We got off the river, pulling the kayaks onto an open patch of ground at the base of a narrow footpath that scaled the side of the mountain. Walking up the trail, it was apparent that the path received very little human traffic, maybe just a few bare feet a day. It led to the top of a shoulder of the mountain, making visible a thin trace of smoke that made its way slowly out of the untamed foliage. Like an apparition, a dark, naked child stood in the pathway staring at us as we made our way up, stunned, then ran back to where it was he’d come from.
He was a Sakai, a member of the scarcely found hill tribe, the Mani, of Southern Thailand. We were in Satun province, one of the four provinces of Thailand where the Mani can be found. The Mani were some of the very first inhabitants of the region, having lived there since before 200, a solid 300 years before the fall of Rome. Their Malay name, Orang Asli, as recognized in Malaysia, literally means “the people that were here first.”
In Thailand, there are about 250 to 300 Sakai living in the hills above such rivers as the one I arrived on. They move their settlements often, normally every month, both in case they feel threatened by something or under the circumstance that a tribe member passed away, fearing that the spirit of the deceased may haunt them. Their residence always subject to change, I was very fortunate to be able to see the tribe I did.
Following the boy around a sharp curve in the trail we beheld five primitive lean-tos thatched together with palm fronds, ferns and various other forest plants. Rather than lean-tos, they were wide sheets of thatching propped up on bamboo sticks. Within each was a family of Sakai — the mother, an absent father (possibly out hunting), and at least three children. Only one child among the surprisingly large group of children had clothing, the rest were bare with leaves and other forest debris stuck in their thick, curly hair. Unlike Thais, Sakai have the hair texture and dark skin complexion akin to Africans. Their language, too, is a unique dialect that cannot be understood by Thais and actually varies dramatically between provincial tribes.