Villagers of remote Ban Lai Hin have lived in seclusion and toiled on the land for generations, unknowingly preserving a precious culture and way of life.
The old bai larn palm-leaf Buddhist scripture inscribed in Pali letters is kept at Wat Lai Hin Museum in Ban Lai Hin village. It could be one of the oldest of its kind. PHOTOS BY SOMSAK SUKSAI
It took a lot of research and willpower to turn the village into a knowledge machine.
The village is off the tourist map and is not a money-spinning Otop branch. But its cultural value is in the facets of everyday life, which are almost taken for granted.
With guidance from research sponsored by the Thailand Research Fund (TRF), the Ban Lai Hin inhabitants in Ko Kha district have found a novel approach to keeping alive its culture and history with education.
The name Wat Lai Hin may not ring a bell, per se.
But its cultural richness is reflected more than 100km away in Chiang Mai, where the plush Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi has built a resplendent temple-like building influenced by Lana architecture - it's a replica of the Wat Lai Hin chapel, the village's central house of faith.
At one point, Ban Lai Hin villagers, cultural advocates and academics were up in arms against the inclusion of a structure with monastic features at the hotel, which is a commercial place.
They cried foul over what they slammed as a show of outright disrespect to religion and insensitivity to locally cultivated wisdom.
In the end, a compromise was reached with the hotel owner organising a pahpa robe-giving ceremony at the temple and registering a fund to preserve the religious edifices and antiquities at Wat Lai Hin.
A year ago the village welcomed a researcher from the TRF whose study would change the villagers' world view and how they view the cultural legacy they thought they never had.
Songsak Kaewmul, head researcher, said the gist of the study deals with managing the knowledge of indigenous history and wisdom. The village offers a wealth of historical content that exists in both concrete and non-concrete forms, from the exquisite temple architecture to the local residents' skills in arts and crafts, well-honed through the decades.
Bodies of knowledge unique to Ban Lai Hin are "all over the place", Mr Songsak noted.
Songsak Kaewmul, head researcher of indigenous cultural and historical studies of Ban Lai Hin in Lampang’s Ko Kha district. The research is funded by the Thailand Research Fund.
Speaking from experience as caretaker of the Wat Lai Hin Museum, Mr Songsak witnessed first-hand many items of indescribable historical significance. These villagers are in possession of these objects, which risk falling into neglect and becoming irrelevant.
One of them is a book of bai larn palm-leaf Buddhist scripture inscribed in Pali letters visibly similar to the ancient Khmer scripts. The inscription was done by the late venerable Phra Mahapa Kesornpanya, the renowned monk of the Lana clerical order.
Mr Songsak said the scripture, now exhibited at the museum, could be one of the oldest of its kind.
In his view, objects and wisdom are a source of knowledge but they are "dead" if the meaning behind them or what they represent is not understood and explained.
And the understanding begins at home.
History and culture must be appreciated, first and foremost, by the very people physically closest to them, and the younger the better.
Knowledge can survive only if there are people to pass it on to. In the case of Ban Lai Hin, the village youngsters must get involved and learn the importance and value of what they have around them.
Unless the knowledge is managed in a way that involves the locals and encourages them to see the merit of learning, the history and culture they are inherently part of will be alien to them.
That is, sadly, what is occurring in small villages like Ban Lai Hin, Mr Songsak said.
The solution he proposes from his research is to inject the knowledge into young minds by incorporating the study of local history and culture into the curriculum of the village's own school.
Doing so kills two birds with one stone. Allowing youngsters to become engrossed in their own culture makes the knowledge come alive. The students will be able to piece together a complete picture of the origin and the evolution of their culture which is what knowledge management is intended to achieve.
The research produces meaningful academic findings and spurs the villagers into making sense of their own history with the knowledge transferred to the new generation.
Mr Songsak said the bovorns - the homes, temples and schools - form key components of the research. The bovorns are where local people interact and exchange knowledge.
After the study of local history is incorporated into the school curriculum, local scholars should take part in teaching the students. The scholars also help review the knowledge which is shared at public forums.
Mr Songsak said the research studies four aspects: historical places and objects, local culture and rituals, the people's way of life and local wisdom.
Manop Paknearnath, head of Ban Lai Hin School, said the teaching of local history enables the young to realise their community's identity and builds the idea of preserving their ancient culture.
The effort to integrate people in cultural preservation has progressed well as teachers and local wise people have jointly drawn up a curriculum to teach the students, Mr Manop said.
This cooperation was the first step to broaden the participation of the community, temple and schools, he added.
Mr Songsak is now considering extending the time frame of his research, which started last year, in order to fine-tune the process of participation between community and school.
The younger residents of the community will be taught to collect and archive their village's valuable historic information, including ancient remains, local traditions, livelihoods and local wisdom.
Local scholars will help with the establishment of a reliable database that can be used as a reference in the curriculum.
The success of this project undoubtedly lies with the younger generations' interest, and that seems to have manifested.
"I am happy to learn our local history from the curriculum drawn up by my grandfather and grandmother," said Achara Chaikaew, a student of Ban Lai Hin School.
"This is what I would like to learn as we knew nothing about it before," she said.
"Ban Lai Hin has a long history and I think the village students and children will get to know it and help transfer the information to the others in the future," she said.
The main chapel of Wat Lai Hin built Lannastyle is the main temple for local villagers. The plush Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi Hotel has built a resplendent temple-like replica on its property.
A village elder, known in the village as Oui, demonstrates basket weaving skills for the children.
The village elder teaches local students the art of weaving palm leaves into the shapes of various animals which are then put on display at merit-making rites.
Children in the village join a community effort to remove weeds from the village’s main waterway. The youngsters are taught social responsibility as well as the need to preserve local culture and history.
A school boy works with the bamboo frame of a basket before the start of a weaving class given by village elders.
About the author
- Writer: Somsak Suksai