Sunday, January 12, 2020 – Day 9
I dragged myself out of bed at 4:30am and changed into the yellow t-shirt for runners participating in the 3K race of the MUKA Bike Run for Fund 2019. As I stepped out into the moonlight, I wondered how things had come to this. Let’s rewind a bit.
On our first day in Kanchanaburi, MUKA staff invited us to join the first MUKA Bike Run for Fund. The athletic and adventurous Dr. Matthews readily agreed. The rest of us also decided to participate, at varying stages of reluctance.
As you may have guessed, I do not exercise. The extent of my normal physically activity is roaming around playing Pokémon Go and running late to class. I was planning on walking the shortest race, the 3-kilometer, until I found out that everyone else in the group was going to run at least part of the way. So I was positively peer-pressured into actually running in the run. I was afraid to find out how out of shape I was. I thought I could maybe run for a full 30 seconds.
Fast-forward to this morning. With motivational Thai and American (think Eye of the Tiger) music blaring from loudspeakers and a drone buzzing around capturing the event from the air, we all gathered at the starting line. In line with the “fluid”, as the professor says, Thai sense of time, we started the race earlier than planned and set off down the road around 6:15am. It was dark, but the path was illuminated by long, vertical rods of light.
I ran for 2 kilometers before giving up and doing an intermittent walk-run-walk-run to the finish. I think that’s fair, considering my sedentary lifestyle. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, and since it was still cool in the morning (the sun still wasn’t up yet when I finished), I wasn’t dripping with sweat or dehydrated.
Now you might be thinking: 3K is nothing. And that’s true; one person in our group, Ryan, went for the 10K and made it back alive. For Dr. Matthews and a couple others, 3 kilometers is practically a warmup. But for the rest of us who struggled to finish, it was an accomplishment that we’re proud to have achieved.
This wasn’t part of the study abroad program. We were supposed to return to Salaya and have the rest of the day off. However, this race may have been one of the things I enjoyed the most so far.
A lot of the time you really are more capable than you believe. The first step is always the hardest, but once you cross the starting line, all you have to do is run.
Monday, January 13, 2020 – Day 10
We departed from Salaya this morning and embarked on our 6-hour journey to the mountains of Phetchabun, where we would learn about how lettuce is grown and packaged there. We stopped a couple times for bathroom (and 7-Eleven) breaks and once for lunch.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Phetchabun is run by Uncle Tom (not sure if it is a reference to the novel). The cabins are fairly spacious and clean. The area is very rural and quiet. As an added bonus, it actually gets a little chilly at night.
We had ordered dinner earlier in the day with the help of the Mahidol University graduate student, Fan, who had been sent with us. The menu options were oddly diverse, offering Italian, Chinese, Korean, and Thai food. We received the food in plastic containers, so the dishes were probably prepared in a kitchen elsewhere and brought up to the cabin for us. Curious.
There was also this lovely cat, which seemed to want to partake in our East-meets-West dinner of pad thai and spaghetti.
After dinner, we walked a ways down the mountain toward civilization. Along the path, we encountered quite a few dogs that barked warily at us, in sharp contrast in the friendlier city dogs back in Salaya. We stopped by a convenience store literally in someone’s house. We took our shoes off at the door. There was a mattress in the corner of the room, and a man was peeling hardboiled eggs at a table in the back while a small child was running around. Their range of goods was decently wide.
Tuesday, January 14, 2020 – Day 11
Early this morning, we took a trip high up in the mountains to visit a vegetable processing facility. It was tiny. The vegetables are all washed with water (except the pumpkins, which will get moldy). No antimicrobials are added to the water, a point of food safety concern. I wonder if that’s related to their products being organic.
One of the workers demonstrated for us how cabbage and lettuce were processed. The outer leaves were all stripped away with a knife, leaving the heart, a mere 40% of the vegetable, to be bagged and shipped off to perhaps Bangkok. So 60% of a cabbage is returned to the soil as fertilizer or used in livestock feed. It sounds kind of ridiculous, but we do the same thing in the US because people don’t want to see insect damage on their vegetables.
We went even higher up on the mountain to visit an organic farm growing different varieties of lettuce and radishes. The rows of lettuce were planted based on orders received from customers, so it was a colorful mix of purple and green on the field, which sloped downward on a fairly steep hill. According to one of the farmers, the lettuce only needed to be watered once or twice a week. Because it was an organic farm, they used chicken manure instead of chemical fertilizers and sprayed the crops with nematodes for pest control. I thought that was cool.
They say good fences make good neighbors. The farm was surrounded by banana trees to protect their fields from their chemical-spraying conventional-farming neighbors. They had also planted strong-smelling flowers around the fields to keep insects away. It seems that there aren’t problems with deer or flocks of birds landing on the fields (Salmonella) up there. How fortunate.
Their practices are sustainable, but I wonder if they thermally process the chicken manure to kill pathogens. And I wonder if planting things around the fields would be allowed in the US, since regulations require clearing brush to avoid animals from coming in and contaminating the fields.
In the afternoon, we visited a unique Buddhist temple, Wat Pha Sorn Kaew. On one side of the little street was a large statue of five white Buddhas sitting in front of each other, reminiscent of Russian nesting dolls. Below them was a small temple with a white and pink reclining Buddha.
On the other side of the street was a much larger temple. The ground and walls were all inlaid with mosaic tiles and what looked like broken bits of plates and bowls. Also, whole plates and bowls. It was quite impressive. The Internet says the temple began construction in 2004, and they’re still working on some parts of it.
Wednesday, January 15, 2020 – Day 12
Today we learned how to be farmers.
At Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Uncle Tom and his staff taught us how to grow vegetables. With our hands, we mixed growth media to germinate seeds. The mixture contained sifted coconut husks for moisture retention and ash to raise the pH of the media. Once thoroughly mixed and moistened with water, it was packed into plastic trays. We planted bok choy seeds (from a can, interestingly enough).
Then, they showed us how to plant seedlings. We first had to till the soil in plots marked off by lengths of bamboo. After hacking away at the ground with a hoe, we made holes for the plants with a sharpened bamboo pole and put the Chinese cabbage and broccoli seedlings inside. They had us put chili pepper plants around the edges for diversity.
After watering the plants, we moved on to being construction workers. Uncle Tom’s brother-in-law taught us how to build a clay hut like the ones we are staying in. To test of soil is appropriate for making bricks, you can mix a sample with water and let it separate by density. The clay layer should be about 30%. To make the brick mixture, the soil is saturated with water and mixed with rice husks through stomping. So we stepped around in the big tub for a while.
The slurry was packed into rectangular molds to make the bricks. Once dry, the bricks are stacked up and held together with the same material. Another option for bricks is “eco-bricks”, designed somewhere in Europe, which incorporate water bottles tightly packed with plastic bags into the bricks. According to Uncle Tom’s brother-in-law, the oldest clay house is in Mexico and has been standing for over a thousand years.
In the afternoon, we went to go see the windmills nearby and stopped at a local farm to pick strawberries. There were a lot of strawberry farms in the mountains since strawberries grow in cooler climates. Our last stop for the day was a café called 180° with an outdoor seating area that overlooked the mountains.
Thursday, January 16, 2020 – Day 13
Yesterday was our last full day of scheduled activities. We arrived back in Salaya in the afternoon and said our final goodbyes to Wat, the driver who had been with us since we landed in Bangkok. That really made it feel like the end.
As a side note, apparently Wat owns 27 vans. And we all thought he was just a driver for the company.
Friday, January 17, 2020 – Day 14
We’ll finally be returning home tomorrow (rather, the flight is Sunday morning at 1:15am).
It was a long two weeks. We traveled around northern Thailand, visiting farms, food processing facilities, and important Thai cultural sites. And for better or for worse, we also learned more about each other.
At the beginning of this trip, I said I disliked traveling. I still do. I’m tired, have some kind of sinus infection, and really need to do laundry. But sometimes you just have to step outside of your comfort zone. Going up into the mountains of Phetchabun to see the farms with my own eyes and touring processing plants of major Thai companies like Thai Union and River Kwai are things I never would have been able to do on my own. It’s one thing to learn about food and sustainability, but seeing how it applies in a developing country like Thailand is a whole different story.
As much as I would have loved to spend my winter break at home, there’s really nothing to regret. Although I do miss the cold winter weather, my cabbage in its plastic bucket, and my spot in the living room next to the space heater.