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A Bucolic Retreat
The Black Tai of Loei Province
Few people, even in Thailand, know much in detail about the Tai Dam or “Black Tai” people. Certainly they are one of the numerous Tai-speaking sub groups scattered across mainland Southeast Asia from Assam to Guangdong, rather like the Tai Yai of Burma's Shan State, the Tai Lu of China's Sipsongpanna region, and the Tai Phuan of Xieng Khouang in Laos. But beyond this simple fact, little enough is generally known. Yet Thailand, unexpectedly, has its own small but flourishing Tai Dam community, living in a tranquil and idyllic setting in a remote corner of Loei Province.
The Tai Dam village of Ban Na Pa Nat is situated about midway between Loei, the provincial capital, and the old Mekong riverside town of Chiang Khan. If the visitor turns east off Highway 201 connecting these two points, and follows a narrow, surfaced route east for some 6 km, a sign by the side of the road announces the imminence of “Ban Na Pa Nat Tai Dam Cultural Village”. The surrounding countryside is generally low-lying and fertile, the numerous lush paddy fields alternately verdant with green rice shoots or golden with rich heads of sticky rice, depending on the season. A single rocky mountain to the northeast of the village is all that breaks the horizon.
In other words, this is ideal territory for any Tai community, a group of people known for their millennia-old love affair with low-lying, irrigated paddy fields. The Tai Dam of Ban Na Pa Nat are settled in a near-perfect, bucolic rural retreat – and this is not by any mere chance. But who are the Tai Dam, and how did they come to settle in Ban Na Pa Nat in the first place?
The original Tai Dam homeland, now part of northwest Vietnam, was called Sipsong Chao Tai (Sipsongchuthai) or “Twelve Tai Principalities” until its colonisation by the French after 1885 – an action strongly but unsuccessfully opposed by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) during the Haw Wars or songkram prap ho. This was a disastrous time for Vietnam and Laos, as well as for Siam, which lost much of its territory to aggressive Western imperialism. In Sipsongchuthai, as in neighbouring Laos, the local peoples were subjected, in short order, first to the depredations of the Chinese “Haw Bandits”, and then to France's self-proclaimed ‘civilising mission'. For some of the locals, all this was just too much, and a group of Tai Dam refugees fled south and west, across the Mekong, to Siam – where they would find peace and security in Ban Na Pa Nat.
Of course there was nothing unusual about this. Thailand has played host to tens of thousands of refugees from troubled surrounding regions throughout the centuries – as it still does today. What is unusual about the Tai Dam of Loei is that, while becoming full citizens of Thailand, they carefully preserved their separate cultural identity through hard times, most notably the strident Siamese chauvinism of the Pibul Songkhram regime between 1938 and 1957.
Now, in today's culturally confident and increasingly affluent Thailand, they are rediscovering and celebrating that past. What's more, with the liberalisation of formerly hard-line communist regimes in neighbouring Laos and Vietnam, they are free to travel to their ancestral homelands around Muong Thanh (Dien Bien Phu) for the first time in many decades. As a direct consequence, old links have been re-established and are being strengthened, both in terms of culture and trade.
On first entering the village of Ban Na Pa Nat, there seems little to distinguish it from other nearby north-eastern communities. Then it becomes apparent that some of the villagers are wearing distinctive ethnic clothing, the men black shirts with silver buttons crossing their chest in Chinese style, and a few of the women elaborate black paa piew head-dresses with colourfully woven borders. Then there are the street and house signs, many of which are written not just in the Thai script, but in the Tai Dam alphabet, which is still taught in the schools here.
Weaving is clearly a major economic activity, and many women have looms set up beside or under their homes. The 12th District Women's Weaving Group is well set up to receive visitors, with a small Tai Dam museum in a stilted wooden building housing fine examples of Tai Dam textiles and basket making, as well as traditional tools, books in the Tai Dam language, and other handicrafts. Another small weaving centre aimed at attracting visitors is Tai Dam House on Soi 4. Formerly a Christian missionary assisted centre also existed, but it has now fallen into disrepair, at least in part because the Black Tai, whose traditional religion combines animism with ancestor worship, are not very interested in being converted. An old lady weaving at Tai Dam House was quite vociferous on this matter, stating flatly that: “We already have our traditions, and we don't need theirs.”
A major part of the Tai Dam tradition rests in their agricultural lifestyle, their land, and above all their rice. Rice crops are tended lovingly, the rice cut with a small sickle very discreetly to avoid alarming the spirit of the rice, and laid out atop the remaining rice stalks to dry in the sun for two or three days. The crop of choice here is sticky rice, and when the harvest has been safely gathered in the villagers – who love feasting and celebrations – hold a very Tai Dam thanksgiving. There is much eating and drinking, as well as dancing by both sexes. The Tai Dam women look particularly graceful in their tube skirts and tight-fitting bodices fastened with multiple silver clasps as they perform traditional fan and scarf dances.
To achieve a good harvest it is deemed essential to make offerings to the locality spirits on the 15th and 30th of each month. Just outside the village stands a covered row of five such spirit houses, dedicated to the major spirits that watch over the people and animals of Ban Na Pa Nat. One such shrine is dedicated to the spirit of Chao Anouvong, the last King of Lan Xang, Laos' “Kingdom of a Million Elephants” who reigned in Vientiane from 1805-1828. The folk memory of the Tai Dam of Ban Na Pa Nat seems long indeed, and nobody blinked at the mention of Sipsong Chao Tai, the name of their ancestral home, as though that political entity still existed, rather than having been subsumed within Vietnam more than a century ago.
One reason for this remarkable cultural awareness rests in the local education system which, encouraged by the provincial authorities in Loei, places a special emphasis on preserving and teaching Tai Dam culture and traditions. In addition to the standard Thai curriculum which all Ban Na Pa Nat students follow, the local Tai Dam youngsters study their alphabet and history in books printed in the Tai Dam language and script, some local, some imported from Vietnam, and some brought from as far away as Iowa in the United States of America, where there is a substantial Tai Dam migrant community.
Every Friday the children of Ban Na Pa Nat attend school wearing traditional Tai Dam clothing. The black cloth from which the group derives its name is made locally, but the elaborate silver clasps which fasten the girls' tight blouses, once very hard to come by, are now plentiful, being imported from the old Tai Dam ‘capital' at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam. Cultural links are growing, and the Black Tai lady in charge of the 12th District Women's Weaving Group recounted with enthusiasm her regular trips to Lao Cai and Sapa in northwest Vietnam, as well as to Hanoi, where she networks with other related Tai Dam communities, as well as with the Tai Khao, or “White Tai” of Moc Chau. Links such as these are strengthening the Tai Dam character of Ban Na Pa Nat, and it is clear the villagers take an active pride in their heritage.
Part of this pride is, of course, commercially driven, and they are keen to show off and sell locally made handicrafts, which are of excellent quality. Some of the commercially astute Ban Na Pa Nat women are now offering homestay facilities at their houses, and at least one of the local restaurants offers Tai Dam delicacies on a menu that features Thai, Thai Dam and English! Truth to tell, the fare on offer looks quite similar to other regional Lao and Isaan cuisine, with a dash of Vietnamese thrown in. Still, such marketing promotion is a clever and sophisticated idea which deserves to succeed.
Meanwhile the Tai Dam of Loei seem ambitiously content, with no apparent desire to leave the lands that have treated them so well, or to swap their rice paddies for the big city lights. Instead, they seem bent on rediscovering and affirming their cultural identity, while aspiring to increase their prosperity through the appeal of Ban Na Pa Nat Black Tai Cultural Village.
After the travails they have endured in decades past, it seems both likely and desirable that they should succeed.
Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History – © CPA Media 2007