Thursday 10 October 2013

Hill Tribes of Thailand - 26

A Cat's quest of curiosity
Not only have I a liking for cats but I also share their same sense of curiosity. I guess it’s my inquisitive nature that has often landed me in interesting situations and caused me to meet so many fascinating people.
Poling the Pai River
     Fortunately, my wife Jean shares the same traits; we thrive on change and relish the unusual. It’s for those reasons that we choose to wander off the beaten track as travellers. In doing so, it often means travelling with the minimal of baggage, on local transport, eating the local diet, and sleeping in whatever shelter is available.
     We are often in areas where hotels are seldom found and have to make do with whatever can be found locally. This varies from sleeping on floors of village huts to custom-built bamboo chalets, occasionally rooms are rented in private homes where some of life’s comforts are found.
     Food can be equally surprising; we have eaten everything from boiled chicken heads and snake soup, to roasted armadillo and deep fried frogs. We try to do so with as much relish as tucking into a sizzling, home-cooked steak.
     Transport can be just as diverse, varying from luxury coach travel across Patagonia, or standing many hours on rickety, dust filled buses in Cambodia and the Philippines, to squatting for hours in open canoes, or clinging on the back of small pick-up trucks. It is often tiring, but never tiresome.
In search of Hill Tribes of Thailand
Jean Precariously crosses a raging river
     Throughout the remote hills of south-west China, Laos, Burma and northern Thailand, there are many almost forgotten tribes of people, known variously as Lisu, Lahu, Miao, Hmong, Akha, and Karen. They collectively number several million, each with their own language, customs, costumes, and culture.
     Over the centuries, these sturdy independent souls have been driven south and southwest from Tibet and China by various warring parties. They are generally referred to as Hill Tribes, or in China, as Minority Races. They have been displaced so often, they tend not to recognise international borders or governments.
     We were keen to visit some of these hill tribes, and therefore enlisted a local guide to take us on a four-day trek from the village of Pai through the steep surrounding hills in northern Thailand.
We were taken by pick-up truck and dropped twenty miles from Pai, and then set off on foot along dusty trails and dry riverbeds, carrying our bedrolls and a week’s supply of provisions in our backpacks. The sparse vegetation thickened to dense forest paths, with occasional crossings of shallow rivers and streams, before we climbed up through hills of bamboo groves.
Drug Runners
A tribal convoy taking goods to market
     At mid-afternoon, we paused on a narrow ledge to let some intense looking tribesmen pass by. They were carrying homemade rifles and leading a group of six sturdy packhorses laden down with well-wrapped bundles, within which was probably contained opium or heroin, sadly, this is the only cash crop for many of the tribes in this part of the country.
     By late afternoon, we came upon a large clearing in which sat the village of Ban Seng Nam. It was home to the proud and somewhat aloof Lisu people - easily distinguished by the indigo blue smocks of the women, and the short baggy blue trousers and puttees worn by the men. We approached the village across a small stream where women were busy washing clothes by way of pounding them on large flat stones. They eyed us cautiously.
The Lisu Tribe
Friend or foe!
     As we entered the village, we passed a number of small bare-footed children dressed in a similar fashion to the adults, each carrying five-metre long bamboo canes tipped with a sticky substance. They were using the canes to catch large cicada insects that they found buzzing in the trees and bushes. Apparently, they bake and eat them, with any surplus being sent to market for sale.  
     The village was a scant, dusty collection of stilt houses built of split bamboo with palm-thatched roofs. There were a small number of cattle, lots of yelping, protective dogs, and a few unsmiling people, who stared suspiciously at us as we passed through.
     Although the village showed little sign of outward wealth, the Lisu tribes are apparently looked up to and respected by other hill tribes. They are known to employ Karen and Lisu tribes to till the hillsides for them, to plant poppies for the opium trade, and sweetcorn for cattle fodder
The Lahu Tribe.
     Our presence seemed intrusive, so we continued on our way. We climbed up through steep valleys and hills, following vague tracks past large-leafed teak trees. It was just before nightfall when we arrived at a village called Ban Lai Kong where our guide negotiated with the Black Lahu tribal elders, for us to stay at the headman’s hut.
     This village had about twenty houses nestling on the side of a small-enclosed valley. It was far more organised than the previous Lisu village; a rustic fencing, to stop pigs and cattle from wandering away or destroying vegetation, ringed each house.
     The homes were set atop high stilts and entered via a sloping, notched climbing pole. Each dwelling comprised a large single room, in the centre of which was a metre-square, open-hearth fire place set on a bed of earth on top the split bamboo floor; overhead, hung an oily, smoky, bamboo drying rack, for utensils.
     With the food we had carried with us, our guide prepared a meal of chicken, vegetable and noodles. Meanwhile, Jean and I climbed down to the river and joined the other villagers who were stripped for a cold but invigorating bathe. Women collected drinking water in metre-long hollow bamboo culms, and then carried them in baskets on their backs, supported by straps around the forehead.
Village Life
Lahu village
     The Lahu villagers were curious of us - but in a polite and friendly way. Many came to sit around the light of the open fire to watch us eat with our knives and forks, roll out our sleeping bags, rig up our mosquito net, smear mosquito repellent over our skin, and to view the many other things which they no doubt thought strange of us.
     Our Thai guide could speak very little English and even less Lahu, so communication was reduced to gesticulations and smiles. He indicated that this village was one of very few Christian communities in the area. We were shown hymn books printed in a romanised version of the Lahu language, and produced in Burma.
     We were invited by a group of twenty-four villagers to hear them sing hymns in a nearby house. The women sang beautifully whilst their menfolk joined in harmony. It was a delightful concert, during which Jean and I occasionally kept them company on our harmonicas.
Sheltering from 'gun fire'

     It was quite a bizarre and surreal situation; the open log fire crackled inside the tinder-dry thatched house; pigs and buffalo grunted beneath the split bamboo floor; dogs yelped and howled outside, and all the while, beautiful melodic sounds of hymnal harmonisation in the Lahu language wafted in the night air, mixing with the croaks, chirps and other normal night sounds of the jungle. It was a concert worthy of royal patronage. 
Snuggle up with pigs
     We slept soundly on the floor of the headman’s home to a lullaby of grunt, snuffles, and snorts, from the pigs housed beneath us.
     The following days were long, exhaustive, slogs through the hills. We occasionally passed areas that had been cleared and were being used to grow crops of poppy, women were delicately slitting the seed pods to bleed out the white narcotic sap.

     At one point, we came upon a forest fire, and almost immediately came under what we thought, was an attack from gunfire, but it turned out to be exploding bamboo culms, overheated from the forest fire.
Not quite Cleopatra on the Nile
     We discovered just one other village, at which we hired two elephants to carry us onto the Pai River. At the river, we found a small group of tribesmen collecting bags of fungi, they kindly constructed an extra makeshift open-topped platform for us to sleep on, and then lashed a bamboo raft together for us to make our way down river the following morning.
Rafting the River Pai
     We had expected a leisurely, slow drift back to the village of Pai, but instead it became an exhausting eight and half hours journey on an unstable raft. The river level was so low, it meant we were constantly battling to pole, and dragged ourselves over rocks in the scorching sun.
     We arrived back, sunburnt, dehydrated and exhausted; the first two cans of beer scarcely touched the side of our throats.
    The painful enjoyment of the four-day trek would soon wear off, but the informative life experience would last forever.

Your Comments are always welcome


  1. Sounds a fantastic experience and Pai is somewhere I have to visit!! Frank

  2. The world is changing fast. Go before yesterday disappears and becomes tomorrow.


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