On Meeting With the Village People

Trip Start Feb 26, 2006
Trip End Sep 16, 2006

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Sunday, March 26, 2006

I was surprised to find that the village people live quite humbly in a small village made of bamboo reeds and dried, weaved elephant grass. Eva and I went to visit them the other day.

Chiang Rai is a small town in the extreme north of Thailand, very close to the Golden Triangle area where Thailand meets Laos and Myanmar/Burma (depending on your political and/or historical preference). Although there are many tourist facilities in this small town, there is a quiet peacefulness to this small and very manageable city. Even the tuk tuk drivers don't get out of the shade of the back of their cars to harass you about rides-- they do it at a distance, in full recline position, in between snores.

Eva was quite excited about the prospect of booking a trek into the hills (which we were originally planning to do from Chiang Mai), however I was considerably less enthusiastic considering my love of air conditioning and a distinct lack of such amenities in the middle of Thailand's jungles. However, when in Thailand, do as the tourists do. So we hired a guide and booked a trek.

Treks in Thailand are extraordinarily easy to find-- virtually every guest house, hotel and mom and pop shop seems to sell bottled water, thai massage and treks. It's simply a matter of finding the guide that's right for you.

There are plenty of one day tourist treks, where they drive you everywhere in a truck, drop you off for an elephant ride, then take you and your 12 other farang compatriots for a prefab river rafting ride. Then it's off to the village where the natives dress up in traditional costume and charge you to take photos of them next to the village python, which serves no other purpose than that someone in the village figured out that if they keep a python there, tourists will pay to photograph it.

We want to do a trek that is a little less like a visit to Disneyland and would provide a slightly more authentic experience. Through our guest house (the embarassingly named but financially compatible "Tourist Inn") we found our guide Ko, who outlined a two day journey for us which took us to a village elephant camp, on a Thai longtail boat ride, then up into the jungles of Thailand where we would visit a waterfall, then an overnight homestay and dinner with one of the villagers all for the low, low discount price of $45 per person (but drinks and elephant rides were extra).

We were picked up by a typically bizarre Thailand transport vehicle called a songthaew. Two other people were to accompany us on our journey into the hills. We arrived at the docks for an intensely touristy boat ride on a traditional longtail boat, followed by an intensely touristy visit to an Elephant Camp, complete with a photo-op python and monkey-in-a-cage (see photos). Now while it's true that the Elephant Camp in villages all over Thailand are massive tourist traps, this one is actually located in a small self-sustaining village and the local people rely on it for income. Tourist trap or economic savior? It's your decision. Eva and I opted against the 300 baht ($9.00) elephant ride, however which was extortionary by Thai standards. While the other visitors rode elephants, Eva and I decided to support the local economy by purchasing and consuming a whole watermelon for all of 10 baht (25 cents).

The songthaew picked us up and after a 20 minute ride on dirt roads, we were dropped off at a random location, next to a ramshackle pit stop in the middle of nowhere. This is where our journey was to begin. Our guide Ko, outfitted in silly conical bamboo fishing hat and small machete, led our small group into the jungle where we proceeded to hike, mostly uphill, for 4 hours.

Yes, that's 4 hours, uphill, into the jungle in oppressive Thai heat and humidity. My shirt remained wet for days afterward.

Though an exhausting and thoroughly dehydrating experience, Ko proved to be a very well educated guide, picking out and letting us taste various jungle plants and explaining how local villagers use them in food or in their daily lives. Several times we were passed by local people harvesting bananas, though instead of wheelbarrows, these villagers used pickup trucks.

We ran out of water nearly an hour before our trek through the jungle, and I was tempted to drink the river water or maybe squeeze the sweat from my shirt into my mouth (that would probably yield at least a quart). In fact we reached the base of the Lahu hill tribe village, and Eva offered to go on and fetch some water for me as I wheezed and panted and caught my breath at the bottom of the hill. In fact it was our intrepid guide Ko who did the water run for us, as Eva sat next to me and caressed my sweat saturated head.

As we entered the village, it was as if out of a National Geographic special. It's just as you would imagine-- thatched roof huts, lots of dirt and animals, and children laughing and happily playing, unaware that poverty surrounds them. But this is a different kind of poverty. These people are not homeless-- in fact that possess the skills to build their own homes, with items found in the wild. They are not hungry, because the jungle yields a treasure trove of vegetables and fruits, and for better and worse their livestock (a few dozen pigs and chickens) run around the village, unpenned.

One thing that surprised me was that the children didn't react to our presence as we arrived. In fact I was greeted with many times more surprise at any random moment in Taiwan than I was in this little village in the jungle in the middle of nowhere.

We walked past the children and up a hill, past a solar panel(?) and into our home for the evening. We were told that we would be staying in the village shaman's house, which sounded like quite an honor. I imagined us being welcomed as honored visitors with a candle lit procession as ther crowned our heads with perfumed garlands.

Instead, the shaman barely greeted us-- he was a slight man, wearing a dark t-shirt and shorts and hardly ever made direct eye contact with us. He seemed largely indifferent to us, as if he often offers up his home to small groups of farang.

We laid our belongings down onto the floor and instantly felt reverberating waves. The floors (and the walls) are made entirely of long, thin, continuous strips of bamboo which are extraordinarily strong but also quite flexible. The upshot of this is that as long as someone is moving, there is a constant mild bouncing sensation, as if you are sitting on a firm waterbed.

I walked outside to gaze at the view. The shaman walked over with an ice bucket of beer and offered me one. Eva and I don't drink a lot of beer, but how often are you offered a beer by an Lahu village shaman? I accepted. "Beer 50 baht," he said. Hmm.

Eva and I decided against the beer, not so much because we're tightwads (50 baht is about $1.30) but because it feels wrong to purchase hospitality in this way. In fact, we had read in guidebooks that for independent travelers who arrive at hill tribe villages by themselves outside a package trek, the cost to stay overnight is also 50 baht. However, these people have very little money, and 50 baht makes a much bigger difference to them than it does to us. If you're the type of person who cares about these things, it's impossible not to be reminded of the impact that tourism has had on this village. Clearly all the signs were here that while they may not have Starbucks and "WELCOME FOREIGNER" signs on the entrance to the village, they received enough tourists that the experience was no longer a unique or interesting one for them.

Eva and I decided to go for a walk, to get away from the 50 baht beers and purchased hospitality, and try to get a more authentic sense of Lahu village life. By our good fortune, we met a very friendly man, about 55 years old, who spoke a dialect of Chinese that Eva was able to understand. We were honored that he offered us a tour of the village. After all, this is the sort of experience that we came all this way for. Indeed, this is the sort of experience that I turned my life upside down for-- a chance to peek into a life completely alien to my own. What an opportunity this was!

Our new friend introduced us to his wife, children and family-- about 6 people living in a small one room house, as the other villagers did. We saw that although we had our own private toilet and shower facilities outside the shaman's house on the hill, the rest of the village used shared accommodations in the center of the village. Apparantly the private toilet was an attempt at making foreigners feel more comfortable (but of course the shaman benefitted from this as well.) He continued to take us a fascinating one room bamboo and thatched grass schoolhouse (see photo), quite reminiscent of the iconic one-room schoolhouse from American history. "We had a teacher from Taiwan once," he tells Eva.

We ask him what work he does in the village. "I wake up before the sun rises and plant seeds. It's to hot to work in the sun. Then I go to sleep until afternoon. Then I pick fruit. It's easy work, the fruit grows by itself, and I can sleep all day!"

He continued. "I am a poor man. I have no money. But I have food to eat, and a place to stay. But I cannot visit my childhood home in China, and I can't afford to buy medicine when I need it."

This raises an interesting comparison. This man makes do with the skills and resources available to him. Instead of bamboo and elephant grass, people with no money in the US make their homes out of cardboard and newspaper, shunned by greater society. However here in Thailand, traditional village life is a legitimate and very real way of life, supported and protected by the Thai monarchy, and it coexists side-by-side with the ultra-modern consumer intensive lifestyle of Bangkok urbanites. Americans cannot choose to live "off the grid", but villagers in Thailand cannot choose to live in the city. They are two worlds, side by side, yet infinitely divided.

The sky grew darker as dusk turned to night. As we said goodbye to our friend, we asked him what he and his family do when the sun sets and he points to one of the gleaming new solar panels connected to each house, courtesy of a Royal project by one of the Princesses to bring electricity to the hill tribe villages. "Karaoke!" he said, and if by dramatic design, we heard the dulcet tones of the real village people as they sang, and sang, and sang their way into the night.

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