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Walking the Hill-tribe Path, Thailand

20 August 2015

Northern Thailand is surely one of the most culturally diverse regions in the world. Mark Eveleigh treks into the mountains near the Myanmar border and spends a few days following the ‘hill-tribe path’.

There was no getting away from it; I wasn’t going to eat well on this trip. And while Thailand is known for great cuisine, the absence of anything in the way of cooking utensils suggested that this bush-meal, in remote frontier hills, was not likely to be one of the highlights of my trip to northern Thailand. How wrong could I be.

My two travelling companions are from the Lahu hill-tribe, however. Although times are changing rapidly for the Lahu, Timothy and Boaz are the inheritors of a nomadic tradition that came all the way from Tibet three centuries ago.

Timothy strides along the riverbank and in a few minutes I start to hear the brisk thunk of his machete hacking at a thick bamboo stem. Boaz gathers some firewood and, by the time it is crackling into flames, he has already converted a green sapling into supports and a crossbar for the fire. Timothy emerges from the jungle with a bamboo cooking pot (apparently it heats faster with the green outer-skin shaved off) and an industrial-sized pestle and mortar that would put the kitchen of a Michelin-starred restaurant to shame.

The meal of nasa labe (a succulent fresh fish), boiled in the bamboo pot that is plugged with fragrant leaves, is subtly flavoured with mountain herbs, green peppers, onion, garlic and coriander. Chicken wings are barbecued on bamboo skewers and giant chillies are charred on the fire and then peeled and ground in the bamboo mortar, with more coriander, garlic and salt to make a delicious sambal accompaniment. Finally, three big wild-banana leaves act as a perfect picnic blanket while another section of bamboo makes an attractive casserole dish in which to serve this Lahu speciality.

This afternoon has been my first taste of Lahu tribal life and by the time I’ve finished the meal – Boaz peacefully smoking tobacco through an oversized bamboo water-pipe – I can understand why the Lahu have a preference for their traditional lifestyle.

Northern Thailand is an area of craggy mountains, rolling like the scaly green backs of proverbial dragons. Some of the steepest peaks (the highest close to 3,000 metres) seem to rear straight skyward like serrated teeth – it seems appropriate that the nearest large town is called Fang. It is these looming ridges and deep, impenetrable valleys that have been responsible for the great number of different tribes and clans, each preserving its own language, customs and way of life, that inhabit this area. Thailand officially recognises six major hill-tribes but the reality is infinitely more complex: in 1979 an Australian anthropologist listed more than 40 ethnic subgroups of the Lahu alone.

Most of the million Lahu people in the world today live in China but an estimated 10,000 live in the US, where they were given refugee status after having helped the Americans in what was called their ‘secret war’ in Laos. The fact that the Thais often refer to the Lahu simply as muso (meaning ‘hunter’) might be a sign of their worth if you were looking for guerrilla fighters to ally with. The so-called Golden Triangle was once the world’s prime source of opium but it is no longer the dangerous place it once was. Life is infinitely more peaceful for the 60,000 Lahu who live in Thailand today than it was, even a few decades ago.

“My grandfather, Pumuen, was charged by the Thai government to maintain a border force as a buffer against communism,” says Yok Chaikor, director of the Lahu-run Phumanee Home Hotel. “My father, Jafa Chaikor, was shot by crime lords in 1983 for the part he played in moving the Lahu people towards tea production instead of opium,” she adds.

Now my Lahu guides, Timothy and Boaz, are taking me to their tribal village in the remote hills just a few miles from the Myanmar (Burmese) border. We arrive in Doi Pu Muen just as the tropical sun begins to burnish the tea plantations with the golden light of evening. These days tea is not only the main source of income but also a centre of tribal social life. I’ve been invited to stay at the house of Aje and his wife Nilu and, after slipping my shoes off to climb the steps into the stilted living quarters, I’m greeted with the first of countless glasses of cha.

The fact that this energy boost flows almost uninterrupted in Doi Pu Muen is a good thing because I soon realise that, by village standards at least, we’re in for a late night. By 8pm half the village is standing around a blazing fire while an endless chain of shadowy figures dance to the eerie tune of the nor pipe and the throb of the charo drum. The women’s dresses are delicately embroidered and beaded with silver coins and bells that shimmer like diamonds in the firelight. An hour later I’m clumsily trying to keep in step as we shuffle around the fire, kicking up wisps of golden dust.

We walk back to Aje’s house with the tropical sky alight with stars and the distant lights of Mae Ay town shining up from the valley. “We call that the stars on the earth,” says my host with typical Lahu poetry.

We sleep on mattress on the slatted bamboo floor of the main living room and are woken early by the cacophonous din of a traditional village. Working life here gets underway long before the Asian sun has a chance to make its power felt and by 7am the ladies of the house are already out carefully selecting the most succulent tea-leaves from the crop on the hillsides.

Sure-footed as mountain-goats they make their way across the slopes, fingers browsing expertly, plucking only the choicest leaves. After the baskets are emptied and the leaves spread out in the sun, the next step is to char them slightly on the big wood-fired steel basin in the family’s yard. It’s humbling to realise how even a heavily laden bag of fresh-picked leaves will finally diminish into a tiny heap of prepared tea.

I’m fast realising that northern Thailand is not the place to be if you don’t like tea. Two days later I’m sipping still more steaming cha in another timber hut while Arlepha Apamo tells me about life in the Lisu hill-tribe.

“In our language ‘Li’ means tradition and ‘Su’ means people,” he explains. “Therefore we’re known as the people of tradition.”

The Lisu are the most colourful of the hill-tribes – known to many Thais as the ‘flowery Lisu’ – and are known as talented artists, working elaborately in silver and painstaking textile embroidery. They recognise countless styles of needlework and a real connoisseur can pick out styles with names like tiger-chest, snake-belly and dog-tooth. The men wear brightly coloured pantaloons and black tops whereas the women wear dark Chinese style pants and vivid tunics that can be decorated with up to a thousand metal coins and tiny bells.

Like the Lahu, the Lisu are said to have migrated south from the Tibetan plateau but, whereas the stilted villages of the former are often found on the steepest slopes, the ground-standing homes of the latter typically occupy flatter terrain.

“In our way of speaking these houses are said to ‘straddle the earth,” says Siriyaphon Beaksa. Known to her friends as Som, she is the vivacious manager at the lovely Lisu Lodge, a community project that combines four exquisitely laid-out guest-houses with a unique opportunity to experience the traditional life of her tribe.

Among their many other talents the Lisu may be the world’s fastest builders: traditionally a house had to be built in a single day with the whole community arriving to help and the women supplying the food and drink as sustenance for the workers. These days, with cement replacing timber and corrugated iron replacing the traditional thatched roofs (so great for insulation) times have changed and building projects tend to stretch a lot longer.

Next to Som’s village is a neighbouring Akha community. Yet another of the celebrated hill-tribes, these people are struggling to find their place in the modern Thailand while at the same time respecting and preserving the traditions of their forefathers. It is said that an Akha male should be able to recount his genealogy back over fifty generations to the first Akha, Sm Mi O. Perhaps the least integrated of all Thailand’s hill-tribes, the Akha are extremely tenacious in following what they call the Akha Zang (the Akha Way).

“We’re Thais now as much as anyone else,” says Som. “But we all – whether Lisu, Lahu or Akha – must remember where we came from and who we are. It’s good that people from the outside come to visit us: they’re showing our young people that the baseball hats and hip-hop they see on TV is not the only thing to aim for. What we have is something precious. Something that should be preserved and protected.”

Backyard Travel’s four-day northern Thailand tour includes a trek to Doi Pu Muen Lahu village (staying with a local family), a night at Lisu Lodge and a cycle tour around Chiang Mai and surroundings. Prices from US$650 per person based on two sharing (including private air-conditioned vehicles, most meals and English-speaking guides). backyardtravel.com.

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai means ‘new city’ yet its royal history dates back to 1296 when it was the capital of Lanna kingdom. Even today the ancient city – surrounded by defensive moats – is still a regal frontier city in the heart of Thailand’s highest mountains (700km north of Bangkok).

The city is said to boast 300 temples and while the old citadel, with its irresistible markets full of hill-tribe produce, is easily explored on foot one of the best ways to experience the beauty of the surrounding rice paddies and forests is by bicycle.

Pai

It is famously quoted that there are exactly 762 curves between Chiang Mai and the highland town of Pai. It is also frequently reported that Pai is a sleepy, peaceful mountain town that is the secret beauty-spot of northern Thailand. In fact these days there is hardly anything secretive (and or very much peaceful) about Pai.

Since the town was used as a location for a famous Thai movie (Pai in Love) in 2009 Pai has become a vastly popular Asian tourist draw-card with a lot of sights which focus largely on the kitsch and cutesy imagery of the famous chick-flick

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