Remembering how to live on this planet – Panya Project, Chiang Mai, Thailand

I’m swinging on a hammock in a hostel in Barichara, Colombia. I’m the only guest in this hostel tonight and it’s dark and gloomy outside with a heavy thunderstorm. The sky is roaring and thunderbolts are striking every minute. Wait.. was that gunshots I hear outside…? FML.

That’s the kind of setting I’m in right now, but this post is not about Pablo Escobar, or the guerrillas, nor about gunshots in Colombia. It is about the story I had way back in November 2014 in Chaing Mai Thailand. It was one of the stories that I was meaning to share earlier but just couldn’t find the time to write, because the rollercoaster ride of my journey is not stopping and I barely have the luxury of swinging on a hammock to write, until now (though I’m not in the most comfortable situation..)

Panya Project, was one of the organisation that I volunteered in right after the New Life Foundation, north of Chiang Mai, Thailand. I discovered this place online during my preparation phase, which was also the time when the word ‘permaculture’ tickled my mojos, it still does. For those of you that do not know what permaculture is, please read on, you will probably be as inspired as I was on this brilliant concept of LIFE.

There are plenty of definitions online, but here are the words from the founder:

Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single product system.
– Bill Mollison
(the founder of permaculture, or the guy that made it mainstream as far as I know)

The way I put it is – a system, to create a healthy ecosystem for plants, animals, and humans to co-exist in harmony, by ‘remembering’ the wisdoms of ancient / traditional agriculture techniques that have proven to work for centuries but forgotten due to the industrial revolution, blend that with the knowledge and technology of today to create the most efficient, ecological, economical, and self-sustainable environment to foster a Cultivated Ecosystem of LIFE, that encompasses not only food, water and agriculture, but also animals, buildings, structures, electricity, energy, etc, that is good for maintaining a healthy Earth, as well as a healthy lifestyle for humans, and the healthy relationship of each other and everything else around.

So this is the kind of place that I was volunteering at, a place that I went to study and learn the basics of permaculture by doing hands-on work, deep in the jungle of North Thailand.

Getting there was an adventure itself, hopping on to the back of a delivery truck (an oversized sontow) for 2 hours, and getting dropped off at the outskirts of this remote village in god knows where in Thailand. The walk to Panya Project was beautiful with amazing views of the village and the hills that surround it. It was made even better when I saw a ‘Double Rainbow’ for the first time in my life.

Double Rainbow!

I knew I was in the right place when I saw a big earth-building structure beyond the woods. Then a person came out from the bush, a person that looked almost identical to Bob Marley. He even sounded like him with his Rastafarian accent, He, together with his pregnant wife (British?) greeted me with a smile and showed me around the area. They are the founders of Panya, whom I’m guessing have been living here in naturale for many years, just like their amazing dreadlocks. 

Panya main house
Bob Marley..?
The community was built up by volunteers and students of permaculture, mostly South Americans and Europeans and one Chinese, whom all looked like hippies. Many even had tribal face paints, which I later found out that it was because that day was apparently a day of the ‘festival’ which I attended soon after arriving.
campfire party

This festival took place on top of a hill 5 minutes up from home. There were pieces of logs and wooden sticks, and some metal objects surrounding the bonfire. Then suddenly, as if it had been rehearsed, the people started making noises, howling like the red indians and started banging on things like Stomp. We drank beer and ‘cocktails’ throughout the night, banging away as loud as we can into the deep abyss of the jungle.

The after party back in the house was more incredible, where everybody just danced, or played hula hoops, or kept banging stuff.

It felt like one of those jungle rave parties. It was super fun, and I was drunk, very happy drunk, and the next day I woke up, not with a hangover, but a couple of hundred facebook posts on my wall from friends that wished me happy birthday…. Oh…shit..

For the first time in my life I forgot my own birthday, and it wasn’t just a birthday, it was my big 30th. After travelling for several weeks without internet notifications, you start losing the sense of time, especially dates, and for some reason, I felt really good about it. I didn’t believe it was even possible to forget your own birthday, but I did.

Anyway, that was the first day at Panya Project, it’s got nothing to do with permaculture except the fact that it was very naturale and down to earth.

Just like at the new life foundation, we were all assigned work for a few hours each day. There were many projects that were still in progress at the time, but the main project was to complete the earth house that was being constructed for Bob Marley and his wife, and their new baby who was expected to pop any time now. A house that was being made with our bare hands, just with mud bricks, straws and some stones.

What was fascinating to learn was that a fully functional house can be made with just the things lying around, depending on where you live, you’d have different resources and different landscapes and elements to consider in the design. Most often than not, if built correctly and maintained properly, these houses could last centuries, if not forever. They’re much warmer and insulated than cement, and significantly cheaper and readily available on earth. The best thing is, it’s natural, therefore harmless to the environment and soul.

Sculpting window
Laying mud bricks


A couple of days later I received the official tour of Panya, and it was mind blowing. The amount of thought that got into the design, the science and functions that every element played was almost overwhelming. It’s not just the lazy farm life that I once imagined, it’s way more sophisticated than that.
Map of Panya


For example, here is the toilet, which is a ‘compost’ toilet. DSC02755

DSC02787It’s elevated high above the ground because the poo must go through what’s called an aerobic process, turned over and layered with Carbon (brown stuff, straws, rice husks etc to absorb moisture and mitigate odor) and Nitrogen (green stuff like grass, leaf, vegetable scraps for protein). With the right mix of C:N ratio, the compost attracts microbial activity and the decomposition process occurs, breaking down the pile to create rich ‘organic’ nutrient filled fertilizers which are then used for gardens and farms. All this science is happening behind the stage of what looked like a mere poo hole at first glance.

instructions for the toilet

Right now, most of us are living in a broken loop of:
Chemical Fertilizers – Grow food – Eat – Discard – Pollute.

With the compost toilet, we can make it a closed loop of:
Humanure Compost – Grow Food – Eat – Excrete – Compost (Repeat)

And best of all, it’s free. But what’s more amazing about this design, and how the true essence of permaculture comes into play is when I discovered that at Panya, they take advantage of the wet climate of Thailand, and utilise the science of compost to produce a hot water shower system.

They capture rainwater in a huge bucket, the water flows through a filtration of Gravel, Sand, and Charcoal, then stored. This filtration system provides the community access to drinking water without chemicals (it really tastes good and it’s free).

But also, one of the water pipes extends all the way INTO the compost pile in a shape of a coil, and because the microbial activity of the compost heats up the pile to close to 60°C, the waterpipe is also heated, thereby allowing us all to enjoy hot showers everyday!  INGENIUS!

Warm shower in the jungle
Rainwater filtration





Biogas is another example of how smart and scientifically resourceful Panya is. All the left over food and greens that we chuck, and the juices and oils that are drained into the sink, are COLLECTED, filtered into this tank, which are then added with fungal sheets (or something like that) to induce what’s called an anaerobic digestion, that produces Methane gas which is highly flammable, which are then used for cooking. It works, and it’s unbelievable!

There were many more mind blowing designs implemented at Panya that I will not even attempt to explain, because I simply don’t understand, but also it will take too much time. But almost everything that you see at Panya is designed in detail, hidden away from the naked eyes but meticulously planned out. The water irrigation system allows water to flow throughout the premise in such efficiency it maximises usage while minimising wastage, the specific plants are grown at specific spots at specific times to kill away bad things and promote only the good things, the timing of seeding and planting and harvesting is so thought out that there’s food all year round etc. It was by far the most educational and interesting ‘tour’ that I’ve ever witnessed, and I’m so impressed and sold on the idea that we can all benefit from implementing the principles of permaculture into our daily lives.

example of their water irrigation system
Panya Project Organic Produce

However this does not mean you have to throw away your jobs and wander off into the jungles and try to build a community that is self sustainable. Besides, it’s not easy, it’ll take months to learn and you’ll have to take courses in places like Panya. However, the learning that I got from this experience, is that we can all start somewhere.

For example, let’s say you were chopping up some spring onions to add onto your soba. You’d chop it to the root, and then discard it into the bin, right? How many of you knew that by placing the root into a cup with a bit of water, will be enough to grow the spring onion again within days?

A baby step like this, is so easy, and was such common sense back in the days, but who does it now? It’s so much easier to go to the supermarkets and get everything you need. But that’s not the point. What’s important is not the act of producing your own vegetables and being self sufficient for food, instead it is the application of permaculture into our everyday thinking. How can we minimize wastage, so not to pollute the environment that we depend on so heavily for our own existence? How can we best make use of this person’s ability to produce the best outcome, without affecting his egos? How can we be more diverse and broaden our perspectives to see multiple facets of an issue, in order to achieve the best possible outcome?

Permaculture is, again, a design concept, it is something that involves you to really look closely and observe the surrounding, and make full use of the functions that nature brings to us instead of looking at things like ‘a single product system’. I’m convinced that this mindset can be applied to our daily modern lives, into our behaviours, relationships with people and the surrounding, and attitude towards life in general. Just like technology, it’s what you make of it, and it’s how you adapt to the functions of it to make it either beneficial to you, or simply a burden.

Overall the experience at Panya had made me feel a lot more connected to Earth. It really is our home and the source of our existence. We have to respect it with care, just like our own bodies, because it’s what gives us Life.

Yet, I know I can’t live off the grid in the jungle forever (and I wouldn’t want to either), however, I am now a lot more appreciative of our planet and have more respect towards the intelligence of mother nature that holds us all together. I will never litter anymore, nor throw away the roots of onions for example. I will try to give back as much as I can, back to earth, back to people, and play my part to incorporate the core tenets of permaculture as I continue on in my journey – 1) Care for the Earth, 2) Care for the People, and 3) Return of Surplus to reinvest our energy into this permanent cycle of life.

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