By Jintana Panyaarvudh
Mae Hong Son
Three decades ago, the only people who had heard of Ban Dong were its residents and those who lived in the surrounding villages.
Today, the success of its Weaving Women Group has put the Lua village in the mountains of Mae Hong Son on the map, and it’s all thanks to one of its residents, the energetic Pim Kayanyaiying.
The 42-year-old Lua woman has been leading her fellow female villagers in producing hand-woven fabric for more than 25 years and her enthusiasm for learning new skills, developing new products and continuously improving quality has made the textile known all over Thailand as a One Tambon One Product (Otop) of Mae Hong Son.
Sangla Praimeekha, Ban Pa Pae's village headman, poses with the country's first rice bank.
But she still sees room for growth, which is why she is so pleased that her village has been selected as one of target areas in a research project for the Thai farmer-based tourism initiative.
It is said that the Lua people, also known as the Le Wuea and Lawa, lived in Lanna Kingdom before Chiang Mai was founded more than 700 years ago. Although its population is relatively small, with just 50,000 Lua in Thailand, the ethnic group has preserved its unique of way of life.
It is that uniqueness which inspired local researcher Thananchai Mungjit to encourage the highlanders to further explore their values and the meaning of their lives with the aim of establishing a community-based tourism programme.
“Our goal [in conducting the research] is to make the Lua communities able to develop their own potential,” says Thananchai, who started the research project last month.
Under the research, the Lua’s way of life will be explored and the data obtained communicated to the world, explains the 44-year-old Mae Hong Son native.
Supported by the Thailand Research Fund [TRF]’s community-based research division, Thananchai selected three remote Lua’s villages – Ban Dong, Ban Laoob and Ban Pa Pae – as the research areas and recruited villagers from each of them to help him in the research project.
Each village has its own unique characteristics that will be highlighted in the research.
Ban Dong is famous for its beautiful terraced rice paddies stretching all along the hillside as well as the top quality local hand-woven fabric while Ban Pa Pae’s first rice bank of Thailand and the community’s sufficiency philosophy has become a model for other villages.
Ban Laoob, meanwhile, produces silver jewellery that’s second to none.
A senior Lua villager dyes colourful thread in Ban Pa Pae.
Located in Mae Hong Son’s Mae La Noi district, Ban Dong’s weaving women’s group turns their textiles into clothing, bags, and home decor items, which are sold at the Mae La Noi Royal Project Development Centre not far from the village.
In the past, the group wove cotton fabric, which is popular across the province.
As the group leader, Pim thought she needed to find something new to differentiate the group’s hand-woven goods from the rest of the market.
So in 1999, when Pim learned that Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn would visit her village, she learnt how to weave wool fabric, the famous fabric produced in Ban Huay Hom neighbourhood, and made a woollen scarf as a gift for the Princess.
Pim then asked the Princess for some sheep so the village could produce its own wool and was granted 20 sheep to raise. Her group has mixed the wool with cotton in its weaves ever since.
A member of Ban Dong Weaving Women Group weaves the local fabric.
“Our hand-woven fabrics are very soft and have a unique structure and extraordinary tribal patterns,” says Pim.
The Lua people’s patterns are inspired by nature and traditional patterns include a reticulated python and peacock’s tail, Pim explains.
Pim, who is also working with the project, hopes the research will help preserve this folk wisdom and bring back the traditional woven cloth for the younger generation and for sale, as well as help in the design of new patterns that represent the uniqueness of her tribe.
A women's group in Ban Pa Pae makes bead necklaces to earn a living.
A 10-minute ride north of Ban Dong is Ban Laoob, a Lua village in the same district and home to fine silverware and woven cloth. This village was chosen for the research project to gather information on the knowledge and traditions of Lua people’s jewellery.
Silver jewellery has been an integral part of life of the ethnic group for more than 130 years so they usually have their own silversmith under their roof, says Narong Pimjaiprapa, a silversmith at Ban Laoob and a team researcher.
The silver jewellery worn by the Lua people on sale at Ban Laoob
The most common jewellery worn are bracelets, earrings and necklaces made of silver, according to Narong, who has earned a living silversmithing since he was 16 and now earns some Bt100,000 a month from his handicrafts.
In the old days, the number of pieces or size of the jewellery symbolised the social and economic status of the hilltribes, Narong explains, adding that while he was told the history of silverware in his village by his forebears, the research will help him find out more about traditions related to the craft.
Further south in Ban Pa Pae of Mae Sariang district, the Lua are very proud of their country’s first rice bank as well as their sufficiency economy, a philosophy developed by His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Traditionally, the villagers here are rice farmers, cultivating one crop per year on terraces.
The beautiful rice terraces are one of the tourist attractions of Ban Dong.
They recall the hard times when drought prevented them from growing enough rice to eat and how King Bhumibol changed their lives completely.
“King Bhumibol visited the village in 1970 with Her Majesty the Queen. The King suggested that we establish a rice bank to guard against food shortages and granted Bt20,000 as startup costs,” recounts Sangla Praimeekha, the village headman.
The villagers spent the money on 20,000kg of rice and shared it among the villagers.
The concept of the rice bank is to lend rice to villagers at 20 per cent interest. In short, anyone who borrows 10kg of rice has to return 12kg of rice another year, explains the village headman.
These days the villagers have enough rice to consume and thus no need to borrow from the bank. However, the bank is still operating and keeps an annual stock of one or two tonnes – just in case.
The villagers farm rice for their own consumption but in years where the yield is high, they will allocate some for sale.
“If we have enough rice to eat, it means we are welloff. We can survive with what we produce because we adhere to the sufficiency economy philosophy,” he says proudly.
Sangla hopes the research will help elevate Ban Pa Pae’s quality of life, while making the village known to the outside world and preserving their traditional rice growing rituals as well as rice species.
None of the residents of the three villagers are strangers to tourism, welcoming visitors every year and providing a homestay service, but they still lack the capacity to manage community-based tourism, Thananchai says.
And tourists visiting the villages do not understand how the paddy field or the hand-loomed fabric are so intricately woven with the Lua way of life, he adds.
“So, we hope the research will pad out an understanding in the tribe’s way of life,” he says.
“And for the villagers, we hope the Thai farmer-based tourism initiative will be a tool to drive the communities to be able to manage tourism by themselves, thus improving their economy and raising their income.”
Once the research results are in, the team is planning to design a route trip connecting the three villages together. In this way, visitors will learn about their unique characters and experience Lua life first hand.