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Home Thailand Maesai ⇒ The People of Maesai

Maesai: Thailand’s Northern Gate

4The People of Maesai

Tribes-women down from the hills.
Tribeswomen down from the hills.

There is a rich mixture of races and cultures, divided into two distinct groups. There are the round, rather flat, Mongoloid faces and rather stocky build of some of the hill-tribes such as the Lahu, Akha and Shan. Then there are the sharper featured, fine-boned and slender Burmese, with their darker complexions. Both China and the Indian subcontinent are close.

The costumes are distinctive too. Most Thais wear anonymous western clothing, but the hill people, in particular the women, wear their traditional heavy cotton costumes. The women favour long skirts and short jackets, usually in faded blues and pale pinks, and prefer a wrapped towel as a head covering. Babies and baskets are carried tightly strapped to their backs; heavy loads are supported with a tumpline across the forehead.

Burmese street hawkers
Burmese street hawkers

The Burmese women, who are mostly Karen in this area, sport sarongs in bright green or red shot through with gold thread, and a short matching blouse or tunic. Their heads are either bare or covered with a scarf. Most distinctive are the streaks of yellow paste worn on their faces, either dabbed on their cheeks or spotted across their foreheads. Men and children can also be seen with this.

It’s supposed to whiten the skin, but as this striking cosmetic is worn by all and at all hours, it’s difficult to know exactly when the whitened result is displayed. It’s also supposed to provide protection from the sun and in that it probably succeeds. The paste is made from chalk powder mixed with ground dried roots, one of which is a type of ginger.

A brightly dressed hill-tribes woman and children
A brightly dressed hill-tribes
woman and children

Then there are scraggy-bearded Muslim men in baggy cotton trousers, high-necked, long-sleeved jackets and high brim-less caps: all in brilliant white. They always gave me a wide smile of greeting; perhaps they mistook my beard as the sign of a co-religionist. A few years ago, young Burmese men wearing their long skirt-like wraps were a common sight selling cigarettes and changing money, but they have now disappeared from this side of the border.


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