Community living, Thai style
Updated: Jan 19, 2020
In North America, cohousing is a relatively new idea, and is perceived by some as a radical concept. But the idea of sharing with your neighbours and participating in a collaborative community is hardly revolutionary. In fact, it is the original housing concept. It wasn't until recent memory that humans began trading the traditional "tribe" or "village" for isolated single family homes. Many cultures, however, still value the collaborative way of life, and it wasn't until I experienced it for myself that I realized I needed more community in my life.
It was 2015. I had recently left my teaching career and wanted to travel before finding a new job. I was looking for an adventure off the beaten track and so I chose to spend three months in Northern Thailand where my missionary sister was living. I set out looking for adventure. Little did I know that this trip would also inspire my sense of community, and spark my interest in cohousing.
My sister Diane was living in Mae Tan, a small town on the Myanmar border. Trained as a nurse, one of her responsibilities was to provide medical outreach to the Karen ("Kuh-ren") people, a marginalized ethnic group living in small, isolated villages in the surrounding mountains. I had the opportunity to accompany her to a few of these communities where she provided medical assistance and advice as best she could.
Karen houses were unlike anything I'd ever seen. They were built on stilts with just a few walls, usually harbouring a pig, a hen, and some chicks below. Homes were almost devoid of furniture and decorations. Families had what was necessary, like basic cooking instruments, a few dishes, blankets, clothing, and some very basic tools. Everyone had what was needed, and little else. Possessions were also shared freely amongst neighbours. Given this standard of community commitment, there was no need for front doors. When neighbours dropped by, they wouldn't knock or even call out. They'd simply climb into the house and begin a conversation with whomever was home. If the family was eating, the visitor would sit down and join them. No invitation was necessary.
My sister and I dropped into a neighbour's house one evening, where a crime show playing on a tiny 16" television. Gathered in the small living space were about 20 children and a few parents and grandparents, all watching the village's only TV.
I traveled with my sister as she visited various villages. As Modo Dia's sister, I was welcomed like family everywhere we went. We were invited to join in many family meals, community events, and celebrations. On our last day in one of the villages, our hosts offered us a delicious meal of chicken, rice, and foraged greens. I thanked them, and went on with the day, not thinking too much about it. Only later did my sister point out that our hosts had butchered one of their few chickens to honour our visit. This was a family which eked out a living on a small cornfield and a rice paddy, and I had taken this chicken meal for granted. I was truly humbled.
Visiting small Karen communities such as these taught me a lot about hospitality. This is the kind of hospitality I want to extend to neighbours and visitors at Prairie Rivers Cohousing. Don't worry, PRC homes will certainly have front doors and ample amounts of private space. But I want my neighbours and friends to know that my home will always be open to them. I like the idea of having dutch doors as our front doors, as an open invitation for anyone who might want to stop by for a chat or a meal.
When we get to the point of designing our physical community, I will certainly propose the idea of dutch doors to the whole community, but whether we implement this feature or not, our neighbourhood will be designed to facilitate community-building. Each cohousing community does this differently, and so each one has its own unique flavour.
I look forward to living in Prairie Rivers Cohousing, a community where relationships with neighbours will be valued and promoted by the neighbourhood's physical layout and design.
If a close-knit community where neighbours care for one another sounds like an environment you would like to live in, consider joining Prairie Rivers Cohousing. We would love to have you.
To be continued.