Time warp to a Lahu Village
June 4, 2014 | By Mitch & Jewels |
We spent two weeks in a Lahu Village studying Thai Massage. The course and community of students were full of learning and nourishment for us, but we were most fascinated by the sneak peak at village life.
We chose this course through the Sunshine Network because so many friends have raved about and said that it was “magical” – for the course itself, the Thai Massage lineage, as well as for life in the village. The first few days, our journals read that we were “waiting for the magic to hit” and even wondering why we had come (with the mantra that if we hated it, it was only for two weeks)… but by the end, we definitely were feeling the magic and know it was an experience that will stay with us for a long time.
Thai Massage Course with the Sunshine Network
Asokananda was considered by many to be one of the great Thai massage masters of the 20th century. My brief notes on his history (based on what I have been told), say he was German and was a Buddhist monk at one point, taught vipassana retreats for a long time, and ultimately dove into and became a teacher of Thai massage. He wrote the famous “Red Book” in 1997, which is the first book about Thai massage in any foreign language, along with at least a dozen other books on Thai massage, meditation, etc. He ended up coming to this little Lahu Village and settled here, marrying a Lahu woman, having kids, etc., and lived here until he passed away in 2005.
He taught Thai massage here in the village, and built the Sunshine Network (now a huge network of teachers around the world) from this base. So, through him, this village became a center for Thai massage, and the school continues to operate here. Just about all of the Thai massage teachers we have learned from, both in the U.S. and abroad, come through Asokananda’s lineage. There is a big Sunshine Network school in Chiang Mai, and they also offer residential two-week courses in the village, which run just about constantly through the year. The courses in the village are all called “foundations” but they are also a valuable tool to take repeatedly to keep learning nuances and feel the intuitive side of the practice more deeply.
The two-week program is $400 per person (12,800 baht) and includes lodging and food, plus all classes. There are several lead teachers who take turns teaching. For our course, the lead teacher is Itzhak Helman, and he is assisted by Chiharu (Chi), Matteis, Chris, and Chakue. There are nearly 30 students, which is far more than comfortable for the size of the teaching platform, although apparently classes range from 5 students to 60 (and when Asokananda was here, 80). The logistics of the program haven’t changed in the past many years, and you don’t need to register in advance (although you can) – you just show up to the meeting spot on the right day, pay, and then hop in the back of a pickup truck to go to the village 1 ½ hours away.
Itzhak, our lead teacher here, we already knew because he was one of the teachers at the Thai Massage Circus where we spent the month of February (their website here, & our reactions here). Over the six weeks that we have now spent studying with him, we have come to appreciate him more and more. Itzhak has fully devoted himself to the meditative and spiritual practices, but doesn’t submit to the new age quackery of the west. Most impressively, despite his incredible wealth of experience and knowledge, he is a living example of humility, and filled with a respect for the practice and the tradition, and on a constant quest for knowledge himself.
They are not kidding when they say accommodation and village life is rustic, although we got a comparatively palatial lodging and could spread our stuff out over two rooms and had windows to see the valley, and wood walls (as opposed to concrete or bamboo). And, on a list of things we did not know we would appreciate, we never had a pig wander into our room. We have definitely come to realize how the Thai Massage Circus took a lot of its inspiration from this style of training, but then figured out how to make it exponentially more comfortable.
Here, you live in a hut owned by one of the village families, and they get money for giving you accommodation while you’re here. There are a few communal toilets for the school and one near our hut. The school provides 3 vegetarian meals per day. We had been told that the food was super monotonous and had no protein, so we came equipped with 2 kilos of trail mix, but it was actually surprisingly decent (although we were still excited to feast when we got back to Chiang Mai after).
All of our classes take place on the platform, which overlooks an epic view of the valley. It’s bizarre to think that we are 1 ½ hours from Chiang Mai. The sunsets here are magical and we saw a huge rainbow one day, and the clear nights are filled with stars. With the view over the valley, the clouds are spectacular. It’s the rainy season now, and we have had some biblical downpours – the clouds are huge and textured.
The village is like an alternate reality, with pigs and dogs wandering around, and the people seem like they are from another era or like you are getting some living snapshot of an ethnic museum. The dogs, pigs, and roosters begin their cacophonous conversation at 3am (they seem to quiet down around 6:30am for some mysterious reason), which is a 360-degree surround sound since they wander around underneath our hut.
One thing that we keep thinking about is how much support from the school actually goes to the village. A couple of us had separate conversations or overheard conversations about it, and it’s a little concerning. There are several small businesses in the village that we support directly – a couple of people who sell little handicrafts, the Coconut Bar which made a killing selling students pancakes and beer, the coffee shop, and the little general shop in town where you can buy packaged cookies, toilet paper, and the like. There is also a local guy who makes an herbal steam sauna that he sets up for us massage students on occasion.
It sounds like the school is a “family business” and Big Mama (one of the village women who runs our kitchen and many elements of the school, who is very caring but occasionally cranky and difficult to understand because she is constantly speaking through betel nuts she’s chewing on) was Asokananda’s wife at one point. She definitely gets money from the school for our food, although one of the students overheard (unconfirmed) that it’s only about $1 USD per student per day. Itzhak said that the families that host our accommodations get about $22 USD per student for the full course, which isn’t a lot but is significant when you consider that their daily wages when they work in the fields is about $6 USD.
We want to directly give them money and resources for their community and wish more money from the school went directly to the village, but we also know that an influx of money might not be the best thing and could cause weird cultural changes. But we wonder whether there are community improvements that the school could support – like school supplies for the village children. Or whether there are little ways to employ more people from the village. For example, we were told that the responsibility to maintain cleanliness in the bathrooms falls on us students. And while they were clean, they definitely got increasingly smelly. I am surprised that they don’t pay a village woman $3 per day to clean the bathrooms, which would be a huge boost to someone’s income, would be a short enough duration they could still do their field jobs, and would be a big help to the well-being of the students. Plus, if you amortize that cost over the students, it is about $1 per person for the course.
There are also some hygienic concerns – the bathrooms don’t seem to get cleaned regularly, there is a lack of soap by the bathrooms and some questions about whether the water purification system for drinking water actually works – 3 people went to the hospital with bad diarrhea or fevers during our course. So we wondered if they changed the course fee from 12,800 baht per person to 13,000 baht per person (from $400 to $406), they would be able to improve the hygiene, provide small jobs to villagers or even extra help to the community, and the change in cost to students would be minimal.
Anyhow… some more general comments…
Overall the course was really fantastic, and we are both interested in continuing to learn and study Thai massage. There are so many details to remember and so much intuition to tap into – and every time you learn something or take a class, you realize just how much more you have to learn.
Funny enough, when we first arrived in the village, a bunch of people immediately talked about how magical it was, and others of us were a little underwhelmed. (We fell in the latter category). But by the end of two weeks, we found the sweetness and simplicity of life here endearing.
Life in the Lahu Village
Disclaimer: All of our comments here are either what we heard from our teachers talking about the Lahu people and the village, what we heard before/after, or what we experienced ourselves, but don’t claim factual accuracy.
We do know that the most important Lahu word here is “Daveio!” which means hello, thank you, and goodbye. We stayed in the Lahu village of Huey Naam Rin, and for two weeks we effectively left Thailand and lived in the land of the Lahus – so “hello” and “sawasdee ka” were replaced by “daveio” and we were felt like we had traveled through time and space.
The Lahu people apparently spread from Tibet and were originally nomadic hunter tribes (Lahu means hunter) here in the hills of Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and elsewhere. Sometime around World War 2, political borders and other limitations forced them to settle down into sedentary villages. Apparently after they were forced to settle down, many of the Lahus grew opium as a cash crop, although that was frowned upon. So the Thai government introduced agriculture and they now make their cash income farming decorative ferns and cut flowers as well as coffee. Here in this village, the “magic year” of 1994 is when they got electricity and plumbing.
It’s interesting that the Lahu villages and Thai villages are totally separate. The culture, food, language, clothing, etc. is totally different, and there is a general perception that the Thai people treat the tribal people as one step above animals, which seems similar to the way native populations are treated in the U.S. and elsewhere. We have been told that many of the people from the hill tribe communities (including the Lahus) are denied Thai citizenship, despite being born and raised here, never having left the country, and being here for generations.
The traditional clothing includes “Lahu pants” – which are wide and baggy with knee-length inseams and little holes for the legs, and made out of garish floral patterns – and many of the women have awesome and unique traditional ceremonial coats made out of shiny blues and reds, more of the garish floral patterns, and these white stitched areas. They regularly chew betel nuts, so many of them talk while gurgling through a mouthful of betel juice, and many of the Lahus (particularly the older people) have betel-stained teeth.
Because of their background as a hunter society, they have a heavily meat-oriented diet. It seems that all they eat is meat, sticky rice, and chili. There is a little Lahu cookbook that Asokananda wrote where all of the recipe titles include the word “chili.” Apparently they had to learn how to cook for us farangs (foreigners) in the massage school so we could have all vegetarian food. While we were there, there were a few pigs slaughtered – one big one and a few small ones. It was both sad and fascinating. We also watched three of the village dogs (which are kind of stray, but mild-mannered and not aggressive around humans) try to hunt and kill a super tiny piglet that they must have coaxed out of its mama pig’s area. (Humans got in the way of that atrocity, thankfully.)
The village is over-packed, muddy, dirty, with pigs, chickens, and flea-burdened dogs wandering around, so slipping in the mud during rain means getting all kinds of shit on you… literally. But while it is definitely an impoverished community, there is also a sweetness to it; it just seems so far removed from Thailand or modern society. (When we were leaving the village, I had a thought of “welcome back to 2014.”) And the surrounding area here is beautiful… lush forested and farmed hills and valleys, which means incredible views from the teaching and yoga platforms, when the weather cooperates now that it’s the rainy season.
The local religion seems to be animist with a focus on the spirits that control everything. For example, there is one road that goes through the village and connects to other places, so when you enter or leave the village, you pass under a hanging with these woven reed things that look kind of like paper snowflakes. They are supposed to protect the village entryways from bad spirits. However, with Thai Buddhism all around them, that has blended in in bizarre and adorable ways.
Funny side note, a temple near here has a loudspeaker and does a public service by playing a classical melody that sounds like it might be coming from an ice cream truck sound system (think Chim Chim Cheroo from Mary Poppins) and announcement of the time every hour on the hour from about 6am to past sunset.
In the village, instead of praying, meditating, resolving conflicts, getting married, getting divorced, celebrating births, or dealing with misconduct, they dance. The village dancing is a super sweet thing; it’s in the ceremonial dance area in the middle of the village and they call it “making Buddha.” We were able to experience one dance, and there was a second one that happened but it was wrapping up just as we arrived (sometimes they go on for days; other times they are apparently short).
There are two instruments – this 3-stringed guitar they call a dong (because it makes a dong sound) and this air instrument made out of bamboo – and just variations of one song. There’s a video of Asokananda filmed here 20 years ago that has the same exact song on the same two instruments as background music. It seems to be a generations-old Lahu anthem. The dance area has a little altar in the middle with a candle, then an open space for the dancing, then benches around the edges where people smoke, drink tea, and chatter. The dancing is adorable – the women hold hands and step together in these calm but difficult to follow patterns (the step patterns change every few minutes when the music stops for a short break). The men step in the same patterns, but their steps are more stomping and wild, and they go solo. They all go in a circle, typically with the men in a pack outside of the women. To close the dance, they seem to go in the opposite direction for a few minutes, pick up the candle from the alter, and exit the dance area, with no other fanfare.
Both of us tried dancing with them for a few songs (as did a couple of the other foreigners, or farangs), and we got the positive comment of “Lahu farang dance together good.” Love it!
It’s hard to imagine what will happen to life here over the next generation, and what the cultural changes will be. For example, among this type of culture, Itzhak was telling us that it’s traditional for the blacksmith to be the shaman (because the person who makes the knives that kill their food is the one who connects to the spirits of those animals and surroundings). And, sure enough, that is the case here. But, because of the poverty and local economics, he was with us for most of our meals and available to sell us things. He serenaded us with his dong (the 3-string guitar that makes the dong sound) in the traditional song (we should have taken an audio recording of it). I bought a little necklace made out of seeds from a local tree, and after much internal debate, I spent $5 and bought a little knife he made for “banana papaya cooking mmm good!”
And, because of all the animals wandering around the village, we need to include a few gratuitous photos. Especially because sleeping pigs are the most adorable snugglers ever.
The day off: Coffee farm & Waterfall!
In the middle of the course, there is one “day off” where there are a few activities that most people do that cost a few dollars each. From around 7am to 11am there was a hike to Jagatey’s organic coffee farm, which included breakfast. Chakue (one of our assistant teachers who is Lahu) led us and showed us some of the plants that are edible or medicinal. He has such extraordinary knowledge, and can use everything, and said he learned all the herbal stuff from his uncle and elders. Apparently they used to have half-day classes for kids to learn about local herbs but the Thai government cut funding that paid for pencils, notebooks, and one meal per day for the kids.
In the afternoon we took a trip to a local waterfall where some Lahu kids were jumping and swimming. It was a really nice little spot, and some people decided to smother themselves in regenerating red mud. Some of the Lahu people made us an amazing lunch. The food was good, but what was beyond impressive was the presentation… It was entirely on bamboo, from the tea kettle to tea cups to chopsticks to plates, with banana leaves to hold sticky rice packets. On the way back, we stopped for ice cream (banana and Thai tea which had bubbles in it!).
Thailand political updates outside the village
There have been some political things going on in Thailand over the past several months… we haven’t actually read up on the details, but there have been several protests in Bangkok, including an “Occupy Wall Street” style camping sit-in at a park in downtown Bangkok. A few weeks ago, the Thai Prime Minister got taken out of office by the Supreme Court, and then a bit later they cleared out the Bangkok park from protesters.
While we were in the village, apparently there was a coup d’état here in Thailand and the military took over the government. They instituted a 10pm – 5am nationwide curfew (probably to prevent protests), which was later reduced to midnight – 4am. Here in the village, we have been isolated from the outside world and would have had no idea about any of this if Uncle Howard (who lives in Chiang Mai) hadn’t texted us on our Thai phone. Who knows what it will be like when we get back to Chiang Mai, but since the village operates on a dawn-to-dusk schedule anyway, there has been zero impact and it feels just as safe and mellow as always.
During a sharing circle on one of our last days, Chakue said that some of the villagers are sad that they can’t talk to us farangs to share their lives and experiences with us more. He responded that sometimes a smile is the best communication, and the only thing you need.
It’s so true… and with that, Daveio!
As usual, here are more photos from our time at the village for you to view as a slideshow.