Getting Your Hands Dirty: Studying Permaculture in Panya, Thailand
Mixing mud for adobe bricks at the Panya Project in Thailand. Photos by Kathleen Boadhurst.
By Kathleen Broadhurst
Permaculture (n.) A philosophy and approach to land use which weaves together microclimate, annual and perennial plants, animals, soil, water management and human needs into intrinsically connected, productive and sustainable human communities.
Situated in idyllic Northern Thailand, about and hour and half north of Chiang Mai, the Panya Project is an up and coming eco-village that makes the perfect destination for those who are looking to get back to nature and learn about permaculture while traveling.
I ventured up north to get my hands dirty and experience the Panya Project for myself. I enrolled for the Introduction to Permaculture course that promised to teach me how to make a ferro-cement water tank and an adobe composting toilet. The list of things to bring included a sunhat, flashlight and chocolate and the directions were vague but I somehow managed to find my way.
Specializing in permaculture design and biodynamic gardening Panya regularly hosts volunteers and students from around the world for short term and long term volunteering as well as for their various courses on permaculture and sustainable living.
Taught by Matt Prosser and Ben Murry, both permaculturalists from the UK, the introduction class was a crash course in what it takes to establish the essential elements of any permaculture farm or homestead.
Contour gardens help to minimize water waste and are pleasing to the eye.
Following the rule of ‘water first’ we dealt with both the input (water tank) and output (compost toilet). These two features are essential for any off-the-grid endeavor.
Our days were divided between buildings sessions and class time. In the building session we all got hands on experience (maybe more than we would have expected), in making both structures from the ground up.
We dug foundations, poured cement, mixed concrete, used out hands and feet to muck together straw, mud and clay to form adobe bricks and used wattle and cob to build, strengthen and decorate.
In between building sessions we had classroom time on the basics of permaculture design, from the Twelve Principles like remembering to integrate not segregate, watch and observe and obtain a yield, to the Five Zones.
Each zone corresponds to a different activity or building and is used for designing small holdings for optimum time management.
After long days in the sun or rain and occasionally both simultaneously, we spent our evenings watching documentaries, playing music and having skill share sessions where we taught one another how to do things like, ‘bake’ raw ‘cake’, make wine or soap.
Setting in the platform on the compost toilet
Of course there was always the option to pop into the village for a beer or head to one of the reservoirs for a cools dip, most welcome after a hot day. For extra cleansing Panya’s superb sauna could be heated up and enjoyed.
Over the last three decades the permaculture movement started by Bill Mollison has been growing. It is now an international phenomena and permaculture farms are enticing travelers to come and stay, through course offerings and work exchanges.
Online organizations like WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) and HelpX offer the chance for farmers and travelers to swap labor for accommodations and food and operate internationally.
Rice paddies and the Thai mountains
Many people wonder what permaculture is and why it is permaculture travel is becoming so popular among young travelers. In the words of Matt Prosser one of the facilitators at Panya, permaculture is “applied common sense”.
“This is stuff we all know,” he said, “ we’ve just forgotten it over the last 50 years. This course is meant to pull it out of you. It’s not a course that will teach you how to do permaculture but how to think about permaculture.”
Spending time on a permaculture farm, either as your entire trip or as an addition to a larger adventure is a great way to get to see more rural areas, work with the land and understand a foreign environment.
For many it’s also a way to learn and exchange ideas. Visiting a farm for a week or more also gives a nice break from city-based travel.
There are so many varieties of butterflies in Thailand you probably won't see the same one twice.
“I want to learn a new option for life,” said Xin a student from China. “ It’s good to know how to do it so that when you have to you can.”
As well as having a diverse garden and food forest, full to the brim with mangoes, papayas and pineapples, and many domestic cats and dogs Panya also plays host to startling array of butterfly species.
In the sixteen days that I was there I don’t think I saw the same butterfly twice. Yellow, blue, black, spotted, stripped, pink, they flitted around like fairies, eluding my camera.
As well as producing vegetables Panya also has bees for hone, chickens and ducks. These fowl play and important role in weeding Panya’s gardens.
Smoothing the wattle and cob walls
As they roam they eat the insect pests and weeds that would harm the crops while leaving the food plants alone. They also eat diner scraps, processing our leftovers with extreme efficiency. Their poo is incorporated into the farms’ compost making a closed system, exactly what permaculture strives for.
Delightful as these creatures are there are many other things that lurk in the jungle. Mosquitoes and biting ants make it hard to forget where you are, especially around dusk.
Constant vigilance is necessary to make sure ants don’t run off with your personal belongings, they will literally hijack anything that they deem edible and can carry.
Seed Saving Festival
The effect that Panya, and especially neighboring eco-village Pun Pun is having on the local village is noticeable. Earthen built buildings, made of adobe and wattle an daub are springing up and there are several local homestays that incorporate earthen built buildings into their homes.
Organic gardening is also catching on and during the first week of October there is a village Seed Saving Festival, where organic farms distribute seeds to new gardeners and swap seeds with one other.
Similar in feel to a New England Harvest festival the whole village gathered for cooking competitions and to show off their own organic gardens.
One of the rooms in the cottage
We hitched a ride on some tractors and joined the crowds going form homestead to homestead, investigating the methods used for compost, the companion plants planted and the general condition of the gardens. There are ten families in all who were organic and with help from festivals like this the numbers are growing every year.
“We are doing this because we know the oil will run out one day. So we are going back and remembering how to grow things in are garden” the mayor said. “ We are very proud to have this organic festival.”
After the gardens were seen everyone returned to the village common for food an drink. Flower teas, in shockingly natural red and violet were doled out to thirsty visitors while finishing touches were put onto food arrangements.
Each table was a cornucopia of produce, fresh fruit and vegetables. Children scampered around eating grilled bananas as the smells of frying vegetables and Thai curries wafted through the air.
The harvest is on display at the Seed Saving Festival
If You Go
Panya Project accepts volunteers year round for short-term (min. 2 weeks) and long-term stays(min. 6 months). They do not accept short-term volunteers during courses. As with any volunteer situation it is necessary to arrange things with Panya before you arrive.
The Panya Project also offers several courses throughout the year including:
*Permaculture Design Certificate Course: which will give you all the theory of permaculture and certify you.
The Sala makes a wonderful place to read, eat talk or nap in hammock.
*The Introduction to Permaculture Course: A blend of hands on design and building and classroom time. While it says “ introduction” this course is best suited to those who already have knowledge of permaculture principles and are read to work.
*Permaculture in Practice Internship: Entirely hands on the two week internship gives the student a taste of all aspects of permaculture, form working in the gardens and food forest to natural building.
*Therapeutic Clown Camp: The workshop will delve into specific aspects of imaginative play, improvisation and basic performanceterritories to bring students into the realm of therapeutic clowning.
Accommodations are basic and mostly in one of the two mixed gender bamboo dorms although there are a few private rooms available on request for an additional fee.
The Panya Pizza Party, will all the toppings
There is a compost toilet and solar heated showers. Bedding is provided
There is internet and Wi-Fi in the Sala ( main building)
All meals are included. They are vegetarian and many are vegan. All food is organic as possible with as much being taken from Panya’s farms as the season will allow. Fruit is plentiful and delicious.
There are many piles of work clothes available if you don’t want to get your own dirty. Laundry is done by you by hand unless you want to take a 30-min bike ride to drop it off. Natural and biodegradable soap is preferred for laundry and showers.
Mosquito and insect repellent is essential. Panya Project is not in a malarial zone however the ‘mozzies’ are fierce especially in the evening.
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