David A. Taylor
Traffic in a Thai Forest
Gomen, our mahout, wears a pink sarong over his shoulder. It’s a keepsake from his girlfriend, so he can feel her near him while he’s away on trips like this one. She lives a half-day journey from his village, and he plans to make that trip as soon as he’s gotten us back to the roadhead, where vans will take us back to the city. Gomen is also the name of a popular character in Thai fairy tales. Our elephant’s name is Toon, she’s twenty years old. Gomen has implied, as delicately as he can, that maybe because Toon is big, none of the males have mated with her.
“Twenty years old and still a virgin!” jokes Leela, my partner on Toon. Leela is a Thai-Chinese professional from Bangkok. “Maybe she doesn’t like any of them?”
“I don’t know.” Gomen shrugs without turning back to us, clearly uncomfortable with this kind of joking, and with a city woman.
In Thailand, the forest has always been a refuge for spirits, outlaws and wild beasts, with its own hierarchy of chaos, a fearsome refuge far from that other fearsome hierarchy, the city. Sort of like the world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Of the three of us, only Gomen is at home in the forest, and his view of it is almost completely inverted from what we city folks know. For us, the forest feels sensual, unbridled, unpredictable. For him it’s as reliable as a traffic light.
The dozen of us on this trip to a waterfall in northern Thailand, organized by a naturalist group called the Siam Society, is a mixed bag. Roughly half of us are western expats, and the other half are middle-to upper-class Thais. I started from Chiang Mai, the country’s second largest city and the main city of the north, where I edit forestry publications while my wife teaches at the university. In October when this trip came up, I realized it was my chance to visit a remote part of the Thai forest I’d otherwise never see before it disappeared. Everyone else came from Bangkok, the ultimate big city.
The group that gathered was restive at first. We spent the first evening in huts at the roadhead, swapping war stories of Bangkok traffic, uncoiling shell-shocked nerves from the city’s lane dividers, listening to crickets. At a place called Mae Hod (“Headless”) Hill we watched the sunset, but the gabbling of voices overwhelmed the scene. I waited behind while the others went back down the hill, and noticed one person still listening, a striking woman with pale skin and dark hair named Ariella.
“They’re so noisy, they don’t know that’s part of the beauty.” She pointed to the air, the quiet.
That night I had a strange dream. Maybe it was due to the aphrodisiac of travel, or the sensory load of the forest. I was sitting with a woman whose make-up was pale with blue-green graffitti squiggles. Her features (aquiline nose, the arc of her eyebrows) resembled Ariella’s, but her manner was warm, her outfit cut away at the hip. I knelt at a level below her. I couldn’t take my hand from her hip. Without thinking, I kissed her knee.
When I woke up I was cold. We were hustled out of our sleeping bags for rice porridge, and prepared for a half-day raft trip into the forest.
Now on the second day, Leela and I rock along front to back in our howdah, cramped by wooden bars across back and front (it was made for baggage, not passengers). Gomen reaches up and strips a handful of leaves and stems from the branch of a tree. He hands us a cluster of small, greenish berries, some turning purple. They taste sweet and sour.
Gomen seems to know all the edible plants in the forest. He points to some yellow, grapefruit-sized spheres on the ground. Leela asks if they’re grapefruit.
“Som oh paa may,” Gomen says -- "forest grapefruit" -- perhaps finding no other name for them that Leela and I -- city people -- might know.
Another stumbling block in our conversation involves the name of the group that Gomen belongs to. My Thai is passable, but I don’t recognize Leela’s word -- it sounds like "galleong" -- and so I ask again.
“He’s local people,” Leela says impatiently, as if I would neither recognize nor be concerned with a minority group’s name. She has a fair basis for thinking that. (Later I’ll learn he’s Karen, the largest ethnic minority in northern Thailand. Speculation on the origin of the different names for the Karen is sketchy—some suggest that "Karen" is related to the Sanskrit kirata, meaning barbarian tribes, mountaineers, outcasts. The Karen refer to themselves with terms that mean people.)
Other food passes almost within our reach —- a pear-shaped fruit, a light waxy green, grazed my fingertips just above us. Gomen says it’s edible. He’s said that about a lot of things: a kind of bamboo, ferns (the cook cut a bunch beside the stream last night and we had had them in our orange curry), forest bananas, a small, hard eggplant. Gomen says that a Karen can go through the forest for days without carrying food, eating only what they find on the way.
Earlier this morning we met an old man from another village on the path. He wore a headwrap and had rope-hard legs. At first I thought his legs were splattered with dried mud, but then I realized those patches on his thighs were square blocks of tattoos. He lit up a cheroot, prompting Gomen to light a cigarette (after asking if we’d mind). “Uncle,” as Gomen called the man, seemed to be going our way. For a while Uncle carried one of our water jugs, allegedly to lighten the load for one of the younger elephants, but he promptly opened the spigot and drained it into his mouth as he walked.
“Uncle!” laughed Gomen, shaking his head.
When Leela asked about Uncle’s name, Gomen shrugged and suggested she ask him herself. But when she asked where he was from, Gomen knew immediately, and pointed off to the left.
Leela called down to Uncle, “What’s your name?”
He replied slowly, as if he hadn’t used it for a long time.
Uncle’s too old to be a mahout, Gomen explains, because the job requires that you keep moving all the time. Gomen is always rocking his legs behind Toon’s ears, directing her to left or right with a nudge of his foot on the underside, turning around backwards to adjust the chains around her neck. They are strong-gauge chains, thicker than snow-chains back home, and they must be a tremendous length because they make an eight-strand necklace around Toon’s neck and hang nearly to her knees, one wrapped around a front ankle. Occasionally Gomen scrambles around to lift strands out of the way of her feet. He tells us that the chains remind her that she’s a servant, and not wild. If she should ever be set free or “retired,” the chains will come off.
Later that day, we disembark for a raft ride downstream, and then an hour’s hike before meeting up again with the elephants. I walk part of the way with Pim, an attractive, well-educated Thai in her late twenties, from a family rich enough to send her to England for studies. She’s a jewelry maker and tells me about the ethnic look that she aims for in her jewelry, and about her work for humane societies. She volunteers her artwork for one organization that reintroduces monkeys and other domesticated animals back into the wild. She told me of the terrible conditions of the Bangkok Zoo, and how some animal owners abandon them at the zoo’s entrance. The thoughtlessness pains her. “If we considered our Buddhism…” Her voice trails off.
She’s amazed by the legs of our guides. “Embarrassing!” she exclaims. “I go to the gym every day. Look at him,” she nodded toward our Karen guide, “‘Excuse me, what gym do you go to?’” she asks self-mockingly. Her English does not even register on him.
Pim would rather avoid burdening the elephants. But we’re told that, because of the river crossings, steep slopes, lack of road and knee-deep mud, we have to get back into the howdahs later. That evening Pim talks with another of our guides at the camp. He tells her that until he was 15 or so, he used to kill everything -- monkeys, snakes, tigers. Then he went to a training sponsored by the Wildlife Fund of Thailand. Now he wears a conservation green T-shirt (along with his Karen headscarf) and says he kills nothing.
Environmental awareness has been growing quickly in the past decade among both urban and rural Thais. Wildlife Fund Thailand and other groups have conducted courses for village headmen, Buddhist monks, and youth groups. The most effective classes are often talks by Buddhist monks, some of them “ecology monks,” who live in traditional forest temples.
Abbot Pitak lives in northern Nan Province. After traveling around Thailand and talking with other monks, he became deeply involved in the ecology movement, taking it further to the people of his own rural origins in the north. (Before Buddhism came to Thailand a thousand years ago, animism and reverence for forest spirits provided a basis for northern villages to respect and manage forests. These rules were codified into law in the twelfth century A.D. They forbade, for example, cutting another village’s sacred forest grove, where the spirits of watershed live and cremations take place. These rules still influence how northern villagers view their forest. The huge Ficus tree in the cremation ground that I pass daily near our home in Chiang Mai is often freshly wrapped in colorful chiffon. Food and incense are placed in the small spirit house before it in exchange for cures and favors.) Born in 1958, Abbot Pitak grew up in the hill village of Giew Muang with no school or temple. He walked to school in a nearby village. When he was 17 years old he returned to Giew Muang to start a village temple, and soon discovered that the village headman had been using the temple to embezzle wood for his own profit. Confronted with the young monk’s unusually direct questions, the headman fled.
In 1991, Abbot Pitak ordained the village forest in Giew Muang, some 4,000 acres, with the authority of the monkhood. He used both Buddhist and animist ceremonies to protect it from people who wanted to cut the trees down for cash.
“There is nothing as sacred or that the villagers respect more than a Buddha image,” the abbot said. “So we brought a Buddha image and placed it under the [largest tree]... But they fear the spirits. If you engage both respect and fear, villagers won’t dare cut down the trees.”
After the ordination, four men who violated the rules died suddenly. It was said that they went pit phii -— against the forest spirits.
In the evening after dinner, I swim in the stream near camp. It’s green and paralyzingly cold, and I wonder how it will be upstream at the waterfall.
Later at dinner, when Ariella sits near me, the memory of my dream makes me awkward and stilted. Nick, to my left, asks her what brings her to Thailand.
“My love for Pierre,” she replies. Pierre is the thin, brooding artist at the next table. The men at our table are reduced to silent swigs from their beers.
Ariella talks about the meditation retreat she attended in southern Thailand: ten days of silence, instruction and meditation. She has spoken with many forest monks, she says. She will give me the address of the monastery.
After dinner, I walk off from the camp to the stream and look down at the glistening, shifting skin of water and above at the half moon, the stars outside the moon’s territory. When I return, Leela and Pim are among the last still talking near the campfire. They offer to read my palm. Pim holds my hand up to the flashlight.
“Very complicated,” Pim says. “Lots of women. Are you married?”
“And you don’t have a mistress?”
“Then you will have one very soon. And a supporter -- see this parallel line? When you get in trouble, there will always be someone who will help you out of it.”
Finally Pim lets my hand fall. “Too complicated,” she says, “too many lines.”
I’m liking the buzz that this forest gives. Everything seems possible.
Mark, another American, plunks down on the other side of the picnic table, his face lit by the lamp and by the local moonshine. Mark speaks Thai fluently, with a brusqueness that sounds arrogant. He knows I work with forestry scientists and asks me what I think of the forest we walked through earlier. I say I think it’s degraded forest, all the largest trees have been cut down.
“That’s what I thought,” he says with irritation. “I hate that scrub.”
“How long have you been in Thailand?” Leela asks Mark, hearing his Thai.
“Since last Friday,” he answers. In fact he came to Thailand in the ‘70s with the Peace Corps and extended his stay, working in a refugee camp on the Mekong River. Now he teaches in Los Angeles and arranges exchange programs with Thai universities.
On the third morning, the forest grows thicker as we approach the waterfall, deep in the protected area of the national forest, with more and more trees over five feet in diameter soaring above the smaller vines and branches of the understory. Besides the dipterocarps and a few remaining teak giants, there’s a wide variety of others. On exemplary trunks the Park Service has posted small signs with the plant’s botanical name hand-painted in green: Bischovia javanica, Erythrina species, Laegerstroemia, Gmelina arborea and Artocarpus lakoocha.
From editing forestry papers, I have learned many of these Latin names and seen their photos, but they had remained distant and mythic. They’re hard to find these days. Actually touching these wild colossi is, for me, like entering a party of reclusive screen stars. Silent screen stars. “They're much bigger in person,” I want to say.
But Thi Lo Su waterfall overwhelms us all. It breaks over the side of a cliff where its power and water spills into green, milky pools in the undergrowth. We swim in the largest pool, where the waterfall’s cold force gusts spray across the surface. I gape upward with the others shivering on the rocks. I admire it all, and try not to stare at Ariella in her bikini.
Gomen points out an offering place we pass, about the size of a child’s jungle gym, made of bamboo and forest flowers. “For honoring the spirits,” he says.
The Karen and the other minority "hill tribes" are often blamed (sometimes with reason) for Thailand’s deforestation. Among these groups, however, the Karen show a unique appreciation of the value of the forest and do a much better job of maintaining ecological stability than many other groups in Southeast Asia. The Karen in many remote villages still manage their traditional collective forests and a set of smaller woodlot fallows in their upland rice fields. There, villagers tromp out together to mark forest boundaries and designate areas to protect, including the cremation ground and watershed forest, where everyone must plant at least one tree each year. These rites are grounded in their animism and the spirits of the watershed (phii khun nam).
Confronted with intense land speculation and illegal logging, many villages have strengthened these traditions; in other villages, they are being overwhelmed by the need or desire for cash. Village forests are being sold to speculators and cut. For this reason many officials say that villagers -- especially groups like the Karen -- can’t be trusted. And in turn the Karen distrust government officials. As a taxi driver in Chiang Mai told me, “These trees are big, it’s not like you can put one in your briefcase and walk out. It can only happen with authorities taking a cut.”
Thailand has banned logging for years, but logging operations just over the borders in Burma and Cambodia continue to lend cover to illegal logging within Thailand, and the huge trucks that bring the logs to mills.
Riding on Toon, we pass a freshly cut stump roughly three feet across. For me, this is clear evidence of a mercenary tree felling. Maybe a local did it, maybe an outsider. It’s a clean cut, probably a chainsaw, and it appears to be a dipterocarp -- a big money-maker.
When Gomen tells us it was probably cut for firewood, I can’t hide my disbelief. Leela insists that since Gomen said it, it must be true. But no one cuts a valuable tree that big for firewood. For firewood, you cut brush and small branches.
It’s not hard to understand Gomen’s reticence if he knows more than he’s telling. Who can tell how a person from Bangkok will react to the truth? You tell someone and they may be an official who then locks you in jail—or worse—to silence you. Many village forest-protection patrols have suffered harassment and death threats from officials. Or you tell a city person who turns out to be a journalist and a few days later the papers publish your picture and are trumpeting your words (probably distorted, but who can read them to check?), and you get in trouble with the village headmen. No city person really understands what you tell them, even the ones who want to believe you. They see the world completely differently from you.
On the last day of our trip, we pass from the deep forest around the waterfall toward the surrounding villages. Only a few of the largest trees remain. We notice they tend to be near the stream’s edge. Why?
Leela translates Gomen’s reply: These trees are what the Karen call taklien, or terrible monsters -— they are believed to be home to spirits that are better left alone. Several appear to be seven feet in diameter with a straight trunk up to thirty or forty yards. The financial bonanza from them is not worth the fearful spiritual cost of felling them, so they’re left to stand.
Gomen grabs Toon’s earwings like handlebars and makes revving noises. “A fat Isuzu,” he says. He’s been to Bangkok twice. He’s evasive about why, though. All he says is that he visited friends.
“Lots of people,” he says. He didn’t have such a good time. But he understands that you can’t ignore all the people who live there, and that they look down on people like him as bumpkins and troublemakers. So he’s defensive. I see the condescension he encounters at the roadhead, where some of the tour staff tease him for his pronunciation.
“There’s the city,” he says with an unspoken ‘on the one hand’, “but the forest is livable, isn’t it?” It is baffling: What is to fault in this life here?
Our caravan bunches up ("Elephant jam!" cry the Bangkokians) several times over our journey. At one point I look back and see five elephants amid the high brush, a mahout and two passengers floating above each.
Suddenly Mark appears behind us on foot. After hours rocking uncomfortably on an elephant’s back, he and several others have had it with sore back and legs and decided to walk. Coming over the hill, negotiating the crater-like footprints, Mark sings,“Nong, nong, koey hen chaang ru plaaw?” (“Little one, little one, have you ever seen an elephant?”)
Gomen takes up the song.
“That’s an old song,” Leela says with surprise.
“Of course it’s an old song,” Mark says as he passes us.
That gets Gomen singing other songs. He’s in a good mood, we’re almost to where we’ll cross the river, and the roadhead. It’s taken longer than expected. The sun cuts low through the forest, splinters on the ferns. But he’s not so far from his girlfriend now.
“What’s he singing?” I ask Leela.
“It’s a protest song,” she explains. In Gomen’s voice it sounds like a curious, questioning song, maybe a lullabye.
Finally I, too, get down and walk ahead. Gomen keeps singing, he seems happier, either because of the lighter load or because he’s more at ease to talk with Leela.
Walking along the path as it starts to level out, I think about the dynamics of the last few days, and the rifts of power beneath them. Power -- money and official authority -- starts from the city and reaches out to Gomen and Uncle and others in the forest. And how failures in communication keep me and other city people from grasping rural ways.
At a fork in the path I call back to ask Gomen which way. “Loy,” he yells, mangling the English word I told him for left. I start left and then he starts jabbing his arm to the right. “Loy,” he yells, laughing.
Like many rural Thais, he has confused left and right. It’s irritating, this inverted reality. But soon I’ll be back in Chiang Mai, and Leela will be back in Bangok, and Gomen will be with his girlfriend in her village.
Across the river the sun is low and the light is yellow off the high brittle corn stalks. We’re back in the peopled valley, dotted with homes and field dwellings. There’s a cluster of teak trees in flower, with gold puffballs like dandelion spores perched on each tuft of leaves. Up close, the puffballs look like tiny brown or golden Chinese lanterns. The evening is hauntingly still, and Gomen is singing.
©2003 by David A. Taylor