THE FRIENDLY HILL TRIBES
West of Mai Sai along the Shan States that border Thailand and Burma, beyond trim rice fields, loom the densely wooded mountains of Ampur, and here dwell several mountain hill tribes-Ahka, Mushur, Daeng Yao and Lishaw. The Ahka are the most prominent and number about 30,000. They build their houses on sides and tops of mountains. Gates to their villages form an important part of their tradition. Called Taw-Nah-Lok-Kaw or Gate of Spirits, they are part of their animistic customs. On both sides of the gates of every village are roughly carved images of men and women. At any time of the day one can see young maidens pass through the gates with gourds upon their heads after fetching water from streams three hundred yards below.
Theo loved visiting the hill tribe villages. He traveled there every chance he had, sometimes remaining weeks on end. He learned the language quickly, which brought him close to the people. His favorite was the Ahka. He often said the young Ahka ladies looked sexy. He liked the idea that young girls before they marry had to learn the intricacies of sex taught to them by their elders. “Why do you think Yattlie never lets me travel there alone,” he joked.
The Ahka are closely related to the Hani of China’s Yunnan province. They are also known derogatorily in Thai as the Gaw. What Theo liked about them was that they were the dominant cultural influence in the area, more so than the Karen and other tribes. The Ahka shared the ancient universal belief that goddesses spin the universe and nature is not distinguished from humankind. The Ahka way, a lifestyle involving religious, combines animism, ancestor worship and shamanism, all of which captured Theo’s fantasy. Theo, who picked up much of the language, joined in with them in their chants. When they passed around the opium pipe, he took a drag with the rest of the men. The Ahka way emphasized rituals in everyday life, and these Theo came to master to the delight of the people. Every Ahka male could recount his genealogy back over fifty generations to the first Ahka. Theo found the Ahka good subject matter for his painting. He couldn’t paint them fast enough.
- Photo caption on page 248 of the book: Even the simple little village girl had a charm all her own.
Over the years, Theo was witness to the changing times of the hill tribes. Traditionally, they were migratory people, leaving land as it became depleted of natural resources. But the depletion of the forests had forced hill tribe people to abandon their traditional agricultural methods. Theo sympathized with them and listened to their woes, but there was nothing he could do to help them.
Theo invited me on several occasions to join him and Yattlie for a sojourn to an Ahka village that he favored. After one trip, I could understand his love for the Ahka.
Theo made preparations for the trip like he was preparing for a major expedition. Everything had to be exact. We had to load an ice chest into his Jeep-an open World War II vehicle with canvas top-with beer and food for a picnic on the way there, and gifts for the hill tribe people that included tinned bully beef and a couple of sacks of rice among other things.
Theo had a particular place where he liked to stop for a picnic en route. It was a partially hidden waterfall. The falls were cool and inviting. The ground was covered by a splendid profusion of plants, leaves, and velvet grass, which wholly took possession of the place. For Theo it was a reminder of Pierre Lori’s pool at Fautera Falls on Tahiti where Loti bathed with his love, Rarahu. Theo liked to tell the story of the statue of Pierre Loti that stands at Fautera Falls. It wasn’t until years later that the sculptor of the statue couldn’t find an image of Loti so he sculpted his own imagine instead. No one knew the difference. Theo’s picnic area was much the same, a beautiful waterfall in a deeply wooden glen. Here was all peace and joy. When Theo tried to persuade Yattlie to swim in the pool beneath the waterfall, I wondered if his thoughts might not have gone back to Tahiti. I was convinced I was right when he wanted to paint Yattlie in the nude by the falls. She refused, naturally. We could have lingered at the falls the entire day but we had to move on.
When we neared the village and the road petered out, we had to continue on the last few miles by foot. Lugging the ice chest and boxes of gifts was most tiresome. The Ahka knew we were coming, and they were there to greet us-with a sedan chair. The chair, carried by two men, was not for Yattlie or me. It was for Theo who ceremoniously climbed in, waving his arms and shouting in his melodic voice in their native tongue. It was done with great sport. The bearers and those who followed cheered Theo jubilantly. Finally, we arrived at the gate and entered the village, panting and out of breath. It was all we could do to keep up with the sedan chair bearing Theo.
Theo was their hero to the thunder of welcoming applause and cheers as we passed through the gate. Women and kids, and even dogs and perhaps a goat or two, kicked up dust as they all came running to greet him. Theo disembarked and made the rounds of shaking hands with everyone. Fresh coconuts with the tops cut off were presented to each of us to drink. The drink was surprisingly cool and refreshing. Wet cloths were then handed out to wipe our arms and faces.
From the houses, suspended high above ground on wooden piles, the aged and elders stared down at us. Thatched roofs extended far out almost touching the ground. We were ushered into one large house where we apparently were to spend the night. Our bags were brought up.
Sitting on the plank steps of our home for the night, I was able to study the people. Women as well as men smoked tobacco in bamboo pipes. Both men and women chewed betel nut. Their mouths and teeth were stained red from the continuous use of betel nut, and the ground where they had spit was not a pretty sight. Women wore black blouses and skirts; the skirts were short, a few inches above the knees. They wore leggings, as I was told, to protect against tall grass and thorns when working in the fields. Later when I questioned Theo about the short skirts he explained that the women don’t wear under garments. “When they squat,” Theo laughed, “they do little to protect their modesty.”
Women, not the men, did the farming, cut the firewood and carried water from the creek below. The men hunted.
The village had a number of merry-go-rounds and swings which I thought were for kids, but as the day wore into evening I could see it was the adults who made use of them.
- Photo caption on page 251 of the book: Theo loved the Ahka hill tribes, especially the young ladies when they dressed up for their ceremonies.
The evening turned chilly and women lit fires from dried palm fronds in the center of the street, not so much to provide warmth but for smoke to keep mosquitoes at bay.
At last here was peace. In an Ahka village such as this one civilization falls away. The sun, rapidly sinking beyond the horizon, became half concealed behind the clusters of forest trees. The conflict of light made the mountains stand out sharply and strangely in black against the violet glow of the sky. The mountains, with mist hanging below, appeared like ancient dragons in a haunted forest. The night became profound. How good it was to be alive! It was no wonder to me now that Theo had found that he could live simply with these people, unlike Tahiti where the old way of life was lost. The Ahka were what he searched for in Polynesia but never found. I could see now why Theo liked to visit the hill tribes as often as he could.
The night that followed was filled with dancing and chanting. Wooden bowls filled to the brim with fermented rice wine appeared and barbecued dog cooked over a spit was handed out. As evening closed in upon us, the same young maidens who had carried gourds of water upon their heads that day, sat and sang and waited for their suitors to come with string music instruments to accompany them. Before long, after a lot of giggling and banter, couples paired off and disappeared into the thickets.
We slept-what little we could get-on mats on split bamboo floors and listened in the night to the strange and bewitching sounds of the forest. It was eerie and at times frightening, not knowing what to suspect, a charging tiger or a marauding elephant on the rampage. At the first light of dawn the crowing of roosters prohibited further sleep. The men had set out with crossbows to hunt for birds, wild chickens, squirrels, gibbons and monkeys, in hope of game for our evening meal. I was pleased now that we had brought tinned bully beef.
Theo was up before the hunters, and you could see him in the fog and mist sitting on a tree stump making sketches on his sketchpad. The smoke from his cheroot lingered in the still air above him like a halo. As the mist lifted, villagers gathered around him to watch him draw. No one ever questioned him, wanted to know what he was doing, nor looked over his shoulder. To them it was perhaps odd that he would paint a scene that was always there. Nothing to them ever changed, the forest, the mountains, their dress, even the style of their buildings, so why try to capture the scenes on canvas?
We were a tired lot when we returned to Chiang Mai and to the comforts of Theo’s wonderful house. The evening, after a light meal, would be capped with Mekong-and-sodas, with lots of lime.