August 9, 2010

The Miracle of Thailand’s Yellow Leaf People

I woke to the snorting, snuffling sounds of something rooting around in the dirt just outside the hut where Jack and I and six others in our group were sleeping on raised straw cots.  Suddenly the snorting rose to a piercing squeal, a shriek like a rearing horse but three octaves higher.

Rainforest inThailand's Nan Province
Rain forest of Thailand’s Nan Province, where the Yellow Leaf People have lived for centuries

I peered out the door to see Max and Dang, our guides on this trek to visit the hill tribes of Thailand, at the edge of the jungle clearing. With elbows and arms flying, they were trying to lasso an enormous pig.

“It’s for the Yellow Leaves” Max said, catching his breath after the pig was finally leashed. “We’ll take them the pig–if we can find them. If we do, we’ll ask if they’re up for a visit this afternoon.”

That visit about 15 years ago, with a band of Mlabri, sometimes called Yellow Leaf People–a primitive tribe who’d lived isolated for hundreds of years deep in the forests of northern Thailand–was perhaps the most extraordinary cultural encounter Jack and I count from our years of traveling “off the beaten path.”

Our small group was bunking in the guest hut in a Hmong village in Thailand’s Nan province near the border with Laos.  Max, a Brit, had gone native long ago. A Buddhist, he’d lived in Thailand for decades and cultivated deep friendships among the hill tribes. We’d already visited with the Akha and the Lisu tribes. Today, he was hoping we might visit with a band of Mlabri, sometimes called Yellow Leaf People or  “ghosts of the yellow leaves” because they were so seldom seen by outsiders.

Max returned before lunch with the good news.  He and Dang had found a small band of Mlabri about three miles up into the forest. They’d be happy to meet with us to thank us for the gift of the pig.

Before setting off, Max coached us on rainforest etiquette, really not so different from the manners you’d follow as a guest in anyone’s home. Smile, talk one at a time and softly, don’t crowd around them, don’t start off taking photos. “They’re shy, not used to visitors,” Max said.  “If the visit goes well, they may be amenable to photos. I’ll ask them.”

He explained that theirs was a fragile and poor nomadic life of stone-age hunter-gatherers.

“They live in temporary bamboo lean-tos covered with banana leaves,” Max said. “When the leaves turned yellow with age–after a week or two–the band simply moves on.”

A young mother watches whild the men parcel out meat from the pig we sent them

When we arrived at the Mlabri encampment in a forest clearing – three lean-to shelters, a couple of baskets, a cloth bag hanging on a bamboo pole and not much else – three men were squatting on their haunches cutting hunks of the butchered pig into segments to be parceled out among the group. They were a band of about 17 or 18 – one old man, three women, five adult men, four or five adolescents, six children. The men wore loincloths, the women ragged cast-off skirts and blouses; most of the children were naked.  The women and young children hung back when we approached.  As always, the older children were the most curious and animated.

After introductions, three older boys played for us, a haunting tune blown on a four-foot long wood-carved instrument that looked like a rectangle organ pipe but sounded like a deep and soulful flute. Another boy banged two bamboo tubes together for percussion.

Mlabri men making music
Our new Mlabri friends played for us on their handmade instruments

We all joined in clapping keeping time to the music as the song gained tempo. The old man–just how old I couldn’t guess–suffered from an ugly rash on his hand. One of our group, a doctor, sat next to him and gently massaged his fingers with medicinal crème.

By the time the dance was done, we were talking animatedly back and forth, sitting cross-legged on a circle of banana leaves with our guide as translator. After awhile, Max signaled that it was ok to take pictures – one at a time.

When it was Jack’s turn, a teen boy looked at his big black Nikon with fascination. Jack held it out to him, then showed him how to look through the viewfinder. At first wary, then puzzled the boy turned left and right looking through the magic lens at each of us in turn.  Jack motioned for me to stand up, then showed the boy how zoom in for a close-up. The boy’s smile of wonder lit our circle like a sunrise. Then I held my camera up framing him in the viewfinder. He laughed and with almost simultaneous clicks, we snapped pictures of each other.

Mlabri boy with camera
A Mlabri teen takes my picture

That day I felt the power of connection, of shared stories, laughter, and music to bridge the unfathomable gaps in culture and geography, even time, our 20th century outlook to their life anchored in the stone age. I like to think our visit was a positive experience for our yellow leaf friends, the gifts of food and medicine a palliative, if only temporary, to their harsh life.

The Mlabri were unknown to outsiders until 1938. By the 1970s, guerrilla wars and escalating deforestation forced them into smaller and smaller territories. By the late 1990s they had nowhere left to go. Those who survived–perhaps as few as 300 or 400–were near starvation and ill from pesticides sprayed in the forests.



Colorful hammocks made by the Mlabri today and available on-line

The yellow leaf people are no longer found in the forest, their way of destroyed by encroaching modernity. But as a people they have survived and adapted. With help from missionaries and NGOs over more than 20 years, the Mlabri have settled in villages, have won the right to Thai citizenship and with it the right to education and health care.

They’ve also developed a micro-industry making had-woven cotton hammocks in a range of vibrant colors. The hammocks are available in the Mlabri village and on-line at It pleased me to think my holiday shopping might help support our yellow-leaf friends. So, avid Internet shopped that I am, I pushed “add to cart” and ordered two.

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