I have just returned from a couple of days with a Karen hilltribe out past Wat Chan; a trip offering unique insight into the daily life of the Karen, their culture & aspirations.
We drove up with Chi, a Karen driven by his pride to be Karen & his desire to reinstill such pride in his tribe through a 'renewal' of Karen tradition & culture. He is at the forefront of the maintenance of traditional Karen music & instruments. He got his love for such music through his father & it was great to see them singing & playing together with Chi's wife. Chi is also currently negotiating at the villlage, local & national government levels to have certain areas in his village set aside for 'birth' & 'death' forrests. Briefly, when a Karen child is born, the umbilical cord is washed & placed in a bamboo container & then attached to a particular tree in a particular forrest in the belief that the strongest trees give the baby the strongest life. It is also said that a person's spirit always remains in the village despite whatever travels it may undertake. At death the bones of Karens are buried with trees, fruit & flowers being planted over them the ensure they have plenty in the next life.
We moved throughout the village, at one time stopping in the home of a Karen woman to watch her weaving then hand-sowing the textiles for which the Karen are famous, on this occassion decorating with seeds this particular group of the Karen (the Sgaw) use.
We stayed with Chi's parents, the Karen are a very warm & welcoming people. Chi's father taught English in the villge for almost 40 years. He has a degree in English from all that time ago. He rarely has the chance to speak with native english speakers & was very happy to have the chance to brush up on the linguistics.
Home centred around a traditional Karen house - a wood & bamboo structure consisting of a porch with floor level sink, then a single room with a central fire for cooking. It burns all day & (salt-flavoured) tea is always on hand. Chi's mother, a quiet & reserved woman, a wonderful woman, seems to cook all day for all & sundry. Everything is done at floor level; no tables & chairs. All meals take place here with all the family present. Visitors eat first with the father of the house followed by all others present. Meals were typically Karen - rice based dishes accompanied by bamboo shoots, pumpkin leaves or flowers, beans & other vegetables, some pork, chili....& salty tea. At breakfast we had rice with a pumpkin sauce.
This 'hut' is the focal point. A 'standard' home has been constructed alongside. Guests all slept down stairs; the Karen have a particularly strong set of moral values. You sleep on the floor or a bed with a mattress as good as the floor! The place has all the 'practicalities' one would expect - pigs out the back, outside loo, fruit & vegies growing all about the place, chickens all around, cat, dogs, no hot water, COLD 'bath' at night by bucket, tons of cut wood stored for the cold winter nights. It was interesting wandering about the dirt roads of the village to see traditionally clad woman pounding rice in the backyard using ancient foot driven pounders, & to see water buffalo yarded under the teak houses.
The village is situated at almost 1000m above sea level so the nights are 'refreshing'. Its a beautiful setting - rolling hills, big natural pine forrests, scenic rice paddies & a pleasant outlook. The Karen are known for their care of their green enviroment & this is the first village I've seen decorated with many colourful trees, hedges & flowers; usually hill-tribes are too busy in the fields to have time for such matters. With the road from Pai to Wat Chan just sealed (from the Samoeng side its a muddy slide through the wild) the area is set to boom; it's already booming with land prices recently doubling. The Karen are understandably upset as the amounts now commanded for land are beyond their means & other tribes are moving in via 'farang' with whom they've 'hooked up'. Disturbingly, I actually spoke with one such 'farang', a guy from Hawaii, who told me he 'couldn't give 2 hoots about locals & their traditions'.
An interesting paradox to end. Chi married the daughter of the village (Karen) Baptist minister. The Karen believe they are god's first born & will be returned to their rightful position when they are given back god's book which they 'lost' many centuries before. The book is to be returned by the white man representing the third born of the family!