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.

      * * *                  


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.  

                                                                 * * *  

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

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Allures of Tengchong


                                                            by Jim Goodman                            


       From ancient times until the advent of modern highways and railroads, the main means of long-distance trade and international commerce by land was the caravan.  Consisting of sometimes hundreds of animals, carrying both trade goods and their own provisions for the lengthy, arduous journey, caravans began connecting China economically with places as far away as Europe from the early Han Dynasty.  Because the main item exported from China was silk, the caravan routes became known as the Silk Road.  The most famous route ran from northwest China all the way to Europe.  Another, less traveled but not as long or grueling, was the Southwest Silk Road, running from Sichuan through Yunnan and on to Burma and India.

       Han Dynasty authority in Yunnan was intermittent and under the Tang and Song Dynasties, Yunnan was an independent state; Nanzhao during the Tang and the Kingdom of Dali during the Song.  Neither of these states exerted much control of their southwestern territories, relying on autonomous local rulers to keep the peace.  When the Mongols conquered Yunnan they set up an administrative center in Tengchong, but the area was still lightly populated and relatively lawless until the Ming Dynasty drove the Mongols out in the late 14th century.  With Yunnan now part of China, the Ming encouraged Chinese settlement in the province. 

       Traffic on the Southwest Silk Road revived and as Tengchong was the last major stop inside China before crossing into Burma, immigrants arrived in droves and established businesses that all thrived.  The city’s setting was part of the attraction.  At an elevation of 1640 meters, with a mild climate year-round, it sits on a broad plain with mountains standing in a horseshoe shape around it, the opening to the south.  The land produced grain, sugarcane, tea leaves and oil crops.  Around 400 years ago tobacco cultivation began, generally on the slopes of the volcanoes north of the city.  A very high-quality tobacco, nowadays it is usually blended with other Yunnan tobaccos.

      Tengchong was also a transit point for silk and other items from Sichuan and Yunnan.  The city’s main import was Burmese jade, which the city’s craftsmen carved and prepared for export all over China.  The jade business is still part of the city, augmented in recent years by Burmese amber.  The city holds a Jade and Amber Bazaar every dive days, attracting merchants from both China and Myanmar.

       As their businesses prospered, some merchants left home to expand their business abroad.  This was particularly true in Heshun, 10 km south, a town famous for its high percentage of residents who became Overseas Chinese.  Retaining connections with the homeland, they endowed their families, and the town itself, with funds for nice houses, as well as parks, pavilions and even a library.  With architecture classical but influenced by foreign styles, obvious prosperity, quiet atmosphere, lack of slums pleasant parks, views and pavilions, Heshun is a popular excursion out of Tengchong. 

       Heshun translates as Peace and Harmony, an appropriate name for a town that exemplifies those concepts in its layout and atmosphere.  It lies on a knoll above a clear shallow stream, holding about 1300 houses and 7000 residents.  Nearly every family has at least one relative who is an Overseas Chinese. In fact, the number of Heshun-born Overseas Chinese is nearly twice that of the town’s current residents. Over the centuries it has earned a reputation for producing talented men—scholars and educators, writers and artists, philosophers and rich merchants. 

       A road winds around the base of the knoll and branching lanes lead to the houses, pavilions and ponds.  A classical gateway marks the entrance to each neighborhood.  The houses are usually whitewashed, with sloping tiled roofs and upturned corners.  All of them look like the domiciles of fairly wealthy families.  A few exhibit a mixed architectural influence, with standard Chinese style roofs, the corners turned up higher than usual, and very Western-like doors, balconies and windows.

       The only non-Chinese style building in town is the large library on the campus of Yiqun Middle School.  Set up in 1924, sponsored by Heshun’s native Overseas Chinese, it contains over 60,000 volumes, including some rare ancient texts.  The town’s other public buildings all reflect the traditional style, embellished with carved beams, painted rafters and vertical boards of poem couplets, inscribed by famous calligraphers.

        Some of these structures stand in the parks and rest-stops, of which there are several, often beside ponds.  The town has plenty of places for strollers to take a break and enjoy the serenity and scenery.  The ponds may be active at any time, with children playing or women washing clothes, using stone anvils mounted at the edge of the pool.  The women do their laundry under roofed shelters built long ago as a gift by newlywed husbands before they set off on their business travels.  Yuanlongtan, about 1.5 km behind Heshun, has the most limpid water and lies in front of the town’s largest temple compound, sprawling up the wooded hill behind it.

       Back in Tengchong it is difficult to find traditional architecture, as the existing such neighborhoods scattered between concrete high-rises are slowly but inevitably disappearing.  The city does boast one outstanding natural attraction not far from the center—Dieshuihe, a waterfall that plunges 40 meters over a sheer cliff.  Inscribed in stylized calligraphy on the side of the cliff are four characters that describe the waterfall as “a sword that sweeps away the dense miasma.”

       The words take on a poignant irony when one knows that in 1879 Qing Dynasty troops, fearing a revival of the Muslim Rebellion, massacred hundreds of Tengchong Muslims by hurling them over the falls.  The incident, not mentioned on any signpost in the vicinity, makes Dieshuihe a kind of historical attraction.  Another is the city’s former British Consulate, a large, forlorn-looking building built from 1921-31 and abandoned when Japanese troops invaded Tengchong in 1942.

       British involvement in Tengchong began with an expedition led by Augustus Raymond Margary to explore trade routes from Shanghai through China and into India.   While he was traveling a little north of Tengchong, in February, 1875 bandits waylaid his party and killed him and his ten Chinese workers.  Great Britain then demanded compensation from the Qing government, while local authorities countered that the British had not informed them in advance of Margary’s trip.  Well aware of the Qing Dynasty’s decline and weakness, the British   forced one of its ‘Unequal Treaties’ on China, this one called the Chefoo Convention.

       Under its terms the Qing government agreed to pay compensation to the victims’ families, arrest and try the killers, grant British citizens the right of extra-territoriality and make revisions in its trade policy favorable to Britain.  Ten years later Britain took control of northern Burma and Tengchong eventually became a trading post for goods coming out of British India. Prosperity returned to Tengchong and prevailed until the Japanese occupation of Burma.

       After the Japanese War came the Chinese Civil War, the establishment of a Communist system, the convulsions of the Cultural Revolution, which reached into even remote cities like Tengchong, and finally the Reform Era.  From then on former businesses revived and thrived, while industrialization and exploitation of the county’s natural and mineral resources accelerated.  The construction of new highways across the province rendered access to Tengchong much easier, an asset which sparked growth of a tourist industry.

       While it doesn’t have the towering snow mountains of the northwest or the tropical environment of Xishuangbanna, the county is unique in Yunnan for its many volcanoes, some of them still active.  Relatively young volcanoes, geologically speaking, form a partial ring around the county capital.  Adventurous visitors can take a long hike up the side of one to see the crater and view other mountains from a high perspective.

       Most tourists were Chinese from big cities and unlikely to make such an endeavor.  The geothermal feature more interesting to them was the presence of hot springs.  Several of these lie scattered around the county, but the biggest is Rehai—the Hot Sea—about 20 km south of Tengchong.   

       Visitors here take a leisurely walk through the forest on a trail beside a creek.  The hot springs pop up at frequent intervals, sometimes within the creek, or spewing from a fissure in a rock shaped like a toad’s head, sometimes out of a nearby pool.  A few bubble out of manmade stone cauldrons, decorated with carved animal figures. The most impressive is the Big Boiling Pot, 3 meters wide and 1.5 meters deep, its steam, at 90 degrees C., gushing up into the air several meters.

       The Rehai springs contain many minerals good for the health.  They are effective in the treatment of rheumatism, arthritis and skin diseases.  Near some of the larger hot springs in the 9 km2 park are bath houses and steam beds where guests can indulge in such treatment.

       Tengchong’s other alluring attraction is the presence of the very traditional Hua Lisu ethnic minority, living in the highlands northwest of the city.  Hua means ‘flower’ and this Lisu sub-group is so named for the bright, ‘flowery’ colors of their traditional apparel, especially that of the women.  Lisu tradition claims the Lisu had a kingdom in eastern Tibet before the Tibetans migrated there.  Afterwards they gradually moved south through Sichuan into western Yunnan.

       They are divided into several sub-groups, but share the same language, part of the Yi group of the Tibeto-Burman linguistic group, related to Yi, Hani and Lahu.  They have no written system, but the Lisu preserve their history in songs, which can sometimes take an entire day to sing.  The Hua Lisu, one of the largest sub-groups, moved into the mountains of Tengchong around the beginning of the 16th century.

      Security was an initial problem, for Ming Dynasty rule had not established control very much beyond the Southwest Silk Road route.  Bandits ruled the rural and remote areas.  Finally, in the early 16th century the Ming Court dispatched Minister Wang Ji to conduct a pacification campaign in southwest Yunnan.  To augment the forces he brought with him, he recruited local residents who had suffered from cross-border bandit raids, especially the Lisu, and gave them military training.  

       The campaign was a success, though Wang Ji died just before its conclusion, and law and order was established on the frontier.  Other than being conscripted for government labor projects from time to time, the Lisu remained pretty aloof from the plains, practicing swidden agriculture, hunting and gathering and a basically subsistence economy.  Over the centuries some of them moved to lower altitudes, straddling or flanking streams, and raised different crops on fixed fields.  They were also involved in the logging industry in the past. 


      The easiest place to meet them is Guyong town, 52 km nw of Tengchong, on market day.  Guyong sits on an elevated plateau a few hundred meters higher than Tengchong.  The town is Han-dominated, as is the immediate rural area, but the hills are just several kilometers away, full of Lisu villages, and some of them show up in Guyong on market day.

       They stand out at once for the attraction of their colorful clothing, both men and particularly women.  Men might wear a turban or a broad-brimmed hat, plus a long jacket, usually white or pinstriped gray, boots and a sash over one shoulder of discs cut from cowry shells.   The women wear long-tailed blue coats with silver clasps in the front and brightly colored flaps at the back, knee-length pants and puttees or black rattan rings around the calves and a belt with embroidered tassels holding a long black apron with colored trimming.

       Their jewelry comprises many strings of beads, a stiff round collar ornamented with silver studs, buttons, shell discs or cowries, with silver pendants suspended from the bottom of the collar, plus other pendants that hang from the belt or apron.  The traditional headgear is a round cap; of a row of cowry shell discs, with colored cloth on top and in flaps over the back.

       The most interesting time to visit Tengchong’s Lisu is during the Sword Ladder Festival, 8th day of the 2nd lunar month.  They stage it in honor of Wang Ji, their commander in the pacification campaign.  His soldiers revered him and said he was so brave he could walk across a bed of hot coals and climb a ladder of swords.  This was a way of saying ‘very very brave’ but the Lisu took it literally.  Every year brave volunteers run over a ‘sea of fire’ at night and the next day climb a ladder of 36 machetes, the sharp side up.  Their only reward is the prestige from doing it. 

       Lisu villages have a better material life now, with roads, bridges, schools, easy access to the market and other improvements.  They are more integrated into the modern world, yet the Sword Ladder Festival proves that they cling to certain old traditions, especially those that are so tied up with their history and identity, that are quintessentially Lisu. 

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Friday, October 30, 2020

Phimai—Angkor Wat Prototype


                                                                   by Jim Goodman                                               

      Founded in 802 as another competing Khmer kingdom in central Cambodia, quickly conquering and absorbing its rivals, by the accession of Suryavarman I in 1011, the Khmer Empire was already the biggest, most powerful state in Southeast Asia.  This monarch went on to conquer southern Laos and the Mon Kingdom of Lawo, which became the Khmer province of Lopburi.  Later on, the Empire also established military outposts and a major temple compound in Kanchanaburi.

       Elsewhere the state’s territories extended southeast to the Mekong Delta and north over the Khorat Plateau, today’s northeast Thailand (Isan).  Both areas were Khmer-populated then, for Vietnamese didn’t migrate to the Delta until the 17th century and Thai or Lao were still centuries away from settling in Isan.  Eventually the Empire extended its control along the east coast of the Malay Peninsula, but further expansion north into Thailand halted when three invasions of the Mon state of Haripunchai, today’s Lamphun, completely failed.

       Suryavarman I also oversaw the construction of many of the finest buildings in the capital Angkor, as well as Preah Vihar on the southern edge of the Khorat Plateau.  His successor Udayadityavarman II undertook more construction, but such projects tailed off after his death in 1066.  Instability and revolts followed the accession of Harshavarman III, a recurrent problem for the Empire as it had no clear cut succession system. Suryavarman I himself had won his throne by militarily defeating a rival claimant.

       In 1080 a new line of succession began when Jayavarman VI, a vassal prince of the Mun Valley in Khorat, took the throne, reigning until 1107.  He was from Phimai, the major political and economic center of the Mun River Valley, then inhabited by Khmer and Kui, a related ethnic minority famous as elephant handlers.  Though he moved to Angkor and embellished his royal palace, he added nothing more to the city’s architecture.  Instead, he became famous for sponsoring the construction of Prasat Hin Phimai, originally called Vimayapura, which eventually morphed into Phimai.  Today it is the most outstanding Khmer temple beyond the borders of modern Cambodia. 

       In fact, upon its completion it was the most magnificent temple compound in the whole Empire.  Angkor Wat hadn’t been built yet, but work would soon start.  Upon Jayavarman VI’s death his elder brother took over until forced out by his grand-nephew Suryavarman II in 1117.  This is the ruler who initiated the building of Angkor Wat.  One can only speculate how much he wanted Angkor Wat to outdo Phimai in splendor and glory, but the architecture and compound design of Angkor Wat derived from the Phimai prototype.  Specifically, that includes layout, building shapes and use of sandstone.

       The walled temple compound is rectangular, measuring 655 meters by 1033 meters, with four entry gates, each positioned in the middle of the wall and facing one of the cardinal directions.  This was the first time a Khmer temple was surrounded by walls.  It was also unique because it was not oriented to the east, the direction of the rising sun, but instead faced south, towards Angkor.   There were walls within the compound as well, long hallways and adjacent rooms.   All of the buildings—the galleries and the main and subsidiary shrines--were placed in a harmonious pattern, a precedent adopted and enhanced at Angkor Wat.

       Outside the compound, discovered by aerial reconnaissance during the renovation last century, lay two large reservoirs (barays) with a small island in the center.  They were used for the city’s water consumption, but also as part of a landscape design inspired by religious belief.  The high central tower of the principal shrine symbolically represented Mt. Meru, the mythical Himalayan home of the gods, while the barays replicated the holy lakes in the vicinity of that abode.  A century later Angkor incorporated the same feature.

       Mt. Meru is a part of Hindu mythology and most Khmer then were Hindu, following customs and practices already long well established in India.  They didn’t adopt the caste system, though.  The king was sacred and nobody else was and the Court had a coterie of Brahmins for ritual and administrative purposes, but the rest of society was free of social restrictions or caste taboos.  By this period Mahayana Buddhism had started gaining adherents, but no social conflict ever erupted between the two faiths.  

       Jayavarman VI was a Mahayana Buddhist, but was quite tolerant of Hindu rituals and customs.  He commissioned Prasat Hin Phimai as a Buddhist temple, dedicated to a particular Tantric deity, but the temple’s decorative imagery is mixed.  Images in the outer area are Hindu while those within are Buddhist.  Khmer kings usually built temples dedicated to the Hindu gods  Shiva or Vishnu, with whom they identified as Universal Ruler.  Buddhist rulers, like Jayavarman VII especially, viewed themselves as an incarnate bodhisattva.

       In contrast to earlier Hindu shrines, the shape of the central tower (prang) in Phimai resembles a lotus bud, with a pointed top and five tiers.    It is the same style as the ones in Angkor, somewhat different from earlier and later styles.  When art historians finally categorized prang styles, they labeled those of Phimai and Angkor the Angkor Wat style.

       Rather than the usual brick used to construct most temples, sandstone was the primary building material at Phimai, like at Angkor later.  The foundations, hidden parts of the buildings and the exterior walls used laterite, a soft clay that hardens upon exposure to sunlight but results in an uneven surface, not good for adding relief sculptures.  Its capacity to absorb water, though, made it suitable for foundations. Sandstone, by contrast, could be cut into blocks with perfectly smooth sides, which could later be carved with various types of sculptures.

       Angkor’s sandstone source was the Kulen Range of hills about 40 km north.  Since the blocks were cut on the spot it must have been quite a task to transport them all the way to the building site.  Sandstone quarries in Isan were much closer to Phimai.  After cutting the blocks to the desired shape, workers drilled two holes in a corner, fixed pegs into them and tied ropes to the pegs to enable humans and elephants to drag the blocks to Phimai. 

       There they prepared the blocks for construction by grinding the sides evenly.  That done, the next step, probably with the help of elephants, was to lift and fit the blocks evenly on top of each other.  They used no mortar.  Natural friction of the weight, special cuts in the stone and sometimes clamps of iron or bronze held the blocks in place.  A rectangular stone piece called lintel lay horizontally across pairs of columns in the passageways. 

       Prasat Hin  Phimai took about 17 years to complete.  Angkor Wat, with more buildings and carvings, required about 37 years to finish. Phimai was the most important Khmer city in what is today Thailand.  A royal road 225 kilometers long connected Phimai with Angkor.  From the capital the road crossed the Tin Muen Than Pass of the Dangrek Mountains northwest of the city and entered the Khorat Plateau of Isan.  The Dangrek Range was not very high and the plateau averaged only 200 meters elevation.  The first stop after the pass was the elaborate hilltop temple of Phnom Rung, completed shortly after Prasat Hin Phimai.

       All along this highway, the longest in the Empire, stood numerous hostels, rest-houses and shrines, mostly set up during Jayavarman VII’s reign.  He also had a new outer wall and moat constructed around Phimai.  The sheer number of hostels, etc, established on this road attests to its regular use and the importance of Phimai to the Empire.  Other roads led from Angkor southeast to Kompong Thom, northeast to southern Laos and west towards Sisophon.

       Besides the royal roads, Jayavarman VII also devoted much of the Empire’s finances and labor to grand architectural projects within the royal palace area (Angkor Thom) and throughout the city.  Sculptors created huge carvings of his face on the sides of towers, like the Bayon, and over compound entry gates.  He was a fervent Mahayana Buddhist and even ordered the construction of two new cities, Beng Melea to the east and Banteay Chhmar in the northwest, full of temples and shrines promoting Mahayana Buddhism.

       Under his reign the Khmer Empire reached its peak territorially, culturally and artistically.  After his death came a reaction against extravagant building projects and some recently constructed Buddhist temples were destroyed.  Beng Melea and Banteay Chhmar were all but abandoned.  The irrigation system began to collapse, thanks to the clearing of forests for the Universal Ruler’s ambitious building projects.  Though still a splendid and vigorous city at the time of Zhou Daguan’s visit in 1295 (the only traveler to Angkor in its prime to write an account), the Empire was already in decline.

       In the following century Khmer territory in Isan came under threat from two new neighbor states—Lanxang in Laos and Ayutthaya in Thailand.  Lanxang began annexing the northern parts of Isan and by mid-century Ayutthaya had taken over Phimai.  Most of the area’s Khmer and Kui fled south and Ayutthaya did not promote any settlement programs.  What today constitutes Nakhon Ratchasima Province was pretty much deserted for several generations.  

       Jungle growth swallowed up the ancient royal road to Angkor.  The wooden hostels and rest houses disintegrated, but some of the shrines, made of sandstone or laterite, survived and thus it is possible to trace the original route.  Otherwise, a small section at the entrance to Prasat Hin Phimai is the only part of it left.

       Afterwards, Thai and Lao began migrating to the area and in the 17th century King Narai had a wall and moat built around Khorat city, the administrative center of Nakhon Ratchasima.  Some descendants of the original Khmer inhabitants remained as a significant minority in the province, but the overwhelming majority were Thai and Lao.  Phimai reverted to a village and as the new inhabitants were Theravada Buddhists, the temple fell into a period of neglect that lasted until the government’s restoration of it in the 20th century.  That was carried out not to revive its use but to establish its value as a tourist attraction.

       It doesn’t draw near the numbers as other historical sites in Thailand, like Sukhothai, Ayutthaya or Lamphun, as tourist attractions in Isan are far apart.  As a result, it is never crowded.  One can visit in a day trip out of the provincial capital, just 60 km away.  But it’s better to stay the night in the quiet town of Phimai and explore the ruins from early morning, when birds might be twittering in the groves along the compound and the color of the pink sandstone blocks has a richer hue.

       The main entrance is from the south gate, across a balustrade flanked by seven-headed nagas (big mythical serpents).  The restoration was not total, nor were all the monuments lying in ruins on the ground.  The restoration team put the elements of the walls and hallways back together and fallen lintels back in place.  Many of the sculptures were still intact, but missing or badly damaged ones were not replaced.  The main tower was still in good shape, though the two smaller ones were not.  A few sculptures were removed to museums, but others were left in place.

        Besides admiring the precisely and smoothly cut and perfectly fitted sandstone blocks, the visitors’ eyes soon train on the surviving sculptures.  Some of the columns have fluted sides and perhaps a small carved figure embedded near the base.  The main attractions are the lintels, with wonderfully detailed relief carvings of gods and men, animals and nature, in vignettes of celestial and earthly life.  Relief carvings also adorn some of the pediments, the roughly triangular structure above a lintel or on the side of a prang.  A few hallway doors feature individual sculptures of deities or demon beasts  

       The carvings on the outer perimeter utilize Hindu imagery, like Vishnu or the multi-armed Dancing Shiva.  Those in the interior section derive from Mahayana Buddhism, like the Buddha seated in meditation wearing the crown of the Universal Ruler, or Manjushri wielding the sword used to slay ignorance and superstition.  Other sculptures depict secular activities, especially armies on the march and commanders on elephant.

       The figures, celestial, human or animal, are realistically rendered and the vegetation is accurately depicted.  The faces of both gods and men have broad noses and thick lips, very characteristic of the classic Khmer sculptural style.   Altogether, Prasat Hin Phimai offers many fine and fascinating examples of the Khmer Empire’s architectural achievements.  They are sure to arouse visitors’ appreciation.  They certainly did for the builders of Angkor Wat.


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