A 6 hour drive to the west of Chang Mai, first on highways, then local roads and finally for a few hours on dirt tracks in the back of a pick up truck brings you to the Karen Tribe villages, high in the jungled hills.
The Karen are one of the indigenous tribes of north Thailand, they are farmers who clear areas of forest to plant their crops. Although traditionally nomadic, moving on every few years to new ground they are now encouraged by the government and conservation charities to remain in a single location and manage their lands more effectively to minimise destruction of the jungle.
The Karen people traditionally use elephants to clear trees and transport crops and heavy items during the wet season when the tracks can be impassable for ox and cart. They are seen as part of the family rather than as a farm animal.
Traditionally animists the Karen believe all things have a spirit - trees, bushes, animals, rivers, rocks and the soil. They give offerings to these spirits to thank them for using the land and clearing the forests and employ a shaman to undertake certain rituals to protect them from the bad spirits. The shaman blesses new comers to the village, like ourselves, partly as a welcome, but mainly to cleanse them of bad spirits to protect the people and their animals.
Traditionally in a Karen village if there are a large number of deaths in the village in a short period people will blame the spirits and the village will move to a new location. The Shaman will lead the way and at possible locations throw an egg on to the ground. If the egg does not break that is the chosen location for the new village. This practice, unfortunately, has resulted in a large amount of destruction of jungle as the village could move location every few years. Historically this was sound practice as deaths to people or animals generally would be from waterborne diseases such as cholera and moving people away to cleaner water sources would no doubt save lives. However with the introduction of innoculations, wells and water purification this practice is now out dated.
The government only allow each Karen village to clear jungle in a 10km radius from the village in order to try and preserve this beautiful pristine habitat. The introduction of some paved roads, solar power and wells also encourages the village to stay in one place.
During the wet season rice is grown in terraced paddies, during the dry season maize and corn, and throughout the year a variety of vegetables and fruits. Crops are rotated over a 5 year cycle to minimise damage to the soils and ensure essential minerals are replaced. During the rice growing season cows and buffalos are penned, in order to prevent them eating the growing rice, but for most of the year they roam free grazing on anything and everything they can find (including clothes!).
Traditionally men and women would marry very young but now schooling is compulsory until 18 they tend to marry in their early twenties. A Karen man cannot marry until he can prove he can hunt and work the land, a Karen woman cannot until she can cook rice and weave cloth to produce the traditional textiles in the colour of her family.
People tend to meet at new year parties, weddings and funerals, partly helped by the local moonshine (no different to back home really!). Women ask the men to marry them, this is done by visiting the man’s home with her parents and bringing a gift of bottles of moonshine (a minimum of 5 I was advised!) they then return each evening to see if the man has drunk any of the moonshine and if he will talk with them. If he does then they are set to be married and will visit each other every day, but no tom foolery allowed! If after 3 days he has not drunk the moonshine or will not speak to the family then he has to pay for the present as he has embarrassed the family and the wedding is off! The wedding will last a day if they are from the same village, two days if they are from different villages as they will celebrate for one day at each village.
There is no school in our village so the children walk to the next village to attend the kindergarten. Infant and secondary school is in the nearby town, a good 2 hour drive away so the children have to board. Although school is free parents still have to pay for equipment and transport to and from school, this has resulted in a reduction in the amount of children families have, originally a large family was beneficial to help with all the farming, now most people have around two children.
A two hour journey from the nearest paved road along dusty potholed dirt tracks to reach our first Karen village
The traditional houses are on stilts and built of hardwoods like teak, the animals shelter from the sun and rain under the house
Kan our guide receives a blessing from the village Shaman
String from a pot containing flowers to represent our life blossoming is tied around our wrist to protect us
The ends of the string are snapped off, rolled into a ball and placed on our heads. This represents the bad spirits that have been ensnared in the string. When it falls off naturally (you mustn't remove it on purpose) it is the bad spirits leaving you, this protects the Karen from the bad spirits which you have brought with you.
We learnt a few basics of the Karen language, which is very different to Thai
This was the mother of one of our guides, Stam, teaching us how to weave
Home sweet home for three nights at Stam's village