Saturday, January 5, 2008

Chiang Mai Day 5 - The Hill Tribes

Mary K writes:

We woke up the earliest we’ve had to since leaving Guam to visit the Hill Tribes---a three-hour trip each way to a little village very close to the Thai-Burma border. We stopped at the Orchid Farm in Maerim where we learned about the life of orchids and butterflies. The orchid jewelry was exquisite---they took orchid flowers, covered them in resin to dry them out then coated them with lacquer. They edged the flowers with gold. So the flower jewelry really is flower jewelry, not an artistic interpretation. They also did the same thing with the butterflies.

We got back on the bus with our nine other new best friends (from Australia and Hong Kong) and continued to Chiang Dao Cave where a monk lived 100 years ago. The waters caused erosions in the rock that imaginative Thais saw as the animals of the jungle. We walked deep into the cave to view the Buddha statue. This Buddha was notable because he lay on his back "like a commoner," our tour guide, Maia, said. Most Buddhas lie on their sides.

You can tell the difference between the various Buddhas once you’ve been educated. Burma Buddhas are different from Thai Buddhas which are different from Chinese Buddhas. It’s all very interesting and we’ve decided to learn more about Buddhism so we can better understand the Asian culture.

We stopped at the best "truck stop" restaurant. The meal was served family-style: cashew chicken, sweet-and-sour-chicken, and mixed vegetables with steamed rice. We ate a chicken broth and tofu soup for starters and finished with sweet seasonal tangerines, probably from the local farms. Delicious! On the suggestion of our tour guide, we bought "healthy" snacks from the mini-mart to hand out to Hill children.

We made one more stop to view a giant Buddha and look out over a rustic northern Thai resort.

Finally, we drove up a rutted road and clambered out of the van. What an eye-opener. The various tribes are refugees from Burma and Laos: the Karen, the Palong, and the Akha.

Gregg writes:

Today we visited the Hill Tribes of northern Thailand. The Hill Tribes are the remaining members of three separate tribes from the Northern Thailand/Burma/Laos region. They are the Karen ("Longneck"), the Palong ("Black Teeth"), and the Akha.

The "Longneck" tribe got their nickname from the rings the women put around their necks starting at 5 years of age. In earlier times, the rings were used to protect the necks of females from tiger attacks in the woods, as the neck was where the tigers would attack. A second reason for the rings was to alter a woman's appearance to look like a swan, which was revered for its beauty by the tribe. And finally, the rings "protected" the soul, or spirit, of the wearer, which was thought to reside in the neck of the tribe members. Likely because that was where members were bitten by tigers when their spirits were lost at death.

There are significant downsides, of course, to wearing the rings. The life expectancy of the women who do so is between 45 and 55. And they suffer terrible back and neck pain throughout their lives. Not to mention the incredible discomfort they must experience on a daily basis.

Today, Longneck women are no longer forced to wear the rings - they are still forced to start at 5, but can decide to stop wearing them at 10. The decision is a difficult one, though, since those who choose not to wear the rings must leave the tribe and their family and go to another tribe that does not wear rings.

The second tribe we met was the Palong. The Palong are known for their extremely black teeth, which they get from chewing Betel nut. They chew the Betel nut for the "high" they get, which I'm told is something like that of nicotine but stronger. The chemicals in the Betel nut eventually turn their teeth completely black, as you can see in the picture below. The Palong also have extremely large ear lobes which they get from inserting increasingly large ear rings. Unlike the Longneck tribe described above, there are no underlying reasons for enlarging their earlobes, other than perceived beauty.
The final tribe we met was the Akha. They had no physically distinguishing characteristics, but they were consummate sales people. An unattractive trait they inadvertently picked up from the Thai sales people in the markets in the south. They specialized in selling Hill Tribe clothing for kids, as well as an annoying wood carving of a frog that makes a very loud noise when stroked with an included wooden peg. (Drew, of course, had to have one.)

Meeting these humble, extremely poor people was overwhelming. We already knew we were blessed with riches when we saw how poor the Thai people living in the cities of Bangkok and Chiang Mai were. But these proud people were poor even by their standards. Thatch homes with dirt floors covered by bamboo rods, a kitchen that was nothing more than a fire pit, and no running water to speak of. They had a communal shower that was a water pipe with a rubber hose attached, fed from the stream nearby. Yet they were too proud to beg for anything. (Not the Akha, who were quite adept at begging.)

We were all deeply moved by the experience and are looking for ways to make donations to help make their lives better. The guides who took us to visit them didn't have any suggestions on what we could do, so we are investigating on our own.

In the meantime, the one thing we all took away from our visit was how incredibly blessed we are compared to most other people in the world. I knew before going that there was abject poverty in the world. I've seen it in the Philippines and, of course, on TV. But I've never seen anything like this up close. It will stick with me and give me perspective when I hear others, particularly those living in the United States, complain about how little they have. Believe me when I say that the poorest people living in the US are unimaginably rich compared to the Hill tribes.