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Observations about (the stupidity of) elephant tourism.

The Mae Wang district is rapidly becoming the centre of the dreadful “elephant tourism” in Chiang Mai, with many new camps springing up by the river and in the forest in the last couple of years . Tourist buses and pick up trucks bringing food for the elephants now make up most of the traffic on the main road. Only a few of the long established camps have the space to grow their own elephant food, all the new camps have to bring food in, with teams of cutters criss-crossing the province harvesting and transporting bana grass or corn.

Elephants can put it away, it’s no joke, they spend virtually the whole day eating, one adult will consume up to 400kg of food a day, meaning a full pick up truck feeds on average three elephants for one day. Assuming there are two hundred elephants in the Mae Win area, a very conservative estimate by the way, this means around 60/70 food truck trips every single day, during the dry season food can be difficult to find and trucks have to travel increasingly long distances to procure increasingly low quality food for the pachyderms.

 

“The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone.  

Bill Mollison

While at first glance the 10% figure could look low and achievable, when one starts thinking about it and looks around it’s clear that most people just consume and are not really aware of the consequences of their choices, it is especially troubling to see how many young people seem to go for this type of mainstream mindless tourism. The whole experience is completely fake and valueless, I will say nothing of the people on top of the elephants with their GoPros and selfie sticks. Of course our man Guy Debord had seen this coming from afar.

Tourism — human circulation packaged for consumption, a by-product of the circulation of commodities — is the opportunity to go and see what has become banal. The economic organization of travel to different places already guarantees their equivalence. The modernization that has eliminated the time involved in travel has simultaneously eliminated any real space from it.

Guy Debord  Society of the Spectacle 1967

 

On top of the obvious exploitation of the working elephants who are still wild animals and not domesticated, in Thailand there is the additional exploitation of the mahouts, the elephant handlers, who perform a very dangerous job without adequate recompense or recognition. I urge you to spend a few minutes reading this very well researched article from the Atlantic, telling the story of the recent death of a mahout in Mae Wang.

While I am not particularly interested in foisting my opinions on anyone, I wanted to share this as another example of the many stupid and unthinking ways we have found to ruin the planet and the lives of the more vulnerable in our midst.

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Natural building workshops reviews

With the experience gained over the last four years of building, this latest job has gone very smoothly so far. We have developed a schedule that takes into account the different seasonal weather patterns. During the winter, Nov to Jan, we prepare the bricks, this is the most physical part of the job and it’s good to be able to do it when the weather is dry but cool and the sun is not strong. Before the rains come we prepare the foundation and the roof and we can move the bricks under cover. This allows us to work throughout the rainy season in comfort. Working under a roof has many advantages, and I would strongly advise this as the most convenient schedule and one that allows work to start and stop at anytime without worrying about sun, rain,etc.

During August we hosted three four-day workshops, with twenty two participants in total. We found that eight people is the maximum number we can have at one time and still be able to give everyone a meaningful hands-on experience. The work has proceeded well and it feels we are ahead of schedule, if there is such a thing.

All the kids who have been passing through while we have been building have had a good time playing with the mud and various homemade paints, Serena and friends also come and play sometimes.

These shots were taken yesterday, the work has advanced well and the quality of the workmanship of the volunteers is overall of a good standard. The rest of the job will be completed by our usual crew who have taken care of their seasonal farming jobs and now are free to come and work here for at least a couple of months, by which point the job should be done or very close to it.

Just as importantly, we have got to know many great people and shared many good moments together. We hope to see everyone again here at some point when our paths cross once more. Here is what some of them have said about their time here.

 

REVIEWS

Our time at MaeMut Garden was short but full of great experiences and knowledge. Marco is such a great teacher with a laid back philosophy and character. Although short, we learnt all of the fundamental skills required to build a earth brick home. It was great to take part in a course where you are actually helping to build a house from the ground up. The small group of 8 lets everyone have time to get their hands muddy. The whole experience exceeded our expectations. The food from P’Nok was diverse and delicious and the accommodation spacious with amazing views of the surrounding mountains. We would have stayed for a month if there was time. Thanks you so much Marco , P’Nok and the beautiful Serena.

Kai and Jackie from Singapore (and other places)

 

I was lucky to participate in a natural building workshop at Maemut Garden over the course of 4 days in August 2016. Nok and Marco have created a wonderful permaculture farm in the North of Thailand and it was a wonderful experience to see how everything can be done and what amazing results can be achieved. The place is simply beautiful and a big source of inspiration.
The course itself was well executed and I learned a lot during the days. We came around all of the major parts of building a house using adobe bricks, from making the bricks themselves, how to mix the mud, plastering, putting in doors and windows, making corners, decorating, final plaster, coloring etc. etc. I feel well equipped to begin experimenting myself. Marco did a good job of explaining everything and best of all: we all got a lot of time to try out the different techniques ourselves. The group of 7 people was just right and it didn’t feel too crowded.
The practical details of the course were also smooth – we had delicious food and fine sleeping arrangements. The atmosphere of MaeMut Garden was warm and hospitable.
I can highly recommend!
Martin from Denmark (and Pai)

 

I really enjoyed attending Marco’s and Nok’s five day earth building course. I think Marco has successfully managed to take the unnecessary complexity out of sustainability and tell you plainly, simply and honestly how to build an earth house, based on his own experiences. I arrived hoping I would acquire the right information and confidence to pursue my own earth house project one day, and when I left, I felt I had obtained what I needed and could build on these useful and insightful experiences.

We worked through soil type selection, making of physical bricks, methods for mud brick formwork, suitable mud recipes for this region, production of bricks, how to correctly layout walls, doors and windows (making sure items are straight and plumb), how to place bricks for different functions, grouting bricks, general plastering and final plastering.  The course is hands on where we learn as we actually construct an earth house, which someone will eventually live in. Marco patiently mentors you through the process. It’s useful to make notes and sketches during the stay, so you don’t forget things.

We finished the five days with a brief overview of permaculture methods, as we walked around the surrounding farm with Marco. I look forward to visiting Mae Mut Garden again sometime in the future, and I wish them continued success.

Duncan, architect at Solarei

 

I would like to let you know that I really enjoy your workshop. With the reasonable and fair price I got such a great hands on experience and all the techniques in every detail I need to know about adobe house building.  And Marco is such a great teacher. He never get tired of explaining every single thing I asked and always willing to share his own experience. Thank you for your patience and being attentive to all students. Beside, I really enjoy local food freshly cooked by P’Nok and also lovely accommodation. Little Serena also make me smile everyday..I miss her soooo much..I can say that I get more than I expected from this course. I definitely would love to go back to Maemut Garden and enjoy a sustainable and peaceful life again in my next holiday.

Kim, director and star of Along Way Home

 


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Foolproof method for cutting glass bottles.

We are getting ready for the workshop, preparing all the materials that we want to use.

Glass bottles are often used as decoration in adobe building, in the right position they can also produce some neat light effects at certain times of the day. We also use them, even though we are nowhere near as creative and polished as more experienced builders. I also tend to prefer a more streamlined style and simple designs, which are not so time consuming, my focus here tends to be the garden much more.

Preparing the bottles for use as in the examples above is very simple. We score the bottles using a standard diamond tipped glass cutter, we fix the cutter to a work bench and make a cradle for the bottle, so that we always cut the same size. In this case  we are using two bottles to make the width of one standard brick, so we cut them 10cm.

We heat the glass using a candle at the point where we scored it, once the glass is hot, we dunk it into a pot of cold water for a few seconds, after which with a gentle tap the bottle will crack at the desired spot.

The bottles are then washed and dried thoroughly to make sure there will be no moisture once we tape them together. Only the ends need to be clean, the rest of the bottle is not visible, so no need to scrape off the left over bits of label.

That’s it, ready to go.

IMG_3667

 


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A mixed income model.

 

The first five years. I have written somewhere before about our original intention to find a quiet spot outside Chiang Mai where to spend a few months every year, learn the ways of the countryside and see what came after that. We never intended to take responsibility for such a large piece of land, it sort of happened over a couple of years and with little Serena joining us we are not going anywhere anytime soon….

Since we started we have done quite a bit, building a number of structures, planting a fruit orchard/food forest and experimenting with vegetable and rice growing, while at the same time understanding what we can and cannot do, hosting visitors and volunteers, running a few small workshops and getting the hang of community life.

 

 Where we are now. With the experience of the last few years behind us, we have established some basic guidelines about the way ahead, flexibility and diversity are key to the design of the garden and the various income streams. We want to maximise the diversity of our activities, in order not to be too heavily dependent on any one aspect, be it food production, tourism or educational and volunteering work.

The garden is beginning to produce a surplus, especially lime, mango, passion fruit, soursop, papaya, dragon fruit and more, some we sell, some we preserve, some we give away, in the future we will have to address this more professionally. The avocado, lychee and macadamia trees will also be producing in the next couple of years and, as the orchard gets more shaded, coffee will also become part of the design.

We envisage a small community of three or four permanent residents with their own activities on the site, as well as accommodation for independent travellers and volunteers&interns, we are deliberately not featuring on any volunteering websites and have only a small presence on airbnb, so that we can have also some quiet times.

Every year we run one natural building workshop during the summer and plan to offer a space for other educational activities, especially for schools in the area.

We are now ready to begin a regular vegetable production on a small scale, we are interested in beans for drying and tomatoes for sauce making, as well as asparagus and the more usual tropical vegetables, we have learned how to grow most of the food we eat, with perennials an important part of our diet, especially greens like katuk and chayote.

 

 

Our wishlist. Nothing happens without the right people around, so our future plans can be better described as a wishlist, we know what we want to do, but we only do it when the circumstances are right.

There are already a long term resident (and one on the way) and a regular seasonal resident and we hope to expand this aspect when the opportunity arises, we do not advertise this and prefer this kind of stuff to happen by word of mouth.

As far as animals go, this year we will build a egg laying-chickens and fish yard with a pond in the middle, with ducks and bantam chickens free to come and go, the nutrient rich fishpond water will be used for veggie growing.

Producing our own drinking water is also high on the list, further in the future we aspire to a large water storage masquerading as a natural swimming pool, we just found out one of our former volunteers has been studying this subject, so we have high hopes for this too.

 

 


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First steps on the path towards self reliance

A popular quote by Bill Mollison, one of the originators of the concept of Permaculture, talks about making the switch from consumption to production. This is of course viewed from a “developed world” point of view, in the developing world most people already produce more than they consume (although it’s gradually changing here as well), 70% of the world’s food is produced on farms smaller than 5 acres, often by women. Even in the West, the switch from production to consumption is a relatively recent event, at least for the majority of people.

To be clear, we are not preppers or survivalists, but we believe that we should leave behind a better place than we found and also that most food available in supermarkets and shops is not safe for consumption.

In tropical climates the switch (back) towards self reliance can be effected more easily, provided water is available the growing season can be almost 12 months long and the limiting factor tends to be too much heat rather than not enough sun. In January of last year we had our first meal made entirely of home grown veggies, it felt like a milestone then and I was very proud, nowadays it happens often, especially in the winter season. Another milestone we passed this winter is a financial one, for the first time since we started the income we are generating from selling produce from the farm plus that from guests, residents and interns is enough to pay all of our costs and make a small nominal profit, I will write more on this in a separate post.

rice field 2014

RICE. The first step we took was building our house using natural building techniques, in that same rainy season we planted rice, which we have continued to do every August, last year we used a smaller plot and we got more than enough for us and all the animals, approx 450kg. We are getting better at it, especially in terms of reducing the labour required, every year we make less mistakes. I made a rough calculation and I think we managed to produce a good quality organic Jasmine rice for less than what it would cost us to buy a standard rice from a wholesale merchant. So that’s a start.

PERENNIAL EDIBLE GREENS. These are just some of the perennial greens in the garden this morning, the morning glory in the photo is not strictly speaking perennial, but it’s very easy to grow in all weathers and there is a perennial variety that leaves in or near water. I could probably go out and take another ten photos of edible greens that we often eat, but this is enough for the point I am trying to make and most of the other plants don’t really have english names anyway. We also have a lot of cassava planted around the edge of the site, which we go and dig up anytime we feel like a potato type starchy thing.

ONION, GARLIC, PEANUT AND PUMPKIN are very easy vegetables to grow, they can be stored for a relatively long time and, especially with onions and peanuts, they are harvested in one go, dried briefly and put away for later use without need for further processing. During the last few months we have also been growing okra, eggplant, cucumber, tomato, sweet potato, carrot and various salads as well as the usual Thai veggies like winged bean, yard long bean, mustard greens, amaranth etc. These have a shorter growing season and we are learning to grow them together in mixed beds, interspersed with chilli, marigold, lemongrass and various Thai herbs that help to keep the insects away.

BEANS. We have started growing beans to dry and store, this winter we planted eight beds of red lima beans and cranberry beans, thank to seeds from the good people at ECHO Asia. The lima beans are definitely more suited to the climate and grew well, the cranberry less so, but they are really delicious and we intend to persevere and increase production. In total so far we have harvested around 20kg of dried beans and there is still a bit more to come, 500g of beans per week for the whole year should be a good starting point.

Everything is grown without using chemical fertilizers or pesticides, we make our own compost with cow manure purchased from local farms and biomass from our garden and from neighbours, various fertilizing microbial juices and teas, including liquid calcium and liquid phosphorus and our own natural pest repellent from herbs grown on the land. We are slowly closing the loop, we would be ideally set up for rearing half a dozen pigs and that would mean we would produce almost all the required manure, but we do not feel up to killing animals and have instead opted for a vegetarian lifestyle.