In the highlands of Northern Thailand, there was once a truly isolated tribe whose individuals were called phi (spirit/ghost). Staying hidden largely out of fear, they lived deep in the forest, completely isolated from the prying eyes of outsiders. When once an attempt was made to approach them, they immediately disappeared into the forest, leaving behind their “windscreens” made of banana leaves. It was a faint indication that “something” was there, but was far from being decisive evidence of the presence of human beings. The lowland Thais called them phi tong luang – spirits of the yellow leaves – and their existence continues to be shrouded in mystery.
These people call themselves Mlaq Briq (Mlabri), or just Mlaq. The word Mlaq means “human being” and Briq means “forest” in their own language, which belongs to the Austroasiatic group of languages. They are one of the smallest ethnic groups in the world. An official 2002 population census on ethnic groups (known in Thai as chao khao, or “hill tribes”) living in the northern part of Thailand put the total population at 923,257, which constituted 1.45 percent of the total national population of Thailand at the time. The Mlabri numbered just 282, constituting only 0.03 percent of the total population of hill tribespeople. Today, there are approximately 400 individuals.
by Shu Nimonjiya
This article first appeared in Asian Geographic No. 108 Issue 6/2014