Chiang Mai – A rich melting pot of culture where old wonders intersect with its modern contemporary
Chiang Mai is a charming and spell binding destination. A city where old wonders intersect with its modern contemporary.
Legend had it that, the once powerful “Lanna” kingdom in northern Thailand was an Indianized state that had endured the rulings of different kings and dynasties before falling under Burmese rule then annexed into the Kingdom of Siam, known as Thailand today.
Today, Chiang Mai is a rich melting pot of culture drawing in temple spotters, coffee & art connoisseurs, cultural geeks and nature seekers. An abundance of cafes, speciality restaurants serving the best of local gastronomy, dotting the city and occasionally interspersed with ancient temples in between.
When we touched down in Chiang Mai, We drove a further 35km up north away from the main city center. Colliding paths with the little known and mostly forgotten indigenous hill tribe people of Lisu.
We crossed vast stretches of rice fields against scenic mountains in the backdrop and taking in the cold crisp air from Thailand’s winter. We arrived at Mae Taeng, a remotely secluded hilly region and through a local community based setting at Lisu Lodge, we will be experiencing an authentic Lisu hill tribe hospitality for the first time.
The Ethnic Hill Tribe People Of Lisu In Chiang Mai
The ethnic hill tribe people of Lisu were originally descendants of Southern Tibet and most of whom residing in Thailand today, were believed to have drifted away from Myanmar: a result of less than fertile land and high land taxes leading to poor crop harvest. The Lisu are reliant on farming.
On one hand, their frequent migration for fertile land use and avoiding oppressions from Chinese and other forms of conventional government has led to generations of Lisu remaining stateless. On the other, their ambiguous status has also lent them unprecedented convenience in the lucrative trade of opium farming. There are over a million Lisu living in South East Asia, China and India, of which around 50,000 resides across north Thailand.
Today, globalization and homogeneity of our society has not only winnowed them from modern economy, the Lisu culture and traditions are coherently under threat, particularly the loss of spoken language ability as observed among the younger generation.
Lisu Lodge – Built For Comfort And Authentic Hill Tribe Adventure For Families
Lisu Lodge, built for comfort and authentic hill tribe adventure is one of the few companies that sets out to preserve and protect the Lisu culture through the lens of tourism. The management and daily operations of the lodge ranging from guest officers , cooks, guides, entertainers and service staffs are mostly ran by the Lisu.
If you are into slow travel and will like to take time to soak up Chiang Mai’s authentic beauty, I believed the lodge will provide that exclusive experience hard to find elsewhere.
Lisu lodge is meticulously built. Our very spacious guest house comes with a veranda overlooking the lush green fields. The views in the morning is simply spectacular, we woke up to sights of hills from afar seemingly hiding among mist-shrouded clouds that lingered around surrounding valleys.
All rooms are equipped with western comfort suited for tourists while keeping the essence of native tribal settings in mind. Bamboo straw thatched roofs, wood pillars and beams are key features encompassing the exterior. Rattan floorings, teak wood windows fitted with rustic latches, brightly colored native handicrafts and soft furnishings make up the overall interior aesthetics.
We spent our days exploring the vicinity through organized outdoor activities led by the lodge : guided forest treks, morning ox cart rides and bamboo rafting on rivers, all of which are age appropriate for young children. The meals were things we look forward to everyday at the lodge. A sumptuous spread of local dishes cooked with fresh seasonal ingredients from local farms and gardens were delivered to our doorsteps everyday. Our stay with the lodge included a visit to the Lisu hill tribe village, which also happened to fall on New Year day.
A Sneak Peak Of Life Inside The Lisu Village And Chatting With The “Shaman”
The village bears stark resemblance to Yunan rural province when I travelled to China twenty years ago. The traditional bright red colored paper banners bearing Chinese calligraphies embellishing quiet doorways reflected a shared tradition with the ethnic Chinese: a common superstition supposedly to ward off evil while drawing in prosperity and good luck to the family during festive celebrations like the New Year.
Women dressed in sombre clothes donning black turbans. They squatted and gathered around steaming hot pots on fire stoves preparing dinner. Livestock were scrambled all around as we strolled through the village. We peeped into their dark dwellings on unpaved mud roads and I can’t help but wonder how would they cope during Thailand’s torrential rainfalls seasons. There was also no signs of electricity readily available at the village.
A black boar was held captive in a basket waiting to be slaughtered at the backyard of another house before we passed through another with a Chinese coffin packed neatly at the corner. We were told by our English guide that the owner has finally saved up enough money to afford herself a decent burial.
We will eventually arrive at the doorsteps of the Shaman’s house. It was one of the very few spacious houses we have seen equipped with basic proper fittings suitable for living.
Traditionally, the people of Lisu are believers of Animism: that every object, plant, creatures, places and geographic landscapes possess a spiritual essence that are to be understood and respected.
The Shaman, a role assumed specifically by a male is the spiritual leader, often well respected and held in high regards within the community. He acts as the bridging connection between mortals and spirits. The Shaman is often relied upon to communicate with and summon spiritual forces in return for medical healings and enlightenments for his people. The Shaman is also believed to possess the abilities to summon the dead and reconnect with their living loved ones. Rituals are often performed in exchange for slaughtered animals such as pigs or chickens. Today, except in northwestern part of Thailand, most Lisu have converted to Christianity as a pragmatic route for their young to access English education ran by Christian priests.
We were offered the opportunity to seek spiritual advice from the Shaman which will give us a glimpse into the ritual of him communicating with the afterworld. We respectfully declined as we remained unsure if the Shaman’s “trance” state of consciousness was a result of alcohol overdose. The encounter did felt unsettling and strange although we did eventually accepted the Shaman’s offer to try out his private collection of locally distilled liquor. The Shaman is good drinker.
From Stateless Ethnic Minority To 21st Century New Citizens In Thailand
The impoverished conditions I have seen at Mae Taeng and Yunan was born out of generations of stateless status to survive and to escape cultural oppression. In that struggle, the strong will to fiercely protect their ethnic identity is imminent. In the face of adversity, they have managed to preserve a strong essence of Lisu ness from within that have endured through the test of times despite inter-marriages, cross border migrations, displacements and religion conversions.
In recent years, steps have been taken to improve living conditions through policies that gradually integrates them into the Thai society. A significant step was the granting of Thai citizenships at scale to the indigenous hill tribes. This milestone has opened up doors to jobs, public education, land rights, bank account ownerships, consumerism and the many benefits offered by modernization which were otherwise inaccessible a few years ago.
As the Lisu make their journey from stateless minorities to 21st century new citizens into the new economy, their challenge to protect their culture and identity remains. No one could say what the sun tomorrow will reveal but at least for now, the reality to be a Thai, a Lisu, a Buddhist, a Christian and an Animist all at the same time is attainable.
Information shared about the Lisu culture has been researched through a variety of sources. If there is interest to find out more to make your travel experience to this region more insightful, The Lisu – Far from the Ruler, written by Michelle Zack, an award winning writer, journalist and historian is highly recommended.