Almost 60 years ago two American missionaries, a doctor/surgeon & his wife, working in southern Thaland gave birth to a son. Kent Gregory grew up in Thailand before returning to the USA for his secondary & tertiary studies in public health. He met & married a Swedish child psychologist/child-maternal health specialist before they returned to Thailand in the mid-seventies determined to apply their skills to the welfare & advancement of the hill-tribe people of northern Thailand.
They were looking to find a preliterate tribe who'd had little if any contact with westerners & the search led them to the still most isolated areas along the Thai/Burmese border near Mae Sariang. Basically Kent had a by-chance meeting in Mae Sariang with an English speaking Burmese man who just trecked (fled) for many days through the jungle from Burma into Thailand. On the way he had encountered a Karen tribe living near the Salween River where it divides Thailand from Burma. Kent found a guide, got clear instructions & then walked for over two days through the mountains & jungle of this part of Thailand to find the tribe - as well as the leeches, he remembers the leopards & hundres of gibbons he saw.
By 1977 Kent had spent sufficient time amongst this & neighbouring tribes to have become fluent in their language - he actually used a card system to compile a dictionary over several years which unfortunately he did not maintain/publish so that to date still no dictionary exists for these Karen people (the Pwo) - to be able to negotiate with village leaders to be able to stay. The Karen are animists & their agreement was conditional that Kent's installation not be in the existing Karen village but in an abandoned, former village site nearby - the Karen were semi-nomadic at that time.
We stayed with Kent for 4 days in this magic corner he calls home. I lie not in saying that it is not only the best garden that I have seen in Thailand, but the best home in which one could stay. It has something, a soul, that springs from it's occupying a former villlage site using existing access mechanisms, water supply, building materials & so on, tranformed through the sheer beauty of the garden that Kent has established over almost 35 years. To be awoken by the 'bird's choir of a 1000 birds' is something special. This is not a millionaire's house where money has secured the 'chosen' block & planted out the 'designed' garden; its the 'no choice' block that has been transformed into what millionaires dream of. The house/s are open in style with large verandahs, built of local teak logged by Kent himself, rooves thatched from local leaves. There is no electricity, no telephones; 'ofuro' style bathrooms. You are in complete tranquility resting at home or walking about the gardens, exploring the surrounding streams, orchards he's planted, rice paddies & so on.
When Kent & his wife arrived, their goal was to set up a maternity, child care, nutrition service for the neighbouring tribe/s. It was a difficult task with village priests being resistant to such intervention. For many years Kent & his wife moved by elephant between what grew to become 17 Karen villages carrying their medical supplies (you may recall the extreme danger of working with male elephants that I covered in an earlier report from Hongsa in Laos). You have to understand that there were no roads, no shops; in fact Kent would walk once or twice a month to Mae Sariang, the closest town, a journey of around 80 kls (but 'UP & DOWN' like you can only imagine) which took 18 hours each way! It was a 'task' despite the spectacularly magnificent views afforded over the mountian heights of Thailand & Burma. The elephants would join him in town before returning ladened with supplies (Kent always walked as it was faster than the elephants moved). It was an area not without danger where gunfire emminating from Burma could be heard regularly - Kent told me of a time a guide came by with 2 german & a french trecker; they asked for directions to a certain camp where the heads of the Karen armies fighting the Burmese government had installed their families for reasons of safety. Kent advised them of the way to learn later that the guide had been murdered, his body thrown in the river & the trackers returned to their starting point down river!
During this period they had a daughter, but sadly Kent's wife passed away - a mole was removed but no biopsy was performed which proved fatal. It was not an easy existence for someone widowed early bringing up a young child; indeed he brought up & continues to raise several other Karen children in most cases where a mother dies during child-birth. He also ensures the on-going education of many tribal children who otherwise would not have access to secondary or tertiary education.
After a period of time Kent realised that despite his efforts & relative success the tribal children still lacked an acceptable level of nutrition. It was apparent to Kent that he had to initiate a commercial system within the villages, something that would generate revenue so as to enable the villagers to purchase the additional nutritional needs of their children. Kent knew that almost all Karen woman could weave textiles (they are the recognised experts in this area) & the men baskets - for those not aware of the hill-tribes in Thailand have a look at any web-site covering the subject to see the brilliant textiles these tribes have produced over the centuries - so he set-up a business ' Sop Moei Arts' (www.sopmoeiarts.com) to produce the required income.
Kent lives in a simple house & has constructed a number of other buildings scattered amongst the gardens to accommodate the weavers who come from close-by villages. He has also established weaving centres in several other out-lying vilages. Its easy to pass the day amidst the hand-made teak looms watching the women work clad in their finest creations - the patterns & colours tell you a great deal; whether the wearer is married, for example, whether from the mountains or the valleys, from what particular tribe & so on. The woman are often tatooed though I dont know the significance. Some smoke hand-made pipes - a great sight! We dined with two of the ladies one night, one woman's husband & some of their children - I say some of the children as we were told through one woman's daughter who speaks English (Kent sends her to school in Chiang Mai) that her mother was 43 with 6 children the oldest of which was 28 - you can do the maths! Food remains traditional & Kent continues to eat similarly - a local vegitable on this occassion mixed with a paste derived from crushed (after boiling) jackfruit seeds mixed with dry fish & chillies (Ken had prepared an accompanying meal derived from freshly picked bamboo shoots, washed down from coffee grown, roasted & ground on the property).
Amongst the male basket weavers was a man who fled Burma some 17 years ago but still returned from time to time to Burma I was told on insergency missions! We also walked to & through a neighbouring village & to the steep hillsides to watch them farm - the climbs & descents absolutely knocked us out & we marvelled at the way the Karen could carry vegetables, wood or children approximateing their own body weight with ease (& without losing kilos in perspiration!)
This place is SOOOOO good that the King of Sweden brought his wife & 2 children including his just married daughter to stay a couple of years ago; a stay outside any duties of state, a stay not known to many, to be simply at ease, away from the normal 'controls' of their life. Kent recalled that on one occassion he took the family to an absolutely authentic Karen village high up in the mountains with a magnificent view over Burma, a trip that necessitated, in view of the sheer climb, that they ride elephants. The tribe had no idea they were coming & clearly no idea as to the identity of their visitors. As the King moved openly & freely amongst the villagers he turned to the Queen & said : 'all my life I've been looking to be able to do this, to spend a day like this'!
As wonderful as it all is, the reality of living in such isolation was brought home to us during our visit as the uncle of one of Kent's adopted children fell from the top of a coconut tree with a horrible thud. After many hours traversing the worst possible terrain he has been found to have fractured his spine & we are awaiting news surrounding damage to any organs.
A 'road', if you can call it that, was recently cut along the tracks once trod by Kent. It is not an all-weather road; impassable from the end of June through to early October each year. It takes 3.5 hrs in the best of times. Kent mentioned on our arriving by this road in early July was the first he'd ever seen anyone passing that way in July which shows how dry Thailand has been over recent months. It is nonetheless in terrible shape, dangerously slippery & rutted, deteriorating quickly, as it does, at the sign of any rain. The King of Sweden actually used this road when he came one December but had to abandon his car en route! More alarming, the fellow who fell from the coconut tree had to be removed from the jungle along this same road - the pain must have been unbearable - before medical transport could be arranged.
There is another equally time consuming but incredibly spectacular way into Mae Sariang which involves taking a 3 hour boat trip along 3 separate rivers & through 4 separate military check-points (3 thai & 1 Burmese). Kent would use this route (& still does) when the supplies to be carried were not of a great quantity. We decided to return by this way much to the delight of our necks, backs & butts! This is a unique & absolutely magic voyage. It is not possible for tourists, indeed anyone without 'reason', to travel by this way (the whole area where we were travelling is a military zone accommodating two large refugee camps & access is now strictly controlled by the military - even by car we were only permitted to enter as we were staying with Kent). One descends initially by the Yuam River (how magic was the riverside bording) then along the larger Moei River to where it meets the Salween, the only major waterway in S-E Asia still not damed, giving it a certain majesty, a certain naturalness. You travel up-stream along the Salween - its is exceptionally turbulent & wide where the waters of the Yuam & Moei moving in one direction meet those of the Salween moving in the opposite direction & the turbalance over the centuries has forced the Salween to literally change course for a moment leaving a sanded area, a bend in the river of rare beauty. Disembarkment is at the interestingly set & very isolated riverside town of Mae Sam Lep. Its then a further hour by 4x4 to Mae Sariang.
Kent told me that when using the boat access he would be met by his elephants at an 'outpost' from one of the now refugee camps. On occassions when he was late, he'd leave his goods with the men at the outpost who he knew well/found quite charming & collect them the next morning by elephant. After many years he learnt that they constituted an assassination squad who would murder & throw into the river all those sent their way as being suspected of spying/infiltrating the refugee camps. By means of background, the Karen army which held out against the Burmese for many years was made up of both Christian & Buddhist Karen; the Christians kept all the important positions to themselves to the extent that in an act of great treachery the Buddhists told the Burmese of the way into the 'stronghold'. The Christians fled & control was handed to the Buddhists.....the Christians remain concerned/paranoid by the possibility of Buddhist infiltration into their (refugee) camps.
Enough for now; we'll return in September to climb to the authentic Karen hill-tribe village that the King of Sweden loved so much. Things are changing even in this 'neck of the woods'. How very lucky we are to have seen it now.