While my friend and I were staying at V.R. guesthouse, I tried to look for places we could couch surf so we could ideally stay with local people. Then I came across a profile from Mindful Farm, located 75 km from Chiang Mai in the mountains.
The farm is centered around a simple way of life, organic farming, mud-brick construction, vegetarian cooking, meditation and Buddhism. It is run by Pi Nan, a former monk of 20 years, and his partner Noriko. They have a beautiful two-year old daughter. Noriko told me they met when they were going on a meditation retreat together.
According to them, “Mindfulness is a word used in connection with Buddhism and meditation. It means to be in the present moment. It is being really aware of what we are doing while we are doing it. As a method for cultivating mindfulness – meditation is a vital part of the daily life at Mindful Farm.”
Pi Nan has come from several generations of farmers and was raised in a village just a 15-minute walk from the farm. He began the farm just two years ago so he always welcomes volunteers who want to learn and contribute to a long-term project.
For 200 baht a day (about $7 US), we could participate in meditation, work on the farm, provided three meals a day and a place to sleep. Because we had a deadline to be out of Thailand as a result of our visa, we could only stay for three days and wanted to give some time to do the Mae Hong Son loop by motorcycle.
At first I was a bit suspicious of this farm and didn’t want to commit for a very long time in case it wasn’t a good experience. But the days on this farm ended up being some of the most memorable days of my month in Thailand. I highly recommend people stay at least five days if you want to connect with and be inspired by incredible people.
The funny ride up
There is a yellow shuttle bus, which costs 100 baht per person, that leaves once a day at 11:15-ish (big emphasis on the ISH) in the morning to get from Warorot market in Chiang Mai to get to the farm. The website warned us that the ride would take 3-4 hours because the bus makes stops to pick up and drop off things at the villages along the way. Fair enough.
We met a lovely couple on the bus who, like me, quit their jobs so they could travel for a long time. It’s nice to meet people who have also taken a break from working to explore the world because we understand each other and don’t have to justify why we made that decision. They had just come back from India after being there for three months and they thought Bangkok of all places was quiet. They also got engaged in Nepal, which is amazing. Not everyone has to get engaged in France or Italy.
So after waiting 45 minutes, the bus finally left at 12:00 p.m. and we were on our way. The 75 km ride could theoretically be done in an hour and a half. But it was funny that the bus kept stopping every 5 to 15 minutes.
What was even funnier is when the driver asked us for our 100 baht for the trip about half way in, which was a bit unusual because most of the time you pay for services at the end around Thailand. After he took our cash, he walked away somewhere and then a local person told us, “His back is hurting so he is going for a massage.” We just hoped it wasn’t going to be an hour-long massage.
Half an hour later, we were on our way again driving along the windy mountain roads amongst the beautiful green landscape and fields. Then we passed a clearly foreign visitor and I said, “We must be close.” The driver told us we arrived and thankfully the visitor we passed was also staying at Mindful Farm so she showed us the way, otherwise it would have taken us a lot longer to find it.
I was amazed how big the farm was and how peaceful it was to be in the mountains.
We were waiting for Pi Nan in a small sheltered space, which we would later learn was going to be where my friend and I slept for the few nights we were there. There were about 30 people on the farm and all of the bungalows were taken. In the shelter I noticed a sign that said, “Walk Like a Buddha” and I thought, “I’m going to like this place.”
We were introduced to Pi Nan, the owner of the farm, and he signed us in. He exuded s a very gentle energy and always speaks at a moderate pace. After only a few minutes of our introduction, he asked us, “Do you want to do yoga?” This was kind of an unexpected first task after a four-hour bus ride, but why not?
We joined the end of the yoga session that was being taught by one of the volunteers. When the class finished, people were very nice and introduced themselves to us. After spending a week at Koh Chang Island and other popular traveler spots, we found the people, mostly tourists, on that island quite closed and unfriendly. They would look at you when you pass and not say anything. So it was nice to meet a group of Westerners who were open.
That night, we all helped cook dinner. Pi Nan asked me to pick some lettuce. As a city girl who did not grow up with garden hands, I hoped that I wouldn’t destroy or wreck other plans while I was doing this seemingly simple request.
It was really nice to work together to prepare the meal that would be eaten by the nightly fire. After eating out so much in Asia, I really miss cooking, especially cooking with people. Everything we ate was grown on the farm and always delicious!
Our first meal there we had sticky rice, egg and cabbage, lettuce, falafels. I couldn’t believe how tasty the lettuce was raw. Usually everyone eats in the meditation area but because there were so many people, six of us ate together by the fire.
During our first meal, we were introduced to Dr. Phat, Pi Nan’s cousin. For two days I thought he was a medical doctor. He is a 58-year-old man who is always laughing, singing and builds the fires. He and his wife has a son in the village close by but he spends most of his nights by the farm, doesn’t eat that much food and drinks rice whiskey on a daily basis.
I asked Pi Nan how he got the name Dr. Phat and he told us people in the village joke and assign people academic degrees based on how much they drink. As Pi Nan said, “Because he is hungover every day, we call him doctor.” Needless to say, he is not the person to go to for medical attention.
We were staying in the shelter next to his room and on the first night, in the middle of the night, I could hear him and his friend chatting and building a fire. I thought maybe it was dawn already but it was probably 3:00 a.m.
He’s a funny character.
An incredible mix of global explorers
Our first night was also the last night of a Swiss family who was traveling with their son and daughter, who are about 9 and 12 years old, for one year. The mother is homeschooling them while they travel. What better education could a child have than experiencing the world?
The family lived on the farm for three weeks and their daughter formed a close bond with Pi Nan’s two-year old daughter who must have been so sad to see her new Swiss friend leave the farm. She is such a zen baby; she is so quiet and clearly the daughter of a former monk.
Another traveler I met was a Vietnamese girl who lived in Norway and spoke four languages. She did a six-month internship in Chile and was traveling Asia for a long time as well.
Another volunteer wanted to learn about gardening and organic farming so she spent some time in Tacomepai in Pai, another farm in the Mae Hong Son province. Because the owner Sandot was away for two weeks, she came to Mindful Farm to continue learning about farming and plants.
Based on her recommendation, we would later go to Tacomepai for an unforgettable few days in the mountains. She drew us a map of how to get to the farm, which was very helpful for us while we were going around the 600 km Mae Hong Song loop the following week.
Of all the Western people I’ve met since I left Cambodia, this has been the most open and amazing group of travelers I met. I learned so much about their cultures and was inspired by their unique journeys.
When people started gathering around the fire, Pi Nan said anyone could join for the walking meditation, meaning people walk in silence around the farm and walk consciously, paying attention to our every movement.
As we were walking through the valley under the beautiful full moon, I felt for a few moments that I was living in a dream. In the morning we were in the city in Chiang Mai with traffic, food and a buzzing atmosphere. Then by the afternoon we walking in the middle of a mountain on a silent mediation on a beautiful night.
After the walk, Pi Nan found a spot for all of us to sit silently facing the moon for some time. I thought, “I can’t believe I was supposed to be at the Full Moon Party right now and now I’m looking at the full moon on an organic, vegetarian farm with a former monk and environmentally-conscious travelers.”
The friend I’m traveling with was very surprised that the young Swiss children sat quietly without complaining during the silent meditation, especially compared to the overly stimulated children in North America who can’t sit still. I wasn’t surprised because they’re not the first children I’ve seen raised by parents who practice meditation regularly. When kids are treated like mature beings in a calm environment that focuses on connection with people and nature, they can adapt to those environments.
Our daily schedule
- 6:30 – Watering plants/walking meditation/yoga
- 8:00 – Breakfast
- 9:00 – Morning volunteer work
- 12:00 – Lunch and Rest
- 15:30 – Afternoon volunteer work
- 18:00 – Dinner
- 19:30 – Meditation
In the morning, we always ate breakfast in silence facing the farm so we can focus on eating consciously. It was a great way to start the morning and has motivated me to have more silent and slow breakfasts in the morning. We did speak with each other during lunch and dinner, so it was a great balance throughout the day.
On the second day, Pi Nan needed help with some gardening. I’m ashamed how little I know about the basics of gardening and that I have no experience growing food. I couldn’t even tell which plants were weeds. He patiently said, “I will teach you.” So I spent most of the morning weeding and putting dry compost between the plants as he instructed me. Then it was already time for lunch then in the afternoon, people could either take a break or continue with their work.
Dr. Phat hosts guests for tea by the fire every night and I often end up having deep conversations with at least one person that really affects my outlook on life. The people here remind me so much of the Intention community in Vancouver, a group that also focuses on building community, meditation, healing, love, and spiritual music.
I talked to one girl who had a friend who committed suicide at the age of 21. She asked a very legitimate question and said, “Why not celebrate their life rather than focus on death? It’s like 95% of their existence doesn’t even matter. I told my friends and family if anything ever happens to me, have a party or say nice things about me.”
I told her about how different cultures around Asia celebrate life rather than the ceremony being a sad event.
She said she knew a couch surfing host who stopped celebrating Christmas because it was the anniversary of his mother’s death. But when he hosted someone who told him that it’s important to celebrate his mother’s life as well. Since then he has began celebrating Christmas again.
I love outdoor kitchens! Having an outdoor kitchen of my own is now one of my life goals. It’s been so wonderful cooking with people again and eating the freshest food you could have, especially after eating so much street food the past few months.
I felt so much healthier after eating on the farm and I wasn’t having an excess amount of sugar as I usually do in the city because I love milk teas. I need to re-adapt my body to get used to not having as much sugar and artificial foods like instant noodles.
Meditation is essentially about being mindful or conscious about everything you do and to keep your mind focused on the present moment. So often we easily dwell and drift in our past and the future.
So many people have their eyes glued to their phones, are consumed by so many responsibilities and pulled in many different directions. When I watch Pi Nan and his family live a simple life, there is a big appeal to it. It’s not boring as many people may imagine it to be. It is peaceful and fulfilling.
The core practice of meditation is focusing on our breath. There is much scientific evidence of the positive long-term impacts of deep and focused breath. Taking deep breaths regularly reduces anxiety, decreases blood pressure, and relaxes the muscles, among other benefits.
“When people rush with their coffee to get to meditation, this is not the right way to meditate.” Of course this is easier said than done. Instead of doing one focused hour a day or a week, it’s good for people to practice integrating conscious breathing and mindfulness in daily life.
Pi Nan read us an article called driving meditation. He talked about how in this changing world monks sometimes need to drive and adapt to changes in society. But they still integrate their meditation practice into daily life.
When people drive, they see the red light as an obstacle to their destination. But instead, people can see it as a remind to stop, take a breath and be in the present moment.
One-day silent meditation
One volunteer told me, “I learned this from other volunteers but everyone is supposed to do a full day of silent meditation in the forest on your first full day at the farm.”
I asked Pi Nan about this and I told him because we were only there for a short time, I could continue the work if he wanted and skip the meditation. He said, “You should do the meditation.” So he walked my friend and I to a part of the jungle and we each had our own spot. He said:
You can build your paradise here. You can clear the leaves and make it comfortable for yourself. Over here you can do a walking meditation and walk back and forth slowly. Empty your mind and be happy. Breathe in and out and just be aware of your body.
Some people try very hard to meditate and think they will be enlightened, but this wrong. Meditation is about being happy and at peace. Some people are very serious when they meditate but you can smile and just be happy.
You must be silent for the full day, but you can smile at each other and smile at other people. If you are feeling sick or if you have a thought, you are allowed to talk to me. When you hear the bell, you can get your food and return to your spot. You are not allowed to write or read because your mind will wander.
It is 7:30 a.m. now, you will end at 7:30 p.m.
So there I was, in my own little paradise just starting to breathe deeply and consciously. I keep trying to do 10 deep conscious breaths but I could barely get through two before my mind began drifting off into another world.
But when I’ve gone to festivals and events focused on mindfulness, music and healing, it usually takes me three days to clear my head and then really get into being in a present headspace. How is it different when you’re mindful?
For me when I’m very present, I feel like my intuition and awareness is sharp, time feels slower and I just do what my body or intuition guides me to do instead of mindlessly following a time schedule. I feel much more attentive when people are talking to me and they can feel a different energy from me as well.
I had one super zen month in 2011 and it was the most calm and present I’ve ever been in my life. I knew I would lose it after I got back into city life but at least I knew I could do it. It’s an ongoing challenge to find ways to integrate mindfulness in my daily life.
When I was allowed to talk again, one of the other guests said, “There you are!” And gave me a big hug with a smile. Another friend was asking where I was earlier in the day not knowing it was my day to be in the forest. It was nice of her to be thinking about me and we continued chatting by the fire later in the night. She was so kind to say in French, “If you are ever in France, you can visit me.” I find the people I’ve met the past year who do these kinds of invites are very genuine.
I shared my experience with Pi Nan and told him someone was dominating my thoughts in a negative way. When this happens I asked him if the best way is to just focus on breathing. He said, “Keep going back to your breath. When we have thoughts of the past, it brings emotions of sadness and happiness. But when you keep breathing, you will be present and take away the power of your thoughts.”
Our last day
I was sad to have stayed at Mindful Farm for such a short time and I know for next time I would stay at a farm for at least two weeks. There was one woman, Ida, who only spoke Spanish but she was so nice to give me a hand-made bookmark in the shape of a heart before she left. With a group of open people like this, language is never a barrier. You can show kindness and connection through our actions and touch.
One of our new friends wrote me a nice note and shared her favourite quotes in my notebook. Part of her message said, “Despite the fact that we’ve known each other for two days I see you as a good friend. It seems like we’ve known each other in another life . . . I wish you all the best life can offer: happiness, love and more luuuuuv.”
We savoured every minute of our last fire with people, including the kind co-host Dr. Phat.
Our days at Mindful Farm was one of my favourite times in our month in Thailand and I would go back and stay longer the next chance I get.