February 28, 2003, BAN SRI THAN, Thailand: After
an eleven-hour third-class train ride through the night, a three
hour bus ride, and a ride in a pick-up truck from a couple of
locals, Derek and I found our way to the small village of Ban
Sri Than in eastern Thailand.
a new future: Inside one of the mudbrick
houses Jon built in Yasothon province.
Our tourist guidebook had given little attention to the town
and we now saw why. It seemed little more than a collection
of tin-roofed houses clustered among bony cattle and gridded
To our surprise, two earth-covered Americans greeted us as
we stumbled up the dirt road to the farm just outside of town,
which we had learned about through WWOOF (World-Wide Opportunities
on Organic Farms, at www.wwoof.org).
Standing in the shade of a mango tree, overstuffed backpacks
slung over our shoulders, we were soon introduced to a string
of others caked in mud. One of these was a thin Thai man in
his 30's, dressed in flowing slacks, with smiling brown eyes
and a dark-skinned, pleasantly handsome face.
"Hi, I am Jon," he said simply. "Welcome."
This was Jon (pronounced Joan) Jandai, the owner of the 8-acre
organic farm and the host of a week-long adobe building workshop
that had drawn over 30 western and Thai apprentices. Derek
and I joined this workshop and quickly learned much about
the methods and benefits of adobe building. But as the days
passed, we began to realize that we were learning the most
simply by watching and listening to Jon Jandai.
He was always barefoot, always smiling, and was almost reckless
with the way he experimented to find easier methods of building.
"The roof will hold, no problem," he told us, even
though he was using half the amount of recommended clay. It
held, but took too long. The next day he told me, "I
decided I don't like clay floors. Too much work. Maybe I'll
use bamboo instead." As Jon saw it, there was always
room for improvement.
||"Laziness is the true way to
be an environmentalist, to live sustainably." - Jon
Jandai, organic farmer and adobe housing innovator, Thailand
"People call me a crazy man because everything I do
is not usual," he told me with a grin. "But why
do what it says in the book? That way has already been tried."
One of the first to use alternative building methods in Thailand,
Jon has hosted numerous alternative building workshops around
the country and is continually experimenting to find better
and easier ways to build. Additionally, he uses absolutely
no chemical fertilizers or pesticides on his farm, and is
the chair of the Ban Sri Than group of organic farmers. Recently,
he was even featured in the Bangkok Post.
A hunger for independence
Jon's unconventional choices are a result of his philosophy
on the best way to live. "It isn't necessarily natural
building that I'm interested in," he said. "It's
self-reliance, and shelter is one of our four basic needs.
If we cannot rely on ourselves, we have no freedom. I like
to be free."
Jon's interest in self-reliance runs deep and stems largely
from past experiences.
When he was 15 years old, Jon left the family farm. Like
many others, he was lured away by promises of a richer life.
"I'd watched too many movies that showed nice houses,
cars, the sea - and my biggest wish back then was to be able
to lead a life of luxury."
Having little money, Jon joined the monkhood so that he could
continue his studies. Three years later, he left and began
taking classes in a law school in Bangkok. Because he had
little money, however, he spent most of his time working at
odd jobs in restaurants and hotels, rather than studying.
“There was no life for me there," he said. "I
felt like a robot. I had to work all the time and had no time
to enjoy the beauty of life." After seven years, Jon
chose to return to the farm and the way of life that he had
But he decision wasn't easy. "A lot of people teased
me and looked down on me because I had spent a long time in
Bangkok and didn't have a good job," he said.
On top of that, he was deciding to give up on even trying
to attain a high paying job. "I chose to come back and
not have an income for myself," he said. "Many people
want more money."
Jon continued to make unconventional choices while back at
the farm. He began experimenting with alternative building
methods so that he wouldn't have to pay others for labor and
materials. Adobe is the cheapest and easiest that he has found
Additionally, instead of buying chemical fertilizers, he
uses manure and compost, although he asserts that often using
less fertilizer will make stronger plants. He also uses a
fermented mixture of plants and "anything sweet."
This adds nutrients to the soil, as well as keeping pests
away. Jon explained that this recipe was first sold to Thai
farmers by a company. Farmers such as Jon have now learned
the secret, however, and are able to use fermentation for
free. Jon also uses native strains of crops and saves the
seeds each year so that he doesn't have to buy them.
||"People call me a crazy man because
everything I do is not usual--But why do what it says
in the book? That way has already been tried."
By using these methods, Jon is able to manage his farm without
investing a large amount of capital. He keeps a year-round
garden and fishpond to feed he and his 5-member family, and
grows rice from June to October, during the rainy season.
"It's easier to be organic," he explained. "With
conventional farming you make a lot of money, but you also
have a lot of expense." Jon manages to pay almost nothing,
while making 30,000 baht a year, mostly by exporting rice
to Europe through a set up called Green Net. This is less
than $1,000 U.S. but it is plenty for a family living in Thailand
where the price of living is extremely low. Besides, they
are only working half the year.
Training your mind to say “enough”
“With organic farming, you don't make a lot of money
all at once," Jon said. "But you have enough to
live on. Most people just compete, try to make money. When
you are more lazy and aren't working all the time you can
see beauty - the butterfly, the sunset - these things are
very beautiful. I think humans are the stupidest animals--
none of the others work 8 hours a day. I just want to tell
everyone that they don’t have to work so hard -- they
can be more lazy. Laziness is the true way to be an environmentalist,
to live sustainably."
By laziness, Jon isn't talking about doing nothing. He simply
realizes that he doesn't need a lot of money to be happy and
so only works for what he needs.
Jon believes that this mindset is the most important step.
"You have to train your mind to say 'enough'," he
said. "If we don't have this attitude we can't do this
Jon explained that he has to make a conscious effort to ignore
advertisements and education that would lead him away from
self-reliance. There are many voices promoting the use of
expensive chemicals and non-traditional ways of farming. "Many
advertisements tell us we should produce milk, drink milk,"
he said. "But we have never done that here. It isn't
good advice to completely change our lifestyle."
||"Conventional farming is stuck.
People are slaves on the land - they work very hard and
have nothing, only debt. When people suffer they have
to think about solutions. Organic farming is the solution
An increasing number of Thai farmers are beginning to agree
with Jon's struggle for self-reliance. Although organic farming
is still in the minority in Thailand, an economic collapse
6 years ago caused many to seek alternative ways of subsisting.
A Buddhist community movement called "Asok" even
adopted organic agriculture as its main source of income and
self-reliance as one of its primary goals.
"Conventional farming is stuck," said Jon. "People
are slaves on the land - they work very hard and have nothing,
only debt. When people suffer they have to think about solutions.
Organic farming is the solution now."
As Jon strolls along the dirt paths of his family farm, assembles
the bamboo roof of an adobe building, smiles and chats over
a bowl of rice, it is easy to see that is has been a solution
Needless to say, Derek and I left the Jandai farm very much
inspired. We head for Laos next, following rumors of an organic
mulberry farm outside of the tourist town of Vang Vien.