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Notre vie en Thaïlande

Myriama et Roderick à Chang Mai

10/07/2010 - BEYOND SOP MOEI - May be the BEST in Thailand Publié le Samedi 10 Juillet 2010 à 17:33:56

Almost 60 years ago two American missionaries, a doctor/surgeon & his wife, working in southern Thaland gave birth to a son. Kent Gregory grew up in Thailand before returning to the USA for his secondary & tertiary studies in public health. He met & married a Swedish child psychologist/child-maternal health specialist before they returned to Thailand in the mid-seventies determined to apply their skills to the welfare & advancement of the hill-tribe people of northern Thailand.

They were looking to find a preliterate tribe who'd had little if any contact with westerners & the search led them to the still most isolated areas along the Thai/Burmese border near Mae Sariang. Basically Kent had a by-chance meeting in Mae Sariang with an English speaking Burmese man who just trecked (fled) for many days through the jungle from Burma into Thailand. On the way he had encountered a Karen tribe living near the Salween River where it divides Thailand from Burma. Kent found a guide, got clear instructions & then walked for over two days through the mountains & jungle of this part of Thailand to find the tribe - as well as the leeches, he remembers the leopards & hundres of gibbons he saw.

By 1977 Kent had spent sufficient time amongst this & neighbouring tribes to have become fluent in their language - he actually used a card system to compile a dictionary over several years which unfortunately he did not maintain/publish so that to date still no dictionary exists for these Karen people (the Pwo) - to be able to negotiate with village leaders to be able to stay. The Karen are animists & their agreement was conditional that Kent's installation not be in the existing Karen village but in an abandoned, former village site nearby - the Karen were semi-nomadic at that time.

We stayed with Kent for 4 days in this magic corner he calls home. I lie not in saying that it is not only the best garden that I have seen in Thailand, but the best home in which one could stay. It has something, a soul, that springs from it's occupying a former villlage site using existing access mechanisms, water supply, building materials & so on, tranformed through the sheer beauty of the garden that Kent has established over almost 35 years. To be awoken by the 'bird's choir of a 1000 birds' is something special. This is not a millionaire's house where money has secured the 'chosen' block & planted out the 'designed' garden; its the 'no choice' block that has been transformed into what millionaires dream of. The house/s are open in style with large verandahs, built of local teak logged by Kent himself, rooves thatched from local leaves. There is no electricity, no telephones; 'ofuro' style bathrooms. You are in complete tranquility resting at home or walking about the gardens, exploring the surrounding streams, orchards he's planted, rice paddies & so on.

When Kent & his wife arrived, their goal was to set up a maternity, child care, nutrition service for the neighbouring tribe/s. It was a difficult task with village priests being resistant to such intervention. For many years Kent & his wife moved by elephant between what grew to become 17 Karen villages carrying their medical supplies (you may recall the extreme danger of working with male elephants that I covered in an earlier report from Hongsa in Laos). You have to understand that there were no roads, no shops; in fact Kent would walk once or twice a month to Mae Sariang, the closest town, a journey of around 80 kls (but 'UP & DOWN' like you can only imagine) which took 18 hours each way! It was a 'task' despite the spectacularly magnificent views afforded over the mountian heights of Thailand & Burma. The elephants would join him in town before returning ladened with supplies (Kent always walked as it was faster than the elephants moved). It was an area not without danger where gunfire emminating from Burma could be heard regularly - Kent told me of a time a guide came by with 2 german & a french trecker; they asked for directions to a certain camp where the heads of the Karen armies fighting the Burmese government had installed their families for reasons of safety. Kent advised them of the way to learn later that the guide had been murdered, his body thrown in the river & the trackers returned to their starting point down river!

During this period they had a daughter, but sadly Kent's wife passed away - a mole was removed but no biopsy was performed which proved fatal. It was not an easy existence for someone widowed early bringing up a young child; indeed he brought up & continues to raise several other Karen children in most cases where a mother dies during child-birth. He also ensures the on-going education of many tribal children who otherwise would not have access to secondary or tertiary education.

After a period of time Kent realised that despite his efforts & relative success the tribal children still lacked an acceptable level of nutrition. It was apparent to Kent that he had to initiate a commercial system within the villages, something that would generate revenue so as to enable the villagers to purchase the additional nutritional needs of their children. Kent knew that almost all Karen woman could weave textiles (they are the recognised experts in this area) & the men baskets - for those not aware of the hill-tribes in Thailand have a look at any web-site covering the subject to see the brilliant textiles these tribes have produced over the centuries - so he set-up a business ' Sop Moei Arts' ( to produce the required income.

Kent lives in a simple house & has constructed a number of other buildings scattered amongst the gardens to accommodate the weavers who come from close-by villages. He has also established weaving centres in several other out-lying vilages. Its easy to pass the day amidst the hand-made teak looms watching the women work clad in their finest creations - the patterns & colours tell you a great deal; whether the wearer is married, for example, whether from the mountains or the valleys, from what particular tribe & so on. The woman are often tatooed though I dont know the significance. Some smoke hand-made pipes - a great sight! We dined with two of the ladies one night, one woman's husband & some of their children - I say some of the children as we were told through one woman's daughter who speaks English (Kent sends her to school in Chiang Mai) that her mother was 43 with 6 children the oldest of which was 28 - you can do the maths!  Food remains traditional & Kent continues to eat similarly - a local vegitable on this occassion mixed with a paste derived from crushed (after boiling) jackfruit seeds mixed with dry fish & chillies (Ken had prepared an accompanying meal derived from freshly picked bamboo shoots, washed down from coffee grown, roasted & ground on the property).

Amongst the male basket weavers was a man who fled Burma some 17 years ago but still returned from time to time to Burma I was told on insergency missions! We also walked to & through a neighbouring village & to the steep hillsides to watch them farm - the climbs & descents absolutely knocked us out & we marvelled at the way the Karen could carry vegetables, wood or children approximateing their own body weight with ease (& without  losing kilos in perspiration!)

This place is SOOOOO good that the King of Sweden brought his wife & 2 children including his just married daughter to stay a couple of years ago; a stay outside any duties of state, a stay not known to many, to be simply at ease, away from the normal 'controls' of their life. Kent recalled that on one occassion he took the family to an absolutely authentic Karen village high up in the mountains with a magnificent view over Burma, a trip that necessitated, in view of the sheer climb, that they ride elephants. The tribe had no idea they were coming & clearly no idea as to the identity of their visitors. As the King moved openly & freely amongst the villagers he turned to the Queen & said : 'all my life I've been looking to be able to do this, to spend a day like this'!

As wonderful as it all is, the reality of living in such isolation was brought home to us during our visit as the uncle of one of Kent's adopted children fell from the top of a coconut tree with a horrible thud. After many hours traversing the worst possible terrain he has been found to have fractured his spine & we are awaiting news surrounding damage to any organs.

A 'road', if you can call it that, was recently cut along the tracks once trod by Kent. It is not an all-weather road; impassable from the end of June through to early October each year. It takes 3.5 hrs in the best of times. Kent mentioned on our arriving by this road in early July was the first he'd ever seen anyone passing that way in July which shows how dry Thailand has been over recent months. It is nonetheless in terrible shape, dangerously slippery & rutted, deteriorating quickly, as it does, at the sign of any rain. The King of Sweden actually used this road when he came one December but had to abandon his car en route!  More alarming, the fellow who fell from the coconut tree had to be removed from the jungle along this same road - the pain must have been unbearable - before medical transport could be arranged.
There is another equally time consuming but incredibly spectacular way into Mae Sariang which involves taking a 3 hour boat trip along 3 separate rivers &  through 4 separate military check-points (3 thai & 1 Burmese). Kent would use this route (& still does) when the supplies to be carried were not of a great quantity. We decided to return by this way much to the delight of our necks, backs & butts! This is a unique & absolutely magic voyage. It is not possible for tourists, indeed anyone without 'reason', to travel by this way (the whole area where we were travelling is a military zone accommodating two large refugee camps & access is now strictly controlled by the military - even by car we were only permitted to enter as we were staying with Kent). One descends initially by the Yuam River (how magic was the riverside bording) then along the larger Moei River to where it meets the Salween, the only  major waterway in S-E Asia still not damed, giving it a certain majesty, a certain naturalness. You travel up-stream along the Salween - its is exceptionally turbulent & wide where the waters of the Yuam & Moei moving in one direction meet those of the Salween moving in the opposite direction & the turbalance over the centuries has forced the Salween to literally change course for a moment leaving a sanded area, a bend in the river of rare beauty. Disembarkment is at the interestingly set & very isolated riverside town of Mae Sam Lep. Its then a further hour by 4x4 to Mae Sariang.

Kent told me that when using the boat access he would be met by his elephants at an 'outpost' from one of the now refugee camps. On occassions when he was late, he'd leave his goods with the men at the outpost who he knew well/found quite charming & collect them the next morning by elephant. After many years he learnt that they constituted an assassination squad who would murder & throw into the river all those sent their way as being suspected of spying/infiltrating the refugee camps. By means of background, the Karen army which held out against the Burmese for many years was made up of both Christian & Buddhist Karen; the Christians kept all the important positions to themselves to the extent that in an act of great treachery the Buddhists told the Burmese of the way into the 'stronghold'. The Christians fled & control was handed to the Buddhists.....the Christians remain concerned/paranoid by the possibility of Buddhist infiltration into their (refugee) camps.

Enough for now; we'll return in September to climb to the authentic Karen hill-tribe village that the King of Sweden loved so much. Things are changing even in this 'neck of the woods'. How very lucky we are to have seen it now.

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04/07-2010 - RAIN ROCKETS Publié le Lundi 5 Juillet 2010 à 09:12:32

Headed out yesterday afternoon to the mountains east of Chiang Mai - absolutely beautiful ride out through the rice fields & buffalo, an abundance of wonderful teak houses & spectacular mountain scenery.  In the hills behind San Kamphaeng overlooking a large reservoir thousands of locals gathered amidst much fun & laughter, much music & merriment, much food & drink to launch rockets to please the gods so as to ensure good rains for the season ahead.

A massive launching platform some 25m high with a long access ramp had been built from bamboo. Rockets were waiting, stored & being fine-tuned in areas under the surrounding trees - its a wonderful sight to see these creations suspended from the trees, drapped in flowers & the cloth of monks, their support team, monks & all, seated thereunder.

There's a competition to judge the firings; a competition which assesses the trajectory of each firing. The rockets, & there are 100's of them, are standardised for fairness being constructed using a bamboo pipe about 1.5m long & around 12cm in diameter filled with gunpowder & firmly attached to a long bamboo shoot to give an overall length approximating 20m. The judging panel is formally seated & headed by the abbott of the local wat (temple) seated in his robes & surrounded by various offerings for the fish of the lake & money 'trees' for the temple. There's a scoreboard - a firing which fails to ignite scores '0', those that explode on take-off 50, but the vast majority are assessed on how high & how straight they fly.

You can bet on the outcome & I was STUNNED to see the bets 'being taken' by monks  - a pragmatic way to ensure fairness!

5 or 6 men surrounded by monks & teams of chanting musicians carry the rockets one by one to the launching pad. The rockets are carried up the launching pad & put in place. One fellow remains with a 2m pole to light the rocket which he does from a well protected area atop the launching pad - one wonders about their hearing though as the rockets sound like fighter jets on take-off.

The idea is that the remains of the rockets fall into the dam area way below. Its quite dangerous (ie, great fun) - the crowd gathers quite near-by & we saw several rockets blow up literally straight off the launching pad, straight over our heads. Two years ago one such explosion caused a piece of bamboo to be embedded in a spectator's head (yes, its my sort of day!) At times the rockets fly off in completelty the wrong direction, much to the amusement of those present, flying straight over-head for the hills & not the dam!

Its a good day out (as is the 'party-mode' night that follows) & can you believe it - this morning, the day after the firings, the Thailand Meteological Department has issued a warning for heavy rain, even flooding over the next 4 days for most of Thailand!

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26/06/2010 WARREN'S FARM Publié le Samedi 26 Juin 2010 à 08:24:00

Warren, an englishman who spent many years in South Africa had asked us out to his farm about an hour to the north-east of Chiang Mai, so we headed out yesterday for lunch.

Warren had bought a former rice paddy in a pleasantly remote area with a very old teak worker's cottage consisting of 5 consecutive 3x3 rooms all in a straight line. The rennovations Warren has performed are sensational. It reminds me of the Glen Murcatt/Crackenback Farm

Warren loves animals; he has them everywhere! You swing up the beautiful tree-planted driveway past several lotus-filled ponds fed by natural springs; the ponds filled with geese, ducks of every kind & large fish (taptim). You ride through pigs & cattle, past dogs & ever more varieties of bird.

We were greated by Warren & his 'team', many adopted & educated by warren & is wife. We were welcomed with a glass of lemon tea freshly brewed from leaves on the farm, mixed with honey (yes, from the farm). We then tried the home-made roselle which was so good i had 3.....Warren had told me it was good for the health & it slipped down giving a certain feeling of goodness!

We went for a tour of the farm - EVERY animal had a name!!!! We released 100 guinnea fowls from their barn (held there in the laying/mating season as their eggs are destroyed by water (its rainy sseason here). They follow Warren wherever he 'calls'. When the eggs are laid he picks them up & places them under a multitude of hens that he has nesting alongside! Great stuff!

We stroll out through banana, mango, avocado & orange orchards past the coffee plantation - yep Warren has the BEST coffee - out past the squirrel cage, currently occupied by fan-tail doves as he wants the eggs for offspring, past the incubation area for the 100s of chicks of all speciees already born, down to the kennels - (pedigree) labradours, one of which had 10 puppies (9 boys) 2 days earlier. All the pigs & piglets lob up to say g'day - one of them - Maggie - lies down next to Warren when he lies down in the grass! As I say EVERY animal has a name, even the fish (!) & yes Warren is the total vegetarian.

Into the house, Maggie the pig happy to join us; one of the squirrels is there (chews at pieces of the teak in the house though).... this place is incredible (I can see W/S; what a chance we were there on her b/d). By the way, there are staff everywhere so the place is 'nickel'!

Its virgin country with springs, rivers, waterfalls & surrounded by dence jungle - only 2 years ago tigers took 2 cows at little over a kilometre from the house!

Back to a massive lunch & more roselle....... I'd missed the hint when Warren said it was 'good for you'.......boy oh boy, did the diahrea hit, so much so I had to cancel going to dinner that evening!

I thought we'd had an eccentric day until I arrived home to find an email from Michael wishing me a happy birthday! Being 26th June it was exactly 1 month early! Mate, the vino in Portugal must be good!

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04/04/2010 - LISU AND PALONG Publié le Dimanche 4 Avril 2010 à 08:27:00

Just back from a trip worthy of a quick note to you. I've been a little 'slower' on reporting of late (intrigued by 'entertain me'
lobbers; enjoying those who respond). I've a good friend here - Stu Lloyd - we meet regularly at the local pub to watch the rugby tests & after 6 or more months learnt that we went to the same bloody school (R'view). We left decades apart; though you wouldn't know it looking at us!!!

Stu is a gregarious chap & through a (Lisu) contact, Mimi, 'put us onto' a gathering of the Lisu hill-tribe that was to take place way up in the isolated mountains of northern Thailand. We left early on our motorbikes, caught Stu who'd been covering the King's Cup Elephant Polo & rode to the Lisu village. They are an exceptionally proud tribe, super competitive/always wish to win, & they dress in a mind-boggling array of colour (yep Myriama is in 7th heaven).  We lobbed in to the village & there they were thousands & thousands of them all dressed in traditional costume; an unforgetable sea of colour. Mimi explained the ceremonies - offerings to the guardian spirit, the endless dancing, indeed who could dance with who & why, the musical instruments made from bamboo, & various large seeds........

It was a picture frenzy. Time flew as our jaws dropped & our cameras clicked. A major ceremony was marked for 7pm, when Myriama's nose 'smelt rain'. We were miles away from any town, any accommodation (the thatched huts of the Lisu were already bursting from the seams with the thousands of Lisu that had descended on the village). We jumped on the bikes & bolted - what a ride it was - a full moon, the rain clouds rushing about the moon, the winds literally howling over the mountain tops pushing the bikes sideways. Down & down we rode through scenery made even more magnificent by the eerie light of a full moon. We reached 'civilisation' some 40 minutes later, filled the bikes with petrol & down it came - what a storm; we sat in the dry at the pertrol station for an hour.

Stayed at a resort we were told over dinner had 'monsters' We arrived to hear the 'ung ang' (spelling) belching out this most horrible sound from the waterfall/river. With our wedding anniversary approaching, being a romantic (as are all Ozzies), took the bride for a surprise trip to the 'Switzerland of Thailand' (Doi Ang Khang) - good spot to chill out - cool all year round, nice hotel, area grows temperate climate fruit & vegies, magic garden......

Its also smack on the border with Burma, so I had to see if I ride out along the border. Rode out past a Lahu tribal village & into a Palong Village where the Thai army were stationed & the road closed by the military - two sizeable, fortfified posts of the Burmesse army directly opposite atop strategic hills. I tried talking the armed guards into letting me past, then the officers in the outpost up above. Part of the reason I wished to take the road (despite its absolutely deplorable condition), was because I'd read old articles where people rode (forget the car!) the rode because it simply defied any logic that any engineer could build a road with such a steep gradiant - I've no idea of the nunbers but its STEEP! For some reason just before 5pm I got the go ahead ('be back by 6', I was told) - its a great sense of freedom to be riding out in such a place under such conditions. Passed a couple of control points - its very much military with arms flag you down, tell you to stop your bike & get off; ask for i/d, where you are heading, search you & the bike.......Eventually you get the officer in charge & chat your way to be let go further. A great ride; must explore some more.

I spoke of the Palong tribe - these guys (2000 of them) fled into Thailand from Burma in 1984; they are the only Palong in Thailand. It is absolutely MAGIC to see them working the fields in their traditional hand-woven attire - fantastic full-length red dresses, very colourful short cut jackets embroided with silver & tassels, belts of silver & other natural fibres...... They dont speak any english - the only phrase they seemed to know was: "I love you" (with lots of giggling) which was fine from the younger girls but not so flattering from the occassional older woman with missing teeth a mouth stained from betel-nut!

I had to take Myriama back the next day.......she has a rare touch; within minutes Myriama was hand in hand with one younger Palong, with her other arm around an older woman as we strolled off through the village to the home of the younger girl's grandparents (aged 82 & 84) for Myriama to buy some jackets.

Time to go

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13/03/2010 - NATIONAL ELEPHANTS DAY Publié le Samedi 13 Mars 2010 à 08:28:00

Just back from lunch with 100 odd elephants!

National Elephant Day here. For Buddhists -Thailand is 95% buddhist - the elephant ranks second only to humans in the order of things. A veritable feast for the elephants - MASSIVE bamboo tables are laid out & ladened with literally tons of bananas, watermellons, sugar-cane..... the elephants, their blue-clad mahouts atop, assemble at the table in a most orderly fashion to create a most organnised formal affair. 

The elephants pass their weeks away entertaining tourists - its a good show, in fact, with the elephants playing soccer, darts (against a team selected at random from the spectators), showing their strength with logging tasks for which they were originally used in Thailand, even painting canvasses some that sell for tens of thousands of dollars. The concept of an elephant having a long memory can clearly be seen in the art - the  ''painters' have clear styles that are readily identifiable in their work.




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