In 1989, Mary and I took a train north of Chang Rai to a cab north of Chang Mai and beyond to hike in the Golden Triangle, a northern Thai area of migrating tribes. The night before we water-colored patterns and scenes of our gorgeous valley and rattan hut on stilts. Chang Mai was a bustling city and the arts center of Northern Thailand. I woke at dawn with crippling menstrual cramps. Half a world from my Chicago home, our day was planned to circle in a truck, to a hike, to a train from Chang Mai to Bangkok. I couldn’t stand. I couldn’t keep down tea.
“You won’t remember the cramps, but you will remember the hike,” she said. I forged on. We climbed into the back of truck of tourist trekkers to see the Golden Triangle of migrating tribes that knew no boundaries of Thailand, Mynamar and Laos. Crouched on side benches, holding my knees in the jolting on rutted dirt roads, did not fit any doctor’s prescription. Yet, the vibration gave some relief for my achy pelvis. My sister described her husband’s Bangkok job as Vice President of Mobil Oil for the Southern Hemisphere to the others. My only thought focused on not upchucking. Would I be saving her from a kidnapping? I was in no shape to save anyone. The truck stopped, rear gate was dropped and we were waved out. Stepping down from the truck bed onto a remote powdered dirt corner surrounded by grasses, we waited. I sat in the dirt, under a piercing sun, and tried to breathe away the abdominal cramping. A slight, trim man in light blue clothing greeted us and described the tribes in dotty English. I didn’t try to translate, yet followed him. Why do I keep climbing mountains?
We hiked up the mountain before January’s sweltering heat of 97 degrees (F) settled in. Ashen faced, my crippling searing painful torso trudged up stony winding paths step by step. Blinding sun heated the surrounding boulders. Our strenuous, hot hike eased my pain. I could tolerate sipping water. I rested on hot boulders to wince, meditate and breathe. Fluidly migrating, tribes slashed and burned forests for farmland to build their homes until the soil was spent, then move to let the forest grow in again. The Akha tribe slashed and burned fields for opium production.
“Do you want to see poppy fields?” he pointed. We shook our heads. Too much opium information could mean trouble. Not one step out of the way.
“No, just the villages please,” she said in Thai. The Ahka, though born in Thailand, were denied land and citizenship. The Thai government taught sustainable agriculture with the hopes migrating communities would stop cutting trees. Wood-carved figures of various heights stood stacked. Roughly hewn effigies leaned under an arched gate made of tied together branches. Black and red triangular Akha flags hung on fences.
“These gates at the entrance of the village are built to keep out evil spirits. The carved figures are guardians,” our Lisu guide told us in Thai. My sister translated. “You can go in. I cannot. I will meet you at the exit.” My cramping had eased to a tolerable throb. Water helped.
Akha tribes people sew their wealth into their black and red clothing of triangular patterns. We walked uphill past a few dusty, barefoot boys riding a set of wooden wheels down. Girls played toss-a-stick game in the dust. The rattan homes were built on stilts with smoke coursing up from the thatched roofs. No adults were present. We paused at the gate for our guide.
“Let’s find some coins” Mary said. We searched our purses for quarters, dimes and pennies. Instantly, we were surrounded by villagers in red and black woven dresses with dangling fringe and rows of coins sewn in horizontal rows. They gleamed at my American nickels. Coins glinted in rows from their clothing.
“Sewing their wealth into their clothes enables them to leave quickly,” she said. We followed them up a bamboo ladder and across an outdoor porch whose floor was tied together bamboo. A vertical woven bamboo matte slid open so we could enter a dense, smoky dark room. All I could see through irritated teary eyes was the fire burn in the center of darkness. Some smoke found the central hole to escape. Some sunlight sliced through the bamboo walls. My eyes adjusted to see half a dozen adults sitting on mattes around the fire. Some Thai/Ahka words were exchanged. Half the people rose and disappeared. The smoke, the gentle people relaxed my pain. They returned with plastic grocery bags of tightly rolled woven clothing. Maybe family heirlooms? Bills and coins were offered in a blending of languages and gestures. We traded for worn clothes of previous Ahka generations. I was married that year, so, with hope, I purchased a new child’s outfit and hat and a worn purse with dangling Chinese coins.
Our guide brought us to his Lisu village welcoming us with introductions to his family at lunch. Turquoise, white and light blue rectangles were hanging on their fences. Coins were not sewn into their clothes. I was well enough to nibble rice cakes. Language barriers inhibited conversation beyond gestures. Hospitality was warm and welcoming. I purchased small wall hangings from his family. We hiked past a Yao Village of red and purple clothing. They were Chinese about 2,000 years ago, but have been migrating since. As we settled in the train, I processed all we had seen of nations migrating with thousands of years of traditions, tribal pride and an eagerness to share their cultural wares. I will never forget the day. I will never forget the cramping pain.
Bio: A lifelong-environmentalist, internationally-awarded Margot McMahon sculpts, writes and paints human, plant and animal forms to say, through art, her hope that decisions be made to support life on earth. Margot is the author of 1) Mac and Irene: A WWII Saga, 2) If Trees Could Talk, and 3) a YA book, Airdrie, that were published in 2021 (Aquarius Press.) She worked in the editorial department for Chicago Magazine, World Book Encyclopedia and Scholastic Magazine. In 2020, her essay, Sculpting Forms of Nature, was published in the Remembering Fifty Anthology: 50 years of Women at Yale. The 2021 Anthology Shades of Positively Pandemic includes her short story Soul to Soul. Her The Fifth Season:The Chicago Tree Project book, (2020 First Place Mate E. Palmer Book Award (IWPA)) originates from Margot’s MIT Press published paper, Transforming Nature (2018). Soka Gakkai International (Tokyo, Japan) Arts and Culture award. For more information about Margot McMahon, click here. Check out her book, If Trees Could Talk, here.