In Laos, organic farm puts eco-tourists in touch with the land, and its people

The Mulberry Tree House at Vangvieng Organic Farm, the longest-running agritourism business in Laos.
The Mulberry Tree House at Vangvieng Organic Farm, the longest-running agritourism business in Laos. (Mike Ives)
By Mike Ives
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 13, 2010

Beccy and I didn't feel like ingesting opium tea or marijuana pancakes, featured menu items in Vang Vieng, a backpackers' mecca in northern Laos. We had just arrived on a bus from Vientiane, the lovely Laotian capital, and we already wanted out.

"Can you take us to Vangvieng Organic Farm?" I asked an idling tuk-tuk driver.

He didn't need directions. Since 1996, Vangvieng Organic Farm has promoted sustainable food systems near a riverside town notorious for drugs, booze and inebriated inner-tubing. About two miles upstream on the Nam Song ("Song River") from Vang Vieng, the farm produces goat cheese, tea and mulberry wine for restaurants in Vientiane and the UNESCO World Heritage site Luang Prabang. Farm staffers serve meals and teach organic techniques to Laotian farmers and curious travelers. We had come to volunteer for a while.

The tuk-tuk (a motorized rickshaw) sped north on a bumpy road, the main highway in this poor, landlocked country. Ten minutes later, our driver turned left onto a dirt road and stopped near an outdoor pavilion with bamboo railings.

We shouldered our packs and looked around. Tourists were slurping mulberry milkshakes at picnic tables. Behind them a December breeze blew through a field of baby mulberry trees. A half-moon illuminated the Nam Song and adjacent limestone cliffs.

Thanongsi Sorangkoun, the farm's founder, emerged from the kitchen and introduced himself as "Mr. T." We stifled a laugh: The short, nimble 65-year-old looked nothing like the former wrestler who played B.A. Baracus on "The A-Team." Thanongsi's floppy green hat and electric-blue booties suggested a birder.

"How long will you stay?" he asked, a little gruffly.

"A week or so?" we replied.

Mr. T handed us keys to the Mulberry Tree House. When I asked how we could help, he pointed to a dry-erase board listing volunteer chores: mudhouse, ESL, goats, vegetable farm. Then he vanished.

The Mulberry Tree House bordered a grove of banana trees and hibiscus shrubs. Our $8-per-night room had slanted wood floors and a mosquito net. A creaky window offered views of moonlit mulberry fields.

We liked our digs, but we slept restlessly. Beccy, a Sydney social worker, had never visited a farm. My only "agricultural" street cred was three summers of weekend gardening in Vermont. What sort of place, exactly, had I discovered on Google? What was expected of us? And did the enigmatic Mr. T really want our help?

We resolved to get our hands dirty. Our first morning, I dug garden beds and spread compost while Beccy pruned mulberry trees and fed the leaves to goats. The next day, we rose at 6:45 a.m. to milk goats and make cheese.

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