sayarsan's picture

Pronouncing Lahu is a new thing for English speakers. Lahu have a way of adding meaning by aspirating syllables. That's not to say they add aspiration for emphasis more like many of their words have all or part aspirated to enrich a vocabulary. I know two words and both have aspirations in them. Shakor lived in Ban Wanna Luong an interesting place and Shakor an integral part of it on the way between the bus stop and a lovely cave and guest house next to a village. There was a lot of passing traffic through Wanna Luong and tourists meant a lot of passing loot, Lahu as long time inveterate hunters are a lovely people but their market skills are by inclination not so well honed. They grow opium and cannabis more for themselves than for sale. As long as they don't sell it they are not breaking any law thank you Bhumipol Rama IX.

A Lahu village i liked to visit was perched on the side of a cliff almost with astounding views and the people working outside most of them were dressed in home made clothes and pretty much every thing else was homemade except for the steel which was easier to get from the TaiYai at the market. With little to disturb them their bucolic existence was breathtaking . Wanna Luong on the other hand with its lucrative prey herding past their gates were well placed but being a market arrangement did not suit the Lahu to an advantage and the takings were far too high for the police to ignore. The outstanding feature of the village was a besserblock hut which was as out of place amongst the Lahu as a cathedral. You can guess what was inside and i expect it had a few men with military weapons guarding it, but i wouldn't expect any of them were Lahu. All very much under control and perhaps the main waves outside were the effects on the resident Lahu villagers who wore tired old t-shirts and trousers from a factory men and women although a couple of older women wore dresses. Around the village there was little activity and the place where people hung out at was the shop. In the hut Shako proudly showed me how he would shoot up and play around just like i used to when i was 20 years his senior but Shako has a short life expectancy so at 14 he is already a man and i met him later in the cells and then at the main prison. On the cliff i spent an afternoon with a woman and her teething infant. Both her and the infant were intoxicated on opium and i soon joined them by way of contributing to the housekeeping. An older relative came and went and in all i bought nearly 1000baht of opium most in a neat hand made bamboo container. That evening the village had a party which i heard of from the nearby TaiYai village. I am ashamed to say i was too ill mannered to attend.

In Wanna Luong life followed a different dynamic with the constant police presence that contraband attracts and during the several times over a couple of months i visited there was never a party. Anybody in this country who feels they have been persecuted over drugs has experienced nothing like what Wanna Luong is going through although the older Murris saw something similar perhaps. I hope it wasn't for my benefit that Shako was busted and brought to the jail in Soppong. He had been done at least a few times i'm sure as i had been when i was his age but his prospects of change before the grave are nil. He new his way around and the performance when he came into the cell was an award winner. He had scored for pongkao (smack) in under half an hour with no money. I had been there for over a day with money but only food and a mat to show for it. With Shako as a tutor i had apparantly spewed my guts up a few times and had copped a couple of fingers of yapin (opium) for free off the jailer which lasted the few days before we were taken to court then prison. After a day or two with Shako i believed we would get some yapin off his sister just as she had brought him pongkao the evening prior but it wasn't to be as the jailer was very uncooperative and denied even food from his sister which is more de riguer even than yapin.
On arrival at the main prison Shako had his long hair shaved off and he carefully went through it to see what might be found there. I watched and saw nothing and his fresh scalp was healthy enough but it lacked the circles most Buddhists would have tattooed there. Shako seemed a little cowed and i didn't help by shouting "painaipin" (where's the opium?) at him. Being Lahu he was small and unimposing and at 14 there was noone younger. It wasn't his first time and soon enough he was as relaxed as he could be without the pongkao he had been accustomed to for 12 years. By the good grace that seems to abound in that region i had fallen in with a group made up of Jaha from Myanmar who spoke and read English fluently and was a great help, Sumsak a Lhisor who procured the food and did the cooking or preparaion as the kitchen provided the rice and meat ready cooked. Another Lhisor and a TaiYai were the ones who stayed and occasional people would come and go probably on the invite of one of the others. Shako joined us when he first arrived and he never complained of anything although i know he was used to using a few times a day for at least a couple of months but more likely years. In retrospect i'm really glad he had to tutor me to pretend i was hanging out, i'm sure when the older men realized i had been scoring from him they would have asked about me purely as a matter of interest. In the prison i got to find out how the hierarchy was structured among the ethnicities there and except for refugees from Myanmar the Lahu were on the bottom due to their financial position. The TaiYai and Thais ran the place and the Lhisor were generally well tolerated as they were usually educated up to secondary level and were often wealthy enough. The unfortunate people escaping the military in Myanmar were very poor and were the first conscripted to dig holes for rubbish and to do guardening, wash dishes, and any other tasks too onerous for the others but age and circumstances played a part in who was conscripted to do what. The work in the carpenters shop was reserved for TaiYai and Lhisor who wanted it and i'm sure the main man of the people from across the border wouldn't have been refused such a job perhaps but seemed to stay with the more unfortunate of his compatriots. I noticed how he would sometimes equip them with a basic necessity denied by the screws and although conditions were hard for those from Myanmar they all considered the prison they were in to be a safe haven from life across the border where military patrols made their lives quite hopeless. No wonder so many become insurgents.

Shakor had no problems of this sort but sill the police who control the local heroin trade made life in Wanna Luong very different from the life they woud have led in a village away from the tourists and their money. There was a Lahu headman in the prison for selling young women to a procuror but noone seemed to question him on the matter and most probably had little notion of how this activity can undermine the health of the village despite the revenue it brings in. The same applies to the drug trade where the incidence of HIV is very high. Watching Shakor when he would shoot up i got the impression there wasn't more than a syringe or two in the village if that and the syringe I saw was pretty old and blunt. Shako should be pushng 30 now but i can't for the life of me imagine what kind of life he woud be leading other than to assume he would be on a work gang repairing the road he was unfortunate to be born near.


felix's picture

I'd heard bits of this story over the years from you, but never before the whole tale in one go. This is great to read. Reminded me of scoring north of Mae Sai, just in Myanmar, the dope was easy top get but a sharp? Only later did I realise that I'd taken away something more precious than gear from their little six hut village...
The numbers had all worn off the plunger and the little rubber thing inside the barrel had degraded and been replaced with some sort of glad-wrap bundle. I knew of the 25% (then) HIV infection rates amongst hill tribes...but I was keen for a shot, you know?
This was 1993, I think Australia was still pushing the 2X2X2 method to clean sharps:
"Twice in cold water, twice in bleach, twice again in cold water" - which was officially abandoned not too much later, and the old bleach sachets the needle exchanges used to hand out are scarce as the old personal DDT cans infantrymen would carry.
So I went back to my riverside hut, ordered a glass of the highest proof alcohol I could find (whiskey I think) and emptied the large glass one mL at a time with my pick.
I never got AIDS, so either that was my lucky day or whiskey kills HIV! The track marks I accreted during those weeks in northern Thailand are ten times the size of the marks I have made over twenty years of use on my other arm, purely because that Thai sharp was blunt as all hell, and I was shooting 7-10 times a day with it, giving the poor little vein underneath nary a moment to rest. This was Thailand, gear was practically legal and cheap, and I knew I would never experience a time like this back home. When your skin depresses almost to the length of the needle before the needle can break the surface, you know you are going to be doing some long term vein damage. Scraping it against a matchbox striker didn't seem to help much, but I guess I kept using it for a couple of weeks until young Daz turned up, flown in specially from home just because I didn't know I could score sharps at some chemists.
Youth is such a mixture of incredible naivety and utter daring, it beats any drug I have ever taken.