CHIANG RAI – In a quiet corner of Chiang Rai’s Chiang Saen district, ethnic groups from different backgrounds, beliefs and traditions live together in the same village. They share the land, while maintaining their identities and lifestyles.
Gong and drum beats fill the air. Fresh water from a bowl beautified with colourful flowers is provided for hand and face washes. Shan people in colourful attire are dancing and celebrating to welcome visitors.
“On special occasions, we celebrate this way, dancing and enjoying the party,” Suthinee Lian-vibhaina, a Shan lady, said while making a local snack.
Suthinee is among a number of Shan who live in Ban Mae Aeb, a small village close to the Thailand-Myanmar border. She migrated from Mong Lin, a township south of Kengtung in Myanmar, decades ago.
“I remember that it took two days to walk here. Nowadays, it is only two hours away by car. Chiang Rai and Myanmar today are far different from the past.”
But the Shan are not the only ethnic group living here. Ban Mae Aeb comprises five groups of ethnic people who live in the same village. Besides the Shan, the village is home to Chinese, Lahu, Akha and Lua.
“Our story begins shortly after the Chinese Civil War [1927-1949],” Angsana Duangsathit, the village headman, recalled.
The “Lost Army”, or the Republic of China’s the 93rd Division, fled into Burma after their defeat to the communists. The Chinese Nationalist troop tried to attack Yunnan province in China, but were pushed into Burma. Then, they were pressured by the Burmese army to move out.
Wherever the Lost Army passed, people from ethnic villages were forced to join them and men were recruited as porters or soldiers while women were cooks and nurses.
“The Lost Army swept villages and left no one behind,” added Angsana. “Many older ladies told me how they were forced to leave their homes and go with the troops.”
The remnants of the Lost Army sought asylum and settled along the Chiang Rai border, particularly in the mountainous areas. In exchange for asylum, they fought for Thailand against communists along the northern border. Eventually, the Thai government granted them citizenship.
Today, descendants of the Lost Army can be found in Doi Mae Salong and other places along the Chiang Rai border.
Though the village grew with different ethnic groups, Chinese remains the village’s official language. After school, children attend Chinese language classes, so they can communicate in Thai and Chinese.
The house doors throughout the community are adorned with blessed Chinese alphabets and amulets. Grandmothers and cooks in red clothing prepared the table. Steam rises from the kitchen where noodles were being boiled for lunch and home-made soy milk and cakes are served to the guests.
The Akha welcome visitors with a bamboo dance and traditional music. The Lua community greets visitors with khao soi noi, a steamed rice sheet topped with vegetables and a sauce. It’s popularly known as “Lua Pizza”.
Most of the people in Ban Mae Aeb are farmers, the village is lively at dusk when most return from their farms.
Yellow rice is a Shan speciality. It is mixed with dok pud, a local flower. The rice is served with garlic, fried chicken and chilli paste
Tourists visiting the Shan community are greeted with dances, sprinkled with water and flowers, and a traditional feast.
Chinese egg noodles are prepared for visitors. As the village is led by descendants of the Chinese Nationalist Troops, or Kuomintang, Mandarin is widely spoken. Most people speak Thai, too
Akha dancers in traditional attire perform a bamboo dance. Though many Akhas now live in houses made of concrete and brick, a few of them still live in traditional clay houses surrounded by firewood.
The Iu-Mien black rice dessert is rice is mixed with rice straw ash, vegetable oil and a slice of meat. It is wrapped in a broad tree leaf and grilled on very low heat. The sweet is then hung outside windows with two pieces of paper, as an offering for birds. Iu-Mien farmers believe that such an offering will keep birds away from their farms.
The Lua community is famous for a rare dish called khao soi noi. Unlike ordinary khao soi found in the north of Thailand, this dish means ‘little khao soi’ but is actually like a pizza topped with young leaves of sugar pea plants. The Lua make it on special occasions such as Chinese New Year and Songkran.
A 10-minute journey from Ban Mae Aeb is Ban Huai Kwan, a village of Iu-Mien. Iu-Mien are a hilltribe where the women are famed for their lavish attire. Iu-Mien ladies spend their free time working on embroidered clothes.
Photo’s and Story by Peerawat Jariyasombat