By Stephanie / September 30th, 2014
Earlier this month, Kate Tierney, Alter Eco Vice President of Sales, and Kara Powis, AE Director of Organizational Development, were honored to venture back to Thailand, 5 years after our first visit. A wonderful group of Whole Foods Markets Team Member Volunteers were there and anxious to meet Alter Eco’s rice partners in Eastern Thailand on their way to meet microcredit clients whose loans were funded by Whole Planet Foundation.
After the grueling 19 hours of travel to Bangkok, we recuperated in a lovely hotel Ariyasomvilla, tucked off the main street in the Sukhumvit district of Bangkok. Upon arrival, we were reacquainted with the beautiful, smells and tastes of one of Thailand’s most exquisite gifts: their food. We were presented with a plate of fresh, ripe Thai fruits including mangosteen, longan, lychee, guava, papaya, jackfruit, rambutan and dragonfruit. After much needed sleep, and getting acclimated to the magnificent humidity and new time zone, we set out on a delightful culinary walking tour of Bangkok; which was a delightful way to get acquainted with the various neighborhoods of Bangkok, and taste the subtle culturally influences of the various peoples that left their fingerprint on Thailand and its magnificent food.
The following day, we traveled across town to the Khao San Road district, where we met up with 12 team member volunteers from Whole Foods Market, who had elected to participate in a trip sponsored by natural and organic retailer, the Whole Foods Market. We met the members of the group who had arrived to Bangkok without delay (several others were delayed by the Houston storms) and were led by their very personable, dynamic and knowledgeable guide, Noi. Our first stop was the Grand Palace, where we saw the very impressive Reclining Buddha and Emerald Buddha.
We made our way to the other side of Bangkok via boat on the Chao Phraya River, and the various inland waterways of the river’s tributaries. It was a fascinating look into a whole different side of Bangkok we hadn’t seen. The journey was dotted with unusual architectural, beautiful temples and Thai families going about their daily lives on the river. We even paid homage to the Buddha by purchasing a dozen loaves of bread from a merchant on the riverbank, and feeding the catfish that reside in the river.
We ended our day of sightseeing at a neighborhood restaurant, where we enjoyed the heavenly delights of delicious family style Thai food. It was a great opportunity to get to know our fellow travelers. What a diverse group we had! Along with the CFO of Whole Foods Markets, there were people from the Global accounting and marketing team, along with team members of the Grocery and Whole Body departments. There were several Store Team Leaders from the U.S., Canada, and even the U.K.! We were able to connect individually with many folks that first day, which set us up well for the next part of the journey.
The Overnight Train to Surin
Genie, the travel coordinator for the Whole Foods Market Team Member Volunteer Program did an exceptional job planning for and arranging the itinerary for the group of volunteers.
On Tuesday evening, we gathered and made our way to the Bangkok train station. Noi set us up with top-notch train accommodations. We had a train car to ourselves, and two bunks per cabin. We got to visit with our adjacent cabin mates, as every other cabin had connecting doors.
It made for good socializing into the evening. Noi even arranged for the dining car to deliver our dinner to our cabins!
Everyone was good-natured about the rocking and the rolling of the train and eventually we all settled down to sleep. Kate was not so lucky in that department but she caught some great pics of the sunrise over the rice fields at dawn.
We arrived to the Surin train station at 6:30 am. We were all a little wobbly from the ride, but like the hardy travelers we are, we rallied and checked in to the Majestic Surin hotel in time to shower and eat before our next outing.
We had arranged for the Whole Food Market team members to meet the farmers from whom Alter Eco sources their fair trade rice. We wanted them to see first hand, how our fair trade rice is planted, grown, harvested and packaged before it is brought to Whole Foods Market stores.
Our hosts for the farm tour were Sompoi and D’ho, from Rice Fund Surin. It was so wonderful to see Sompoi again after 5 years. She is as dynamic, personable, friendly and brilliant as ever. Alter Eco has had a wonderful relationship with this amazing group of farmers and coop staff. It is always a pleasure to be in their company. The Thai people measure most of their life on happiness and they like to communicate how happy they are when visitors come. They escorted us along with Noi in vans out to the cooperative headquarters for a tour and a presentation. Sompoi gave a fantastic overview of the history and progress of RFS and the Whole Foods Market group was highly engaged and asked great questions. Sompoi introduced one of the founding farmers of the coop, who also gave a brief speech. All of the staff members came in to watch Sompoi gift each Whole Foods Market team member with an authentic silk scarf from the region. They were very honored.
Afterwards we had the most delicious lunch; prepared by the coop staff with rice, meats, vegetables and fruit right from the coop farm. It was a wonderful spread. After lunch we did an extended tour of the milling facility and even role-played how a farmer brings their harvest to be weighed and measured, assessed for quality and is priced. There were a lot of laughs but we learned a great deal too.
The coop has transformed in the 5 years since we were last there! They have built a conference room with a projector and screen and air conditioning. A new drying slab was laid, and flush toilets installed. Also, the mill has new equipment for sorting and packaging the rice. All of these improvements just go to show that fair trade is made a qualitative difference in the lives of the farmers, coop employees and their families!
After the plant tour, we went out to one of the farmer’s homes. The farmer, Pakphum, hosted all of us under his house, and served us fresh coconut water and fruit, and proudly told the story of his success as a fair trade Alter Eco rice farmer. It was hugely inspiring. He and his family tied friendship bracelets on all of our wrists to acknowledge our interconnectedness and friendship.
We then walked into the fields where the farmers demonstrated the different ways they plant rice. After the demonstration, it was our turn to “get our hands (and feet) dirty”. The whole group of volunteers removed their shoes, and waded into the mud to help Pakphum’s neighbor transplant a ¼ hectare plot of rice shoots. It was an exhilarating and surreal experience. To think we may one day consume some of the rice we just planted is an amazing feeling.
Our visit to the mill and farms gave the volunteers a chance to meet the farmers and see first hand how fair trade rice is planted, grown, harvested and packaged for Alter Eco and ultimately sold in Whole Foods Market stores
The day at the farms ended with the last rice shoot being transplanted, and a rinsing off the last of the rich and fertile mud from our feet. We caravanned back to Surin in the late afternoon, some folks explored the local market or the pool (it was hot!), and we all relaxed before dinner. We had a great meal together along with Sompoi and a few friends from RFS at a local restaurant. It was the perfect end to a perfect day.
In the morning we wished our Whole Foods friends a safe and wonderful journey- they were continuing their trip north. Kara and I hopped on a bus and returned to Bangkok. As we watched the rice fields pass by the bus windows, we agreed that we had just participated in a life-changing event for our fellow travelers from Whole Foods Market. They will never cook rice without remembering this trip! So glad we were asked to be a part of it all
Kate and Kara