We had the opportunity to speak with two village elders, Ooey Khambao (age 84) and her sister, Ooey Jum Supaeng (age 77). We asked them many questions about their earlier life in Mae Mut and they in turn told us many stories about change in community; from rice fields dug out of the teak forest by hand, to a childhood of hand-woven clothes and threats of tigers, to the old logging elephants that now carry tourists for a living. Here is a collection of their voices that afternoon.
Mae Mut was all teak forest when we were growing up. The rice fields that you see around Mae Mut were just trees. There was a village here, where our parents and their parents lived, but it was tucked into the forest. Then about fifty years ago, in the 1960s, the government came to log the teak with dozens of elephants. The elephants in the camps along the road here are left over from that time. Except, the road wasn’t built until thirty years ago or so. All of the rice terraces were cut out of the ground by hand. The houses were different depending on how wealthy your family was. Rich families would build wood houses, since they could afford handsaws—there were no chainsaws back then. Poor families built bamboo houses, which were sometimes very cold during the winter! If it was cold we would sleep in the rice house. We lived in bamboo houses when we were first married, but we persuaded our husbands to go into the forest to get us some wood.
This area didn’t really belong to anybody, so if you wanted a piece of land, all you had to do was go and farm it. The headman of the village and his family were rich to begin with, so they just bought land from everyone else. More families would come to live here, and buy a parcel of land. Only one family has ever left Mae Mut, to our knowledge. Everyone wants to stay because it’s very easy to live here, there is water and enough land for everyone. A parcel of land like your garden would have cost 4000 Baht back then [whereas today it would be 2-3 million Baht]. We would wake up at dawn, and start a fire to cook the rice and ward off the mosquitos. Then work all day, eat at midday, and light a fire at dusk to cook and again ward off mosquitos. At night, the dogs couldn’t sleep outside because of the tigers, so they slept in the house. We lit fires at night near the livestock to scare off wild animals.
Before the road was built, we had to walk to the market in Mae Wang, on a narrow trail through the mountains. Everything we had brought to sell—mushrooms, bamboo shoots, foraged vegetables from the mountain, and oil wood for lighting fires—we would carry on our backs. The journey would take two days: we would leave at 8 AM, walk all day, and arrive in Mae Wang at 5 PM. After spending the night, we would sell at the market in the morning, buy rice and whatever we needed, then walk back to Mae Mut. Back then a litre of rice cost ½ Baht. Now it’s 30 Baht! We grew cotton, which we spun into thread to weave our own clothes. To color them, we would use vegetable dyes, like roselle for red. It generally took three days to make an article of clothing. We would get news of the country by word of mouth, usually when we would gather for special occasions and there were people who had come from farther away.
Our parents knew a lot of things that they would teach us, knowledge about herbs and cures that would pass through the generations. There would also be one or two people in the village who knew much more, who were interested in herbs. They would treat us: aloe vera for burns, guava leaves for diarrhoea, other tinctures and ointments. Even for broken legs, they could rub on ointment, and chant, and brace the limb with wood, and that would usually work. But if we had to, we would lay the sick person in a stretcher—really just two bamboo rods with tarp slung between them—and walk to the nearest hospital.
Farming was also very different than today. There were no tractors and no machines, no fertilizer or chemical pesticides. We used cow manure. Everything was done by hand or with the help of water buffalo. We had to buy rice back then because there were no chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Less rice grew, and often it wasn’t enough for the whole year. The rainy season, around June and July, was the hardest, because we would plow the rice fields. That was always hard work with the plow. If your family didn’t have enough water buffalo to plow the field, you would borrow the buffalo from a neighbor. And you had to train the buffalo yourself, so that it would listen when you told it to turn or go straight. They didn’t always listen! We ate the vegetables that we grew by ourselves – eggplant, cucumber, and soybean – and sold some in Mae Win. There was fruit from surrounding trees—papaya, banana, coconut. Fish and crabs from the river, and chickens that we raised. Pigs and buffalo weren’t eaten as often as chicken, and buffalo were only killed if they’d had a bad accident. In either case, the family would go around and ask everyone in the village who wanted a piece of this pig or that buffalo, and whoever wanted a portion would pay about 3 Baht for two or three kilos of meat. We also didn’t really have days off; there was too much work to do. There were only Buddhist calendar holidays, when we would go to the temple, or else weddings and funerals.
When we were children we played skipping rope, or sometimes we would compete to see who could jump the highest, or bounce rocks to see who could pick up the most. And the boys would wind up rattan balls to play ball. Most children went to school for a little while, because it was free (the government paid for it), and that way the parents wouldn’t have to worry about them. Until a few decades ago, the Mae Win school only had four grades. Few children made it all the way to fourth grade, because they were kept at home to work. Starting at 10 or so they could care for younger siblings, or at 13 start working in the rice fields. Children could go to school at any age, though they generally started at seven or eight. But maybe you had to take a few months off because you had to care for a new sister, or go into the rice field, so you would come back a year later. But once you turned fifteen, the teacher would tell you that you should go work in the rice field, you were too old for school! And once you turned fourteen or fifteen you couldn’t really touch someone of the opposite gender, not even to hold hands, until you were married. So we got married young! For our weddings, we exchanged matching bracelets instead of rings, and the immediate families of the husband and wife would all have dinner together. That was it.
The Karen also used to live closer to where the village is now. The Mae Sa Pok Karen village used to be about where we are, but they moved when more families started coming into the village. There wasn’t any animosity, we were just two different cultures, and they wanted their own private space. Back then, the Karen didn’t go to the school in Huay Pong, they had their own village school. Often the children were taught by soldiers, because they were up in the mountains anyway to watch out for people who were growing drugs. This was especially true in unsafe areas. Once the King’s Projects began, and people were encouraged to grow tea, coffee, and vegetables instead of illegal crops, university-educated teachers began to come to the mountain school. Initially they only taught half a day, because it would take half a day to walk up and another to walk down, but later, recent graduates were sent up to teach, because they didn’t have spouses or family attachments.
This temple in Mae Mut is the oldest one in this entire area. The people from many surrounding villages came to build it, because with only a dozen or so families in the village, there were not enough people to do the job. So everyone in the area helped to build our temple, and then everyone helped to build the school in Huay Pong. Those were the first public buildings, and then followed more temples in the other villages. There also used to be many more monks. Now, there are too many distractions, and fewer people truly believe in the Buddha. Monks used to go into the mountain wilderness to meditate, entirely by themselves, but now that happens very rarely. Also, now there are more older people at the temple, there are not that many children. When we were young, children had to go to temple, because they couldn’t be left at home by themselves. It wasn’t safe—there were tigers and wild animals outside. So they were always with their parents at temple, starting very early. Now, children have more distractions, like internet, school, television, and they don’t consider their life after this one. They don’t think about death.