Lisu Road, Lisu villages along Highway 1322 to Wiang Haeng

Highway 1322 near Lao Wu.

Highway 1322 near Lao Wu.

Though the vistas may not be as spectacular as those along the road to Mae Hong Son, Highway 1322 to Wiang Haeng is one of my favourite mountain roads.  It meanders through a variety of lovely mountain forests (such as mixed dipterocarp, broad-leaved evergreen, and natural pine forest) and since the late 1990s has been an excellent asphalt-surfaced road.  Beginning at the village of Mae Cha in Chiang Mai’s Chiang Dao district, it crosses the mountains north of Doi Chiang Dao (at 2,175 metres the highest peak of the area), and after 40 kilometres, descends into the valley of the Upper Mae Taeng, with the small town of Wiang Haeng as the administrative centre of the amphoe of the same name.

The six villages that straddle the road are all Lisu villages, but there is also a Lahu hamlet, a few kilometres off the road and accessible only by motorbike on a dirt track. Around the villages, much of the forests has been cleared, and maize, mountain rice and cabbages are grown on the hill slopes. Though easy to get to even during the rainy season (the dirt roads to many other Lisu villages then become a nightmare), the villages are rather untouched by tourism and drastic development projects, and offer an excellent opportunity to meet the interesting Lisu people.

Wiang Haeng and the large village of Piang Luang, some 20 kilometres to the north near the Burmese border, together with the surrounding lowland villages, all have sizable populations of Khon Muang (northern Thai), Tai Yai (Shan) and Chin Ho (Haw Chinese) who frequently travel on Highway 1322 during their trips to Chiang Dao or Chaing Mai. But the Lisu definitely steal the show on and along the road. Their remarkable visibility partly results from the eye-catching, colourful costumes of both men and women. The traditional female dress is a composition of two or three bright, contrasting colours, such as green, magenta and orange, but also different pieces of cloth, with flower or other patterns, perhaps included. At the shoulders, there is usually an elaborate appliqué design. Though rather variable, the effect is always distinctive Lisu. During the dry season, when there is little work in the fields, many Lisu women do needlework on new dresses in front of their huts. Men wear their characteristic baggy pants, which can be in any shade of green or blue (I have never seen yellow or red ones), while a few elderly men may dress in black. Some men also possess black velvet jackets with silver adornments, though they only wear them on special occasions, such as the Lisu New Year.

Almost half of the Lisu population along Highway 1322 (at least three thousand souls) wear their colourful costumes while at work in the fields, or on their way to town. Pick-ups with loads of Lisu women and girls in full dress, or motorbikes ridden by a Lisu couple, are a common sight — they are like brilliant parrots amidst the green forest. These colourful travellers are prove of the Lisu’s mobility (on the road, but also ‘vertically’, by readily adopting some facilities of modern life), while also displaying their pride in preserving their identity, of which their costumes, language, and numerous rituals and festivities are major components.

Some of Thailand’s hill tribes did not enter the country before the mid-nineteenth century. Around 1900, foreign explorers in Northern Thailand frequently came across Karen, Hmong (Maeo) and Lahu (Musoe) settlements, but they did not mention the Lisu. The latter’s ‘homeland’ is in Yunnan in Southern China. When a disastrous civil war swept through this country numerous ‘mountain tribes’, including the Lisu, began moving southwards, into Burma. From there, they soon crossed into Thai territory. The Lisu, however, were late-comers in the kingdom, the first wave settling in Chiang Rai’s Wawi area in the 1910s.  In the 1930s and 1940s, a second wave of Lisu migrants arrived in the Fang, Chiang Dao, and Wiang Haeng districts of Chiang Mai province, then, Lao Wu and Pang Klang, and probably the other Lisu villages along the present Highway 1322, were established — though some may be ‘satellites’ of the earliest villages. Interestingly, elderly villagers from both Lao Wu and Pang Klang have memories of their folk often mentioning the Hmong who had settled before them in the area. These Hmong had deforested much of the area, and had left a few years before the arrival of the Lisu. Around Pang Klang and Khun Khong, the denuded mountains were later replanted with the three-needle pine tree (Pinus kesiya), and during the subsequent thirty years these plantations have become rather dense, albeit monotonous, pine forests.

As elsewhere in Thailand, many of the Lisu in these villages cultivated poppies, which was the core of their household economy. When the government started to eradicate the opium cultivation, destroying many flowering poppy fields and confiscating large amounts of opium in the 1980s, about two-thirds of the Lisu villages were growing this crop — the highest rate among hill tribesmen. Now, the villagers grow maize and cabbages as their major cash crops, but they also tend fruit orchards (such as jackfruit and sali), while coffee bushes are numerous in Mae Tae. In and around all villages, visitors will see plenty of chickens, pigs and cattle. Surprisingly, no tomatoes and red beans are grown, although these have become major cash crops elsewhere in Lisu areas.

Striking differences may exist among their villages, even among those straddling H. 1322. For example, in Lao Wu many of the houses are of wood with corrugated iron or asbestos roofs, and clustered closely together on a rather steep slope. In Mae Tae, most houses have walls of split bamboo with roofs thatched with cogon grass (Imperata cylindrica), while all have spacious gardens. On the other hand, Pang Klang looks like a Northern Thai lowland village, many of the brick and/or cement houses directly lining the highway.

In Lao Wu, I spoke to a villager who had recently replaced his traditional house by one built from bricks and cement. One side was supported by a high foundation, as the slope on which it was built was quite steep. The man was cutting through a sheet of corrugated iron with a small saw, as he intended to extend one of the roofs. All the other building materials came from Chiang Dao. He admitted that houses with grass thatch were much cooler, but it needed to be replaced every three years. His grandson, who was playing with a toy airplane answered to a Malay name, as his father was a Malaysian who had met his mother in Hat Yai (Southern Thailand), where she worked at that time — another sign of ‘Lisu mobility’.

Their agriculture is quite labour intensive, and, when I visited the area in June, many men and women left their villages early in the morning to spray their maize fields with herbicides, others to harvest their cabbages. Yet many of the young men and women live in the cities most of the year, where they find jobs in factories, on construction sites, or in the service sector. Such migrant labour is nowadays part and parcel of the Lisu economy, and much of the wellfare in the villages derives from it. As Lisu women are regarded as the most beautiful of the hill tribes (according to a website of the Tourism Authority of Thailand), quite a number of them find employment in go go and karaoke bars in Chiang Mai and other cities. Other factors, however, may be more important in such employment rates, as Hmong or Yao youngsters rarely become ‘sex workers’.

Despite this growing orientation towards the lowlands, collecting products from the mountain forests is still of great importance. When I visited the home of my friend Billy in Mae Tae, his mother had just returned from the forest after gathering bamboo shoots and she began slicing them for dinner. A neighbour was feeding the two, striped, wild piglets which he had caught in the forest. What’s more, many villagers gather mushrooms, such as the small, round het kho. These forest products also provide cash, as many villagers sell them along the road to passers-by. Of course, firewood is also collected in the forest. Pine trees even supply long splints of wood that are of great use when igniting a fire. They are very inflammable because of their high resin content having been cut from the trunks of big trees. Specimens of these, often over a hundred years old, are numerous along the road and easy to recognize by the large charred cavity in the trunk.

No forest product has more varied applications than bamboo. Everywhere, the colourful Lisu clothes, as well as red onions, are hanging to dry on bamboo poles. In Mae Tae, villagers were repairing a dam, that had been washed away by a flash flood: bamboo poles were driven into the mud of the brook and the space in between was filled with sand bags. A poisonous snake was killed with a bamboo pole while women were collecting bamboo shoots in the surrounding bamboo thickets. At the end of the rainy season, caterpillars, a delicacy called rot duan (literally meaning ‘express train’), are gathered from within the bamboo stems. Until a decade ago, numerous Lisu villages had a network of slit bamboo poles with the partitions removed. This was elevated on stilts and through it water from a source at a higher level flowed to the different households. Now these have been replaced by PVC pipes.

Many conspicuous, yellow billboards are nailed high on the trunk of pines and other trees along Highway 1322. In Thai script, they advertise the Christian faith with such slogans as ‘Jesus will cleanse your sins’ and ‘Fear the Lord’. A number of  Christian families live in all villages straddling the road, with a simple building, often no more than a wooden shack, as their church. For example, in Lao Wu ten out of ninety households are registered as Christian. In Burma and China, however, a much larger part of the Lisu population has been converted to Christianity.

Yet, along the highway, evidence of ‘animism’ is more obvious. In Khun Khong, we met a young Lisu man who had just finished his prayers to the spirits in front of his house, and then set out his offerings beside the road. These consisted of a small altar made of split bamboo and the trunk of a banana tree, loaded with fresh flowers, tiny flags made rom colourful strips of cloth and paper, and some betel nuts. There are many clumps of such weathering offerings along the road, and they usually mark the beginning and end of a Lisu village. In Mae Cha Nua and Mae Cha Tai, such ‘spiritual debris’ includes remnants of clothes, empty bottles of baby powder, shampoo and water, packets of cigarettes, brushes, bracelets, spoons, plastic cups, and batteries. During the New Year, their major festival celebrated during the same week as Chinese New Year, the people bring numerous offerings to the spirits — beside dancing and drinking lavishly of the home made spirit distilled from maize or rice. Foreigners are often welcomed to these celebrations.

Both foreigners and some Thais have been struck by the individualistic and whimsical ways of the Lisu. Development workers in the hills have often been disappointed by their egoism and lack of cooperation, and have nicknamed them the ‘anarchists of the highlands’. Other outsiders compared them with gypsies. Interestingly, in the old Chinese sources in which the Lisu are first mentioned, these people  — then mainly nomadic hunters and gatherers — already had the reputation of being the ‘wildest barbarians’ of all. One anthropologist even supposes that the word ‘Lisu’ is derived from the Lisu words ili (custom) and isu (outlaw, rebel).

Whatever may be the truth of these stereotypes, the Lisu themselves are proud of being Lisu and would not easily discard their ‘Lisuness’ — a fact already emphasized by a missionary early in the twentieth century. And despite their so-called anarchistic tendencies, integration into the mainstream Thai society has become a major aspect of their life in Thailand. The villagers of a new Lisu settlement (‘Mai Paeng Liso’) just outside Wiang Haeng are prove of it. They formerly lived in Doi Pilu in the Pai district of Mae Hong Son, a remote mountain village only accessible by a dirt road. When they had the opportunity to buy the land in the Upper Mae Taeng Valley two years ago, they did so immediately.

Now a cluster of half a dozen traditional huts has arisen in the former shrub forest, and they grow maize in the clearings. The main reason for moving to Wiang Haeng was to enable their children to go to school. Just as one of the villagers invited me to taste the roasted ‘bush meat’ of a krarok (squirrel) — squatting in front of the smoky fire in his bamboo hut, his teeth stained by chewing betel, his wife in full traditional dress beside him — their children, dressed in immaculate school uniforms, arrived back from town on their brand-new bicycles.

©Sjon Hauser: story and pictures


Thus far no ‘Lisu Lodge’ has arisen along Highway 1322, but Wiang Haeng and Piang Luang have each simple accommodation, while there are several resorts around Chiang Dao, some ten kilometres southeast of the eastern end of the road.