(Writings from my recent Southeast Asia travels)
The tour to the Hill tribe villages began innocently. We started our journey in Chiang Mai, chauffeured in a nice a/c minibus, watching the city limits gradually fade into a serene countryside. We were driving north to the mountains, an infamous region known as the Golden Triangle, a remote region that encompasses the connecting borders of Thailand, Burma, and Laos.
A dirt road detour leads us to our starting point. We trek deep into the jungle until we come to a river crossing. Our guide points up to a large tree. We look at each other, shrug, and decide “why not?” In good shape, I scramble up the tall banyan tree, get a good grip on one of the many elongated vines, give a good push off the tree and swing to safety to the other side of the river.
Once on solid ground, it’s a brisk hike through the poppy fields to reach the local village. After warm salutations in different languages, we immediately get down to business sipping snake wine and passing the opium pipe. It’s not long before I feel I’m entering an altered state of mind, feeding the lotus eaters and drifting into a prolonged dream…
I don’t know how long I was under. The salt spray coming off the bow of the ship must have finally awakened me. Quite startled, I awaken, physically quite sore. Pushing myself off the wooden deck, I gradually get my balance and stare incredulously at an infinite ocean horizon. I glance around and see the rest of our group, including Texas Bob, are still sleeping on the deck. After several inquiries, to my chagrin I discover that we were all shanghaied aboard a slave ship freighter bound for Dubai.
Man, I don’t remember that part mentioned in the tour guide brochure!
Or maybe, the journey went something like this:
The Hill tribes we would encounter in the Golden Triangle region are the Akha, Hmong, Karen (including Longneck), Lahu and Lisu. Each Hill tribe has its own language, customs, style of dress and spiritual beliefs.
This region WAS infamous for the cultivation and production of opium. These Southeast Asian tribes, fiercely independent, unwilling to succumb, have for centuries been subjected to continual displacement by an array of conquering dynastic regimes; regimes whose kingdoms and nations, through the great equalizer of time, have themselves risen and fallen into obscurity.
Through Thai government and military intervention, gradual pacification progress was implemented in the Golden Triangle region. Also, programs such as the King Project, have helped redirect the Hmong and Akha tribes from the economically enticing cultivation of opium-producing poppies to healthier cash crops such as edible herbs, fruits and vegetables.
Gone are the smuggling days that brought fright and bullets, ill winds that carried secret whispers and dangerous characters; druglords, drugpins, desperadoes and the ubiquitous CIA spooks and Air America yahoos. An illicit chapter in this remote region’s turbulent history that at present has been filed under folklore.
In today’s Golden Triangle marketplace, you won’t find drugs, guns and money. Instead, you’ll find grinning faces and a more pleasurable selection of home grown fruits, vegetables and perhaps a hand-woven scarf.
Several Hill tribes had Tibetan origins, as well as southern China and Laos, while others, such as the Karen tribe, are refugees from neighboring Burma. Within the Karen tribe is a sect known as the Longnecks, a term used to describe the women in the tribe who wear the coiled brass rings around their necks.
Contrary to popular belief, the brass coils, which are loose fitting, do not cause any structural damage to the neck muscles, however, with prolonged usage a slight physical deformation can occur across the collar bone due to the additional weighted pressure.
They may also choose whether or not to wear the brass coils.
There are women within the tribe known as Big Ears that do have distinctly deformed earlobes. I thought to mention to these ladies the large tribe of women we have back home known as the Large Asses, however, I decided otherwise. They just wouldn’t understand.
Which popular theory/story do you think best explains the origin to the “longneck” tradition: (A) the Karen tribesmen had the women wear the neck bracelets to protect them from tiger attacks while the men were away hunting or (B) one tribal queen thought they would be quite fashionable and enhance her physical attraction to which other women would choose later to emulate her and make themselves more beautiful with their bracelets as well.
If you chose (B) you are an astute studier of the human condition and women in particular. Even today, the women do not consider themselves exploited when outsiders come to greet them. On the contrary, they are now considered “celebrities”, unique and very beautiful, by foreigners and local Thais alike.
As to celebrities, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt had visited these Karen refugee camps several days earlier which explained why there were so few visible children. There was one little girl, however, who not only wore the neck bracelets but also wore metal braces on her teeth. She was quite popular when it came time to tune in to the local Thai soap operas on T.V.
The ladies I had the pleasure meeting were very gracious. One woman played a tribal folk tune on her guitar that was reminiscent of U.S. Appalachia music, her voice soft and sweet. The older ladies, since retired from wearing their bracelets, demonstrated with big smiles their deeply blackened teeth, permanently stained from years of steady beetlenut chewing. Fortunately for good marital relationships, they claimed they’re husbands liked the look.
The Karen villagers’ dwellings were constructed of modest, wooden, partitioned huts, not unlike those found in faraway African villages. Driven from their Burmese homelands by a brutal military regime, where the corrupt former Golden Triangle practices have now transferred, the Karen tribes people have adapted well to their new Thai environment, learning quickly including a fair fluency in Thai language and even grasping a fair command of English words. A very impressive, enjoyable visit, even without the shanghai to Dubai experience.
To read more of my travel writing, or to see my travel photography on Southeast Asia, and more, please visit www.michaelmcguerty.com