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Chiangrai's Mountain Communities:
A Way of Life

There are centers here in northern Thailand that allow us to define an otherwise non-specific series of mountains and valleys that to most are an enigma. This is true particularly of Chiangrai and the mountainous area near the Burma border. Seen for decades as a stronghold of opium growing and known for its free wheeling nomadic lifestyle, the area attracts the adventurous and the hearty, but it also attracts those with an aim to help improve the conditions of the mountain people in the area and those who just want a taste of what is still, to most of us, a very remote lifestyle.

village celebration In this article, we take a look at three locations that are representative of the diversity of people and lifestyles in the area. These locations are the three centers of community growth in the northwest part of Chiangrai, and especially for the visitor they offer a definition of the landscape by making it real and vital with people.

The three centers form a triangle on the map, with the Mae Kok River as the base, connecting Baan Thaton and Mae Ai in the northwest with the Karen village of Ruammit on the lower Mae Kok River near Chiangrai. In the north, Baan Thaton and Mae Ai are connected with the mountain community of Mae Salong by a highway that parallels the Burma border.

One of the most startling features that is obvious to people who have had the opportunity to visit the mountains of Chiangrai regularly over a period of years is the rapid change that has taken place. In 1987, for example, when Thailand launched its massive tourist program with Visit Thailand Year, Ruammit was a tiny river village with very little exposure to the outside world. Baan Thaton was still a little heard of hamlet where the people still considered one side of the village of be in Burma and the other to be in Thailand. And, Mae Salong was one of the most remote and one of the most dangerous villages on the Thai - Burma border. All of this began to change by 1990, and now, these three areas are important population centers where life continues to change quickly and where improvements have made the many peoples of the area more affluent and better able to cope with their daily economic and social needs.

family There are various views on the recent development in these areas One is that attempts to brlng the peoples of the areas into the mainstream is essential for continued growth and stability in the North. Another is that ethnic traditions should be left to grow within their own realms without interference from outside. In Chiangrai, however, there seems to be no conflict in either of these areas and cultural integrity and community and economic development have been equally important and exist side by side. This effect is the natural result of the diversity of hilltribes and the rapidly growing population in Chiangrai's mountain areas

The many hilltribes who inhabit the area have long trudged the mountain passes between northern Thailand and their home villages in Burma and China. But, within the last three years larger numbers of these peoples have begun to settle permanently in Chiangrai. There are many reasons for this change, and perhaps the most important is the hilltribe grapevine through which those resident in Thailand pass the word to their people in Burma and China that they do have new opportunities in Thailand and that they are, at the same time, leR with their cultural integrity intact.

selling goods This phenomenon is most apparent in the three centers that are the focus of this article. In Baan Thaton and Mae Al, four hilltribe groups who have always coexisted in hammony in China and Burma now comprise the largest portion of the population in the area. These are the ethnic Chinese, the Lahu, the Lisu and the Akha. In Ruammit, the greater community is Karen, with Lahu, Lisu and Akha in small numbers clustered on the outskirts of the same area. In Mae Salong the predominant group is ethnic Chinese, but surrounding Mae Salong are the These are mainly the Lahu, Lisu and Akha but also the Yao, the tribal Shan and the Lawa.

The Baan Thaton Mae Ai area is one of the largest population growth centers in the North. Here, in a traditional Shan area, the main growth group is the Lahu. Originally from China and speaking a Tibeto Burman language, the Lahu in northern Thailand are the one group who has embraced the mainstream and they are a good example of the willingness of hilltribes to become part of the larger society while still retaining their village and family culture. In the Baan Thaton - Mae Ai area, the Lisu and Ahha too live side by side with the Shan and the Lahu, and both share the Lahu Tibeto Burman linguistic roots.

sitting outside house From Baan Thaton to Mae Salong a new phenomenon has grown up. This is the settlement of areas along Highway 1234, which connects these two towns and runs parallel to the Burma border. Most settlements along this road is Lahu and Lisu, with periodic Chinese villages that are longer-established, making this entire stretch a growing population center with plenty of land for farming on both sides.

In Mae Salong where the oldest Chinese community lives, the congregation of thirteen different hilltribes in the surrounding area makes this the largest settlement and the most important mountain center in Chiangrai. Here too the largest hill tribe groups are the Lahu, Lisu and Akha. and here too these three groups live close to each other on the manyny hilltopss around Mae Salong. The Chinese village serves as the main trade and communications center, and all the hilltribes come to the village for essential matters regarding trade, Iand allocation, and farming. The hilltribe settlements around Mae Salong are also growing and new smaller centers are developing. No where in all of northern Thailand is there a better example of mountain communities and their social and economic interactions than in the area between Baan Thaton and Mae Salong.

The Karen village of Ruammit on the Mae Kok River is as distinct from Baan Thaton and Mae Salong as any mountain countryside locale can be. An old village with a tradition of elephant training, forestry, and hunting Ruammit is pure Karen and retains the Karen flavor and traditions in this otherwise Thai, Ahha, Lisu and Lahu area. Ruammit has become one of the major tourist attractions on the Mae Kok River and this is partially responsible for its growth. The other factor is the general population increase that is taking place all over Chiangrai Province. Ruammit is a one-hour boat ride from Chiangrai City and boats depart dialy from the Chiangrai pier. Ruammit is also a favorite stop to ride elephants on the Baan Thaton-Chiangrai river boat journey.

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