Taoist mythology, Lanna history, mythology, the nature of time and other considered ramblings

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Location: Chiangrai, Chiangrai, Thailand

Author of many self-published books, including several about Thailand and Chiang Rai, Joel Barlow lived in Bangkok 1964-65, attending 6th grade with the International School of Bangkok's only Thai teacher. He first visited ChiangRai in 1988, and moved there in 1998.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

More on Lanna

The British and the Teak Trade

Traditionally, Lanna forests belonged to the ruler of the nearest city. Anyone harvesting logs needed the ruler’s permission first. Initially the Royal Court in Bangkok wasn’t concerned, but as logging business increased problems arose. There were few if any fixed regulations; concessions overlapped, taxes weren’t clearly delineated and little could be clarified through local courts. Rapid growth in the logging industry resulted in increasing timber value; the amounts concerned became substantial. Struggles related to overlapping concessions became frequent, demanding much legal attention. Strife, banditry and murder in border areas increased significantly. The British Government asked for help from the Bangkok central administration, which feared the British might attempt to take control of the area and hadn’t the power to repel them.
In 1855, King Mongut approved a Treaty of Friendship and Commerce with Sir John Bowring, representative of Queen Victoria (and the British Foreign Office, rather than of one of its Asian colonies or trading companies). Trade with Europeans had been closely restricted for the first half of the 1800s, but as Mongut both wanted and needed friendship with Britain, they got more concessions than had ever been given foreigners before. Siamese royal trading monopolies, except in opium, were abolished (it was Chinese businessmen bore the brunt of this loss, after less than 2 years). British subjects gained rights to buy land and import opium, and were put under an extraterritorial legal system. British subjects became answerable only to the British Consul in Bangkok (in the event, this proved to be just for British nationals, instead of for all British subjects, as claimed). This was in accord with Southeast Asian maritime tradition, in which each community of foreign merchants, including Chinese, was under supervision of a top representative, with whom local leaders would deal exclusively. Within seven years, similar treaties were made with France, the USA, Denmark, Portugal, Holland and Prussia, but Britain, because of Burma, remained most significant. In 1868, Bowring helped make similar treaties giving Siam direct relations with Belgium, Italy, Norway and Sweden (instead of with colonial officers). But Britain was the big winner - Singapore and Hong Kong sent regular ships, and the British Bombay-Burmah Corporation got the lion’s share of teak.
Lanna’s thick teak forests had interested the British since the late 1820s. British subjects came to ChiangMai to purchase elephants, oxen and buffalo in 1829, when, for three decades, they had been establishing themselves in Burma - by 1826 they were well settled in (as part of British India) and harvesting teak along the Salween River. Rama III granted British commercial logging access to the then economically listless Chiang Mai area, but as forests were under the control of competing local leaders, problems and misunderstandings arose and some British subjects were murdered. Northern rulers could do little to deflect British military advances into their area, and a rift between Bangkok and ChiangMai grew. The British demanded compensation from Chiang Mai princes for losses due to lawlessness in the heavily forested frontier areas, but power brokers in Bangkok merely tried to use delaying tactics to balance British and Lanna needs. As Siam modernized under Mongut, ChiangMai become less isolated; for half a century, Lanna had enjoyed much autonomy, but with the arrival of a postal service (1883) and of international business, Chiang Mai found itself drawn more closely into Siamese politics.
Taxes from the principle cities of Lanna (ChiangMai, Phrae, Nan, Lampang and Lamphun) included teakwood of an amount dependant on the size of the city. In addition to the annual tributes and taxes levied, Bangkok had the right to materials, especially teak, required for important ceremonies and construction. For this, the central government usually sent gifts in return, but in event of war, Lanna was required to send conscripts, without compensation.
Phra Chao Kawila (1781-1816) was followed by his brother Phraya Thammalangka (Chao Chang Phuak, ruled 1816-1821), who, from givingb King Rama II a white elephant was promoted to become Phraya Chiang Mai Chang Phuak (Chao Chang Phuak). A third ‘Jet Ton’ ruler, Phraya Kham Fan (Chao Luang Sethi), ruled 1821-1825. Phraya Phutthawong (Chao Luang Phaen Din Yen, ‘King of the Peaceful Land’ from 1825-1846), administered the city longer, with intellect rather than strength. The city enjoyed peace in large part because of Burmese fighting with the British, but also because rivals in Lamphun and Lampang were also terrified of the British, already starting to log teak along the border. When Phraya Mahawong (Phra Chao Mahotara Prathet, fifth of the Jet Ton lineage), ruled (1847-1854), there was warfare with the Burmese again. Money from logging allowed Chiang Mai to expand territory and regional authority.
Rama V, to avoid military conflict with British Burma, established a system of bi-national courts and a Chiang Mai Royal Commissioner. In 1883, a second “Treaty of Chiang Mai” specified that British subjects could be heard only in international courts, or Consular Courts when appropriate, and the British opened a Chiang Mai Consulate. From 1890 to World War II, about 20,000 logs were produced per year in Lanna, cut to maximum possible length. After the war, until 1955, this resumed, but then there was partial nationalization, which became total in 1960 (under the Royal Forestry Department).

The first Governor of Mae Hong Son, Chankalea, appointed in 1874, a Tai Yai, was given the title Phraya Singhanartraja. In Mae Hong Son, the unique “Pan Soi” Shan architectural style, roofs built with multi-tiered cascades and embellished with fretwork, almost gives the appearance of gables upturned a bit at corners and ends (all really quite square), still remains common.
Burma became a British colony in 1886; this included the Shan States. Before the French took Indochina (including Lan Sang), T’ais lost control of Chiang Rung; only the Siamese part of Lanna still had control of its own economic, political, social and cultural affairs – but it had to pay tribute, including gold and silver trees, teakwood and military conscripts, to the Siamese Royal Court, and accept increased commerce, influence and interchange with Bangkok.
As the teak-logging industry grew in the mid-19th century, officials from Bangkok became more and more important; records indicate much resentment to abuse of power. Increases in Siamese hegemony were fiercely resisted until the death of Prince Kavilorot (Phra Jao Kawiloros Suriyavong; Kawilorotsuriyawong or Chao Chiwit Ao, ruled 1856-1870). In his reign, insufficient regulation of logging caused a backlog of lawsuits. Kawilorot was a harsh ruler; subjects suffered much corporal punishment, including many beheadings, but he refused to attend ceremonies for visiting Siamese princes, exchanged embassies with Burma, and honored spirit ceremonies. After his death, annual ceremonies to ancestor spirits, at city pillars, ended; Bangkok imposed direct control, and Jao Intanon (IndraWichayanon, Chao Luang Ta Khao, 1871-1897) reigned. He set up a school for girls (and another for boys). The last independent ruler, he had little power, but his wife, Chao Thep Kraison (Princess Tipkesawn), a daughter of Kawilorot, was highly skilled in bureaucratic affairs, and assisted him with much success for 13 years. Despite no formal learning, she and her sister Princess Ubonwanna were great traders, among the biggest in Siam. Women traditionally handled local trade, but only in the 1880s did they start learning letters – first taught by American female Presbyterian missionaries. Intanon and Tipkeson’s daughter Chao Dara Rasami (or Rassama), at 13 in 1886, became a consort of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V). Rama V accomplished many wonders for Siam, but his regent Somdet Chaophraya Si Suriawong (Chuang Bunnag, 1868 to 1873, with continuing strong influence until 1883) systematically usurped Lanna power. When he became the fully empowered king, Chulalongkorn incorporated Lanna into Siam (1892), and in 1908 made Dara Rassama Queen. Jet Ton ruler #8, Chao Noi Suriwongmekha, became Jao Inthaworot Suriwong (1901-09), and through Queen Dara Rassami developed closer ties with Bangkok, often bringing up musical and performing arts from there.
In 1884 mail service became regular: every two weeks. Before, international mail came through Moulmein, and for years after, private contractors carried much of the mail. The telegraph reached Chiang Mai sometime between 1885 and 1888. By 1905 there were (unreliable) telephones.
British subjects involved with logging in Lanna continued initiating many lawsuits, more were murdered; these problems had to be dealt with in Bangkok, as local commissioners lacked significant power. Administrative reform was unavoidable, and the ‘monthon’ (circle of administration) was produced, combining most Lanna city/states. Chiang Mai, Lamphun, Lampang, Phrae, Nan and Thoeng became Monthon Lao Chiang. Then later, Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son (established 1831) were put with Chiang Mai and Lamphun as Monthon Phayap; this became a ‘monton thesaphiban’ with royal resident commissioner in 1899. Nan, Phrae and Lampang were changed into Monton Maharat, and Lanna schools became required to use only the central Thai alphabet and dialect.
When Lanna was annexed to Siam (1892), there were powerful British Consulates in Lampang, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Nan. A forestry service was set up to reduce international legal complications, but the British remained rather more exploitative than co-operative. The Chao Muang hereditary rulers became but honorary figures, and the last of the Chiang Mai nobility, Chao Kaew Nawarat, though called Chief of State, never had any administrative authority. His main function was to preside at certain spirit ceremonies. He died in 1939. The last prince of Lampang, Chao Boonyawat Wongmanit, died in 1922. Prince Maha Promsurathada of Nan died in 1931. The 9th and last Chiang Mai Prince (“Ruler”), Major General Jao Kaeo Nawarat, was granted the surname suffix “na Chiang Mai” by Rama VI, for all Jao Jet Ton descendents. When Kaeo Nawarat died, his post was dissolved. The last prince of Lamphun, Chao Chakrakam Kajornsakdi, died in 1943.

At the beginning of the 20th century, tigers were still sometimes seen, even inside the major cities of Chiang Rai. The population of the area which became the present province had been reduced to about 5000, with perhaps 500 in the city at Doi Jom Tong. Chiang Saen City had about 70 residents; some of whom were wanted criminals. King Rama V ordered further resettlement, but malaria, hepatitis, and other swams and jungle diseases made for grave difficulties. Roads were poorly maintained: journeys from Bangkok to Chiang Mai took over three weeks, occasionally even three months. From Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai took about two weeks. The lengthy period of warfare had taken a toll still obvious a hundred years later, the Golden Age all but forgotten.

From Dark Times to Modern Times

Lanna had been a vibrant, bright, important center of civilization for about 250 years, then entered almost 500 years of decline, stagnation and insignificance. China no longer expanding, and Europe waking from a millennia of post-Roman fighting for spoils to take interest in the East and thus the Americas, many coastal areas were rapidly and dramatically changing, but Lanna experienced doldrums with little change aside from the introduction of tobacco (which quickly became a wildly popular habit). Many things were undergoing rapid change elsewhere, and from the Americas came chili peppers, tomatoes and corn, markedly altering, and improving, Thai diet. But modern, manufactured things, including shoes and money, as we know it, only started to become familiar in Chiang Mai and north Thailand about 100 years ago. People in the countryside encountered little of the modern until the time of the War of Japanese Aggression (WWII). Rama V, though, determined to modernize his kingdom, began a century of progress, and the north was formally integrated into Siam a year before France took Laos (1893). Societies of loose confederations were over. Resistance to cultural standardization, though, remains, here as in Burma and Laos (Burma gained independence right after WWII, Laos in 1954).
Christian missionaries and clergymen began helping plan educational, medical and health matters, construction and town mapping. The most important person in planning the modern Chiang Rai city was an American, Dr. William A. Briggs, founder of Overbrook Hospital. He mapped out official building areas for business, residences, recreation, hospitals, a prison, and a military camp, with a drainage ditch around the town (1900-1918), while also bringing medicines to fight the diseases which killed so many.
Early on, officials from Bangkok, come to implement the new administrative structures, didn’t help much. They imposed harshly excessive taxes, supposedly meant to replace corvée labor – but traditional demands for unpaid labor didn’t end. In July 1902 Shan ruby miners, teak workers and road builders, nominally British subjects in an area economically dominated by the British, rebelled, seizing Chiang Mai and killing over 20 officials there. Others rebels beheaded the Siamese governor at Phrae, sacked the town and murdered all Siamese they could find. They marched on Lampang with Phrae’s hereditary ruler, revolted in Nan and attacked Chiang Rai, but were defeated by Dr Briggs and companions, barricaded in their hospital with a canon. A good shot as the rebels crossed a moat-bridge caused them to flee.
Those rebels had fantasized establishing their own independent state. Whether this was to be a revival of Lanna is unclear; there is a Shan belief in a King Surakhanfa the Great (1291 – 1364) who ruled Ahom, Dali, Keng Tung, Chiang Saen, Luang Prabang, Lampun, Sukhotai, Chiang Mai, Pegu, Ava and even Mergui (way to the south). Shans claim to have ruled the Ava Kingdom (including Assam and Lampun) until 1555. This rendition excludes any idea of Lanna, except as other Shan principalities. At the time of the rebellion, Indian and Chinese money was at least as common as Siamese (similarly as Thai and Chinese money is used in Shan State now). The Siamese and the few remaining Khon Muang (Lanna people), quite equally, saw themselves as distinct. Perhaps the Shan workers expected not only local, but also British support. They didn’t get it, and vengeance by Siamese troops under Field Marshall Surasak was ruthless. The rebellion lasted barely 14 months; many innocents were punished for it. In December 1905, Prince Vajiravudh, who became Rama VI, visited Chiang Rai. Royal authority from Bangkok was becoming solidified. As King, Rama VI required surnames for all – sometimes whole villages were given the same last name!
When the northern rail route reached the Lanna area (Pitsanulok in 1907, Lampang in 1916 and Chiang Mai variously reported as 1919 or 1922), control from Bangkok became quite fully, and firmly, set. King Rama VII came to visit in January 1926. Rice was now produced for sale (cash was necessary for taxes). With expansion of rice cultivation, a new problem of landlessness appeared: in 1930, 27% of northern farming families had no land. Only the area around Chiang Mai had significant commercial economy; the rest of the north remained subsistence oriented. Unfortunately, the government didn’t help, but only induced local leaders to act as its agents. Cash capitalism came parasitically, imposed from without. In the first Thai economics text, published 1911, Phraya Surinuwat wrote that farmers were “really laboring as if for the benefit of another group of people.” Things have improved, but the wide-spread use of credit now has a majority of farmers are paying heavy interest.

Opium was used in early Siam, not only medicinally, but to calm war elephants and make them more handle-able in battle. In the same year that the British started cutting teak (1826), a British merchant tried to sell opium imported to Bangkok illegally (from India, via Singapore), but wasn’t successful.
Chinese working in Southeast Asia are documented smoking opium in Java as early as the 1620s; in 1702 Siam got laws rewarding help confiscating opium. Rama I prohibited both consumption and trade in it. But in 1855, emboldened by success in China and advances into Burma and the Malay peninsula, Britain forced the Bowring Treaty on Siam; as mentioned above; this gave British subjects exemption from Thai legal and made opium a legal commodity (supposedly, anyway), with no import duty. In reality opium was made legal only for un-naturalized ethnic Chinese. An opium tax soon brought in over 15% of tax revenues. In 1906 an Opium Department was established, so the government could distribute, sell and supervise opium dens. In the dens, not only opium, but tea, was served. Thais preferred betel (which Rama VI began to discourage about 1930, while also encouraging a change to more modern clothing).
In 1824 tea plants in India had first been noticed by Westerners, growing in frontier hills between Burma and Assam state; but in the 1830s, tea still came only from China. Indian (or Ceylon) tea has come to dominate the world market, but back then tea was still a Chinese thing; the British still needed to learn the process by which it’s cured, to produce it for themselves and their trading partners. After many botched attempts, they succeeded in the 1860s, and began to produce tea in Assam and Darjeeling, northeastern India. But to finance their taste for tea, the British long found only opium, to provide them with a trade balance. Homegrown opium, eaten rather than smoked, had long supplied most Chinese needs; the British changed this by introducing tobacco, soon often smoked with opium. Britain accounted for over 80% of the opium smuggling trade – ‘necessary’ to meet its demand for tea; eventually they resorted to force to continue bringing opium from India to China (the “Opium Wars”).
In 1793, British ambassador Lord Macartney collected shoots of tea plants and took them Bengal, with samples of soil where they’d grown; Macartney achieved little towards friendly relations, or trust, between China and Britain – and subsequent embassies weren’t as well treated. Opium smuggling became totally out of control, and relations between Britain and China became unstable (when not openly hostile).
By the mid-1830s opium had become the most traded single commodity in the world. In early 1800s Siam, its popularity was largely due to Chinese laborers come to work constructing canals across the central plains. Soon there were many working on boats and docks, as laborers, craftsmen, rice millers, tobacco growers and shop-workers. Siam’s Chinese population became the largest in Southeast Asia, reaching 440,000 in 1821 (and constituting half of Bangkok by 1880), and with the Chinese came opium. In 1811 King Rama II banned its sale and consumption; in 1839 Rama III ordered the death penalty for major traffickers. But legislative efforts failed, especially as British merchant captains, even before Bowring, were largely immune to prosecution; if a British captain was arrested, the British embassy pressed for his release, and soon the captain could smuggle in another cargo. In 1852, King Mongkut bowed to British pressure and established a royal opium franchise, leased to a wealthy Chinese.
Pressed for revenues to finance public works, European colonial governments in Asia established opium farms, then leased them to Chinese merchants. By 1900, each Southeast Asian state, from Burma to the Philippines, had either an opium monopoly or an officially licensed franchise. In 1905-1906, opium sales provided 16% of taxes for French Indochina, 16% for the Netherlands Indies, 20% for Siam, and a whopping 53% for British Malaya. In 1930, Southeast Asia had 6,441 government opium dens, serving tons of opium to 542,100 registered smokers, but it didn’t become a significant opium producer until the 1950s. Poppy cultivation spread in the highlands during the decades before World War II, but the region remained a minor producer – mostly due to state monopoly fears of lowered prices.
In 1892, the Thai government for 16% of its revenues from opium taxes; that rose to over 20% in 1908, and from 1912 to 1919, then dropped back. In 1927, opium shops were made state owned. A 1938 Opium Act ordered severe penalties for smuggling or illicit dealing, but in 1939 permits were given to hill-tribe people in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Nan provinces, to grow opium for the government. After WWII, imports from India and Turkey resumed; in 1959 opium was again made completely illegal.
That under 1% of the population (57,500 opium smokers were counted in 1939, 71,200 in 1941… realistically, there may have been 2 or 3 times that) supplied 15 to even 24% of revenues, especially as many of those taxed were rickshaw pullers and very low-wage laborers, may defy credulity, but one must note that cash, and tax, were then of smaller general significance. Corveé labor, import duties, the benefits of land control, spoils of war and perhaps other matters (including bribes) may have had greater significance.
When Britain finally abandoned the Asian drug trade in 1907, opium was as entrenched as coffee, tea and alcohol. China's harvest of over 35,000 tons supplied 13.5 million addicts, 27% of its adult males, and represented about 85% of world production. A League of Nations eradication campaign in 1925 got governments to restrict imports and close opium dens, but smugglers serviced the continued demand. Thailand and Indochina couldn’t close their mountainous borders to caravan trade from Yunnan; with 50 % of the region's smokers and 70% of its dens, Bangkok and Saigon were premier markets.

In 1932, largely in response to the worldwide Great Depression, Siamese absolute monarchy came to an end. For 25 years there was little royal influence in affairs of state. It was a time of difficulties, coups, quickly changing international affiliations, and three and a half years of Japanese occupation. In 1933 Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Phayao became regular provinces of Siam, which in 1939 (and again in 1949) changed its name to Thailand. Most foreigners in north Thailand escaped to Burma and on home when Japanese occupation came; the Japanese built hard-top roads, several small airports, and a modern one in Chiang Mai. Airplanes and trucks soon became integral to the economy, important to all.
In May 1942 the Thai took control of the Shan region around Keng Tung. These “United Shan States” or “Original Thai States” were recognized by treaty with Japan in August 1943. Sayaburi (Xaignabouri, or Muang Ngoen until taken from Siam in 1903) and Champasak, Laos, and Siem Riep and Battambang provinces, Cambodia, were reattached. Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945, and the Thai government began to restore prewar boundaries. Peace was established with Britain at the end of December, but only in January 1947 did Thailand return French colonial provinces.
Resumption of monarchy’s importance in Thai politics came in 1957. King Bumipon had snubbed Field Marshall Phibun Songkram, the wartime leader who’d welcomed the Japanese and returned to power in 1947, by avoiding all celebrations of the 2,500th anniversary of Buddhism. Then, on Sept 13, 1957, Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat and other army officers demanded that the government resign, and Major-General Phao Siyanon, Director of Police (the “Butcher of Bangkok”), be dismissed from office. During a public rally in support of this, a huge crowd marched to Sarit’s house. Phibun and Phao wanted to arrest Sarit, but couldn’t. In an inspired coup involving no deaths, Sarit’s supporters elevated him to the highest bureaucratic office, while forcing Phibun and Phao to flee. They took asylum in France (Sept. 17, 1957).
Since then, the king has had a quite visible public role. Re-securing the monarch’s position at the top of the social hierarchy, Sarit justified his regime with an original ideology based on paternalistic, traditional social and political hierarchy. Instead of emphasizing abstract loyalties to country or constitution, Sarit focused on respect for the monarch, with citizen loyalty as the source of legitimacy for government, the worldly part of a sacred monarchy. Social hierarchy, built up from the masses through the lower bureaucracy to higher officials and monarch, was reinforced. The king, restored to the top of moral, social and political orders, resumed service as the highest supporter of the country’s dominant religion, Buddhism, while also offering support to Islam.
Sarit tried to redefine democracy, calling it, for Thais, a system of government, bureaucracy and king, responsive to people’s needs and aspirations. Leaders were to act toward members of society as fathers toward children, concerned for their well being, but stern in discipline. A consequent attitude that those in authority needn’t explain difficult matters to others brought problems with accountability, consistency and transparency – problems which still hamper Thai efforts to successfully compete in the modern global economy. A long series of new constitutions seems to somehow fail to generate adequate checks and balances, local self-determination is too limited, and the educational system really not up to snuff. Powers battling in Bangkok are seldom of much real help to the countryside, where only strong cultural roots, hard work and co-operation enable a decent quality of life, for many, to survive.
Although the Japanese conscripted people of the northern Muang and built roads which penetrate the rough, mountainous Lanna area (roads still used today), and insisted on shoe wearing (as well as hats), they also encouraged opium production; a result was that the Northern area, outside of Chiang Mai, wasn’t safe to really open up until the 80s.
Military governments of the 50s, 60s and 70s alienated many free-thinkers, and after student uprisings of 1973 were brutally put down and dictatorship resumed in 1976, many radicals took to the hills of Northern Thailand to join in communist insurgency. When Mao Tse Dung’s victory put Mainland China under Communist government, an influx of anti-Communist Chinese had entered the Lanna area, mostly soldiers of Chiang Kai-shek’s Koumintang (KMT) army. In 1961 the Nationalist Chinese KMT’s “Lost Army” moved into Thailand, many to take up residence at Doi MaeSalong in Chiangrai, where Muslims of Chinese descent already lived. The KMT planted round pears (‘sali’), plums and tea.

Northern Thailand was still sparsely populated and undeveloped into the early 1970s, by which time drug money had become the dominant force and the area called the “Golden Triangle”. Communist activity kept the United States interested even after the Vietnam War; such interest increased proportional to American consumption of drugs produced in Tai Yai hills. Communist insurgency in the north wasn’t strong, in part due to drug-producing KMT army remnants, but in the early 60s, Thailand’s northern border had “unknown areas” and Opium Warlords even issued their own paper currency (until as late as 1984, in Huai Krai, 15 km south of Mae Sai on Highway1)! The various groups (Communists, drug armies and KMT) gave up their weapons during amnesty programs of the 1980s, and the area became amenable for tourism. The King’s mother, Princess Mother Sangwan Sri Nakarin, or colloquially, Mae Fa Luang &/or Somdet Ya, took great interest in the north, and did much to help end illicit drug production in Thailand.
In 1982 powerful drug-lord Khun Sa was pushed out, and by 1990, a Royal Foundation directed by the King’s Mother was successfully containing drug production. So drug lords in Shan State (including Khun Sa) increased output. Chiang Rai was still a small town and in many ways decades out of date (though not so much as Keng Tung, capital of Myanmar’s Shan State, remains today); the wife of a USA Drug Enforcement Agency agent’s was murdered in an attempt at intimidation &/or retribution, in town in the late 80s.
At that time, tea cultivation began to offer an alternative source of income to opium. Two principal varieties of tea have become common: the small-leaved China plant (C. sinensis sinensis) and the large-leaved Assam plant (C. sinensis assamica). Science indicates that tea production originated in Southeast Asia, in the mountains where China, Burma and Laos meet. Tea seems to have been first used in Yunnan, especially in its southern districts (Pu’er Prefecture and Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture – to Thais, Sipsongpanna). Its natural habitat is in the fan-shaped area between the Naga, Manipur and Lushai hills of the Assam–Burma frontier (to the west), through China and the Himalayan foothills of upper Burma and Thailand east to Chekiang Province and south into Vietnam and mountains of upper Cambodia. The three main varieties of the tea plant - Chinese, Assam and Cambodian - occur in their most distinct forms at the extremes of this fan-shaped area. Teas are classified by region of origin, by size of processed leaf, and, most importantly, by manufacturing processes, which produce fermented (black), unfermented (green), and semi-fermented (oolong or pouchong). Many hybrids between varieties are commonly found in most tea fields.
In the late 1980s, experts from Taiwan helped the ex-KMT upgrade to high-quality hybrids of Camellia sinesis, from which they produced the much more expensive Oolong (‘black dragon’) teas valued by connoisseurs. Oolong refers to a processing technique by which tea leaves are only slightly oxidized (green tea isn’t oxidized; black tea is fully oxidized). Live top leaves are collected on clear mornings, along with buds yet to blossom. These are steamed, "withering" the leaves, oxidizing them slightly. After the brief withering stage, the leaves are lightly rolled by hand, until red and fragrant. Machines are increasingly used, to roll the leaves into small balls, and dry them completely.
Research in the early 1990s found polyphenol antioxidants, beneficial to human health, in tea; they help lower blood cholesterol and reduce blood pressure. Tea also contains antibacterial agents, can relieve cold and flu symptoms, stimulate the cardio-vascular system, and even help fight cancer.
Thai ice-tea, cha-yen, made from strongly-brewed red tea, anise, coloring, sugar and milk, is much less traditional than nam bai-toei – usually drunken cool, without ice. While in China hot tea is drunk to cool one, in hotter climes this isn’t much done, and tea, except for weak Chinese tea for breakfast on cold days and in Chinese restaurants, didn’t become popular in Thailand until betel was actively discouraged and ice became commonly available.

At the turn to the 21st Century, the Wa attained a new significance in the local picture. Many relocated to areas just north of the Myanmar border, where they produce mass quantities of amphetamines for export to Thailand and elsewhere. Perhaps as many as 200,000 of these Wa are currently in the limbo of displaced people; tens of thousands of these were born in China. Many Lahu people have been evicted to make way for them, but as the government in Yangoon is interested in becoming less isolated, this may not result in a new refugee crisis.

Within the lifetime of some still living, fashions and styles here have changed from going barefoot, chewing betel or smoking cigars, bartering trade and wearing homemade cloth. A few countrywomen still smoke large, hand-made cigars, and skillful weaving remains common. In their youth, the elderly of the common folk had few manufactured things, didn’t use sinks, drawers or electricity, and had their maladies treated herbally. Modern changes began mostly at the time of the War of Japanese Aggression (WW II). The Japanese ion, and insisted on more modern apparel, but changes weren’t extreme until the late-60s. The first modern department store opened in the late 1950s (Tantrapanh). U.S. anti-communistic imperialism supplemented changes the Japanese introduced, and a growing availability of money produced ever more significant changes.
Even recently a household with a car or pick-up, and maybe even a computer, for better or for worse, may not have a western-style toilet (and the old-style ones are creditably called healthier). Closets, drawers and kitchen sinks and even shovels remain significantly new additions to the culture of the Lanna area, but self-sufficiency is now mostly limited to hill people, while the value of such self-reliance seems largely forgotten. The people who retain capacity for it seem generally regarded as backward. Some of those ‘backward’ self-sufficient repositories of knowledge, Bangkok power-brokers have proposed to exile to hopelessness in Myanmar (Burma). An insufficient number of people with influence may recognize the importance of local wisdom (or perhaps they’re only unable to eloquently express how this wisdom can rival the importance of contributing to the cash economy and government revenues), but few have been forced back, while more continue to come.

Yonok, Lanna and the Shan States couldn’t be precisely mapped because clearly delineated geographical boundaries weren’t an essential part of the old feudal system, not only in Asia but elsewhere too. A person had allegiance and loyalty to a protector, as did a village; princes were under kings who were subservient to emperors. The lines of modern patronage hierarchy may not be mapped, but in T’ai society position and rights are determined more by social factors than by geography. Mapping, surveying and private ownership of land were, after all, introduced only fairly recently. 500 years ago the world had very few well demarcated land boundaries; 150 years ago Thailand but little of Thailand’s border was well defined, and even today there remain areas with imprecise delineation. The rulers and decision-makers of the various Lanna tribes and cities formed their own sub-set, a society of its own but without a name. The wealthy and powerful could and did travel; but tended (as is commonly the case) to marry people of their own station. There was, of course, intermarriage between poorer individuals of abutting groups. Tribal realities tend to change after only a few generations; certainly this has been the case during the limited time of which we have documentation. Some local Lanna realities remain hard to express clearly in Western context.
The Thai in the late 19th century picked up notions of race and nationality from encroaching Europeans, and appropriated them in order to facilitate resistance to further encroachments. The “multi-ethnic” ethos had to bend, in order to accommodate, or counter, European dogma. The French excuse for annexing Laos, that it was part of Vietnam for having paid tribute, was, and remains, shockingly irrelevant to anything but bulldog diplomacy. From 1900, tribal groups were discouraged from maintaining separate identities; amalgamation became part of the serious business of national security and sovereignty, imperative even if not entirely successful. When the tourism boom reached the north in the 1980s, colorful hill-tribes became a more obviously valuable (and marketable!) asset, and that changed somewhat, while forces of globalization stepped in to maintain the trend towards homogenization. But there’s a lot of local pride, and some things have begun to change back from the recent tendency to material myopia.
Northern homes traditionally were built of teak, with beautiful Galae horns at the peak, and walls sloping gently outward, but cement has replaced wood as the preferred construction material. Fifty years ago, building materials here were mostly natural. Then cement became an increasingly powerful force in Thai politics and industry, taking a dominant place in construction until the country was overbuilt. Many a never-occupied row of shop-houses remains empty, and many projected housing projects remain noticeable because of their abandoned gateways. Quite recently, however, a renewed reverence for aesthetics and grace seems to be becoming increasingly more in evidence. Tribal homes are still often of bamboo, with grass roofs, but more and more use cement, tile and corrugated manganese. Some traditional style raised houses combining modern convenience with old minimalist technologies alleviate need for air conditioning – in these mosquito netting usually remains fairly imperative!

A decade-plus of economic boom (until 1997, then reviving after 2002, while looking as if now headed for another bust) brought a flood of development to the Chiangrai area. Many pleasant vacation homes were built for people who live and work in the Bangkok area. Hotels went up, the city expanded, communication services and other infrastructure were improved, and traffic jams began to appear. The Asian Economic Downturn of the late ‘90s mostly affected projects perhaps not so well considered anyway. The politics of cement contributed significantly to the economic downturn: politicians with business ties in construction, materials supply and banking encouraged issuance of myriad construction loans which produced some temporary employment but also a lot of wasted effort. In the Lanna/Golden Triangle area there are still drugs, warlords, subversives and corrupt elements, but the biggest of such problems reside across the Burmese and Lao borders. Un-collectable debt may now be the biggest local problem, although in the face of the same problem internationally, it’s been said that Thai banks and financial institutions learned from the 1997 “Thaitanic” (lending) fiasco, and are sufficiently well underwritten to withstand the global economic crisis of 2009 (at any rate, the worst risk takers went out of business back then). There remains danger from too much credit use, especially for the purchase of vanity status symbols (like oversized pick-ups). Still, development is certainly on-going, and most people are happy with better housing, communication and transportation, despite the petulant protests of some (who may have a good point about the Bangkok power structure, but haven’t presented a viable alternative).
Turmoil in Bangkok has repercussions in the north, but is a really big deal only in ChiangMai. For the rest, local community is more important, and although there is impact from globalization, it is limited. People know their neighbors, share in worship with them, and buy local products from people whose names they know. Children play freely with other kids from nearby, without adult supervision or danger, or, at least, very little danger, and people are often seen smiling. Quality of life is as good as anywhere, cost of living low, the weather rather more than tolerable, and life generally relaxed. There are problems, but maybe fewer of them than anywhere else.

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