A Bamboo World in Lahu Land

Where do we begin? Two very appreciated showers later and I think all the sweat and dirt is out of our hair, but no doubt the memories are still fresh and not to be forgotten by anyone. Working with the phenomenal Mirror Foundation, for our third year straight, the group has just returned safe and sound from a perspective-changing week with the Lahu tribe hidden amongst the remote hills of Chiang Rai in northern Thailand.

Each with a distinct culture and unique traditions, Thailand is home to several hill tribes – the Akha, the Lahu, the Mien and the Karen just to name a few. Working closely with the locals in their area, the Mirror Foundation aims to improve the lives of the isolated communities living a far more traditional lifestyle than the majority of the population in Thailand. Preserving their culture in a changing environment is merely one challenge amongst an array of citizenship, trafficking, and development issues that Mirror tackles along side the people. We stayed with a Lahu community, who are proud of their hunting heritage but are more traditionally farmers today. Considered one of the most gender equitable societies in the world, the Lahu are strong and serious people governed by cooperation and unity.

As our crew hiked up the steep hills in the sweltering heat for 6 hours, the intensity of our experience over the next week started to sink in. Time and time again our jungle ninja/guide Serachi suggested our final destination to be “just over the next hill” followed by a sly smile. Eventually, we stopped asking and continued to crawl up the hills rewarded by the fantastic scenery of rolling hills dotted with rice fields and motivated by the bucket shower awaiting our arrival. That being said, we survived and everyone learned an important lesson – the body can be pushed far beyond your mind’s limitations!!

At the last minute, our group project switched from a water sanitation project to a house build on account of a devastating fire.  Sweeping through the village taking 4 of the 7 homes with it, the fire also robbed its victims of all their worldly possessions. Fortunately, nobody was hurt. Not until after our arrival, did we realize it was the same village the SEA Discovery crew visited last summer. The only thing left standing in the abandoned village was the water tank constructed by the 2010 team last summer.  We had our work cut out for us this year.

As a group, we stayed in close quarters with our host families. We slept in bamboo homes on bamboo floors with the boys in one hut, the girls in another and a couple of tents to accommodate the overflow of bodies. Our hosts graciously accommodated our large group, in addition to their neighbors who’d lost their homes. There were a lot of people in this typically small and quiet village… a lot!

Luxuries and vanities were limited, or non-existent by our accustomed standards. Nature was our toilet. Rice was a staple. Blankets were gold.  Roosters were our alarm clock. Nescafe in bamboo cups was our elixir of life. We rose with the sun and went to sleep when it set. The single tap for bucket showers was in high demand. After a few failed attempts at showering modestly beneath panchos (yup, that’s right panchos), our hosts constructed a make shift wall, using bamboo yet again, for us to shower behind in bathing suits while being on a “MAN ALERT”!!  It was a learning experience embraced by everyone with a wickedly positive attitude, even if we complained while laughing hysterically at ourselves.

Bamboo, bamboo, bamboo…. Bamboo everywhere! We slept on bamboo. We lived in homes of bamboo. We drank out of bamboo cups. We bathed behind bamboo shower curtains. We carried bamboo baskets. We played bamboo instruments. Above all though, we carried a LOT OF BAMBOO!!! Up the hills, down the hills, and out of the jungle, we carried bamboo into the village for the new homes every day. Bamboo is incredibly strong, versatile and heavy. Bamboo is a way of life in the hill tribes. If not carrying bamboo, we were digging holes – deep holes, for the foundations of the soon to be bamboo homes.

The days flew by. Soon, we would be saying goodbye to our Lahu friends. Distant and quiet our first few days in the village, by our last day everyone seemed to of embraced our loud and comical presence. Sharing their local dishes, tobacco, music, dance and smiles, the village chief told us the village would be very strange and quiet once we left. In our last days, everyone came to realize we are more similar than we think; simply more time is spent focusing on our differences. We spent our last night sleeping outside beneath the carpet of stars.

Saying goodbye is always sad, especially to the amazing children who befriended us upon arrival. The homes were not completed by the time we left, but the foundations were laid and the process of rebuilding was well on the way. More importantly perhaps, the morale in the village was buzzing with positive energy. Whether this change of attitude can be attributed to the line up for the one shower in the village disappearing is debatable… Either way, two homes were nearly rebuilt and amazing memories created for everyone involved.

Our downhill trek home through the jungle was a breeze! Not to mention 4 hours shorter, since Thailand’s favorite animal met us half way! Elephants! After the logging industry came to a halt, many elephants and their mahouts were out of work. Rather than heading into the cities or selling their elephants to circus acts, the local people began treks through the local area. The elephants sleep in the jungle and roam free at night, coming to work during the day with the locals. We lumbered effortlessly down the hill, receiving elephant showers along the way (ie water and snot sprayed all over you). Truth, but it still beat walking!

EPIC doesn’t begin to describe our experience.

Leaving Chiang Rai tonight, after a day of sight seeing, several showers, beds, night bazaars and all you can eat Korean BBQ’s, the group heads into the second leg of our journey together – CAMBODIA!!