Northern Myanmar is home to Kachin State, an ethnic group that has been entrenched in violence with the Myanmar army for several decades. However, there is one village of Kachin people in Northern Chiang Dao called Baan Mai Samakkhi.
My friend and classmate, Louise, or Louie as we call her, is Kachin. The mix of languages in her background is tangled, since her father’s stripe of Kachin actually speaks a different Kachin language than the village he lives in does. Not only this, Louise’s mother is Lisu. Add Thai and English to the mix, plus a smattering of Korean she’s picked up from living with Korean missionaries and parts of a Chinese dialect she learned from the neighboring Chinese village, and it becomes very interesting indeed.
Pan Pan, a fellow Payap student, and I decided to go see Louise at Baan Mai Samakkhi in Chiang Dao province while she was home for a Kachin holiday. Since Pan Pan didn’t have a Thai driver’s license, we decided to go with bus and songtaew (a truck with two seats on the back used for public transportation.) Traveling with a bus gives an entirely different perspective of Thailand. While I didn’t appreciate getting stuck in traffic and the heat of the bus, I also found it fascinating to observe the type of people who take public transportation , which were mostly older or middle to lower class people. I felt like I caught a better glimpse of normal life in Thailand.
I met Pan Pan at his house early on Thursday morning and we walked out to the main road where we flagged down a songtaew heading for the city. Once we reached the Gaat Luang market, we hopped aboard another songtaew to take us to the Chang Phuak bus station. Once there, we bought tickets to Muang Ngai, Chiang Dao, boarding a bus that was headed for Fang, Thailand.
I was tired from a late night the evening before and I had also neglected to take any carsick medication. Instead I bought some gum at the station and viciously chewed it as we headed out of the city and down the mountainous roads to Chiang Dao, trying to keep myself from getting sick. Passing through the city of Chiang Dao, we stayed on the bus until we reached the Muang Ngai bus station where a yellow songtaew was waiting. We boarded the songtaew and headed to Baan Mai Samakkhi.
This, I think, was the first time I had ridden in a songtaew with a lady driver. As we shot up and around curves and precipitated down steep mountainsides, I wondered if she was trying to prove something. I briefly considered ringing the bell to ask her if I could sit in front with her, as my stomach kept on churning, but instead I stared out the back door of the songtaew and chomped gum as if my life depended on it. It didn’t work. Somewhere in the breathtaking scenery between Muang Ngai and Baan Mai Samakkhi, I lost my breakfast in a plastic bag while my embarrassed fellow passengers politely looked the other way and said nothing.
Finally, a little shaky and tired, we got to the village. Pan Pan and I then walked the half kilometer to the village gate, already hearing the echoes of thundering drumbeats. Once we got to the village, Louie came running up. “Come, come,” she called. “They’re almost finished!” She dragged us quickly to a fenced in area where the music was coming from.
I saw a sight I was not expecting. I had never seen anything like it before. It reminded me of American Indian dances, or something you would see in Tibet, not something in the mountains of Northern Thailand. Kachin people from all of the 6 different Kachin subtribes were present, with people from Myanmar, China and Thailand represented. In a circle that was fenced off, beneath triangular flags fluttering on strings above, over a hundred people marched in a line, following four leaders. They danced in 12 different patterns that were drawn on the sides of 6 poles in the middle of the clearing. Drummers stood beating drums in the middle of the clearing beside the poles, and music so deafening it shook in my chest played from speakers. They did this dance called Rom Manao two hours, twice a day for two days of the festival.
We watched until the end and then went to eat noodles, before taking the afternoon off to sleep and rest. While mingling with Louie’s family, I discovered an even deeper tangle of languages. Some of the visiting Kachins could speak Burmese (and maybe Chinese?? still not sure) so Pan Pan, who is ethnic Chinese but born and raised in Burma, was able to communicate well with them. It seemed everywhere I turned, I heard a different language.
Above: Pan Pan (left) and Louie hanging out with Louie’s dog.
In the late afternoon, the music and dancing started again, and we watched until the time came for Louie and her sister to go teach English at Arunothai, the Chinese village several kilometers down the road. Try as I might, I have not yet discovered how a Chinese village came to be nestled in these mountains about 15 minutes from the Burmese border. My guess is that they were fleeing war and immigrated to Thailand.
Sometimes as I experience things, I get senses of color. While Louie’s village flaunted red and orange, this village was gray with an occasional splash of red. Perhaps it was the coming winter night that gave the gray atmosphere, or perhaps it was the streets and the walls of the village itself. Like Louie said, it felt like an ancient Chinese village transplanted into modern day times.
In Arunothai the children grow up speaking Chinese, but are required to study at a Thai school in the day. In the evening, they attend a special school focusing on Chinese and English. While Louie’s sister taught an English class, I slipped away to wander along the gray courtyard and watch the sunset. Then my curiosity got the better of me and I headed to the Chinese class to listen to the Chinese teacher, an energetic, talented woman who held her young class spellbound as they practiced songs and rhymes. I sat with the students and tried to help sing along in the limited Chinese I had learned in the past year. I felt oddly like I had come home.
In the gathering twilight, we waved goodbye to the children and left the gray village on our bikes, waving to the Chinese teacher as she too went home. Oddly, I felt like I was leaving home.
We spent the evening listening to an open air mountainside Kachin concert, something I quickly tired of since I understood nothing. I bought myself some hot cocoa and wrapped my hands around it, glad for the warmth in the mountain air and made a game of pretending to translate the Kachin words into Thai for Pan Pan. The most interesting part of the evening was the way people went up on the stage to drape garlands on the singers, while they were singing. This could be hilarious, especially when the singer was in a passionate part of the song and had to bend down to have yet another garland draped on his or her head.
The next morning, we headed to the market at Arunothai before taking a walk, eating some avocados and catching a songtaew back to Muang Ngai again. I was reminded again of the variety of people living in Northern Thailand, as group after group boarded the songtaew and jabbered with each other in languages I could not recognize. The bus ride back to Chiang Dao was hot and tiring, but at least did not involve more meal losing. I ended up standing in the aisle with about 10 other people for part of the way since there were more people than seats. In light of this, I was amused at the sign in the front of the bus. Along with other signs, warning against smoking, the sign in the bottom right of the picture announces that a law has been passed that all passengers need to put on a seatbelt and the failure to do so will result in a penalty of 5000 baht. How are 10 people standing in the aisle supposed to wear a seatbelt?
I was exhausted but happy when we got back to Chiang Mai. Despite being tired, the trip was well worth it.
And someday, maybe I will go back to Arunothai, the mysterious little gray village of Chinese people close to the Thai/Myanmar border.
To learn more about Kachin people in Thailand and Burma, check out this link: https://www.chiangmaicitylife.com/citylife-articles/curse-blood-jade-neighbouring-ethnic-war-know-nothing/