, for hot showers in the winter. But I like cold showers in the summer.”
Today, Wat and his family still speak Karen at home, and the social ties in the community remain strong. Younger university students spend the week in Chiang Mai, and then return to the village every weekend. The introduction of electricity lines, ice cream, and television don’t seem to have changed too much- the Thai Karen people, though regionally diverse and different, may be large and powerful enough in number to maintain their culture in the midst of Thai society.
When we need our lunch to-go, Poh wraps fried rice in a banana leaf and ties it with bamboo- the most “environmentally friendly” takeaway container I’ve ever seen!
There are two principle industries in these mountains: agriculture, and tourism. Truckloads of tourists drive in every day from Chiang Mai, stopping to do river rafting and trekking with a guide. “Homestays” abound, and the elephants once used for logging are now ridden through the forest. It is a growing industry, and more and more people visit every year. Wat used to work for a tourist company, but has recently started to make his living on his farm instead.
One day, Wat goes into town for a meeting with someone from the organic certification organization. The farmers are reminded of the organic guidelines, so that they can be prepared for the thrice-annual soil analysis test. Wat, using buffalo manure and a healthy mix of chicken poop and rice husks as fertilizer, has nothing to worry about. But he tells stories about what he’s seen on non-organic farms higher up in the mountains- “spray pesticides on cabbages one day, sell the next, no one knows, no one cares.”
Most of the surrounding Karen farmers grow organically, following the long tradition of their families. But today, it pays to become officially certified. Farmers receive a higher price for organic produce in Chiang Mai and beyond. The farms around here all seem to specialize in growing organic bok choy; fields of bok choy can be spotted from every road. On harvest day at the local packaging center, hundreds of kilos of the Asian cabbages are washed and wrapped.
But this is where the Karen farmer’s role ends. Being so high up in the mountains, and still slightly apart from Thai society, few farmers sell directly to any market. Instead, Thai middle men distributors buy from the farmers and distribute regionally. Like in many agricultural economies, it is in this middle transaction that most of the profit goes into the distributor’s pockets.
Cutting down stalks of bananas one afternoon, I ask Wat why he doesn’t sell them- his property is covered in banana trees, producing more fruit than the family could ever eat. As we lug the heavy stalks back to the house, climbing a steep hill, Wat tells me that the average price he gets for this amount of fruit would be 20 baht ($.60). The distributor would then resell it in the market for 120-150 baht ($3.50-4.50). It isn’t worth his time to sell bananas at that price. After carrying many stalks of heavy bananas, I understand his position.
However, Wat is investing in a different fruit. While I am at the farm, we plant dozens of passion fruit vines, and install the trellising posts. He has taken out loans with high interest rates to pay for the young vines and more seeds, and it is a risk.
Until the vines start producing fruit in a year or two, Wat will continue to grow his normal vegetables- mostly beans, peanuts, and bok choy. But Wat is a businessman, and as he tells me, “my uncle grows vegetables for 20 years, and he still makes the same amount of money selling them.” Wat is starting to invest in high-demand fruits, like passionfruit, and pineapple, to make his farm profitable. It is his attempt to take some profit back from the distributors. His plan, growing “little bit, little bit” every year, may work.
One Sunday, Wat leads me and three other WWOOF volunteers on a long trek. We are hiking toward a nearby mountain peak, to explore a series of caves. Wat, hiking more adeptly up the slippery rocks in his flip flops than we are in our big boots, leads the way. As we cross a forest clearing, snapping branches and twigs underfoot with no discernible path, I ask Wat how he knows what direction to go.
He grins. “I don’t know how to describe it…” He turns, and points. “This way.” I continue to follow him, grateful to be with someone who knows these dense mountain forests so well.
On our trek, we pass through giant groves of teak trees, a hundred feet tall and perfectly straight. Teak wood is a valuable wood for building- it is durable and water resistant, perfect for outdoor uses. Wat tells us that he is able to cut down these trees for his own use, but he is forbidden to sell the wood.
The Thai government, in recent years, has taken many steps to protect the northern forests. Industrial logging is controlled and regulated, which is helping the forests regrow from previous deforestation.
However, fires continue to pose a threat, especially in the dry month of March. Wat, having worked as a forest firefighter when he was young, tells us how difficult it was to control fires during the dry season. Many of the enormous fires are started by farmers trying to clear fields, or chase animals out of the bush to hunt. Every year, some of these fires spread too quickly, and homes are destroyed. Even in Chiang Mai city, the “burning season” casts a haze over the city.
Wat is aware of the value of protecting forests- some nights, as we eat dinner, we can see fires on the mountains in the distance. Wat tells us not to worry, because the ground isn’t dry enough yet for the fire to spread. But he sighs and laughs when he sees the fires, knowing that they will get bigger in the months to come. Protecting these forests will allow him to continue farming the way that he does. These forests are where he grew up, where he has built his home with his wife and two sons. For all of them, I hope that these forests continue to be protected.
Because Poh is older than me, in Karen culture, I am to call her “sister”, not her name. Many days I “help sister” clean, cook, and plant. My favorite days, I follow her and her mother into the woods to cut firewood. Poh and I use a two-person saw to cut logs from fallen trees, and her mother, who I call “auntie”, splits them with an ax faster than anyone I have ever seen. They use this firewood to cook every meal, and the family is stocking up before the rainy season starts.
After days of persistent but polite inquiries of “can I help?”, Poh allows me to help her prepare for dinner. Her and Wat both like to cook, and I love watching them. Most of what they cook is stir-fried, which is a delicate art to master. The wok is hot and the cooking speed is fast, but the product is delicious.
Poh and I always have a good time while dinner is cooking. My low spicy tolerance is a recurring joke, with Poh frequently reminding me, “not spicy, not good.”
Wat and Poh typically cook Thai-style food for the volunteers. Their Thai food is sweet, less spicy, and involves a lot of coconut milk, appealing to foreign palates. One day, after I make a request, Wat cooks a Karen dish, a type of bok choy and pork soup. The soup is earthy and spicy, featuring turmeric, bok choy, and pork skin. After long days of sweating under the sun, every dish they make tastes absolutely amazing.
My last two days at the farm, I help Poh and Mugar (auntie) with weaving. After watching them for a morning, mesmerized at the rhythm of their movements, I try myself. I spend the afternoon making mistakes, patiently corrected by their experienced hands, but by the end of the day I am able to weave a simple patterned scarf next to them.
The day before I leave, we weave all morning and afternoon. The two older women occasionally jumped in on my loom, weaving a few inches on my scarf in a quarter of the time that it took me. Only the next morning did I understand their hurry to help me finish this scarf- it was a gift for me, to take home and remember the family by.
As I ran my fingers over the weave, I felt overwhelmed. I learned so much on this farm, working alongside Wat, Poh, and their two children. This scarf represented all of that to me- I could trace my progress in the weave, and see it bordered by sections completed by hands of experience, the hands of my teachers. I have felt so lucky to spend time on this farm, and create connections to this family. It has reminded me that we are all connected by many threads.