Thai Food Revolution
On our Backroads Thailand Biking adventure you’ll bike through sun-dappled rice paddies and in the shade of mango groves. The streets will be filled with the aromas of pad thai and green curry, and Thai iced teas will soothe you at the end of a hot day.
As we ride and explore this country, you’ll begin to feel the cultural significance of the food and the agriculture. If you’ve traveled to other parts of Southeast Asia, you already know that Thailand is the breadbasket of this region. Much of the area’s produce is shipped from Thailand, which is also the planet’s largest exporter of rice.
Much like the US, this country has dramatically changed the way it grows food with the introduction of modern agricultural practices. And in northern Thailand, there’s a huge movement to go back to small, organic and sustainable farming.
There’s a local farmer leading the Thai food revolution–Jon Jandai. If you’re an avid TED Talk listener, you may already know him (watch his TED talk here). Those around here call him Pi Jo, as “Pi” means teacher or elder.
I met Pi Jo while on a four-month cycling trip in Southeast Asia. Taking a break from the road, my travel companion and I stopped north of Chiang Mai and took a course at a local farm education center inspired by Pi Jo and his neighboring farm.
Pi Jo is a simple, humble man with a perfect Thai smile. He grew up in a small farming village in the northeastern part of the country and, over the course of his life, has watched the landscape change as Thailand has become more modern. During the nineties, he visited the US on a bicycle tour and caught a glimpse of our own sustainability movement. He has many stories from that bicycle trip, but the most poignant thing he had to tell me was that something clicked on that trip, something in him changed. His thoughts turned homeward with each pedal stroke as he began to imagine what this sustainability movement would look like in his own country.
In 2003, he cofounded Pun Pun Farm in the small village of Ban Mae Jo, only 30 miles north of Chiang Mai. The farm acts as an educational center to teach local and international folks how to save seeds, preserve indigenous crops, grow their own food and build their own houses. He calls them self-reliance courses.
Since the 1960s, he says, the country has tried to modernize and has become very busy. The people have left their small villages and rice paddies in the pursuit of success in the cities. Huge cash-crop farms have overtaken the small subsistence farmers and subsequently the people have lost local indigenous crops and rural culture. Pun Pun Farm and many Thai people in the Chiang Mai province work extremely hard to preserve local food and a simple Thai lifestyle.
The Pun Pun movement asks Thais to remember an older more relaxed culture, one that revolved around the rice season and valued family ties, and to not surrender their own culture in the pursuit of someone else’s–to slow down and to find happiness in an older way of life.
And the trend has caught on.
If you wish to experience a slice of this Thai eco-movement while on your Backroads trip, look for small farms as you bike in the countryside. And when you’re in Chiang Mai City, visit one of Pun Pun Farm’s restaurants. These Thai-run, healthy spots source all of their ingredients from local organic farmers and villagers across the region.
One of our favorites is open only for lunch: Pun Pun Restaurant at Wat Suan Dok Temple. Here you can sit under a sacred banyan tree and enjoy some of the best Panang curry I have ever had (among every other delicious item on the menu). You might sit with a monk who’ll want to practice his English, but you can most definitely count on a peaceful and delicious meal. The restaurant sits in the middle of the temple grounds, just outside of the old city through the western gate. You won’t find it in any guidebook, but the short trek outside of the touristy part of town is entirely worth the experience.
If you want something for dinner, the vegetarian restaurant Imm Aim Vegetarian & Bike Café is fabulous, with avocado-passion fruit smoothies that will rock your socks and fresh salads that are hard to find in this part of the world. This restaurant is also a Pun Pun Farm-inspired establishment and lies a little off the beaten track in the neighborhood of Santitham. The staff is friendly and the café gives you a glimpse of what the Thai sustainability movement looks like.
Before we pick you up in Chiang Mai for your Backroads trip, stop and enjoy the incredible Thai food scene. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, pay Pi Jo a visit at the farm before or after your trip! I promise you’ll never feel more welcome and the food will be amazing!