November 5, 2012

The Karen Hill Tribe

In Northern Thailand there are 10 different hill tribes, and visiting them has become a very popular activity. Many villages have become overrun with tourists, so we wanted to venture off the beaten track. Home-stay trips like this always make me feel conflicted. Are we ruining the long-standing dynamics of their village or are we bringing them supplemental income during their farming off-season? It's probably both, so I don't know if we have many more of these in our future. I will say that between our home-stays in Peru and Thailand, this one was more genuine.

Enduring an uncomfortable and dusty 3-hour drive in the back of a pick-up truck, we arrived in the Mae Hong Son province just 60 kilometers from the Myanmar / Burma border. Our agenda was to spend 3 days and 2 nights trekking between Karen villages while passing through mountainous rice and cabbage farms. Our group was like something out of a bad joke…a Dutchman, a German, two Frenchies, two Americans and a Thai guide walk into the jungle… 
On the first night we stayed in the Ton Ngew village of the Mae Sarieng district. This village of 90 families has recently divided into two…30 families have converted to Christianity and the other 60 continue to be animists (attributing spiritual essence to animals, plants, and inanimate objects). There is a road about 100 meters long separating the two villages. There are no hard feelings between the two, but if you convert, you must move to the new village.

These were the most remote people we've ever seen. Of course at first the most striking observation was their physical appearance. They do not brush their teeth, but rather chew betel nut (women) or tobacco (men) to CLEAN them. The men's teeth are black and the women's teeth are blood-red.

The women do all of the working both inside and outside of the home while also raising the children. The men drink (watered down) rice whiskey, sit around, and smoke strong cigarettes all day. It looks very boring.

There are pigs and roosters roaming around everywhere. Every house has one. These people catch rats with bamboo traps and eat them. Be sure to ask Steve which part of the rat he tried. Hint: it rhymes with the color of the womens' teeth.

The villagers' homes consist of two rooms…the kitchen and the room for everything else. They cook by open fire in their bamboo shacks set on stilts. It is a serious fire hazard. There are no holes for air ventilation, so smoke just billows into the “other room” where we slept. They say the smoke keeps the mosquitoes away, but my sinuses went haywire from all the carcinogens we were probably breathing in. If I don't inhale another bamboo bonfire again in my life it will be okay.

For two long nights we slept on hard wooden floors with massive spiders – the size of our palms – lurking all around.

We were all freaked out, and the assurances by our guide that they were “poisonous but scared of humans” really didn't make us feel any better.

In Koh Phangan I was so excited about sleeping under the mosquito net in our fancy resort. I didn't know that we'd be using them for real in the jungle just five days later. But here's the thing…we had deet to fend off the mosquitoes. There's no doubt that we were really using the nets as spider catchers.

Despite the bruised hip bones, lack of sleep, smoky lungs and fear of death-by-spider, we had a great time. What really made our time in the villages so special were the children. The boys didn't give us the time of day…they only cared about playing their game which consisted of throwing rocks in the dirt. 

The girls on the other hand, warmed up to us much more quickly. 

Like any kid, they loved to take photographs and then look at themselves on the screen. The only difference is that maybe this is one of the few times they've ever seen what they look like.

Obviously they don't speak English, but they also do not speak Thai. They have their own Karen tribal language, so the two Thai phrases that we do know (hello and thank you) were rendered useless. But with kids it doesn't matter. By the morning of our second day we were playing soccer with rolled up sleeping bags, holding hands, skipping and hopping down the road to the animist village, spotting butterflies, and throwing a headband at each other pretending it was something scary like one of the spiders. We laughed a lot. They taught us some Karen words, and we taught them some English. It was gratifying.

After saying goodbye to our little friends, we continued on our way. From the high mountain village we trekked down through the jungle to the river, taking so many river crossings that we quickly lost count. I'm relieved to say we made it with no leeches! 

We brought three male villagers with us, and they brought the bottles of rice whiskey. Our guide, Dui, picked our lunch from the fields as we walked.

 When we arrived at our bamboo hut campsite for the night, Dui asked us if we wanted to go fishing. We were excited, but we didn't know that “fishing” really meant being a moral support crew for one of the villagers named Pi while he casted his net working upstream.  

At first the fish were hard to come by, and our dinner was looking pretty bare-bones. But when Pi finally caught a big fish, it was a big deal. There was hooting and hollering and parading it around like a trophy. I think he knew he had earned his salary ($9) for the day, and he was proud. We were happy for him. 

I imagined what it would be like to take this net fisherman – who falls asleep by his bamboo campfire at 8:00pm – and drop him in the middle of New York City. It's a shocking and sad mental image. It gave me perspective on how remote of a life we were really witnessing.

That night while Pi was out hunting for frogs, we ate by candlelight from bamboo chopsticks and spoons that we carved ourselves with his machete. 

To get out of the jungle on our last day, we forged the river many more times. I thought I had given up caving when we left New Zealand, but here we were again...this time wading upstream by bamboo torch light in Olympic flame fashion. 

All-in-all, our trip to the Northern Thailand hill tribes was adventurous, terrifying, and eye-opening. Several days later I visited the Hill Tribe Museum in Chiang Rai. There was a foot-powered rice grinder with a description about how they are very rarely used anymore. It's too much work and tribes would rather pay to have the rice grains separated. But sure enough, four days earlier, we were pounding away on just such a rice grinder with a local woman in the jungle. 

More than ever I was convinced that we got about authentic of a trek as exists in Thailand these days.

1 comment: