Mae Sa Mai Village Visit

Win’s life began in a Hmong village, with a soon-to-be mother writhing in pain on a bed of ferns her husband scavenged from the jungle. His first month was spent with his mother in this birth bed, where they gained strength for the life to come. Life in the Hmong villages was in transition when Win was born, and is continuously morphing to this day. At it’s core, Win’s life is similar to the simplistic way it began, but the details surrounding it are hardly recognizable.

When Win was young, he trekked eight hours through the jungle with his father to reach Chiang Mai, and another ten hours back home with dry goods fastened in woven baskets they wore on their backs. This walk was necessary for trade between the village and Chiang Mai city, as well as to acquire goods that could not be found within the village. At this time, the Hmong Village was in its early years of learning new agriculture practices.

After fleeing from China, Laos, and Burma (Current day Myanmar), many of the hill tribe people found refuge in Thailand and entered the Opium trade. Growing Opium poppies and creating the drug for medicinal purposes was one of the few ways the hill tribe families earned money. This did not last long, however, because soon Opium began to be outlawed around the world.

When His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej visited Win’s village for the first time, he brought with him a wealth of knowledge and a plan for change. Instead of simply outlawing Opium and letting the hill tribe villages starve, the King offered lessons in agriculture. This became known as the Royal Project Foundation, and it helped to diminish Opium farming and deforestation in Thailand.

Like many of the people in Thailand, Win has a passion for learning. His gratitude towards the King and the knowledge he shared is luminous. Win has a similar passion for the environment, and has spent his life learning sustainable practices of agriculture. Before Win was born, many of the hill tribes rotated crop fields and continuously cut down trees. Within Win’s lifetime, a great deal of these lands have been reforested.

Throughout our three hour trek Win showed us the mysteries of the jungle, from poisonous caterpillars to herbal first aid practices. With respect in his voice, he said “come to the jungle for three hours, and I will teach you all there is to know. Go to the city and you will never be able to stop learning.”

Despite his simple life, Win is accepting of progress and technology. He was excited to share that he has had a cell phone for ten years, even if it is a bit cracked. 

Towards the end of the trip we met with the Village Shaman, who is thought to have a connection to the spiritual world. Win explained to us that the Shaman tied the wrists of the King when he came to visit, which is a ceremony used to provide good luck and fortune. This is a great honor, and Win radiated pride when he shared the shaman’s tale.

The spreading of knowledge has given Win and his village a means of living that is less harmful, and more lucrative, than the Opium trade. As a kid, Win had to trek through the jungle to sustain his own life, now he and many others in his village have cars, technology and a knowledge that is helping to sustain the life of our planet.

In closure, Win thanked us for our curiosity and desire to learn, expressing earnest hope that more westerners would come to learn (and teach) in his humble village.

Jungle trek to Mae Maa Nai Karen Village and LaHu Village

 

Like most things, trekking through the Thai jungle for three days was not what I expected. The barrier between my imagination and reality was as impenetrable as always. I pictured something similar to the jungle book, minus the musically inclined bear and the resemblance I had to Mowgli as a child. The Thai jungle has little resemblance to the jungle from the cartoon, and instead was a mix between a deciduous and tropical  forest.

The trip started off on a steep incline, which made me question my decision immediately. The growing ball of fire inside my chest and the ninety three degree heat battled inside my throat, leaving little room for breathing on the battle ground.

Along the way our tour guides used their machetes to cut bamboo hiking sticks for each of us. Because of the morning rain, the brick red dirt was slippery, and the bamboo sticks helped us to scurry up the mountain.

After three hours of hiking up steep inclines and then back down the steep decline, we learned to appreciate the uphill crawl. Walking down the mountains was challenging and painful. By the time we reached the Mae Maa Nai Karen hill tribe village, the tendons in our knees were twitching from the hours of suspension. My friend Emily began to have a gait similar to Gollum, slightly hunched with bent knees and a look of creeping concentration on her face.

Visiting the Karen Tribe village showed me the beauty in the “bare necessities.” There was romance in the candle lit dinner we ate outside, a meal farmed from the fields hidden within the trees and cooked on a fire lit stove. This way of living was sustainable and self sufficient, instead of using plastic baggies or containers to pack the rice for later consumption, they wrapped it in banana leaves. Any leftovers fed the village dogs and pigs.

Sleeping under a mosquito net felt as elegant as staying under a canopy at a five star resort, and the jungle sounds removed the need for a white noise app or fan.

The Karen and Lahu Hill Tribe people were constantly joking and laughing, smiling and singing. They seemed happy and content. Many of the Hill Tribe groups have lived a precarious existence. Since the Hill Tribes are refugees from China, Laos, and Myanmar, their tribes are scattered across the globe. Unfortunately, the Hill Tribe people are considered to be on the lowest rung of the societal Hierarchy in Thailand, making it difficult for the children to get education and for the Hill Tribes to change their social position.

Despite this, the villagers are welcoming, generous, and kind.

On our last day we bamboo rafted down the river with some of the Lahu Village men. They made jokes to us  in english and sang to themselves to pass the time. Their happiness was alluring, and it made me think I could live in the mountains forever.

Despite the charm of the Jungle, there were times I wished I was in my hotel room safe from nature. By the second day my feet and legs felt like they were continuously being swarmed by an army of red ants, I had so many mosquito and spider bites that they seemed to overlap and double in discomfort.

While the mosquito net provided a five star ambiance, the floor felt like a bumpy log. The jungle sang me to sleep with it’s chirping lullaby, but the roosters and early morning dog fights were more startling than any alarm.

I missed the luxury of a toilet and shower, despite my love for stream bathing.

By the end of the trip, I was conflicted on whether I wanted to stay in the jungle and live with the hill tribe people forever (maybe marry one of the jubilant hill tribe men) or be back in the city with running water and cell phone reception.

In the end, I am sitting in bed with wifi and the comfort of air conditioning, but I am still unsure whether that is by choice or whether it is because my Lahu crush is already married.