One of the highlights of the past month came after receiving an invite from my Thailand brother and buddy, Fame, to visit his home in an Akha Hill tribe a little more than three hours north of Chiang Mai. Fame was kind enough to let me tag along for the annual rice planting ceremony that he was obligated to perform. I jumped at the opportunity, and after a long van ride and two Song-Taews, we made it!
Upon arriving, Fame took me around the village, first showing me an interesting development that I later learned was one of the many Royal Projects occurring all throughout hill tribes in northern Thailand. Travel Impact Newswire describes the projects: His Majesty King Bhumibhol Adulyadej and members of Thailand’s Royal Family have set up numerous village-based community development projects nationwide which are now open for small-scale tourism. They provide unique insights into the King’s concept of a sufficiency economy and are models of alternative economic development.
From what I understand, many hill tribes were resorting to the drug trade as a means to sustain themselves, and by introducing alternative agricultural and other economic opportunities, the Royal Family sought to combat this growing issue throughout Thailand. That is not to say that the drug trade isn’t alive an well in the villages. Fame explained to me that many of the villagers, especially the elders, use opium, and that the use of the drug and others is very widespread throughout the village. Lack of adequate education is the root of drug and alcohol problems, as is the case throughout the world and even in the US. I was even offered Yaba (which is the Thai analog of methamphetamine) for purchase while in the village, just an indicator of the availability of these socially harmful drugs in an already vulnerable population. Yaba is one of the most notorious problem drugs in all of Thailand, and to be offered and shown those little pink pills was a reminder of the temptation that many of the boys that come to Urban Light must feel on the streets. The reality of the drug’s presence was no longer just a thought; it was physical. It’s addictiveness and availability is so dangerous, and needless to say, I declined the offer and moved along on my tour of the village.
We visited several homes where our boys’ families are currently living, many of which had nothing more than a traditional thatch roof. Others were equipped with tin roofs along with satellite dishes, undoubtedly luxuries acquired from the family sending children to the cities to earn money and support. As we walked the village, the locals kept asking Fame if I was his boyfriend (it’s not uncommon for boys in the village to bring their farang “boyfriend” to the village). Fame explained that it’s understood that many boys in the village will be doing this “companion” work.
I was thoroughly impressed by the infrastructure that existed in the village, as I expected nothing but dirt roads, minimal electricity, inadequate educational facilities, and an inadequate water system (from all I had previously read). A cell phone tower even existed on the village grounds (it did take away from the beauty of the land, but was a reminder that this tribe was very much indeed in the 21st century). Teenagers were constantly texting or listening to the latest hits on their smart phones, while mothers and grandmothers walked the village grounds in traditional Akha dress. The dichotomy within the society was stark, but it was refreshing to see that tradition still lingered. A quality school for grades 1-6 was a mere walk across the street, had restrooms, a playground, and even a gated entrance. I was blown away by it, especially after seeing the conditions of schools in rural Honduras over the past couple of years. Access to education including Thai language classes is standard curriculum in the north.
I was disappointed to find out that much of the Thai I had learned in the previous month and a half was no longer useful in a village of Akha speakers. Most of the parents and grandparents in the village did not know any Thai, contrasting with locals such as Fame who can speak five+ languages (Northern Thai, Bangkok Thai, Akha, English, Thai Yai), as communication with other hill tribes and greater Thailand has become, as of fairly recently, far more accessible to these people. My awkward Sawatedee khrap(s) (hello or good day) and khop khun khrap(s) (thank you’s) meant nothing to them! Either way, I think they got the message, and fortunately enough for me, Fame assisted me along the way.
Akha people are everywhere in Chiang Mai, but many are working in unsustainable jobs. Women walk the streets in their traditional headdresses, trying to make a living selling bracelets and other jewelry. Going to any of the tourist bars you will be approached by more than one Akha woman selling a variety of trinkets, and of course the notorious chirping frog (which, by the way, sounds exactly like a frog— you can guarantee a lady dressed in Akha clothing is in proximity, usually at any of the big tourist hot spots). Their children may be near by selling flowers, which is true for several of the boys we currently serve in the Urban Light center. I often go out for a good time and am reminded of the stark realities for these kids when I am approached by them during late night and early hours of the morning.
Thai law requires kids of a certain age to follow curfew and be in school, though it is loosely enforced. The eight to twelve year olds we serve fall into this age category. By crossing a line into a bar, these kids are a legitimized presence (cops will be called); however, staying outside these boundaries, they are free to sell flowers and grapple with the consequences of their parents burdening the support of a family on children: decreased health and general well-being, lack of education, and increased vulnerability to drugs, alcohol, and further exploitation. I have been at bars where OUR boys (eight years old) are selling flowers at 2AM because they aren’t allowed to go to bed until all were sold. It breaks my heart, but I refuse to perpetuate the system these kids are in. If I were to buy all of the flowers at 10AM, the mother would gladly hand their child another batch to sell and would continue to do so the next night and every night thereafter. One night fixes don’t help the permanent problem. The problems facing large proportions of the Akha, and hill tribes in general, are great and the organizations such as Urban Light fortunately provide resources to kids forced to honor their family and provide.
While walking in the village we came across a very nice home that had just recently been built. Several men were gathered outside and invited Fame and I to join their housewarming party. I gladly accepted the beer and cigar offered to me and engaged the group with my minimal Thai, also having Fame translate for me. Small children were running around us as we chatted and a campfire burned nearby. I felt like I was back in the Appalachian Mountains enjoying a beer by campfire with friends. The scene was far too familiar and really took me home, which was a great feeling. I often miss a good old Garrett County fire with my friends. Just watching the wood burn is primal in the greatest sense. Gram instilled in me my inner pyro (we burned everything over at Grandma’s, and I mean everything). In my many trips to Honduras, the smell of the fires burning takes me back to the ditch of Peat Moss road, where everything from junk mail to pill bottles were burned. I was so excited to light a match at 5, 6, 7, and 8 years old ( okay, well maybe I still enjoy that spit and smell of sulfur igniting), and the memories are fond of time spent with my Grandma doing everything from crushing cans for recycling to fishing or playing a good game of cards. Honduras has virtually no trash system, and fire is the only means for much of the trash disposal. The smell of a pure wood fire burning in Thailand was fantastic in the same, with the good times rolling through my mind. Funny how memories work.
I had my first taste of the cheap local liquor (this stuff is hard to find in Chiang Mai) and runs at about 50-60 baht (<$2) per 500mL bottle. The Thais laughed as I took a swig and didn’t cringe—- I’m used to American whiskey, and as the boys back home know, bourbon is always on the menu.
Fame told me that the man who had just built this house we were celebrating had been working in Phuket (southern beach area of Thailand) selling bracelets and had earned the 500,000 baht to build the beautiful home we were standing in. The young man (probably no older than 27) claimed to have been selling bracelets, but it is highly unlikely that is all he was selling. Drugs and sex were more than likely part of the mix of things for sale, yet parents of young kids see this type of “success” and immediately resign their children’s futures to similar fates—– selling things in the cities and tourist areas so that they can be provided for. These beautiful homes being built only perpetuate the problem of parents sending children off. A nice house, wife, and children in the village is seen as success and education isn’t valued highly. Young kids also see these houses being built and aspire to similar futures. Phuket and other Thai cities seem more than desirable, however, the success rates of kids going to these cities and making a good living is very low. Three weeks ago, one of our boys moved to Krabi (another beach and tourist area) and was back within a month as he described his inability to make ends meet by selling bracelets. He told our staff that most people aren’t successful when moving to the south, not something he was expecting but learned on his brief move. It is an illusion that selling bracelets alone can provide a sustainable income. Many of the boys who leave for the city end up in the boy bars for this very reason: there are limited or no other options for these kids. Their darker skin alone already relegates them to fewer job opportunities. Sex is easy money, and the kids take advantage of the despicably thriving market. Seeing the traditional thatch roof hut directly across from the modern home we were celebrating painted the perfect picture of the current social disparities in the village. We moved on as day turned to night.
I slept the night on the floor; a pallet was set up for me next to the fan in the family room. The cool air from the mountains was so refreshing as I fell at sleep that night. I was again taken back home as I was reminded of summer nights in my room in Garrett County with no air conditioning and nothing but the cool mountain air and fan to put me to sleep. As the sun rose, we were awoken by a knock on the door from one of Fame’s relatives who had volunteered to assist Fame in the rice planting ceremony that needed to occur that morning. Fame, even after a night of a few drinks, awoke diligently and was off. I remained put on the floor as it was way too early for me. Fame arrived back to his house at around 6:30 AM and asked me, as I cracked open my heavy eyes, if I wanted to go see the mountains. I slowly got out of bed, craving a coffee that I knew was nowhere to be found, but a pinch of excitement lingered as I was ready to catch some pictures of an early morning in the north. It was probably around a 1-2km hike to the top of the mountain, but the view was SO worth it. On our way up, we saw a man performing a similar ceremony that Fame had done less than an hour earlier. Hill tribe religion largely consists of animist philosophies and a core belief is that spirits inhabiting all areas of life and the natural world. Disrupting an area’s natural state requires these houses be built or placed on the property (everything building in Chiang Mai has a spirit house, some more elaborate than others.
It is a little disheartening to see the slash and burn style farming techniques and entire mountainsides turned to bareness, but even the US doesn’t care for its mountains. The problem of stripping down nature abound throughout even the developed world. Anyhow, I digress—- the view was stunning.
From the culture and kindness from everyone I came in contact with, this trip was phenomenal and a great exposure to typical life in the northern hill tribes of Thailand. Everyone treated me with patience and warmth that can be rare to come across, especially in a place 9000 miles away from home. I can not wait to visit this village again in August for the annual Akha Swing Festival celebration. I had the opportunity to see the swing in the village, but its use is reserved for a week out of the year during this celebration. Looking forward to seeing my new friends in the village and making many more come August!