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The Tai Lue Annual Festival - totally traditional and totally joyous
Burning, the reality and the reasons - a professional study
Captain Crabtree’s Songkran Song
The Tai Lue Annual Festival -
totally traditional and totally joyous
Monks bless the procession as it passes by.
The Tai Lue have one of the oldest recorded histories of any ethnic
group in Thailand, with the first accurately recorded Lue kingdom being
formed in Yunnan in 1180. The area was divided into 12 tax collection
regions, known as Sipsongpanna, located on both banks of the Mekong River,
partly in what is now Laos and partly in China.
of the tiny ponies is ridden in the parade by a young girl in traditional
Tai Lue costume.
Suzerainty over Sipsongpanna fluctuated between the Chinese Ming dynasty
emperors (1368-1644 A.D.), local rule, and the Toungoo dynasty of Burma.
Some 200 years ago, Tai Lue workers were brought to Thailand in order to
repopulate the northern region after the expulsion of the Burmese.
Sipsongpanna is now recognised as a Chinese autonomous region.
Today, the Tai Lue have a strong cultural presence in the north of Thailand;
local groups live in Doi Saket and Samoeng, with other groups living in
Chiang Rai, Lamphun, Lampang, Phayao and Nan provinces.
Originally animists, the Tai Lue adopted Buddhism and integrated it into
their belief systems after its introduction to Sipsongpanna in the 14th
century. Belief in spirits is still widespread and is centred on the
territorial deities, with spirit houses highly respected.
The Tai Lue lifestyle is simple and agricultural; the houses are
traditional, with very high ceilings, bentwood roofs and bamboo walls and
there is always a well close to the house. Traditional women’s clothing,
still worn on high days and holidays, involves colourful tops and
sarong-style skirts with decorative panels hand-woven on traditional looms
in the houses, the patterns dependent on the Muang of residence. Men also
wear the colourful vests, and both men and women wrap woven cloths around
their heads. Their own language is still spoken, although, in China, their
written language was simplified some years ago by the authorities.
Lue women parade with garlands of flowers.
Annually, on April 5 and 6, the Tai Lue peoples’ traditions and history are
celebrated, with Tai Lue from all 7 northern provinces gathering at
Rangsissutthiwat Temple in Doi Saket to meet and greet friends and enjoy
cultural performances, fireworks, markets, spoken and written language and
music contests and a grand parade.
This year, I was lucky enough to hear about the celebrations several days in
advance. After visiting the temple and the traditional market on the morning
of the second day, I arrived at the assembly point later in the afternoon,
together with a good number of other media types, all waving cameras. The
women marchers in their separate groups, the floats, the carts containing
huge drums (being thumped with enormous enthusiasm by large numbers of
drummers) were just beginning to file out onto the road, past two monks,
high on a platform, who blessed every section of the parade as it went by.
decorated buffalo carts were a real highlight.
Amidst a great deal of laughter and jubilation, a drummer grabbed a huge
fistful of deliciously perfumed garlands, and, rushing across to me, threw
them over my head and gave me the biggest hug I’d received all week! A
wonderful start to a joyous afternoon.
I followed the parade through Doi Saket town and onto Highway 118, with
traffic piling up, not quite controlled by grinning local police, managing
to get ahead of the marchers and arriving at the temple gates in advance of
the main parade.
Having got my breath back, I watched as the parade moved slowly towards the
entrance, this time able to study and appreciate the different costumes of
the women, marching with flowers and baskets, and responding to my smiles of
delight with lovely smiles of their own. Several times I was invited to join
the parade - I declined as I wanted to see, again, my two favourites; three
tiny and very lively ponies ridden by very young girls in beautiful
traditional clothing and headdresses, and two decorated carts drawn by huge
As the parade neared its end, my friend who’d given me the garlands rushed
up - this time I couldn’t refuse the invitation to join in. We danced along
to the rhythm of the drums, as far as the gate, laughing like lunatics!
Back on the road, as the last vehicle (a truck loaded with big plastic
containers) and several revellers went by, I heard a shout, ‘Drink?’ One of
the revellers handed me down a large plastic cup, shouting, ‘Whisky!’
Smiling fit to bust, and not wanting to be impolite, I took a sip -
delicious and not at all what I had expected. Yes, the taste of spirits was
obvious in this ‘home brew’, but so was the taste of pineapple! Throwing
caution to the winds, I drank the entire cupful, and, amazingly, didn’t feel
a thing! Fortunately, though, my husband was with me to drive me home, with
my garlands still around my neck!
The drummers kept the beat going all day.
Burning, the reality and
the reasons - a professional study
Each year, during the dry season, January to April, the hills of
Northern Thailand are ablaze with fires. Hunting, land management and
the collection of forest products are believed to be some of the main
reasons behind the fires. Such a scenario leads to towns and cities
becoming clogged with smoke pollution causing all manner of problems,
affecting local economies, human health and, essentially, the health of
In Thailand and the greater South East Asian region, burning has been
practiced for centuries; as a result, farmers see it as a crucial part
of their way of life. Unfortunately, this traditional practice, which
rural people consider to be of benefit, is also becoming a serious cause
of concern for others.
Cattle are forced to forage for food along
For the last few years, the low- lying city of Chiang Mai, due to its
geographical location surrounded on all sides by rugged mountains, has
become engulfed in a haze of smoke which reaches its peak in March and
early April. Along with the peak in the smoke haze comes a peak in
hospital admissions due to respiratory-related problems. Such a smoke
haze also affects the local economy, as it deters tourists from visiting
The devastating impact of Australia’s recent forest wildfires should
come as a wakeup call to Thailand and other countries that are grappling
with the issue of fire. Given the potential threat of climate change and
rising temperatures, it may only be a matter of time before Thailand and
other S.E Asian countries practicing burning are having to fend off
their own unexpected and uncontrollable blazes similar to those
experienced ‘Down Under’.
Having witnessed first hand the destructive fires in Thailand as well as
having viewed, from a safer distance, the Australian Bush fires, I feel
that there needs to be a stronger sense of urgency to prevent fires from
taking place in Thailand. At present, Thailand’s fires are due to
traditional agricultural practices; practices which will take a long
time to change. Coupled with this is the fact that the local authorities
have limited resources and a lack of law enforcement - all of which
leads to fire prevention being tackled, at best, with a lack-lustre
response or, at worst, being merely tolerated.
As a result, a UK company has commissioned me, in my professional
capacity as an environmental researcher and consultant, to carry out a
two-month research project, studying forest fires within Mae On district
in Chiang Mai. The purpose of the study is to understand the reasons for
and consequences of deliberate burning during the dry season in this
area. I am working with local villagers as well as local administrative
bodies in order that we can collectively come up with a comprehensive
fire prevention plan, which highlights both the current problems
associated with fire as well as the ways in which fires can be managed
in a more sustainable manner. The project will also illustrate how
forest fires are one of the largest, but least discussed causes of
Mae On is located 40 kilometres due east of Chiang Mai., at an average
altitude of 400 metres; the forest type is ‘dry deciduous’ - trees which
drop their leaves during the dry season to enable them to retain water.
This is a natural occurrence which is a necessity, but also, in terms of
fire, a hindrance. When leaf mould falls from the trees it becomes an
instant fire hazard as the leaves tend to be dry and easy to ignite. If
left in their natural state, the leaves would rot back into the soil and
replenish it in the form of mulch. However, from recent observations and
interviews with the locals, farmers don’t see it in the same way and
prefer to clear such areas to keep them tidy and controlled.
The fastest and cheapest way to clear the leaf cover is to burn it. In
Mae On, this is the main type of burning that takes place during
February, to the point where large expanses of blackened and scorched
earth leading out from the roadsides become the norm. Unfortunately,
although cheap and fast, such burning is actually detrimental to the
soil quality, as studies in the local area have shown that frequent
fires reduce both density and species richness of the tree seedlings.
As well as roadside fires, I have also witnessed the burning of remnants
of agricultural crops, particularly rice paddy fields, and have been
told that by burning the crop remnants, ash left over from the burn
nourishes the field and prepares the soil for the planting season.
However, such burning is actually detrimental to the soil, as it reduces
key soil nutrients such as potassium, calcium and magnesium - all lost
as fine particles in the smoke, whilst nitrogen, phosphorous and sulphur
are lost as gases.
However, an inconvenient truth is that fire actually encourages new
growth. Having witnessed, first hand, burning and the scorched black
earth left in its path, one would think that little survives. But, on
recent observations, I have been struck by the presence of a verdant
blossom of greenery beginning to colonise the charcoal patches of burnt
ground that were ablaze no less than three weeks previously.
Certain agricultural areas where burning occurs contain a specific type
of grass, Imperata Grass, that, in its mature form, has little nutrient
value. Therefore, local cattle grazers prefer to burn back the old grass
and, due to its fire resistant nature, new shoots produced on burnt
areas have a higher nutrient value, which is perfect for grazing cattle.
Such an activity is widely practiced in Mae On, which supports a large
number of cattle, but unlike cattle farming in Europe, where paddocks
and fields are used for grazing, cows in Thailand appear to be given the
rough end of the ‘verge’, so to speak. They have to forage alongside
roads and other areas of less fertile importance, whilst the larger open
spaces are prioritised for the cultivation of rice and other, more
lucrative, cash crops. Such grazing practices have been used for many
decades, during which burning has, no doubt, been an intrinsic part of
the whole. However, all that may actually be needed is a new
growth-encouraging practice, cutting back the grasses using manual
methods, not fire.
More often than not, the areas where cattle are left to graze are under
the jurisdiction of the highway department or other local government
agencies. Therefore, such agencies could carry out an effective campaign
which equips local farmers with both the tools and the financial means
to carry out roadside clearing without the use of fire. Lawnmowers,
strimmers, scythes and pangas could all be brought to arms in order to
clear out the old grasses and allow new shoots to burst into life! Yes,
it would involve more labour, but if the farmers are able to earn an
income from clearing the verges whilst at the same time providing fodder
for their herds, then surely the allure of burning would fade and manual
clearing become a more widely practiced activity.
Next week - a trek into the forest with a local arable/dairy farmer, who
also uses the forest for hunting and the collection of forest products.
Burning off crop residue has been
a standard practice used by Thai farmers for centuries.
Captain Crabtree’s Songkran Song
While seeking a hat that would fit me
And wondering which to buy
I felt a deluge hit me
Slap bang in the eye.
I saw two little grinning boys
Looking far from shy
Who had the cheek to give full voice
To “Sa wat dee bpee mai !”
I sank a Singha in a bar
Wringing out my tie
Then made for The Queen Victoria
For steak and kidney pie.
But a torrent struck me like a bomb.
And I heard a merry cry:
“Go take a shower, you wingeing Pom !
Sa wat bpee dee mai !”
Now I’m no spoilsport – Archie Crabtree
Is no Captain Bligh –
But I felt British temper grab me,
Fight it though I’d try.
The drunk Australian said “I’m Ned –
That’s as in Kelly ! Hi !”
And poured his ale upon my head
With a “Sa wat bpee dee mai !”
I punched his head. I bit his thumb.
I kicked him on the thigh
But had not seen his nearby chum,
A truly massive guy.
He dumped me deep into the mud. He
Hoisted me on high
And as he slammed me down said “Bloody
Sa wat dee bpee mai !”
McCormick’s is a peaceful place
As in my bed I lie.
The nurse is charming, full of grace,
I watch her with a sigh.
She comes with water. Slips ! I stare;
I see the jugful fly
And as it hits me fair and square
Groan “Sa wat bpee dee mai !”
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