Akhas and Blessings (Saturday, Nov. 12)

Dorothea had mentioned our interest in seeing a hill tribe village, and Khun Sudawadee had arranged a visit to the neighboring Akha village the next day. The Akha are known among hill tribes for the elaborate hats or bonnets they wear, with distinctive types according to the wearer's gender and age group. Nowadays, however, the men have (like Thais) adopted casual Western clothes, and the only adult male heads we saw in the village were bare or covered by baseball caps. But the village children (at least some of the boys and just about all the girls) prepared for our visit by putting on their Akha hats. Among the lookers-on, we saw only one adult, who appeared to be the oldest woman present, wearing one.

The children were all gathered at the school, which Khun DH and Khun B had paid for, sharing the generous spirit of Khun Sudawadee, who is a kind of patroness of the village. Not only does she employ many residents, but she has established a fund to aid the children who have been orphaned by AIDS. (Men from this village, like many other hill people in Thailand, have gone off to work in the cities and come back infected.) Khun Sudawadee has adopted one such orphan, a little boy.

We arrived in two SUVs, men in one and women in the other, an arrangement dictated by Thai sensibilities regarding what is proper for monks. Khun DH drove me, Jayanto, and Punnyo; Khun Sudawadee was driven with Dorothea and Khun B. The children were gathered on the porch of the school, squatting rather than sitting to say hello and have their picture taken; afterwards Dorothea and I and the two monks were gathered behind the children for a formal portrait that also included the two young women teachers and a man whom we think is the village headman.

Khun Sudawadee had brought a big carton filled with drink-size boxes of milk for the children, and she asked Dorothea to hand them out. The little boys and girls lined up to receive their milk one by one, thanking Dorothea shyly in Thai, which is a second language for them. While she played the role of Lady Bountiful, Khun Sudawadee and I snapped pictures from either side. Afterwards the children filed into the school and sat on the floor while the monks talked to them briefly. Khun Sudawadee sat with the children. Jayanto said a few words to them in Thai and both monks chanted a bit. The children were respectful and bowed in the Buddhist manner, even though the families in this village have mostly been converted from their shamanistic religion to Christianity. The Akha seem able to hold all three traditions in respect.

Dorothea and I left a donation for the school, and we got back in the cars and drove slowly away while the crowd of children waved and cheered. I told Khun DH that I felt a bit like the Queen. (I was thinking of Elizabeth II rather than Sirikit of Thailand, since, though I know the latter is greatly revered by her subjects, I'm not sure exactly how they express this.)

We weren't on our way back to the resort at this point; instead, we drove a short way to a hilltop where Khun DH and Khun B have bought some land. A crew of men from the Akha village were about to build them a bamboo vacation house, and the owners wanted to have a double blessing ceremony  a Buddhist blessing by the monks and an Akha blessing by the village shaman. A small, roofed bamboo platform had been set up at the site, and several Akha men were waiting. Nearby Dorothea saw a smaller, ruder platform that had been set up for the Akha blessing. Strips of newspapers and pieces of reed, interwoven in the form of small lattices, were hung over it. The shaman, who was the first Akha man I had seen wearing a traditional hat (though it was less elaborate than the women's and children's hats we had seen in the village), soon showed up. His thin, bespectacled assistant carried two big machetes. At about the same time, we noticed a plastic bag lying on the ground that seemed to be moving. Khun DH made inquiries, and learned that the Akha had brought a pig and a chicken (in a second bag that we hadn't yet noticed) which they intended to sacrifice as part of the ceremony.

This horrified the homeowners  as religious practices go, a living sacrifice is about as antithetical to Buddhism as it's possible to imagine. Monks could never be present at such an event. On the other hand, the Akha were not only looking forward to the blessing, but to the feast of pork and chicken that would follow as a consequence. So Khun DH and Khun B bought the lives of the two animals and are making a pet of the pig; they gave the workers enough money to buy an equivalent amount of pork and chicken at a butcher shop so that they wouldn't miss out on their banquet. The shaman had left, probably disappointed, but if he's lived in Thailand for any length of time he couldn't have been too surprised. He did get to do his blessing the next day, when we were on our way back to Chiang Mai. Khun B sent us a few of pictures of the ceremony. One picture showed the shaman frying meat over a fire  perhaps the ceremony requires that, but it's certain that the animal wasn't killed on the spot.  Khun B also included a photo of the redeemed pig, now named "Pipo," who is thriving.

But on the day of our visit the land and the future house were blessed only in one religious tradition. Jayanto and Punnyo chanted over a bowl of water, preparing it for a "water blessing." Then they walked around the perimeter of the building site, with Khun DH carrying the bowl while Jayanto dipped a handful of twigs into it and sprinkled the land in a manner quite familiar to Dorothea and me from our Catholic and Orthodox upbringing.

Nor was that the final blessing of the day. We drove on to another hilltop, where Khun Sudawadee is having built what she calls a "mud house." Several Akha men were at work there, molding red mud and some kind of straw into bricks, using ladderlike forms. Some bricks, from which the forms had been lifted, lay drying on the ground. Others had been built into the lower parts of a couple of small buildings that looked like half-finished reddish brown igloos. Khun Sudawadee said that the larger one would be her living room and the other her bathroom, and pointed to the sites where yet other rooms, each a small building in itself, would be constructed. The rooms will be connected by covered walkways made with bamboo. Using some of the water prepared at the previous site, Jayanto blessed the land, the unfinished buildings, and the Akha crew, who knelt respectfully to be sprinkled. The site is at the top of the highest hill around, and has magnificent views in all directions. We could see Burmese mountains, a Thai river valley, and a mountaintop mansion that belongs to a Thai princess. We could also see, on a lower hill, the red earth of Khun DH and Khun B's building site, where we had just been.

We spent that afternoon taking it easy around the retreat center.

Back to Chiang Mai (Sunday, Nov. 13)

The next morning, Dorothea attended the usual 7 am meditation session and afterwards got a tour of the establishment, including Khun Sudawadee's quarters and an elegant house she designed for a Japanese friend. Meanwhile I followed my custom of greeting the day from the pool.

After breakfast we said our grateful farewells and departed for Chiang Mai. Et, who had been lodging and eating with the resort staff, had had nothing to do for two nights and a day, and was eager to get on the way. A Chiang Mai city boy, he said he'd found the country too quiet.

It was a long drive back because we made a detour to visit Phayao, a city built on a lake. Wat Si Komkam has an impressive site by the lakeside and a famous Buddha image that we were unable to see  it was covered with cloth because of renovations going on in the temple. We wandered around to admire the wat, but our energy dissolved quickly in the noonday heat.

It was dark when Et brought us back to Baan Paw after a long trip over a mountain road. The next morning we said our final goodbye to Ampawn and Samaan, with gifts to show our appreciation. I asked Jayanto to tell Samaan that he was a lucky man, for he was married to the best cook in Thailand. Of course, neither of us had acquired enough experience with Thai food to pass such a judgement with any authority. Nevertheless, the compliment pleased both recipients, and it was paid sincerely even though its foundation may have been insecure.

This section last updated 3-5-2007