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Coleen’s Travel Diary

Sunday, 06 Feb 2011

Location: Chiang Rai & Akha Village, Thailand

MapThis entry covers our adventures in Chiang Rai and our visit to the Mirror Foundation and the Akha hilltribe village from February 1 to the 4th.

It seems like we've been away from civilization forever, but in actuality it's only been 6 days. In that time, we've stepped into another world!!

We took a bus to Chiang Rai (3 hours north) and spent the night there. We were picked up by a representative of the Mirror Foundation, a volunteer organization who work with the hill tribes in northern Thailand and taken to their main headquarters, where we were given an orientation on the proper etiquette to be used while visiting and staying at the Akha village.

In the Akha tradition, women and men do not sleep together, which begs the question how they have children!

Terry was immediately put to work mixing cement and building a retaining wall for the main road, which was washed out in the rainy season. He did not work in the poppy fields, contrary to what you think! He worked with four other volunteers (all in their late teens and early twenties - apparently we're a bit long in the tooth). Three of the kids were from Canada and one from the UK. He also worked with the leader of the Akha village we stayed in. At the end of each work day, he met me in the Akha village.

While Terry was busy finding muscles he didn't know he had, I was taken to the Akha village by my guide - an incredible young Akha woman by the name of Dao, who served as my interpreter. She also lives in the village and has an intimate knowledge of the people and their customs.

Mirror had arranged for us to stay in the home of an elderly woman, who would teach me how to spin. Their household consisted of Allo (65 yrs old) and her husband, plus a daughter-in-law and her two sons, age 4 and 1. The son/father is away in Korea working to raise money for the family. (It's quite common here for men to go to Korea or Taiwan for three years). The grandson Ayu came every day to cook for us.

Initially, I have to confess, I was terrified. It would be a bit like parachuting into a northern First Nations village. I was pretty shaky that first day, but once lunch was over, the spindles came out -- that all barriers were gone.

The first day, I provided a lot of opportunity for my instructor and guide to laugh at my efforts. I WAS ALL THUMBS, and couldn't do anything like Allo. During this time, one by one the village women came by to check me out and to demonstrate their skill at spinning. They would take the spindle from my hand, and show me how it really should be done. It was a lot of fun, and once I got past a few technical difficulties and actually adjusted to their technique of spinning, the ladies would come by and give two thumbs up to my progress.

The women wear very elaborate costumes, and also chew betel nuts plus some other herbs, to make their teeth and lips red. Apparently this is to make them more attractive. Also, they would introduce themselves by indicating with their hands how many children they had. Most often, it would be 10, however a number of those children would not have lived. They were very interested in me and commented that I looked "very healthy" Not sure if that's a euphemism for plump!

The women and men also smoke pipes or they roll tobacco in what looks to be corn husks. Smoking of opium is still very prevalent in the village. As a result, the mortality rate is quite high and people do not live as long as we do.

The people live very simply, to say the least. Terry and I spent three nights sleeping on mats in a bamboo hut, with nothing but a mosquito net and two blankets. I really wondered what I'd gotten us into!! As well, we were not to hold hands or express any form of familiarity.

Each night before dinner, each member of the family would have a cold shower in a small outdoor shower which overlooked the mountains. At first it felt a bit awkward, but by the fourth day all modesty was gone, and it became normal!

Our sleeping accommodation was a bamboo hut overtop of a livestock pen which housed goats and chickens. The village roosters started at 3 a.m. and every hour thereafter. There was one night that they only crowed once!

One of the serendipitous things about our visit, is that Wednesday was Chinese New Year, so there were lots of festivities in neighboring villages.

Terry and all the volunteers were driven to a Lahu village to partake in the festivities. These included going to four or five houses in the village, eating food and drinking home brew. Of course, there were also ongoing celebrations, which included singing and dancing.

Meanwhile, I remained in the village honing my spinning skills and getting better acquainted with our host family. It was a glorious day. I started to get worried when Terry wasn't home by 7:30.
Dao and Ayu then took me (on motorbike) to a neighboring Mien village to also celebrate New Year. There was also lots of eating, singing and dancing. A Mien man even asked me to dance!

That night, there was no sleeping, as the fireworks echoed repeatedly throughout the valley.

The last day was very difficult. The elderly women each came to say good bye, and there were many tears shed. It was an overwhelming experience, and I find it difficult to express it adequately.

These people are so poor, but they opened their home and lives to us with great generosity. The grandson even sat on Terry's knee and Terry fed him. He had a hollow leg and was constantly eating.

I should comment about the menu. Everything is cooked on an open fire inside the house. I turned vegetarian while I was there (after seeing snake head soup on the menu in many restaurants). Our diet consisted of rice and fried eggs at every meal, plus some vegetables. In the morning we would have leftover eggs and rice, usually cold. Each meal was almost exactly the same. The first meal in the village, I couldn't force myself to eat, as I was afraid of the hygiene, but by the last day I was eating pretty much everything. It just goes to show how we adapt to our surroundings, what is abnormal slowly becomes normal.

I have so many thoughts about this visit, but they will have to wait until I have more time to think and express them.

We spent two more days in the village, and then back to Chiang Rai.

I will add photos tomorrow.