Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Early Excursions to Aini Villages in Yunnan


                                                by Jim Goodman


       When flights became available from Chiang Mai to Kunming in Yunnan I had already been living in Chiang Mai a few years and had been working with the Akha ethnic minority group in the northern hills.   We produced traditional clothing items, mainly shoulder bags and jackets in Western sizes, the colors from natural dyes, which was my own role in the project, a skill I picked up in Nepal before I moved to Chiang Mai.  There was a market for such things in the late 80s and early 90s and by living moderately the work basically paid for my research, having the ambition to write a book about them. Ever since I met them I had been curious about their original homeland.

       Only a small portion of the Akha lives in Thailand.  They are more numerous in Laos, Myanmar, and especially China, from where they originated, and where the greatest number of sub-groups lives.  Thailand has only three.  The majority are Ulo Akha, characterized by tall, tubular headdresses and intricate line-stitching embroidery.   The next largest are the Lomi Akha, whose women wear a silver-plated attachment behind a cap fully studded with silver half-globes and employ a lot of appliqué on the bags and clothing.  The third and smallest, concentrated at Pamee and other villages near Mae Sai, are noted for their cross-stitch embroidery and lavish use of silver on the women’s headdresses and clothing components.  I worked with all three.

       The Ulo and Lomi Akha came into Thailand from Myanmar, but the Pamee sub-group came from Xishuangbanna in Yunnan, China.  On one of my regular visits I met a relative of my host family who was staying in Pamee a few months to make money in the litchi orchards.  Yunnan was opening to tourists and he invited me to come to his village in Xishuangbanna.  That provided my main excuse for going and I arranged a flight for the summer of 1992.

       After a few days taking an extended look at Kunming and the nearby Stone Forest, I flew to Jinghong, met Akhas on the street, greeted them in Chinese, then rattled off some sentences in Akha along the lines of—You are Akha people, are you not?  I’m an American person. I live in Thailand and work with the Akha people and can speak a little Thailand Akha language.  Can you help me?  In that way I learned that my friend’s village, called Paseu, was in Xiding district in Menghai County.  In those days there were many places in the province still off-limits to foreigners.  Beyond Jinghong, Mengla County was still closed and in Menghai County only the towns of Menghai and Menghun were open.  I needed a permit for Xiding district.  Thanks to a demonstrable ability to speak the Aini language (as the Akha are officially called in China) that was no problem.

       Because of the novelty of a foreigner at all in Xiding, and one who could speak their language, an Aini shopkeeper invited me to stay with her family that night.  It was raining anyway, so they wined and dined me, examining my Thailand Akha photos, until after midnight.  Next morning we met an old man who knew where Paseu village was, so my Xiding hostess told her son to take me there, along with his Chinese friends, who would all share the task of carrying my luggage.

       After quite a long hike, pausing for rain showers, we arrived at dusk and the boys turned to me.  Who did I know here?  Ajeu who worked in the litchi orchards in Thailand.  Someone took us to a house belonging to an Ajeu fitting that description, but we didn’t recognize one another.  Turned out he worked in Pahee, one of Pamee’s satellite villages.  But you’ve come a long way, he said, and must be hungry, so stay for dinner.  In the course of the meal the word about us spread through the village and before I could finish eating the other Ajeu, who’d worked in Pamee, came to the house and afterwards took me to his home.

       Ajeu was my host and companion the next several days as I explored the forest, nearby villages, the tea gardens where most of them worked, and the Xiding market on my way back to Jinghong.  Almost all the Akha here had never seen a Westerner before, but my use of the language, even though a different dialect, made the proper impression and at social gatherings I brought out my Dictaphone and played recordings of Akha dancing ground songs in Thailand.

       Most socializing with guests and neighbors takes place during an extended dinner.  First meat and vegetable dishes fill the tables, along with rice spirits, which must be quaffed in the beginning and frequently afterwards throughout the meal.  Cigarettes are also liberally distributed and the men even smoke while they eat.  For a while they only take bits of meat and vegetables as they smoke, talk, drink, joke and laugh.  It’s at least 40 minutes before the women serve the rice and soup.  Even then the pace of eating only picks up slightly as the atmosphere continues to evoke a celebratory experience of eating and drinking in human company.

      In this the Akha in China resembled their cousins in Thailand.  They also shared customs like the internal domestic wall separating the men’s side from the women’s side, the use of shamans and spiritual specialists, rituals of the December New Year, and the Swing Festival.  As tea cultivators they did not observe festivals and rites associated with growing rice nor maintain their village gates.  They did not grow cotton or indigo, so bought their clothing components from the markets.  Traditional clothing was not so common in the villages and when posing for family portraits the females had to do some borrowing for a traditional look.  The men dressed modern style and the only man around with a traditional Akha jacket was me.  In the Xiding market I did see some women dressed traditionally, wearing conical headdresses or ones like in Pamee, but often plain jackets without embroidery.  Younger ones did not dress in Akha clothing, but carried traditional shoulder bags, usually heavily embroidered.

       So I had much to relate to my Akha friends and workers back in Thailand, but on the next trips to Yunnan I concentrated on the northwest and its people, resulting in a book published later that decade, and didn’t visit Aini villages again until late 1997.  By then counties were opening to foreigners at an accelerated rate and I conceived a long-term research project that would take me to all parts of the province for a book that was eventually published in Kunming as The Exploration of Yunnan.  One of the first stops was Lancang County, where the largest ethnic group is the Lahu, most of whom are Christian and live in modern style.  However, the county also hosts sizable Aini communities, still traditional, as far north as Shangyun, but mostly south of Lancang city. 

      I was with a Chinese friend who was taking me to meet his Wa connections in Ximeng after Lancang and he had a friend in Lancang who used to be a police officer stationed in Jiujing, about 25 km south.  He arranged a car and driver to take us to a typical Aini village near the town.  It lay within the forest, several km down a dirt road turnoff from Jiujing.  The people were rice farmers, but their fields were not visible from the village.  The houses were similar to those in Thailand, made of bamboo and wood with roofs of thatch.  Some had roofs of wooden tiles and a few dwellings were brick houses in the contemporary style.

       By coincidence it was Aini New Year, celebrated here three 12-day calendar cycles earlier than in Thailand or Xishuangbanna, where it occurs in late December.  It was the third day, featuring the settling of accounts at the headman’s house, and the rice liquor flowed freely.  They even gave me a bottle once I was introduced to the scene and began conversing.  They celebrated other festivals like in Thailand and had the full range of traditional authorities:  the headman who mainly handles outside affairs, the dzoema who is the authority and ultimate arbiter on cultural matters, the pima who is the spiritual specialist and memorizes the oral  traditions and history, the blacksmith who is also chief architect and oversees house construction, and the shamans, to whom people go when medicine does not ease their afflictions.

       Perhaps because it was festival time more of the people, even males, dressed in traditional clothing, though women tended to wear red and white checkered headscarves instead of ornamented headdresses.  Their shoulder bags and the lower half of the vests and jackets were heavily embroidered but with colors restricted to pink, red, white and magenta.  The bags were also bigger than usual and the skirts longer and bulkier.  They wove and dyed their own cloth and strips of indigo cloth were hanging on some of the balconies, just like in winter in Thailand.

       Three months later, February 1998, my Yunnan exploration included sojourns to Xishuangbanna to visit the oldest Aini settlements in Menghai County and find out where they lived in Mengla County.  In Menghai County the biggest and oldest villages were in Gelanghe Autonomous Aini District.  With an adventurous young Chinese friend I headed there.  There was only a dirt road then, climbing quickly into the hills southeast of Menghai, that were speckled with forests and slash-and-burn farms, augmented by tea gardens and fields of sugarcane.  Halfway to the town, straddling the crest of a hill was the Aini village of Yakoulaozhai.  The previous year, to mark its 125th anniversary, backed by a grant of 5000 yuan from the county government, the village erected a magnificent entrance gate.  Based on the original traditional entry gates, destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and not rebuilt since, it was bigger and more richly decorated with carvings of weapons and other symbols to repel demons from the protected sacred site of the village.

       Most houses were traditional style—stilted bamboo and wood structures with roofs of thatch or wooden tiles.  The people we saw were all dressed modern style.  We didn’t stay long, for our destination, 6 km south of Gelanghe, was Pasha, an even older and bigger village.  With over200 houses, all of them in traditional style, Pasha had already spawned two satellite settlements a short distance away.  It lies on a slope that’s not very steep and the highest neighborhood is on the crest of the ridge.  Up here stands the festival swing, next to two simple and ordinary size entry gates, with carved male and female figures beside them to remind spirits this is a human zone and not for them.  Pasha had these gates because three years earlier the current dzoema personally revived the tradition.  The other two villages didn’t have them. 

       One big difference between the Akha in Thailand and the Aini in China was ideological interference.  In Thailand outsider attempts to change the traditional Akha Way came from Christian missionaries and Buddhist proselytizers.  In China it was periodic government campaigns against ‘superstition’ that undermined tradition.  Another casualty of this was the absence of ancestral altars inside Aini houses, still very much part of Akha life in Thailand.  At least there was never a campaign against embroidery designs and the survival of this tradition was very evident in Pasha, especially among the older women, who still wore traditional garments and were currently busy stitching in their free time.  The younger ones rarely wore them, except for the shoulder bag, but all the babies had traditional caps, festooned with beads, cowry shells and coins.

       In Mengla no one could tell us where the Akha lived, but I assumed they must be near the Lao border province of Phong Saly, which was heavily Akha-inhabited.  I chose to look in the vicinity of Nankexing, a spot on the map next to the border.  There was a border check post at Manzhuang, but when my friend explained I was researching Akha/Aini in China for a book the police permitted us to proceed.  However, they couldn’t tell us where the Aini might live.  We got a ride part of the way, then hiked past thick forest on both sides of the road and after another hour came, not to Nankexing, but to a stone pillar marking the China-Laos border.

       Fortunately a woman turned up heading back to her village and informed us an Akha village lay 3 km ahead and the nearest Lao border check post was several km further on.  We hiked to this village, called Pakeu whose residents were the original inhabitants of Nankexing.  They fled to Laos to avoid the political campaigns of 1958.  They had moved down from the mountains a year ago, closer to their sugarcane fields, so their houses were a bit ramshackle, yet the interiors were in the same traditional style as in Thailand.  The men’s side and women’s side had separate hearths and a wall divided them.  The ancestral basket was stored in the far corner of the women’s side beside the dividing wall.  Water was carried and stored in bamboo tubes.

       This was the first Akha sub-group I met whose women wore, instead of skirts, black shin-length trousers.  On top they donned a black long-sleeved, side-fastened jacket that reached to below the knees.  Aside from the cuffs and a tab next to the left side of the neckline, it was all plain black.  On their heads they wore a close-fitting cap with a flat board rising up from the back, all swathed in black cloth.  A line of silver studs decorated the front brim and round silver pendants hung on chains on both sides of the face.  Unmarried younger women cropped their hair short and many wore no headgear.  For those who did, it was a skullcap decorated with coins, silver studs and the same round pendants hanging down each side, as well as long strings of beads and white seeds dangling from the back of the cap.  More of their sub-group lived north on both sides of the border and I met them again years later in Mengban district.

       Still, their attire was quite a contrast to the bright and colorful outfits of all the other Akha I’d encountered.  But with our final excursion it was back to the kind of Akha ensembles I was used to seeing.  We went to Mengman in the southwest corner of the county and at once met Akha girls in full traditional clothing similar to Thailand and Menghai County.  From them we learned of Akha villages west of the town past the rubber tree plantations.  These villages were well off thanks to the rubber business and all the houses were newly made brick in the local Dai style.  Only the big swing distinguished it as an Akha village.  When I commented on that, a villager suggested going to his sister’s village on the Lao side of the nearby border to see something more typically traditional.

       It was a 90-minute hike over a plain, a Lao army post visible to the south, to the edge of the forest and the site of the village.  Here, as promised, all the houses save the headman’s were in the classic Akha style.  (His was brick.)  All females dressed in traditional garments, though none wore the calf-wrappers common elsewhere.  And instead of a heavy beaded pouch holding down the skirt in front they wore loops of beads across the right hip, fastened to the waistline front and rear.  As it was already late afternoon the headman invited us to stay the night and attend the house-warming party of a neighbor.

       The males spent an hour slaughtering and cutting up a big pig and when the feast began ate separately from the women.  Young women kept replenishing the tables with freshly cooked pieces of pork, while the host made sure the rice liquor made regular rounds, and I passed around my photos of Akha in Thailand.  The meal was long, marked by much conversation about their culture, comparing aspects in each country.  They also had the same origin myth as that narrated to me in Pasha, Jiujing, Xiding and Thailand, memorized in full by the village pima.

       We returned to the headman’s house fairly late and a little drunk, but there was one more old-fashioned traditional experience coming up to enjoy—opium.  Behind the partition wall on the female side an older woman was lying on her side smoking her pipes.  She soon finished and turned over her place to a young man who proceeded to prepare a couple pipes for himself to smoke and then several each for both of us.  My friend had never smoked before but this was something still common at that time in northern Thailand, where until recently many Akha villages cultivated the plant.  At the end of the session our host only asked payment for what the Chinese smoked.  Mine was complimentary because I spoke their language.  Now I had a final anecdote to relate when I returned to Thailand’s Akha villages. 

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Saturday, March 26, 2022

History and Legends in the Mountains of Chiang Mai

                                         by Jim Goodman


       The best-known mountain in northern Thailand is the one that stands just west of the city of Chiang Mai.  Called Doi Suthep, it rises 1676 meters and the streams flowing down from its slopes have always irrigated the vast fertile plain below.  It’s not the highest peak in the north, but especially revered for its temple, Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, which enshrines a famous religious relic—a part of the Buddha’s shoulder bone.  The temple dates its construction to 1383, about a century after Mengrai had established the Kingdom of Lanna over most of northern Thailand.  The site was selected by mounting the relic on the back of a white elephant, a most auspicious animal in local culture, and turning it loose to choose its own way.

       The elephant immediately headed for the mountain, ascending it through the forests.  When it reached a point at 1070 meters altitude it halted, trumpeted three times, then laid down and died.  The people cleared the immediate area, built the temple and installed the relic.  It has been a popular Buddhist pilgrimage site ever since, particularly after the monk Kruba Sivichai, from Li district, Lamphun province, organized devotees in the early 20th century to construct a road to the temple.  As the century progressed Doi Suthep became a top tourist destination, for the temple and its cultural significance, as well as views of the plains from a clearing along the road, an occasional royal residence further on, the nearby Hmông village of Doi Pui and the jungle trails for forest exploring. 

      Most visitors are aware of the temple’s origin, but not of its name.  Doi Suthep was named after a famous hermit called Wasuthep, usually depicted wearing leopard or tiger skins, his long braided hair coiled in a bun. who lived here around the 8th century.  He was said to be the descendant of two cannibal ogres, Pu Sae and Ya Sae, who were terrorizing the area until the Buddha appeared before them.  When the ogres attacked he repelled them with kindness, against which they had no defense.  So they submitted, converted to Buddhism and were appointed as spirit guardians for the area.  He also gave them one of his hairs as a relic, which was later installed in a pagoda at Wat Doi Kham, on a small oblong hill ten km south of Chiang Mai.  Today large statues of Pu Sae and Ya Sae sit in a shrine at the foot of the hill.

       The hill lies back from the highway about a kilometer.  A very tall Standing Buddha dominates the first view.  Within the temple compound is a very long Reclining Buddha, as well as a large Seated Buddha, 17 meters high and reputedly the largest of its type in Asia.  The pagoda was supposed to have been first built in 683 CE.  It collapsed in 1966.  During its reconstruction, people discovered a hidden chamber underneath containing several old images.    

       These have been removed and hardly anything remains from ancient times.  It still attracts regular devotees from the district, and occasionally Buddhist Palong women from the hills to the west, brightening up the crowd with their distinctive red and black jackets, red sarongs and wide silver belts.  Besides the Buddha shrines and imagery, one of Wat Doi Kham’s temples is dedicated to Queen Chamadevi, the original ruler of Haripunchai (now Lamphun), the first organized state in northern Thailand.  She was born in a Mon family in a village west of Lamphun, but due to the scarcity of records from that time, the events of her life and career have long been intertwined with legends and myths.  Among these are her connections to Wasuthep and his role in the founding of Haripunchai.   

       According to local legends, when Chamadevi was still an infant, an eagle snatched her from her cradle and flew to Doi Suthep.  The hermit Wasuthep harried the eagle into dropping its prey over a pond.  A lotus flower sprang up to receive the baby.  Wasuthep rescued the child and raised her as his own, imparting his wisdom on the ways of the world and training her in martial arts.  When she reached puberty he decided to divine her future and discovered that she was destined to become the ruler of a great new state.

      That was something he couldn’t really train her for, so he decided to send her downriver by boat to Lawo (now Lopburi), the nearest of several Mon kingdoms in central Thailand.  He put two monkeys in the boat to keep her company, the origin of Lopburi’s sprawling monkey community today.  When she arrived at the palace in Lawo the royal family considered this an auspicious event and raised her as a princess in their own family.

       She became quite beautiful as she matured, arousing the ardor of neighboring Mon princes, all of whom she refused.  One suitor opted to attack Lawo with his army to force her consent.  Drawing on her martial arts lessons from Wasuthep, the princess herself led the city’s soldiers to repel the assault.  She never did marry, though she did have a lover and was pregnant by him when suddenly she got the call from Wasuthep to come up and take charge of the new state.  He had already laid out the capital as a walled city in the shape of a conch, bounded by moats and a river.  She left her lover behind and made the long river journey up to Haripunchai, arriving with an entourage that included 500 Buddhist monks.  She gave birth to twin sons later.   

       The region around Haripunchai, in addition to Mon villages, was largely inhabited by the Lawa people, especially the Doi Suthep area.  Chamadevi subdued them and instigated their conversion to Buddhism; that much is historical fact, but exactly how has been the subject of legend and fancy.  Accordingly, the Lawa chieftain Viranga sent spies to learn about the new intruders and they reported how beautiful the queen was.  He fell in love by hearsay and sent a message of proposal.  She refused.  His army attacked, but was beaten back, thanks to the queen’s magic elephant Blackie Purple, named for its color, whose green tusks disintegrated anything it touched.

       A more popular version has Chamadevi making a deal with Viranga.  Since he claimed supernatural powers she demanded he prove it by hurling a spear from the top of Doi Suthep to the center of Haripunchai.  She even gave him three attempts, confident he couldn’t succeed.  However, on his first throw Viranga’s spear landed just outside the city walls.  Maybe he did have such powers, she worried, so devised a trick.  She congratulated him forgetting so close, said she was sure he would succeed next throw and to please wear this special hat she sent  that she had made for him for the occasion.      

       The hat was made from her underwear soiled by menstruation, thereby automatically canceling his supernatural powers.  Viranga donned the hat, huffed and puffed and hurled his spear and it landed at his feet.  Aware of the deception he threw his last spear straight up and stood with his chest exposed so that when it fell back down it pierced and killed him. 

       The spear-chucking challenge and Chamadevi’s reception at Haripunchai are part of the interior wall murals at Wat Chamadevi in Lamphun.  In the temple devoted to her at Wat Doi Kham the wall murals behind her altar depict her life with Wasuthep, clad in tiger skins like an Indian rishi, with q Buddha image in his cave.  There are vignettes of her abduction by an eagle, Wasuthep rescuing her, bringing her up as an infant, giving her weapons training as a girl and sending her off to Lawo with the monkey companions. 

     No doubt her introduction of Buddhism to northern Thailand accounts for the presence of Chamadevi altars in Buddhist temples.  But Thai Buddhism, in terms of veneration, is male-oriented, towards the Buddha as well as famous monks.  Perhaps Chamadevi veneration, of a woman so much a part of northern cultural history and identity, redresses this innate religious imbalance, the way Devi worship does for Hindus and veneration of Mary among Christians.  Observers won’t see any difference in the prayers and offerings at images whether of Buddha or of Chamadevi.

       Besides the statues in her altar, the Wat Doi Kham compound features a gilded bronze image of her standing with a sword pointing to the ground, modeled on the one in Chamadevi Park, Lamphun, a painted terracotta one of her seated and a painting on an exterior wall of her standing in her royal regalia.  A couple statues of Wasuthep also grace the area.

       The next stop on the ‘Chamadevi Trail’ lies down Highway 108 from Doi Kham all the way to a temple in Hod district.  The route passes by Doi Inthanon, a peak of 2565 meters altitude, the highest in Thailand.  Swathed in various kinds of forests, it did not have any religious center, though two fine chedis stand beside the road near thesummit, with a good view of the plains below, built in late 20th century in honor of the last king and queen.  The actual summit is not accessible, for it is the site of a Royal Thai Air Force weather radar station.

      Originally known simply as Doi Luang—the Big Mountain—its contemporary name Inthaton is a contraction of the name of the last nominal ruler of Chiang Mai Chao Inthawichayanon.  Worried about the burgeoning lagging industry in the north and its threat to the mountain’s forests, he lobbied hard to protect the mountain’s ecosystem by declaring the area a national park.  This finally took place in 1954 and Doi Luang became Doi Inthanon.  Besides the range of tree species—tropical, deciduous and evergreen—the park includes several spectacular waterfalls, like Mae Klang, with good; paved roads to reach them.

        South of Doi Inthanon the next town is Chom Thong, site of a temple built on a hill resembling a termite mound (chom pluak in Thai) surrounded by coral trees (thong lang).  The temple and chedi were first constructed in 1451 and renovated often since then.  The town also claims a legendary visit by the ancient Mauryan Buddhist Emperor Ashoka, who came here to lay relics, long lost, along with details of them and the journey itself.

       Continuing south along the western side of the Ping River near Hod, one comes to Wat Phrachao Tho Muang.  It sits on a small hill back from the road, while on the plain below it, closer to the Ping River stands a partly dilapidated and propped up old brick chedi from the time of Chamadevi’s boat ride from Lawo to Haripunchai, built to commemorate her overnight stop here.  A large statue of her, seated and dressed in white, dominates the compound.  Other sculptures in the vicinity depict Kings Taksin and Chulalongkorn, Guan Yin and a big red Garuda.  A red ubusot and a white viharn sit side-by-side, each twelve meters high.

       In the Haripunchai Era Hod was called Pitsadan Nakhon and became known for a tragic love story at least a thousand years ago.  The protagonists were the local princess An Fah and a young man Noi Singkham who was the son of one of the ruler’s men.  Haripunchai had had a couple centuries of peace by then, yet this period was still characterized by sharp class distinctions.  When Hod’s ruler learned of his daughter’s affair he warned her that it was forbidden and if she didn’t break it off both she and her lover would suffer grievously, implying this social infraction was a capital offense.

       The pair refused and opted to escape from Pitsadon Nakhon by horseback.  They rode towards Ban Don Dan, with the ruler’s men, including An Fah’s brother, in hot pursuit.  In danger of capture the lovers decided on joint suicide.  To accomplish this they would drive their horse over a high cliff beside the Ping River.  As they approached their plunge Noi Singkham blindfolded the horse with a white cloth so that the animal would not see what it was doing.  Still, he hesitated going through with the act and so An Fah spurred the horse to carry out the deed.  All three went down together and perished, while An Fah”s brother reached the cliff and saw the horse’s footprints at the edge.

       The spot is called Pha Wing Chu—Runaway Lovers’ Cliff.  It is 250 meters long and rises 25 meters above the Ping River.  Doi Inthanon is visible in the distance.  A shed holding large standing statues of all three players in the drama stands several meters back from the cliff and a smaller sculpture of the lovers riding the horse is near the edge.  Sympathizers of the doomed lovers, over a thousand years later, still come here to lay offering, for examples, for affairs of the heart can inspire as much regard as those of the soul.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Captured Citizens: the Tai Yong of Lamphun


                                      by Jim Goodman


       Lamphun is one of northern Thailand’s premier attractions.  Founded in the 7th century under the name Haripunchai, it was the capital of a Mon kingdom that was the first organized state in northern Thailand.  It repelled three Khmer invasions and survived until conquered by King Mengrai of Lanna, in the late 13th century.  It was Buddhist since its inception, for its first ruler Queen Chamadevi introduced and patronized the religion upon assumption of the throne.  Besides its political achievements, Haripunchai also enjoyed a reputation as the center of Buddhism in the north.  Mengrai appreciated this, spared the city any physical destruction and continued royal patronage after establishing Lanna’s capital just 25 km north.

        Historic religious monuments are the main attraction for contemporary visitors.  They usually start with Wat Prathat Haripunchai, the city’s most splendid compound.  But there is more of interest in the city besides religion.  Just outside the eastern entry gate stand several stalls selling locally made cotton goods.  More of these are across the street and still more line up inside the picturesque covered bridge across the Kuang River.  On the other
of the river lies Wiang Yong village, where most of the cotton goods are made.

       The residents are people of the Tai Yong sub-group who were not part of Lamphun’s original population, who were mainly Mon, later mixed with Tai Yuan.  They are descendants of people kidnapped from northeast Myanmar as part of a program to repopulate northern Thailand after the expulsion of the Burmese.

       In the late 18th century, King Kawila of Lampang led a campaign that finally terminated over two centuries of Burmese rule in northern Thailand.  It was a long, slow, costly effort that depopulated the cities and many of the villages.  In 1796 Kawila officially re-established the Kingdom of Lanna in the newly rebuilt capital of Chiang Mai, but its shattered economy and agricultural production had to be completely rebuilt, too.  A new campaign of persuading villagers who’d fled to the forests to return to their homes proved inadequate. 

       The solution came from the traditional practice of war among states in Southeast Asia.  Rivals fought each other over their resources and people were considered one of them.  When armies invaded states their plunder included capturing local people and resettling them deep within their own state’s boundaries.  Kawila began launching such expeditions in the immediate area in 1797.  After ousting the Burmese from their last bastion in northern Thailand in Chiang Saen in 1804, Kawila turned his attention to two states in northeast Burma that had once been allies of Lanna—Chiang Tung (now spelled Kyaingtong) and Meuang Yong (now spelled Mong Yawng). Major roundups in 1805 and 1809 removed the entire population of many villages.

        Meuang Yong, close to the Mekong River, was founded in the late 13th century.  It fell under Burmese suzerainty mid-16th century, but that had all but eroded by late 18th century.  Its people were mainly the Tai Lue subgroup, like the majority of the population of neighboring Xishuangbanna.  Their language, customs and Buddhist practices are close to that of the Tai Koen in Chiang Tung and the Tai Yuan of Lanna.  Their transplantation to Lanna would at least be to a familiar cultural environment. 

       In 1805 the Lanna government officially re-opened Lamphun.  The people abducted from Meuang Yong were re-settled in Wiang Yong, just across the Kuang River, for only the original Lamphun inhabitants, plus other Tai Yuan immigrants, were permitted to live within the city proper.  Another raid in 1809 augmented the numbers in and around Wiang Yong.  Lanna raids also abducted people from other Tai Lue settlements in Burma and Xishuangbanna, but these were dispatched to Nan and other provinces.  The Tai Lue of Wiang Yong subsequently became differentiated and known as Tai Yong.

       Far from enslaving their captives or discriminating against them as not full members of Lanna society, the campaign’s goal was to make them fully engaged citizens.  The Tai Yong chieftains pledged loyalty to Kawila’s state and in return were granted autonomous authority over their own community.  Class relations and social rules and customs that had prevailed in Meuang Yong would continue in Lamphun.  The ultimate authority would be the Lanna king, who ruled on matters of national interest but left local affairs to the charge of Tai Yong leaders.  It was a type of political arrangement common throughout Thailand at the time.  By acknowledging suzerainty Lanna had made a similar deal with the Kingdom of Siam.

       The new citizenry began cultivating the land and recreating the life they had back in the old country.  Other captured and resettled communities did likewise.  Some, like the Tai Koen from Chiang Tung, were noted for their craft skills, especially lacquer workers and silversmiths, and were relocated to the southern part of Chiang Mai.  The Tai Yong had no particular reputation for any special craft.  But in the tradition of self-sufficient farmers their women knew how to weave the material that clothed their family’s bodies.

       Weaving was an old tradition in the area, like most anywhere else in Asia.  A weaver operating a frame loom much like what is still used today is one of the relief sculptures depicting scenes from life in old Haripunchai on the wall behind the queen’s statue in Chamadevi Park.  Tai Yong women were already used to weaving for their own needs.  Their people traditionally raised cotton along with rice and vegetables and every girl learned how to spin thread and weave while growing up.  Now, with the reestablishment of Lamphun, Chiang Mai and other cities, they had a market for surplus production. 

       It’s a laborious process, especially in the beginning.  After picking the cotton bolls from the plants in the fields, the worker then runs the cotton through the rollers of a gin to crush the seeds within it.  The next step is to fluff the ginned cotton to remove the foreign matter.  Then it is ready to mount little by little on a spindle mounted on a frame with a wheel.  Turning the wheel starts the spinning of the cotton into thread.

       When the wheel has accumulated enough thread the worker removes the loop and mounts it on a winding frame to turn the loop into balls of thread, the easier to mount as warp threads on the loom and weft threads into the shuttles.  The amount of thread required depends on the length of the intended bolt of cloth, which is often several meters and more.  Mounting the lengthwise warp threads is time-consuming work, for each has to be separated by heddles that connect every other one to one of the foot pedals.

       The weaver sits on a bench behind the loom and depresses one of the foot pedals while pushing the heddle frame forward.  This creates an opening in the warp thread set, through which the weaver throws a shuttle of weft thread.  Then she knocks it firmly into place moving the heddle frame and then opens a new shed by depressing the other foot pedal and this time tosses the shuttle through the opposite direction.  The threads are thus locked into a tight web.

       Tai Yong style has evolved over the centuries, especially after the introduction of aniline dyes.  Nowadays weavers still produce pieces in soft, pastel colors resembling the shades and tones of vegetable dyes in the past.  Some use supplementary weft to add more pictorial designs across the fabric.  The more typical contemporary Tai Yong style, though, features a bold display of bright horizontal stripes in multiple colors, separated and accentuated by wide bands of black. 

       Tai Yong textiles of all kinds, as well as clothing and other items made from them, have been boosted by the growth of tourism in recent decades, more so with domestic tourists than foreigners.  Tai Yong goods are available beyond Lamphun Province, from shops in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Lampang and Bangkok.  Besides enabling a more prosperous life, the growing interest in and appreciation of Tai Yong crafts has contributed to a sense of ethnic pride.    

       The compound of Wiang Yong’s Wat Ton Kaew, built next to a surviving 16th century chedi, contains a Tai Yong Museum, as well as a weaving workshop.   The museum is an elegant stilted wooden building, its entrance flanked by two tall carved wooden posts.  The open ground floor displays antique furniture, musical instruments, old photographs and other items.  The much larger exhibit upstairs includes sculptures of Buddha and mythical animals, carved chests and containers, old typewriters, umbrellas, baskets, ceramic jars and vases, kitchen tools, antique women’s garments and all things associated with weaving.  On the walls hang framed historical photos of royal visits, famous monks being honored and Lamphun beauty contests from the 1960s.     

       In recent years the Lamphun fabric business has branched out from weaving cotton cloth to silk production and ikat dyeing.  Because silk threads are thinner than cotton the mounting of the warp threads and the weaving itself takes much longer.  And then there’s the trouble of raising the silkworms and acquiring the thread.  This was not a Tai Yong village tradition, so the new silk business started with outsider investment and work is confined to a few suburban factories.

       Other Tai Yong villages beyond Wieng Yong also got into the weaving business and today two of them, still actively involved in the trade, are in Pasang District south of Lamphun and are popular tourist attractions.  Several km beyond the town a tall wooden entrance gate flanks a side road leading a bit further to Don Luang village.  The cluster of shops and textile displays starts at the beginning of the settled area.  Most of the looms and dyeing sites are in houses in the side lanes.

       Shops hold bolts of cloth which they sell by the meter, cotton sarongs and a wide range of ready-made clothes.  Their stocks may also include locally woven cotton turned into bed sheets, curtains, pillow cases, table cloths, purses and shoulder bags.  Some of these items will be dyed ikat-style.  Ikat is a form of resist-dyeing in which the dyer covers the cloth in a specific design marked with beeswax or some other impenetrable matter.  When the cloth is immersed the covered parts do not receive the dye.  Afterwards when the cloth is washed and the beeswax boiled off the design appears as the part that resisted the color.

       This method can lead to some pretty imaginative results.  Dyers give the pieces several dye bath immersions, modifying the placement of the resisting element each time, even the colors used in the bath, to make ever more complex and colorful designs.  Most of the items are blue and white, but there are other combinations, the results of re-dyeing.  Some pieces sport sections, like sleeves, collars or just adjoining parts of the t-shirt body or trouser legs, dyed with different color and pattern combinations.

       About 4 km past Don Luang and through a similar entrance gate, lies the larger and more interesting Tai Yong village of Nong Ngeuak.  While also a weaving center, other crafts are both produced and taught here.  A bit distant from the highway traffic it’s a very quiet village, little disturbed by interruptions of noise from cars, trucks or motorbikes.  The people are very friendly and hospitable to visitors and a few offer home-stay accommodations.  Visitors are far fewer since the outbreak of the pandemic a couple years ago and the craft activity much reduced, but those who do come still enjoy a pleasant experience.     

       The village can boast of one of the most beautiful temples in the province—Wat Ngon Ngeuak, built in the style of their original homeland in Meuang Yong, Myanmar.  The compound entry gate is roofed and decorated with large stucco figures.  The main assembly hall is of modest size and smaller shrines in the yard feature carved and gilded embellishments.  The most graceful building is the library, standing on blocks in a rectangular pond.  It has a double roof with interior walls filled with religious frescoes.

       Across the street is the village park, with a giant spinning wheel standing at one end and flower beds stretching in front of it.  Beside it is a stilted house identified as the village’s own Tai Yong Museum, with a similar collection of exhibits as in Wiang Yong.  Craft centers are scattered throughout the village.  One shop produces sandals made from old rubber tires.  Another specializes in “owl bags” made by stitching together different small pieces of a variety of cloth. The same technique is also used to make long skirts.  There’s also a basketry center and, naturally, a few weaving workshops.

        One is a natural dye outfit that uses indigo and a group of local roots, fruits and vegetables to make the colors for all their woven work.  Because of the time and work required for the dyeing the products are more expensive.  But there is a niche market for such items, mainly among traditional-minded Thais, enough anyway to keep the skill and heritage alive.

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