River life and dancing with the villagers in North Thailand
Our resident columnist Yeoh Siew Hoon on Hmong cuisine, batik dying and a four-hour trek she will never forget.
That cool air that blows through this time of the year can send you into deep relaxation instantly.
“Whatever we do, I want to stand on the Golden Triangle,” said my British friend who was travelling with us.
Such is the power of tourism marketing to have implanted in my friend’s mind this picture of a physical triangle which would allow him to live out his dream of being in three countries at the same time – Thailand, Laos and Myanmar.
He had never seen the Mekong River, and had been so excited when we had first planned this four-day trip to North Thailand, which would take us first to Chiang Mai and Chiang Saen.
“Now we have a fourth,” said our guide. “China,” he said, pointing to a huge golden roofed structure on the banks of the river. “This is a casino and a Chinese businessman has bought a 99-year lease on the land.”
“Can we go and touch the land on the other side?” pleaded another friend as our longtail boat cut close to the Laotian side.
“How about Myanmar? Can we go there?” said another, as our guide pointed to yet another golden-coloured building (also a casino) on the Burmese side.
The guide’s reply was an adamant “No” each time such a request was made. I suppose he gets requests like these all the time – the desire by humans to “cross borders” even if it means just touching the land or putting a foot down on the soil.
The Mekong River, the 12th longest river in the world and the largest in Asia, was the highest I’d seen it in a long while. Just two years ago, while celebrating Songkran in Luang Prabang, Laos, which is just a day’s boat ride away from where I was, this same river was bone dry.
I’ve seen the Mekong in many moods and in its many guises. Near its source in eastern Tibet, in Lijiang, Yunnan Province, it is called Lancang Jiang (Turbulent River). It then flows through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam where it fans out into the sea as the Mekong River Delta.
This time round, due to the heavy monsoon rains of the past months, the Mekong flows deep and full through North Thailand. Where once were poppy fields now stand lush fields of rice, corn, tea, tobacco and other crops. This is when you realise what an agricultural country Thailand still is.
We visited Lanjia Lodge, described as a “community tourism” project, due to its situation within a Hmong hill tribe village. Under a specially devised scheme, developed by the owner Asian Oasis and a government-run organization, the villagers of this community manage and run the lodge and get direct income from tourism.
As travellers, this is extremely fulfilling – you see your money going straight into the community instead of disappearing into some middlemen’s pockets. The villagers look after you. They cook for you and they serve you. The boys and girls are sweet and sincere. The food is simple and delicious – Hmong cuisine is more akin to Chinese than Thai. When you go into the village and buy their handicrafts, the money goes straight into the pockets.
The day we arrived, we were given a village tour and taught how to make Hmong batik napkins. It’s pretty intricate work. You take something that looks like a pen, dip it in wax and draw patterns. The fabric is then dipped in indigo dye. I was smart. I chose the simplest pattern and mine came out looking pretty good. My friends’ were a disaster.
We ended up ordering about 60 napkins from the village. You should have seen the smile on the face of the old woman who taught us, when we put in our order. “She is happy you appreciate her work,” said our guide.
In the village, we also visited a local shaman to learn about how he heals. To be a shaman, you have to have a near-fatal experience. “It’s only when you have almost crossed over that you get the powers,” said our guide.
This shaman, in his early 50s, had contracted a severe lung infection but recovered. Today, he is the village’s chief healer. His home – Hmong homes have no windows so as to keep the spirits in – is decorated with pig’s jaws. One pig’s jaw equals one person healed and from his collection (which is renewed every year), it is clear he’s healed many.
I am glad Lanjia Lodge has many windows. Four lodges with four bedrooms each have been tastefully built on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Golden Triangle. The views are amazing. You sit in the balcony of the lodge and you don’t want to move. That cool air that blows through this time of the year can send you into deep relaxation instantly.
No need for any massage but yes, you can have in-lodge massage. No need for treks to tire you out but yes, there are plenty of treks that take you out into the hills if you wish. I did a four-hour trek, which was enough to send me into a coma.
Yet I felt strangely invigorated that night as I watched the Hmong villagers play their instruments and dance for us. I danced too and pretended no one was watching.