Recollections of tudong walk in Thailand
Some memories from a tudong walk in Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son province, northern Thailand, in December 2006:
… Walking up the mountain and down again, overlooking the hilly area of Pai ahead of us, we arrived at a village of the Karen hill-tribe quite exhausted, having covered about 25 km that day. Fortunately there was a small forest monastery with some monks from the north-east in this village, and the following day one of them invited me to go and have a look at the waterfall nearby. A group of young Karen boys tagged along behind the two monks, the Phra Farang (Western monk) being an exciting new arrival in this village off the beaten track which would regularly get cut off from the tarmac road during the rainy season.
The waterfall was quite nice, we had to wade through the stream and jump from stone to stone in order to reach it. The boys jumped into the pools and splashed cool water over themselves to escape the midday heat. Then they offered us the mandarines to eat and they also helped themselves – they tasted sweet and delicious. On the way to the waterfall we had passed an orchard of mandarines and the boys picked a lot of the fruits which they put inside a bag – my bag, which they had offered to carry for me, having been trained as good temple boys by the local monks. On the way back, feeling refreshed, the boys were cheerful and playful. As we passed that orchard again, I asked them about the owner, assuming it was someone from their village. They said, “No, the owner is from the next village, that is the Liso hill-tribe. He was here last week patrolling his property with a shotgun, and he threatened to shoot at anybody stealing his fruit!” They laughed at it as if they had told a joke, but I felt a bit uneasy about the few remaining mandarines … still inside my bag.
Shooting people here, close to the Burmese border, was not that uncommon. There were couriers carrying heroin and amphetamines to be sold in Thailand, and the drug dealers were targeted just around that time during the notorious War on Drugs which allowed shooting any suspects as a free-for-all. We were told that anyone possessing a mobile phone and a good map of the area would be seen as a potential courier. And human life does not count that much in this part of the world, even if carrying a foreign passport.
Continuing our walk further towards Wiang Haeng, we had to pass through a forested hilly area with few villages and only a bumpy dirt road used mainly by motorcycles. There were pine trees growing here because we were quite high up in the mountains. The temperatures at night could drop down to just above 0° Celsius. Finally, as it was already getting dark, we found a Liso village and put up our umbrella tents among the trees nearby. As expected, I did not get much sleep that night, having only my ordinary robe plus my sanghati, the double-layer robe, to use as a blanket. As I was spreading my mat on the ground, I did not see much in the dark, but as I got up in the morning, picking up my bag which was wet from the dew, I noticed some little holes in it: I have unwittingly placed it on a termite nest and they started nibbling on it.
Around 6 AM, shivering with the cold, we walked towards the poor-looking village and past the school which had the appearance of a cow shed. This place really looked like it has never seen any Buddhist monks before. The hill-tribes were not originally Buddhist, but with the development programs of the Thai government reaching out to them, they have been partially converted to Buddhism (but more recently the aggressive campaigns of the foreign Christian missionaries have had a noticeable impact here).
We walked between the bamboo houses, carefully treading in the mud trying to avoid pig excrement, while there was smoke to be seen rising from the dwellings, obviously a sign of some food being cooked. Then a Liso woman opened the door of her house and stared at us for a while in surprise. Offering food to the monks on alms-round was not part of her daily routine. But she would have seen Thai people in the town doing it, perhaps at the market where she sometimes went to sell vegetables and buy a few necessary things. Today was her chance to make merit just like the town-dwellers do every day, and not only that, the monks in front of her house were white Westerners! Strangely, the roles were reversed on this occasion: Instead of seeing the Farangs merely as wealthy tourists, a potential source of income for her, she was in a position to provide them with a meal to sustain their physical existence for a day. That gave her a sense of worth and dignity she may never have experienced before in her underprivileged backward life up in these hills. It was the shaven heads, yellow robes and bowls in the hands of these Farangs that made the difference… and the bare feet.
She called out something excitedly towards us in her language, being older she probably never had a chance to learn Thai. Then she made a gesture of putting some food into her mouth, smiled and ran inside her house. After a minute or two, she came out with a pot of hot water and some packets of popular Mama instant noodle soup, sold in the market. We stood there and opened the lids of our bowls. She paused for a moment, not sure how to do this for the first time, and then she simply poured the hot water into our metal bowls. She took a packet of Mama noodles, tore the plastic wrapping open, emptied the bag into the almsbowl, and then threw the plastic inside as well (for good luck?). Hungry monks are grateful for any kind of offering, and we also got some steaming hot rice with a bit of cooked pumpkin from another house. We chanted a blessing in Pali language, and they were no doubt assured that the local deities and spirits will continue to protect them from all dangers. Or were those white men dressed in robes who emerged from the forest unannounced also some kind of ghost? Feeding them should work best in any case…
Kiṃkusalagavesī anuttaraṃ santivarapadaṃ pariyesamāno... (MN 26)
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