Huai Mae Mu Mai, a temporary Lisu settlement near Sop Pong, 1984

Post-website: ; posted May 2020; Text and pictures: Sjon Hauser

Huai Mae Mu Mai, a temporary Lisu settlement near Sop Pong, 1984 by SJON HAUSER    ห้วยแม่หมูใหม่ มิถุนา๒๕๒๗
Excavating the past from old note books, pictures and faded memories + Mae Mu, revisited, March 2020: smoke and smog

Figure 01-Ma Mu: Huai Mae Mu Mai, a clearing in the forest south of Sop Pong. About ten houses had been built there, and 90 Lisus inhabited the settlement in 1984.

Earlier, I had visited a number of hill tribe villages in northern Thailand during an organized “trekking”. But in June 1984, my visit to a small, new Lisu settlement in the middle of lush forest south of Sop Pong (Mae Hong Son Province) was a very different experience.

I was in the company of Wern, a young man from Bangkok, who had finished his studies, and settled in Chiang Mai to work as a trekking guide. Wern had already guided a good number of (mostly foreign) tourists in the Sop Pong area (nowadays better known as Pang Mapha district), so he knew it very well. Of all places around, the new settlement was his favorite. It wasn’t only because it was small, new and hidden in lush jungle, but also because it was home of a very attractive Lisu girl, whom Wern liked very much.
For three days Wern was my private guide and he always responded enthusiastically to my endless list of questions about hill tribe culture and the forest life around us.

I took many photographs during those days: altogether some 70 slides that filled two little cardboard boxes. For years I kept them in the upper floor of my rented wooden house in Chiang Mai, together with piles of newspapers, magazines and books.
One day, I noticed a strange buzzing sound arising from my archives: a colony of termites (white ants) had eaten an extensive labyrinth throughout the piles of newspapers, right into the cardboard boxes where the soft frames of the slides must have been a delicacy for them. Almost half of the frames had been devoured by the tiny creatures, and worse, excretions from their bodies had reacted with the photosensitive emulsions of the slides, resulting in hundreds of purplish, blue and yellow spots and blotches. Many of the slides had been converted into miniatures of modern psychedelic art works. Unfortunately, in these little Pollocks, most of the original pictures had been obliterated.
The slides of the photographs taken at the little Lisu settlement had suffered serious damage from the pest, and I had to discard many of them. What was left, I kept in little plastic bags…and the years passed.
In 2020, my good friend Mimi (1), a young Lisu woman living in Chiang Mai who takes care of the aging Lisu anthropologist Otome Klein-Hutheesing (1), was interested to see pictures of Lisu life in the old days. She scanned a good number of my slides and “shared” them in the social media. A few Lisu people commented enthusiastically.

They informed Mimi that the little settlement I had visited in 1984 was, in fact, Mae Mu village. I was a bit surprised. In 2005, I had visited the Lisu village Mae Mu and it was “to the east of” Sop Pong (Pang Mapha). However, the “new settlement”, when I remember well, was “to the west” of Sop Pong. After we had left the most western part of Sop Pong, Wern had guided me to the head of a forest trail. This trail we followed for 1-1.5 hour and then we arrived at clearings and a dozen of bamboo houses. So the settlement should have been located somewhere between present day Nong Tong and Nong Pha Cham (see Fig. 3), not at the present site of Mae Mu − at least, that is what the map in my mind was telling me.

Figure 02: Mae Mu. Huai Mae Mu Mai, a clearing in the forest south of Sop Pong, June 1984.

I was wrong, as I found out later. When I consulted my diaries from the good old days, including 1984, I received contradictory feedback.
In 1984, I was an enthusiastic reporter who had just settled in Chiang Mai and was doing “fact finding” about nearly everything imaginable in that wonderful, fascinating ‘Kingdom of Thailand’. I made quite elaborate notes about my trips and fact finding missions, and my note books also contained excerpts of interviews with Thai and foreign experts. Fortunately, none of these note books had been devouured by termites over the past forty years.
I had made quite some interesting notes about my visit to the idyllic Lisu forest settlement. Re-reading these notes, and studying some old maps of Mae Hong Son province, it was evident that my memories of these days were not very much twisted by the wear and tear of time; but there had been a good number of ‘mix-ups’ which somehow had led to erroneous interpretations.

My note books revealed, that in June 1984, during my trip with Wern, we had followed a trail into the forest to the south of Sop Pong. Sop Pong was a little ‘Shan’ market place that straddled east – west along Highway 1095 from Pai to Mae Hong Son. The trail head was a little west of Sop Pong. According to the note book: All the way to the new Lisu settlement we followed a stream. It took more than an hour to get to the settlement, which consisted of about ten houses (90 persons, as Wern had informed me). Its name was Huai Mae Mu Mai: ‘New Mae Mu Stream’ Village.
That we had ‘followed a stream’ was apparently erased from my memory.
An old map of the “Mae Hong Son Loop” (2) shows a little stream that most likely was the stream we followed “upstream” in 1984. This stream originates somewhere in the mountains south of the (Lahu) village Dong Mafai and on its way in northern direction touches the macadam road from Dong Mafai to Sop Pong/Pang Mapha (where there is a wide bend in this road). Near Sop Pong the stream crosses Highway 1095 and then empties into the Lang, a larger stream and major tributary of the Pai River (see Figure 3). It is nearly sure that this was the stream we had followed in 1984.

Where this stream touches upon the large bend/kink in the “road” to Dong Mafai, the present day village of Mae Mu is situated. And it has been there since about 1960 – though not shown on my old GT-Rider map. Having a look at the map, it is clear that following the stream upstream from “west of Sop Pong”, a stroll of just some five kilometres would have brought us to Mae Mu.
But that is not how I got to Mae Mu in 2005, when I rode a motorbike to a Lahu friend who lived in Dong Mafai. To get to Dong Mafai I followed a dirt road / macadam that had its head at Highway 1095 just where one enters Sop Pong when arriving from Pai – so rather at the east side of Sop Pong. Following the bumpy road for about 5-6 km, I passed the Lisu village of Mae Mu, where I made some pictures of the ritually dumped clothes at its entrance. Another 4 km brought me to Dong Mafai. It is understandable that on the “map in my mind” Mae Mu was “a world apart” from the settlement I had visited on a trek in 1984.

Figure 03-Mae Mu Mai-1984. This map suggests that in 1984, by following this stream “upstream” we were heading for presentday “Mae Mu”.

In my note book, there is also a map. I had probably copied it from a map hand-drawn by Wern.
The (red-dotted) Lisu village on that map (Fig. 4) was definitely the settlement I had visited with Wern, and the Red Lahu village was probably Dong Mafai. I had no idea about the Karen village, and the presence of a Lisu village drawn close to the highway to Pai confused me − but “no doubt” this should be Mae Mu, what other village is close to and east of Sop Pong. Interestingly, that my mind had already “made up” that the trajectory Red Lahu-Karen-Lisu on that map was identical with the dirt road from “east of Sop Pong” to Dong Mafai which I had travelled in 2005 on my motor bike.

Figure 04-Mae Mu.

This riddle was solved – I think – when I realized that Wern’s map was not only “not to scale”, but was distorted  beyond recognition in many other ways. In fact, Highway 1095 is only going east – west near Sop Pong. East of Sop Pong; in the direction of Pai it stretches South-Southeast and includes many hair pin bends. There is a Lisu village on that stretch of the Highway, Nam Rin. In fact, this village is – as the crow flies – not so far from Dong Mafai. But there is no road between Dong Mafai and Nam Rin….No road, but certainly some kind of trail! And that’s how trekking guides in those days advertised their trekking tours in a diagram: Just the name of the village’s tribe, and the distance between these villages given in walking hours. All other geographic specifications were omitted: compass direction were omitted, and the category of road surface (jungle trail, dirt/macadam road or asphalt highway) were all represented by a similar black line.

I checked David Unkovich’ first edition of the Mae Hong Son loop again: indeed, there are two villages in the area between Dong Mafai and Nam Rin, namely Luk Pa Ko and Mae Umong, and I guess one of them is the Karen village on Wern’s schematic trekking route map. If that will be confirmed, Wern’s map makes complete sense, despite all distortions. He had to offer a nice three days-two nights trekking, something like:

Day 1: Bus to Pai. Lunch in Pai. Bus to Sop Pong. Walk to small Lisu village (1.5 hrs), stay night in village.
Day 2. Walk Red Lahu village (2.5 hrs). Lunch. Walk to Karen village (3.5 hrs). Stay night in village.
Day 3. Walk to Lisu village (2 hrs). Take bus to Pai. Lunch. Bus to Chiang Mai.
So, my trip with Wern, was actually the first leg of his trekking. But the difference was that I spend two days and nights with Wern in the small Lisu village “Mae Mu” and then returned to Sop Pong and Chiang Mai.

One question remained … If the settlement in the forest was Mae Mu, why did it not look like the “large” village already in existence for at least two decades?

At last, my note books would also find an answer for that riddle. Only 5 months later, I had visited the settlement again!! When in November 1984, my sister visited Chiang Mai, I guided her to Mae Hong Son and around and showed her the ‘unspoiled Lisu settlement’ in the virgin forest. One morning we left Mae Hong Son by bus/song thaeo to Pai. In Sop Pong we dropped off, deposited our luggage in a restaurant, and I guided my sister on the forest trail to the Lisu settlement. Big surprise, when we entered the open space of newly cultivated land, the ten huts had disappeared. On the other hand, the forest clearings had become much more extensive. We had to walk at least one more kilometer to get to a large cluster of Lisu huts to find a Lisu village, in an open area–hardly any forest was around (pictures Fig. 11). There we met Wern’s ‘girl friend’. Many children and a few women were in the village, but all the men had gone elsewhere. I guess this place was more or less at the site of present day Mae Mu. My sister bought some Lisu application work and then we returned (the same way) to Sop Pong to catch the last song thaeo to Pai, where we arrived after dusk.
Interestingly, I have remembered many details of the two weeks that my sister stayed with me in North Thailand, but the walk with her to Huai Mae Mu Mai had been erased from my memory, even though a number of pictures have survived from that excursion (which I later believed were taken at Nam Hu. a Lisu village near Pai). Interestingly, going true my notes made in June and November 1984 revealed a good number of pieces of the puzzle (which were erased from my memory) and thereby the events during my trips in 1984 could be reconstructed quite accurately, I believe.

Figure 05: Huai Mae Mu Mai, June 1984. A-B. Young woman and kids. C. Old grandmother. D. House lady pressing nutrituous ‘milk’ from poppy seeds.

Why had Huai Mae Mu Mai been newly settled in the forest when I was there in June 1984. And why had it disappeared when I was there again in November 1984, just five months later. The notes I had made during the trip with Wern suggests that 1984 was a year that implied big changes for the Lisus in the “Mae Mu” area. That year “old” Lisu Mae Mu already existed for some 25 years. Around 1960, Lisus from Chiang Dao had moved to the Sop Pong area where they settled in a number of new villages (including Mae Mu). Until the early 1980s, they had lived there relatively undisturbed. But in 1983 and 1984 the village was often visited by government officials. This was somehow related to the construction of a dam and a road to that site by Thai Yai (Shan) laborers. Officials distributed land titles (for 8 acres of land) to numerous households, it was clear that the government wished to enforce control over the area. The notes I had made, show that Wern had told me about these developments. A few years later, anthropologist Otome Hutheesing had informed me that in the mid-1980s, the Thai government, had begun implementing aggressive politics to eradicate the growing of opium poppies and to promote the cultivation of alternative cash crops in the Lisu village Doi Lan (in Chiang Rai Province). Perhaps similar developments were going on in the area around Sop Pong, and perhaps this had motivated some villagers of “old” Mae Mu to settle in nearby forest to create new clearings or to escape “government control” − and perhaps by November 1984 these pioneers of the satellite Mae Mu Mai were accused of forest encroachment and were forced to return to their “Old Mae Mu”.
Wern would have known well. Following our little trek in June 1984, I met Wern a few times in Chiang Mai, where he operated his trekking business from the Pun Pun guesthouse in the Wat Faham area. Wern was always very helpful when I approached him for ‘assistance’. Once he even accompanied me to a neurologist at one of the major hospitals in town, whom I interviewed about various aspects of health care in Thailand. Then, maybe in 1985, Wern was no more at the guesthouse. There were rumors that he had been arrested with a large catch of heroin on his way to Bangkok, and had to service at least twenty years in jail. Anyhow, I would never see this nice guy again.
I wonder if there are Lisu who lived in the Sop Pong area in the mid-1980s, and who can inform me why Mae Mu Mai was settled in the forest (in 1983-1984) and why this new satellite village had been deserted at the end of 1984.

Figure 06: Huai Mae Mu Mai, June 1984.

From my note books:
On 26 May 1984, Boonchai Sangphetsiriphunt (Wern), my guide, and I departed from a Chiang Mai Bus station, heading for Sop Pong (Pang Mapha). In about four hours we reached Pai, and from Pai it was two more hours to get to the large Shan (Tai Yai) village of Sop Pong. In Sop Pong we visited the busy and colorful market of the village and bought some food and essentials. Then we walked to the western edge of the village, past the German Development Center, to the head of a jungle trail on the left of the “highway”. The trail followed a little stream, under the cover of the forest canopy. It was an easy afternoon walk of less then one and a half hours. Wern sometimes explained me about the vegetation along the trail. There was plenty of tall bamboo, here and there we passed a large strangler fig tree (Fig. 9A) rooted in the stream’s bank, and tall teak and yang trees with their huge, straight trunks, often without branches for 10-15 meters. In the undergrowth I spotted many elegant little ferns. When I wanted to have a close look at another interesting plant Wern warned me: ‘Do not touch it, this plant will give you a painful skin rash. The Lisu call it toya.’
At last we came to clearings in the forest, some of them being fenced off (Fig. 2A), and spotted a number of huts (Fig. 1). At the entrance of this tiny, recently settled village of ten households (about 90 persons), men had erected a small bamboo spirit house with two simple wood carvings that dominated the ‘altar’, and numerous offerings, such as rice, bee wax candles and a plate with money (Fig. 7A). A middle-aged man was praying at this shrine and his monotonous wording sounded very plaintive. Two young men, their mouths tainted blood red from the betel quid, were loading their long rifles with gunpowder–they had just spotted a ‘flying fox’ and wanted to hunt it.
Wern told me that the shrine had been constructed to bring good luck to the new houses and the coming rice harvest. After his prayers, the middle aged man approached one of the young hunters and tied a brightly colored thread (of garment) around his neck.
Continuing into the heart of the little settlement we struck upon the large trunk of a felled tree of which the (core) wood was reddish brown. Chips of this ‘mai daeng’ − according to Wern – were used by the Lisu as fire wood/fuel.

Figure 07-Mae Mu. House and altar.

Next to one of the houses, children were playing with baby birds in a nest which apparently had been removed or fallen down from a tree. They were amused by the young birds’ behavior – following nearly any movement close to these little birds, their orange-edged beaks opened widely as a reflex. Later the children fed the young birds with lumps of cooked rice.
At another home a Lisu-girl of about 16 years was pounding the rice by lifting and releasing the heavy wooden pounder (Fig. 9-C) into a wooden bowl filled with rice to be husked. She was clad in the characteristic, colorful female dress rich in application works on the shoulders. She had been doing the heavy work for hours and sweat was running from her face.
Then, near the largest house in the village Wern spotted a large reddish brown centipede, that swiftly disappeared in dense vegetation of the undergrowth . In Thai these venomous creatures are called takhap (in Lisu: kuefura), and Wern informed me that these fearless animals often hunt for snakes. (Fig. 7B). Dusk was falling, some villagers took a bath at the small, muddy forest stream.

Then we entered the house of our guest. Like the other houses it was built on low stilts, which, as Wern told me, was not typically Lisu-style. It was the only of the houses of which the roof consisted of green corrugated asbestos, the roofs of all other houses were covered with dried leaves. The floors and walls invariably consisted of split bamboo (see: Fig. 6C-D; 7B; 9B). The central roofed part of the house was divided into various rooms fenced off by walls of split bamboo: a (sleeping) room for the father and mother, a similar room for the children and an open room for the guests. The rest was living room, including a store room for houshold implements and clothes. The kitchen was on an open, elevated platform built from split-bamboo.

When we entered the living room, an old, nearly complete blind grandmother welcomed us, while at the same time she chased away a small dog that had settled there. We dropped our luggage in the open guestroom, and Wern started to prepare dinner in the kitchen, and contributed the meat and vegetables he had sold in the market of Sop Pong to the household.

Figure 08: Huai Mae Mu Mai, June 1984.

Figure 09-Mae Mu. Huai Mae Mu Mai, June 1984. A. A strangler fig tree along the stream. B.Cattle resting below the elevated floor of one of the houses of Mae Mu Mai (June 1985)

Figure 10-Mae Mu: Huai Mae Mu Mai, June 1984. A. Children washing at the “tap” of the elevated water system consisting of interconnected half bamboos in which the partitions at the internodia have been removed. B. Wern cleaning the mushrooms he had gathered. C. Wern picking fleshy mushrooms that grow on decaying tree trunks.

Figure 11-Mae Mu: November 1984. The houses of Huai Mae Mu Mai had been dismantled. These picture were taken at the outskirts of “old” Mae Mu.

“Mae Mu” revisited, March 2020

Figure 12-Mae Mu: These pictures were taken on 12 March, 2020, in the morning, between (Red Lahu) Dong Mafai and (Lisu) Mae Mu, about 7 − 8 kms south of Pang Mapha (as the craw flies). (left) This picture was taken much closer to Dong Mafai than to Mae Mu. The limestone crop is at 20 minutes walking distance from Dong Mafai. There is a small cave in this limestone crop. In February 2005 I had climbed to the top of this big rock: the view from the top was hazy, understandably, as on my way to Dong Mafai, I came across a number of (very local) “burnings”. However, the smog was much less than on 12 March 2020, fifteen years later, as shown best in pictures B and C (taken closer to Mae Mu). The smog was very dense and the air was burning my eyes and nose. Most of the area along the macadam road showed signs of torchings over the past weeks. Compared to 2005, much more hill slopes had been converted into “swiddens” (3)

Figure 13-Mae Mu: The torched countryside south of Mae Mu, 12 March 2020. (left) Charcoaled remains of the last corn harvest.

Figure 14-Mae Mu: The torched countryside south of Mae Mu, 12 March 2020.

Figure 15-Mae Mu: The torched countryside south of Mae Mu, 12 March 2020.

(1)Mimi Sae Ju, the eldest daughter of Awu and Alebaba from the Lisu village of Doi Lan in Chiang Rai’s Mae Suai district. Otome Hutheesing (born 1930), anthropologist from the Netherlands. In the early 1980s she studied Lisu culture in Doi Lan, living many years in the home of Awu and Alebaba. Awu was Otome’s major teacher in Lisu language.
(2)GT-Rider Guide Maps, scale 1:375 000. I think the oldest version of the map in my possession had been published in about 1990.
(3) Swiddens are pieces of land where most of the forest has been cleared. Usually they were used for 2 or 3 years to grow crops. As the soil get depleted of nutrients following some three harvests, these swiddens (no called fallow land) were left to regenerate for about twenty years. Then, the secondary forest was cut, and the area was used another 2 or 3 for growing crops. At present this cycling land use become rare, and cleared soils are being used continuously (and fertilizers are used to boost the output).