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.