Thailand Travels, part 1

By Stuart Grant

I’ve just returned from a pretty amazing week in Thailand.

Whatever my expectations for the trip (I can’t really remember now…), I can guarantee that they were blown out of the water! It was a confluence of passionate people and eye-opening experiences.

The trip was planned by Bright Hope World – a wonderful bunch of people (volunteers, mind you) from Australia and New Zealand whose work in Thailand centres around the La Mai coffee project. There were 11 of us – 4 from Bright Hope, 5 other Aussies with various interests in helping aid projects in Thailand, and two coffee people (myself and Lindsay from Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee in the US) specifically looking at the villages involved in growing and processing the La Mai coffee. The group was great – with at least three Australian states represented – as well as New Zealand – there was plenty of rivalry and banter to be had! What was unexpected (for me) was how well the varied interests and passions of the group – and of the projects we visited – combined into an all-round goodwill for the people of Thailand. We met people who teach others, people who rescue girls out of prostitution, people who provide water and farming skills to isolated and very poor villages… a truly diverse range of ways of helping people. But somehow it all fit together – water projects giving villages better health and more free time, meaning the kids can go to school, and parents have time to grow crops that might provide them with a better income, which means they won’t sell their children into prostitution or servanthood, and the kids’ education provides for the families’ future, and the increasing prosperity of the village attracts skilled people like teachers and nurses… It all fits together! Most of these projects were instigated by Mike Mann who runs the Integrated Tribal Development Program (ITDP), based in Chiang Mai. Mike is a pretty amazing guy. He's from the US, but grew up in Thailand and has spent nearly 50 years there working to help the impoverished hill tribes of Northern Thailand. Not only does he want to help the hill tribes grow coffee, but he has a real vision for producing coffee of a very high quality! For us, quality comes first, which is why direct trade is the best model. If we wanted "ethical" coffee of middling quality, we would buy Fair Trade coffee. But fostering direct trade relationships means we can find people who are willing to go the extra mile to produce great coffee for us, for which we are more than willing to pay a decent price! Helping people to grow quality coffee creates demand for their product, protecting them from market fluctuations. I was very pleasantly surprised by what I saw in terms of coffee quality. Everything from the climate and the soil, to the standards for picking and processing, to the infrastructure - everything was far more suitable for producing quality coffee than I had anticipated! As such, we are really excited about this year's crop of La Mai, which we are expecting some time during March. In the next post I'll give you a guided tour of how La Mai coffee is produced...