Happy New Year - Lisu Hilltribe Style
Witnessing a Rite of Passage
Lately, I've been writing a lot about weddings and with a New Year approaching, I thought I'd share one of my favorite travel adventures, a Lisu New Year in Samoeng, a mountain in Northern Thailand.
Lisu New Year Photos
How I Met a Tribesman
Some background information on the Lisu Tribe that I visited:
I met Pi Ouan ("Ouan" is a nickname which roughly translates into "Fat Older Brother") in 2004 when I was hired to create all of the art for a miniature golf course in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where I currently live. He is the one who eventually invited me to discover his hilltribe lifestyle.
I had hired many, many Thai workers and none of them seemed able to complete the tasks that I assigned them, nor were they interested in learning new skills. "Good help is hard to find" applies around the world! A friend of mine suggested that I hire hilltribe people.
There are many hilltribes in Thailand. Hilltribes are essentially nomadic people that are refugees from their own original countries. I'm not certain how far they date back as far as living in Thailand, but I imagine that some of them have been here for a very long time. Many hilltribe people have easily assimilated into Thai culture and live in big cities, though often treated as lower class people for the dark color of their skin or they're accents. Though, several stay close to their tribes on various mountains. Families that live in the mountainous regions are large and extended with many uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents.
The Lisu people are a mish mosh of several cultures including Tibetan, Chinese, Mongolian and Burmese.
When I met Pi Ouan, who was introduced by a Thai friend, I wasn't sure what to make of him. At first, I thought he kind of looked like a mess. We had difficulty communicating, because I only knew a bit of Thai, as did he. However, through pantomime and giving examples of tasks at hand, he learned quickly, was interested in learning and had great integrity in his work. After the first hour, I was totally sold on wanting to work with this guy.
Pi Ouan's Story
After working with Pi Ouan for many months, I became incredibly fond of him and his family. He has such a warm smile and sincere eyes, it would be unusual to not want to be in his presence. Over time, we've learned how to speak our own little made up language that consists of broken Thai, a bit of Lisu, a few words of English and mostly some kind of jibber jabber that means nothing to anyone else but us. But, upon seeing us communicate, you'd think we spoke fluently with one another.
After a long day at work, I began asking Pi Ouan where his family came from and instead of getting a short answer, I got his life story. The latter half being the most amazing story of triumph I have ever heard by someone I have met in person.
In 2001, a Lisu friend of his suggested they go work in Burma for a 2 week job on a farm. This meant crossing the border into the neighboring country of Burma, a Dictatorship. Pi Ouan, who wanted to supply money for his family agreed. When they crossed the border, his friend handed him Pi Ouan over to the Burmese army, took some cash and left, never to be seen again. What came next, was Pi Ouan working on an opium farm for the Burmese government with guns pointing at him and all the other kidnapped workers, for two years.
After two years of not speaking to his family (he had a wife and a daughter who thought he was dead), with no shoes, a terrible diet, beaten and bruised skin, Pi Ouan decided it was time to escape.
One night, when the sun had gone down and everyone was sleeping, he crept out into the jungle with no light. A van suddenly pulled up out of nowhere with headlights beaming on him. It was another group of hilltribe people, from another tribe. They were Karen hilltribe and they wanted weapons. Pi Ouan was told to go back to the camp and steal guns for them. In trade, they would give him food for his journey back. He didn't have any choice and agreed to their terms. They waited for him in their car in the jungle. He did steal two guns and turned them over to the Karen people and as agreed, they let him go.
He journey continued into the night. He meandered carefully around through the dense jungle floor, trying to avoid snakes and not be heard by tigers. As dawn approached, he saw a herd of elephants in front of him. He was terrified. Instead of going forward toward the elephants, he turned around and went the other way. Lucky for him, he made the right decision. Apparently, following the elephants would have led him in a giant circle right back to the camp he had escaped from. Instead, he made it to the border of Thailand and was able to cross back into familiar territory. He walked home for 3 days.
His wife had taken another husband, but was happy to see him, as was his daughter. And, in 2004, he was calling a friend on the phone when a woman answered. He thought it was his friends girlfriend. Instead, it happened to be a wrong number, that just happened to be answered by another Lisu person. They had a fantastic phone conversation and began calling each other every night for 6 months before they decided to meet in the city. When they met, it was love at first sight and they got married 3 weeks later. They now have a little boy that was born on December 26, named Jakoo.
A Rite of Passage
Pi Ouan invited me up to his village on the mountain of Samoung for their New Year's Day festival. The village New Year's Day actually was in February. They choose the date according to the head of the village,and it is rarely, if ever on January 1. Also, their New Year's celebration lasts for 3 nights, instead of one. I was to be the first foreign woman to ever join in their festivities.
The tradition goes something like this:
Each house in the village has a tree in front of it. The villagers take turns dancing in 2 circles around the tree, which is on fire. The boys in one circle hold hands and dance one direction. The girls in the other circle hold hands and dance in the other direction. The village shaman dances around the tree, sings songs and plucks a 3-stringed instrument. During the evening, the boys and girls who are in their late teens and early twenties, begin holding hands with each other. They continue this dance all night long for 2-3 nights in their full costumes until they've danced around a tree in front of every single person's house in the entire village. In this case, it was 24 houses. The person at the end of the evening that they are holding hands and dancing with, will be their future partner in marriage.
It was a beautiful, exotic and exhausting ritual. I saw weathered faces that are etched into my memory. I witnessed laughter from family and friends that sounded as familiar as my own family. I saw children that were loved and young adults that were glowing with happiness. I also saw such poverty and sickness, that it broke my heart and I left everything I had behind - except the clothes I was wearing as I drove away.
A few people have asked me how "tribal" they were on that mountain. I can tell you this, I slept on a communal bamboo cot, which was not comfortable. A group of elders sat around a small fire at the end of the "bed" drinking herbal teas all night long while watching me sleep. There was a termite mound at the end of the bed too. They believe that if you don't destroy a termites home, they won't destroy yours....The theory seemed to work well.
The floors were dirt. The bathroom was an outhouse outside. Women had to walk a kilometer a day to get water. And, to bathe, one would have to walk a kilometer to the same water and just jump in with some soap. There was no electricity. There was no medicine. They did have a medicine man, but had never heard of Tylenol or Aspirin. Many people suffered from coughs and colds. And, many elders enjoyed eating Bettle Nut, which causes their teeth to turn a very dark black red color. I was told it was a sign of beauty many decades ago.
Pi Ouan did go out and hunt snakes with a bow and arrow while I was staying there. I didn't eat any though. And, while I was there, a little cat came into their home. It looked like a domestic cat to me, though they called it a Jungle Cat. They, of course, eat cats....But, wanting to teach them why I don't eat cats, I showed them how to pet the cat. They were amazed that I would pet such an animal. They looked on with shocked expressions. The cat purred, rolled over and rubbed it's head against my hand. They promised they wouldn't eat the cat, instead they named it after me. Apparently, it's still alive and lives with the people in the house I stayed at.
I'll never forget the time I spent with that Lisu village during their New Year. Of the ten years I've been in Thailand, that is the one special event that will always stand out in my mind.
Pi Ouan is still my friend. I hire him out for odd jobs as often as I can. Last year, I got him a job as a driver for someone at the US Consulate who was blind. Everyone who works with him loves him. He's a dear friend to me whom I truly admire. He's loyal and always has a beaming smile for me. He's a friend that transcends culture, geography and language.