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Rafting the Maekok

At a small collection of houses on stilts, we beached the canoes. Pouk lead us on an easy hiking trail, into the jungle. The view from the boat was incredible, because of all of the air and space. But trekking, the jungle was up-close and personal. Now, we could not only see, but also hear, feel, and smell the natural world. Already, at this low altitude, we saw evidence of scientific farming, as we crossed over patty fields, integrated with the jungle scenery. Fruits and wild flowers grew inches from our path.

When we reached Tisae Lahu Village, we were told that the headman was out, working on the farm. So, we would have to wait. A Lahu woman took us to her house, which doubled as the village store. “We are sleeping in Seven Eleven.” Joked Pouk, taking in the shelves of snack foods and cola, which decorated our sleeping room.

Just judging from the quantity of food available for sale, and by the nearly normal amount of baby fat on the faces of the Lahu children, playing in the yard, I determined that this village was infinitely richer than the Akha Hill tribe villages, where I had been living. In those villages, people had gaunt, tight faces, and children often lost their hair. Here, everyone looked healthy.

We grounded our packs, and had just settled into a very comfortable resting position, when Reinier said to me. “You’re a journalist. Go out and learn something about the village, so you can write your article.”

The bamboo mats which the Lahu had laid out on the floor for us were exceedingly comfortable, and standing up was not on my personal agenda. “Can’t I just make something up, or do research on the internet, when we get back?” I asked, like a six year old who didn’t want to get up for school. Luckily, Pouk, who, like a deadly Mary Popins, always had the right solution in his bag of tricks, boiled up some coffee for me. Fortified with caffeine, I was back in the game.

Our Lahu host, showed us a tremendous lizard that would be our dinner. Pouk assured her, however, that we had brought our own food. So, the large reptile would be spared for one more day.

Outside, what was typical about this hill tribe village, was that people lived in bamboo and wooden houses. There were large troupes of giggling children running around, playing. And, there were packs of dogs, chasing the countless pigs. What was not typical, however, was that the village had its own school. There was a single classroom, made of cinderblock, where we found a volunteer Thai teacher. She was a wonderful young lady, who seemed very excited to meet foreigners. She explained to us that she teaches classes in Thai, English, and Chinese, for the children, in the day time, and teaches Thai to the parents at night. The classroom, although financially poor, showed the dedication and love that this courageous woman took in her work. To the extent that she was capable, she had decorated the classroom with posters, and children’s art work.

While Anauk stroked a baby piglet, only a week old, we looked at the drawings exhibited on the walls. Interesting was that all of the children had drawn pictures of a house, with trees, and a sun, as children would have anywhere else. But these pictures were unique, because the houses were all bamboo huts. Most of the drawings also showed a TV in each hut. The trees and animals were all exotic flora and fauna, which western children only see on TV, but which make up the every day world of the Lahu children. Outside each house, there was a Thai flag, demonstrating once again, that the Thais have a strong sense of nationalism.

I had been told that Headman Tisae, had actually begun doing agro farming years and years before anyone in the west had even thought of the concept. In actuality, all of the hill tribes had historically gone in to the jungle, as hunters and gathers, collecting edible and medicinal plants. What was unique about the hill tribes, however, was that they didn’t just use the plants that they found. Instead, they replanted them, in the jungle, near the village, so they would be there when they were needed.

Tisae, had taken the basic hill tribe concept of gathering a step further, by transplanting fruits and other cash crops near his village. Apparently, in the early years of his personal crusade, to both save the jungle and save his people, no one supported him. Not only did the other villagers refuse to help, but they actually laughed at him. But when they began, very slowly, to see the financial benefits, they all joined him. One of the difficulties that men like Rick Barnet face is that the hill tribes are resistant to change anything about their lifestyle. After all, it is there rigid set of morals and cultural norms that have preserved them as a unique people, thousands of miles, and hundreds of years removed from their ancestral home in Central Asia. Luckily, in Tisae, Rick found a willing partner, and both the project and the village were flourishing as a result.

There had been so much build up about this great headman, Tisae, that i expected him to be a regal figure, ten feet tall, clad in stainless, gold trimmed armor, head-to-toe. When word came to us that Headman Tisae had arrived, I was prepared to be awed. Instead, what I found was a comical character, about five feet tall, who looked like he had just stepped out of a Disney movie about forest gnomes.

Tisae, who is about 70 years old, had a gaunt face, a ready smile, and boundless energy. He wore a traditional cap, a wraparound skirt, and a machete. Between his spars teeth, stained a deep red, from beetle nut, he smoked, a long, thin pipe, which made him look like some mythical elf from a fairy story. Questions of comportment were mute, as he immediately, led us into the deepest jungle, hacking a path, with his machete. Doing an interview was also out of the question. Tisae talked constantly, Pouk translated, and I struggled through the jungle, writing dictation. The path was steep and narrow, completely over grown with huge thorn bushes, and vines, covered with tremendous spines. The pen might be mightier than the sword. But I would have traded them both for a machete.

Tisae, laughed at the city people, slipping and sliding as we struggled to keep up with the old man.

All Thais, and hill tribes in particular, live by a code of senook (fun). If something isn’t senook, they won’t do it. By the same token, any work or any hardship is endurable, as long as you make it senook. City people getting cut and tripped up by thorns was definitely a source of senook for Tisae, who cackled constantly, making me wonder just what he was smoking in that pipe of his. He added to his mirth by intentionally cutting the path at a height appropriate for his tiny frame to pass through. The remaining foliage clotheslined any of us westerners, who tried to walk up right, through the forest. At a much needed rest stop, Tisae showed us an ancient tree, which was about four meters in diameter. He climbed up onto the gnarled trunk, and smoked his pipe reflectively. “Look” He said, through Pouk, the interpreter, “I am the spirit of the forest.”

Tisae was only joking. But there was much truth in what he said. The hill tribe people really are like spirits of the forest, or maybe children of the forest would be more accurate. These are people who have lived as a part of the natural ecosystem for centuries. Now, because of far thinking men like Tisae, who embrace such modern concept as agro farming, the tribes may survive. In other, less “developed” villages where I had been, I saw starvation and death, as whole villages were on the brink of extinction.

When they told me I was coming to see a farming project, I expected to see fruits and vegetables, growing in nice, even rows. Instead, I found this seemingly virgin trail. Along the way, Tisae would stop and point to some flora and say. “This is a medicinal herb tree. It sells for 300 Baht.” or “This is an edible fruit, which we can use to feed the village.” Long before the hard science of agro farming came to Thailand, Tisae had the idea of gathering edible and medicinal plants, and replanting them, nearer to the village. Now, through the aid of a westerner, named Rick Burnette, the village has one of the largest agro farms in Thailand. Among crops that Tisae showed us were bananas and coconuts. Once again, he stressed to us that these plants were naturally occurring. But they had been transplanted, within the jungle to provide income and sustenance to the village. The project was immense, covering acres and acres of land. And yet, Tisae told me it only requires five fulltime workers to maintain the project. Growing crops in a natural environment is a nearly hands off activity. “At harvest time,” Said Tisae, “The whole village comes to help.”

Eventually, the jungle trail, which I had begun to refer to as the “Trail of Tears,” gave way to a lowland, where Tisae showed us artificial ponds, stocked with thousands of fish. “How do you feed them all?” asked Anauk.

“Like this.” Said Tisae. He took up a huge ant colony, which had been dug out of the forest. He kicked off his sandals, and walked, clinging expertly, on a bamboo which protruded out, over the pond. There, he shaved the ant hill, by hacking it with his machete. The fish all gathered around, below him, to gobble up the tiny feast of ant eggs, which rained into the water

The tour was over, and the rain began to fall. As much as I couldn’t wait to get back to the comfort of the village, and eat one of Pouk’s legendary field dinners, the thought of making that same Baton Death March in reverse was so unappealing I began to wonder if I could just spend the night at the fish farm. Tisae, laughing like a banshee, lead us ten feet into the jungle, and set us right back on the easy trekking trail we had used to enter the village originally.

“You mean we could have taken this trail all along, and been spared all the pain?” I asked, in disbelief, and not just a little anger.

Tisae just laughed. I knew what he was thinking. Taking the easy path wouldn’t have been senook. Besides, struggling through the forest made a better story. Once again, Tisae taught me that we had a lot to learn from Thailand’s Hill Tribes.

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