Jon Jandai is Thailand’s self-proclaimed ‘happiness farmer’ and founder of the Pun Pun Center for Self Reliance.
Jandai and those who live on the farm grow their own food, make soap and shampoo, and build shelters.
Dozens of people from around the world come to the center to learn how to live a self-sustaining lifestyle.
This is an as-told-to essay based on a conversation with Jon Jandai, the 60-year-old founder of the Pun Pun Center for Self Reliance in Thailand. The essay has been edited for length and clarity.
I grew up in a remote area in Northeastern Thailand, widely considered the poorest in the country. At the time, there wasn’t much money, cars, or technology, so people in other parts of the country looked down on us like we were second class.
The village got its first TV when I was 11 years old. It was the TV that first told us we were poor. Before that, we didn’t think about whether we were poor or rich — everybody was the same in the village. We used the word “suffering” instead of “poor.” But the TV told us, “You are poor, because you have no money, cars, or big houses. If you want to solve this problem, you need to work harder to make money.”
People started to work harder because they wanted a refrigerator, a car, a TV, and they started to cut down the trees, eventually making the whole forest disappear. But even after that, we were still poor.
When I was older, I moved to Bangkok, following others who went to the city in search of more money and opportunities. For seven years, I worked as a security guard, a hotel room attendant, and a waiter. I worked a lot — some years I didn’t have a single day off. I started to question myself: I work this much, but how come I don’t have enough to eat or a good place to stay?
It made me think, something must be wrong with this current system. We work so hard, but we don’t have enough to live. It made me decide I didn’t want to live this way anymore.
Cultivating a self-reliant lifestyle
I moved back home to start a self-reliant way of living. I started off by trying my hand at growing my own food, and realized it was easy to live in my own way. It made life more relaxed, took the pressure off of it.
It started off with me and just one and two other people in my life, growing vegetables, saving seeds, and building our own shelter out of mud, straw and bamboo. We learned how to make daily necessities, like soap, shampoo and toothpaste, from scratch. Why do we need to buy a bottle of shampoo for $20, when you can make your own for just a few cents? It’s the cost of the bottle, not the shampoo itself, that’s expensive. But we toss the bottle after we’re done using it. It’s a very nonsense way of living.
We also learned about self-healing through herbs, massages, and all kinds of other local techniques to deal with sickness. Our main source of income is through workshops and selling the products we make.
We don’t have a leader or rules. Everyone is very independent. We discovered that when people have more common sense, they think about others more. This is the atmosphere in the farm: People learn about self-reliance to fulfill our basic needs, and live an independent life.
Growing a community
I hadn’t meant to start a center in the beginning. But after we moved to the land and started living our self-reliant life, people kept coming to visit, and many didn’t want to leave. It became an unintentional community.
Many of the people who come to visit are city people, educated people from around the world. All of them want to find a way to make life easy. We became the Pun Pun Center for Self Reliance 21 years ago as a place for people to learn how to live a self-sustaining lifestyle.
“Pun pun” means “a thousand varieties” in Thai. We’re all diverse, with many religions, beliefs, and nationalities. We also do a lot of seed saving, growing and preserving hundreds of types of seeds so they can last for many years.
People are drawn to Pun Pun because they get tired of their life. Nowadays, people work very hard — harder than machines sometimes — just to make a living. If you want to have a house, you need to be in debt for another 30 years. If you want to have a car, you need to be in 5 years of debt. So when can you live your life?
Pun Pun is just a place to learn. After that, you can go back home. But when you start to think about relying on yourself more, you will spend less and less money and have fewer worries.
To live here, it’s about realizing we don’t need all that. Self-reliance doesn’t mean you need to be a farmer. It’s about building up our roots by learning you have all you need to live a healthy and happy life. And when our roots are strong, we have more freedom to do what we want to do.
People are looking for a new way, a new choice in their lives. Because in life, you need to have fun, to love, to play. Otherwise, what’s the point of living?
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