Getting An Up Close Experience With The Karen Hill Tribes In Thailand

Getting An Up Close Experience With The Karen Hill Tribes In Thailand

The north of Thailand, in my opinion, is the rich cultural region of the country.

Throughout the last two centuries, a hodgepodge of cultures migrated from surrounding countries, and even as far as China, to find haven from political or economic turmoil happening in their country at any given time.

The Karen people, who migrated from Burma, now call the mountainous northern region of Thailand their home too, and have done it for several decades now.  I’ve had a fascination in meeting the people and hopefully learn a bit more of them and their individual story, so I couldn’t resist the opportunity of visiting a few of their villages in Mae Sariang. 

I coordinated the trip with I Like Local, which is a platform that helps travelers get in touch with locals, as the name says, and get closer to the real experience by literally doing everything with the local villagers, and not through an outsider or intermediate guide.

 

The morning came and Piak, my Karen guide, picked me up at my hotel to start my homestay experience, which would take me through several hours of hiking and numerous stories from the locals. 

It all started simple, with a quick stop at the local market to pick some snacks for lunch.  And by snacks I mean not your typical mass-produced snacks.  These were fried chicken, deep fried fish, and other local favorites.  Immediately after we drove 18 miles out of Mae Sariang until we reached the village where Piak lives.  While his village has easy access to the road, it still looks like a village that could have been set miles deep in the forest. 

There were bamboo houses raised on concrete or wooden stilts with a very basic layout, and in many occasions, just a single interior room.  Domestic animals like pigs, chickens, and even buffalos live beneath the raised houses.

I’m to spend the night in Piak’s house, which is just what I described above, but we would not go there yet.  First, we met a few of the locals, including a young lady who was weaving a skirt in the traditional Karen way –with a rustic wooden “machine”– and her children.  She showed me the basics of how to weave in their style, but as simple as it might have been, that is a science too complicated for me.

That short and impromptu weaving lesson was followed by a hike Piak described with the following sentence, “we are going to walk a lot today.”

 

I love hiking and do it often, so I didn’t think it would be a great deal.  Yes, it turned out it was a longer than expected hike, but it was soooo good

The sun was high, yet hidden behind the clouds, giving a nice temperature and sporadic gentle gusts. The terrain, on the other hand, was quite muddy thanks to the rainy season.  Along the way Piak pointed here and there some of the most curious and important plants and trees that abutted the trail.  He knew everything about them.  He uses them on a daily basis for home remedies, treatments, and even for food. 

After about an hour or so, we stopped in the middle of a dry rice field.  There was a single refuge building made out of tree trunks and palm leaves.  Smoke came out of it as if something was burning inside. 

Indeed, it was our lunch!

We went inside the refuge and sat on a low bamboo platform.  We were 7 people in that small space; the rice field workers, Chalamo (Piak’s mother in law), Bo (Piak’s aide), Piak, and me.

Among the workers there was Nanla, who Piak introduced very curiously.  Before even seeing here, he said, “you will meet a lady who is not married, but don’t worry, she is ok.”

Why would I worry about a lady who is not married?  That’s not how I think, but in the Karen society (among other tribes), marriage is very important.  Turns out Nanla is from a clan no one wants to marry with.  They say they have “bad spirits,” so if you marry any of them, you will die.

Piak followed with, “don’t worry, we will be fine.  I have this to protect us,” as he grabbed his strand and silver necklace.

While I didn’t speak with Nanla, I can say she looks like a sweet lady.

 

Our brief lunch break was done and no spirits were harmed (that I know of).  We continued our hike even deeper into the mountains to pass through wet rice fields, lush forests, and finally, the goal of our hike; an authentic Karen village.

This village has no toilets and in general, no electricity – save for a few dusty solar panels.  There is an elementary school that serves a handful of kids of all ages, but the rest is simply small bamboo houses.

As we strolled around to meet a few locals, the kids came out of school and crossed our paths.  Upon seeing my foreign face and camera, they all ran out as if I was a ghost.

My favorite encounter of all was with Mocomo, who shared her interesting story of her life during the Japanese take over of her village and how she fled to survive.  During World War II, when the Japanese occupied the region, long-term tensions between the Karen and Burma turned into open fighting. Those tensions, while not as strong, still crossed the border towards Thailand.  As a consequence, the Japanese destroyed several villages and massacred locals along the way.

Mocomo only returned to her village after years outside it, but today, she lives a very happy and peaceful life.

The night was coming in, and after a full day of hiking and meets we reached Piak’s house.  I was tired and ready to have a quick meal to go straight to bed, but the Karen people are all family in one way or another, so several of Piak’s family and friends came to his hut for dinner to spend some time with his guest.  I was more than happy with that.  In fact, I loved the gathering and the quality time with his family. 

This is an experience I’ll never forget!

Later on, as the night quieted down, I laid down on my floor mattress and listened to the forest until I fell asleep.  I had to rest, since another hike and the journey back home was waiting for me the next day.

 

Travel photography shared by GloboTreks for Traveldudes.

 

Thanks I Like Local for inviting Traveldudes to this special and local experience! Traveldudes maintains full editorial control of the content published on this site.