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First impressions of Thailand, and the New Life Foundation

I meant to write every week or so at the beginning of this trip. Turns out we have been so busy that we haven’t quite had the time to settle down long enough to write anything more than a couple of Facebook posts. Well, we decided we wanted to stay in one place for a while so we could relax, calm down and maybe do a little bit of writing as well. So here is my (lengthy) story of the (intense) first two weeks into the Asia part of our RTW trip.

Arriving in Thailand

Our transition from London to Chiang Mai was arduous. My knees hurt like hell on the 11-hour Qantas flight from London to Bangkok, which hasn’t happened to me before. I hope it was only a temporary problem and not a reoccurring one. I made the mistake of wearing jeans, though, which is never a good idea on a long flight. Jeans restrict movement and generally put some pressure on the groin area while sitting, which also inhibits blood circulation. Fortunately I now have some long fisherman-style pants that I can wear for those long flights.

When we arrived in Bangkok, we were supposed to have a nice 2 hours before our next flight to Chiang Mai left. Too bad the flight was 2,5 hours late. So 23 hours after departing our friend Ash’s apartment in London we finally arrived at our hostel in Chiang Mai. We were pretty exhausted since we had caught only about 4 hours of (restless airplane) sleep in the last 37 hours. Fortunately, we found the hostel quickly, check-in was painless and the accommodations were ample, if expensive for the region. But we thought it was worth the money to get a comfortable room in a safe location with A/C so we could have at least one good night’s sleep after the trip. I think we’ll keep that same strategy for any new location we visit.

Chiang Mai, round 1

Two tired travelers

Two tired travelers. Our day lasted 37 hours out of which we traveled for 23. Yaaaaaawn. (You can click to enlarge these pictures.)

At first we only stayed in Chiang Mai for 3 nights. Our friend Seppo from the Friendship Inn noticed we were in Chiang Mai and invited us over to where he was staying – the New Life Foundation near Chiang Rai. He said it was only about 4 hours away and he was leaving in a week. We decided we wanted to see the place he was talking about and left a couple days later.

As I am writing this, we are in Chiang Mai again and have decided to stay here at least a week, probably a whole month. We are starting to like this place after cycling around the city a little bit, getting to know good restaurants and, most most importantly, finding fellow climbers who are also staying here for a longer time. It’s time to make some friends. :)

I’ll write more about Chiang Mai in a later post, but for now I’ll just say that in general this place is quite attractive. It’s in the mountains and even though the altitude of the city itself is a mere 300 meters, being inland and in the midst of mountains makes the nights cool  (15-18C / 60-65F) and the days hot (28-36C / 82-97F). It’s wonderful to have that variation because being too hot or too cold (doesn’t apply to Thailand though) constantly is a pain. Now I can wear long pants and my down jacket in the mornings, shorts and a t-shirt during the day, and long pants again at night. Not sweating all day is bliss.

The people here are friendly, as everywhere in Thailand I’ve understood. Not pushy like the Indian folks I’ve met, which is great. Prices are low, at least when you spend a bit of time looking for the right places. Last night we ate a splendid supper for three people (with beers) for 9 euros total. We ate for about an hour. Can’t complain!

The only thing I could complain about is the traffic. The streets are narrow in the old town and the streets are full of cars, scooters, tuk-tuks and songthaews. It makes for quite a lot of noise and air pollution. However, on our cycling trip this morning we found a bunch of guesthouses in the northeastern part of the old town, which were far removed from the main streets and much more peaceful. Also cheaper! I’ll include a bunch of tips for Chiang Mai visitors in a later post. :)

The New Life Foundation, Thailand

Waiting for the bus to Chiang Rai

Waiting for the bus to Chiang Rai... two-hour wait for a 4-hour bus trip. :D

As I mentioned, our friend Seppo invited us to come to his temporary home, the New Life Foundation. I have to say I had no idea what I was in for, and neither did Tiu.

The trip from Chiang Mai to the Foundation is, however, worth describing before I get into the Foundation in more detail. We left Chiang Mai on Sunday on the weekend of the Chiang Mai flower festival. And it just so happened that a few others were leaving Chiang Mai by bus as well. Oblivious to this, we checked out and took a tuk-tuk to the bus station. We asked for a first-class ticket (meaning air-conditioning and toilet on the bus) to Chiang Rai as soon as possible. Well, no first-class tickets were available and the first second-class bus (no toilet or A/C) would leave after two and a half hours. Grrreat. The second-class bus also takes 30 minutes longer to get to Chiang Rai, 3.5 hours total.

So we waited, and got on the bus just as the sun started to set. Panic soon started to creep up our spines as we realized it was getting dark and we had no idea where we were going. Neither of us had been in Chiang Rai, and the Foundation was another half-hour from the bus station there (and there are two bus stations in Chiang Rai!). We had directions… in English. And we had no idea whether Chiang Rai taxi drivers spoke English or could read Latin letters. On top of that feeling of dread, the bus was uncomfortable with no A/C, cramped seats benches and no seatbelts. Fortunately the guy next to us spoke some English and explained that the bus would first stop at the new bus station and then the old one. And finally our friend Pekka (also staying at the Foundation) told us he would wait for us with the taxi driver at the station. Phew!

Gates of the New Life Foundation

Gates of the New Life Foundation. Thanks to

So we take the taxi to the Foundation with Pekka. We arrive at the Foundation at night, apprehensive after our nerve-wrecking bus trip. Tiu was pretty sure she would want to leave the next day… But then Seppo stepped in. He had heated up the steam sauna just for us, at 10pm no less. He bathed with us and told us about the Foundation in a soothing manner. We immediately felt better and decided we’d just stay there a day or two as guests and then move on.

We would, however, not be left off the hook so easily. We slept in on Monday and woke up to lunch. We tried to sneak out to take a look around the compound when Seppo pulled us into the Marketing team meeting. ”So these guys are wizards with the web and could probably help you out.” Great, no backing out now! We listened to their situation and their needs and said we’d think about it and see what we can do. ”After all, we’re only staying a few days so there’s not much we can do…” Seppo pleaded with us – he had a hunch that they were just working blind and didn’t really know for sure whether their effort was going to waste.

The Work

Rules for a mindful breakfast

Rules for a mindful breakfast. Works for me. Thanks to Morgan Siem for the photo.

The next day we woke up to breakfast at 7am and had our first breakfast in silence. This is a custom and a rule at the Foundation – everyone eats their breakfast without speaking and concentrates on enjoying the meal fully. It’s not difficult to do as they serve a delicious breakfast of porridge, yoghurt and fresh fruit (western style) and a thai style breakfast for those that prefer it. We attended the morning meeting at 8am and listened to the program of the day. After the meeting we gathered with the Marketing team again to discuss present goals. We spoke with Jonathan, who was documenting what they were trying to achieve, at some length to find out what they were doing. There was a lot of talk about databases and SEO so we were intrigued.

Schedule for the day

Schedule for the day. Every day is planned to some extent at the Foundation. Daily routines give residents a sense of order and working a sense of purpose. I really liked the way they do this. Thanks to Morgan Siem for the photo.

When we checked in (which we hadn’t done upon arrival) after the meeting, we had to decide how long we were staying. We said we’d stay until Monday so for one full week. We thought we might help the Marketing team a bit but we’d stay as guests, not volunteers, so there would be no pressure. Well… after that miniscule commitment things changed quickly. Tiu discussed SEO stuff with Jonathan and soon arrived at a conclusion: she would re-code the website based on WordPress, combining the blog with the other content. She would thereby also give the Foundation staff direct access to the website so they could update content themselves without a third party intermediary.

I asked them about their database needs and started building a mindmap with different concepts and related topics. I was soon doing what I do best – gathering bits of information on which to make an educated decision. I love the feeling of asking different questions, posing hypotheses, rearranging thoughts and ultimately arriving at a document or diagram that encapsulates everything we’ve talked about, in a manner that makes sense to everyone involved. I love bringing people to the same level, making sure everyone understand what we are doing and why.

It turned out that we got ourselves in a bit deeper than what we could accomplish in a week. :) At first we postponed leaving until Tuesday, then again until Thursday. Still, we were super-busy for a week and a half because we wanted to produce something concrete for the team to act on. Something immediately valuable and yet documented so that someone else with similar technical skills might carry on where we left off.

All’s well that ends well – there were a few moments where we thought all our effort would go to waste, but lo and behold, the website is now renewed and the Foundation wiki is up and running, if still a bit lacking in content. But the infrastructure (and inspiration!) is now there, the seed planted for future agricultural discussion and building projects. :)

The community

I grew to like the Foundation a lot in a week and a half. We both did. There was a wonderful air of mindfulness, learning, sharing and participation all around the premises. It showed in the daily activities as well as in people’s general demeanor toward one another.

In order to paint you a picture of what life at the Foundation is like, let me tell you what a typical day looks like.

Beautiful sunrise in the horizon

The day starts with the sunrise. Thanks to Morgan Siem for the photo.

Time Activity
05.30 Wake-up
06.00 Yoga
07.00 Silent breakfast
08.00 Morning meeting
09-11 Farm and household work
11.30 Thai class / Relaxation exercise
12.00 Lunch
14-16 Afternoon workshops / volunteer work
16.00 Meditation
17.00 Yoga / Basketball
17.30 Steam bath
19.00 Dinner
20.00 Movie night

That’s a very full day and not every day involves all types of activity. But that’s just to give you an idea of what goes into each day. Weekends also look quite different from this schedule: Saturdays are mostly free with just the morning routines and eating hours at their usual times. On Sundays excursions are organized to some place for a small fee. Joining is voluntary and the destination is usually suggested and voted upon by residents and volunteers. I actually joined one excursion, but I’ll save that story for another post.

Yoga at dawn, by candlelight

Yoga at dawn, by candlelight. A truly memorable experience. Thanks to Morgan Siem for the photo.

Mindfulness is part of every activity. There are activities specifically dedicated to mindfulness, such as yoga and meditation, but mindfulness is supposed to permeate every moment of every day at the Foundation. The purpose of mindfulness is to give us control over ourselves and peace in our minds. Mindfulness allows us to enjoy the moment fully and by filling the day with moments, we gradually learn to enjoy life more fully. Life is suddenly not about escape anymore, it’s about opportunity. Every moment is an opportunity to learn, to grow, to love, to indulge or to just be. Every moment doesn’t have to be pleasant either, it just is. We learn not to judge through mindfulness – instead we simply observe, detaching ourselves from the emotion. The emotion is not I and I am not the emotion. I can let anger, resentment, irritation or boredom be there and not let it define me. I think that anyone who spent a longer period of time (a few weeks or months) could not resist becoming more mindful, even by accident. The atmosphere is that strong. It goes a long way in helping addicts recover, cheering up the depressed, and inspiring the rest.

The surroundings

Morning farm work

Morning farm work. Well, most people are working. ;) Thanks to Morgan Siem for the photo.

In addition to the activities and the atmosphere, the surroundings are inspiring as well. The Foundation has 60 acres of land on which a sustainable farm is run. They have rice fields, a pineapple plantation, a passion fruit trellis, their own vegetable and fruit garden and much more. They also have pigs and chickens, used for eggs and fertilizer, among other things. Everything is organic and sustainably cultivated. The views in every direction are beautiful, with forest/jungle or mountain ranges in the distance and a nicely tended garden in the immediate vicinity. Sunrises and sunsets are beautiful, and there is nearly no traffic nearby so all you hear are sounds of nature. It is blissful.

Foundation vistas

Foundation vistas. Thanks to Morgan Siem for the photo.

In addition to that, the facilities are plentiful. The main buildings – the dining hall, office, living quarters and meditation hall – are located at the top of a hill with beautiful views of the entire compound. There is also a swimming pool, and at the bottom of the hill there is an art gallery + steam bath + laundry area.

The food served is healthy and tasty. (Well, at least most of the time. Not all tastes appeal to my Finnish palate!) I already described breakfast, and lunch and dinner are usually typical Thai foods, based on rice or noodles. Vegetarian and non-vegetarian is always served.

Foundation staff are preparing a delicious meal for us

Foundation staff are preparing a delicious meal for us. Thanks to Morgan Siem for the photo.

A Foundie preparing food with a smile

Cooking is a happy occasion! Thanks to Morgan Siem for the photo.

The main hall / dining hall

The main hall / dining hall. Thanks to Morgan Siem for the photo.

Main hall / dining hall at night

Main hall / dining hall at night. Thanks to Morgan Siem for the photo.

A pond next to the Foundation office

A pond next to the Foundation office. Thanks to Morgan Siem for the photo.

Fields near the Foundation

Fields near the Foundation. Thanks to Morgan Siem for the photo.

They grow their own bananas! Yummy.

They grow their own bananas! Yummy. Thanks to Morgan Siem for the photo.

What I learned from working and living at the Foundation

As I mentioned, we ended up spending a week and a half at the Foundation. If our friend Juhani hadn’t arrived in Chiang Mai to meet us on the 15th, we would have stayed even longer. Alas, it was not to be, but we are immensely grateful to have spent even this short period there.

A few days is not quite long enough to make true friends, but we made good progress in a week and a half. Had we stayed three weeks, I believe we would already have made several long-term friendships. The Foundation has an environment where you get to know people intimately in a relatively short span of time. It’s a real boon for people like me, who have a hard time finding and making new friends (real friends mind you, not simple Facebook-level acquaintances but the ones you can truly share your life with). So spending a while at the Foundation did teach me (or rather confirm my tentative suspicion) that I can make friends, given the time and the place. So now I only need to 1) find more places and 2) make time. Noted!

I also learned, having worked with Tiu in a larger role, that we make a great team. (We have, however, made this observation in numerous areas before so that was no surprise. Nice confirmation though!) My communication, knowledge management and technical skills were a perfect complement to Tiu’s design vision and web prowess. We both read the client well and have a desire to find out what exactly the client needs before telling them what the best course of action would be moving forward. We enjoy doing things Right for the long-term while providing value in the short term as well. We also had a great experience working with Jonathan, and I have a feeling that collaboration with Tiago (who arrived a few days before we left) would have been interesting as well. Unfortunately we didn’t have the time to get into his projects in depth.

I took with me some mental notes about yoga and mindfulness that I want to carry with me for the next year at least. I noticed that it is in fact possible for me to wake up at 5.30 and start yoga at 6. Earlier I would have scoffed at the idea. I loved having a silent breakfast and I think I will strive for that everywhere I go. This means choosing more remote hostels instead of central ones next to busy streets and choosing silent reflection over discussion during breakfast. I don’t think either choice will be an issue.

Rice fields

Rice fields. Thanks to Morgan Siem for the photo.

I was also intrigued by sustainable agriculture and, had I had more time, would have tried out all of the farming activities at the Foundation. I’ve never been much of a DIY guy but participating in this would have been a good step in that direction. I’ll keep this in mind as well, traveling in Australia and South America. Hopefully more such projects will come our way. I believe Erin and Nadine from Canada even mentioned working with Earthship projects, which I have been extremely interested in since a couple of years ago when I first heard of them.

Pineapple plantation

Pineapple plantation. Never knew what that looked like before! Thanks to Morgan Siem for the photo.

Some cute pigs

Some cute pigs! Too bad the focus didn't quite work out, but I don't have a better picture at hand! Thanks anyway to Morgan Siem for the photo. :)

So in conclusion, the past two weeks have been fully packed with awesomeness and I am forever grateful that fate threw us that way. I’ll close with a quote from Forrest Gump:
”Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”

Sunset

The day ends shortly after sunset - a highly natural rhythm for the day. I love it. Thanks to

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7 kommenttia
  1. Kirjoitettu 22 helmi 2012 klo 00:28 | Ikilinkki

    I was delighted at the idea of a typical day containing exercise both for the body and the mind. I assume it’s more of an everyday routine over there compared to how it’s more of a random hobby over here. Maybe we could benefit from meditation or relaxation exercises in addition to just lunch and coffee breaks – but hey at least we do get the silent breakfast part quite naturally. :D

  2. Kirjoitettu 22 helmi 2012 klo 01:14 | Ikilinkki

    Also, I’ve been hearing lately about this mindfulness exercise from a couple of other friends too, and while I think most aspects of it are indeed desirable for people to have, I’m not entirely convinced it’s ”designed” with people like us in mind. Similarly to buddhism, it seems to imply that you’re somehow suffering from your emotions, not in peace with yourself, incontent or unfulfilled or whatever, until you pick up these practices. That strikes a strong discord with me. Also this idea of detaching yourself from your emotions and merely observing rather than experiencing yourself with them sounds a lot like escape, even denial, and maybe just the slightest bit creepy to me.

    I said ”people like us”, because these ideologies typically originate from cultures where life was quite hard, and there was very real suffering to detach yourself from. People like us, however, are generally quite content with our existence, have all the basic needs fulfilled, can set out to do pretty much what we want with our lives (an example of travelling the world somehow comes to mind), and as far as I know you two, don’t share the starting point that being you is miserable until you do something about it. So, is detachment really the thing for us, or could we perhaps spiritually develop ourselves in a more benefical way?

    Well, I don’t know, I’m probably just reading wrong into this whole mindfulness thing, so don’t take me too seriously. And besides you’re already out of the hippy confirmation camp. ;)

    Have a great adventure!

  3. Kika
    Kirjoitettu 22 helmi 2012 klo 11:42 | Ikilinkki

    Hmm… I think Jonas used a wrong word in that sentence that happened to validate your skepticism :)

    I don’t think meditation or mindfulness practice is a process of detaching from our emotions but more a process of becoming aware of our emotions and then just observing without labeling them good or bad (or whatever).

    It seems that sometimes when an emotion is really intense it is easy to forget that they don’t have to define us and the world, that they don’t last forever and that they don’t have to control every action we do. Ie. if something ”feels bad/good” it must ”be bad/good” and I have to ”make these actions towards it”. I think one part of the mindfulness/awareness practice is to help us to create a space between the emotion and action. That doesn’t sound like detachment to me, but rather like creating a choice.

    I do find your separation between ”people like us” and ”people like them” strange tho’, since I believe the experience of ”suffering” is universal and based on our subjective interpretation of things happening around us.

    I have been equally happy/miserable by staying at home and by traveling around the world. My ”suffering” was not because I didn’t have my basic needs met – it was because of something that happened externally that roused me to have myriad of internal thought processes that I wasn’t skillful(/aware) enough to handle mindfully. And because of my lack of skill I usually chose an action that further extended my ”suffering”.

    (And contrary to what you said about us two: Our starting point is not being inherently miserable -since we don’t believe in inherent misery-, but of course we, like anybody else, have our own painful ”sufferings”, and are doing our best ”something” to find balance with them).

    So you can be a ”rich” westerner, traveling around the country or a ”poor” shoe salesman on the streets of Bangkok: both of them have equal chance of ”suffering” and ”not suffering” since they both have equal tools to evoke it or stop it. (I think it is very ”western” of us think that happiness, balance and ”non-suffering” is only achievable by our standards.)

    This leads to something nice tho’:
    Interpretation of these external things and coping skills can be modified, awareness of them extended and shaped and there’s tons of tools for that now days.

    Like you (seem to be), I am always skeptical of anything that says something as extreme as ”the only way you can be X is to be/to/say/practice/believe Y”. But skepticism makes me curious and curiosity leads to learning and learning leads to many more tools in your toolbox. Meditation is just one more tool in my toolbox that helps me to create choices between my emotions and actions, to cultivate happiness by practicing mindfulness towards myself and others and to extend my understanding of how I work and where is my balance by observing my thoughts and emotions without labeling them.

    To each his own.

  4. Shame on You
    Kirjoitettu 27 syys 2012 klo 13:11 | Ikilinkki

    ”Not pushy like the Indian folks I’ve met, which is great.”

    Not disappointing like the Finnish bloggers I’ve read, who include bigoted and unnecessary insults in their rambling blog posts. Oh, did I just generalize about a vast group of people based on a limited experience with a few? Wonder where I saw that. But wait! I’m ending this comment with an emoticon, so it doesn’t matter that I was a jerk…that was your logic, too, right? :)

    • Kirjoitettu 28 syys 2012 klo 03:18 | Ikilinkki

      Well I’m not sure why you even are reading our blog in the first place, nor why you took offense from my post. I do want to point out that I wrote ”the Indian folks I’ve met”, which limits my experience to a few dozen people. I don’t presume to suggest that all Indian people are like the few I have met in my lifetime.

      I’d really like to do away with the shadow this experience cast over India as soon as possible so I could explore the brighter sides of the country and culture. So many people absolutely love India – have even had their lives changed by it. I’m sure India has a lot of great things in store for me too… But my first visit was not a good one.

      Hopefully my next visit will be better. Hopefully someone who has a good understanding of both Indian and Western cultures can give me a soft landing and help me understand the people and the culture from the inside. Maybe then I won’t feel like such a tourist.

      • St.C.
        Kirjoitettu 3 loka 2012 klo 19:04 | Ikilinkki

        How long were you in India? What I hear from people (having not been there myself) is that it takes a little while (about 2 weeks for some people, it seems) to actually start enjoying and appreciating the place. Until then you are just in shock!

      • Kirjoitettu 4 loka 2012 klo 03:05 | Ikilinkki

        That is probably true. I only spent 8 days. And I was in Goa, just seeing the touristy places. Certainly not representative of all of India!

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