are always more exciting, when they have a purpose. The reason for
this trip was so that I could write about agro farming projects which were
being introduced into the region, in the hopes of ending hunger, and varying
the diets of the hill tribe people. Now that Thailand had outlawed
logging, the Forestry Department and Royal Projects, were concerned with
eliminating slash and burn farming. While we who have so much enjoy the
beauty of the jungle, and wish to preserve it as a natural wonder, the
hill tribe people need the jungle as a source of food and income. In dealing
with the hill tribes one always has to strike some balance between preservation
of natural resources, and not leaving human beings in a state of famine.
supposed to see them, BEFORE we hit them." He explained, in a patient tone,
normally reserved for a slow-witted three-year-old.
we hit them." I said, Playing along. "Sorry, I had a sequence error."
through the help of a visionaries, like Rick Barnet, who introduced agro
farming into the region, these modern concepts were now being taught to
the Lahu hill tribe. The night before our departure, Reiner took me on
a tour of the Maekok River Village Complex, where an agro farming
project had been installed, as part of a community development program.
The complex also boasts an adventure sports training ground, complete with
outdoor rock climbing and other obstacles, used to teach team building
and self confidence to young people. Hill tribe children can attend the
one year program on a scholarship basis, taking classes in: hotel skills,
agro farming, adventure sports, and English.
was tremendous, providing a different sort of vacation for foreigners,
while helping as many locals as possible. They were obviously doing good
work there. But, the most impressive aspect of the program was that it
actually involved hill tribe and rural Thai people. It was refreshing to
find a program which wasn't forced on people, but instead, began by identifying
a problem, and then included the locals in working towards a solution.
thinking about obstacle courses, or agro farming. Reiner would probably
have preferred I were thinking about rocks. But instead, I was taking in
the beauty of the river, and the life that teamed upon it. Whole
families poled their way, in long dugout boats, on their way to market,
with their produce. Boys waded in water, up to their necks, throwing fishing
nets. Houses, built on sticks, jutted right out over the water. Oxen lazed
on the banks. Children swam and played. Tourists, with fat wallets, whizzed
by in motor boats, missing it all. And, we in our lazy canoes, became part
of the river, and moved in harmony with it.
BLAM! We hit
yet another rock. So much for harmony. We took a rest stop at the Track
of the Tiger adventure base camp, and turned the canoe over. There were
two large holes, which had been leaking water, in Reiner's end of the boat,
Reinier and I
had never worked together before. And, I had never been in a canoe before.
But this trip was to be the warm up for a Don Quixote-esque attempt, which
I wanted to make on the Mekong.
fault." Said Reinier.
my fault, why are the holes in your end of the boat?" I asked, in defense.
"Are you guys
going to be able to get along all the way down the Mekong?" Asked Anouk.
Both Reinier and
Anouk suggested I look at a map when we returned to Chiang Mai.
if Antonio could keep his head out of the photos." Said Reinie. He
had been complaining all day that our group photos would have been better
if my head were cut off.
we'll get along fine on the Mekong." I said. "It only takes like two or
three days, right?"
To plug the
leaks, I used a trick I had picked up, while living with the Akha hill
tribe. We set an empty water bottle on fire, and dripped the molten plastic
into the holes. It held, surprisingly well, until we hit more rocks. Every
thud on the bottom of the boat was one step further away from the Mekong.
I am on a river inThailand, I always think of the movie "Apocalypse
Now," where Martin Sheen, playing Captain Willard, is drifting up the Mekong
out of the boat." Said Willard. "Damned right! Kurtz got out of the boat.
And he split from the whole program."
on a mission to meet Colonel Kurtz. Although we still had two days to go,
my mission would end once we reached the Lahu village, and I did an interview
with the head man. I was extremely nervous about this meeting. Meeting
a head man was like meeting royalty. I had never met royalty. I had no
idea of how to comport myself.
put it this way. "Part of me was afraid of what I would find, and what
I would do when I got there. I knew. But the thing I felt the most, much
stronger than fear, was the desire to confront him."
I stayed with the hill tribe people, I learned something new. The Akha
had taught me to make rope, by splitting bamboo into long thin strips,
and then braiding it. They also taught me to make a flashlight, using only
two batteries, some notebook paper, a small piece of wire, and a light
bulb. At our next stop, a Lahu man showed us an even better way of repairing
the canoe. He ignited a car tire, and dripped huge clumps of liquid rubber
into the holes. This really put my melted bottle trick into perspective.
Now, the repairs were permanent.
we went, the hill tribe men took special interest in our unique canoes.
Shane Kevin Beary, a former S.A.S soldier and professional deep-sea diver,
who runs Track of the Tiger, had built these canoes, based on a design
used by Indians of Canada. They had an extremely shallow
draft, which was especially important during the dry season. In the last
five months, it had only rained a handful of times in Northern Thailand.
The canoes were roomy enough to carry our luggage and water, with space
for additional passengers. Even with their large size, the canoes were
surprisingly agile. Everywhere we went, hill tribe people studied every
detail. Like some strange form of reverse assimilation, the Hill Tribes
of Thailand were being exposed to the culture of the Native People
of North America. In my work, I often have the feeling that travelers are
like bees, carrying a distant pollen to new and remote species of flowers,
cross-pollinating the Earth. When I bring the story of the Lahu back to
Brooklyn, the circle will be complete.
really think we could do the whole Mekong?" Asked Reinier. Since my
boatmanship wasn't impressing anyone, I had been using psychology on Reinier,
all day, to win him over to the idea of making the trip with me, and hopefully
getting Shane to pay for it. Once I told him that there were over seventy-three
ethnic groups on the river, or more accurately, seventy-three types
of women, Reinier was hooked. He also liked the idea of being the main
character in an historic adventure book. But I think the girls were the
real attraction for him.
At a small collection
of houses on stilts, we beached the canoes. Pouk lead us on an easy hiking
trail, into the jungle. The view from the boat was incredible, because
of all of the air and space. But trekking, the jungle was up-close and
personal. Now, we could not only see, but also hear, feel, and smell the
natural world. Already, at this low altitude, we saw evidence of scientific
farming, as we crossed over patty fields, integrated with the jungle scenery.
Fruits and wild flowers grew inches from our path.
"I think we
can do it." I said.
your horrible driving?" He asked.
"We will just
have to bring more tires." I answered. The Lahu had already taught me something.
reached Tisae Lahu Village, we were told that the headman was out,
working on the farm. So, we would have to wait. A Lahu woman took us to
her house, which doubled as the village store. "We are sleeping in Seven
Eleven." Joked Pouk, taking in the shelves of snack foods and cola, which
decorated our sleeping room.
from the quantity of food available for sale, and by the nearly normal
amount of baby fat on the faces of the Lahu children, playing in the yard,
I determined that this village was infinitely richer than the Akha Hill
tribe villages, where I had been living. In those villages, people had
gaunt, tight faces, and children often lost their hair. Here, everyone
our packs, and had just settled into a very comfortable resting position,
when Reinier said to me. "You're a journalist. Go out and learn something
about the village, so you can write your article."The bamboo mats
which the Lahu had laid out on the floor for us were exceedingly comfortable,
and standing up was not on my personal agenda. "Can't I just make something
up, or do research on the internet, when we get back?" I asked, like
a six year old who didn't want to get up for school. Luckily, Pouk, who,
like a deadly Mary Popins, always had the right solution in his bag of
tricks, boiled up some coffee for me. Fortified with caffeine, I was back
in the game.
Our Lahu host,
showed us a tremendous lizard that would be our dinner. Pouk assured her,
however, that we had brought our own food. So, the large reptile would
be spared for one more day.
was typical about this hill tribe village, was that people lived in
bamboo and wooden houses. There were large troupes of giggling children
running around, playing. And, there were packs of dogs, chasing the countless
pigs. What was not typical, however, was that the village had its
own school. There was a single classroom, made of cinderblock, where
we found a volunteer Thai teacher. She was a wonderful young lady, who
seemed very excited to meet foreigners. She explained to us that she teaches
classes in Thai, English, and Chinese, for the children, in the day time,
and teaches Thai to the parents at night. The classroom, although financially
poor, showed the dedication and love that this courageous woman took in
her work. To the extent that she was capable, she had decorated the classroom
with posters, and children's art work.
stroked a baby piglet, only a week old, we looked at the drawings exhibited
on the walls. Interesting was that all of the children had drawn pictures
of a house, with trees, and a sun, as children would have anywhere else.
But these pictures were unique, because the houses were all bamboo
huts. Most of the drawings also showed a TV in each hut. The trees and
animals were all exotic flora and fauna, which western children only see
on TV, but which make up the every day world of the Lahu children. Outside
each house, there was a Thai flag, demonstrating once again, that the Thais
have a strong sense of nationalism.
I had been
told that Headman Tisae, had actually begun doing agro farming years and
years before anyone in the west had even thought of the concept. In actuality,
all of the hill tribes had historically gone in to the jungle, as hunters
and gathers, collecting edible and medicinal plants. What was unique about
the hill tribes, however, was that they didn't just use the plants that
they found. Instead, they replanted them, in the jungle, near the village,
so they would be there when they were needed.
taken the basic hill tribe concept of gathering a step further, by transplanting
fruits and other cash crops near his village. Apparently, in the early
years of his personal crusade, to both save the jungle and save his people,
no one supported him. Not only did the other villagers refuse to help,
but they actually laughed at him. But when they began, very slowly, to
see the financial benefits, they all joined him. One of the difficulties
that men like Rick Barnet face is that the hill tribes are resistant to
change anything about their lifestyle. After all, it is there rigid set
of morals and cultural norms that have preserved them as a unique people,
thousands of miles, and hundreds of years removed from their ancestral
in Central Asia. Luckily, in Tisae, Rick found a willing partner, and both
the project and the village were flourishing as a result.
been so much build up about this great headman, Tisae, that i expected
him to be a regal figure, ten feet tall, clad in stainless, gold trimmed
armor, head-to-toe. When word came to us that Headman Tisae had arrived,
I was prepared to be awed. Instead, what I found was a comical character,
about five feet tall, who looked like he had just stepped out of a Disney
movie about forest gnomes.
is about 70 years old, had a gaunt face, a ready smile, and boundless energy.
He wore a traditional cap, a wraparound skirt, and a machete. Between his
spars teeth, stained a deep red, from beetle nut, he smoked, a long, thin
pipe, which made him look like some mythical elf from a fairy story. Questions
of comportment were mute, as he immediately, led us into the deepest jungle,
hacking a path, with his machete. Doing an interview was also out of the
question. Tisae talked constantly, Pouk translated, and I struggled through
the jungle, writing dictation. The path was steep and narrow, completely
over grown with huge thorn bushes, and vines, covered with tremendous spines.
The pen might be mightier than the sword. But I would have traded them
both for a machete.
at the city people, slipping and sliding as we struggled to keep up with
the old man.
and hill tribes in particular, live by a code of senook (fun). If something
isn't senook, they won't do it. By the same token, any work or any hardship
is endurable, as long as you make it senook. City people getting cut and
tripped up by thorns was definitely a source of senook for Tisae, who cackled
constantly, making me wonder just what he was smoking in that pipe of his.
He added to his mirth by intentionally cutting the path at a height appropriate
for his tiny frame to pass through. The remaining foliage clotheslined
any of us westerners, who tried to walk up right, through the forest. At
a much needed rest stop, Tisae showed us an ancient tree, which was about
four meters in diameter. He climbed up onto the gnarled trunk, and smoked
his pipe reflectively. "Look" He said, through Pouk, the interpreter, "I
am the spirit of the forest."
Tisae was only
joking. But there was much truth in what he said. The hill tribe people
really are like spirits of the forest, or maybe children of the forest
would be more accurate. These are people who have lived as a part of the
natural ecosystem for centuries. Now, because of far thinking men like
Tisae, who embrace such modern concept as agro farming, the tribes may
survive. In other, less "developed" villages where I had been, I saw starvation
and death, as whole villages were on the brink of extinction.
told me I was coming to see a farming project, I expected to see fruits
and vegetables, growing in nice, even rows. Instead, I found this seemingly
virgin trail. Along the way, Tisae would stop and point to some flora and
say. "This is a medicinal herb tree. It sells for 300 Baht." or "This is
an edible fruit, which we can use to feed the village." Long before the
hard science of agro farming came to Thailand, Tisae had the idea
of gathering edible and medicinal plants, and replanting them, nearer to
the village. Now, through the aid of a westerner, named Rick Burnette,
village has one of the largest agro farms in Thailand. Among crops
that Tisae showed us were bananas and coconuts. Once again, he stressed
to us that these plants were naturally occurring. But they had been transplanted,
within the jungle to provide income and sustenance to the village. The
project was immense, covering acres and acres of land. And yet, Tisae told
me it only requires five fulltime workers to maintain the project. Growing
crops in a natural environment is a nearly hands off activity. "At harvest
time," Said Tisae, "The whole village comes to help."
the jungle trail, which I had begun to refer to as the "Trail of Tears,"
gave way to a lowland, where Tisae showed us artificial ponds, stocked
with thousands of fish. "How do you feed them all?" asked Anauk.
Said Tisae. He took up a huge ant colony, which had been dug out of the
forest. He kicked off his sandals, and walked, clinging expertly, on a
which protruded out, over the pond. There, he shaved the ant hill, by hacking
it with his machete. The fish all gathered around, below him, to gobble
up the tiny feast of ant eggs, which rained into the water.
The tour was
over, and the rain began to fall. As much as I couldn't wait to get back
to the comfort of the village, and eat one of Pouk's legendary field dinners,
the thought of making that same Baton Death March in reverse was so unappealing
I began to wonder if I could just spend the night at the fish farm. Tisae,
laughing like a banshee, lead us ten feet into the jungle, and set us right
back on the easy trekking trail we had used to enter the village originally.
we could have taken this trail all along, and been spared all the pain?"
I asked, in disbelief, and not just a little anger.
laughed. I knew what he was thinking. Taking the easy path wouldn't have
been senook. Besides, struggling through the forest made a better story.
Once again, Tisae taught me that we had a lot to learn from Thailand's
articles are the first two articles that Antonio wrote for the magazine:
To contact Antonio
Reinier at: email@example.com
To find out
more about the agro farming project go to: track-of-the-tiger.com
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