Tuesday 18 May 2010

Chiang Rai - Lisu hill-tribe festival

Colour. You have never seen anything like this in your life. Reds and blues and purples and oranges and greens. A spectral riot, a jubilee. Dazzling in the hazy highland sun.

We are in Doi Laan (doi being the northern Thai word for mountain) to attend an annual cultural festival of the Lisu hilltribes people, at the invitation of my Lisu friend, 'Mimi from the Mountains' as she calls herself. The Lisu originated somewhere near Tibet and mostly are domiciled in Yunnan, although a few filtered down to Burma and Thailand over the centuries.

'This festival is a good chance for the whole Lisu in Thailand to meet, a once-yearly meeting point, they choose this month because of the school holiday so all the students they can join the festival,' the charming university worker tells me. Somewhere between 500 and 750 (plus about five farang guests including us) have descended on this spartan village amid dramatic mountains, valleys and lakes about an hour southwest of Chiang Rai city. Every spare bit of floor of Doi Laan's homes, shacks and mud huts is occupied by guests. You can tell the ones who've come back from the 'big smoke' of Chiang Mai -- they're the ones sporting dyed Korean-style hair-dos and cellphones.

The centrepiece of imparting Lisu history is song, and dancing can go all night for three or so nights. But this is no Full Moon Rave. To the untrained eye (mine) it looks like Ring-a-ring-a-Rosie. 'It is the way to respect the holy tree,' explains Mimi over the rather dischordant rasp of the fulu bamboo flutes.

But before you go wading into the mosh-pit with abandon, it pays to know the strict rules of the game. 'Any man can hold the woman's hand unless she is the man's relative or cousin or the same last name. It is forbidden to hold the relative's hand, it is taboo. If it is necessary then women or men must have something like a handkerchief to block the hand so that their hand will not directly touch each other.'

During the dance, only men can ask women to hold their hand or to join the dance. 'Except if that woman is a bit drunk or wanted to make a joke to some men,' laughs Mimi with her trademark glowing smile.

Indeed, corn whisky has a lot to answer for. It is served up in liberal lashings. Not too disimilar to the worst Scotch you ever tasted, but with a burnt earthy aftertaste (OK, it'll be a while before I get a job in PR with the Lisu Corn Whisky Marketing Board.) Flushed cheeks radiate in the late afternoon sun. Mimi ushers us into her mum and dad's house (which doubles as the village clinic), where we sit on tiny wooden stools raised just inches above the dirt floor. The meal is stunning, a mixture of spicy vegetable and meat dishes, all courtesy of the jungle. 'We don't go to market for anything except sometimes meat,' declares Mimi proudly. Chickens tip-toe gingerly through the house. Pot-bellied pigs bask in the sunny pen outside. She is momentarily distracted by a call on her mobile phone.

The only other modern intrusion here seems to be Crocs shoes. I spy several flourescent pairs competing for visual attention with the rest of the blinding outfits. Jing jing!

But no garment is richer than their hats called U-thue, garnished with a thousand or more red strings and beads. Imagine Liberace in a Foreign Legionnaire's cap and you get the idea. 'It is more like fashion now with all the colour;  in the past we use the knitting wool. The strings hanging down are to please the spirit, the spirit likes to see the color. It is springtime for the Lisu so the spirit would love it and be happy to see spring as well.'

It is a real privilege to experience this cultural life from the inside as we have. But just one marketing suggestion if I may: add some snappy break beats to the raspy music and package this festival as a -- wait for it -- Fulu Moon Party.

1 comment:

  1. Too bad I missed the festival this May. Next time I will plan my stay at resort Chiang Rai accordingly.


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