Akha village, Chiang Rai
Apr 21, 2012
|An overnight bus trip took us back to Chiang Rai. The seats semi-recline so it was possible to get a few hours sleep.
We arrived back at Songkran Water Festival (Thai New Year) which goes on for three days. The tradition of sprinkling water on hands for good luck has evolved into people lining the streets in town, armed with barrels of water and dippers. Families and groups of people drive through the streets on the back of pickups, also with water ammunition and everybody throws water at everybody else. Pedestrians or motorcyclists are not exempt - it is one big water fight. The more organised people have big lumps of ice in their barrels - and that water is freezing! Because it is so hot, nobody minds, there is such a happy and fun atmosphere.
We have spent a most interesting week with the Akha people, one of the hill tribes in Northern Thailand. Many of these people have arrived from bordering countries - Myanmar, Laos, Tibet, China, and have settled up in the mountains, but are not eligible to get a Thai ID card. This also means they don't have access to the Thai education or health systems. AFECT (Association for Education and Culture in Thailand) is a NGO which assists rural hill tribe communities to build educational resources, stabilize and regenerate forests,
develop and expand health management and preserve hill tribe cultural identity.
Our first initiation was to join them for a new year celebration. This involved killing a pig, collecting the blood in a basin, cutting out the liver and "reading" it to foretell the coming year. The pig was then processed, hair burnt off, black soot scraped off the skin and cut into chunks. Some chunks were chopped finely using a machete, spices and herbs added, wrapped in banana leaves and put in the fire to cook. The skin was removed to be fried crisply. The intestines were cleaned and washed out and added to the various dishes, nothing was wasted. We then feasted on pork, cooked in many ways, served on a table with banana leaves for a tablecloth.
We drove to Doi Chang, a few hours through mountainous roads on the back of a 4 x 4, way up in pine forests. This is a coffee growing area where a festival was being held. Representatives had been invited from over 200 small Akha villages to attend a meeting. Tables and chairs had been set up on a huge concrete coffee drying area, a stage at one end provided non-stop entertainment, and over 1,000 people were fed dinner. While the meeting took place, we wandered through the coffee plantations.
Part of AFECT's mission is to encourage village people to diversify their crops and to use traditional herbal medicines available in the forest. Athu, who spent the week with us, has a wide knowledge of various trees and plants and what they can be used for. Ginger grows really well in this area, as well as the traditional rice and corn. We spent one day planting tea seedlings in a forest area that is used for educational purposes.
After our strenuous tea planting day, we enjoyed a herbal sauna. Wood heated a container into which various plants had been added, then the fragrant steam was piped into a room where we sat and sweated (more than usual!) It actually felt cool to walk outside into 30 degree temperatures!
Our accommodation was in a traditional Akha house, thatched roof and woven bamboo walls and floors. Near to the raised sleeping area, a fire was lit prior to sleeping to disperse unwanted insects. Athu collected small black lychee beetles as they succumbed to the smoke in the ceiling and roasted them for our pre-dinner snack. A quick roll in fingers rubbed off the legs and wings to leave the delicious body! We have seen some impressive spiders! Geckos we like, as they eat mosquitoes, and we enjoy hearing their distinctive call.
Our travel companion for this week was an interesting lady from Finland who has spent 3 months each year for the past 5 years with the Akha people. She needed to renew her Thai visa so one day we travelled to the Thai/Burma border. She walked across the bridge from Thailand into Burma, turned around and entered Thailand again for another 15 day stamp in her passport!
We were taken sightseeing around the area - tea plantations, lychee orchards, temples and a hot springs where we cooked quail eggs in a hot pool. We visited an opium museum which highlighted the history of this area where opium grew, first at the request of the British East India company, then the Thai government for medicinal purposes. Now they are trying to promote diversification of crops. But it is hard to find an alternative crop that is as profitable as opium.