Ajarn Yak

We were up early to film an interview with Ajarn Yak, who had to leave ahead of us for a meeting in Sa Kaew Province. Ajarn Yak originally worked for the office of the King of Thailand. His work was focused on the King’s thinking for the development of a Sufficiency Economy in Thailand. Frustrated by farmers who didn’t believe the ideas that he presented to them based on this thinking, Ajarn Yak resigned his job to develop a working model. He chose a piece of land owned by his sister-in-law’s family near Chonburi, an area that is heavily industrialized and where water is very short. He began with soil that was as hard as rock from years of misuse. From this beginning he created the Agri-Nature Foundation and a learning centre that has now evolved to a network of organisations and learning centres around Thailand.  These centres have collectively hosted about 300,000 people from all walks of life.

The foundation of the Sufficiency Economy is established by working with the land to ensure:

  • Food to eat
  • Materials for simple housing (e.g. bamboo and timber trees)
  • Plants for household uses such as natural medicines, cleaning and toiletry products
  • Enhancement and protection of the local ecology

From this foundation the “Our Loss is Our Gain” philosophy is implemented. Any surplus above and beyond the basic needs above is gifted to those in need (as offerings to monks, teachers and others), and preserved for future use.  If there is still a surplus it is sold.  Meeting basic needs and gifting to others are put ahead of economic gain.

The Agri-nature Foundation, Maab Ueng, Chonburi
The Agri-nature Foundation, Maab Ueng, Chonburi

Ajarn Yak is deeply dedicated to transforming Thailand, and addressing the effects of very heavy chemical use, erosion of genetic diversity, rapid deforestation, pollution of water, and other related issues that have arisen with rapid development over the last 50 years. This work is very mindful of global changes such as climate change, in terms of creating resilient local systems that have lower carbon emissions and can buffer against the effects of changing climate conditions.  It implicitly involves people working together for a greater good rather than individual greed.

The day was hectic, on the move following Ajarn Yak’s trail and eventually catching up with him near Sa Kaew, in an area of degraded land with a thunderstorm overhead.

To the Agri-Nature Foundation

After a day and a half of resting and catching up we were on the road again, this time to Chonburi and then on to Sa Kaew Province in the east. Our good friend, and extraordinary organiser, Kris had arranged for me to be interviewed by Channel 3 from Thai TV. We had barely arrived at the home of the Agri-Nature Foundation in Chonburi when I was straight into being interviewed, and then filmed with our host Wiwat Salyakumtorn (known as Ajarn Yak (which means ‘Giant Teacher’)). Then another interview by a documentary crew. No time to do our own filming! Our accommodation for the night was in an open air Thai-style hut. Lots of tree frogs, crickets and other creatures to sing us to sleep and wake us up in the morning!!

Gavin, about to be interviewed by Channel 3 from Thai TV
Gavin, about to be interviewed by Channel 3 from Thai TV
Ajarn Yak (Giant Teacher), a man on a mission to develop the self-sufficient economy approach in Thailand and more widely in the world
Ajarn Yak (Giant Teacher), a man on a mission to develop the self-sufficient economy approach in Thailand and more widely in the world

Reflections from the banks of the Mekong

There are many things I’ve been reflecting on over the last week, in between our visits to different places and the intensity of filming, often on the fly. We’ve met so many good people and often would have liked to have stopped longer in some places. The contrasts are great, from the rapid developments that are evident everywhere to the wisdom of people who are living close to nature.  For me the contrast was amplified when we arrived at Chiang Saen in the Golden Triangle.

I stayed there 24 years ago when I was back-packing through Asia. It is unrecognisable now. There was nothing there that bore any relation to my memories of a quiet, peaceful town on the banks of the Mekong river. Change has come very rapidly to Thailand, some good, some not so good. The people we are meeting are providing living examples of a more balanced approach to development. We can’t forget nature. People are acting to plant or protect forest. They are experiencing higher temperatures and less reliable rainfall. Water is everything. Forest cover is essential to help regulate water flows, particularly with so much pressure on water resources.

There are voices that we need to stop and listen to for a while. The voices of people who are working in their local environments, who see what is happening locally and more widely, who have clear vision about what we need to be doing for the future.

Pra Parinya

We spent the morning with Pra Parinya at Wat Pacumcon. Pra Parinya was formerly an agricultural extension officer, based in Bangkok. He became a monk 19 years ago. At the invitation of local villagers he moved to Saraburi Province 16 years ago. He bought waste land from the villagers, previously used to grow corn but no longer fertile. Since this time he has planted thousands of trees, using local species, to create a small forest and local microclimate. Pra Parinya is dedicated to a high spiritual life, but also sees the need to help the local villagers. He is leading by example, planting forest to provide cooler local temperatures (within the forest canopy) and to help protect water. He is concerned that there won’t be enough water in the future. His focus is conscious change, demonstrating by example what can be done locally.

Pra Parinya
Pra Parinya

After this visit we returned to Bangkok, for a well earned rest at Phranakorn-Nornlen Hotel.

Community forests, Mekong catchment

Our last day by the Mekong river. We drove from Tamila Guest House to visit two community forestry projects. Both projects are along the Mae Ing river, a tributary of the Mekong, and are initiatives of local villagers. The first visit, hosted by Mr Somkid Chantima and others from the village committee, was completely on the fly. We were almost running to keep up with them to get footage as they walked and talked about their forest.

Filming on the fly in a community forest by the Mae Ing river
Filming on the fly in a community forest by the Mae Ing river

The next visit was at a more manageable pace. This was further up the Mae Ing river to Ngam Muang village. We were hosted by Uncle Tanom Outtama, president of the people’s network for the Mae Ing river and Mr Somkiat Khuenchiangsa, coordinator of the Mekong-Lanna Natural Resource and Culture Conservation network. They began their river protection work 10 years ago and now have 15 villages who are members of the river protection network. There is less water now, they said, so they have to protect the environment more. They have had great success in this regard.

Gavin preparing to film an informal interview with Mr Somkiat Khuenchiangsa, coordinator of the Mekong-Lanna Natural Resource and Culture Conservation network
Gavin preparing to film an informal interview with Mr Somkiat Khuenchiangsa, coordinator of the Mekong-Lanna Natural Resource and Culture Conservation network

From Ngam Muang village we drove back to Chiang Rai for an early dinner and then to catch a flight back to Bangkok. We arrived in Bangkok just after 8pm. Our principal host in Thailand, Khun Tuenjai, met us there and we drove north to a small monastery, Wat Pacumcon.

On the Mekong

We must give a very big thankyou to Mr Watchara Lewpongsawat and his wife, owners of Tam-Mi-La Guest House and Bungalow at Chiang Khong, who sponsored our stay by the Mekong with accommodation. We are very grateful for your warmth and hospitality.

Mr Watchara Lewpongsawat, who sponsored our stay by the Mekong, with Gavin
Mr Watchara Lewpongsawat, who sponsored our stay by the Mekong, with Gavin

Our day began on the Mekong river. We passed some of the rocks that local people have fought to protect from being blasted by the Chinese government to create a river channel for larger boats. Then we came to a very beautiful place, to meet with Uncle Sao Rawangsee, a wise man (aged 77) of the river. We began to interview Uncle Sao when suddenly he noticed that he had caught a fish on one of his lines. That was the end of the interview. Lena and I grabbed the camera and microphone and rushed down to the river, into his little fishing boat and out to where the fish was. Uncle Sao is widely respected as a wise man of the river and many people come to stay with him. He said that last year he saw the biggest flood ever. He doesn’t believe that we can make things cooler because too many factories are being built along the river. He is not afraid of anything. Whenever he goes onto the river he says a blessing of thanks to the Mekong. He says that people who don’t do this are cursed by a river spirit (known as the Nakha, which is half fish and half snake) and lose their spirit.

Uncle Sao, wise man of the Mekong river
Uncle Sao, wise man of the Mekong river

Our time with Uncle Sao was too short, but long enough to hear and film some of his words of wisdom. From there we traveled to Huay Sa village, where a Lahu community lives. We spent time there listening to their music and singing, as they were celebrating the last day of their New Year celebration.

Lena’s 18th birthday

Lena’s 18th birthday today and we were all up to watch the sunrise and then a very nice birthday breakfast. We packed up our gear and filmed an interview with two village leaders, Sala Aja Ayesang, a farmer and Bhu Mee Ayesang, farmer and leader of the women’s group at Pakha Sukjai. They both talked about how they had come there from Myanmar 30 years ago and all there was, was the grass and the sound of wind in the grass. Since then they have planted forest all around the village. Climate change is not something easily translated from English to Thai and then to the Akha language. However, these people carry wisdom about their local environment and the interplay between forest cover and water. They requested that everyone in the world plant at least one tree for every day of their life. They also talked about the problem of on-going conflict in Myanmar, and the necessity to manage the entire watershed of the area, beyond political boundaries. Water is everything, but it is not enough just to plant trees in northern Thailand, because the water that lies under the ground crosses country boundaries. They also talked about the importance of holding to traditional knowledge.

Bhu Mee Ayesang, farmer and leader of women’s group and Juthamas, Manager of HADF
Bhu Mee Ayesang, farmer and leader of women’s group and Juthamas, Manager of HADF

This was the end of our short stay with the mountain people of the north of Thailand. We traveled back down to the lowland area to meet with Mr Plaek Techaboon. He was a teacher at an agricultural college, but resigned three years ago to work on his family land. Mr Techaboon is now dedicated to education about sustainable living, through creation of a living model for local sustainability. Our time here was too short, after arriving late and then needing to depart for Chiang Khong, by the Mekong river.

Gavin with Mr Plaek Techaboon … 'we are the world'
Gavin with Mr Plaek Techaboon … 'we are the world'

We ended the day celebrating Lena’s birthday with the Chiang Khong Conservation Group. It was a great evening, with our hosts bringing out their instruments and playing some Thai folk songs.

The Chiang Khong Conservation Group providing music for Lena’s 18th birthday
The Chiang Khong Conservation Group providing music for Lena’s 18th birthday