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Herbs and Hill Tribes

The North of Thailand is well known for the distinct ethnic groups, the Hill-tribes, who live there, still maintaining their own cultural identities. These tribes-people are recent migrants to Thailand having only arrived a little over 100 years ago from China, by various routes and for different reasons. Despite the clear differences between the tribes, their dress, speech, rituals and attitudes, they share a rich tradition of herbal healing.

Their herbs are not well known outside of their communities, having unfamiliar sounding names and mostly being plants of the forest undergrowth, with no food uses recorded. Although these are wild plants many of the villages now have their own herbal gardens where the herbs are raised in containers often at the house of the village shaman. The hill-tribes believe that sickness has spiritual origins, caused by malevolent spirits or by angering the shades of their ancestors, and may require an elaborate sacrifice, of a pig or a chicken, as an integral part of the cure.

The Hmong, second largest of the tribes in Thailand, are renowned for their fierce independence and it is perhaps not surprising that they have resisted modern medicine for so long. They are also industrious people and their farms are productive and commercially successful. This success has brought them closer to mainstream Thai society than the other tribes and now they selectively absorb such elements of the modern world as can usefully help their enterprises without compromising their independence.

They have herbal cures for most illnesses and some examples are given. For stomachache or diarrhea the chopped leaves of a plant called Jing Ja are boiled or fried with egg and eaten. The leaves of Toh Sang are chewed as a cure for toothache. To prevent infection of open wounds and also to stop bleeding a poultice of chopped Jor Doh Hao leaves is used. An infusion of the boiled whole plants of Ton Por can be drunk to cure feelings of fever and malaise. To cure impotence or infertility, drink an infusion of boiled Gor Ler Saeng leaves.

The Yao are quite a small group, comprising about 8% of the hill-tribe population. They have retained the elements of their Chinese origins more strongly than the other groups and are ruled by a sense of propriety or rightness. They believe that 4 different spirits live in the herbs that they use, but a chicken must be sacrificed for the spirits to reveal and release the healing properties of the herbs.

Pae Lin is infused in boiling water and drunk as a specific for aching joints. For problems of the urinary system a mixture of the leaves of Jan Tai Ja, Bong Sin, Bok Jai Meuy and Goo Jong Meo is infused in boiling water, and the resulting liquid. The last two mentioned of these herbs are used together as an infusion in boiling water to help women who are childless.

The Lisu are numerically the smallest of the hill-tribes, but are outgoing and colorful. They are probably the most recent of the migrant tribes, having arrived from Burma in the 1920s. Their main belief is that of primacy, with the establishment and maintenance of patrilineal clans within the tribe of paramount importance. This being so, the ceremony of marriage and its associated courtship are considered very important and no expense is too great.

Their herbal cu7res are combined with magical spells that must be spoken along with use of the herb itself if the cure is to be effective. Soke Wa is their cure for heat stroke, used applied to the top of the head or rubbed and inhaled. For aching bones, Cher La is dramatically used. A cut is made around the aching area until blood wells up and then a poultice of the chopped leaves is put over the wound. Hoo Sa leaves are boiled with chicken to make a soup for new mothers to help rebuild their strength. Boiled leaves of Tang Hui make an infusion which is a potent blood tonic.

The Lahu people have a basic philosophy that centers on blessings, and they are consequently a religious people with their own gods, though about 30% of them have converted to Christianity. They always hope for a better future and strongly stress unity and equality.

They believe that a healing herb cannot be cultivated and that for full efficacy it must be plucked from the wild, which may have caused problems during their southward migration, as native flora changed. All the parts of Ya Gae Oo, the whole plant of Ya Gae Ton except for the leaves, and the leaves of Mae Je Kai are boiled together to make an infusion to restore a new mother back to strength. Mai Phi Pha is used as a appetizer, while the sap and flowers of Gin Nor Ma are an inedible herbal fumigant.

The Akha seek continuity in their lives, they feel that they are a transition, a sort of channel linking their ancestors and descendents. This cultural continuity, a lodestar in the long migration from the Tibetan Plateau, is now threatened by economic hardships and the tribe finds it hard to retain its identity.

Their use of herbs seems less mixed with magic and the spirit world than it is with the other hill-tribes, altogether a more pragmatic approach. They use the chopped roots and leaves of Kai Yoh and Mayom Manae as an ointment for inflammation. The roots of Udja are mashed with water to help the comatose to recover consciousness by oral application. A boiled infusion of the roots of Ya Oo and Ya Ne ease stomachache, while the chopped leaves of Ya Ga Pa Ya are used to help cuts to heal.

The Karen has the largest population of any of the hill-tribes in Thailand. Their true origins are also hardest to trace historically as they have no remaining ancestral roots left in China. Above all they prize harmony in their lives and try to avoid conflict where possible, yet when their harmony is intruded upon deliberately and continually they will fiercely defend the independence that harmony is intended to provide them.

Karen traditional healing involves using chicken bones to predict whether the illness comes from evil spirits, as this will influence the healing process, and will determine whether a healing ceremony is necessary. Prae Por is used as a cure for heat stroke, the leaves being rubbed between the hands and the vapor inhaled. The roots of Tee Ta Boi are boiled to make an infusion that is used as a cure for diarrhea.

Strange names and strange ceremonies, and the common complaints are simple ones, cuts and bruises, heat stroke, diarrhea, aching joints and childbirth. The tribes-people pay special attention to the health of the vulnerable, children the elderly and mothers at childbirth. The hill-tribe medicines are often mixed with foods to aid their efficacy. By and large the villagers try to maintain happiness within their society, laughter after all being a good medicine. Warm houses, well ventilated by breezes to keep mosquitoes away, and plentiful supplies of clean water are considered basic needs of any hill-tribe village and of course contribute to good health. Their health care is very much derived from pragmatism and wisdom, things that more modern societies have forgotten.

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