Learn about the ‘Paga-geuyor’ people’s way of life and their spirit of forest preservation
Deep in the heart of Samoeng Valley, Chiang Mai province, lies the Sop Village: a small community of ‘Paga-geuyor’ people with a population of just 106 who still practice their ancient beliefs whilst sustainably cultivating a living from the forest in which they reside.
‘Patee Tae Yae’ is a 69-year-old philosopher who escaped the chaos of city life and embraced the village living and eating in Paga-geuyor style and offering work in return. Now as village leader, we asked Patee permission to visit not as tourists, but as students.
Offering us strangers a friendly and warm welcome, he showed us around the village, trekking, teaching us the language and sharing bedtime stories as if we were descended from Paga-geuyor people as well.
For the several days that we resided in this remote village, we began to realize that although there are some 1 million Paga-geuyor people in Thailand, we actually know very little about them. Learning to live as simply as they do gradually revealed to us the intricacies of their life that would otherwise be overlooked.
SOBLAN: HOME TO THE KAREN’S SOUL
In Thai, Paga-geuyor are traditional tribes that have been scattered along the Thai-Myanmar border for more than 200 years. ‘Patee Tae Yae Yodchutmingboon’ is the son of the first group who settled in this village, a second-generation Paga-geuyor.
“We’ve been here for over a hundred years now. When we first settled down, there were only three families, but now we have 106 people,” Patee said in his Thai accent.
Whilst most of the villagers communicate in their native Paga-geuyor language, a dialect very similar to that spoken in Myanmar, the younger generation have been privileged to a better education and are able to read, write and communicate in Thai.
We went for a walk and stopped in front of Patee’s house, built out of wood and placed on stilts which hold up a bamboo floor and a fireplace at the center to keep the house warm in winter. Chicken and buffalo roam underneath, and most areas of the house are open with no furniture, no collections or possessions: just a simple home full of warmth.
“Walk up the stairs carefully,” said Patee.
In my mind, I felt that perhaps I was impolite to be walking so loudly which was confirmed by his next statement.
“Well, you might hurt the wood.”
The tone of his voice made us realize that this really meant something for him, certainly not a light-hearted joke.
MAN OF THE FOREST
The Paga-geuyor people bond with nature from birth – a father will place the placenta of his newborn child into a bamboo spatula and tie-it to the largest tree in the village, known as a “Ton Sadue” in Thai, or as “De Po Tu” in the local Paga-geuyor language.
According to Paga-geuyor culture, a child’s spirit will stay with that tree for the rest of his life. Patee explained that if the tree were to come to harm or be destroyed, bad fortune will come to the child. We can’t help but smile when we hear of this belief.
If all Thai people had their own Ton Sadue, we would have more than 65-million protected giant trees.
Paga-geuyor people also protect the forest and surrounding rivers, as the forests themselves are sacred to each village. Trespassing and cutting the trees is strictyl prohibited.
“We are descended from the jungle which makes it our home and the beginning of everything,” Patee said in a deep voice.
SIMPLICITY AT ITS BEST
Whilst we played with the children, we saw a group of young men walk past with a long barrel and a short sword. It was such a curiosity that we asked where they were heading and for what purpose.
“Go boar hunt” was the simple reply from one of the boys, an answer which stopped us from asking any further.
In the evening, we all sat in a circle, with a bowl of rice placed on the middle, and sure-enough the highlight of our meal was the wild-boar caught from the afternoon.
The Paga-geuyor way of life is based on simplicity. Most of the food comes from hunting, collecting wild plants and harvesting farmland. When winter approaches after a long harvesting season, villagers spend time relaxing, weaving, searching for firewood or indeed sitting around an already burning fire with a locally-fermented white liqueur.
HOW THEIR LOVES BEGAN
One of the more interesting cultural elements are Paga-geuyor weddings, an unusual case where the woman asks the man to wed. For the ceremony itself, she must also sacrifice 4 pigs of her own to cook for guests. It’s a society where women play a large role.
“In Paga-geuyor society, we don’t believe that any one is superior as men and women are equally important,” said Patee. He proceeded to tell us more about the day his wife asked him to be his partner, and afterwards we had to ask whether or not the marriage is difficult. He replied, “you have to ask her,” as he gestured towards her. She laughed and shook her head, saying “no, it’s not hard at all.”
WITH POWER, LOVE AND SPIRIT
Change from outside their society slowly creeps towards their village, a fact which makes Patee and fellow villagers that their traditions will gradually disappear in the near future. In recent years, he and Orapin Kusolrungrat, a former teach from Roongaroon School known affectionitely as “Khru Nid” set up the “Jo Ma Lo Leu Laa School”: the school of lifestle in order to pass-down the story and wisdom of the Paga-geuyor people to the younger generations so they can continue in the future.
The school itself offers instructional materials which promotes putting theoretical content to practice. Geometry is taught by having children dig fish ponds in various shapes then measuring corners, whereas science is taught by visitng the river and learning about the aquatic ecosystem. Literature and ethnic history is key to understanding their cultural heritage and way of life more deeply.
We asked Khru Nid why she decided to leave her comfortable life in Bangkok to live in this distant valley, and she replied without hesitation.
“Humans do not want to just be comfortable, eat and go out – that kind of life is nowhere near perfect. Were they truly satisfied, why would they still be searching for happiness?” She pondered for a bit then continued, “Man needs more that. We also need sincerity, friendship, understanding, self-respect and respect from other people, and these are the things we can clearly see here in this village.”
We nodded-along with her. Having only spent just a few days in their village, we’ve learned that the most important things may not be physically convenient but are emotionally comfortable. The sound of the waterfall, shade from the large trees and the friendship from the villagers certainly has created the the the some of the most valuable moments of our lives.
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