Our next stop was at a house out in the country where women were weaving. They receive orders from Bangkok and sell their products for 1,500 baht for 4 meters. The rows of straight colors took them no time at all. The rows with designs required painstakingly woven hand stitches. She said it would take her about a month to complete the current piece. We bought several small handkerchiefs and took some photos with them. It is really sad that the stores in Bangkok are able to turn around and sell these women’s goods for such a high markup when they are slaving over these looms every day. Alas, that is how the system works.
We stopped in a village where all the residents are refugees or the descendants of refugees from Laos. During the Vietnam War the Royal Laotian Government was in support of the US aims against the Viet Cong. While the Communist Party in Laos was obviously in support of the North Vietnamese. With the defeat of the Royal Laotian Army, the fight was left to the US and Thailand backed hill tribe army led by the Hmong people. Once the communist regime held power, it threated to exterminate the Hmong entirely. Before the conflict there were 400,000 Hmong in Laos. Throughout the fighting around 100,000 were killed and that number would have been higher if it weren’t for many being resettled in other countries. Between 1975 and 1996 130,000 survivors were resettled by the US to several counties around the world. Thousands ended up in Thailand and remain there to this day. We spent some time with one of these refugees. He showed us his teak home. From the outside if felt a bit ramshackle, but once inside the teak wood was smooth under foot and had a deep shine. The kitchen had a peaceful view of the hills and his catfish pond. He handed us several herbs to smell and explained that he grew everything himself. That is why Thai cooking is so flavorful! They have so many native herbs growing along the street. Other than farming he also makes gun powder for the hunting tribes of the area.
Finally hitting the trail, Nong informed us that we would be crossing 7 streams, so instead of preserving the bottoms of our feet we just took off our shoes. We waded through streams, raced leaf boats, and made our way through rolling hills via cow paths. We passed one man smoking weed and Nong explained one problem of the region is that many men spend their days smoking marijuana or opium, while the women toil away in the fields. This is one reason why the men of the tribe we stayed with that night often have more than one wife. One word- Labor. We met one of these women packing corn into a bag high up in the hills. She asked Nong for something to eat because she was hungry. Myles handed her his bag of nuts with the intent that she would take a handful. Nope, the whole bag was snatched. I can’t blame her though.
The trek was beautiful and eye opening at the same time. It really gave a clear picture of the progression of time and humans’ impact on the environment. Nong explained that ten years ago the area was one of the world’s largest producers of opium. When the Thai government stepped in and began cracking down, the locals switched to growing corn (something like 40 baht per kl). In order to have the space required to produce enough corn to make a decent profit, the hill tribes (especially the Hmong) began clearing away the jungle. Each year another strip of jungle disappears. Nong estimates that all the jungle will be gone within 10 years. If you just set your gaze on a strip of jungle, you can imagine what the area must have looked like a decade ago. This trek stands as a stark comparison to the one we did in Laos. This one was more about meeting the hill tribes and learning about their struggles to fit into the frame work of a fast paced and globalized world. Their efforts to do so, unfortunately are leading to the demise of the land. On a lighter note, it was very entertaining to watch the locals bag the corn and fling the bags down the hill. Why carry them when you can just roll them!
After ascending high into the hills, we arrived at our home for the night. A village set high above the valley with sweeping views of greenery. Our shack was airy and incorporated the outside nature nicely ;). It felt like sleeping on the ground with the entirety of the village’s brood of hens in the bed with you. Kellie and I took great delight in our circumstances and found ourselves giggling late into the night. I didn’t even mention the showering situation… well it involved dumping icy water over ourselves in the pitch dark while the other held a flashlight over the door.
The highlight of the trek came the next morning when we met the last man living a traditional lifestyle of the Mlabri tribe (Yellow Leaf People), Ba. If you check out the Mlabri on Wikipedia, you will find his picture. The Mlabri are a nomadic tribe of hunter and gatherers. They are often called the Yellow Leaf People because they will build huts with banana leaves and when the leaves change to yellow it is a sign that they should move on. Over the past few decades their lifestyle has been shifting with each younger generation adapting more settled lifestyles. Now instead of being nomads they work in the fields with or for the Hmong throughout half the year. The other half of the year they spend settled near Hmong villages. The last true hold out to these changes is Ba. He wears the traditional loin cloth and nothing else. His wife was complaining about the cold to Nong. I can see why. We were freezing with our coats and many layers on throughout the night, while they were huddled under their banana leaf hut with no blankets and no additional clothing. On the coldest of nights they dig holes in the ground and cover themselves with the banana leaves.
Both of Ba’s ears were deformed and we asked Nong what had happened. He explained that as a boy Ba climbed a tree to get some honey. In the process his right ear was repeatedly stung by bees. In the rush to get down the tree, his left ear got snagged by bamboo thorns. His entire face swelled up and he couldn’t see for a few days. He was left with a crumpled right ear and a low hanging left earlobe. Thankfully the ordeal didn’t impede his hearing ability. I kept thinking that an anthropologist should be there preserving this piece of human history. When he dies, so does an ancient way of life. I asked about his diet, how many wives he has, where he was born, how many siblings he has, if he knew how old he is, and if he had traveled at all. For most of his life his diet has predominantly been made up of yams supplemented with an occasional turtle, lizard, snake, or mole. Now it is easier for him to have access to pork and chicken from the Hmong villages. He chuckled and said he only has one wife. Apparently, having more than one is too expensive for him. He was born on a nearby hill and grew up with 5 siblings, but only two brothers are still alive today. Since they do not have a calendar system, neither he nor his wife know how old they are. The younger generations have obviously adopted the Gregorian calendar. He has been to Chiang Mai and Bangkok. Along with the couple was their shy grandson. We really enjoyed sitting with them and were so thankful for the chance to meet such a special family. Tim even got to taste pure pork fat right after being steamed in a bamboo shaft- Yummy! Not really.
The trek snaked along the spin of several hills before a SERIOUS descent. Nong picked up five bamboo shafts and sharpened the ends with his machete. He warned us that the hike down would be steep and that last year one tourist had a bad fall. If it hadn’t been for a banana tree stopping his trajectory, the tourist may have been seriously injured. We inched our way down the incline on top of corn husks one step at a time. Unfortunately, the pictures just don’t do this hill justice. Oh well, take my word for it!
We passed several families working and were given a relaxing time to just chat. It was so wonderful to share that time with Kellie. I can’t say enough how much I love her company! I just hope she will be joining me on the road again soon for a more permanent period (Kellie- you know what I am talking about!).