Lahu New Year
Simply Living - Lahu hill tribe, Thailand
If I had known my bed was to be a mattress on the floor, I’d be sharing a bathroom with the King Kong of spiders (and 20 other people) and eating sticky rice three meals a day, I probably would’ve thought twice about booking myself onto a two-week course learning the ancient healing art of Thai massage, living with the Lahu people in the remote hills of Northern Thailand. It was only after being squashed into the back of a pick-up and hurtling 80km along steep winding roads engulfed by luscious green jungle from Chiang Mai city to Huai Nam Rin village, that I realised ’basic living’ did not mean private rooms and bug - free bathrooms. My naivety, however, was a blessing in disguise because over the following 12 days I not only learned a new skill but experienced an inspiring and unique way of life.
First let’s be clear, the Lahu people are not Thai. They live within the country of Thailand, can speak the Thai language and their children go to Thai schools, but they are Lahu, meaning Great Hunter. Historically semi - nomadic people originating from the borderlands of Tibet and China, they survived by hunting, growing medicinal opium and supplying tea to Silk Road traders. Communities would relocate every five to eight years when soil nutrients in the fields were depleted, and today you can find Lahu tribes across Burma, Vietnam, Laos and of course, Thailand.
Like most indigenous peoples, the Lahu way of life has not escaped the influences of the modern world. The monarchy driven move from opium to more socially acceptable crops means they now have to travel for trade. Because of this and the fact they are no longer allowed to hunt, the nomadic lifestyle has been replaced by permanent settlements, and Lahu people have been living in Huai Nam Rim village for around 80 years, with a population of 800.
At 5am the village clock, along with the sweet smell of smoke as kitchen fires are lit, signals the start of the day. Villagers old and young work in the fields daily, apart from on ‘Tiger Days’ which occur every twelve days and also the day after the religious ceremonies which are held to honour the supreme being, Guisha, spirits and ancestors, and also for healing.
They involve the whole community and an hypnotic dance in brightly-coloured traditional dress circling a candle-lit altar and, for me, are symbolic of the Lahu way of life. They move together, intuitively knowing their individual part in the performance, a gentle flow of people talking, sharing food and laughing, a natural rhythm by which they have lived for centuries. But I wondered, with the pressure to integrate more closely with Thailand, and with new technologies increasing the pace of the world around them, how long can this traditional way of life really survive?
Jakhadte Jayo lives in the village with his wife and manages an organic Arabica coffee plantation, called Suan Lahu (meaning Lahu garden) which is a collaborative business project between the villages of Huai Nam Rin and neighbouring Doi Mot finding alternative ways of growing crops without using harsh chemicals, with profits going to help preserve Lahu culture. Every Sunday a group of forty children come to Jakhadte’s ’Bamboo School’ held at the plantation, to learn about Lahu traditions, musical instruments, organic farming and herbal medicines. Bamboo school is not compulsory but children attend regularly and class size is growing. When I asked whether the village is losing its young people to the bright lights and financial promise of the cities, Jakhadte told me that the village population is actually increasing as school leavers happily return to work on the land and start their families. On the effect of the internet and television on the community, he said “technology comes to the village, but the people stay the same.
Lahu-living is basic but we had hot water, electricity, three nutritious meals a day and were surrounded by friendly and welcoming people. I had everything I needed to live in health and comfort. Though I won’t pretend I wasn’t relieved to see a sit down toilet and sink my teeth into a steak, my stay in Huai Nam Rin was a beautiful reminder of what we really need to live happily, and of the excess and needless complications we surround ourselves with. The Lahu people seemed content. Their food is fresh from their fields, they build their own houses, know how to make knives, musical instruments and clothes. When faced with a problem they know they have the support of the whole community behind them. Put simply, they are a people who can take care of themselves. Back in the UK, where a petrol crisis or heavy snowfall sparks crazed panic-buying in supermarkets, I wonder how many of us can say that of ourselves?
- You can volunteer at Jakhadte’s Bamboo School. Email email@example.com or go to www.suanlahu.org
- For more information about the Sunshine Massage School in Huai Nam Rin village visit www.thaiyogamassage.infothai.com/coursesvillage