Sunday, March 28, 2021

Instant Friendships--Lisu Encounters in Nujiang

  

                                              by Jim Goodman


       After my first journey to Yunnan in 1992, I wanted to see every prefecture in Yunnan and eventually visited Nujiang in the summer of 1998.  Gongshan County was still closed to foreigners, so after a brief stay in Liuku I spent several days in Fugong County.  The mountain scenery along the river kept getting more beautiful further north.  Snow-capped peaks of over 4000 meters were already visible before Fugong city, even though it was the warmest month of the year.  Steep slopes on either side were lined with terraces and settlements speckled the hillsides.  Thick forests swathed the tops and some areas between the villages.

       I had good weather on my arrival and the enchanting landscape provoked me to vow to come again at different seasons.  But by the time I departed I had other reasons.  Nujiang was not on the usual tourist trail and I didn’t know anyone in Yunnan who had been there.  It was an Autonomous Lisu Prefecture because the Lisu made up the majority of the population.  So what would be the Lisu reaction to a Western visitor?  Would they ignore me?  Be too shy? Feel intruded upon by my camera?  Well, as it turned out they were quite friendly, easy to engage with, and only initially shy.  They were as curious about me as I was about them.

       The other attraction of Fugong that reinforced my desire to return was the very visible presence of traditional Lisu culture.  A large portion of the women, young and old, dressed in Lisu style, with long skirts white, blue, black or pinstriped gray, a side-fastened vest over a long-sleeved blouse, a beaded cap and ornaments of beads and shell disks. Some of the men wore the traditional front-fastened shirt of pinstriped gray, often with black cuffs and collar.  And both sexes carried the Lisu-style shoulder bag, even when they wore all modern clothes.

       Fugong stages market day every five days and it’s the most interesting in the whole prefecture both for the show of traditional garments and the range of products on sale.  Women run stalls selling Lisu skirts or jackets, others display ornaments, but besides the usual cosmetics, toiletries, shoes and such, other traditional Lisu products were also available.  These included an array of bamboo cups, beer mugs, spoons, ladles, smoking pipes and bongs.  Others sold baskets of split bamboo and there were several places to buy crossbows, crossbow bolts and bearskin quivers.  You could also buy crossbow victims, like the carcasses of flying squirrels and field rats, along with other animal parts—hooves, antlers, turtle shells--used as medicine.

       Crossbows are one of the salient traditions characterizing the culture of Nujiang.  Men took them to the fields just in case some edible prey appeared and carried them from their villages down to the city on market day, where the stalls selling them were busy with potential customers.  Nujiang is not the only place with crossbows.  They are popular in the Wa Hills, too.  But nowhere else are they so widely in use.

       I also spotted men with crossbows while taking a taxi north to Nujiang’s most famous mountain, called the Stone Moon after the big oval hole just below the peak.  The road rose above the river to provide a suitable viewpoint, as well as a tavern where the driver and I could share a couple drinks. I paid a hundred yuan for the excursion and the next day hired him for fifty yuan to take me to Dapuluo, a village north of Fugong that according to the map looked close to the main road.

       The map was deceptive.  The village lay up a steep slope.  The driver took me to the junction and informed me he could not take his vehicle up to Dapuluo but promised to come back to pick me up when I returned.  The road uphill was more like a wide dirt path, only suitable for tractor-trailers, and so rutted I preferred to walk anyway, which took an hour.  The houses, mostly wooden with slate roofs, lay in a cluster surrounded by rice fields.  It was planting time so most villagers were at their farms.

       After wandering around taking pictures, it was time to go back down and meet the driver, who was already waiting for me.  Before taking me back to Fugong he wanted me to have a meal at his home first.  Maybe he felt guilty about charging me so much just to go several km to the Dapuluo junction.  It was a lavish and leisurely chicken dinner, washed down with rice liquor, with conversations about my life in northern Thailand, the Akha and Lisu there, my research in Yunnan and me learning how to say things in the local Lisu dialect.  My new friend later spread the news about me, for the following morning during market day in Fugong I overheard men speaking about the American from Thailand researching ethnic minorities.  A few introduced themselves and asked me to compare Yunnan and northern Thailand.

       Well, it was going to be easy to make friends here, so two years later, after Gongshan County was open to foreigners, I decided to make Nujiang the primary focus of my Yunnan research.  I started with a few days in Gongshan, including Bingzhongluo and the First Turn of the Nu River.  On the long bus ride to Gongshan I became familiar with another major feature of the Nujiang canyon—rope-bridges crossing the river.  Formerly made of split bamboo, which required changing after a while, now they were wound steel cables, almost all in pairs, and still in regular use, especially those near market day venues.

       Leaving Gongshan, I opted to spend a night In Lishadi, in Fugong County north of the Stone Moon, a picturesque town with tall pointed peaks right next to it.  After arriving I headed for the rope-bridge just north of the town that connected the riverbank to the Lisu village of Heizao.  From a distance I observed two men crossing over to the other side, but they were long gone by the time I reached the hook-up point.  However, after a few minutes four little girls came to the other side, hitched up with two harnesses on single cable hooks and then, without parental/adult supervision, the two pairs crossed and re-crossed the swirling river several times.  Witnessing this I deduced 1) it can’t be dangerous and 2) it must be fun.

       On the way back to Lishadi I stopped at a small sewing shop because a beautiful young Lisu woman in full traditional clothing and ornaments was inside visiting her friend the owner.  I took the opportunity to try using the Lisu language small talk I had picked up so far.  She was surprised, of course, and blushed a lot, but the short conversation was successful.  She was from Heizao so I asked her if she rode the rope-bridge.  By way of answering she reached into her pack-basket and pulled up her rope harness and cable hook.  Everyone who lived there had their own gear. 
       So the next time I visited Fugong I asked a Lisu woman I knew running a handicrafts shop to purchase a harness and cable hook for me.  But the nearest rope-bridge was one of the rare single cable types, where I would have to pull myself over from halfway across the river.  A Lisu man in the area came over and I explained, in simple Chinese, what I wanted to do and why here was not the right spot.  He offered to take me to Damedi, several km south, with its ordinary sloping pair of rope-bridges.  And there I experienced my first crossing of the Nu River in the time-honored traditional way.
       My next ambition was to use the Lishadi rope bridge with the excuse to deliver photos of the kids I had watched the previous trip.  It was market day but still early and a young man had just crossed when I arrived at the hook-up point.  He offered to take me to the village.  He left his own cable hook behind and hitched his simpler belt harness to my hook.  We failed to locate the girl I met in the shop but we did find the little girls.  My new friend kept repeating how delighted the girls were with their photos, while the parents plied us with steamed buns and cups of rice liquor. 
       Rope-bridges are not unique to Nujiang.  I saw my first one in use near Qiaotou on the way to Shangrila.  And there are still some along the upper Lancangjiang.  But, like the crossbows, only in Nujiang are they so widely in use.  I took my harness and cable hook with me on several subsequent excursions to Nujiang.  I counted 28 rope-bridges in the canyon, two of them single cables and the rest in pairs.  I rode across the Nu River at eight locations, some more than once.  It was a great way to make a favorable impression on the local people, especially those who had never ridden one themselves.

       It helped make new friends, too.  I carried the cable hook and rope harness in a shoulder bag so part of it was visible and recognizable to people in, for example, Lumadeng on market day.  Very quickly a Lisu man approached, guessed why I had such gear and offered to take me to the rope-bridge a few km north of the town.  He took his own gear along, made sure I tied up correctly and we rode across in tandem and back.  After that it was off to his house for snacks and beers, where his wife happened to be weaving at the time.  That was a skill I knew well and had even picked up a lot of the Lisu vocabulary about it, enabling me to make a few relevant comments to her and compare her narrow loom to similar Akha looms in Thailand.

       I returned to both Lishadi and Lumadeng a few times over the years, both for the rope-bridges and the colorful market days, where most Lisu dressed in traditional style.  They each had areas for drinking local maize beer and rice liquor.  Villages on the slopes were fun to visit because most were non-Christian, unable to pass up a chance to meet their first foreign guest and eager to demonstrate their hospitality by getting that guest pretty inebriated.  Their houses were usually wooden, stilted when on steep gradients, with thatch or tile roofs, simple interiors and minimal furniture.  The hearth was in the center with a bamboo tray suspended above where they stored bamboo baskets and vessels, which would be cured by the smoke from the cooking fire. Hunting trophies, like horned heads of barking deer, they might also mount above the hearth. Big ovens and storage containers flanked the rear wall.

       South of Fugong the houses are usually on stone foundations and most are Christian.  They are just as friendly and hospitable and eager to impress a guest.  They serve tea, though, not alcohol, because Christians, the sect here anyway, don’t drink or smoke.  They could make exceptions, however, as I found out on a trip to Anicha, a Christian Lisu village high up in the Gaoligong Mountains a little south of Fugong, site of a Dulong Cattle ranch.

       Dulong Cattle are raised for their meat and never used as traction animals. They are easy to manage and would provide an extra income for the village.  The project was started by Bobby Morse from Chiang Mai, whose family had been Protestant missionaries in Nujiang before 1949.  His Fugong manager took me up there.  As our hosts prepared our dinner they asked me if I drink liquor with my meal.  “Sometimes,” I answered, not to obligate them.  But perhaps it did, for they went out and fetched a ‘lax’ Christian villager to bring a bottle of corn liquor and drink with me.  I had my alcohol and a companion to converse with

       My final trip to Nujiang coincided with the Mid-Autumn Festival.  But aside from moon cakes in the Fugong market there was no sign of the celebration.  The Christians don’t mark it and neither, apparently, do the animists.  Told of a traditional village high up the slope not far from the city, I hiked there hoping for good news.  Alas, more than one resident informed me nothing was scheduled. It began to drizzle so a family invited me into their house.  

       Inside I spotted a crossbow in the corner and two trophies, an eagle and a pheasant, mounted on the wall.  Both were headless, probably because their heads were inserted into bottles of home-made liquor, like I’d seen among the Yi of Ninglang.  They also had a loom that was used for making straw floor mats, with stones tied to weight the heddle threads.  Hadn’t seen that before.

       The rain stopped before I got too drunk.  I thanked the family for their hospitality and thanked the rain for delaying my departure and enabling me to learn about one more aspect of Nujiang culture.  If I ever make it back, I’m sure there is more to discover.  All I need to do is make new friends—easy among the Lisu of Nujiang.

                                                            ***                                     

Friday, February 26, 2021

In Search of Lampang’s History


                                                                    by Jim Goodman

 

       The third largest city in Northern Thailand, Lampang, straddling the Wang River and home to a variety of temples and other attractions, gets a good share of the tourist visits.  Just a hundred kilometers from Chiang Mai, its major sites can be done in a day-trip, even when combined with a stop in the elephant camp on the way.  Overnight excursions are also popular, especially weekends, with their evening street markets.  Fridays the venue is Cultural Street, in Wiang Neua, the oldest part of the city.  Saturdays and Sundays it’s on Kad Kong Ta, along the river, a street featuring splendid, century-old houses built by merchants from the teak wallah years.  

       While exploring these neighborhoods, visitors get a feel for the city’s antiquity.  Many of the old town temples date from the Kingdom of Lanna era, 14th-17th centuries, while the Kad Kong Ta houses, Burmese-style temples, clock tower and railway line and station represent Lampang’s special prosperity in the golden years of the teakwood business.  But these are just part of Lampang’s history, for it is the second oldest city in all of Lanna, established many centuries before Thais had even begun living in Northern Thailand

         The first city was Haripunchai, now called Lamphun, founded in the 7th century and ruled by Queen Chamadevi, the most remarkable and accomplished woman in Thailand’s history.  Although no contemporary written records exist, no scholar challenges the fact that Chamadevi was a real historical person, even if her life story has been embellished by legend.

       She was born in a village west of Lamphun.  While still a baby she was supposedly grabbed by an eagle that flew to Doi Suthep.  The hermit Wasuthep, after whom the mountain was eventually named, harried the bird into dropping her into a pond, where a lotus flower sprouted to receive her.  Wasuthep raised the girl, named her Vi, taught her martial arts as well as other lessons of life and at her puberty divined her future.  Discovering she was destined to rule a new state, he decided to send her down to the Mon state of Lawo, today’s Lopburi, to be properly trained for this role.  He dispatched her on a boat all the way down to Lawo, which took a few months, with a pair of monkeys as companions, said to be the origin of contemporary Lopburi’s large monkey community.

       Lawo’s rulers assumed her surprise arrival to be an auspicious event.  They adopted her into the royal family, renamed her Chamadevi, and after a few years formally installed her as a princess.  She was already quite beautiful then and aroused marriage suits from princes in other Mon states.  When she refused one offer the suitor led an attack on Lawo in order to seize her.  Chamadevi aroused Lawo troops and allies and led the successful counterattack.  She did get pregnant later by a lover who enrolled in a monastery afterwards.  Meanwhile, Wasuthep up north decided it was time for Chamadevi to return to administer the newly laid out city of Haripunchai. 

       Chamadevi left Lawo by boat, a journey that took several months, and after being ceremonially installed as Haripunchai’s sovereign, a week later she gave birth to twin boys, Mahantayot and Anantayot.  She sponsored Theravada Buddhism as the state religion and several years later she mortally defeated the local Lawa chieftain Viranka, taking his domain under Haripunchai’s jurisdiction, yet diplomatically arranged for her sons to marry Viranka’s two daughters. 

       Chamadevi then pushed south, over the Kuntan Mountain Range, and founded Khelang, today’s Lampang. Khelang, 70 km south of Haripunchai, lies on the Wang River and was an important post on the trade routes to other Mon states.  Its layout was in the shape of a conch, surrounded by walls and moats, just like Haripunchai.  After abdicating as queen, leaving Mahantayot as Haripunchai’s sovereign, she retired to Khelang, where her other son Anantayot was the ruler.  At the age of 89 she died in Khelang and her son had the corpse taken to Haripunchai for the cremation. 

      Khelang continued to be the second most important city in the state.  It also bore the brunt of three Khmer attacks in the 12th century.  Haripunchai repulsed all of them and the victorious Mon king, head of the only Mon state not to be absorbed by Angkor’s expansion into central Thailand, built the golden chedi at Wat Haripunchai over what was Chamadevi’s original residence, and the chedis at Wat Chamadevi.  An earthquake flattened the latter, but in the early 13th century they were rebuilt  The smaller of the two contains her ashes.

       By then Tai Yuan had begun emigrating to Haripunchai and in the mid-13th century they were able to overthrow the Mon dynasty and install a Tai Yuan sovereign.  Later that century King Mengrai of Lanna conquered the city with the local royal family’s cooperation and Khelang was soon absorbed as well, its name subsequently changed to Lakhon.  Still, the city retained its local autonomy and prospered enough to afford new temples, many still extant, in the classic Lanna style.      

         The legacy of Lampang’s Haripunchai era is not very visible.  The city does have a Chamadevi shrine and a few famous temples nearby, like Wat Phra That Sadet, Wat Pang Yong Khok and Wat Lampang Luang, are restorations of ones originally founded in Chamadevi’s time.  Within today’s city limits the oldest extant relic is the stump of a brick chedi in the grounds of Wat Don Tao, first built by King Anantayot in the early 8th century.  More extensive ruins are at Wat Muen Khruen, from the early 13th century, just outside Pratu Ma, the northeastern gate.  The tapered, bell-shaped chedi has been restored but otherwise only the foundations of other buildings remain from a compound built three generations before the Lanna conquest.

       A few other temple ruins augment Lampang’s historical atmosphere.  In the heart of the old Wiang Neua quarter stands a relatively well preserved compound gate called Ku Chao Ya Suta, built in the late 14th century.  It is embellished with full relief sculptures over the arch and on the sides and is the entrance to Wat Kak Kaeo, where only the foundations of the other buildings remain. 

       Similarly, at Wat Pa Phrao, constructed in the mid-15th century, also outside Pratu Ma in the same neighborhood as Wat Muen Khruen, only the chedi still stands and it’s missing its upper spire. Its name can be translated as ‘place of the coconuts’.  It was outside the city walls, so may well have originally been, along with the older Wat Muen Khruen, a kind of forest temple.  A third abandoned ruin, in Wiang Neua, is the big but dilapidated chedi of Wat Umong, the only surviving remnant, tucked inside a crowded residential neighborhood.

       Other temples erected in the Lanna era are still is use, renovated in a manner that reflected the original design, of wooden buildings without the addition of paint or plaster, with roofs of dark tiles.  Wat Pathuton in a quiet part of Wiang Neua is an outstanding example, featuring fine carvings on the doors, classic Lanna viharn and a black chedi with gold embellishments.  It was named after one of the city’s former gates and part of the old city wall flanks its courtyard.

       Even more interesting is Wat Pong Yang Khok, southwest of the city past Lampang Luang.  According to the origin legend, Chamadevi was on her way to Lampang Luang when her elephant suddenly stopped and bowed.  The queen decided to spend the night there and prayed for a miraculous sign.  Then a halo of Buddha relics flashed over an anthill.  Chamadevi ordered a temple built over the anthill.

       The rather small viharn here is named after Chamadevi and renovated five hundred years ago.  The tall and wide building behind it, called the ‘castle’, went up around that time and now serves as the monks’ quarters.  A statue of Chamadevi stands outside on a pedestal across the street.  Within the compound is also a small shrine to the elephant that bowed to the Buddha, originally constructed, like the viharn, in 710.  Another shrine features a portrait, behind the Buddha image, of Po Thip Chang, the Lampang hero who freed the city from Burmese rule in the 18th century.

       A similar origin story narrates the founding of Wat Lin Hai, also in the same area.  An elephant carrying a Buddha relic from India stopped to bow at this site.  In 1683 a prince from Kengtung in northeast Myanmar, sponsored the construction of the temple here.  The viharn is in classic Lanna style and the entry gate features wonderful stucco sculptures.  The temple’s museum contains many antique artifacts, household goods, jewelry and sculptures

        As the southern part of the Kingdom of Lanna, Lampang was a target for attacks by Ayutthaya, which captured the city in 1515, but later withdrew.  The Burmese Kingdom of Ava conquered Lanna in 1558, but left local rulers as autonomous governors.  In 1660 King Narai of Ayutthaya marched his armies north and expelled the Burmese from most of Lanna.  But when Ayutthaya withdrew after Narai’s death, Ava reasserted control and installed its own governors.

       Still, Lampang was a long way from Ava and never fully resigned to foreign rule.  Revolts broke out periodically and in 1732, led by native Po Thip Chang, Lampang recovered its autonomy, which Ava reluctantly recognized and it was a quarter century before Ava re-imposed its rule.  In 1767 Ava destroyed Ayutthaya, but the survivors regrouped and founded a new state, the Kingdom of Siam, its capital on the Chao Phaya River, and began challenging an Ava in retreat just fifteen years later.

       Lampang under its ruler Kawila declared independence from Ava and made an alliance with Siam.  Ava attacked and besieged Lampang for three months in 1783, until an army from Siam relieved the city and drove the Burmese from the area.  Kawila’s forces continued to push Ava out of northern Thailand and re-established the state of Lanna as a vassal of Siam.  (From then on Lakhon became officially known as Lampang.)  Yet the Burmese threat persisted for another couple decades and one of the first tasks of the new government in Lanna was to strengthen its cities’ defenses.

       Lampang rebuilt its walls but these gradually disappeared as peace endured, the threat ended and the city expanded.  In recent years Pratu Ma, the Horse Gate, was reconstructed and on each end of it some remnants of the original mounds, bricks and moat remain in place.  Near the river in Wiang Nuea is the Ho Amok Tower, erected in 1808 and designed to support cannons along the top.  It was never used for defensive action but was left as a legacy of a bygone yet important historical era.

       Over the course of the 19th century Lanna gradually lost its autonomy and became fully integrated with Siam, politically and economically.  By 1900 Lampang was prospering, thanks to the launching of the teak business.  Loggers cut trees in the forest.  Elephants dragged out the logs and formed them into rafts at the riverside.  These rafts floated down the Wang River to its junction with the Chao Phaya and then on to Bangkok.

       Thai people living near the forests were at that time unwilling to work in them, so the logging captains encouraged immigration from Burma, then a British colony.  As a result many Burmese-style temples appeared in the city, especially across the river from the old town.  With their very different architectural features they add to the city’s variety as well as represent a distinct historical period.

       Likewise, so do the houses constructed for the teak wallahs.  Most of them still house descendants of the original owners, like the mansions along Kad Kong Ta.  The grandest of them is Baan Sao Mak, the House of Twenty Pillars, in a neighborhood nearby, which now serves as a museum, with a fascinating array of antique furniture inside.  A short stroll from Wat Pratuphong stands the old two-story house that belonged to Louis Leonowens, the husband of Anna of Anna and the King of Siam fame.  Not much is left of the furnishings, but in the yard is one of the early 20th century trucks used to transport teak logs and other displays of the trade.

       The final legacy of the teak trade period is the Lampang train station, which opened in 1916 to connect the city with Bangkok, 642 km south.  Logs moved much more expeditiously after that.  By then Chiang Mai was into the business, too, so construction began to extend the line.  The Kuntan Mountains Range was in the way, so workers created a tunnel through it and then two double-span bridges across streams; the White Bridge just north of the tunnel and the Black Bridge beside Lamphun.  Chiang Mai railway station opened in 1921.

       The logging business has ceased, but Lampang today reflects its commercial success in other trades and industries, including tourism. For visitors Lampang has many relics from throughout its history, waiting to be appreciated.  After all, the city has been continuously inhabited for nearly 1400 years.

   

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Thursday, January 28, 2021

Chiang Dao—the City of Stars

 

                                   by Jim Goodman

 

      Doi Chiang  Dao, Thailand’s third tallest mountain at 2225 meters, stands on a broad plain, overlooking a rolling, forested landscape, a few km from the town named after it.  Originally called Doi Piang Dao (“mountain at the level of the stars”), the town beside it became known as Chiang Dao (“the city of stars”) and the mountain became more commonly referred to by the same name.  About 80 km north of Chiang Mai, it is popular day excursion, primarily for the caves within the mountain, sometimes including a stop on the way at an elephant riding camp.

       The entrance to the caves lies near the foot of the mountain, with two passage ways inside.  The upper one runs about 200 meters, is illuminated and contains, besides the usual stalagmites and stalactites, a number of Buddhist shrines.  The lower passage way is 750 meters long, full of twists and turns, rugged and narrow, no shrines and no overhead lights.  Taking this route requires a guide and lamps.  Even with a powerful flashlight, the novice is unlikely to know which turn leads on to something attractive and which runs into a dead end wall of rock.

       The shorter upper cave is easily negotiable with enough illumination, and not overly bright, to see everything clearly and maintain the atmosphere.  The stalactites are usually walls of rock with vertical fluted indentations hanging down from the ceiling, some with very jagged pointed ends.  The stalagmites are less numerous, some in breast-shaped mounds lining a ledge, others resembling human heads.  None of the rock formations are particularly arresting, but they provide a nice backdrop to the shrines.

       The biggest one is not far from the entrance, featuring large seated Buddhas in a niche in the cave wall.  Further on are other seated Buddhas, big and small, in rows on ledges and a reclining Buddha in a space between two boulders.  Perhaps the most interesting image, towards the end of the upper trail and next to a large seated crowned Buddha, is of a bewhiskered, crowned figure, shirtless and wearing pants and what looks like royal jewelry, standing within the coils of a seven-headed naga (mythical serpent).

       Buddhist imagery also graces the area in front of the cave entrance.  Stone chedis stand along the shore of a clear and clean, turquoise-colored pond.   Small Buddha images sit in niches in the cliff behind, while a small chedi rests on a dragon-headed boat in the water next to the path.  To the right of the pond a regal gilded Buddha sits on the coils of a naga, while all around it are similarly sculpted Buddhas, all in white.  Another chedi tops a nearby mound.

       The settlement beside the cave is a typical northern village with mostly stilted houses, whose residents work as guides in the caves or up the mountain.  Some of the women are involved in basketry.  Several quiet guest houses also exist in the vicinity, as well as in the town.  While a visit to the cave will not take much time, some visitors come for a longer stay, for the town and district offer other attractions.

       Around three hundred species of tropical birds fly around the area.  Bird watchers can spot some of them on early morning hikes around the base of Doi Chiang Dao and lots more by trekking to the summit.  This requires a local guide, for the mountain is a national park, heavily forested and the trail is not so easily evident to one who’s never taken it.  It’s 7.5 kilometers to the top and the journey up and back normally takes about eight hours.  While it can be accomplished in a day, most hikers arrange to stay the night camping at the summit, in order to appreciate the night stars and the splendid, panoramic view of the sunrise.  And the tropical birds will be more active as the hikers then make their way through the trees down to the mountain’s base.

       A less taxing excursion is a visit to Wat Tham Pha Plong, two km north of the cave.  The temple is on top of a small hill, surrounded by the jungle, accessible by a staircase of 500 steps.  For nature lovers, continuing north in the district are more venues.  The Pha Daeng National Park extends over a thousand square kilometers, a landscape of rolling valleys and forested mountains and isolated clearings with villages of the Karen and Lisu minorities.

       Besides the birds and the scenery, the park contains other attractions like the Pong Arn hot springs, which offers tubs for visitors wishing to soak in the therapeutic waters.  Closer to the northern border with Myanmar is the Sri Songwan Waterfall, tumbling off a high cliff.  Like Doi Chiang Dao, the mountains in the park are part of the Darn Lao Range, running north on the east side of the Salween River through northeast Myanmar up to Yunnan.  Doi Angkhang, west of Fang and Thailand’s second highest peak, is also part of this range.  Doi Thoai, west of Sri Songwan, is the source of the Ping River, which flows past Chiang Mai.

       From the cave a road runs a few km directly to the market area on the northeast side of the city.  Next to the road just a couple blocks before the market is Chiang Dao’s most unusual temple—Wat Mae It.  It has the usual compound elements of assembly hall, monks’ quarters and ordination hall and a large image of Upakhu, a famous 3rd century Indian monk.  Its broad courtyard, though, features displays of the tortures of the Buddhist Hell. 

       Figures with abnormally stretched arms, torsos and legs stand in a line taller than the viharn.  Below them Hell’s demons exercise various forms of torture on sinners both male and female.  The demons saw bodies down the middle, slice open heads, rip out tongues, mutilate genitals, force naked bodies up thorn trees and other nefarious maneuvers. 

       According to the Buddhist doctrine the sinners will experience excruciating pain but not die.  The inflicted wounds will heal and then be reopened.  The torture will last x number of years and then the victims will be reborn for another round of life on earth.  The “Temple of Hell” concept is not unique to Chiang Dao, for several exist in other parts of Thailand, including a bigger, more elaborate one at Wat Mae Ket Noi near Mae Jo, not far from Chiang Mai.  The idea is to scare believers into being good by graphic exhibits of what happens to those who are bad.

    

   There’s not much else of interest in the town itself, with a population of about 15,000 and no relics from its establishment in the time of the Kingdom of Lanna.  The one major and colorful exception is the weekly Tuesday morning market, for it draws not only Thais from all over the district but also some of the hill tribes, as the ethnic minorities are called.  Stalls and stands start setting up from 6 a.m., while other sellers simply lay out their goods on the ground next to the main street.  Further back from the road more stalls occupy a big field that is otherwise empty every other day.  Goods on sale range from basic consumer items like shoes, clothing, sunglasses, tools and small appliances to every kind of agricultural product, plus various food stands offering snacks, drinks or noodle meals.

       A few Hmong women show up, probably coming from the Chiang Mai area, managing stalls selling Hmong jewelry, clothing and accessories.  They can be recognized by their pleated batik skirts and their hair tied in a bun.  Much more numerous are the Lisu and Palong, both of whom have several settlements in the district.  The Lisu have been here much longer, in some cases over a hundred years, while the Palong began arriving only in the early 1980s, escaping the ethnic insurgencies raging in Myanmar at the time.

       The Lisu are the fifth largest ethnic minority in the country, after the Karen, Hmong, Lahu and Akha, living mainly in the northern border provinces of Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son.  Their language belongs to the Yi sub-group of the Tibeto-Burman linguistic family, related to Yi, Akha and Lahu.  Wooden houses, and more recently concrete ones, characterize the settlements, usually sited on the higher and steeper slopes of the hills.  As a result they were relatively isolated from life in the plains. 

       In the late 20th century their forested habitat became a target of the logging industry, which began cutting down most of the forests throughout Thailand, not just the north.  To save what remained, the government banned logging and turned several northern areas into national parks, where cutting trees and hunting were outlawed and ‘encroachers’ evicted.  Despite the fact the rate of deforestation was much lower in the north than the rest of Thailand, thanks to the hill tribes’ traditional skills of land management, the government continued to see them as a threat to conservation and periodically has launched campaigns to evict them.  Just seven years ago, for example, authorities demolished the century-old village of Laowo and forced the removal of its people.  Fortunately, things have simmered down since then.

       By now most villages have switched from growing rice in plots rotated by the slash-and-burn method to cash crops—vegetables, tea, coffee—in fixed fields.  While their material life has thus altered considerably, the Lisu still hold on to their other customs, like the traditional clothing.  Even the men often prefer to wear the Lisu trousers, loose and wide to the knees and tight around the calves, usually brown or blue, both at home and when visiting the towns. 

       The women dress much more colorfully.  Traditionally, over plain black trousers they donned a long-sleeved, side-fastened jacket in bright colors, slit on the sides and front and back panels reaching to the knees, with thin bands of appliqué around the shoulders and neck.  A couple decades ago the favored colors were red, blue and green.  But nowadays the apparent uniformity has given way to different colors on the sleeves and front fastening flap and even cut differently.  Nevertheless, the current style is still authentically Lisu and definitely stands out in the crowds.  No one else wears anything similar.

       The other minority attending market day, more numerous than the Lisu, is the Palong.  Being relatively recent residents, the Palong are not Thai citizens and are restricted from traveling outside their district.  A few may turn up in Chiang Mai, like for Shan festivals, as the Palong are also Buddhist.  Government publications do not even list the Palong as one of Thailand’s minorities, though with a population around 5000 they are larger than registered minorities like the Khamu, Htin and Mlabri.  Chiang Mai’s Hill Tribe Museum does not include any exhibit or mention of them, though they are invited to set up a booth when the museum hosts a fair or special exhibition.

       Thailand’s Palong came from Myanmar.  The Palong also live in southwestern Yunnan, China, where they are known as the De’ang.  Their language belongs to the Mon-Khmer linguistic family and is related to Wa and Bulang.  Like the latter, and some of the Wa, they are Theravada Buddhists, following the same religious calendar and activities as their Shan and Thai neighbors.  In a typical Palong village their homes are stilted houses of wooden poles and beams, split bamboo walls and balcony and thatched roofs.

       Besides rice and vegetables, the Palong also grow cotton, which the women spin and weave to make their clothing components, using a simple back-strap loom fixed to a pole underneath the house floor.  The basic women’s outfit is an ankle-length red tube skirt worn with a long-sleeved jacket.  The jacket color is black or blue, with a wide strip of red running vertically down the front.  A narrow strip of cloth, studded with small silver disks, surrounds each upper arm sleeve, with coins, bead strings or long tassels suspended from the lower edge.

       The red skirt has very thin horizontal stripes of blue, white or gray and folds in front at the waist.  Lacquered black rattan rings wrap around the waist to secure it.  Instead of rattan rings, or in addition to it, Palong women may wear a thick silver belt, about 5 cm wide.  The only other kind of ornamentation will be small earrings and silver bangles.

       Since the warfare over the border has much subsided, hill tribes crossing into Thailand to flee the violence has also sharply reduced.  As a result the Palong (Lisu as well) are under less government pressure and their lives have become more stable and secure, even while still officially ‘stateless’.  Their weaving skills have aroused the interest of tour agencies, who have been arranging groups to visit Palong villages set up to showcase their weaving, providing an extra income for the villagers.  Meanwhile, for foreign and domestic visitors, every Tuesday morning the Palong, like the Hmong and Lisu, are the stars of Chiang Dao.


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Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Luchun: the Hani Majority County

 

                                                               by Jim Goodman

 

       Southern Yunnan’s Honghe is a Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture, wherein the Hani and Yi minority nationalities comprise a majority of the population or occupy over 50% of the land.  Usually the latter is the case, especially north of the Red River, where Han immigrants have long been settled in both rural and urban areas.  South of the Red River the land is much hillier, farmed by using the ancient and famous water-filled terraces, and Han residence is confined to the cities.  Even there, employed by the government bureaucracy or as shopkeepers or involved in other urban services, they are in competition with local minorities.

       Luchun County, in the southwest and bordering northwest Vietnam, attracted but a handful of Han immigrants after 1949.  Much of its territory is mountainous and still heavily forested and it has always been relatively isolated, off the main trade routes and mainly accessible via Yuanyang County to its east.  As a result, Luchun County’s population is 80% Hani, nearly all of whom can trace their residence back many generations.

       Entering from Yuanyang County, after 15 km the traveler comes to Luchun city, the county capital, lying on a long, high, narrow, east-west ridge.  Its modern buildings, largely whitewashed cement, line the ridge, with Hani villages and rice terraces immediately below on each side.  The bus station, central market and public park are in a four-block stretch in the city center.  From the park and from glimpses between the buildings are good views of the terraces and mountain scenery.

       Most urban residents are Hani.  Most shop signboards are bilingual—in Chinese characters and the English letters used to write the Hani language.  The Hani call the city Donya and their language is used more often here than Chinese. 

       The main Hani sub-group call themselves Awo Hani.  Females of all ages still prefer their traditional clothing, consisting of a very Chinese-style, long-sleeved jacket over trousers and a round decorated turban.  Most jackets fasten on the right side, with a few buttoned down the front.  The style is relatively uniform, but they could be any color.  Some prefer black or dark blue, and not just the older women.  Others choose a variety of soft pastel colors, often patterned, no two alike.  The trousers are usually plain or else black with a blue stripe around the shins.     

       On their heads they wear a round cloth turban shaped like a pillbox hat with a tassel hanging over the side.  Women from Sanmeng to the south can be identified by the huge woolen tassel draping over the right ear.  The turban could be plain or decorated with silver studs or cultured pearls.

       Every horse and rat day in the 12-day animal cycle Luchun stages its market day.  Villagers swarm into the city bearing a variety of products to sell or empty pack-baskets to fill with goods to take home.  They set up stalls to offer rice, various vegetables, spices, forest goods, medicinal herbs, baby frogs caught in the terraces, honeycombs, edible insects or clothing.  Some may even just stand somewhere on the street holding a single item, like a cooked bird or a newly made traditional jacket. 

       Market day also attracts Hani from other parts of the county, mostly the south, like Sanmeng and areas closer to the Vietnam border.  Some groups from the far south wear fancier turbans with decorative flaps and tassels and a jacket festooned with several triangles of silver studs.  The crowd may also include a sprinkling of other minority nationalities in the county, like Yi, Dai and Yao.

       A few Yi are migrants from the Nisu sub-group in Yuanyang County, who run small shops and businesses.  Their women wear brightly colored, side-fastened jackets with bands of appliqué on the hems, sides and cuffs, and a belt with long, wide, decorated ends hanging over the buttocks.  Younger Nisu girls may also wear a silver-studded, chicken-shaped hat.

       The county’s indigenous Yi belong to another sub-group from four villages near Niukong, 37 km west of Luchun.  The road winds down from the high ridge and runs along the Niukong River, passing many Hani villages, mostly on the south side, with mud-brick houses and thatched or more often tiled roofs—the typical rural Yunnan style, though not enclosed by compound walls.  After passing a few bamboo bridges the road reaches Niukong town beside the river.  Market day here takes place a day before Luchun, on snake and pig days, drawing local Yi as well as a few Hani sub-groups.

       The Yi villages are up above the town and consist of houses similar to those of the Hani.  Yi women here wear a long-tailed coat, sometimes shorter in the front, side-fastened, over plain black trousers.  Older women wear white, younger ones prefer indigo or black with red, light blue or magenta sleeves and shoulders.  They appliqué stylized patterns of dragons, phoenixes, fish, butterflies, birds and peonies below the neck, front and back, around the shoulders and on the cuffs and elbows.  Most wrap their hair in a simple kerchief, but some don a silver-studded “chicken hat” and tie a hair braid over it to keep it in place.   

       West of Niukong the road rises into the hills and away from the river to a turnoff about 15 km later that runs south for 65 km to Qimaba, a large Dai settlement of over 200 houses almost exactly in the center of the county.  Hani villages sprinkle the hills in the beginning, but soon the environment is heavily forested until Qimaba, which lies on a gentle slope above its terraces. Irrigated by streams that also run through the residential area, reinforced by stone walls on their sides, the terraces stretch out like a fan in front of the village and end at the cliffs above the Chama River. 

       The Dai inhabitants belong to an animist sub-group that migrated from Shiping County to this isolated venue in the 19th century.   They have the same mud-brick, tile-roofed, two-story houses as elsewhere in the county, but with an open section in the center without roof, over a slightly sunken square pit next to a water tank, where they do their washing, while a drain carries the waste water into the stream along the path outside.  Thus, in Qimaba, water engineering is not just for their agriculture; it extends to the settled area as well.

       Most of the women prefer their traditional outfits:  blue or black tubular skirt, side-fastened, long-sleeved top with embroidered front, hems and cuffs and sometimes the entire back of the jacket.  They wear these basic components all day, even when working in the fields.  For social occasions or going to the market they may also wear a tall, elaborate head piece lined with coins and silver studs above the brim, with a long black flap hanging down the back.

       Most of the area north of Qimaba is part of the Huanglianshan Reserved Forest, a mountainous wooded zone around the Huanglian Mountain peak of 2637 meters.  A few stray Hani and Yao villages lie tucked away in the forest, but the Yao are more accessible in Shangpinghe, a large village just west of Pinghe in the southeast.  The houses are mud-brick or whitewashed concrete, closely placed in rows on a slope above their rice terraces.

       The Yao here are members of the Landian sub-group, also found in Yuanyang and Jinping Counties.  Both sexes usually dress in their traditional plain black clothing, the women in bulky, side-fastened jackets with tails in the back, the men in knee-length jackets buttoning vertically in front.  Women also wear a skein of magenta woolen threads draping across the jacket front and don a tall black headdress over a coil of black braids.  Men wear a round cap with silver disks around the bottom.

       The turn-off south to Pinghe is just before entering Luchun County from the east.  The road skirts the eastern side of the county for 47 km to Pinghe, overlooking valleys cut by tributary streams of the Mengman River.  This is the most heavily populated part of Luchun County and Hani villages lie all along the slopes, with their water-filled terraces climbing up to cover over 80% of the hills flanking the streams.  

       A branch road just after the Pinghe turnoff winds for 37 km up and down hills to Sanmeng, a Hani town directly south of Luchun geographically.  The bus stops at the bottom of the hill, from which it is a steep hike to the village itself.  The reward is the splendid scenery visible all around, accented in winter by low-lying, wispy morning cloudlets.   

       Compared to the eastern and northern sectors of Luchun County, the rest of it is rather sparsely settled and very forested.  Not many roads link the isolated villages with main thoroughfares.  After the Qimaba turnoff the main highway continues to Dashuigou, a nondescript town itself, but interesting for the different sub-groups of Hani.  The women of one dress in similar style as Hani around Luchun, but with a fancier head-covering, knee-length trousers and colored cloth wrappers around the calves.  Another group wears long jackets and very tall black cloth headdresses with a rectangular top, along with big round silver earrings.  Both sub-groups are spillovers from Mojiang County to the west.

       From Dashuigou the main road runs through the hills south to Daheishan, a town about the same size and look.  Then it turns southwest and soon enters Jiangcheng County.  The Hani in this part of the county dress more like those in Luchun, but their dialect differs considerably, being more like the Hani dialect of Pu’er Prefecture.

       The Hani language is a member of the Yi branch of the Tibeto-Burman linguistic family.  It is related to Yi, Lahu and Lisu, and like them has several dialects.  The basic grammar and syntax for all Tibeto-Burman languages is the same, with a subject-object-verb word order.  When the Chinese government decided to devise writing systems for those languages without them, the dialect spoken in Dazhai, just beyond the western outskirts of Luchun city, became the standard for the Hani language and the one used to make a Hani-English dictionary.  It is the one spoken over most of Luchun County, as well as, with a few vocabulary differences, Jinping, Yuanyang, Honghe, Hekou and northwest Vietnam. 

      

After long campaigns to Sinicize minority nationalities and eradicate traditional culture, after the Reform Era began the government reversed that policy and encouraged ethnic identity.  Not every old custom was revived, but certainly ethnic pride returned.  As part of that manifestation, in 1994 the primary school in Guangma village, on the slope across the stream on the south side of Luchun, began instructing in the Hani language and teaching students how to read and write in Hani, using English letters.

  

   For the first three years instruction is given in both Hani and Chinese and afterwards mainly in Chinese.  Up through the fifth grade students also have twice weekly Hani language lessons.  The Honghe Prefecture government sponsored the publishing of books in Hani, generally folk tales, Hani proverbs and seasonal work songs. 

       Revivalism has also meant an active role once again for the Hani ritual specialist.  The Hani are animist and employ the specialist to perform the proper traditional rites to appease potentially troublesome spirits, protect the fields and the people’s health, and be able to read portents in the liver of the sacrificial animal. 

       Hani festivals like the Long Table Feast are back in vogue.  For this one all the village men dine together with all the tables lined up on a single village lane and crammed with a great variety of dishes, from meat cooked myriad ways to different edible insects, with each family’s women bringing a tray full for the collective feast.  Liberally punctuated by toasting and drinking, the meal takes all afternoon.  The men then retire and it’s the women’s turn, though not including the drinks.

       Some villages have the traditional gates at the main entrance.  Consisting of a wooden beam aid across two upright poles, it has carved swords or other warning symbols to keep evil spirits from visiting.  When villagers sicken and no medicine seems to work they will call on a shaman to go into a trance to find out what the afflicting spirit demands in order to recuperate and then follow the shaman’s advice afterwards.  They claim it always works.

       For the Lunar New Year villages erect swings and teeter boards for the youth to enjoy.  The swing consists of four long tree limbs lashed upright together with a pair of ropes suspended from the top and joined by a plank at the bottom.  The teeter board is a long beam inserted into hole in a tree stump.  A rider sits on each side, steering the board both up and down and around in a circle.

       For adults, the main activity is family visits and banquets.  And the Hani women will put on their fanciest traditional jacket and turban and whatever jewelry they have.  New Year is always a time of hope and it’s better to dress in your finest to welcome it.  


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               For more on Hani culture, see my e-book The Terrace Builders