© Dan White. No repro without Permission.
In the remote, lawless mountains of the Golden Triangle, the region that marks the junction of Thailand, Burma and Laos, violent gun-wielding drug barons have imposed a reign of terror on the lives of the hillside villagers. Until recently the opium traffickers’ authority went largely unchallenged, but now the drug dealers have a real enemy – and the addicts have an escape route.
The hill tribes’ salvation has come from within the heart of their own culture and its crusaders are Buddhist child-monks riding divine horses and kick-boxing their way out of trouble.
Their mentor is Abbot Khru Ba Mua Chai. Until 11 years ago he was an officer in the Thai military. While serving in the armed forces, Khru Ba says he dreamt of a special place somewhere in the mountains suffused for, “thousands of years,” with legends of horses. These animals were the re-incarnation of Siddhartha Gautama – the Buddha.
Khru Ba meditated and fasted sitting on a rock in the mountains for two weeks. Bees nested on his body and eventually local villagers took him to the, “cave of the golden horse.” This revelatory experience drove the former soldier to become a monk. Leaving his wife and family, he founded the Golden Horse Forest Monastery, devoting himself to the care of local children and the poor.
After six years of pastoral work, during which he witnessed the steady descent of the mountain into violence, fear and drug addiction, Khru Ba decided to take a more pr-active approach and in 1998 began ordaining novices. He gave the little monks 100 sacred horses and led them on mounted patrols to the local villages where, as representatives of Buddha, they started to tackle the region’s drug problem head on.
Possies of ‘little Buddhas’ ride to the remote mountain villages of tribes such as the Lisu, Karen and Akha and perform traditional rites and ceremonies. They gather the local children and elder villagers, impressing upon them the tragic consequences of opiate addiction. The monks’ temple also shelters recovering addicts providing them with a regime that can seem harsh. One procedure even forces the patients to meditate while immersed in freezing water.
This grass roots campaign against the drug business draws the fury of the drug barons and their private armies. Although a man of peace, Abbot Khru Ba ensures his disciples are equipped with more than the ways of Buddha and the sacred horse by instructing them in the power of physical force. The martial art of muay thai has close ties to the mental disciplines of Buddhism. The abbot is a master of the 184 traditional muay thai techniques and part of the monastery’s daily training regimen is given over to passing on this knowledge to the novice monks.
The mental and physical skills required for kick-boxing have become increasingly useful to the monks as their campaign against drugs hots up and the retaliation of the drug lords against them becomes more fierce. The monastery has been raked by fire from automatic weapons in the past.
But slowly it looks like Khru Ba may be turning the tables on the illegal regime of oppression that has, for so long, been the norm in northern Thailand’s hill country. The mounted commandos of saffron-clad youth now co-operate with the Thai army to provide security and protection for the locals.
As Khru Ba’s message spreads across the hills, the former iron grip of the dealers slackens enabling the boy monks to ride their sacred horses further and further afield as they reclaim Thailand’s hill people and their historic culture from the stranglehold of a modern evil.