Thursday, July 26, 2012

"Isaan, My Home"

A nice vid romanticizing the Isaan somewhat, but still gives the vibe that remains alive. For instance, Khon Thai gather in the same way but buffaloes have been replaced by "mechanical buffaloes":

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Thung Yai 1.6

All this history was unknown to us when we trekked through Thung Yai, as we travelled much in the same way as I imagine Plains Indians in America once travelled at the height of the Horse Culture. That is, few compromises were made when it came to having lots to eat; all ages and both genders worked together; religious rites and observances were frequent; everything we needed we packed with us and few high-tech solutions were employed. Most of all, we were lead by a single man, Ajan Boon Long, who would confer with his fellow monks and rely on the expertise of some others, but who once making a decision, all followed without questioning, doubts or fear.

This was novel travel for me. My fellow villagers didn’t give it a second thought.

I vividly remember the first time I spotted a hoe in the back of the truck I was traveling in. My first thought was: “Isaan farmers just can’t leave their hoes at home.” Well, these Issan farmers showed me much in their capability and problem solving, not only by frequently using their hoes on the worst roads, but fixing rather complicated mechanical breakdowns.

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned how I had my doubts about going on this trip. Well, those doubts stemmed from what I observed en route to the gates of Thung Yai. What it came down to was that all my fellow travelers were new to me and I really didn’t know Ajan Boon Long all that much and here we were going into one of the most remote areas of Thailand as what appeared to me to be a “rag tag bunch.”

I lacked the trust.

I lacked the faith.

My Thai-Lao wife kept encouraging me just to follow Ajan Boon Long’s leadership and enjoy the ride. Just like each person had their own reasons for going and their own lessons learned, mine was this one. Once I saw how truly capable my friends were days away from any help from anyone else, my trust in them skyrocketed. And once I gave up trying to mentally micro-manage the trip and not be so critical – once I, in essence, just let Ajan Boon Long take me on an adventure of a lifetime… then and only then did I have a great time.

Now that we’re back in our village in Northeastern Thailand (the Isaan), again there’s already talk of next year’s pilgrimage. And, Ajan Boon Long has made it be known: he wants me to go again.

The poem Ajan Boon Long composed about this trip:

“Far, far away,
And even farther still,

Thung Yai is way beyond me now,
But my heart still clings to that special place.

Even when I sleep,
I dream of the land –
Where flowers grow in trees.”

A video that I did not make but gives an accurate audio and visual appreciation for being “Under the Canopy” at Thung Yai:


My free ebook about this trip:

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Thung Yai 1.5 - Area History

Here I was with Kamattan monks, lay people, novice monks and a few others trekking though an area of Thailand that had only been opened up approximately thirty years ago, after the Thai insurgency had been resolved and the road built to support mining operations in the area. It was this time that Ajan Satien – Ajan Boon Long’s teacher – walked through the forest to provide spiritual guidance to the Karen in the Wahuku area, close to the Burma border.

Paleolithic (2.6 million years ago to 10,000 years before present time), Mesolithic (around 10,000 to 5,000 BC) and Neolithic (5,000 to 3,000 years BCE) stone tools have been found in the Khwae Noi and Khwae Yai river valleys. We know for certain that parts of the sanctuary were permanently inhabited by Neolithic man. Since at least 700 years ago, the Dawna-Tenasserim region has been home to Mon and Karen people, but burial grounds in Thung Yai and Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary have yet to be systematically researched.[11]

The Thai name "Thung Yai Naresuan" refers to the "big field" (thung yai) or savanna in the centre of the sanctuary and is a reference to King Naresuan. The Siamese ruler based his army in the area to wage war against Burma during his reign of the Ayutthaya Kingdom which lasted from 1590 until his death in 1605.[12]

The Karen people who live in the sanctuary call the savanna pia aethala aethea which can be translated as "place of the knowing sage". It refers to the area as a place where ascetic hermits called aethea have lived and meditated and do so even today. The Karen in Thung Yai regard them as holy men important for their history and identity in Thung Yai and revere them in a specific cult.[13]

Settlement of Karen people in Thung Yai took place during the second half of the 18th century. At that time, due to political and religious persecution in Burma, predominantly Pwo-Karen from the hinterlands of Moulmein and Tavoy migrated into the area northeast of the Three Pagodas Pass, where they received formal settlement rights from the Siamese Governor of Kanchanaburi. Sometime between 1827 and 1839 the Siamese King Rama III established this area as a principality (mueang) and the Karen leader who was governing the principality received the Siamese title of nobility Phra Si Suwannakhiri. During the second half of the 19th century, this Karen-principality at the Burmese border became particularly important for the Siamese King Rama V (Chulalongkorn) in his negotiations with the British colonial power in Burma regarding the demarcation of their western border with Siam.[14]

In the beginning of the 20th century, when the modern Thai nation state was established, the Karen in Thung Yai lost their former status and importance. The change of status meant little change for them during the first half of the 20th century, because external political influences were minimal in Thung Yai and the Karen communities were highly autonomous regarding their internal affairs. This changed in the second half of the 20th century, when the Thai nation state extended its institutions into the peripheral areas and the Karen re-appeared as chao khao or "hill tribes" on the national political agenda, as forest destroyers and illegal immigrants.[15]

Out of this greater governmental involvement grew plans to protect the forests and wildlife at the upper Khwae Yai and Khwae Noi river in the mid-1960s. Due to strong logging and mining interests in the area, it was not before 1972 that the Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary could be established. For Thung Yai, the resistance was even stronger. However, as fate would have it, in April 1973 a military helicopter crashed near Thung Yai and revealed an illegal hunting party of senior military officers with family members, businessmen, and a film star. This discovered abuse of privilege aroused nationwide public outrage that finally led to the fall of the Thanom-Prapas government, after the uprising of October 14, 1973. After this accident and under a new democratic government, the area finally was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1974.

After the Military had taken over power once again in October 1976, many of the activists of the Thai Democracy Movement fled into peripheral regions of the country, some of them finding refuge among the Karen people in Thung Yai.[16]

During the 1960s, not only timber and ore but also the water of the western forests as potential hydroelectric power resources became of interest for commercial profit and national development. A system of several big dams was planned to produce electricity for the growing urban centres, using the sanctuaries’ watershed. On the Khwae Yai River, the Si Nakharin Dam was finished in 1980 and the Tha Thung Na Dam in 1981, while the Khao Laem Dam (renamed Vajiralongkorn Dam) on the Khwae Noi river south of Thung Yai was completed in 1984. The Nam Choan Dam, the last of the projected dams, was supposed to flood a forest area of about 223 km² within the Thung Yai Naresuan Wildlife Sanctuary. There grew a public debate about the Nam Choan Dam Project that lasted for more than six years, dominating national politics in early 1988 before it was shelved in April that year.

Pointing to the high value of Thung Yai for nature conservation and biodiversity, the opponents on the national and international level had raised the possibility of declaring the area a World Heritage Site. This prestigious option would have been lost with a huge dam and reservoir in the middle of the two wildlife sanctuaries by not meeting the requirements for global heritage status.[17]

After the Nam Choan Dam Project was shelved, the proposal to UNESCO was written by Sueb Nakasatien and Belinda Stewart-Cox, both who had been outspoken opponents of the Nam Choan project. As a result of their work and outrage over the death of Nakasatien, Thung Yai Naresuan and Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuarywas declared a Natural World Heritage Site by UNESCO in December 1991. In the nomination, the "outstanding universal value" of the two wildlife sanctuaries is, in first place, justified with their extraordinary high biodiversity due to their unique position at the junction of four biogeographic zones, as well as with its size and "the undisturbed nature of its habitats". [18]

Even though the UNESCO nomination explicitly emphasizes the "undisturbed nature" of the area,[19] and notwithstanding scientific studies supporting traditional settlement and use rights of the Karen people in Thung Yai as well as the sustainability of their traditional land use system and their strong intention to remain in their homeland and to protect it,[20] the Thai government defines the people living in Thung Yai as threats to the sanctuary and continue to pursue their resettlement.

Karen villages in Huai Kha Khaeng were already removed when the wildlife sanctuary was established in 1972. In the late 1970s, the remaining communities in Huai Kha Khaeng had to leave when the Si Nakharin Dam flooded their settlement areas. During the 1980s and early 1990s, villages of the Hmong ethnic minority group were removed from Huai Kha Khaeng and Thung Yai Naresuan. The resettlement of the remaining Karen in Thung Yai was announced in a management plan for the sanctuary, drafted in the late 1980s, as well as in the proposal for the World Heritage Site. But, when the Thai Royal Forest Department tried to remove them in the early 1990s, it had to reverse the resettlement scheme due to strong public criticism.

Since then, the authorities have used repression, intimidation and terror to convince the Karen to leave their homeland 'voluntarily.' The government has concentrated on restrictions on their traditional land use system which it hopes will eventually cause its breakdown and deprive the Karen of their subsistence.[21]

My free ebook about this trip:

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Thung Yai 1.4

Each of us bumped, rolled, sloshed, sweated and certainly struggled in this land for our own reasons, learning our own lessons in addition to the ones Ajan Boon Long hoped we’d learn. Many of us travelled for the sheer adventure of it all, secure and in the authority of travelling with Buddhist monks. Some of us travelled out of respect for what Ajan Satien did for the local Karen people. (best known to Westerners as the tribe whose women elongate their necks with a series of metal rings). Some felt reward for helping out the Karen with food, clothes, salt and a change of diet at least for a couple of days.

Travelling as we did with Kammatan Buddhist monks was the most important element of the trip as Thung Yai and Huai Kha Khaeng are wildlife sanctuaries and, as such, protected areas unlike national parks. So, visitors require prior permission to get in. The sanctuary status is important because the designation helps ensure that the area is relatively untouched. Tourism in the area, in fact, is not encouraged. The few hundred visitors that do enter Thung Yai and Huai Kha Khaeng each year usually are members of scientific field study groups. Anyone else wanting to enter should first get consent from the Royal Thai Forestry department.

I don’t know for sure, but my feeling is that if you travel with Buddhist monks in Thailand, you can go just about anywhere in the country and be respected for being in their company – certainly an honor.

Being on an annual pilgrimage with Kamattan monks opens the gates to Thung Yai as it would just about anywhere in “The Land of Smiles.” At checkpoints, one of the lay people would present our travel/itinerary and the number in our party, but not much more than that. As a foreigner, I was expecting to have to present a passport and have a list with all our names on it. I never saw such a list and I don’t think we had one.

Kamattan Buddhist monks are different than the more numerous Thai Buddhist monks. I’ve written elsewhere about the differences, here:

My free ebook about this trip: