Thursday, January 23, 2014

TCDF Eco-Logic and DinDang Natural Building

One of our big plans on this trip is to volunteer here and there.
We had big plans to jump from one volunteer place to another, but the realities of a tight schedule (surprising, given we'll be on the road for a year), allows us only a few, if we also want to see everything we planned to see.

So, first volunteer place off the ranks was DinDang Natural Building.
The project aims to teach the benefits of building with natural material, mainly local clay/mud, to the nearby community and the visitors.

We left Lang Suan on Tuesday, on the 9.30am bus, which would arrive Pak Song, the village where the project is located.
The project works on a Wednesday to Sunday work schedule, and us arriving on Tuesday would be barging in on their 'weekend'. We didn't want to do that, so it was time to look for options..

Some quick research (and remembering from looking at Google Maps earlier), and a quick phone call (while waiting for the bus), and a bungalow was booked at the TCDF Eco-Logic centre, right next door to DinDang.

We jumped on the bus at the market in Lang Suan (in this area - there's a 7-11 right near by, if you need a landmark).

The bus heads towards Ranong, so be sure to let them know clearly that you need the bus that stops at Pak Song (บ้าน ปากทรง in Thai).
There'll be a conductor on the bus, to buy the tickets from. He'll also tell you when Pak Song is the next stop, but we watched our progress via GPS, so we didn't need to rely on this.

Arriving in Pak Song, we found ourselves by the side of the road, near a nondescript local shop.

In the TCDF car
A quick call to TCDF and a car was dispatched to collect us, arriving within 5-10 minutes.

The Eco-Logic resort is another place where one can volunteer, and the first thing that struck us when we reached the entry (after getting out of the car) was the friendliness of everyone on the property.
There was a chorus of cheerful hello's from the other guests as we entered the restaurant/common area.
Relaxing in the common area at TCDF

We were starving, and ordered some food, which would be ready for us after we'd checked in and relaxed a little in the bungalow.

We checked in to the bungalow - it was pretty nice, though the sink in the bathroom falls into the 'nice idea, but needs some bugs ironed out' category, as it spills water all over the floor. Oh well.

We settled in, then made our way back up to the restaurant for our food.  Wow! Great food - some very tasty Thai noodles with tofu, in soup! Yum!

The rest of the afternoon and evening we passed by relaxing in the bungalow, walking down to the pebble beach by the river and up in the restaurant, talking to other visitors.
The large group of friendly greeters we had on arrival was a French brass band, volunteering at the Eco-Logic project for 5 weeks. They arrived a week earlier than us. The only other volunteer there was David, a Swiss horticulturist there for a three month volunteering stint.
We spoke with David a bit, he's a soft-spoken and friendly guy. His current project is to build an aquaponics setup. It's great that someone with actual skills that are relevant takes the time to volunteer them like this. (We've added each other on Facebook, so "Hi David" if you read this.)

Upon retiring after dinner, we hit a snag. The hot water unit was apparently not functioning in the bungalow. No hot showers? Inconceivable!
A quick visit to the staff, and an electrician popped in to the bungalow (he was on the property already), and showed us how to work the unit.
Great, problem solved!

... or so we thought, until we tried to shower.
Click! "Aaaargh! The water's freezing!"

The hot water unit (in Thailand, these are usually in the bathroom, directly connected to the shower hose/head you use) was off again!

Some frenzied, frazzled and freezing investigations later, and after trying everything the electrician showed us, it was the fuse box (in the bedroom) that was the culprit. The hot water unit would trip the fuse after 30-90 seconds of use (depending on how high the flow rate was, possibly).
So, I reset the fuse several times while Naomi enjoyed a hot/cold/hot/cold/... shower experience.
When my turn came, I "tricked" the unit, by using a little, lathering, then using a little more to rinse. The fuse lasted until I was just relaxing in the warm water after finishing, so it was ok.
The fuse box was set really high up, so it's good that Naomi didn't need to reset it for me.

Pheew. OK, so off to bed clean we went. The bed was comfy and we slept well, listening to the gentle sounds of the rainforest.


The next morning, we were to be met at 10am by the DinDang folks, so we packed up and carried our heavy loads up the steps (cursing the need for luggage with every step) back to the restaurant.
We had a Thai breakfast of fried rice with egg. Another delicious meal from this place! Two from two, doing well!

We met Martha from DinDang - she's a cheerful and chatty Canadian who lives with Bow, the project originator, in a clay hut with a bamboo apartment on the second floor. They have electricity in the nearby kitchen hut, and toilets with COLD showers likewise nearby.

Cold showers... hmmm... We'd heard that the Eco-Logic volunteers' dormitory only has cold showers, too..
But surely, in a homestay, we'd have hot showers available. We were, after all, staying with Bow's family, not in some dorm... right...? Some home comforts should be there, too..?

We also met Bow, who is a genuinely nice guy, with many talents, including guitar playing, as demonstrated later that evening.

Eventually, the topic of hot showers came up, and no, we weren't to be graced with heated water on our bodies for the next two weeks...

Given it was quite warm during the day time, maybe this wouldn't be so bad? We could just hurry back after working, be all hot and dirty and relish the cold water as a way to refresh after the day's work..?
We resolved it wasn't to be a showstopper for us, dispiriting though it was.

We jumped in the back of a ute
A bumpy ride
and met the two other new volunteers at the bus stop, (another) David and Amber, who came from another volunteer project that apparently was "in need of work", to put it kindly. So they were excited to join DinDang and actually get to build stuff.

We checked in to the homestay and were, honestly, disappointed at the accommodations.
We weren't expecting a 5-star resort, but there were a few basics that need addressing. If Bow, Martha or anyone else from DinDang read this, this are just our opinions. We were staying in the ground-floor room at the front. Our comments:
  • The windows in the room were damaged and could not be closed - missing glass slats, which should be replaced, so the cold wind at night can be kept out.
  • No mosquito screening on the windows, so since they were always open, bugs can always get inside. The double bed has a net, which helps a bit, but only when you are on the bed.
  • The bedding was very, very basic: Two pillows and two small, coarse blankets. Again, not expecting the Four Seasons, but some sheets would be nice. And more blankets since it gets cold at night.
    The Homestay room
  • The mattress was really hard/thin. I found it nearly impossible to sleep, as I usually sleep on my side, and the mattress didn't cushion my hips at all - it was like I was sleeping directly on the wood under the mattress.
  • The room was dark - one overhead bulb didn't dispel the gloom. Maybe add another lamp or two?
  • The floor was bare concrete - maybe some matting could be added to make it more cosy?
  • There was no sound insulation between the floors, so even a normal voice-level skype conversation in an upstairs room can be heard loudly downstairs. Probably not much can be done about this one, but people upstairs need to be aware how much they are impacting on those below them. When I popped upstairs to let a fellow volunteer know we could hear her whole skype-call, I fear she may have misunderstood this as the reason for us leaving the next day. It wasn't.
Oh yeah, did you catch that?
We left the next day, as two people who didn't get enough sleep, and couldn't face another cold shower followed by that rock-hard mattress.

It's such a shame, as we really wanted to contribute, but through having slightly higher minimum standards of living (like actually needing to sleep), we could not do so.

The project people are great.
One of the clay huts at DinDang
The project grounds are beautiful, and there are many mini-projects underway which we were to have helped with, and we wanted to do so. But we need a good bed and hot showers as a bare minimum.

Others might be less fussy (maybe they are younger than us?) but I fear DinDang might lose out on volunteers like us in the future. It'd be really nice if a solar hot water system was installed. Likewise, replacing the mattresses, fixing the windows and adding more bedding would be the easiest way to keep people like us. Obviously, we recognise that there are financial limitations to getting these things done.

But, before we experienced the sleepless night, we attended a joint buffet dinner with the TCDF folks - we'd been told about this when we stayed there, so we were expecting it.
It was nice to talk to the French musicians, all from a university in the south of France, and they played a handful of tunes after dinner - they were amazing! Really great!
The audience-to-musician ratio was almost 1:1 - so it was a very private concert. Definitely the highlight of the night.

Bow and two other Thai gents then played guitar (x 2), that kind of drum-box that you sit on and play and occasionally some harmonica.
Many people sang along when they played known songs. Bow finished with a Thai lullaby, which he started off by telling the story it tells, so we'd have an idea what was going on. Lovely song.

Tired, we walked the 2km or so (but it felt farther!) back to the homestay, and went to bed. And didn't sleep well at all...

The next morning, we discussed what we should do - stick it out at least a week (the most we felt we could face that cold shower for) or change our plans and go elsewhere now.
As the discussion happened on that rock-hard mattress, it was quick - we were leaving. After all, we're not on Survivor, and have nothing we need to prove.

We called Bow, and explained, left the appropriate amount of cash with his family, said our goodbyes to the other volunteers (on their way to work), and headed for the bus to Surat Thani.

The 09:30 bus arrived at 10:09 (or was it the 11:00 bus arriving early?), we piled in and bounced our way out of Pak Song, leaving behind our beautiful artwork.
The candleholder and incenseholder we left behind..

I'd like to visit again someday, when our minimum comfort levels can be satisfied. Until then, we support you in spirit and wish you every success, DinDang!

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