UN project redefines village tourism
MAE HONG SON, 3 December 2012: Reflecting the ethnic diversity of Mae Hong Son in the northwestern corner of Thailand, two villages, Muang Pon a Tai Yai community in Khun Yuam district and Muang Pam a Karen community in Pang Ma Pha district, were selected by the United Nations for a pilot scheme to introduce community-based tourism programmes.
The communities have just welcomed their first ecotourism guests for a test drive to gain feedback to enable further improvement. TTR Weekly covered the tour.
Backing the effort is the United Nation Joint Programme on Integrated Highland Livelihood Development in Mae Hong Son. It is a collaboration between eight UN agencies –FAO, UNIDO, UNFPA, IOM, UNDP, UNHCR, WHO and UNESCO and the provincial government covering agriculture, small-scale businesses, natural resources management, health, education, legal status and tourism.
The agencies identified that community-based tourism as well as ecotourism could be sustainable alternatives to mainstream tourism to help improve the livelihood of people in the area without causing cultural stress.
The tourism project will be completed in mid-2013 under the Community-based Tourism Institute in close collaboration with UNDP and FAO. UNESCO is also one of the key financial supporters of the project.
Both Muang Pon and Muang Pam are not new to tourism, but like most villages in the province, they have always been passive partners on the losing end of the business. Their culture and surrounding natural resources were exploited by tourism operators without any tangible benefits filtering through to the villages.
Muang Pon, located just 12 km from Khun Yuam district town established a homestay group around five years ago to accommodate tourists, mainly Thais, who pack the district during November when the famous Tung Bua Tong or Mexican Sunflower fields are in full bloom, and also during the well-known Tai Yai festivals. But it was more a bed & breakfast arrangement rather than showing visitors the culture and way of life of Tai Yai, which is still practiced actively in Muang Pon.
In Muang Pam, the situation is different. The village is located next to fertile jungle and not far from beautiful caves. During its hayday, local villagers earned decent money as trekking porters, and by offering elephant rides. However, around 10 years ago, trekking tourists moved to Laos and Vietnam for a ‘raw’ experience.
The tour operator who set up an elephant camp near the village moved out. Chiang Mai tour operators focused on Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai villages to save costs and tourism in the village went downhill fast, with only occasional visits from independent travellers or small trekking groups.
In Mae Hong Son, Tai Yai is the largest ethnic group living on lowlands scattered north-to-south in the province. However, as modernisation intruded ethnic culture and traditions suffered. Some communities can conserve better than others and Tai Yai of Muang Pon sub-district was one of a few that could retain identity and resist change for the sake of it.
The pilot tour programme crafted by villagers following months of input from CBT-I spans three days and two nights featuring the village and hands-on activities, which can give visitors an insight into various aspects of traditional Tai Yai life. It was also scheduled to start during the Poy Ong Jod, a celebration during the last day of Ork Pansa (end of the Buddhist Lent) festival for the visitors to get a chance to join one of their key annual festivals.
Visitors do not have to wait too long before they get the answer and they will soon learn the skills needed to build their own Jong Para or pavilion.
This is the first activity in Muang Pon; to learn how to make ‘Jong Para’, a miniature pavilion to welcome the Lord Buddha coming down from heaven on the full moon night of the 11th lunar month. Traditionally, villagers will make it prior to Ork Pansa and leave it standing until the 8th waxing moon or not later than 15th when they celebrate Poy Ong Jod then they will burn or dismantle the Jong Para.
There are four designs of Jong Para: Jong Yod, the multi-tiered roof pavilion; Jong Kor, the one-tiered roof pavilion; Jong Peetan, no roof and Jong Phasan, made of weaved bamboo stripes. The type we made was the Jong Peetan, the not so fancy version that is usually built by households.
It is not as simple as it looks. Even today only a handful Tai Yai people make it by themselves. Mostly they fast track the process by buying it from the few old-hands or artists who still have the skills required.
This tradition could easily fade away because the new generation ignores the art form. However, realising the value of this ancient skill there are attempts to conserve it at school level. Also, this CBT project encourages the participation of youth in the village to learn about their own culture and proudly communicate it to visitors.
The process of making Jong Para starts with the cutting of bamboo to build the structure, then decorating it with colourful paper cut to traditional designs. The traditional design is the tricky part, requiring skills to draw, cut and perforate. Not something we can make in just a couple of hours. We have to take our time, but we get to appreciate the strong faith in Buddhism and the delicacy of the culture in this traditional environment.
Afterwards, we walk to the community’s first temple, while learning about the settlement of the Tai Yai houses. Muang Pon may look just like a typical Thai villages at first glance – wooden or concrete house with tiled roofs. But when you take a closer look you will see the appearance of the houses resembles the Tai characteristics even if some materials have changed.
The traditional house has two distinct parts each with a separate roof; the smaller one being the kitchen and the larger the living area with balcony. All the houses are built on stilts. Today, the tongtung leaf (a species of Dipterocarpus trees) roof has been replaced by tiles and the space downstairs covered in by cement blocks to offer more living space as they are no longer need to store agricultural tools or raise poultry or cattle in the houses anymore.
The temple during days prior to the ceremony is busy with villagers who take turns to decorate the pavilion or make lanterns for the parade on Poy Ong Jod night.
They also need to make Pak Long, a huge torch, two to three metres high made from chopped pine trees. It will be an offering to the temple that will be lit once the parade around the village is over. Everyone makes sacrifices in time and energy to create the various items, which is a reflection of days gone by when community spirit and involvement was what made villages special.
The evening is free to spend time with our host – to cook and learn the culture.
The grandma at my host family makes banana-leaf cups to be used for offerings to the Buddha image at the temple as well as the spirits at the houses.
It is fun learning how to cut the banana leaves; how to fold them into patterns and assemble them. I am not very successful. It is an acquired skill but grandma is patient.
Next morning, we wake up before dawn to catch a lively scene at the village market where residents bring their own produce – vegetables, meat, food, desserts – to sell. It is very communal, another rare element surviving here in Muang Pon. The number of sellers fluctuates depending on how busy they are with their farms. And even before sunrise, visitors can join with locals to offer alms in front of homes or at the temple.
After breakfast, we visit three grandpa artists at their home to learn about Kub or the Tai Yai hats, the decorative tin sheets and the Tam Khon, an offering to the ancestors made of bamboo, paper and cotton threads.
Kub, a wide rim round hat with a conical shape in the middle, is made from bamboo and rattan. It is still widely used in the community because it is practical for outdoors by shielding you from the sun. Despite its usefulness, those skilled at making the hats are diminishing. In Muang Pon, there is only one artist left.
The situation for other arts is no different. There are very few craftsmen left. Modern education has very little space for these traditional skills as children are living away from home to further their study. There are hopes that the rise of tourism will help build an interest in traditional arts and values, but it still risky as tourism could lead to more commercialisation.
Apart from traditional arts, visitors can also visit groups making traditional Tai Yai clothes; processing natural foods and snacks using seasonal fruits and vegetables and making turtle dolls from Kub hat’s string.
Making Tai Yai clothes is a difficult skill to master, but the group making simple snacks such as sweetened popped rice balls (easy, fun and hot!) seem to attract more people. Or you can try to weave Kub’s string, confusing, but great for practicing meditation and you can make a toy turtle from it.
The highlight finally arrives. The village becomes lively as the sun sets. People dress in traditional Tai Yai dresses, men and women walk to the temple to participate in the lantern parade. Ladies can borrow beautiful blouses and sarongs from the host and disguise themselves as Tai Yai for a night. Men can borrow or buy cotton shirt and be traditionally handsome for once.
The parade is not grand, but it reflects a sense of pride and accomplishment. Lanterns made by villagers are carried by volunteers in the parade. Students clad in bright bird dresses with huge tails perform traditional dances to the tunes of a local band. Along the way, around 3 km from the village, more people join the parade some throwing popped rice to people in the parade for good luck. Small torches made from pine trees are lit around the village. The ceremony ends at the temple where the huge torch is lit after it is blessed by monks. If you wish for more local entertainment, you can enjoy watching an outdoor movie, a Tai Yai movie made in Shan State. There are subtitles but they are in Burmese.
(To be continued)