Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Why Chiang Mai?

                                                                         by Jim Goodman

Chang Puak Gate and Doi Suthep
       Thirty years have passed since I decided to make Chiang Mai my home.  Of course the city is much bigger now, more congested, more polluted, but that’s true almost everywhere.  It swarms with tourists during the dry months and is still pretty crowded even in the rainy season.  But increasing tourism is a permanent phenomenon for any attractive destination and Chiang Mai gets such attention because it truly deserves it.  Its location, size, cultural features, religious and historical monuments all contribute to its popularity for travelers, and were precisely the characteristics that first enchanted me. 
the iron bridge across the Ping River
       The city lies on a broad plain between the mountain Doi Suthep to the west and the Ping River to the east.  With mountains on the horizon, especially north and west, towering trees both right inside the city and gracing the banks of the moats and the river, Chiang Mai is easy on the eyes. 
       Even with its expansion over the past three decades, it’s still a small city.  Traffic can be pretty heavy at times, yet if you’re on a motorbike instead of driving a car, even in rush hour you can be in the quiet, clean-air countryside in less than half an hour.  Most of the city traffic emanates from the business district near the river and the suburbs.  The old town, the main focus for tourists, experiences far less traffic.
Ku Ruang, the southwest bastion
       Chiang Mai dates its creation to 1296, founded by Mengrai, King of Lanna, a state that at its peak comprised most of the provinces of Northern Thailand.  Roughly square-shaped, 1.5 km per side, surrounded by moats, the city had five entry gates, bastions at the four corners and brick walls connecting them.  Mainly the extended royal family and some of the nobility lived within the walls, while commoners dwelt outside.  From its inception the city had many temples and another large portion of the city’s population were resident monks. 
       Today the old town has about forty temples within the moats and many more in the neighborhoods beyond them.  One cannot walk very far without passing by a temple compound and the high sloping roofs of the viharn, the main assembly building, and the spires of the chedi, the reliquary building shaped like an inverted bell that stands behind the viharn, are often taller than surrounding secular buildings.  Towering skyscrapers are absent from the old town, and much of the rest of the city as well, a factor adding to the pleasure of exploring it.
Wat Phra Singh compound
       In the early 90s, though, real estate speculation threatened to turn Chiang Mai into a Little Bangkok.  Condos and high-rise hotels began going up at a frantic pace.  Ownership changed hands several times before the building’s completion.   Meanwhile debris from the construction process fell into people’s yards and monastery compounds.
       By the mid-90s city residents were more than just annoyed.  Before work began on the Rimping Condominium next to the Nakhon Ping Bridge, angry neighbors called in monks to curse the ground.  Then they put up a banner just across the street announcing what they had done.  The condo went up anyway, but after its completion it was nearly three years before anyone moved into it.
ruins at Wat Chedi Luang
       The governor rebutted these complaints by stating that Chiang Mai needed development and that meant more condos and hotels.  But shortly after that an earthquake struck, cracking four of the condos.  Nobody was hurt and it fact it was a mild tremor, but it did scare people living near anything tall.  Then the governor himself died in a helicopter crash.  His successor reversed policy and limited new buildings within the city limits to six stories.  Those that had already begun construction were permitted to rise according to the original plan.  But since then, the six-story rule has held and all the tall buildings standing in the city today are at least twenty years old. 
sculpted horses at Wat Khun Kha Ma
       Thus Chiang Mai did not become Little Bangkok after all.  It retained its identity as a small, pedestrian-friendly city, full of historical and religious monuments, free of the hustle and bustle of a major metropolis, even though it’s Thailand’s second largest city.  There are no industrial complexes or big factories in the area and tourism, broadly defined, is the biggest industry. 
       Temples and the historical remnants are the main tourist attractions.  Temples all over Thailand feature ancient chedis, outstanding sculptures and so forth and so do various Chiang Mai temples.  The most famous chedi is that at Wat Chedi Luang, which in the 15th century stood 95 meters tall, truly the region’s first religious skyscraper.  A major earthquake in 1545 knocked down the upper part, never rebuilt.  What’s left of it still rises higher than all other buildings around it.
Tha Pae Gate
       Some temples are unique to Chiang Mai.  I include Wat Lamchang, Temple of the Tethered Elephants, erected on old Lanna’s royal elephant stable and full of elephant statues in the compound.  Not far away is Wat Khun Kha Ma, built on the former royal stables after an epidemic slew the horses and the distraught owner wanted to commemorate his beloved animals.  Finally, there is Wat Lokmolee, across the northeast side of the moat, which has a special shrine to Chiraprapha, the only Queen Regnant in Lanna history, who ruled briefly about a dozen years before the Burmese conquered the city in 1558.
       All these details became familiar to me the more I explored Chiang Mai, augmenting my appreciation of the city.  In 1996 the city celebrated its 700th anniversary by restoring some of the old temples and city walls.  Wat Lokmolee’s restoration came only this century, along with a few other temples.  This exemplified another notable feature of Chiang Mai.  Its people have a strong sense of their own separate cultural and historical development, without that sliding into nationalism or separatism, such as affects the Shan in Myanmar.  One manifestation of that is keeping their historical monuments in good shape and restoring whatever can be restored.
alms-giving in the old town
       When the Japanese occupied Chiang Mai they tore down the gates and walls to use the bricks to make new roads.  They left the four corner bastions standing though, but it was not until the late 1960s that the city got around to reconstructing the gates.  And only in the mid-90s were parts of the walls rebuilt.
       Of the city gates, the most important today is Tha Pae Gate, the eastern one, with a large plaza in front and the only one vehicular traffic cannot pass through.  It’s popular in the morning with tourists who want to pose for photos with the pigeons.  It is also the venue for special city events—beauty contests, stage shows, New Year’s countdown--and festival processions pass by here.  Opposite Chang Puak Gate, the northern one, and right next to Chiang Mai Gate, the southern one, food stalls open at night, with a variety of inexpensive meals on offer.
northern beauty on a Loy Krathong float
Flower Festival procession
       Another example of the Northern Thai people’s cultural consciousness is their enthusiastic celebration of the city’s festivals.  A majority of these are Buddhist events and largely restricted to gatherings at the temples, though one of them, Buddha’s birthday, includes a procession up Doi Suthep the night before.  Religion is still a major factor in local people’s lives and many Chiang Mai residents rise early to donate food, money and other daily necessities into the monks’ begging bowls when they make their morning rounds.
summer flowers on Rattanakosin Street
       Others are basically secular, even if they have accompanying rituals.  The most famous is Songkran, 13-15 April, marking the traditional Thai New Year.  It’s also known as the Water-Throwing Festival, after its primary activity—people throwing water on each other the whole day long for three days.  After one experience of it I have tended to avoid it over the years.
       The most attractive event is Loy Krathong, held for three days around the full moon of November.  People make krathongs—small boats made out of banana leaf, containing flowers, incense and a candle—and float them in the Ping River.  This is done to persuade the river goddess to cease the rain, for it’s harvest time soon, and take the waters back, by giving her a beautiful send-off.  Processions, fireworks, stage shows and thousands of floating lanterns wafting into the sky these nights make it the most spectacular and enjoyable public event of the year.
flowering trees on the northern moat
       The Tourism Authority of Thailand added another annual event to the calendar with the creation of the Flower Festival the first weekend of February.  Heavily decorated floats on flatbed trucks file in a procession from the train station all the way through downtown Chiang Mai to Buag Had Park in the southwest part of the old town.  Here they stay another day, while various food and commercial stalls set up on adjacent streets. 
       For a resident then, Chiang Mai has regular public events to punctuate the year.  Some are rather sedate temple affairs, but others, like Loy Krathong, are spectacles worth seeing every time they occur.  Loy Krathong occurs at the beginning of the cool, dry season, the most comfortable time of year.  Temperatures drop somewhat the next couple months, but not to the level of more northern countries.  It never snows here or at night gets colder than ten degrees Celsius. 
200 year-old tree at Wat Chedi Luang
sacred trees on the road to Lamphun
       From March through May is the hot, dry season, with temperatures reaching up to forty degrees Celsius in the daytime.  Yet the nights are pleasant and in compensation for the heat, tropical fruits abound in the market and flowers bloom on the trees along the moat and throughout the suburbs.  When the rains commence in June-July, the temperatures drop a bit and the rain comes mostly at night and rarely all day long.
monk procession on a Buddhist holy day
Lahu Shehleh in Warorot Market
Besides their colorful displays when they blossom, some of Chiang Mai’s trees are believed to be home to guardian spirits, like the towering dipterocarp planted by Kawila at Chedi Luang, after he resurrected Chiang Mai in 1796, following the expulsion of the Burmese.  The biggest trees in temple courtyards date from the compound’s original construction or a major renovation.  To honor the tree’s guardian spirit, devotees place poles at its base to prop it up and relieve the stress of its weight.  Other venerable trees feature shrines in front and the tall trees parallel to the old road south to Lamphun are wrapped in yellow robes to indicate their sanctity.  They make this route the most beautiful drive in any direction outside Chiang Mai.
street mural, Loi Kroa Road
       Modern Chiang Mai has its supermarkets and shopping malls, but the traditional markets, like Warorot and Muang Mai along the river, are still quite active, the latter all night long.  The scenes here are sometimes enhanced by visits of ethnic minorities from the mountains, dressed in their traditional clothing, especially Lahu Shehleh, Hmong, Akha and Palong, which adds an exotic, colorful aspect to the streets, yet another attraction of life in Chiang Mai. 
       Night markets are also popular, especially with tourists, both the Night Bazaar on Changklang Road and the ‘walking street’ weekend markets Saturday on Wualai Road, southeast of Chiang Mai Gate, and Sundays on the road between Tha Pae Gate and Wat Phra Singh.  Lanna handicrafts dominate the goods on sale, from hill tribe products to items from long-established specialty villages, like celadon wares from San Kamphaeng, umbrellas from Bor Sang, woodcarvings from Hangdong and silver and lacquer creations from Chiang Mai’s Haiya district.
       In addition to its traditional crafts, Chiang Mai is one of the country’s prime artistic centers, home to many modern artists.  The city has several galleries and art and photography exhibitions take place throughout the year.  Imaginative street artists have also covered bare compound walls with their works and when riding around familiar routes I often come across new murals that cause me to stop for a bit and appreciate.
rising of a 'super moon' over the banks of the Ping River
       Beyond the city’s assets, which I am constantly discovering the longer I stay here, Chiang Mai is close to other attractions in the region.  It is a short, pleasant drive to ancient Lamphun, whose moats, walls and religious architecture had a profound impact on Mengrai and his foundation of Chiang Mai.  The hills, valleys and gardens of Mae Rim are less than an hour away going north.  Hmong, Lahu and Karen villages are within easy reach, while Akha, Lisu, Palong and Yao villages are further on.  Forest parks and scenic reservoirs are also within easy access, while the Ping River itself is most attractive near the city and a great venue for sunset and moonrise viewing.
       All these features make the city increasingly popular with tourists, but they hardly ever get in my way.  Tourism development has basically meant more hotels and restaurants, so if I fancy a different meal than the local food that I ordinarily prefer, I can choose among a variety of Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, German, French, American and Italian restaurants.  It’s obvious why Chiang Mai became a tourist hub, as well as a favorite place for retirees and pensioners.  They are all here for the same reasons that lured me to remain for three decades so far, with little inclination to seek anything conceivably better.
wooden foot-bridge over the northern moat
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Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Chinese Community in Chiang Mai

                                                                by Jim Goodman

gate to Chiang Mai's Chinatown
       Ethnic Chinese constitute the largest minority of Thailand’s population.  Though Chinese had always lived in Thailand as merchants in Ayutthaya, they began seriously migrating in the early 19th century, after the establishment of the Chakri Dynasty.   At first, they moved mainly into the capital Bangkok and the cities on the east coast.  Chiang Mai may have had a few resident shopkeepers at that time but large-scale Chinese immigration to the northern city only got underway from about 1870, when the semi-autonomous state of Lanna was becoming more fully integrated with Siam.
Chinese shop in Kad Luang
       The first Chinese community was in Watgate, on the east bank of the Ping River, outside the city proper.  They later took up residence on the other side of the Ping River in what is today Warorot Market, or Kad Luang (Big Market in the Northern Thai dialect), as well as the lower part of Tha Pae Road.  It was a small and slow influx in the beginning, of pioneers from Southeast China originally, setting up shop-houses and angling to establish themselves as merchants.  A population count in 1884 put their numbers at around 2000.
       Most of them originated from Bangkok and spoke the Guangdong, Hokka and Teochow dialects of southeast China.  Others were Hui from Yunnan, Muslim Chinese who spike a Chinese dialect close to Mandarin.  They had fled the fierce reprisals of Qing Dynasty troops at the end of the Muslim Revolt (or Panthay Rebellion) in 1872.  Hui refugees from Yunnan settled downriver from Warorot, around what is now the upper end of the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar on Changklang Road.  They built a mosque on the first lane, renamed Halal Street today, which was long ago replaced by a modern building more in the Middle Eastern style.  Local Thais referred to them as Jin Haw.
Chinese gold shop in Warorot Market
       Over the next few decades, as Siam began reaching out to integrate economically and politically all parts of the country, one result was a movement of more Chinese to the north.  By 1919 Chiang Mai had 3600 Chinese residents.  The initial wave of Jin Haw had subsided, but non-Muslim Yunnanese were trickling in, eventually establishing a neighborhood around today’s Anusarn Market, a few blocks down from Halal Street.
       The bulk of the immigrants, however, came up from Bangkok.  They were an overflow of successful immigration to the capital, who moved north to cities like Tak, Lampang and Chiang Mai where there was less competition in their particular trade, profession or business.  As a newcomer community, one that relied on commerce rather than land for its maintenance, its success depended on the close bonds it knitted within itself.
Chinese temple near Muang Mai Market
       Chinese could plunge confidently into the adventure of relocation because they could count on the solidarity and assistance of already established, resident Chinese communities.  Moreover, they could also benefit from the extension of credit by their contacts back in Bangkok.  The attitude of the time (and conditions then) was that Chinese should help other Chinese to succeed.  It was good for the community.
       Based around Warorot Market, Chinese ensconced themselves as the principal merchants of the city.  They controlled the retail trade, money lending and the commercial river traffic.  At the dawn of the 20th century Chiang Mai-Bangkok river commerce consisted of one thousand sampans annually, carrying two and a half tons of cargo.
Pung Tao Gong Chinese temple
       Chiang Mai exported animal hides and horns, lac dye, lard and teak logs.  From Bangkok it imported clothing, fabric, thread, matches, kerosene, soap and iron tools.  The balance of trade was always unfavorable to Chiang Mai.  The journey could take three weeks, though some only went as far as Nakhon Sawan and met cargo boats there coming up from Bangkok.
       Another occupation the Chinese got into in the late 19th century was tax collector.   They could do this because the local autonomous government had a lot of powerful nobles who were responsible for tax collection in their spheres of influence.  Wealthy Chinese businessmen simply bribed the nobles to get the tax collection concessions.  In a particularly notorious case, a Chinese businessman named Teng Sophanodon, from the Kim Seng Lee Company, constructed a Bangkok palace for Lanna’s King Inthawichayanon, in return for the right to collect taxes on pigs, cattle, opium, tobacco, betel nuts and leaves and coconuts.
stone lion at Pung Tao Gong
making s lantern at Pung Tao Gong
       Sometimes the Lanna nobles agreed to the tax collection concession after accepting the bribe, but then changed their minds when a competitor offered a bigger bribe.  This led to lawsuits, aroused the attention of Bangkok and led to Rama V’s reforms of the whole tax collection system in Lanna, at the same time further reducing Lanna’s autonomous authority.  In 1899, resistance to the new system spawned a revolt in which animosity was particularly directed at Chinese tax collectors.  Subsequently, government tax collectors took over the job.
Warorot temple at New Year
       The nature of Chiang Mai commerce changed again in 1921 with the inauguration of the railroad link to Bangkok.  A highway followed a few years later.  Trains and trucks could now carry greater amounts of cargo much faster than boats and at a cheaper rate.  Chinese in Chiang Mai began consolidating control of all the import-export trade.  With greater contacts across the country and access to credit, the Chinese were able to displace the Shan, Burmese and Indian competition, who had no such advantages, and from 1932 began buying out their rivals.
       Foreign manufactured goods, primarily from Great Britain, but also from Germany and Japan, began flowing north.  With a dramatic expansion of rice farms throughout the north, rice became Chiang Mai’s principal export south.  Chinese traders were involved in every step of the production process.  They purchased the rice brought in by caravans from distant places.  They set up rice mills in and around the city.  They tendered high-interest loans to farmers and confiscated their lands if the farmer could not repay the loan.  They constructed irrigation canals and dikes and controlled the rice shipped to other parts of the country.
New Year--a time for serious selfie-examination
making noodles on Wichayanon Road
       Their rising prosperity encouraged other Chinese immigrants, who knew they would be accepted and assisted by the Chiang Mai Chinese community, as well as draw credit support from their connections in Bangkok.  When the Warorot area became congested, the Chinese community expanded north, past the Nakhon Ping Bridge to the Muang Mai market area, today mainly a food market, open all night.
Chinese specialities on Chang Moi Road
       While it was a very tight community, it did not remain a purely Chinese one.  The majority of the immigrants were male, so there was a shortage of ethnic Chinese brides.  Many of them took Thai wives, though in this highly patriarchal society their children identified as Chinese, even in later decades when they used the Thai language domestically more than one of the Chinese dialects.  The men of the Jin Haw community, augmented by ex-caravan members, sometimes married women of the Muslim Malay and Bengali communities, from colonial Malaysia and Burma, who began arriving in Chiang Mai in the early 20th century.
       Now in the 21st century the Chinese no longer control the Chiang Mai economy as extensively as they did in the past.  Yet they are still the most important players, expanding into real estate and banking in recent decades.  The Warorot and Muang Mai neighborhoods are still dominated by Thai-Chinese and the markets there are quite active, even with the modern competition of shopping malls and supermarkets. 
scribe writing messages to gods and ancestors
a well-known symbol of China
       A big, red wooden gate on Chiang Moi Road, about a block west of the Ping River, marks the entrance to Chiang Mai’s Chinatown, otherwise known as Warorot or Kad Luang.  Typical Chinese-style, curly-headed stone lions, like the kind commonly mounted in front of bank buildings, stand at the base on each side of the gate.   All kinds of shops and sidewalk stalls exist in this area, both inside and outside the covered markets, selling all kinds of products, including those traditionally marketed by Chinese merchants, like temple and festival decorations, herbal medicines and the numerous gold jewelry shops.
       On Kuangmane Road, the first lane to the right down Chang Moi Road after passing through the gate, stands the most venerable Chinese temple, a rather simple structure with yellow walls and tiled roofs, upturned at the corners in the typical Chinese style.  In more recent decades, Chinese residents have built two more temples in the Muang Mai area and quite a fancy one on the riverside road past the flower market.
stage performance on Kuangmane Road
singer in classical Chinese costume
       Called Pung Tao Gong, this is the moat outstanding Chinese temple in the Kad Luang area, with most of its buildings added in the 21st century;  the gate, a two-tiered pavilion within and a seven-tiered pagoda with a ceramic vase on top.  Dragons flank the tops of the entry gate and pavilion, writhe around a tall pole in the courtyard and the pillars of the entrance gate and flank the way to the altar inside the main temple building.  The deities within are mostly Taoist ones but a small shrine to the right houses a Thai Buddha statue as well as a Chinese bodhisattva image.
       Besides new temples in Warorot and other sites, the other main development in the Chinese community this century has been an increasing ethnic awareness, resulting in a much more enthusiastic celebration of traditional Chinese holidays, Lunar New Year in particular.  Kad Luang holds three days of celebrations.  The streets are closed off to vehicular traffic and stalls go up all the way down Chang Moi road and on WIchayanon Road between the two covered markets of Warorot and Tonlamyai.
Chinese opera performance, 2014
       Red lanterns saturate the whole area, suspended above the streets, strung on poles, hanging in front of the temples and flanking food stalls in the streets.  Tables and chairs, set up in the middle of the street, provide convenient places to dine on the meals, drinks and snacks offered in the rows of stalls on either side.  A couple tables on Chang Moi Road are reserved for a checkers tournament.
       Besides the special foods, stalls also market clothing, lanterns, jewelry, handicrafts and dolls.  The red color also dominates the people’s clothing, from the red t-shirts worn by dragon dance teams and shop workers to the high-collared, side-fastened, red and gold Chinese dresses, with split sides, donned by the women.  There’s lots of selfie action these days by folks dressed in their festival best.
       Beyond shopping and eating, entertainment also draws people to Kad Luang.  Until a new coffee shop replaced it, a stage opposite Pung Tao Gong featured classical Chinese opera performances at night.  These have disappeared from the program, but in some years a small stage goes up at the end of Kuangmane Road to hold afternoon shows of classical dances and songs.  Temporary bamboo gates are also erected on this lane for the occasion.
Chinese opera character
pole-dancing, dragon-style
       At the corner of Chang Mai and Wichayanon Roads, during the festival a red stage becomes the venue for a beauty contest, with the competitors dressed in classical silk dresses and elaborate headdresses in the Qing Dynasty style.  Singers and dancers also perform here, but the show ends rather early the night before New Year as attention shifts to the dragon dances whirling around in the plaza in front of the stage.
       A dozen or so team members prop up each of the two dragons as they cavort in the street accompanied by two lions, one red, one yellow.  After this the lions perform separately and in the final act one of the dragons climbs a pole and spouts fireworks and flames from its mouth when it reaches the top.
lion dancer inside Warorot Market
       On New Year’s afternoon a dragon and the two lions emerge from a lane near the Kad Luang Gate and head for the market.  Their purpose is to collect donations from the shop and stall keepers, so they don’t perform any dance.  However, they enter the Warorot covered market and make a route through most of its lanes and even the dining area downstairs.  When they pause, people place money in the dragon’s mouth or tie banknotes to one of the strings making up its beard.  In return, the dragon master severs beard strings to give the donor as a souvenir.  The procession lasts two hours and makes numerous stops, especially at the gold shops.
       At night song and dance performances take place again on the stage.  One or two acrobatic acts or kungfu demonstrations might add variety to the stage entertainment, which is augmented in the evening by a burst of fireworks illuminating the sky behind the stage. 
       The day after New Year is more subdued.  The street stalls are still up and busy and some shows are on stage again after dark.  But many shops in the lanes close for the day for their proprietors and employees to spend time with their families.  New Year activities—renewing kinship ties, venerating gods and ancestors and putting their ethnic identity on display with decorations, dances and temple action—come to a close.  The rest of the year the Chinese community reverts to its principal pre-occupations of business and making money.

the dragon collecting donations inside Warorot Market
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Friday, February 2, 2018

Tiger-Eaters of Lincang

                                    by Jim Goodman
Lahu women on the road near Nanmei
       Lincang Prefecture in southwest Yunnan is one of the least explored parts of the province.  Counties in the south are home to sizable Dai and Wa communities, as well as smaller groups of De’ang, Lahu, Yi and Bulang.  But the northern half of the prefecture, and Lincang city itself, are generally ignored because travelers assume there is nothing interesting in the area.
       Lincang city, known locally by its original name Fengxiang, lies south of the confluence of the Nanding and West Rivers.  At 1450 meters altitude, the city rises on a low hill south of the river junction.  Streets branching off the main north-south street feature still traditional Han shop-houses when I visited several years ago, but most buildings elsewhere, like the Grand Hotel, administrative centers and the central bank, were very modern, with little in the way of Chinese motifs, more influenced by the Shanghai European style.
bank in Lincang city
       The only truly attractive area was South Gate Park in the southwest quarter.  The upper part is devoted to children’s rides and playgrounds, but even here are places where musicians set up to play, while further on is a two-story old-fashioned teahouse , divided into several small, classical style rooms with elegant furniture and ink-brush paintings on the walls.  Nearby is a pond with pavilions and an arched bridge.
       Just above the pond is a small zoo.  On display were a pair of tigers and black bears, two pairs of different kinds of wolves, four red pandas and a meter-long, web-footed, yellow-toothed badger or gopher that I didn't recognize.  The aviary featured griffons, cranes, wild chickens, guinea fowl, peacocks and golden pheasants.
traditional teahouse in South Gate Park
       After a day checking out yet another major Yunnan city, I set out on an excursion to Nanmei Autonomous Lahu District, 48 km west along a high road that followed the West River to its source and the turned south.  The road still kept to the high side of the Dananmei River, which flowed far below and divided the hill settlements of the local Lahu.  The minibus from Lincang that ran the route to Nanmei once every afternoon and returned to Lincsng in mid-morning, dropped me off in the township headquarters, a small place of a school, hospital and several modern government buildings and not a single hotel.  Fellow riders on the bus  kindly arranged for me to stay in the lower floor of a restaurant, where they had a single bed and a toilet down the hall.
musician in South Gate Park
red panda in the park zoo
       Having spotted a couple of Lahu women on the way in, and noticing they were dressed in traditional clothing, I set out for the nearest village, just 2 km north.  In contrast to the administrative center, all the Lahu houses around here were all in the traditional style, of brick and wood with balconies, railed or fenced, on the upstairs floor, sitting on the ground on the ground for the most part, though a couple were raised on low stone piles, with wood tile or corrugated iron roofs. 
morning clouds over Nanmei Valley
No temples or churches existed anywhere, though a few field shrines were visible scattered among the heavily terraced slopes.  The road runs evenly along the ridge for several kilometers at an altitude of 1900 meters.  The terraces dominate the slopes on the western side all the way down to the river and a few villages lie near the river on both sides of it.  Occasional groves of trees, especially downhill closer to the river, separate the terraced sections.
       This village seems to be the ceremonial center for the Lahu communities in the vicinity.  The entrance at the front consists of long twin stone staircases, with a row of stone blocks running between them and a small water-wheel sculpture halfway to the top.  A big mortar bowl sits at the foot of one staircase, though made of concrete, and a wooden gateway with an overhead horizontal beam rises above the first steps.  
Lahu woman at home
smoking on the road
       Past the water-wheel sculpture the stairway ascends more steeply to end at a square at the beginning of the settled area.  The village meeting hall sits here, a very wide building on stone piles, with walls of plaited split bamboo and lots of tables and chairs inside.  An enclosed pond lies beside it, decorated with a small water-wheel model, though not in actual use.  In fact, I didn’t see any other water-wheels in the area, nor any streams near their fields, where water-wheels might have been used.  Perhaps it was a cultural symbol, a relic of earlier centuries when they lived on the plains.
Nanmei village gate
       The villagers didn’t seem disturbed by a foreigner in their midst, just carried on with their daily chores, like preparing a slaughtered pig or embroidering cloth.  They were polite and didn’t mind my interruption or taking photos, but did not invite me in for a drink, the way the Wa and Yi did everywhere I met them in the prefecture, nor initiate any conversation.
       Nanmei district is one of the more northern areas of Lahu habitation.  During the Han Dynasty a proto-Lahu people known as the Kunmings occupied the pastoral areas further north around contemporary Dali.  The Lahu evolved out of this ethnic group and were famous hunters in the Wuliang Mountains, noted for their skill at killing tigers.  The name ‘Lahu’ actually means ‘tiger-eater’ and until today the Dai and other neighbors, both in Yunnan and in Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, generally refer to them not as Lahu but as ‘Museur’—hunter.
village pond and meeting hall
       As a consequence of the rise of the Nanzhao Kingdom in the 8th century, the Lahu were forced out of the plains and moved south to live in the hills.  About 460.000 now reside in Yunnan, in Lincang, Pu’er, Xishuangbanna and Honghe prefectures.  They are divided into several sub-groups, named after the prominent color of the traditional women’s clothing.  I don’t know whether the Nanmei district Lahu were called the Blue Lahu, but that color dominated the female clothing components, being the basic background color
       They wore a long-sleeved, side-fastened coat that reached to the calves and was split on both sides.  Under this they wore a blouse, knee-length shorts and leg-wrappers.  Most jackets were a medium blue, with some older women preferring black.  They were heavily trimmed with bands of embroidery or thin, appliquéd cloth strips of bright colors on the cuffs, hems, collar, lapel and shoulder blades. 
woman smoker and her long pipe
taking a break on market day
       Their shorts were similarly enhanced around the knees and the leg wrappers even more so.  Like the coats, they revealed individual characteristics that were still recognizably the local Lahu style.  They could be folded over at the top, studded with little silver discs or completely appliquéd.  Most women tucked the front flap of their jackets into their waistbands to better show off the shorts and leg-wrappers and their embellishments more clearly.  A few dressed without the leg-wrappers.
       There seemed to be no uniformity to the headgear.  Most simply wrapped their hair in a headscarf.  Some piled their hair into a cone and wrapped a peaked white cloth around it, which draped on each side to the shoulders, and kept it in place with a colored cloth around the brow.  The most common jewelry was big silver hoop earrings.  A few wore silver bangles, but the Lahu around Nanmei were in general less ornamented than other ethnic minorities in Yunnan. 
example of Lahu leg-wrappers
coming into the market
       Back in Nanmei town there is nothing to do at night, for both shops and restaurants close a couple hours after dark.  I ate dinner just after sunset, then retired to my room for the night and woke early to see the morning cloudlets that floated just above the valley.  I was wondering what I should do today, whether it would be worth it to hike down to the villages close to the river just to see if daily life there was any different from that in the nearby villages I had already visited.
       Then I noticed tables and stalls being set up in the central square.  Gangai?” I asked one of the men involved.  Dui,” he replied.  Yes, it was market day, held in Nanmei every five days I later learned.  So I stayed another day and night.  Villagers began streaming into Nanmei from about 8:30, from both the north and south directions.  Like market days elsewhere in Yunnan, women constituted at least 80% of those in attendance.  And in Nanmei they were manly consumers, for only a few ran stalls themselves or brought goods in to sell.  The Han were the sellers.
Lahu women in the Nanmei market
       No other minority nationality lives in the district, so those attending were nearly all Lahu, mostly females and all dressed up in their finest traditional garments for the occasion.  The parameters of the distinctive local style allow for much individuation in the trimmings and embellishments.  No two outfits were alike.  Sometimes the headscarves resembled others, sometimes not.  Teenaged girls left their hair uncovered.  The hoop earrings were the same on those who wore them, but otherwise the cut of the clothing components was standard, but the colors, embroidery, use of silver studs and colors for the appliquéd strips differed completely from one female to another.
       Lahu mall ales were a small part of the crowd and did not wear anything especially traditional.  Boys and young men dressed in ordinary modern clothes, while older men wore dark blue jackets and trousers.   The women provided the color and to an outside observer like myself, Nanmei on market day was like an ethnic fashion parade.
stalls set up for Nanmei's market day
       By mid-morning the streets were getting crowded, though it was never very congested.  Red umbrellas stood over a line of stalls along the street south of the square and Lahu women browsed them individually or in small groups.  Merchants sold rice, vegetables and their seeds, thread, strips of embroidered or appliquéd cloth, shoes, spices and tobacco, the latter being one of the most popular items.
       Along with rice and maize, tobacco is one of the main crops in the Nanmei area.  And the Lahu love smoking, especially the women.  Using small pipes with very long, thin bamboo stems, they smoke while walking to the market and continue puffing away while ambling around the stalls.  Older men use pipes with shorter stems, while younger ones prefer cigarettes.  Only among the Wa had I witnessed such a large percentage of women smokers; in Nanmei virtually every woman over thirty.
       In keeping with the traditional look, the women carried pack baskets of woven split bamboo, made by the men of their household, to bring in or take back their goods.  A few women led ponies, but other than chickens, these were the only animals in town that day.   There was no buffalo, cattle or pig market.  Except for a couple small noodle stands and one fellow selling steamed buns, the market didn’t have any place offering a decent meal.  I went back to the restaurant where I was lodging for lunch, then returned to the market to find it just as active, and just as leisurely as before. 
teenaged Lahu girl
young Lahu woman in the market
       No haggling took place at the stalls.  Nobody seemed to be in any kind of hurry, either.  Women chatted with each other a long time while they examined thread, bolts of cloth or sacks of tobacco.  I slipped into the same relaxed, laid back mood myself.  If someone got in the way when I was trying to photograph a Lahu woman, I didn’t bother to jump up and go pursue the shot.  Another photogenic lady will come along, or maybe the other one will return.  Nobody shunned the camera or gestured against me or, for that matter, paid me any attention at all, men included.
       The square remained crowded past two p.m. and then began gradually thinning.  By 4:30 the stalls and umbrellas came down and the last Lahu shoppers slung their baskets of goods over their backs and headed home to their villages.  It was not the usual kind of market day experience for me, even in other parts of Lincang prefecture, where local minorities approached me for a brief conversation or even invited me for a snack or a drink to continue the encounter.  Yet it was still quite enjoyable, if only for the plethora of traditional clothing. 
Lahu women at a market stall
Lahu woman and her pipe
       It was also an example of the uneven influence of modernization on Yunnan’s traditional cultures.  Nanmei is not a remote outpost like in the past.  Good roads connect it to Lincang and some of the Lahu make the journey to the city on their motorbikes.  The district has electricity in all the villages, televisions in the homes, government offices and a school in town—all the right influences that have elsewhere eroded traditional customs and practices. 
        Yet the Lahu in Nanmei are far less affected by these developments. They accept modern improvements in their lives, but have retained everything in their culture that makes them distinctly Lahu.  There must be more places like that in Yunnan, waiting to be discovered and appreciated.  I’m hoping I find them
Lahu women going home after market day
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Nanmei is the last stop on Delta Tours Vietnam’s journey through Xishuangbanna and the Wa Hills.  See the itinerary at https://www.deltatoursvietnam.com/xishuangbanna-wa-hills