This photo-blog is designed to work either as a standard blog with images or - by clicking any image - a photo-album. To see an image in full resolution in the 2006 journey, click to the left or right of an image in blog mode.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Lisu Lao Ta 1976 - 2006

Lisu women in national dress at the entrance to Lisu Lao Ta

The first Hill Tribe village we went to was the Lisu village, Lisu Lao Ta. Here are a few pics of the village as we drive in, beginning with the mailbox with a portrait of four Lisu women in the dress used for festivals.

The entrance gateway

I had visited Lisu Lao Ta by river boat from Fang in 1976, arriving at the river landing towards sunset and walking up to the village in the gathering dusk. When I arrived in Lisu Lao Ta in the sunset I was approached by two village girls who took me to their father's (the headman's) house, where he tucked me into bed personally, like an affectionate father, all the while toting a pair of revolvers in belt holsters. I stayed the night in the village and then trekked up into the bamboo forest of the golden triangle to higher and more remote Lisu villages which bordered the Kuomintang villages that processed the opium into heroin in remote jungle village factories. I stayed again the night in the upper village.

A remote Buddhist temple beside the river

It was the burning season and there were scary bush fires burning unattended as I entered the jungle.

The headman's family at Lisu Lao Ta 1976

Although the highland villages appeared closer to the poverty line they had some intriguing innovations. Every house in the upper village had a neat reticulated water supply using a series of parallel ducts made of bamboo split in half and the partitions hollowed out, carefully supported on bamboo stakes, which all ran together at the water source, so that the water ran from the stream above the village down to the houses. The morning wakes with the roosters' crowing and morning and evening is the endless pounding of giant rice mortars and pestles to remove the husks. I was bemused when the man whose bare shelter I was sleeping in brought out a ghetto blaster but to my delight proceeded to play, not pop music, but a tape he had of the traditional music of the Lisu people.

Upper Lisu village 1976

Bamboo water course to a house in the upper Lisu village

The third day I walked on alone in a loop past some of the the opium fields and poppy gardens. There was even an elderly man in a little grass shack with a pipe so you could stop by an share a smoke.

Opium field and a close up of a poppy garden I passed through

I returned by another path in an Easterly arc, past Karen villages. One of the houses shown in the picture below had an ingenious rice pounder with a handle shaped in a large dugout spoon, which filled with water from the stream, as in a water mill, until the spoon tipped emptying the water and pounding the pestle under the shelter on the left as it returned.

The lower villages were more adapted to farming and had buffalo and had some pasture and paddies in cultivation.

Karen children

Return to the river at sunset on the third day 1976

I returned to Lisu Lao Ta 24 years later on my previous visit in 2000. Everything was completely changed. The highway now ran right through the river valley with widely cultivated paddies and orchards, where before there had been only access by river boat and walking track. The houses in the village were now of concrete and cement with satellite dishes, paved roads and land cruisers. Nevertheless some of the traditional features, like pigs and chickens were still running wild. Especially engaging, were the people at Asa's Guest House, who still continued the tradition of the spiritual headman of the village 24 years later.

Asa's Guest House 2000

You can apparently book at Asa Guest House, Lisu Lao Ta. (H1089. KM.38 Left (west) turn 1.8 kms.) through Marlboro Guest House, 138 Sithiwongse Road, Chiangmoi, Umper Muang, Chiangmai (email:, tel: 66-53-232598, ext. 0.

The grandfather took pleasure in giving me a performance of traditional music on a variety of Lisu musical instruments, that form unique variants of Asian panpipes and flutes, lutes and violins.

His son now the head of the family

Lisu practice a religion that is part animistic, part ancestor worship, but is mixed within complex local systems of place-based religion. Most important rituals are performed by shamans. The main Lisu Festival corresponds to the Chinese New Year and is celebrated with music, feasting and drinking, as are weddings; people wear large amounts of silver jewelry and wear their best clothes at these times as a means of displaying their success in the previous agricultural year. In each traditional village there is a sacred grove at the top of the village, where the sky spirit or, in Thailand, the Old Grandfather Spirit, are propitiated with offerings; each house has an ancestor altar at the back of the house.

You can see a description of a New Year ceremony at Lisu Lao Ta here, where the same Asa grandfather is seen playing during the celebrations.

Here is a short description of the ceremony: "In a large courtyard, a ring of colorfully garbed young men and women were dancing in a wide circle around a slender tree that had been planted in the center. A smaller group including musicians and headmen formed an inner circle, parading around the tree with exaggerated dance steps, while a line of young children formed a partial ring in between the two circles. The Lisu New Year’s celebrations provide an opportunity for the young men and women of distant villages to get to know each other and perhaps even become engaged and continued around the clock for five days".

I took a recording of the grandfather of the family at Asa's Guest House, also a spiritual headman, recording traditional Lisu refrains on Asian pipes and violin, which is included as a YouTube video clip below.

A musical display of traditional Lisu instruments

We took a few new shots of Lisu Lao Ta, particularly the sweep of the land in cultivation, where they have a combination of lychee orchards, forest on the hill tops and agricultural and pasture land, with paddies spreading out on to the river plain. A mix of activities not unlike those of the Hong Lao of the Dragon's Backbone in Longsheng.

Lisu Lao Ta 2006

Circular panorama of the entire valley and hills around Lisu Lao Ta


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