Beyond Words

By the time I reached the Black Lahu village in a mountainous area of N.W Thailand I was a bit ‘languaged out’. I normally put a heavy emphasis on trying to pick up some of the language of the people I’m visiting, partly for enjoyment but mainly because it can make for a more meaningful interaction. I’d travelled via N.Vietnam and Laos meeting people from several different hilltribes who each have their own language, so my travel notebook was already full of phrases and scribbles from from six or seven languages and I’d reached saturation point. This was unfortunate timing, as soon after arriving in the village I noticed the lady living in the house opposite my homestay, who had a sparkly twinkle in her eyes and a face full of character. I knew straight away I wanted to meet her. ©ClareRowntreeXF56mmF1.2 RX-E1FUJIFILM-7 She wore Black Lahu dress consisting of a long black coat open vertically at the front with horizontal strips of coloured cloth, and covering her shaven hair and top knot was a towel worn as a turban. Her teeth were stained a dark red/black colour from years of chewing betel nut leaf, an addictive stimulant used by many hill tribe people in Asia. ©ClareRowntreeXF14mmF2.8 RX-E1FUJIFILM-7 She lived in a traditional Lahu house with wooden posts and a thatched roof and the rest made of bamboo. It was set against a stunning backdrop of steep limestone mountains, peppered with many caves containing prehistoric coffins, believed to be the home of “Pee Men”, or powerful spirits. ©ClareRowntreeXF14mmF2.8 RX-E1FUJIFILM-4 I went over and smiled and managed ‘Cheh sha la’ which is ‘hello’ and was invited to join her on her little bamboo verandah. ©ClareRowntreeXF55-200mmF3.5-4.8 R LM OISX-E1FUJIFILM-2 She was very welcoming and shared some of the lychees she’d just picked. She’d noticed my walking stick and started pointing to my legs. Unable to communicate the rather complicated explanation for why I have difficulty walking I just mimed a bit and we both laughed and then she showed me a lump on her leg that was hurting and mimed that she’d just had an insect sting. I had some cream with me that would give her some ease so I put it on for her and started smoothing it in. The connection was made. She took my hand to thank me and I we shared more lychees. ©ClareRowntreeXF14mmF2.8 RX-E1FUJIFILM-9 Her friend came to visit and I offered to go but she indicated to stay and I soon found myself part of a Lahu gathering as more friends joined. From then on we looked out for each other and I nipped over whenever I saw she was home, or she would spot me first and call me over. She would invite me inside whenever she was cooking and always insisted that I shared her food even when I indicated that I’d just eaten at the homestay. ©ClareRowntreeXF14mmF2.8 RX-E1FUJIFILM-6 ©ClareRowntreeXF35mmF1.4 RX-E1FUJIFILM When the meal was over she’d proudly sweep her bamboo floor and would then produce her bag of homegrown ‘yashoo’ and deftly roll it in a dried banana leaf wrap. ©ClareRowntreeXF14mmF2.8 RX-E1FUJIFILM-5 We’d sit around the fire or on the verandah and she’d enjoy long slow draws on the cigarette, slowly exhale the smoke and then pass it over to me. ©ClareRowntreeXF56mmF1.2 RX-E1FUJIFILM-5 There was no questioning whether I smoked or not (I don’t), it was expected. Sometimes she’d roll one for each of us, sometimes just the one. ©ClareRowntreeXF56mmF1.2 RX-E1FUJIFILM-6 We didn’t need words, we’d both been around long enough to be comfortable in our own skins and being together in the silence. ©ClareRowntreeXF56mmF1.2 RX-E1FUJIFILM-4 ©ClareRowntreeXF35mmF1.4 RX-E1FUJIFILM-2 She seemed very thoughtful, and had wonderfully communicative eyes and a lovely smile. ©ClareRowntreeXF56mmF1.2 RX-E1FUJIFILM-2 I don’t know what was in the reefers but we were certainly very relaxed and there was no need for small talk. ©ClareRowntreeXF56mmF1.2 RX-E1FUJIFILM-3She still worked in the fields and I would see her coming home sometimes at the end of the day and she’d beckon me over. Her verandah was a stopping off point in the village for socialising at the end of the working day and her warm welcome was widely appreciated. ©ClareRowntreeXF14mmF2.8 RX-E1FUJIFILM-2 ©ClareRowntreeXF14mmF2.8 RX-E1FUJIFILM I found out why she had a glint in her eye. Her husband had died when she was only fifty. Despite having raised 13 children, she’d still had the energy to marry a thirty year old toyboy, so now, in her seventies, she had a fifty year old husband. I never met him as he was away hunting, but somehow the story didn’t surprise me! What a woman – that betel nut must be good stuff! ©ClareRowntreeXF14mmF2.8 RX-E1FUJIFILM                                                With one of the many instant polaroid photos I did of her and her friends. The time came to leave and the goodbye was hard. Both of us knew that as unlikely as it was coming from such different worlds, a very special connection had been made, and we’d shared not just a few smokes but some very special moments. And we’d done it all without the need for words. ©ClareRowntreeXF56mmF1.2 RX-E1FUJIFILM Photos ©Clare Rowntree – Please do not reproduce without consent

Categories: ThailandTags: , , , , , , ,


  1. That’s lovely Clare, it’s really special when you find someone you don’t need to use words with, and you’ve described that perfectly. 🙂


  2. An amazing experience Clare. Such a beautiful time for you, might have to find some betel but here!!! Love your images, such a beautiful face, loved the sepia image. Thank you for sharing. Barb xx


  3. Clare I love the stories with your photos – you make a connection with so many people and I’m sure its not just the reefers 😉 Love the one with the smoke across her face


  4. Love it! – Yes, it is ‘Beyond Words’ ….what a character eh? The pics (as always) are stunning. Nice memories !


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