slice-of-thai.com Journal 2/15/2003-2/26/2003: Chiang Khong and Nan Province

This is an entry from my travel journals about Thailand and Laos.

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15-16 Feb 2003

Whew, back in Thailand. Specifically in the border town of Chiang Khong, across from Huai Xai in Lao. Suddenly I can read a lot more of the signs, and there are people selling smoothies and food other than just noodle soup and Larb! I catch myself several times worrying about when the power will go off.

Leaving Thai immigration on the evening of the 14th I have the unusual luxury of not being in a hurry, compared to the others scurrying off to catch the last bus to Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, etc. As I walk up the pier road I am touted by four different people from four different business for the disgusting guesthouses located right there. I have rarely seen a case where the guesthouse near the transportation is any good. I casually ignore them and walk 1km down the road to the Bamboo Riverside guesthouse recommended by a lady in Pakbeng, Lao.

Chiang Khong, like Pakbeng and other towns, is primarily a place where people arrive in the evening and leave on their transport the next morning, but I found it so relaxing (and civilized, after a month in Lao) that I stayed here for 3 nights.

Although Chiang Khong is just a small paved town along the Mekong with some dust and big buildings, the Thai owners of the Bamboo Riverside have created a little tree-full oasis along the shore. Most rooms are just triangle-shaped bamboo huts with a mattress, skeeter net, and fan. Some rooms, like the one I splurged for, are bamboo and wood and, unlike 99% of the bamboo/wood rooms you'll find in Thailand, actually _are_ built well enough to justify the fact that there is no skeeter net over the bed. In another earth-shattering innovation, they laid out their little in-room bathrooms such that the shower head, which just sprays on the bathroom floor as everwhere else in Thailand, does not spray directly on the toilet. It's like I was in heaven!

The place is just a mecca for chilling, with hammocks strung everywhere. There's a big deck overlooking the river with reclining lawn chairs. It's made out of concrete with inlaid curved pieces of mirror, and is covered with a curtain of cool curving vines which hang over it from tall trees above.

Even more significantly, as a testament to the good taste of the proprietors, there is no TV, VCR, VCD, DVD, or radio anywhere in the establishment.

There is an all-wooden deck with tables where they have their restaurant, which serves good Thai food but oddly also serves Mexican food. "Best Quesadillas This Side of the Border," the sign reads. The lady of the house apparently learned to make the mexican foods from a guest and imports cheddar from Bangkok. She also bakes delicious whole wheat bread herself every morning, and it is gone by noon.

The man of the house is this eccentric hippie-ish Thai who plays jazz, blues, and Thai folk guitar, and likes to make proclamations in his very good English to all the diners present. Each night when the kitchen closes and it is time for last orders, he holds up the kitchen hours sign and makes some joke about how he wants to see his wife in bed, or stay healthy, etc. He really reminded me of Tommy from the Happy Trails guesthouse in Pak Chong in northeast Thailand, except that this guy seems to have his act together quite a bit better.

Their 20-something daughter, who married a German man and normally lives in Germany where she finds it very boring, was visiting her folks and from the guests' perspective was just another staff member. Moody and indifferent with the guests, she came off to most of the overnight patrons as a spoiled brat. She was a lot more friendly to guests who stayed longer but definitely still had an uncharacteristic chip on her shoulder.

On the 15th I made the first draft of my scam sign and handed some out to tourists on the street. The tourists were always initially skeptical that I was selling them something or trying to convert them to the Church of Appliantology or something, but then they always became extremely, extremely grateful when they found out what I was doing. I hope at least some of the copies made it to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.

One thing that makes Bamboo Riverside a good place is that the staff do not sell boat tickets or visas. However even at this place I had to edit out a reference to one of the scamming agencies, Ann Tours, their friend, in order to get them to hang my sign in their place! I just removed all the company names since they all do it (it was mentioned in the scam sign because Ann Tours is the agency mentioned in the Lonely Planet as being reputable, and somebody's got to counteract the Lonely Planet Dogma).

Oddly enough, I saw Alison, with whom I had traveled from Luang Prabang to Meuang Ngoi. It is surprisingly common to meet people again as you slosh around the rivers that flow around the tourist track.

When I first arrived and tried to ask about a room in Thai, I got a most odd response. The girl didn't quite know what to do and ran back to the other staff members. I assumed I must have really botched whatever I said. I later figured out this is because most of the staff consists of barely educated Lao aliens/refugees who speak very little Thai. The owner later told me the girl had run to her and said they need help because there is a "kon thai naa farang"—Thai person with a farang face. Hm. So then out came the owners' daughter and she wouldn't talk to me about the rooms in Thai either because she wanted to practice her English.

Inbetween slacking in hammocks and sleeping in I wandered around town past the paved roads to an area where Lao immigrants (legal or otherwise) lived in shanty houses and grew vegetables on the Mekong shore just like they do in Luang Prabang. They didn't have much but they seemed pretty happy to be there.

The 16th was Makha Pucha Day, a major Buddhist holiday that somehow relates to the first sermon the Buddha gave to a bunch of monks to explain to them how Buddhism works. On this day, the monks walk around the temple 3 times while the lay people follow them, carrying incense sticks and flower garlands.

The most remarkable thing about this ceremony is that, unlike I've ever seen in Bangkok, as I watched it, nobody bothered me. They didn't try to bring me into the ceremony or get me to "make merit" by buying some gold leaf or incense or something. In contrast to the exclusionary behavior of the wedding party and others in Phongsali, I actually found this quite nice.

One night, the Bamboo Riverside guesthouse guy told me he was going to "jam" with his friends at the "TP Bar," the local reggae joint (where you can see a wiry Thai man with 3 foot long dreads, quite a sight). His daughter seems to spend a lot of time here too. It was quite an event. First, they sat at the table and made sure that they were suitably drunk. "It helps my playing," he says. The others, most of whom only speak Thai, told me he can't play worth crap and the booze actually helps them to listen to him.

Finally they sat on mats on the floor, deeper into the bar, and got out 6 guitars. The guesthouse guy and in particular one of his friends, who sells beads, leather gear and cowboy stuff on a stand right outside the TP Bar, were surprisingly good. The others tried to follow with the chords they had learned. They sung jazz and rock and Thai folks songs for hours. Now I got to hear Bob Dylan sung with a Thai accent! In a flashback of hippie-ism which in my life I have only ever seen on TV shows, the guesthouse guy's daughter grabbed a can of sand/beads and provided rythmic accompaniment by shaking it to the beat.

The TP Bar is quite an establishment, also focused around the art of doing nothing in particular for a long time. Part of the decor are these 4-foot high, stalagtite-like pillars of wax which they created by never cleaning the wax out of the candelabra over the course of many years. In addition to the obvious Bob Marley posters and requisite slanty shelves of cassette tapes, there were bizarre leather artifacts from all over the place, bongs, tin whistles, and a didjeridoo, the long, Australian pipe instrument played with the mouth and some tricky nose breathing.

One Dutch (?) guy who checked into the Bamboo Riverside about the same time as me had been there before. Everyone in town recognized him. He's the one who brought the didjeridoo to the TP bar. Dread-locked himself with drawstring pants and all the hippie trimmings, bug-eyed and fueled by a lifetime supply of narcotics generated by his own body, he's been bumming his way around the world for the last 10 years and will likely do so for decades more. This guy is way beyond any level of adventure I will ever aspire to. Although it is technically illegal, he spent a month bumming with the Aborigines in Australia where they taught him to play the instrument. Frequently he will use his English skills to get him to the next traveling spot; one time he even set up a whole English school with paying customers coming from miles around, even though he had never taught before. When he's really down for money, or just bored, he gets out of the rut by scamming some Europen property insurance company by telling them that his camera was stolen, etc and collecting a few hundred bucks. He says he just keeps moving from company to company and they never figure it out.

17 Feb 2003

Now I wanted to visit Nan province in Thailand, a remote place nearby to Chiang Khong with some national parks and only 10 pages in the Lonely Planet.

So I get a bus to Chiang Kham and then hop on the bus, the one and only bus per day, that takes the northern route into Nan province.

Another bus, another adventure. This "air-con" bus has 50 seats, and when I stepped on there were about 55 passengers from earlier stops, including some in the aisles, and no seats. As I stood, and tried to squat in the aisle for the first hour or two of the trip, they just kept piling on more and more people until there were 76 people on the bus. I was stuck in the aisle where our bodies were compressed against each other. There were about 20 people in front of me and I could not see out in any direction. No air came from any direction and the heat was punishing. As always the Thais showed not the slightest sign of complaint. This was the first Thai or Lao vehicle of any kind where I have ever, ever seen the driver tell some folks on the road that it was "full." That should say something about the space available.

Then, properly loaded for travel Thai style, we started heading up the 100km or so of windy mountain roads that lead into the province. The bus was barely able to handle 50 people, and at 76 plus cargo it literally went up the hill slower than walking speed. Which is good I suppose, because the Lonely Planet warns "get a window seat as there's usually lots of motion sickness." Even moreso than the Phongsali bounce, I felt like the trip was some sort of Buddhist test of my patience, and I was sure of this as the baby right behind me started to cry at full volume and did not stop until the baby got off 6 hours later. All I could do was stand and be thankful that I did not have to piss.

After several eternities we arrived in Nan province and enough people filed out for earlier stops, plus one extremely generous Thai saved a seat for me, so that I had a place to sit for the last 30 minutes of the trip! At the bus station we farangs were swept away by samlor touts from the mostly crappy Nan guesthouse, the only one of the 3 guesthouses anywhere near town, and the adventure was over.

Nan is a small Thai city, like maybe 6 copies of Chiang Khong arranged in a grid pattern, but it seemed like New York to me after being in Laos. It had plenty of everything, night markets, an amazingly good Vegan Thai place, and all my favorite Thai desserts for which I had been pining for a month.

My first task was to note what a dump the town was and rent a motorbike. Reaching the natural features of Nan is inconvenient at best by public transport.

18-21 Feb 2003

On the 18th, after a lazy start I rode my motorbike nearly all day across the province to Doi Phu Ka national park. It was so enjoyable having the freedom to stop whenever and not being crammed in some damn bus. The roads were very steep and windy but there was very little traffic and beautiful views everywhere, passing through sparse villages separated by endless hills. I headed to another place called Bamboo Huts, the one and only guesthouse around the park, located at about 1600m altitude in a little Lua village right next to the park boundary.

Bamboo Huts is just a set of 6-8 small huts raised off the ground with mattresses, and in a few cases a light. Most of the huts have a spectacular view down to endless hills. There is a bathroom hut and a main house with a deck and a dinner table and the staff serves you breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The owner, who calls himself William, has extremely good English, and it happens that he is also the mayor of that village and 12 other villages in the area, just on the edge of the national park. If you feel so inclined, he (or other people he always calls his "uncle" even though they are much younger) takes you on 2-4 day treks to see waterfalls, caves, and tropical forests (there is a ton of deforestation in this area so it's actually a bit hard to find first-growth forest). In the last few years, this village has been "developed" by the Thai government quite a bit and there is now a concrete road leading almost all the way through it, as well as 24 hour electricity from the grid and running water from silos.

Possibly the most amazing thing about this guesthouse is that I never saw a single mosquito the 4 mornings and nights I was there. This is perhaps due to the altitude.

At this guesthouse you can just chill out all day in your hut, and I and many other guests took full advantage of this. There were 2 French families with 1 kid each who had been staying for the week since the kids finally had someone to play and speak with. There was a pack of Dutch and some Canadians coming through.

The Dutch and Canadians took a 2 night 1 day trek and arrived back the next day seemingly near to death, or at least near to killing the guides, with hunger and heat exhaustion. In addition to being just a little more hot and exposed than described, the trail back up the second day had been washed away by a recent rain and the 2 guides had to bushwack a trail with their 1 machete. The customers reported rarely seeing the guides as they were always far ahead. Hm. The hiking continued long past the expected return time and they didn't bring lunch. The trek did have one nice feature: on the first day they entered a cave, and popped out the cave on the other side of the mountain 45 minutes later! This saved them about a 3 hour climb up that mountain.

The Lua villagers have their own language, and as far as I could tell, William's children spoke Lua and only a little Thai. So I got a similar response as in the Bamboo Riverside place in Chiang Khong.

On a few evenings, someone from the place built a campfire in a little square pit on the property surrounded by benches. It was very relaxing to just chill out around the fire and get more info on the place from William.

One evening, a 4x4 SUV pulled up labeled "Upper Nan Valley Watershed Project." Great, another "project." Out piled a driver, a Thai man who was the head of the national park, and the requisite whitey, in this case an American "consultant" hired from a Malaysian company to "evaluate" the "park situation" to come up with a "plan" to "aid" future "development" of the area.

It turns out, Thailand declared this National Park just a few years ago, and without consulting anyone chose park boundaries such that some existing villages were now entirely inside the park, and some of William's villages were partially inside the park. As soon as they heard of it, the villagers revolted, expecting the Thai army to show up any day to evict them (since it is technically illegal for people to live in any National Park, and certainly illegal for them to cut down more trees as they do to make space for crops so they can survive). At no point has the Thai government done anything to directly address this issue. Instead, they hire an endless series of foreign consultants who roll in on their $50,000 SUVs on visits, collecting data, making studies, speaking in arrogant euphamisms, and producing endless documents, but never actually helping anything.

This evening was the 10th time William had seen such a consultant visit his guesthouse. Interestingly, although William was fluent in English he only spoke in Thai to the park director. I asked the consultant, who I think was dumb enough that he actually thought he was helping, what actual output his work will have. Will his organization compensate the villagers for land they can no longer farm? No. Will it assist in building roads or schools there? No. Will it help relocate the villagers? No. He's making a plan for the future development of the area, you see.

William himself used to work for the National Park, when it was run by a previous and, in his opinion, much better boss. This earlier boss recognized the basic conflict between the park charter and the existing villages, and actively worked to help the rather poor villages by using government money to provide them with blankets, use of a truck so they could get supplies to/from market, etc. This boss was much too competent so they "promoted" him to a better job overseeing Khao Sok national forest in the south. The new boss was more concerned with enforcing the letter of the law, and as a ranger, William found that his primary duty became to arrest his fellow villagers for acts of poaching, etc. which he did not consider criminal. Now, the National Park hires its rangers from distant districts, and WIlilam takes his guests on treks to sites which lie outside the National Park.

One day I motorbiked up to the National Park itself, and for no reason I can fathom paid the 200 Baht admission fee (the road to the park is a through road so you can just tell them you're going through). I went to the visitor center to discover that the park has been up to some "development" of their own, cutting down trees to build about 20 or 30 diffent housing structures for rent, ranging from tiny bamboo huts to giant condominiums with hot water bathroom and refrigerator to giant rental houses with all the trimmings. At the visitor center I met my consultant friend again, with another consultant and the park headman pouring over maps and documents for their important future plans.

I attempted to get a topo map of the park but nobody on staff seemed to know what one was. When I finally explained it I was led to a 1:100,000 topo map on a museum poster where all the contour lines for the area had been covered up with huge stickers saying "visitor center," "waterfall," etc. I finally had to pull some teeth and got some scribbly trail maps, in Thai, revealing to me that there was in fact only one 4km trail that they knew of in the whole park.

So I just ended up walking 1.2km down this interpretive trail they had built, which led me through an evergreen Pine forest (hmm familiar!) to some rare palms, and the famous Chomphu Phu Kha tree that gives the park its name. However the tree had no flowers today. Then I motorbiked along the road to other touristy points, including another Chomphu Phu Kha tree which did have one flower, and the roughly 1800m road summit for a pretty amazing view.

The museum posters, and the signs along the interpretive trail, stress endlessly the importance of not cutting down the few remaining trees, both to preseve endangered plants and animals and to preserve the watershed. This is certainly good, but like a Lao news report it intentionally leaves out critical aspects of the story. They never mention the people who live inside the park and merely refer to their activities with the euphamism "encroachment agriculture."

I met a family visiting by car from Nakhon Si Thammarat in the south. They were just tickled pink that I could speak Thai. As always, I ended up with their unmarried 30-something daughter's cell phone number which I should be sure to call if I visit the region.

After the view, I dropped down at least 1000m to the town of Baw Gleua where they manufacture salt from a well that reaches into deep reserves of seawater caught in the rocks a zillion years ago when there used to be an ocean here and the plates had not yet collided. They were boiling up some of the water in two huge cauldrons. I asked them how much that salt would fetch after it was done with the process, which clearly was going to take at least a day. They said 100 Baht. Hmm.

One day I hiked down to the river for a swim, accompanied by the guesthouse puppies who also often go on treks with the customers.

I spent a whole afternoon one day playing UNO.

One day, another 4WD pulled up, and it was this odd mix of folks from southern Thailand whom William instantly recognized. One of them was this loud, confident American woman who is the most fluent non-native Thai speaker I have ever met. She has not only mastered the words, slang, and tone of Thai (well except this one vowel) but she had also mastered the shrill, piercing scowl voice that about half of all Thai wives use to control their henpecked husbands. Which was interesting because when she spoke English her voice was relatively soft and sweet.

She's been in Thailand for 30 years starting with a Peace Corps session, and now runs her own farang resort in Surat Thani. Her American friend with pretty good Thai has been volunteering to teach groups of Thai kids about conservation for many years. I never quite figured out if the 2 Thai guys with them were family or not. One of them lived in Northern Thailand.

Apparently William used to work in southern Thailand for this woman, and she claims credit for giving him most of his English skills, in addition to nick-naming his son (some goofy name like Eddie or something).

The whole group spent the evening eating the tons of food they had brought, and sipping three different types of whisky from the collection of 5 or 6 giant jugs of whisky they brought with them. The ladies were anxious to take off on a 3 day 2 night trek with William that morning, whereas the men spent most of the evening and a good chunk of the next day working on the whisky and staying behind. I bummed some food off of them and tried to follow their full-speed conversation. Most of it seemed to consist of the northern Thailand guy trying to convince William that he should expand his business and the lady countering that it's really hard to find, train, and retain qualified guides.

One day there was a Thai Boy Scout campfire at the school, a few minute walk away. It was basically completely inaccessible to us—I find Boy Scout campfires bizarre and inaccessible when they are in English, and add in the Thai, the endless inside jokes, and the horrible sound system rendering every word unintelligible, and it was just one big mystery. One thing for sure, the huge audience of girls who sat on one side were easy to please. Nomatter what the boys did or said or sung they would swoon and scream.

22 Feb 2003

With regrets I motorbiked out of there back to "civilization." I stopped at Silaphet waterfall, which is supposed to be the most beautiful one around. On arrival I saw food vendors and a lot of Thais playing around a tributary that sort of slid down a few levels of rock, but no waterfall. Turns out that you can only actually see the waterfall if you scramble up rocks and river crossings somewhere between 2 and 7 hours from the parking lot! Then I visited another waterfall called Tad Luang that was much nicer and slightly less crowded. There was a third waterfall which everyone told me was not worth it because it was "not developed," and now I kind of wish I had gone to that one too.

On motorbike trips like this, being able to ask people where places are in Thai and understand maybe the first 2 or 3 words of the answer is definitely a plus. I only get screwed over with "but" answers, as in, "Yes you can go that way, but [understanding stops here], giant dinosaurs will eat you and your bike if you do."

Back to Nan, I get another crappy room at the Nan guesthouse, a room which turned out to have even more skeeters than the one in Udomxai. I kept the ceiling fan on full blast all night to keep the damn things off me. When I got up the next day and touched my backpack, hundreds of the bastards rose like bats from a cave in in some horror movie. The guesthouse owner excused this, and the fact that they have western-style toilets with no toilet seats, by saying the landord was about to evict them anyway and now that there are openings, I should get a room in their other building which they own. So I switched to an expensive room in the other building, a screened paradise with its own hot shower and toilet you can actually sit on. I hope that landlord hurries up.

23 Feb 2003

Today I wanted to find the mythical Mabri or Pii Dtong Luang, a rare, formerly nomadic tribe of whom there are only about 500 left in Thailand and probably in the world. Their Thai name means "spirits of the yellow banana leaf," and they used to be hunter-gatherers who would arrive in a place, build huts out of banana leaves and just live off whatever was available nearby in the forest. In a few months when the banana leaf huts got old and turned yellow, and the supply of nearby foods dwindled, they would move on.

Now of course, all the forests are gone, and the few remaining tribespeople now build permanent huts and survive by doing hard menial work for other tribes, such as Hmong, for little or no payment.

This is a case where my Thai really came in handy. I just kept asking a bunch of people until I got the name of some town where they might be, along with vague directions and an idea for something I could bring as a gift in exchange for visiting them. I took off from Nan on my motorbike early in the morning and stopped every once and a while. I stopped to get breakfast, purchase my gift of raw pork meat (quite a bit more useful to them than, say, a 2003 Above San Francisco calendar), get gas, and at each stop I would get more accurate information about where this town is. The correct route turned out to be 30km out of Nan on a paved country highway, then 7km down a steep little paved side road leading to a Hmong village, then 2km of utter hell trying to ride my motorbike on the worst dirt road I have ever been on, with 4-5 inches of pure loose dust on top of a hard uneven surface sliding my motorbike back and forth, threatening to topple (the bike actually fell sideways once but this time I didn't burn myself), where I also realized that the front brake on my motorbike was in fact sticking on me, followed by victory!

I reached the Pii Dtong Luang village at exactly the same time as yet another 4WD sport utility vehicle.

This time, it wasn't the U.N.—it was a Christian Missionary! (Aaaah!) It was Sunday morning, and the Dtong Luang kids were gathered under the main shade structure listening to a well-clothed Thai-looking man, who turned out to be a Hmong from the nextdoor village who has basically taken the Dtong Luang people under his wing. When the Missionary arrived, the Hmong man treated him as an honored guest. The German missionary, trained in American missionary schools, was dressed impeccably, in a button down dress shirt and slacks, his self-standing white hair impeccably combed to absolute symmetry. He arrived with his wife and teenage daughter, who wore a "Jesus Saves" T-Shirt. He had visited this village a few months ago and his family had just moved from Phrae province to Nan province.

The man turned out to be fluent not only in German and English but also Thai and, amazingly, the Dtong Luang language. He's probably one of 3 or 4 whities in the world who know it. He has lived in Thailand for at least 10 years, most of it in the other Dtong Luang settlement in Phrae province. The Hmong man invited him to address the children, and over the next 10 minutes he told the Christian creation story in Dtong Luang. The children were mostly bored and yawned a bit, just like Christian churches in America! When he noticed them losing attention he would increase the sensationalism of his story, and his tone of voice, and their eyes would pop right back to him. The only bits I did understand were the supporting words at the end in Thai, where he stressed that these beings he's talking about, God and Jesus, are not the same as shamans or spirit doctors. He passed out pictures of the kids he had taken on his last visit (the pictures that is :). Then, like the Pope passing around the corner he got back into his 4WD and took off to visit the Hmong village about 1km away. A bunch of the Dtong Luang kids piled in their truck and went with him.

It's still not clear to me what the Dtong Luang, or the Hmong for that matter, think of the missionaries. The Dtong Luang are not Buddhist and have no particular religion that anyone knows about beyond belief in various forms of spiritual healing. The Dtong Luang have no experience with saving money or buying anything and still rely on the generosity of others. All of their clothes are either donated by a Thai government project designed to "introduce" them into modern society, or by Christian missionaries. The Dtong Luang in this village drive a black pickup truck which is donated by another Christian in Chiang Mai. I believe the Hmong man is also a Christian and was about to give the kids a sermon himself, but I'm not sure.

The Hmong man is building a special building in his own Hmong village which will serve as a lunch room and study center, which will allow the Dtong Luang kids to stay at the Hmong village all day and, for the first time in the history of the Dtong Luang, go to school. He reports having a little trouble getting the concept across to the Dtong Luang parents: when he tells them the kids can eat or even stay there, they assume they will come too! A Christian from the University of San Francisco has delivered 4 computers to be used when that building is complete. The Hmong man has also opened a bank account for the Dtong Luang and is encouraging them to deposit money for savings. When they want to make a withdrawl, they must get an OK from the Dtong Luang headman and him. This, he hopes, will encourage them to save up so they can buy capital equipment for themselves. He insisted repeatedly that the Dtong Luang _do_ know how to make money, and work hard, but don't know how to save it. After one month of this they have alreadly amassed 3000 B in their account.

Later that afternoon I talked to the Dtong Luang headman in Thai and although I only understood some of what he said, it sounds like most village people are confused about all the Christian preaching but appreciative of the donations.

I tagged/bummed along with the missionary to the Hmong village where we visited the Hmong man's house. This man was the Hmong headman until he recently "retired." His house is downright luxurious by village standards—an all wood, two-story house with electricity, an outhouse with a concrete floor, a washing machine, and TV! His family served the missionary's family (and me, by bum extension) lunch while the missionary and the Hmong discussed the Dtong Luang in various languages. The Hmong man mentioned he had a computer but hadn't figured out how to work it. We went upstairs to see his rather modern 128MB Pentium class machine. The machine had a good Thai-English dictionary which he didn't even know about. I also showed him Microsoft Excel and a few other programs he didn't realize were on his machine, and we discussed the kinds of software he might want to get to help the kids in school. I'm glad I was of some use rather than just leeching food and information off of him. The missionary and I told him about various measures he should take to protect the new computers from dust, when they arrive, and about how he would have to decide whether or not to connect them to the Internet.

I talked to the German missionary more about his deal. Apparently he had spent some number of years at another Dtong Luang settlement in Phrae, a settlement which was established 30 years ago by an American missionary. The German missionary said the American is a bit of an imposing character, and he fit in perfectly with the Dtong Luang's totally obedient nature. Over 30 years he helped contact the Thai government to get the Dtong Luang things like Thai citizenship (and the associated rights to public infrastructure and legal remedy against being ripped off by other hill tribes), and in general "found work" for the Dtong Luang. If this sounds a bit frightening, it should be; he basically took control of the place. The Thai government named the village after the American missionary as a joke and the name stuck. The German missionary expressed his frustration that the American missionary has spent most of his decades controlling them and has yet to actually build a church or explain the Gospel in any significant detail to them. One might even conclude that proselytizing was not the American missionary's main concern. Apparently at some point the Dtong Luang got frustrated with him and they all left, but over the last few years they've all been coming back. The German missionary told me how to get to the other settlement; someday I'd like to check that place out.

12/2005 Update: over the years that this journal entry has been online, I received two cordially worded emails, one apparently from a relative of the American missionary and one from the American missionary himself, saying that there are several inaccuracies in my account and that I am welcome to visit the Phrae settlement. I will certainly take them up on the offer when I can, and I will place an update here on my website after I visit.

After the missionary left I went back to the Dtong Luang village. A french package tour group had arrived in a pickup truck and were getting an English tour from a rather slimy seeming Thai guide from the one tour company in Nan, Fhu travel. The villagers steamed some pork for the french inside a piece of bamboo. I'm not sure but I think it was the pork I had brought that morning :) The other tourists marched around the village and the guide explained stuff to them, but I'm pretty sure a bunch of the stuff he said was wrong. He told them there's still a handful of Dtong Luang living in the woods but when I asked the headman he said there are none left. When they asked if a particular boy in the headman's hut was his son, the headman responded in Thai, "no, it's my wife's kid," as the Dtong Luang reportedly change wives every 6 years or so and the wife takes her kids with her. The guide just simplified it to "no" and the french left, confused.

Right before I left I talked with the headman a bit in his hut. I asked him about the kids going to the Hmong school. He said some might go, but he thinks the Hmong school is not very good, and would rather send the kids to go to school in Nan where the teachers are better. Hmm, maybe the Hmong man is in for a surprise. My guesthouse owner later filled me in that hill tribe kids who demonstrate certain levels of proficiency in their village schools get "scholarships" where they can live, eat, and go to school in Nan for free.

I asked the headman if the Dtong Luang are making and selling anything of their own. He showed me these little wooden smoking pipes they make but said they don't make much on those. He said they had also just started making net purses and bags to sell to the farangs who visit...hmm.

With much trepidation I went back over the hellish 2km of road but didn't fall this time. Overall it was a very satisfying, and lucky, day of unguided Thai travelling.

24-26 Feb 2003

Hung around Nan and wrote all this spam you're getting in your mailbox in the air conditioned comfort of an internet cafe. Watched the daily tides of students roll in and out of the cafe, along with the unstoppable stream of computer viruses they bring from their sticker shops, mp3 disks, and pirated software disks. Watched the odd Swiss man who lives in Nan, and for some reason takes care of the computers, get frustrated each day about the number of viruses his babies have contracted.

Ate dinner at a local Italian restaurant run by a lady who married some "crazy" Swiss guy, lived over there for a while where she learned to cook, and has now moved back. The Swiss guy is back over there, "you know he's crazy a bit." Had a ceasar salad (hey, if they put in raw eggs, it'll be the least of my worries) and an amazingly accurate rendition of Pesto served with a good old tub of American Kraft Parmesan cheese. The lady said she doesn't like the Kraft cheese but can't find a source of fresh Parmesan so I hooked her up with a store I had seen in Bangkok.

Now it's time to go meet a former Thai Temple classmate of mine in Chiang Mai...

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