Friday, December 25, 2015

Going back to the past.

Starting in the early1980's we made many trips to the Akha village Lipha, named after the village headman. Our first trip in January,1981 coincided with a move from Lipha 1 to Lipha 2. Enjoying a ridge top location the new site was chosen by dropping an egg into a shallow hole to see if it broke or stayed whole. If it broke it confirmed the suitability of the site. It is not known if this move was occasioned by population growth or a decline in the fertility of village swidden fields. 

One end of Lipha 2 village was marked by a series of large trees one of which was a twin tree which was venerated by the villagers. Near this tree was the village spirit gate (law kah) which marked the boundary between the safety of the human world encompassed by the village and the spirit world lying beyond. The gate consisted of uprights and a crossbeam with wooden effigies of birds as well as Taboo symbols made of woven bamboo (da leh). As the gate is renewed each year a nested set of gates evolves over time..Further in the village was the traditional swing used only at the time of the midsummer festival usually in August. Opposite was a small wooden ferris wheel which also provided entertainment at this time. In this general area was the dance ground where teenagers and young adults would meet to dance, sing and court.

Fig. 1 Twin trees, Spirit Gate and Village Swing at Lipha 2

The village proper consisted of a wide lane which served as a firebreak with traditional houses lining each side. Houses of typical Akha design were made of bamboo with thatched roofing made of imperata grass. Hardwoods tended to be used for piling and main beams.
Each house had a veranda where  daytime activities would be performed and foodstuffs dried. Each house tended to have its own rice pounder for husking the mountain rice grown in nearby swidden fields. 

Fig. 2 Houses closest to Spirit Tree and Main Gate

Fig. 3 Lipha 2 with Central Lane

On our first trip we could pick up village sounds from some distance away. The screams of children and the barking of dogs announced our arrival. The newly forming village (Lipha 2) was a beehive of activity with house construction and preparation of roofing materials taking place all over the village site. Subsequent visits too were filled with the play of children spinning tops or riding simple push carts plus the coming and going of women with burden baskets heading to or arriving from the fields. Sometimes small Akha horses would appear carrying supplies from a lowland market. As the afternoon wore on women and children would head out of the village to a nearby spring where bathing took place and large sections of bamboo were filled with water and brought back to the village for domestic use.

Fig. 4 Mainstreet Lipha 2

Fig. 5 Preparing Roofing for New House

Fig. 6 Supervising New House Construction
Fig. 7 Bringing in the Harvest
Fig. 8 Playing on the Rice Pounder

Fig. 9 Tobacco Drying on the Veranda

In the early 2000's each family in turn decided to relocate to the lowlands (Lipha 3) ahead of forcible removal by the Thai Forestry Department. There each family purchased a house site according to their means and for the most part left their traditional ways behind. Though some family members continued to raise crops or tend animals in the mountains others entered the cash economy as day laborers working to plant and/or harvest the crops of lowland Thai farmers. Others entered into construction jobs while a few advanced their education and became employed in salaried jobs in Bangkok or Chiang Mai. Unfortunately some also succumbed to the use and sale of drugs which has seriously impacted the community. The arrival of Christian missionaries has also resulted in the abandonment of many of the traditional beliefs and ceremonies. Traditional gates and swings are nowhere to be found in Lipha 3.

On December 19, 2015 I decided to revisit the site of Lipha 2 and to that end joined four Akha friends and friend George Daher for the hike up. I felt a close connection with this village having helped more than 30 years ago to fund the construction of a water supply system that brought water to each house thus improving sanitation and convenience. Also on the hike and acting as chief cook was Sa and her husband. On one of my early visits to the village we found Sa suffering from severe skin infections so we saw to her evacuation and treatment at Overbrook Hospital in Chiang Rai. Sa and her mother Meena have been forever grateful. As the Akha traditional head dress contained silver British or French coins dating to the late 1800's or early 1900's I gave Mina a Kennedy silver dollar which she proudly wore on her head dress and which on occasion she still brings out to show me.

Fig. 10 Our Group of Intrepid Hikers

Our outing began with a 4 or 5 kilometer motorcycle ride up a steep and winding footpath to the site of an Akha forest farmstead. We then began a 1 1/2 hour hike upward to the fog shrouded ridgetop site of Lipha 2. The trip up was like a moving botany lesson with each of the Akha pointing out economically or medicinally useful plants. We passed active bird snares and the remnants of bamboo which had been opened to retrieve grubs which live inside. Much like eskimos who have many words to describe snow and ice of different qualities we learned that many types of bamboo have unique names and are good for different purposes. 
On the way we passed many large bamboo groves as well as isolated large deciduous trees. At the higher elevations pine trees were also abundant though several had been cut to obtain pieces of wood rich with pitch which makes a good starter for wood cooking fires. 

Fig. 11 One of Many Bamboo Groves Along the Way

Fig. 12 Snare Set to Capture Birds

Fig. 13 Pine Tree Cut for Pitch

Upon reaching the site of Lipha 2 we observed that the main village site was still essentially clear of vegetation though there was some encroachment of weeds and bushes around the periphery. The running of cattle on the site has probably helped keep vegetation from obliterating the village site.The large twin tree had fallen over some time before and was not in evidence nor were there any remnants of the spirit gates, swing or houses though the wooden piling of Sa's former house were still there and upright. The water system which had been installed some decades ago was still there and working. What had been a community filled with the sights, sounds and smells of activity had now fallen silent. A stranger wandering through this area in future times would never be aware of the human dramas played out in this space. In that sense it was an emotional reunion with these grounds which for me not to mention its Akha inhabitants held so many memories.

Fig. 14 Former Site of Village School

Fig. 15 Former Site of Sa's House

Fig. 16 Remnant of Water System

Fig. 17 View of Village Site, Compare With Fig. 3

As lunchtime neared Sa and the others each went about starting a fire, cutting wild banana leaves and bamboo appropriate for cooking and serving the food that had been carried up.
One of the party fashioned bamboo tea cups and chopsticks for eating. All our food was cooked in bamboo -  kao lam or sticky rice and coconut was prepared in a smaller diameter bamboo now only found at certain places at higher elevation. A chicken and herb dish was cooked in a larger diameter bamboo. Everything was placed in the fire until done.
Serving was done in split bamboo trays. The end product was varied, delicious and filling and made maximum use of locally available materials. 

Fig. 18 Bamboo Tea Cup
Fig. 19 Bamboo Chop Sticks
Fig. 20 Preparing Kao Lam
Fig. 21 Preparation of Chicken and Herbs
Fig. 22 Cooking Underway
Fig. 23 Picnic Time at Lipha 2

Our repast over we explored the surrounding forest and in particular walked to a high point which afforded an excellent if somewhat hazy view to Chiang Rai town and environs. Below we could see the site of another abandoned Akha village (Ayoh) which now is a barren ridge top probably serving as a farm for someone. Here also the sounds of village life have long been silenced as the site slowly slips from memory. On the way down we passed another abandoned village  (Ajeuh) which was the home of Nid the other woman on our outing. We ended our day trip with mixed emotions about "progress" and the loss of place and memory but full in the friendship of our Akha hosts.

Fig. 24 View Looking Towards Chiang Rai
Fig. 25 Former Site of Ayoh Akha Village

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