CHIANGRAI TIMES – A remote Karen village in Tak Thailand has become the subject of public fascination as a place where numerous hermits dwell. Locals worship the hermits, who teach them to refrain from alcohol and gambling, embrace vegetarianism, live a modest life and respect traditional values.
Ban Letongkhu village, inhabited by the ethnic Karen people who boast a unique and ancient culture, is deep in the jungle near the Thai-Myanmar border in tambon Mae Chan of Umphang district in Tak province.
It is about 100 kilometres from the heart of Umphang and the last 20km section of the route to the village is a steep gravel road that is passable to four wheel drive vehicles only.
Ban Letongkhu village is only 40 metres above mean sea level but is surrounded by tall mountains mostly higher than 1,000 metres above sea level. As the village is only about 90km from the Gulf of Martaban in Myanmar, its climate is hot and humid almost all year round, similar to that in the south of Thailand.
There are 248 families _ 1,488 people _ in the village which is heavily reliant on farming. The villagers grow rice, vegetables and fruits including palm, durian, mangosteen and coconut and sell their produce at the border markets in Umphang district.
There is no written evidence about the hermit village’s settlement. However, oral accounts from older villagers and the plants grown in the village indicate the community may well be over a century old.
The villagers as well as other Karen people living in nearby communities including those on the Myanmar side worship the hermits, or issi in the Karen language.
Ban Letongkhu selects one of the hermits to be the supreme spiritual leader of the village. There have been 10 hermit leaders to date and the incumbent is named Phuejae Monae.
Hermits and their disciples strictly observe the five basic Buddhist precepts. They, as well as other villagers, do not eat pork, duck and chicken, believing that evil dwells in pigs, ducks and chickens.
The people also refrain from eating beef out of respect for the cattle which help them in the cultivation of farm produce.
This is the reason why the villagers came to adopt a vegetarian diet which is deep-rooted in their agriculture.
The Ban Letongkhu villagers practise simple living from the inside out. Their thatch-roofed houses are raised above ground. The floors and walls are made of bamboo and branches which are found in abundance in the jungle.
Karen people in Ban Letongkhu village have a unique look as they wear their hair long and tied in a small bun over their forehead or on the top of their head. Alternatively, both men and women may shave their heads.
They share ownership of an important item of reverence, an elephant tusk carved into a Buddha image in the meditation posture. The tusk is over four centuries old and is the symbol of the village and its spiritual focal point.
Pol Sgt Maj Nikorn Huanhong of the 34th Border Patrol Police Command in Tak discovered Ban Letongkhu village during a foot patrol in 1986. The village was sparsely populated at the time. The villagers could not speak Thai and the border patrol police had to use sign language to communicate with them.
Border police set up a small outpost on a hill near the village to secure the border and foster ties with the Karen.
Then in 1990, the border patrol police set up a school in the village. Police officers double as teachers at the school where there are no professionals.
The police share their food and medicine with the villagers who live in desolation, hounded by constant threats to life from diseases and an acute lack of basic healthcare.
It fell to the police to also act as doctors. They were taught to diagnose malaria and prescribe patients with the medicinal cures.
Senior villagers were the first to attend Thai language class conducted by the police. Since then, Karen children have been learning Thai and students from the first class more than 20 years ago are now village heads, deputies and community leaders.
Baiso Khiridutjinda, head of Ban Letongkhu, said the community was completely cut off for decades. It was as close to a primitive settlement as anyone could imagine without electricity or tap water.
However, the air and water were clean and drought was never a problem.
As time went by, the border police brought development projects to the village. Villagers now receive electricity from solar-cell generators which helped introduce radios, refrigerators, television and satellite dishes to the community.
The people stay abreast of developments in the outside world through satellite television but their village remains remote and difficult to reach.
New Year’s Day for the people of Ban Letongkhu village falls on the same day as Makha Bucha Day, the full moon day of the third lunar month, usually in February. This year, however, the villagers celebrated their New Year on March 7.
On that day, villagers organized a bathing ceremony for their hermits and paid respects to their places of worship in the living quarters of the hermits.
The villagers brought food, sweets and fruits but not a single meat dish could be found.
Apart from being vegetarians, Karen people of Ban Letongkhu village refrain from intoxicants and gambling although some of them smoke cigarettes and enjoy the habit of chewing areca nuts.
They practice monogamy and can only remarry one year after the death of their spouse.
The hermit-prescribed code of conduct bars men and boys from indulging in an ”unbecoming” lifestyle that endangers their customs, such as wearing T-shirts and trousers. They must wear long-sleeved shirts and plain coloured wrap-arounds. Female villagers who are single don white Karen clothes while married women wear typical coloured Karen-style dresses.
Visitors to Ban Letongkhu village include journalists who are keen to document and film the lifestyle of the villagers as modern development is expected to push its way in if and when tourism knocks on their doors.
At the same time, the village may become a gateway for border trade as Myanmar looks to promote peace with ethnic groups.
Writer: Phongthai Wattanavanitvut