We must give a very big thankyou to Mr Watchara Lewpongsawat and his wife, owners of Tam-Mi-La Guest House and Bungalow at Chiang Khong, who sponsored our stay by the Mekong with accommodation. We are very grateful for your warmth and hospitality.
Our day began on the Mekong river. We passed some of the rocks that local people have fought to protect from being blasted by the Chinese government to create a river channel for larger boats. Then we came to a very beautiful place, to meet with Uncle Sao Rawangsee, a wise man (aged 77) of the river. We began to interview Uncle Sao when suddenly he noticed that he had caught a fish on one of his lines. That was the end of the interview. Lena and I grabbed the camera and microphone and rushed down to the river, into his little fishing boat and out to where the fish was. Uncle Sao is widely respected as a wise man of the river and many people come to stay with him. He said that last year he saw the biggest flood ever. He doesn’t believe that we can make things cooler because too many factories are being built along the river. He is not afraid of anything. Whenever he goes onto the river he says a blessing of thanks to the Mekong. He says that people who don’t do this are cursed by a river spirit (known as the Nakha, which is half fish and half snake) and lose their spirit.
Our time with Uncle Sao was too short, but long enough to hear and film some of his words of wisdom. From there we traveled to Huay Sa village, where a Lahu community lives. We spent time there listening to their music and singing, as they were celebrating the last day of their New Year celebration.
Lena’s 18th birthday today and we were all up to watch the sunrise and then a very nice birthday breakfast. We packed up our gear and filmed an interview with two village leaders, Sala Aja Ayesang, a farmer and Bhu Mee Ayesang, farmer and leader of the women’s group at Pakha Sukjai. They both talked about how they had come there from Myanmar 30 years ago and all there was, was the grass and the sound of wind in the grass. Since then they have planted forest all around the village. Climate change is not something easily translated from English to Thai and then to the Akha language. However, these people carry wisdom about their local environment and the interplay between forest cover and water. They requested that everyone in the world plant at least one tree for every day of their life. They also talked about the problem of on-going conflict in Myanmar, and the necessity to manage the entire watershed of the area, beyond political boundaries. Water is everything, but it is not enough just to plant trees in northern Thailand, because the water that lies under the ground crosses country boundaries. They also talked about the importance of holding to traditional knowledge.
This was the end of our short stay with the mountain people of the north of Thailand. We traveled back down to the lowland area to meet with Mr Plaek Techaboon. He was a teacher at an agricultural college, but resigned three years ago to work on his family land. Mr Techaboon is now dedicated to education about sustainable living, through creation of a living model for local sustainability. Our time here was too short, after arriving late and then needing to depart for Chiang Khong, by the Mekong river.
We ended the day celebrating Lena’s birthday with the Chiang Khong Conservation Group. It was a great evening, with our hosts bringing out their instruments and playing some Thai folk songs.
The next morning there were more people singing and dancing, including children from the village. Many were dressed in their very colourful traditional costumes.
We went off to the side of the on-going festivities to interview two village leaders, Mr Ja Hair and Ja Nae Nae, one of the female elders in the village. They both talked about how the weather is hotter now, the need to plant trees and protect water, the value of traditional housing which is cooler, and the importance of educating the children.
Later on we traveled to Pakha Sukjai, an Akha village and also where the Hill Area Development Foundation has facilities. We spent time walking around the village and then had a spontaneous interview with Ah Nor Jeu Beng Eh Khu, the oldest person (89 years) in the village. He talked about the interconnections in life, that sometime soon he will be going to live in the forest with his ancestors, that everything lives and dies.
We then filmed people coming back to the village from their days work and watched a quite spectacular sunset. That night we joined Ah Jew Beng Eh Khu, a village volunteer for HADF in Pakha Sukjai village, sitting on a large mat in his family house and sharing a very nice meal.
We traveled from Chiang Rai back into the hill area of the north. The plan for the day was to visit two Lisu villages. At Ban That village we spoke with the village leader. He would like to see more support from the government to encourage people to do the right things on the land. Without this support people do what they can to make a living. Lack of citizenship rights is still a major issue for many hill tribe people. In the past, as shifting cultivators, they didn’t know political boundaries. Many came as refugees from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) about 30 years ago, where there is still conflict between the minority groups and the government.
From Ban That we traveled to Ban Pang Sa village to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Here we found people doing their traditional dancing.
The village musicians were playing the Seubeu, a traditional string instrument, and the Falous, a traditional wind instrument, as they led the dancers around the circle.
As much as I believe we got some great footage earlier in the week, for me there was a real beginning yesterday. We drove out to a small village of about 100 people. They are from the Karen minority group and live in and protect the forest. We walked into the forest to where they were working with neighbouring villagers, clearing leaves to create a fire break. We filmed some awesome stuff there. After lunch we went for a walk along the stream by the village with the village leader, Mr Preeca Siri, and his two daughters aged 16 and 17, Dao-Jai Siri and Tuenjai Siri. We eventually came to a quiet place in the forest where we set up the camera on the tripod and interviewed them. It was incredibly powerful to hear the voice of Mr Siri and his daughter Dao-Jai from within the forest they live in. These people are so in touch with the earth and aware of what’s happening in the world with climate change and other issues. They talked about how we all need to be living closer to nature. It is their hope that they can provide a good model and example for city people, people in Thailand and around the world, to learn from. This was very powerful stuff. For me this was a real beginning to this journey. I feel very determined to find a way for as many people as possible to hear the voices of these forest people and of others that we will be meeting.
We had a challenging first 4 days in Thailand. After a day in Bangkok we had a 6-hour train journey to Chumphon in southern Thailand, a day or so there and then a 7-hour train journey back to Bangkok.
On arrival we were taken straight to a village to see a diverse tree cropping organic farm. There is a fascinating case study of community development and resilience here, with interaction between Chumphon Cabana, local farmers and others aimed at creating a truly sustainable future that cares for both land and people.
The rest of our time was spent time at Chumphon Cabana talking to Khun Varasorn about his work and vision and visiting a local organic rice farmer.
At Chumphon Cabana resort they “walk the talk”, by developing a positive working and learning environment for their staff and farmers who come there for workshops. It is also their hope that tourists who come to visit will gain from this. Their educational approach is hands on with a Play and Learn (PLEARN) garden and facilities for educating farmers. As I learned later this facility is part of the AgriNature Foundation network.