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Beautiful Patterns, Common Threads


THAILAND--Part Eight


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NORTHERN THAILAND: Hill Tribes around Chiang Mai

A couple of days later, I headed out on a great adventure to visit hill tribe villages in the highlands outside of Chiang Mai. I'd never ridden on an elephant before, and for part of the journey that was the preferred method of transportation. Elephants are highly respected in Thailand (remember the symbol for the Asia Games?), and are even protected by law. You could say they're thought of in Thailand the way cows are in India. The Thai army even used to have a special Elephant Corps!



The term "hill tribes" refers to the people who live in the upland valleys and hill sides of northern Thailand. Many also live in the mountains of Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Read an introduction to the hill tribes of Thailand.


Along the road, we came across this group of elephants being used by loggers to clear this section of the forest. Not many wild elephants are left in Thailand; most have been captured and are used in this way. (There are many endangered species of animals in Thailand, ranging from tigers to a wild ox called the gaur; other species are already extinct, like single- and double-horned rhinos and the Schomburgk deer, which was hunted out of existence for its prized horns.) Logging is a huge industry in Thailand, with the lumber used mostly for furniture and housing. Much of the world's teak wood used to come from Thailand -- but, like much of the country's forest resources, it has been almost completely used up. In 1988, a survey was done showing that the country's forested areas, which used to cover almost all of Thailand, now only covered 28%! Despite a ban on much logging, and a government reforestation program, the forests continue to shrink, much to everyone's disadvantage.



One answer may lie in this resource. Recognize it? This is bamboo. What's great about bamboo is that it's an easily renewable resource: indeed, to keep it growing and healthy, it NEEDS to be cut back. Bamboo can be used to make many things, too, from piping to transport water to house frames, floors and walls to furniture and much, much more.



As we got near the first village belonging to the Lahu tribe, we saw this example of an innovative use of bamboo. Looks like fun to me!



This first village was quite small, with only about sixty-five people. While a few children were around, the adults must have been out in the fields. It was right around lunch time, so the kids must have been on a break from school. This school house is awfully small, too, serving only this village, so I'm not sure they have a set schedule for classes; it's likely the teacher was out in the fields working.



The next village we came to was a Karen village. My guide, Rak, was scoping it out as a possible place for a group to stay in. The village heard he was coming, and decided to build a new house for potential guests to stay in. They put up this structure in two hours!



This Karen house is built in the traditional style. It is made entirely of wood, with no nails -- the pieces are designed to fit together perfectly. It's a moveable house, so if the villagers decide to move they can take the house apart and move it with them. It's also on stilts, to protect it from gushing water during the monsoon season.



This is a close-up of the roof of the house, which is made from overlapping leaves found in the forest that are bound to a wood frame. It works!



I was amazed to find these solar panels on the outskirts of the village. Talk about the new mixing with the old...!



Rich as the hill tribe people's cultures are, they face problems, many of which come from their having to relocate in order to accommodate the government's program of managing public lands. Many have nowhere to go, and have no way to survive outside the forest. If the land they come to is not productive, they suffer from sometimes-severe poverty. (This can be very hard to understand for a hill tribe person, who DO think of the land as "public", so that having a government from far away tell them to move makes little sense.) The king himself, and his family, often help out. They often visit villages like this one, and start up special projects to address problems they see. This milk program for school children was started after the king's daughter came for a visit.



Here, a picture of the king's daughter hangs above my other guide, Kaew, and the principal of the local school. You can see in the next photo that this school is much nicer than the one in the Lahu village; partly that's because of the influence of the king's daughter, but mostly because this is a much larger village of about four hundred people. The principal is a member of the army, which runs many of the hill tribe schools. That is because the area where the hill tribes live is often considered unsafe -- here, many of the Karen have come from Myanmar, where they are fighting against the government to become an independent state, and the fighting sometimes filters over the border into Thailand. Rak told me the army HAS to teach here because teachers from the city consider it too unsafe a place to live. So, per the princess's orders, army members are trained to teach in the country's education colleges, then sent to this area to work with hill tribe children.



This K-6 school has six teachers and 142 students drawn from two local villages with a total population of about 600. (That's a LOT of younger kids for that population!) With the classrooms run by the army, I wondered just how much the students learn about their own culture. The answer is: none. The schools serve to teach them about Thai language and culture, so that they will be ready to enter into "mainstream" Thai society, while education about their own culture is left for the home. I can see why the government feels it's important for the hill tribe people to learn about mainstream Thailand in order to "reduce cultural misunderstandings", as the government says, but I also think it's equally important for the Thai to learn about hill tribe culture in order to appreciate and maintain those cultures. It's a difficult problem, and one that sounds very familiar to me, teaching in a multicultural place like San Francisco! (One program the king supports is identifying talented youth in the hill tribe communities, giving them scholarships to go to college, then meeting with them personally as a group at graduation to ask them how they're going to take what they've learned to help out their own villages when they return, which they're required to do to get the scholarships in the first place. I think that's a great program, and another reason to admire the king.)



Just some Karen kids saying hi!



Out in the village, we saw this Karen woman spinning thread that will be used to weave some traditional fabric. Weaving is one of the most important of Thailand's traditional crafts, and the products are considered some of the most beautiful made anywhere in the world. Among the hill tribes, each produces its own type, with characteristic colors, patterns and textures. It is easy to identify what tribe someone comes from if they're wearing their traditional clothing.



This is one of the more beautiful pieces of weaving I saw in Thailand. (While it wasn't made by one of the hill tribes, but rather by a Tai weaver, you can bet that many of the hill tribe pieces are equally stunning.) What I especially like about this piece is that it tells a story. The pattern is called the Black Swan (look closely and you can see the swans), and it's related to one of the Jataka Tales that describe the many lives of the Buddha before the one where he attained enlightenment as Siddhartha Gautama. Thailand has wonderful stories, and it's amazing to me that they're even told through the clothes people wear!



In the next village we came to, which belongs to the Hmong people, we saw another example of the talents of the hill tribe people in making beautiful clothing. You may be impressed by how many villages we could visit in a single day. In fact, the villages are very close to one another: while it took us three hours to get to the first one and then another hour to get to the second, the next ones were all right next door to each other. (Which is not to say it's easy walking; it's very hilly, which is one reason, according to my guide, you can tell a hill tribe person in the city even if they're dressed in city clothes -- they WALK different -- on the balls of their feet, which is how you walk when you're in the hills all the time!) You might think having villages so close together would cause conflicts, given that each belongs to a different tribe, but Rak told me that in his twelve years of visiting the area he hasn't seen or heard of a single fight between them. To the contrary, he's seen many instances of them working together on projects of common interest, like building a water-delivery system.



In the next village we visited, we met these Padong women dressed in their traditional clothing. It's worth mentioning that the queen of Thailand has played a major role in supporting traditional Thai crafts, such as weaving of these clothes. Part of her activity stems from her commitment to preserving Thailand's natural and cultural heritage, including that of the hill tribes. It also has to do with the king's support for the country's efforts to change from an economy that exports its raw natural resources (which generates little profit) to one that manufactures products for export, employing people like these women and bringing more money into their pockets. Manufactured products now make up 70% of Thailand's exports (in 1960, that figure was only 3%), and textiles are the number one export, above even foods!



One of the Padong women was cooking dinner over a wood fire. This gives you an idea of the simple methods used by many hill tribes to deal with the needs of everyday life.



In the next village, another one belonging to the Karen, a woman was weaving again -- only this time, she was weaving together grass for a roof to be used on a new house the villagers were building. Thai people also weave rattan (a kind of wicker) into furniture, and palm leaves into fans and mats. They often use fibers of different natural colors to weave together into beautiful patterns in boxes and handbags, too.



The last village we visited was Lisu. Like most Karen, many Lisu are Christians, reflecting the influence of the many missionaries who have traveled through this region of the world. While more hill tribe people are Buddhist, they are virtually all animists, mixing their beliefs in spirits with those of the Christianity or Buddhism they have also adopted.



And, on the way out of the forest, we saw this tree that gives further evidence of that "religious syncretism" (mixing). This is a Buddhist tradition of swathing a tree that has been overused (in this case, tapped for its gluey sap) to protect it from the spirits. It also serves the very practical function of stopping people from using it even more, thereby allowing the tree to grow back to a healthier state.



I returned to Chiang Mai with a fascination about the hill tribes, and looked for what I could find out about them in the city itself. This led me to a program at the New Life Center. One of the most tragic consequences of the poverty found in many hill tribe villages is that young girls in the villages are tricked or sold into slavery or prostitution. (In some cases, parents are told that their child has been chosen for a job in the city, and are given an "advance" on her salary, when in fact she is then forced to work in a brothel; in other cases, the girls' parents are opium-addicted and easy prey for someone willing to give them some money to support their addiction; and, in yet others, the girl has no parents and lives where tribal leaders make money by selling girls.) The New Life Center gives shelter to girls who are at-risk or already in such abusive situations, provides them with tutoring (few have had any formal education), enrolls them in night education classes, and teaches them to be self-sufficient by training them to produce tribal handicrafts that they can then sell. (There are many NGO's in Thailand that do work in all areas of public service; write me if you want to know more.)



One hundred and forty girls, aged 14 to 24, live at the center. They come from many different tribes. In this photo, clockwise from top left, Saikeaw is Karen; Mola is Lahu; Buu Ya is Akha; Buu Mia is Akha; and Mii Nong is Akha. (Other residents are Lisu, Hmong and Mien as well.) Each is holding a doll she has made dressed in the traditional clothing of her tribe. (When asked what they wanted you to know about the center, they said that "there are lots of tribes here, and we learn a lot from each other about our weaving styles, dances and so on.") At the bottom left is Judy, who is the assistant director of the center and Lahu herself. The center also looks to train young women with leadership potential to go back to work in their villages, and Judy is a role model. She did have an opportunity to go to school when she was young, and now works at Chiang Mai University as well as at the center.

The New Life Center does many wonderful things for the young women it works with. But I wondered if it was really the BEST thing that could be done -- for example, if something could be done in the villages to educate and warn parents about the real intentions of those offering "jobs" to their daughters, AND to provide support for economic development of the villages, that might help solve the problem before it arose.

I asked Judy if she thought a program like this, which as part of its approach teaches "Christian values" to the residents and offers strong incentives to convert to Christianity, doesn't undermine their sense of tribal identity. She felt that both programs needed to be done hand-in-hand: i.e., that the problem needs to be addressed at its source, but also that these girls need help NOW. And, the training in tribal handicrafts and in their native languages helped them maintain pride in their tribal identity. Still, she had to laugh a little when I pointed out that she has a Thai husband and her two young daughters speak no Lahu. Certainly, it's a thorny problem with no clear answer.



HAPPY NEW YEAR! Because Thailand has people of so many backgrounds, they celebrating many holidays and festivals, some ancient and animist, some Buddhist, some Chinese, and others related to important Thai historical events. Even though January 1 is not the traditional, ancient Thai new year, it's now celebrated throughout the country. (Traditional Thai New Year comes in April, and is called Songkran-- it's now the year 2502 by that calendar system, which started in the year of the Buddha's death.) On New Year's Eve in Chiang Mai, one of the traditions is to send hot air balloons into the sky. Some of them are huge. The people at my guest house only had a couple of medium-sized ones, though. They lit the fuel lamp to heat up the air inside the paper balloon, then waited a while for the air inside to get hot enough...



...and launched it up into the cool night air. By the time midnight hit, there were literally hundreds of balloons up in the air. Each was high enough that it looked like a small point of light, giving the appearance that there were tons of planets showing up in the heavens that night!



On New Year's Day, I accepted an invitation to come to a performance of tribal dance and music at Chiang Mai University. It's very hard to describe what it was like, but this picture might help. The dancers were all very ecstatic while they danced, talking and laughing with each other, and smoking from their pipes...



...while an almost eerie music, pulsing with rhythm and swirling around the nasal sound of the oboe-like instrument in the back row, played throughout. The instruments used by Thai orchestras, whether Tai or tribal, originally come from China -- another example of the influence of that great land to the north.



At night, after the music and dance were over, I got to see an amazing play put on by a famous dramatist who brought his play from Bangkok to Chiang Mai for this performance. The play was about Asoka, the first Buddhist king of India. His intention in writing this play was to re-introduce Thai audiences to this great figure, a man who in his early days was the leader of a ferocious and vicious army that killed thousands -- then, one day, looked down at the dead on the battlefield and realized the wrongs he had done. He devoted the rest of his life to spreading the peaceful word of Buddhism. (And, yet another example of the influence of India, that great land to the west, on Thai culture.)



My last days in northern Thailand were sad ones, as the husband of one of the friends I'd met while in Chiang Mai passed away suddenly. I was asked to come to the funeral, where I met again some of his family, including his cousin's son dressed here in his monk's robes.



In Buddhist practice, the deceased is cremated before burial in a crematorium such as this. A sad ending, but in the Buddhist view, all things must pass, and my friend's husband will return again in the endless cycle on his quest to reach nibbana.

Part 9

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Last updated
4/30/99