Adventures in Chiang Mai

 

Dear all,

I’m writing to let everyone know that I am indeed alive and well despite the fact that I haven’t written anything for quite some time. I am writing this post from Chiang Mai, a popular city/province in northern Thailand. The city is much smaller and quieter than Bangkok and I’ve been enjoying the slower pace of life immensely. I’ve less than ten days until I am in New Zealand, so I wanted to give you a quick update on what I’ve been up to before I make another big move!

I decided to head north on a “whim” (of sorts). After combing through my notes from the aquaculture conferences I attended, I found the contact information for a social scientist who works out of Chiang Mai University. When I spoke with him at the conference, he said there might be a slim chance I could join him during some community workshops during the month of October. After e-mailing him I found out his plans had changed: he’s currently in Australia and the community workshops had been moved to December. But he did say he’d connect me with his field work team and join them as they made  visits to different fish farms in the region. This was enough to convince me to take a night train up to Chiang Mai and try to get in one more project activity before I leave Thailand for good. Naturally, as soon as the train arrived in Chiang Mai I saw a new message from my contact saying that it would be too difficult to coordinate with me/impossible to join up with his field team. So it goes…

Despite not being able to do much “official” project work in Chiang Mai, I’ve been enjoying the last of my time in Thailand here. I spent a few days roaming the city’s temples, eating my way through the markets, and reading/writing in atmospheric hipster cafes. I joined up with a few Thai travelers at my hostel who shared a home-cooked meal with me at their friend’s house and watched the sunset from atop Doi Moncham, replete with row after row of strawberries growing on the side of the mountain. Then, a friend from Bangkok came up to join me and we spent a few days at a coffee farm in the mountains where she used to work. From there we ventured up into the province of Chiang Rai and visited the “Golden Triangle”: the point where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet. Via motorbike, we reached the Thai-Myanmar border, visited a large tea farm, and even serendipitously chanced upon a small freshwater prawn farm! Suffice to say that I’ve been having a good time of it.

 

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Home-cooked Northern Thai dish: Khanom Chine Nam Ngiao (rice noodles, chicken, fresh veggies, and pickled cabbage, all in a red curry broth)
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You’ll notice that on October 24th, the only things I purchased were food items.

This quiet time away from my project has also given me the breathing space to process a lot of my thoughts about my project. I’ve found myself reflecting quite a bit on what I learned in SE Asia, what surprised me, and what I hope to do differently moving forward. Perhaps one of the most important lessons was understanding my project in relation to myself. I came into the year thinking about it as a project that I was passionate about, but that still existed independently of me. Not so much the case now. I’ve realized that I am eating, breathing, sleeping this project; right now it’s not just my passion, but quite literally my life. Okay, perhaps that’s a bit dramatic. Let me expand.

I was surprised by how much time I spent in SE Asia NOT actively conducting interview or visiting fish farms. My project would buzz around somewhere in the back of my head and cause me a great deal of guilt and frustration, as if I were somehow betraying it by having down time. But I started thinking about my project not as an independent entity that I was indebted to, but as an extension of myself. “Down time” then was not me ignoring my project but me approaching myself from a different perspective. When I started to make this shift, I realized I could let my project buzz around in my head and let it come in and out of focus as I observed the day-to-day of the world around me. Changing my perspective has allowed me to bask in “down time”. When I can’t focus directly on fish, I can still try to connect everything I see, hear, and do back to my previous understandings of aquaculture.

A few weeks ago, as I took a bus from southern Thailand back to Bangkok I encountered a rich agricultural landscape: I saw durian, palm oil, coconuts, rice, and various other tropical fruits being grown every time I looked out the window. Fish/shrimp farms were no exception. By watching the landscape roll by, I was able to see aquaculture from a perspective I had not yet considered: it’s context within a larger category of food production. I’d come into this year ready to discover some pseudo-mythological industry. The marine science nerd in me kept on saying, it’s called “the blue revolution”…how sexy is that?!? But when I think about aquaculture as a commonplace method of food production, quite literally integrated into a diverse agricultural landscape, I have to laugh a bit at (or maybe with?) my past-self.   For all the concern and mystique that hazes American and my perceptions of farmed seafood, it’s a pretty visible and commonplace method of food production (one among many) in Thailand. Thinking about aquaculture in this way has also given me a better perspective to critique Western concerns of aquaculture. Why are we so caught up with wild caught seafood when we’re largely content with factory-farming terrestrial meats? If we’re content to consume farm raised poultry, cattle, and pigs, why should farmed seafood be any different? Of course this opens up many questions about the ethics and standards of farming itself. I don’t wish to suggest that we farm seafood as unethically as we farm other animals on Concentrated Animal Feed Operations (CAFOs). I don’t want to go there. Instead I wish to point out that Americans have held on to an idea of “wild caught” for seafood that does not extend to all the meats we produce, which seems to have limited the presence and growth of the aquaculture industry domestically. As aquaculture continues to grow globally and becomes more relevant to our diets as wild stocks collapse, perhaps its worthwhile to recognize the importance and validity of aquaculture as a form of food production. If we are open to what aquaculture looks like, and what it could look like in our own local contexts, we open the way for perhaps  more ethical methods of food production.

My time in Chiang Mai has added texture to this idea. Over the past two weeks I have visited four sites of food production: a strawberry farm, a coffee farm, a tea farm, and (serendipitously) a freshwater prawn farm. Each of these experiences was unplanned and at first glance not quite in-line with my project. But when I think about them as context for the ideas I’ve been developing, they seem to fit quite nicely. Each of these places fell into a general category of “agro-tourism”: The strawberries grew around a mountain-top lookout point; the coffee farm included accommodation and tours; the tea farm had a café and you could walk along the rows of tea leaves; and the prawn farm had a nice restaurant overlooking the ponds. So, not only is aquaculture a familiar form of food production among many, but it can actually serve as a focal point for attracting tourism. The prawn farm I visited was very small-scale, only selling prawns in their own restaurant and to local customers. If we return to the idea of what aquaculture actually looks like, this small freshwater prawn farm feels indispensable. Not as a model for how all aquaculture should be everywhere nor as a paragon for ethical food production; I think there is just too much diversity in the world for there ever to be one right way to do aquaculture (or anything for that matter). But it is important because it stands in contrast to both the hazy, mystique laden view of aquaculture I had AND the concerns Westerners have about farmed seafood in general. Aquaculture can exist as a standard form of food production (An earlier version of me might have used the adjective: boring) and it can exist as a source of small-scale, local food. And certainly in other countries, in other regions, with different restrictions, this will look different. It seems like a good place to start acknowledging aquaculture’s potential is by trying to learn about all these differences. (Isn’t it convenient that I’ve come to a conclusion that encourages the project that I am carrying out?)

On a bittersweet note, I’ll be leaving Thailand for New Zealand on November 10th (now less than 8 days away). A part of me is unbelievably excited. I’ll know the local language, the infrastructures supporting aquaculture are more clearly established (and therefore it’s been MUCH easier to connect with people, set-up interviews, and arrange work opportunities from out of country), and I have been dreaming about visiting New Zealand for quite some time (It also doesn’t hurt that I’ll be spending my first month at a salmon farm on a glacial lake). A part of me is incredibly sad. I had many concerns about starting my Watson year in Thailand, but the past 3 months have been deeply generous to me in the most unexpected ways. I’ve made amazing friends in Thailand, had powerful experiences that will shape how I pursue the rest of this year (and the rest of my life), learned how resilient and persistent I can be, and eaten some of the most amazing food in my life (usually for like, USD $2). There is a part of me that is already scheming about how I can come back to Thailand. And now I’ve got to pack-up my entire life into my backpack and start all over! So it goes…

 

Me, smiling and/or sneezing, somewhat unclear in this photo

 

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