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Travelogue - 03-04-05                                                                                                                               Links to all Travelogue pages

 

Thailand, page 6

I've been living in an Akha hill tribe village northwest of Chiang Rai, Thailand. The hill tribes, called chao khao (mountain people) by the Thais, are said to have originated in various parts of China and Southeast Asia. They are a race apart, a small, tough people who prefer to live in remote highlands. Comprised of at least 10 different tribes scattered throughout southern China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Burma and northern Thailand, they include Karen, Hmong, Akha, Mien or Yao, Lahu, Lisu, Lawa, and a few others, each with distinctive costumes, crafts and traditions dating back many centuries. Although many have supposedly been converted to Christianity or Buddhism, most remain animists at heart.

My Akha village - I think of it as mine - is unusual in that it has electricity and offers simple lodgings for guests. This is due to the efforts of one man, Mr. Apae, an Akha native and a natural entrepreneur who has single-handedly overcome innumerable obstacles to develop a unique, low-key tourist trade for his village.

I'm told Apae founded this village himself many years ago with this idea of accommodating visitors. I'm not aware of any other hill tribe village anywhere that has done this, at least not to this extent. Over the years he has built half a dozen simple, thatch-roofed bamboo bungalows to rent to guests wanting to experience life in a hill tribe village beyond the one-night stay that most of the packaged trekking tours include. 

Gradually Apae earned a good reputation for himself and a moderate, off-the-beaten-track tourist trade for his village. Still, after 14 years this place remains virtually unknown outside of the nearest large Thai town, Chiang Rai, and even there you have to more or less luck into it as I did. During the week I've been here the average number of guests on any given night has been maybe half a dozen, mostly adventurous falangs - Europeans and some Americans - with the occasional Japanese backpacker. There is no question the presence of so many outsiders has affected the village people, and yet they are still pure Akha and in many ways, I believe, still representative of their singular race.

Whenever I've encountered hill tribe people in big-town market places around Thailand, or in their small villages when I've trekked through, they have usually been stone-faced and remote, preferring to ignore outsiders. They have good reason to be wary of strangers. Over the centuries and continuing up to present times these people have been harassed, persecuted, uprooted, relocated, imprisoned, sometimes slaughtered and always treated as outcasts by the established governments and people of the nations in which their mountain villages happen to lie. 

Not many years ago some of the hill villages in this region made extra money growing small crops of opium-producing poppies. Then government troops came to eradicate the illicit trade, killing around 3,000 hill tribesmen in the process and imprisoning as many more. Since then the villagers are terrified of being associated with drugs of any kind. These painted signs warn visitors of the zero-tolerance policy in this village. I heard there is still a little opium around for the occasional elderly villager that wants to smoke it discretely, but I never saw it. And if I happened to get a couple of joints of pot from a visiting falang - I'm not saying I did, mind you, I'm saying if I did - I'd have smoked them in the deep forest, never in the village, out of respect for my hosts.

click thumbnail photos to enlarge

In spite of decades of mistreatment by outsiders these people can be very warm and welcoming once they've accepted you as a friend, even more so than the Thais, who are quicker to smile but slower to befriend. Many of the Akhas I've come to know possess a sharp intellect, a keen and ready sense of humor, masterful skills in their various arts and crafts, an innate respect for their natural environment and an ability to embrace the modern world or to live off the land, depending on what's available to them at the moment.

As I mentioned a moment ago, one of the things that makes this particular hill tribe village unusual is that it has electricity. How that came to be is a cute story and illustrates the Mr. Apae's gift for getting things done. 

     

It seems the wife of the King of Thailand, whom the Thais call the Queen Mother, is fond of sponsoring benevolent and often successful programs to help her more needful subjects, and she occasionally likes to visit the outpost villages of her realm. About 5 years ago she made a scheduled stop at Apae's little hamlet. At the end of her brief appearance Apae, as the village chief, presented her with a particularly beautiful, handmade Akha shoulder bag as a commemorative gift. Some time after she departed the queen discovered a note from Apae inside the bag. The note said, in effect, "Oh, great and noble Queen Mother, won't you please help our humble village to develop and prosper by helping us get electrical power lines run up here?" 

Two weeks later Apae received a surprise visit from the head of the regional electricity commission, who angrily complained, "You should have applied to us through normal channels for electricity! How dare you go directly to the Queen Mother! She has instructed us to run lines all the way back here from the main highway. Ridiculous to do that for such an insignificant village!" Nevertheless, almost immediately poles were erected and 10 miles of electrical cable were run straight into Apae's village, enabling him to offer amenities that even the most adventuresome tourists appreciate. 

I didn't know there was electricity here when I first piled into the village pick-up truck in Chiang Rai for the bumpy, 45-minute ride to the village. I must say I was delighted to find it, though, not only for the cold beer it made possible, but because I can use and recharge my laptop computer here, making this place very attractive as a writer's haven.


I've been paying 150 Baht a night, about $4 US, for a simple bamboo and thatch bungalow with en suite bathroom and a hot shower. There's a small porch overlooking a deep ravine and the opposite hillside over which the sun rises each morning. 

Also at this end of the village is an open-air canteen for guests to take their meals, with a limited but sufficient menu and a refrigerator filled with bottles of drinking water and Chang beer. What more could I ask? Well, I could ask for good hiking, beautiful waterfalls, friendly natives and a pretty girl, but there's no need. All that and more was already here waiting for me when I arrived. 

One of the first people I met was Akha John, a 50-something year old Brit who has been living here for the past 15 months and has no intention of leaving. In fact, he has been so completely accepted by the tribe that they allowed him to buy a bit of land at the edge of the village and he's about to start building his own bamboo house there. John doesn't speak either Thai or Akha. He communicates with the villagers mostly by grunting and chuckling a lot, and this seems to suffice. Of course the chief, Apae, speaks very good English (and about 6 other languages), so anything that needs to be made clear can be by asking him to translate.

Several other village men and a few of the women are becoming conversant in English by listening to and practicing with us visitors. The guests' canteen  is the evening social center for those who want to speak or learn English, or just hang out together. It's a big, thatch-roofed, wooden platform extending out over a steep hillside on a perch of tall poles. The canteen features a fine view of the rain forest across the ravine, and you can hear the muted rumble of the 3-tiered waterfall just the other side of next hill. 

Across the adjacent dirt road that is the village's main (and only) street is the chief's house. His broad porch is another social center where villagers gather to chat and tell stories. Kids and pet dogs play around them. Falangs and villagers alike wander freely between the canteen, Apae's porch and the rest of the village. There's a tiny general store in a nearby hut with a limited selection of snacks & drinks.

One of my favorite Akha men is a wiry fellow they call Apae Noi, not to be confused with Mr. Apae, the chief. They just happen to have the same name (all Akha names begin with the letter A, by the way). To avoid confusion identifying these two in this village, the smaller Apae became Apae Noi, meaning "little" or "junior" Apae. Clever, at times hilariously funny and a skilled craftsman, Apae Noi makes good, sturdy bush knives of the kind most hill tribe men carry. This is their most basic and essential tool, a stout, functional, heavy-bladed machete used every day for chopping bamboo and wood and many other chores. Whenever Apae Noi can make a few extra knives not needed by one of his tribesmen, he offers them for sale to the falang guests at the canteen. My very first evening there I bought a fine Akha bush knife from him for 450 Baht, bamboo sheath included. 

I spent my first day in the hills hiking 'til it hurt. The big waterfall closest to the village, which I call #1 because I can't pronounce the local name for it, is magnificent, by all accounts one of the prettiest waterfalls in northern Thailand. It's barely a ten minute walk from the village and I, being a waterfall aficionado, went there first. But it was too early in the day to linger, so I set off along a footpath for a hot spring on the banks of the Mae Kok River many steep, rough kilometers away. 

Hiking out of the hills to the river wasn't so hard, it being mostly downhill. It took me less than two hours. Getting back took a good bit longer and tested my endurance, pushing my thigh muscles to their limit. The trek gave me a new respect for the steepness of this terrain and the stamina of the hill tribe people who literally take it in stride. En route I passed through a quiet, shabby Lahu village where the residents dutifully ignored me.

Incidentally, the woman in the last photo above, who has a craft stand at the hot spring, is not a vampire despite her bloody-looking mouth. The red stain comes from chewing betel nut, a habit still fairly common among older villagers. The chew, a messy combination of the betel nut, the green stem of the plant, and lime, produces a mild intoxicant and helps relieve the pain of toothache and gum diseases, but it stains their mouths red and, I gather, rots their teeth over time.

The hot spring turned out to be pretty and park-like, accessible to cars by a dirt road running alongside the river. It's a place Thais are wont to take the family for a picnic on a Sunday afternoon. As I ate a lunch of roast chicken & rice in a small, outdoor restaurant, a teenage Thai girl struck up a conversation with me. Her English was pretty good and I asked her if she had learned it in school. No, she replied, she had learned English by watching American movies on TV and repeating the words the actors spoke. She could generally deduce the meaning from the context of the film and the body language of the actors. If some character said, "OK, Bob, I'll catch you later," the girl would repeat, "OK, Bob, I'll catch you later." It seems almost comical, but this young woman spoke better English than most Thais I've met. She was proud to tell me she had just passed an examination to become an overseas au pair, someone who hires out to live with a wealthier family and look after their children. She thought she might be going to work in America in another 6 months or so, a dream many Thais share but few achieve. I have little doubt this sharp girl will make it.

After the hard, uphill climb back to my village I headed straight for waterfall #1 where I stripped and dove into a cool pool of clear water to rinse off the sweat and trail dust.

 

That evening Apae Noi brought a guitar to the canteen and I entertained the villagers and falangs with a few songs. A native woman I'd heard people call Mama sat near me by the campfire and sang along with whatever I played. Of course, she had no idea what the words were or what they meant, but she managed a fairly good imitation nevertheless. Together we made an unlikely, bi-lingual, trans-cultural duet.

After a couple of strong Chang beers, I started making up songs about the women peddling their crafts. Even though I had already bought some souvenirs from them during the day, they tended to be a bit pushy and nagging whenever I passed by their blankets spread with handmade crafts for sale, always bugging me to buy more. Also, it is customary to bargain with them for anything you want to buy. This became the gist of my joking as I made up a silly tune about our daily intercourse. "Come, come, you buy, you buy one from me. One hundred Baht, 100 Baaaaaht. No, no, I pay 30 Baaaht plenty. No, no, for you 85 Baht, good price. Oh, no, maybe 60 Baht, sixty. OK, 60 Baaaaht. Buy two now, you buy two only 100 Baaaaaht," and so on. The villagers, especially the women, got a kick out of it and joined in the singing and joking. After that, whenever I passed them during the day they would sing out, "One hundred Baaaht," and laugh.

The next day I found my way to a pair of waterfalls about a half hour's hike away. They each have a name, but I called them #2 and #3. The latter, reached via a long earthen staircase down a steep slope, is exceptionally pretty, with a wide pool at its base surrounded by bamboo, ferns and jungle greenery. IF I had possessed that mythical joint someone gave me, this is surely where I would have smoked it..

I sat on a boulder with the water sluicing my bare feet and played my wooden recorder to the accompaniment of the thundering fall, communing with God and nature, and afterwards remained for a leisurely picnic. This is my idea of heaven on earth. It just doesn't get any better.

 

When I finally tore myself away and started back up the long slope to the dirt road, I encountered a Canadian man and we struck up a conversation. He's living in Pataya, which is Thailand's most notorious sex capital.  A full-time resident married to a Thai woman, he brokers condominiums for a living (that's condominiums, not condoms). This poor guy was more stressed out than a New York commuter and complained constantly about Pataya, the people, the politics, the over development, the pollution, the poor water supply and so on. He seemed close to a nervous breakdown and I thought it was good that he was taking a little time off to get out into the forest. Even though he seemed oblivious to the beauty of our surroundings and raved on angrily about his life, I suspect the simple presence of all this quiet, green nature may help soothe his troubled mind. 

As I neared the village I veered off to try an alternate trail that seemed like it might lead up towards #1 waterfall. There I found several of the village women, including Mama, set up to sell their crafts to any tourists or trekkers that might happen by, but there were no customers that day. We started joking about my "100 Baht" song. Then, as they prodded me to buy something now, I sang them the tune from the Broadway show, Annie, paraphrasing "Tomorrow, tomorrow, I'll buy some tomorrow," and when I got to the last line, "It's only a daaay awaaay," they all laughed and sang "tomollow, tomollow!" Of course, what made it so funny to them was that they hear the excuse, "I'll buy something tomorrow," from visiting falangs all the time. 

Easy mark that I am, I wound up buying something from each one of those women. Their crafts are beautiful, all made by hand and embarrassingly inexpensive. I had to bargain with them to avoid appearing foolish, but I did not bargain very hard. Always I came away knowing I could have gotten whatever I'd just bought for less money, but I would have taken no pleasure in beating them down that last 25. A quarter makes absolutely no difference in my life, but the equivalent 10 Baht means a lot to these people. I enjoyed these transactions much more knowing they had gotten what they consider top dollar out of me for their wares. From my perspective, most of it would be a steal at double their initial asking prices.

I was enjoying this place so much I didn't want to leave. However, I had already reserved a flight to Bali in Indonesia and the departure date was fast approaching. So I caught a ride back into Chiang Rai, went to the travel agent there with whom I'd booked the flight, and had them push the date back a few days. I also emailed a friend I was scheduled to meet in Chiang Mai, telling him I'd be delayed a few days. This bought me three more days and four nights in my jungle paradise and back I went aboard the afternoon pick-up truck.

That evening some of the village women introduced me to Asuta outside the little general store, joking with me that I should marry this shy hill tribe girl. I'd been noticing her already, a slender, demure young woman in her early twenties. And while Asuta was too shy to acknowledge the older women's half serious proposal, neither did she chastise them for bringing it up. I guess she's been noticing me, too.

After that, she and I smiled at each other a lot and began to chat once in a while. She doesn't speak much more English than I speak Akha, but where there's a will there's always a way and I have never found the lack of a common language an insurmountable obstacle to communication. 

 

In the morning I set off for a Yao tribe village way back in the hills, the probable location of which I surmised from a rough sketch map with no details, and by asking a few Akha villagers before I left. They waved an arm towards the west and indicated it was an hour or two that-a-way. It turned out to be a long, hard slog mostly uphill, but I enjoyed the walk through the young mountaintop forest.
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When I arrived I found the Yao village to be a colorless, uninteresting little hamlet with nary a soul in sight. The only ones who took notice of me were the village dogs, several of which came charging at me in a pack, barking and snarling viciously. I've found that aggressive dogs usually back off if I appear to be even more aggressive, so I ran straight at them and roared out my best king of the jungle imitation. Fortunately for me, this stopped them. One mean old son of a bitch tried to work around behind me where he might get a piece of my ankle when I wasn't looking, but I faced him down and soon the mongrels retreated to a safe distance. Still, they kept barking. Although I'd heard occasional human voices inside some of the huts when I first entered the village, no one came out to call off the dogs or acknowledge my presence. May they eat the whole mangy pack and get worms!

By the time I got back to the #1 waterfall to cool off I was one tired hiker. Late that night I was suddenly awakened by a sharp, incredibly severe pain in my thigh. A muscle had cramped up rock-hard and persisted on and off for 20 excruciating minutes despite my desperate pounding and massaging. Finally the spasms passed and I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

 

 

 

 

Akhas have a wonderful sense of humor. Once you've broken the ice and are relating person to person, joking with them is easy and lots of fun. The men are particularly fond of making straight-face jokes, then waiting to see if you got it. They clearly enjoyed the fact that I could respond in kind, pulling off little jokes of my own. For example...

As far as I know all hill tribe people eat dog meat. It's a necessary part of the diet in most villages, where they're just barely subsisting and must eat anything they can get just to stay alive - dog, pig, snake, small fish, squirrels, owls - anything. In this relatively affluent Akha village they can usually afford chickens and pigs - some of them raise their own - but they still eat dog simply because they like it, and because it's cheap. I learned dog meat sells for 40 Baht (about one US dollar) per kilo, whereas pig meat, pork, costs 100 Baht per kilo. 

Now, the villagers prefer to keep their dog-eating habit to themselves, knowing that most Thais and falangs think eating a dog is primitive and repulsive. This struck me as a perfect opportunity to rib them and so I started comparing costs of things in the village to the price of dog, casually at first and with a straight face. When Apae Noi offered to sell me another of his knives, this one with a sharp point "for sticking pigs," I complained that if I paid him the 400 Baht he was asking for the knife I'd have to kill two 5-kilo dogs just to break even. Then I stared at him stone-faced, trying my damnedest not to smile. He did the same. Finally, as if on signal, we both cracked up. When the women called me over to buy something from them and I saw one of the village dogs asleep off to the side, I asked, "How much for the dog?" Thinking I meant to buy the dog as a pet, the women said, "Five thousand Baht," and I looked shocked and said, "No, no, 40 Baht per kilo, and I buy some rice, too," and we all laughed at the exchange.

One evening a big village dog fell asleep on the cold ashes of the canteen fireplace, providing fuel for a renewed round of joshing ("Hey, Ajou, got a match?") In truth, however, the Akhas in this village do not eat their own dogs, which are pets. When they want dog meat they buy the animal from another village.

I tried an Akha massage, which a few of the women were offering for 100 Baht, but it was poorly done compared to the professional Thai massages available in the towns & cities. Afterwards, some of the women half-joked with me about marrying one of their daughters, offering me several choices as the girls blushed and giggled, but the consensus in the village is clearly that I should marry Asuta. She remains bashful, neither agreeing with nor refuting the idea. To keep things light I suggested I marry two or three of the girls and have 5 babies with each. This was met with more laughter and chattering in Akha, so that I could only guess at the text of the banter.

Again it was time for me to leave, and again I managed to postpone the departure. Using Apae's cell phone, which works from the village if he plugs it into a tall external antenna mounted on the roof of his house, I called Chiang Rai and cancelled my room reservation at Baan Bua Guesthouse. This meant that I would not have a last day in that town as I has originally planned, but would go directly to the bus station the next day when I came down from the hills. My friend was waiting for me in Chiang Mai and my flight to Bali was non-refundable. I could stay one more day in the Akha village, but no more. 

My last day there I was going to take it easy and just hang around the village and #1 waterfall. Then I heard that the men were cutting a fire break up on the ridge above the village, so I set out to join them carrying my big Akha bush knife, figuring to lend a hand and just sort of be with the guys. 

Brush fires are an annual problem throughout Southeast Asia. This time of year, as the dry season drags into its last month or so, the land is parched and the forests catch fire easily. The thick haze in the countryside that I assumed was automobile-generated smog from the cities is, in fact, mostly wood smoke from wildfires burning throughout northern Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Burma, mixed with a haze of natural water vapor and yes, around the bigger towns, a goodly dose of engine exhaust fumes, the whole held firmly over the land by a prevailing high pressure system. Since there are no fire brigades in these rural hill villages, the tribesmen must protect themselves and their crops against brush fires. The fire break that the Akha men were cutting that day, a lane through the forest cleared of vegetation and encircling the village on the surrounding high ridges, is their first line of defense.



On my way out of the village I spotted Asuta sewing in what I took to be her house on the uphill side of town. We chatted a while and I learned a little more about her. She's 23 and, she said, the only Catholic in the town. She referred to the others in this village as "Christians." She goes into Chiang Rai every weekend to attend a Catholic church with her sister there. Asuta's parents are both deceased; she seems to be on her own and getting along well enough. 

 

Like many of the women here, Asuta sews beautifully. Pictured to the left is a traditional Akha bag she made for one of the villagers. The entire pattern is hand-stitched.
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Again I set off to find the men cutting the fire break, but only got a short distance on my way when I met the blonde-haired Dutch woman I'd seen around the village with her Akha boyfriend. We got to talking and I learned that back home she was a professional physical therapist. She found her way to this village during a vacation, fell in love with one of the men here, and stayed. Now she has opened the Bamboo Bar up the hill, an idyllic little watering hole that practically no one goes to because the tourists tend to congregate at the guesthouse canteen at the lower end of the village. 

She also mentioned that there was going to be a dog meat feast that night to reward the men who were cutting the fire break. I'm sure I could have gotten myself invited, but while I have no problem with other people eating dog I don't feel inclined to it myself. This is not due to any high moral position or lack of curiosity, but because I've been so attached to particular dogs at times in my life. Unless I were starving I would no sooner eat a dog than a dolphin. Or a person. 

I searched all over that day but never did find the trail to the top of the ridge to join the fire break crew. Every time I doubled back and asked someone the way I got another vague direction accompanied by a wave of an arm indicating that the trail was that-a-way. My search took me deep into the rain forest and I spent many happy hours there just hiking around. I must've discovered a dozen obscure footpaths and little-used trails that I hadn't seen before. 

Using my trusty bush knife I cut a stout green bamboo walking stick, strong and lightweight, to help me navigate the rough terrain. I eventually wound up picnicking high above the #1 waterfall, having scaled an especially steep, almost ladder-like staircase hacked into the hillside. Later I found my way out onto the Yao village road. I was so happy with my life and my situation at that moment that I found myself singing Zip-a-dee-doo-dah out loud and twirling my bamboo walking stick like a baton as I marched merrily down the forest lane, butterflies actually dancing before me just like in a Disney cartoon. Had one of the villagers seen me then I'd have been in for some hard ribbing at the canteen that evening.

Back in my bungalow late that afternoon I heard what I thought could only be gunfire - lots of it! - from the hill above the village. I rushed out, fearing an attack by Thai army troops or opium warlord bandits, recalling scary stories I'd heard of how things were not so long ago in these parts. What I saw instead was a small brush fire sweeping up the hillside. As it heated the bamboo, the trapped air in the stalk sections exploded with a loud bang. There was so much of it, it sounded like a small revolution.

My last evening was much like the others except I brought out my laptop computer and gave the villagers a "slide show" of the photos I'd been taking since I got there. It's one thing common to all people everywhere. Everybody loves to see themselves in a photograph, and the Akhas were no exception. Afterwards I gave chief Apae a CD onto which I'd burned all the photos and I made him promise to get prints made in Chiang Rai to give to each of my "models." 

I chatted with the falangs - a woman from Israel, a French couple, a Brit, a Jap and two Danes. Akha John and I discussed village life, Apae Noi sat with us listening to our English. I flirted a little with Asuta, but not too much. I was leaving.

In the morning I rode into Chiang Rai in the back of the pick-up truck with a few other departing guests. Once there Apae offered to give me a lift to the bus depot. When we were alone together he talked to me seriously about marrying Asuta. The village favored the match and he, as their chief, also approved. It wasn't necessary to say that I, as a rich American, would be a good catch for any hill tribe woman, and good for the village as a whole were I to become a part of it. This was not a business proposition. It was an honest token of the villagers' good opinion of me and I was deeply moved. Asuta, darling of her community, a favorite of the chief and his wife, and a sweetheart by any standards, would make any man a fine wife. Apae said he would build us a house at the edge of the forest, where there's a view across the valley to the steep-sided hills beyond. It was without a doubt the nicest proposal I've ever had and, truth be known, I gave it some thought and continue to do so.

With gratitude and straightforwardness I explained to Apae that even if I do make it back for a longer stay in his village, which I very much hope to do, I'm probably not a candidate for getting married and raising a family there or anywhere else. I said I didn't suppose Asuta was in the market for just a boyfriend and he concurred. We both agreed she deserves the real thing and, each in our own way, I believe we both felt some genuine regret that I wouldn't be the lucky man to get her.

Next stop: Bali!

 
 

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