Somewhere in my research I stumbled upon a sustainable organic farm that offered accommodation and occasional courses in relevant subjects. To complete our Pai experience Erik and I signed up for the weekly Bamboo Material Course towards the end of our stay.
We were picked up in the center of Pai very early in the morning by the instructor, Sondat and immediately upon arriving at his homestead I wished that we had more time to stay in Pai, more specifically at the Tacomapai Retreat.
Some of my favorite signs on the property announced: vegan solar oven-cooked cookies, homemade wine, fresh Kombucha, bamboo baskets to take to the market instead of plastic bags and various sustainability-center course sign-up sheets. The roaming chickens, cats and dogs really completed the atmosphere along with a large pig named Crispy, “for bacon!” Sondat explained. When we arrived several of the guests were sitting around the fire enjoying a communal breakfast of fruit, yogurt, and muesli served in bamboo shoot bowls, how perfect.
We started the morning off by loading some people onto motorbikes and then somehow getting 10 people to ride on a very small 4×4 pickup truck. I somehow landed a seat inside, while Erik was less fortunate to have to hang on and cheat death with five others in the truck bed. We drove for about 30 minutes on a very, very rudimentary dirt road and Erik was quite sore by our arrival at a small shelter in the middle of beautiful jungle hills just being touched by the heat of the day.
The group of us, 12 students and 4 teachers headed off into the jungle carrying some food for lunch, some miscellaneous equipment and plenty of machetes. Along the way Sondat pointed out several herbs for eating or healing and slowly filled his satchel with the former.
Along the walk Erik and I chatted with our fellow students, while Sondat and his staff searched for a water source for lunch. Quite an international group, there were people from France, Spain, China, England, Australia and Germany. After about a mile they were satisfied and we made our way up to a small clearing on a hill surrounded by bamboo.
Minutes later bamboo could be heard falling all around us as the staff set to work harvesting the trees that would provide everything we needed for the day. After first explaining about the machete, Sondat showed us how to make a spoon out of bamboo.
Apparently the machete is curved on one side and flat on the other, making it the most effective when used to cut at a 45 degree angle, which is much harder than it looks.
After watching him, we were each given a machete and set to work impossibly trying to mimic his craft.
Erik even had time to make two before he called us back together to show us something slightly more challenging, a plate, or eating trough as Erik called it.
The entire time we were working, Sondat’s staff was busy preparing lunch with fascinating techniques using mostly bamboo. Bamboo fibers were first tied together to create a basic net that was placed into large bamboo trunks open on one side. Then rice was poured in and the trunks were placed directly in the fire to cook.
When the sticky rice was cooked it was pulled out using the bamboo nets and came out in delicious looking tubes that were flopped onto large bamboo leaves that had been placed on the ground.
We all quickly filled our troughs with sticky rice as well as a sort of stew containing some of the herbs that Sondat had collected as well as pork and vegetables from the organic farm.
After a brief respite to digest we set to work on making bamboo cups to enjoy the rice milk that was left over in the cooking tubes. We were quickly learning that not only skill but a very sharp machete aids one greatly in such feats, as I had to ask for some help to get the edge of my cup smooth.
While we worked on our cups, Sondat’s crew worked diligently to create piles of bamboo fibers that we would next weave into baskets.
Erik and I worked together to create one basket which was more complicated than I would have thought. The actual weaving of the sides was fairly simple but the base, corners and top of the basket was relatively difficult and we enlisted the help of one of the experts.
But I think it turned out great in the end.
We were also given some time to experiment with things we could think of to make with bamboo; the possibilities are really endless. One of the students created a sort of marimba instrument using different sizes of bamboo and different size holes cut into them as well as a didgeridoo! Apparently, Tacomapai was planning to put together some sort of musical show to perform for a local Hmong village later that week so there was some emphasis on musical instruments. Sondat also made a really cool large basket that could be carried on the back like a backpack as well as a multi-tube flute.
Another of the teachers quickly whipped up the likeness of a bird made from the left over fibers.Towards late afternoon we threw the left over rice on the fire to make crunchy rice cakes and packed everything up for the walk back to the shelter.
Several pairs of us also carried back large rolled bamboo mats that several students had constructed for the farm. We somehow got all of the mats precariously tied to the truck and jumped in for the ride back.
Along the way we stopped at “New Land” which is Tacomapai’s permaculture project. Sondat showed us the bicycle powered shower, garden and solar oven before we made the trip back to the farm. Erik and I were very, very temped to move things around so that we could be around for the bi-annual, two week permaculture course starting in a few weeks, but with our visas set to expire and our train tickets back to Bangkok already bought it was not to be.