Willow and Buti’s Hippie Commune

AirBnB can be a little misleading (though not always in a bad way)

One of the aspects I love most about travelling is meeting people who are doing unusual and exciting things with their lives. It’s incredibly fascinating hearing about how they got to that point – although I think to a great extent my curiosity stems from the fact that I want to do unusual and exciting things with my life too, so I suppose it’s a little bit like research.

Which is why I’d been drawn by this AirBnB listing. Let me pick out some choice quotes for you:

  • “We are an international community on an Akha traditional permacultural family farm
  • The secluded nature of this cabin lends atmosphere to a meditative tranquil setting. It is a perfect place to sit back with a good book, write letters and be creative.
  • Massage in your cabin is also available on request.
  • As remote as we are, markets and hot springs are close by. A Lahu hilltribe village is 150 meters from our farm. Temples are nearby too.
  • House Rules: Respect the land…Happiness is a requirement!”

It sounded perfect. I particularly liked the idea of getting away from the typical backpacker route, and being able to spend time with people who were living locally. And I wasn’t averse to a massage in my cabin either. I booked it.


Consecutive trips are the worst kind of torture

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My big mistake with all of this was planning to go all the way to the Homestay from Bangkok. This meant an overnight bus to Chiang Mai, a tuk tuk to Warorot Markets, a songthaew to Doi Sakhet, then a motorbike taxi to the farm.

And, to complicate things, I was meant to meet my friend Anton at Warorot Markets, from where we’d head to the farm together. This was a bit of a disaster for a few reasons:

1. The buses don’t give you arrival times, or journey times. You only know what time you set off. We assumed that my journey would take as long as Anton’s had, and he was to meet me at that time. Instead it took about two hours longer.

2. I’d accidentally left data on all night on my phone, so that in the morning the battery had died and I was out of credit.

3. Warorot Markets are huuuuge, with numerous entrances and a maze-like interior. Telling someone you’ll meet them there and not arranging an exact meeting point is like telling someone you’ll meet them at the World Cup without arranging a meeting place. You’re odds of finding them are very low.

I was saved, after walking around for an hour hopelessly, by some stallholders whose boss was running late with their merchandise, who let me plug my phone into their socket until she arrived. Newly charged phone, newly purchased credit, newly found Anton.


A commune by any other name

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I don’t know much about permaculture – in fact, I’d even go so far as to say that I’m fairly ignorant in that quarter – but I do vaguely know what a farm is like, and farm was a very misleading term for this homestay. If it was going to be called anything, commune seemed a much more accurate description (and in fact that’s what they changed the name to recently).

It was a decent sized piece of land, and in the middle was the main house, with an open wood fire kitchen and two dining tables that everyone would gather around. Surrounding it were the salas and huts, all handmade out of bamboo, and a huge fire pit.

There were chickens happily bobbing about in a fenced off area, a veggie patch, lots of herbs, two hot tubs that had just been constructed but not yet cleaned or connected to water and heat, and a few hammocks strung between the trees. In front of the house was a pond, where you could fish and swim, and in the grassy area in between you could usually find the dogs bounding around joyously.

There was a bong on the table, but that wasn’t what made it a commune so much as the ideals underpinning it. Willow and Buti, the owners, welcomed anyone there. Puk and Bader, two of the other inhabitants, were old friends of theirs, while all the rest of us were more temporary.

A lot of the others had found the homestay on HelpX and Workaway, and for them the deal was that you came, worked, and got free accommodation and meals. For the non-volunteers, who’d heard of it from their friends, they paid 200THB/night, and would also contribute to the work.

And then there was us, the AirBnB people, who paid $32/night, and were the main source of income, and therefore weren’t really obliged to join in the work, but kind of felt like we should anyway.

And what was the work? Completely undefined. “Be creative”, Willow urged us. “What do you want to do? What do you want to make?” You could cook, you could build something – it was some of the people before us who’d made the hot tubs, and another bunch of visitors had started making an apiary (for bee keeping).

There were some tasks that were encouraged, like treating the wood at one of the huts, or coiling pipes to create a water heating system for the hot tubs, but one of the key tenets they had was “Do what makes you happy. If you don’t like it, don’t do it.”

And that was how they lived here. Willow and Buti would have their friends over to stay, they’d have the volunteers, and the ‘paying customers’ – because it’s AirBnB they can choose to accept or reject you based on whether they think you’ll be a good guest – everyone would contribute to the daily chores (washing, cooking) voluntarily (although Buti typically did most of the cooking) and then they’d think up projects and undertake them and everyone would help out. And you could take breaks when you wanted, and decide to go off to town one day, or do whatever else took your fancy.

I’m not exactly the handyman type, and I was there for too short a time to really get to know how everything ran and where everything was to just start building something. I really think this is the kind of place you should stay at for at least a month if you want to make anything instead of just asking someone else who’s doing something whether you can be of assistance.

I did however do the dishes (easy), help with cooking when I could (joined in the making of stuffed buns), and helped coil the pipe for the hot tubs. I spent a lot of time reading, too, and playing with the dogs, who were wonderfully good value. On Tuesday, which was market day down at Doi Sakhet, we all piled in to the back of the ute, laughing and joking all the way to town, where we bought little barbecued sausages and sweet, plump strawberries.

Another night we had a big bonfire, while Puk played hauntingly on the space drum (if you’re wondering what that is or how it sounds, here’s a lovely little video to inform and delight you). We did yoga one evening in front of the pond, and I spent an afternoon in the main house getting a two hour oil massage by a friend of Willow’s and Buti’s, which was so incredibly relaxing that I fell asleep in the middle of it.


The Toilet incident

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One of the new discoveries I made at the farm was manually flushed toilets. That is, you have to pour water down the toilet, really fast and hard, and if you pour enough, it eventually flushes away whatever’s in there.

I didn’t know this at first. I came to the homestay, desperately needing to go to the toilet – I’d been travelling for a very long time, remember, and I hadn’t had access to a toilet in a while. In fact, my stomach was not in a good place, and I pretty much ran for it when we got there.

And of course in my haste I accidentally reverted back to using toilet paper, then accidentally chucked the toilet paper into the toilet instead of into the bin, and then went to look for the flush. Which did not exist.

You have no idea how panicked I felt. Everyone was waiting for me to start lunch. I’d just committed a cardinal sin (toilet paper down the toilet’s a huge no-no in Thailand). I couldn’t erase the evidence. I couldn’t take it out either. I poured some water in feebly after it, but not with enough force to flush (I had to be taught how to do that by Anton later).

I left it. I lunched. And after that I convinced Anton that he had to cover for me while I went back with a stick to try to extract the toilet paper.

Instead, when I returned, it was gone. Someone else had flushed it. And then, embarrassingly, I had to own up to the whole thing when Willow asked the table who’d put toilet paper down the toilet (and then not even flushed). Quelle horreur.

Anyway, Anton later gave me a little tutorial on manual flushing, and I was saved from further humiliating incidents.


Meeting Everyone

If the toilet incident was the worst part of the homestay, the best part was the people. Willow was an 85 year old hippie from the US, who was married to Buti, a 35 year old Akha tribeswoman from Thailand. The story they told me was that they’d met one day, neither of them spoke the other’s language, and they decided to get married.

I didn’t get to speak to Buti too much, mainly because we had a lot of trouble understanding each other’s accents, but I did get told a lot about her from the others. She was a fantastic cook, and apparently an amazing gardener. She did seem to do everything in a very content manner. She also used to make these amazing hill tribe costumes – check out the photo below from the Tribe website:

Buti's Akha Costume

Getting to know Willow was a bit like putting together a puzzle. You’d get little snippets of different bits of his life, but I didn’t quite know how to get him to lay it all out. He mentioned having some sort of military involvement at some point, and then working in some branch of medicine at another, and also that he’d been to India for a decent chunk of time. I did later have a little Google though, and found this fantastic article which featured a lot more of his biography. Here’s a little excerpt:

“For the sake of nicking the surface related to this, Willow was born in Ohio and raised amid the streets of Brooklyn, New York City, before shipping off to Florida as an 8-year-old. Here, he rejected public schooling at the age of 16 and then served in the U.S. Air Force.

.gifHe soon after earned an M.D. – another, in Psychiatry – and practiced professionally while still in his 20s (and again in his 60s). Eventually, Willow became thoroughly disgruntled with Western medical practices – and the standardized, humdrum of North American culture as well – and “decided that I would never do anything again that I don’t really love to do.

.gif“I put on my hat, headband, walked out to the road…hit the hippie trail and traveled for years and years and years with no money, living hand-to-mouth, no plans, just moving from place to place and experiencing whatever the Universe had to offer.”

.gifHe even lived for three-and-a-half of these 22 years in unabridged silence – two in India as a wandering, Sadhu monk – prior to later relinquishing this hushed “gift” upon ordering a cup of coffee in Spanish, while journeying to Panama. Willow has become so well-traveled that he’s sometimes been contracted as a personal, world travel guide.”

From what I gathered, both Willow and Buti had been really involved in the community, and they’d had another ‘farm’ up in Pai, where they still had a coffee plantation. What intriguing individuals! I wish I knew more, and I wish it wasn’t rude to just plumb someone for their life story when they didn’t seem inclined to share it.

Puk and Bader were Willow and Buti’s long term friends. Bader was an artist and yoga instructor. I know he’d been to university, and he had an adorable little son who he’d show us videos of, and he knew Willow because he’d helped out at their place in Pai ages ago. He said Willow was like a brother to him, and they certainly seemed that close.

Puk was the person who really inspired me though. She was amazing – when she was younger, she’d started an online store on Etsy, and worked really hard on that, planning to retire by 36. She designed really cool clothes, – she showed me some photos – the store was really successful, and she eventually sold it off to a friend. She also worked in TV, I think as a scriptwriter, but got so frustrated with the changes they’d make to her work that she turned some of them into books, which got published.

Anyway, she’s only in her 30s, she’s already retired, owns a house in Pai, does yoga and is super flexible, and just seems to be winning at life. She was also one of those people who are just so welcoming and who make you feel really comfortable around them.

Bader’s friend Nadim was there too. Nadim owned a weed farm in Cali and was considering buying Willow’s and Buti’s coffee plantation down in Pai. Nadim was a character; he had a brilliant sense of humour, a healthy amount of sass, and a flair for drama. You couldn’t be bored with Nadim around, he was always making us laugh and keeping us entertained.

Amongst the more ordinary of us mortals were Bec from Australia and Steve from the US, long term travellers of the ‘had a job and saved up a large stash’ variety who’d become a couple somewhere along their travels and were now wandering together for the long term; Katie, from the UK, who was another backpacker and who was also really funny; Ruth, from Portugal, who was this lovely soul who looked about half her age, and a French or German guy who was really sick the whole time and and who I barely saw and kept forgetting existed, because he was tucked up in his hut for the most part.


“It is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view.” 

George Eliot, Middlemarch

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One of the biggest lessons I was reminded of, being at the homestay, was that you don’t have to agree with someone’s ideas to like them, and just because don’t agree with some of what they say doesn’t mean that everything they say is invalid.

I realise that probably sounds really obvious and a bit preachy when I say it like that, but it’s a little harder to remember when you meet someone who, for example, is a conspiracy theorist. Which Willow wasn’t – but as someone who didn’t believe in global warming, thought education was a societal evil, and who thoroughly disliked modern medicine, he came pretty close.

A lot of my friends would instantly dismiss someone with any of those views, and I have to admit that I wasn’t much different, until Anton pointed out to me that it’s intellectually arrogant. Which was true, and if you think about it, so many famous scientists and philosophers had ideas that were considered ridiculous. Besides which, one of my favourite books ever is The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton, and he suggests in it that instead of just dismissing someone’s views you should use the Socratic method and question them.

So anyway, I didn’t quite go so far as grilling Willow, because as much as I liked him he was an 85 year old American, with the same tendency to tell you to go to hell if you didn’t agree with him that most 85 year old Americans have. But I did listen a lot more, and a lot of his points were really valid.

The education system does restrict your creativity so much, and it forces you to think in a certain way. We know, because we see it so clearly in countries like China and North Korea that educational institutions are totally used to inculcate the population with certain beliefs, and while it’s a lot less obvious with us in the Western World, the same is true to an extent.

There’s a reason why most people think that what you’re meant to do in life is go to school, maybe go to uni, get a job, buy a car, get a mortgage, buy a house, have kids, retire, then die. We definitely don’t question things enough, and it’s why so many people are just obsessed with consumerism and having more.

One of my favourite TED talks, though, is by Riccardo Semler, who advocates a radically different method of education that focuses on creativity and getting kids to think for themselves and learn what they want, and a different mode of business that instead focuses on sustainability, community and ensuring that the people involved are happy and fulfilled.

So I totally think we need to change how we approach education, but I think avoiding it gives you the worst disadvantages in the world. Knowledge totally is power, and if an alternative form of education isn’t available, then going to a school and university are still your best bets for being able to ensure that your child can become a free and independent adult.

I would love to write about my views on modern medicine at length as well but I think I’ve ranted enough. In summary though I see how it fails in some ways: doctors simply prescribe people anti-depressants, for example, when instead a more holistic approach would work with much more success. A lot of drugs, like LSD and mdma have been found to be really beneficial in treating medical conditions but because of political reasons aren’t allowed to be used. Whereas on the other hand, pharmaceutical companies court doctors to get them to prescribe their medicines, even if sometimes patients don’t really need them, while in poor countries they exercise their patents to prevent the manufacture of cheaper generic drugs that could save millions of lives.

And I completely disagree with his views on global warming, but I didn’t talk to him about it enough know why he feels that way. Besides, I can understand that when you’ve seen as much as Willow has, that you might think there are bigger priorities.


I’m glad I went there

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This has been an incredibly long post, I know, but I felt like I learned so much there, and I really wanted to share that. If you’ve managed to actually read all the way till here, thank you, I appreciate you making the effort and I hope that maybe hearing about how they live here has given you some things to think about too. If you’re at all interested in going yourself, here’s the AirBnB link – I fully recommend it.

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