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The Mlabri dance, 1959.
Boonserm Satrabhaya
Mlabri; dance

The Tong Lueang or Yellow Banana Leaf Tribe is a name given to an ethnic group inhabiting in the deep forests. The name was given according to the material they used to build their dwellings which were banana leaves. They would move their living place when the leaves turned yellow.

Dr. H. Bernatzik an Austrian explorer made a survey on the tribe in 1936 in the jungles of Nan province. The people called themselves “Yam Bri” which later were understood to be the same group as those stated in the Siam Society’s exploration report. The exploration, led by Mr. Kraisri Nimmanheminda discovered them on August 10, 1962. Mr. Boonserm Satrabhaya a northerner journalist was with the team and became the first photographers to take pictures of the Tong Lueang ethnics. An essay about them entitled “Phi Tong Lueang” (Tong Lueang Ghosts) won the annual documentary writing award of 1962 granted by the the Journalism Foundation of Thailand

Mr. Kraisri noted that the people called themselves “Mra-bri”. They built shacks at the bank of Nam Tha stream in the south west area of Nan Province. Earlier, Mr. Oliver Gordon Young reported that the Maew and Mussuh hill tribes on Doi Wiang Pha in Phrao District, Chiang Mai, encountered the ethnics in their area. The people called themselves “Pol” and they spoke the Wa language. “Mara-bri or Mra-Bri” means “jungle people”;“Mra” means person/human and “Bri” means “jungle/forest”.

It is believed that the Tong Lueang were a tribe that originated in Sayaburi, Laos. Today most of them have habituated in The north of Thailand in areas such as Mueang District, Rong Kwang District and Song District, Phrae Province as well as in Sa District, Nan Province. They normally choose to stay in fertile areas along the hill slopes at the latitude of over 3,000 feet above sea level. Their dwellings are usually built near water sources for them to conveniently find food like prawns, fish or other fresh water animals.

They are considered small but strong. Some say that they look like the natives of Northerners but with a darker complexion. They usually wear merely a wrap around cloth (the only piece of garment they would wear) and it is worn only when they need to contact with other villages to trade their forest goods for rice, salt and other necessary utensils such as knives or spears.

The Tong Lueang people believe in mysterious powers similar to other hill tribes such as spirits and demons. They are animists who believe that there are supernatural powers that control their lives; so worship ceremonies to them are performed when one becomes ill. Moreover, every full moon night, the Tong Lueang set up food offering rites to the spirits they believe in along with a feast and dance around their spears tied in a bundle and placed in the middle of the dance ring. Their dance is a simple gesture, swinging their bodies while walking in a circle and flipping their hands along with murmuring the lyric to the music. Their lyrics are similar to those of the ancient Yonok people. The ones who are not in with the dancers sit together in a ring and clap their hands. As night passes to a certain point they break up their dancing ring and return home to sleep.

They have a strong belief inherited from their ancestors that if they stay in one place too long without moving on, the bad spirits will destroy them. Thus, this is the reason they constantly move to a new place every 5-10 days. This custom corresponds with the rule of balance and some theories that when the food sources nearby decrease they need to move to a more fertile area.

Their habitats are in a shack-like structure with a sloping roof but with no raised floor or platform. The back of this lean-to shack is normally higher than the front end. They use dried grass straws or banana leaves to cover the ground. They don’t have pillows, but lie on their sides with one ear on the ground so they can hear the footsteps of humans or animals that come near. Their women and children stay in shacks built on a high hill as the men go out hunting and looking for food in the forest which takes some time before returning home to their families.

The health habits of these ethnics are that they normally excrete in bushes near their dwellings. Therefore, it is easy for diseases to spread rapidly. Their frequent habitual migrations help reduce the risk. They choose to move early in the morning at sun up and stop to build their shacks before sundown with the fear of wild beasts and dangers that could occur if they journeyed at night time.

When one of the family members passes away the other members will prepare a funeral by putting the body on a bier tied high up on a big tree to protect it from beasts or tigers that could come to dig up the body later. They believe that if a tiger tastes the meat from a human’s body, it would want to eat more human flesh. The later generations have changed to burying the body. Whatever way, after the funeral, all of the ones behind must move out of that area despite the time of day. This is another reason that they have never built permanent dwellings because their life required frequent moves. Another custom is that all men and women would pierce their ears from a young age. The holes would have a diameter of approximately 0.5-1.0 centimeters. They would use sharp pointed bamboo streaks to punch through the ear with a soft wood base supporting the streak. In the old days they would decorate the hole with flowers as accessories but this tradition has changed due to contact with other tribes such as the Hmong or Yao causing the people to do it less. However, a few can be found following this custom.

Although other ethnic minorities have absorbed the lowland modern culture and had greatly transformed their living and culture, the Tong Lueang have accepted the least changes. They have preserved their old values and customs very well. This could be related to the fact that they frequently move their settlements so they do not have much contact with people outside their tribe, plus the fact that their beliefs have been ingrained deeply for generations. There are approximately 150 members of the tribe that remain in Thailand today marking them the tiniest minority group in Thailand.

Bupha Khunyotying and Wilak Sripasang. (1999). Phi Tong Lueang. in
             Encyclopedia Northern Thai Culture (Vol. 8, p. 4116-4118).
             (in Thai). Bangkok: Munnithi Saranukrom Watthanatham,
             Thai Siam Commercial Bank.
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