A little known Negrito tribe of around 300 people still inhabit the Banthat Mountain range in Southern Thailand. This range overlaps with the 3 provinces of Satun, Pattalung and Trang and is covered with dense rainforest. Called the Maniq, they live deep inside the forest as hunters and gatherers surviving mostly from eating monkey which they catch using blow-pipes and poisoned darts and roots, the way they have lived for centuries.
Several things make the Maniq unique. They have an in-depth understanding of herbal remedies from the forest to cure all types of illnesses. And they have an extremely fascinating language. Whilst our modern languages have lost their ability to encode odours the Maniq language has a lexicon of over a dozen terms dedicated to smell shedding new light on the limits of language. A soon to be released PhD thesis by a Dutch researcher explains exactly why their language is unique.
It is believed that they have lived on the Malay Peninsula for thousands of years and remarkably today they manage to hold-on to their identity and traditions despite an increased interaction with local Thai people.
Living in temporary settlements, when the food sources are exhausted they move on to a new place. Quiet, reclusive and misunderstood the Maniq live a delicate existence. Outside these 3 Southern provinces they remain relatively unknown even to Thai’s. The most famous story of the Maniq tells of King Rama V adopting a young Maniq boy he called Kanang who was taken to live in the Royal Palace in Bangkok. Whilst Kanang died young, only in his twenties, stories tell of the affection the Thai King had for the boy. And during the 1970’s Thailand was fighting to eradicate small Communist groups in the South who hid in the same remote mountain range. Mistaking smoke from the Maniq camps for that of the Communists they often suffered attacks as a result.
Thailand is a country that insists on social inclusion. If you want to live on Thai soil you must abide by Thai rules and join Thai society. Hill-tribes in Thailand's far north have been forced to do as such or leave and in fact many long for such inclusion as it gives them access to certain benefits. The Maniq are different in that so far they haven't been forced, yet, to have identification cards and have actually rejected preliminary requests to have them owing to their strong sense of identity.
But today their existence is in debate on how best to incorporate them in to Thai society. Many want them to re-settle in the low lands, giving them id cards and hence access to health services and education but this has not been enforced. Yet undoubtedly this would have an everlasting effect on the cultural traditions of this tiny population.
However, with deforestation and illegal encroachment of land the Banthat Mountain range and the rainforest that covers them are being squeezed from all sides. This is slowly destroying the Maniq’s food chain with wild animals getting fewer and could result in them having to interact more with a population they traditionally haven’t trusted. Indeed for some Maniq this forced integration has already started.
This work in progress looks to document the unique Maniq people as they are challenged to keep their traditions and forest homes in the modern era.