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Slithering North, 20 years on Part 1
By Steve Van Beek


Twenty years ago, Steve Van Beek, paddled a small teak boat from the headwaters of the Ping River to the sea. The 58-day journey, a first, was chronicled in Slithering South, called by one reviewer “the best travel book ever written about Thailand”. Italics below are quotes from the book. Curious about the changes that had taken place in the river and in the lives of those he had met, he recently re-visited the Ping’s upper reaches.


A tropical sun filtering through the trees did little to warm a chill December wind that blew through the windows of the songtaew bus [whose] tortured body lurched from deep rut to deeper pothole that pitted the red mud moon-road that wound through the jungled hills.

The road beneath my motorcycle wheels was now paved. The yellow songtaew (baht buses) I passed were nearly pristine since no longer were they battered by bad roads.

My progress up highways 107 and 1178 from Chiang Mai was stuttering as I ducked in and out of unseasonable April downpours. The forests on either side of the road had been cleared for cultivation; some of them so recently that the stumps were still charred.

Neat vegetable plots ran to the foothills. Mylar sheets covered raised beds of cucumbers, preserving moisture and denying weeds the sunlight they needed to grow. Some things hadn’t changed, however. Men wearing spray tanks were still soaking plants in insecticides which would end up in the vegetables, the soil, and ultimately, the river.

I pulled into the Burmese border village of Muang Na where my journey had begun in 1988. After the relative prosperity I’d witnessed on the way here, Muang Na seemed stuck in a time warp. I asked for Ca Ui, the Lahu tribesman who had guided me to the headwaters and down the river for three days to Mae Ja. A sturdy young man said he was Maitri, Ca Ui’s son. And Ca Ui? He’d died five years before from an anurism at age 60. His widow invited me to lunch in their bamboo-walled house.

Gradually, I filled in a picture of a village to which change was coming slowly but inexorably. Most children had four or five siblings. A few traveled across the valley to school, studying up to the sixth grade; only a few teenagers had made it as far south as Chiang Mai. They liked Thai pop singers on the radio, knew Thai film stars and were both intrigued by and frightened of the big cities. They'd heard stories of village girls taking jobs as waitresses and being lured into prostitution.

The tribes had survived but drugs were a major scourge. I passed around two old photos; four of the five relatively-young people depicted had died of various causes, one young girl of an overdose. The majority of the villagers are Lahu (Musur) and their prospects are limited. Even those born in the village cannot be naturalized, I was told, consigning them to a limbo where they receive schooling and basic services but few opportunities. “Many have gone to Chiang Mai and some to Bangkok but not overseas where the good money was. They could not get passports because of the nationality problem.”

Despite that, there was still good land and the school now taught students up to Moh 3. Last year, the government opened a clinic but a shortage of doctors means that villagers have access to medical care only once a week. Still, it was better than two decades ago.

Maitri studied other 1988 photos I’d brought, becoming misty as much for the people no longer living but also, he told me, because the scenery he recalled from his childhood had changed irrevocably.

Like its neighbors, Muang Na Tai looked undecided about the benefits of domestication, displaying the impermanent mien common to nomads rooted against their will in a single site. A tribal settlement was little more than a cluster of woven bamboo walls anchored by stout columns and capped by grass roofs grayed by rain. Raised waist-high above the ground on short stilts, the houses resembled shy maidens about to lift their skirts and scamper on stubby legs into the hills.

While we waited for lunch, we wandered the lanes. Every other village I re-visited had grown substantially; this one still had 60 roofs (the traditional way of enumerating population).

Most houses were made of bamboo and thatch; only two were built of wood. The farmers planted a bit of rice but it was mostly corn and fruit orchards that provided income. Little had changed.

Back at the house, Maitri’s mother was cooking tinned plaa tu (that hadn’t changed in 20 years), collards, sliced squash, and “hill rice”. Her friend smoked a huge cheroot as they talked. After lunch, Maitri asked if I wanted to see the Ping headwaters. How appropriate, I thought. Twenty years ago I went there with his father and now I would go with his son. I recalled hacking through thick forest along a non-trail that had us, at one point, on the wrong side of the Thai-Burmese border.

Half an hour later, the jungle swallowed the path and the breeze-blown bamboos creaked like ethereal doors. Conversation quieted and the men watched the slopes for signs of movement. There was a better trail higher up the hill but "we don’t want to be up there," Ca-Ui said. Strangers who stumbled upon opium or heroin mule trains were often killed. Too much money was at stake for the warlords to be squeamish about dispatching would-be informers.

As a consequence, we struggled through shoulder-height brush that shushed like a rushing stream, the thorns tearing clothes and bare arms, negating any attempts at concealment.

In 1998, our trek to the Ping’s source had taken three hours. This time, we rode our motorcycles along a paved road that soon became a mushy mud track. Fifteen minutes later, having passed three villages and a Buddhist wat that weren’t there before, we shut off our engines. “We can walk from here,” said Maitri.

As we climbed along a barely-discernable path, I asked him about the landmines that had been such a concern on my previous trip. “They were removed,” he said. “But then, about 10 years ago, they were re-sown to stop the Wa drug couriers who were crossing into Thailand.” “And now?”, I asked, uneasily. “The border patrol police removed them.” He noted my discomfort: “They came back several times to make sure they had them all out. It’s safe.”

Inching around a rock face, and jumping back and forth across the Ping, we arrived at the headwaters. Otherwise unaltered, they were now laced with blue PVC pipes that carried the water into the village. It was unsightly but inevitable.

Pocking the rock’s pig iron surface were a half dozen large holes like those left by trees incinerated in a lava flow. The tribesmen seemed to regard them with some awe.

"Teen Chang. The footprints of ancient elephants," Ca-Ui said softly as though fearful of offending someone. "Powerful spirits."

With solemn ceremony, they placed lighted candles along the "footprint" rims while they prayed to hovering spirits to protect them. I did the same.

The “teen chang” were still there, untouched. I mentioned that the Lahus had regarded them as haunted. “Still do,” Maitri laughed.

Back at the village, I thanked him for his help and rolled back down the highway. The road wound through gorgeous landscape bathed in the afternoon sun and, although the forest was gone, I could imagine myself back in 1988.

I dropped down the long hill towards the Mae Ja bridge beneath which I had launched my boat, then turned left down a now-paved road to reach Huay Sai Khao, where I had spent my first night along the river. I found the retired phu yai baan (village leader), Chutam Upalee, 67, in a hammock beneath a big new house I didn’t recognize. He smiled as I rode up but it took him a moment to recall who I was. “Oh, chai, chai,” he said. “Welcome back.”

In 1988, Huai Sai Khao comprised 30 roofs; now there were more than 100. Chutam told me that most of the new residents migrated north from Lamphun after Karen refugees began settling their area. The village was vastly changed, in tenor as much as the addition of modern structures. In 1998…

A dirt track overhung by teak, takhien, and mai daeng trees, ran past two dozen yards, each enclosed by a tall, split-bamboo fence broken by a central, ungated entrance. Within each family compound was a well, a garden, a raw-hewn, unpainted house, and a granary, the latter two raised to head-height on stout pillars.

[The following morning] I awakened in darkness to the sound of voices and movements of villagers already well into their day. Pigs rooted and squealed in bamboo pens, impatient for the women to boil their rice-and-husk mash. Men warmed themselves around straw and leaf fires, and dogs roamed on morning expeditions, crossing each other's paths but seldom barking or even pausing. Their calm demeanor reflected the village's contentment.

There are now few draft or farmyard animals and less communication between households. Dirt lanes have been covered in concrete, destroying the cohesive, organic ambiance of the village where one houseyard formerly melded into the next: Dirt binds; concrete compartmentalizes. I noted that they still didn’t lock their doors at night, although a club hung from a nail inside Chutam’s front door.

The weakened cohesion is exacerbated by the number of young people who have left to work in the big cities. Chutam’s daughter commutes daily to an admin job at Chiang Dao Hospital; his son ordained three years ago at Wat Dhammakaya in Pathumthani, much to everyone’s shock as he’d never indicated even a remote interest in the monkhood.

Chutam is a bit hard of hearing but still there’s the big smile. His wife was away so dinner was sticky rice, dried fish, cucumbers, and watermelon. After dinner, we watched the news on TV. Twenty years ago, the village had just acquired electricity but there were no appliances. Now there was a TV and a refrigerator purred in the corner. But at 9 p.m., it was lights out, as of old. I slept to the sound of rain and frog croaks, the scent of chickens and droppings wafting in the window. Nice.

It rained monsoon hard all night. At dawn, a novice walked ahead of a line of monks, striking a gong to alert villagers to the approach of a bintabaht procession. Breakfast was in a dark kitchen prowled by cats and two dogs, each waiting patiently for scraps. Now, instead of sitting on a mat on the floor to eat, we sat on chairs at a table. We ate sticky rice, tofu mixed with dried chilli, pork crackling, pickled garlic floating in an oily yellow pickling liquid. Oil and fat still seemed to be mainstays of the diet.

Promising to return, I continued my journey. I’d hoped to find Sin the Buffalo Man (more at http://www.stevevanbeek.com/4a3c_sin_the_buffalo_man.php) but his hut had been so deep in the forest that I didn’t know where to begin to find him. So I pushed south for Ban Ba Jee, home of the farmer with a welter of intriguing questions.

(To be continued)

For more on the 1988 trip, see www.steveanbeek.com


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