Historically the Mlabri were nomadic hunters and gathers. They lived in makeshift banana leaf thatched shelters deep in the jungle, and when the leaves turned yellow, they moved on. They kept their distance from any outsider and as they only ever left traces of their existence, local Thai’s named them ‘Phi thong leung’ which translates to ‘sprit of the yellow leaves’.
No hellos, no goodbyes, no thank yous. These are words that do not exist in the Mlabri language. It is a face-to-face community where there is no need or reason for routine pleasantries.
As former hunter-gatherers, the Mlabri lived to adapt rather than plan. These fundamental Mlabri principles are still consistent with their lives today, living day-by-day based on the conditions as they present. The Mlabri are no longer nomadic due to the logging of their forests and are living in small villages across Northern Thailand.
Now, Mlabri occasionally work as cheap labour in the neighbouring Hmong fields. Many think the Mlabri should be given land to start farming within their own community. However the cultivation of land is against the Mlabri Animistic belief. In this belief, it is said that the gods would send a tiger to kill the Mlabri if they ever attempted to do so.
Jealousy is also a word that never existed in the Mlabri language. There are words for similar emotions, but none that described the same feeling as jealousy.
With influences of modern Thailand, all this is changing. The Mlabri youth have desires to own possessions and live like the soap stars they see on television. This will shape the future of Mlabri culture.