A small permaculture farm called Daruma, about 150km south of Bangkok, was to be our stopgap for a week while we anxiously waited for news of the flooding situation in southern Thailand. This would determine if and how we would make it to Langkawi for Dean & Michelle's wedding.
We found out about Daruma ecofarm through warmshowers as it turned out that the farm owner was very supportive of passing cycle tourers. It sounded perfect. Keen to get there as soon as possible we decided to cycle out of Cambodia across the border with Thailand at the Poipet crossing and then get a train to Chachoengsao, just 60 km from the farm. Although there was a brutal headwind we left Cambodia on a happy note as we managed to draft behind a huge tractor going at about 25km an hour. While we were tucked in, periodically smiling and waving at the driver who seemed bemused but not offended by our presence, a local sped up to us on a motorbike gesticulating furiously and holding out a translucent yellow plastic bag. It turned out that he had seen us cycle past and he went to pick up a couple of (piping hot) sweetcorn kernels for us at a streetside stall and was attempting to hand them over to us precariously while we were all flying along at speed trying not to plough into the tractor in front. This handing out of food has happened quite a few times in Asia, mostly from people who make their living from selling fruit and vegetables, yet they would hand out produce that their livelihood depended on to us. I found this quite overwhelming really. Rob thinks that the locals perceive us as a human paradox as on one hand we are westerners therefore must be rich, but we are on bikes which are at the bottom of the transport pyramid - noone in Asia would ride a bike if they could afford a motorbike - so those that think we must be poor hand out fruit. I think it is more likely that we look like hungry bedraggled scarecrows in need of a good feed!
Crossing into Thailand went without a hitch (finally a border crossing where we managed not to get lost!) and we cruised down smooth asphalt roads to the train station in Aranya Prathet. The saga with taking bikes on trains seems to extend right the way through Asia. We were allowed to take the bikes on but at a cost of more than double the price of a foot passenger! However it would be meanspirited to complain as train travel is ridiculously cheap in Thailand as it is government subsidised and the train journey itself was an absolute joy. There is plenty of room, huge windows and right from the off market hawkers with unspeakably delicious sweet and savory goodies wrapped up in banana leaves meander up and down the aisles with mouthwatering scents of lemongrass, coconut and coriander wafting behind them.
The night we spent in Chachoengsao was uneventful save for discovering that our GPS has a 'lodgings' function on it. Quickly exploding our preconceptions that it would only list well established chain hotels like the Hilton we spent an hour going on an interesting tour of some of the most insalubrious establishments we have seen in Asia that don't even have hotel or guesthouse signs on them but miraculously our GPS managed to identify them as lodgings. Rob went into one which was worse than any hotel in China pronouncing he would prefer to stay in Big Tiger (Thailand's most notorious prison). Eventually we found a grimy room for 20 USD which is exorbitant by Vietnam/Cambodia standards. Maybe in Thailand you need to pay extra for the cockroaches?
Cycling down to Daruma Eco-farm the next day was a fairly unrelaxing experience - possibly one of our least enjoyable days of cycling so far. The blistering heat was certainly a factor - not only because we sweat copiously and feel constantly parched, but the salt in our sweat aggravates our saddlesores forcing us to hover uncomfortably over the saddle. But the worst part was having to cycle half the route down a 5 - 6 lane expressway with lorries and buses travelling at brake neck speed and belching out fumes all the way to Bang Phra where Daruma farm is nestled on about 6 acres next to the railway station.
We ended up staying at Daruma for about a week giving our saddlesores time to recover and learn more about permaculture and organic farming in the tropics. Neil, the owner of the farm, is a fiercely intelligent American with an opinion on just about everything. This particularly delighted Rob as this gave him a sparring partner to debate everything from homeopathy to McDonalds. The farm itself is still in the early stages of development with grand plans in the pipeline from establishing a mini hotel replete with an acquaponics and permaculture teaching centre to forested saunas with some farming thrown in! The farm was run by an extremely likeable friend of Neil's called Troy with whom we had an interesting introduction to meditation (Troy has been practising for about 15 years) and learn more about raw food as he has been a 'rawfoodist' for a similar length of time. Rob and I were in awe of his persistence as the thought of giving up cooked food is simply unimaginable - even more so as Troy confided that, although more agreeable that other diets he had tired he wasn't "thriving". No cooked food for a decade and a half without experiencing the benefits, now that is dedication!
While at Daruma we met a wonderful Turkish traveller called Irem, who was volunteering on the farm with us. For the first few days it was just the three of us at the farm sharing our living quarters with three cats and an uncountable number of kittens. Neil nonchalantly told us that they needed to keep cats on the property to control the rats, as once you have rats in the house you also have snakes. His farm is apparently host to every poisonous snake found in Thailand, making Rob more tolerant to cats than usual in spite of being woken up every night at about 3am but one or more of them trying to share our bed!
Our work at the farm was quite varied ranging from harvesting sweetcorn and flowers for making tea to planting lemongrass. There were also some more unorthodox tasks for us to do including 'triple digging' the land in preparation for planting. Perhaps an attempt to seek symmetry with Heston Blumenthal's approach to cooking?
As well as getting used to the heat of Woofing in the tropics we also had to contend with the mosquitos that were absolutely ruthless and savaged us at dawn and dusk. The flies also took a liking to the bites on Rob's foot and he ended up with an infection bloating his foot to double size!
More Woofers arrived towards the end of our stay at the farm including lovely french couple Ben and Fred who were travelling with their 7 month old baby, Meige, and a couple, Paolo and Pamela who were well practised at operating the clay oven, resulting in pizza night where we churned out what must be the best pizzas this side of Naples.... or at least this side of Thailand!
During our stay at Daruma our interest had been piqued in mediation and we found out that there was a buddist monastery on nearby island Ko Sichang so, with Irem, we organised to stay there and experience a day and a night in the life of a Thai Buddhist Monk/Nun. The monastery itself it beautiful with ornate temples dotted through the grounds and plans to build more. We were assigned separate sleeping quarters and it quickly became clear from this early stage how the life of a monk and a nun differ! Rob was assigned a mountain top private bungalow with a sea view while Irem and I were in a shared dorm. The monks, it seems, have a fairly cushty deal. Apart from waking up at 3.30am for chanting at 4 (Rob visibly paled at this!) the nuns do all the work including the cooking, cleaning and basically waiting on the monks hand and foot. While Irem and I were furiously chopping onions and sweeping the kitchen Rob, donned in his honorary monk robes, went into the village to collect food that is offered to the monks by the villagers in the belief that it will bring good karma. This was literally collected in sackloads - everything from crisps to whole chickens.
Unsurprisingly Rob was quick to quiz our host nun, Bon, about the collection and consumption of meat as one of the central tenets of Buddhism is not causing harm to any living thing, so Buddhists are strictly vegetarian. The response along the lines of 'well they give it to us so we eat it' didn't really seem to wash, nor did the explanation to the questions Rob fired off about donated money going into building temples rather than helping the community. So despite a relaxing stay where we learnt more about meditation we decided a monastic life was not for us and I think the nuns were quietly relieved to be free of our constant questioning once we had left.
So with 48 hours to go until the wedding we bid farewell to Daruma farm and started the race against the clock to get to the church (or the beach in this case) on time.