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Thailand for beginners

The country in a nutshell

Spirits of the Yellow Leaves

Published on: 29th August, 2012

Before starting our brief description of this little known ethnic group, a word on their name. Ethnologists usually refer to them as Mabri (or Mlabri), whilst to the Thais they are the Pee Tong Luang people – which roughly translates as ‘spirit of the yellow leaves’ tribe. The Mabri people themselves apparently prefer to drop the ‘spirit’ part and according to this interesting albeit brief site, like to be known simply as the ‘yellow leaf’ people.

In the background note the bamboo leaf shelter - Nan Province 1991

Note the banana leaf shelter in the background. Nan province, 1991.

Traditionally a nomadic, hunter/gatherer group inhabiting the jungles of northern Thailand and Laos, the Mabri constructed basic, temporary shelters of banana leaves in the forest — eschewing permanent villages. After a week or so when the leaves turned yellow it was taken as a sign that it was time to move on and construct another shelter elsewhere, hence the name.

Ethnically, the Mabri are part of the Mon-Khmer family, unrelated to the forest dwelling Semang (Orang Asli), people of southern Thailand, who are a Negrito tribe. (The commonly-used term Sakai is pejorative.) They are a relic population of the Mon-Khmer who occupied much of Southeast Asia prior to the migrations of Tai groups into Laos and northern Thailand but who clearly suffered a much harder lot than the village dwelling Mon-Khmer tribes of southern Laos, Vietnam’s Central Highlands and northeast Cambodia, where relatively large populations are interspersed with ethnic Malay tribal groups such as the Jarai.

Mon-Khmer M'nong woman in Vietnam's Central Highlands

Mon-Khmer, M'nong woman in Vietnam's Central Highlands.

Traditionally the Mabri inhabited the forests of Nan and Phrae provinces as well as Laos’ Xainyaburi province. When we first visited in 1991 some groups still lived in forest shelters in Nan, though to our knowledge, all populations, (the Mabri only total a few hundred people), have since been relocated to villages with at least minimal access to schools and health care. Sad, but their vast forest home was no more, game scarce and as you can see from the previous photo, conditions were deplorable. Health care was non-existent other than herbal medicines, and the state of total poverty meant left them open to exploitation by the local Hmong and Yao groups.

Older Mabri man in loin cloth rather poignantly trying to pass on some traditional lore to village kids.

Older Mabri man rather poignantly trying to pass on some traditional lore to village kids.

Nan - Mabri tribal elders

Nan - Mabri tribal elders.

Some older Mabri men still wear the traditional loincloth.

'Modern' Mabri houses based on the local Hmong style constructions

'Modern' Mabri houses based on local Hmong-style constructions.

The above and following photos were taken in Nan in 2003 — we’re unaware of the current status of Mabri groups in Laos. It’s clear that as with Trang/Satun’s Orang Asli population, within the next one or two generations they will be assimilated into mainstream Thai culture. You can no longer visit them in their traditional environment and even if you only want to hear them speak their own language you’re probably going to have to be quick.

Note, while you are unlikely to come across members of the Mabri tribe while trekking or travelling around northern Thailand we will, in future posts, be looking at some of the other hill-tribe peoples that you may.

About the author:
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.

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