My Stay at a Karen Village in Northern Thailand (with Video)

This morning I woke with the chickens. The chickens and my friends Nee and Mint on our pallet bed, beneath a crisp new red mosquito net. Rays of sunshine eagerly peaked through the cracks in the wooden walls, accompanied by the sounds of the morning.  Slow footsteps. Chirping birds. Clanging dishes. I can’t remember the last time I was up this early, and yet somehow here it just seems natural. Even easy.

Nee and I met in Chiang Mai in April, during the busy Songkran festival. She was working in the guesthouse where I was staying, and was smiling and friendly from the first moment I met her. Last week when she invited me to her parents’ home in Baan Yangkeaw, a remote Karen village, I was overjoyed. I love to explore hidden areas when I travel, and with a good friend showing me around, I knew I was going to have a great experience.

Selfie with Nee and Mint
Selfie with Nee and Mint

So yesterday, I met with Nee and her friend, Mint, at the Changpueak bus station. (I couldn’t help but notice I was the only “Farang” there [Thai for westerner].) The bus we got on wasn’t air-conditioned or by any means new, but $3 for a 5-hour bus ride was nothing to complain about. The engine seemed to work just fine, save a little panting on the final inclines headed up the mountain. And I had to chuckle, despite my adjustment to personal space-norms, at the Thai ability to fit 3 people in each little bus seat. The bumpy ride and crowded spaces along the way just added to the adventure.

From the bus stop near Nee’s village, her father picked us up in his compact Toyota pickup truck, and drove us another 15 minutes across a muddy and winding orange road to their house.  As we rode along, I feebly attempted to use some of my newly learned Thai with Nee’s father, but I’m pretty sure he was just nodding and smiling to be polite (some things are universal).

When we arrive, Nee’s mother is waiting on the porch and happy to see us. She’s a tan woman with a rounded nose and face, dressed warmly on this cool rainy evening. Her long gray pants and shirt are covered by a red patterned skirt, which Nee has told us distinguishes married women from single women in her village. (Single girls wear white.)

The house is simple but sturdy, all in wood. In the center is an area for cooking and washing and to the left are the living rooms while to the right is a room for cooking over a fire. We sit down on the large woven mat in the family room, and I notice that the only wall decorations are 3 photos of the Thai King, Bhumibol Adulyadej. Every home and nearly every restaurant I’ve been in Thailand has a photo of the King hanging in it. Even here in the remote village it seems he is waving out at us gracefully in his white jacket and gold sash, next to his regal wife.

In the middle of the far wall is a box-y television, playing a Thai soap opera. (Thai’s love their soaps as much as my grandmother loved The Young and the Restless.) Except for the TV and its little stand, the room is nearly devoid of furniture. Just one wooden and glass cabinet filled with some linens and a small refrigerator.  No computers. No printers or X-Boxes.  And even if I had Wi-Fi on my phone, there would likely be no reception here. This makes me smile.  No distractions.  Just living.

Salted fish with pumpkin leaf and bee soup
Salted fish with pumpkin leaf and bee soup

Mint is from a town near Chiang Mai, but she is as new to village life as I am. We’re tickled to see how differently everything works here. The water pumps fill the large containers near the house and the bathroom, and aluminum bowls are used in scoop it out for washing and cooking. (We both try not to drink too much water so we won’t have to go out at night to the bathroom. The ground is muddy from the rain and you need a flashlight to walk there.) For dinner, Nee’s dad has made us salted fish soup with pumpkin leaves and bee soup. We eat it with rice on a large tray that is shared, family style.

In the morning we wake up early to join Nee’s mother and father in the field. They go every other day about a mile from their home to pick beans on their farm. Nee gives us rain boots to wear and ponchos in case it rains. As she hands me a green poncho I start to laugh and say, “Now everything I have on is green. Good thing it’s my favorite color!” Green hat, green pants, green rain boots and poncho. Photos ensue…

Ready to pick beans
Ready to pick beans

As we walk along through the village, I am amazed at everything that grows here. Banana, papaya, guava, passion fruit, sweet potato, pumpkin, beans, tomatoes, rice and all sorts of herbs. Everything you need to live on is right here in one space, and shared… I feel like this probably shouldn’t blow my mind but it does. This is organic farming without the need for organic at the front. This is the way it has always been done.

In the fields we meet with some of Nee’s neighbors. She tells me they are excited to get to watch a Farang pick beans! One guy does a little dance and gives his best impression of an American girl as he says, “Hello!” I laugh, uncertain if I am being mocked or flirted with. I think the perception in Thailand of Americans is that we all live in Hollywood and have chauffeurs.  While this isn’t the case, I don’t blame Thai’s for thinking so. Few of them can afford to travel abroad, even those with a college degree and working in Chiang Mai or other major cities. Their exposure to American culture is through entertainment media and tourists who, more often than not, are just here to party.

I didn’t work in the fields when I was young, but my mother’s family did, and we had a mini-farm of our own when I was a girl. Chickens, turkeys, and ducks (I named them all). Watermelons, vegetables, pear and apple trees. It was normal to me. I didn’t realize at the time that this practice was “going out of style,” but it was. Even in the south. People don’t make the time for it anymore. I realize now what a loss that is. Being here stirs up a lot of fond childhood memories.

We spend the morning picking the ripest of the beans and visiting the rice fields. Nee’s dad explains that you only want to pluck the beans that are as thick as your little finger. After a few hours, I start to believe I’ve gotten good at it! But we only have one full day to go exploring, so the girls and me take off to see the rice fields. Nee has the sweet enthusiasm of a child, and we play with the video camera and take lots of pictures along the way.

When we get back to the house it’s lunchtime. We sit on the front porch and stew bananas in coconut milk (which tastes as delicious as it sounds). The bananas were from a neighbor’s trees, so as a thank you we bring her a healthy portion of the finished product. Just behind her home there is a large pumpkin patch and a breathtaking view of the mountains. I stand for a moment in awe. What a secret little paradise. As we linger around talking in the open area, her son peaks around corners curiously at the foreign girl in his house. So naturally, I make a silly face at him each time I catch him looking.

I ask Nee if the village is shrinking as the children move away. I assumed that this must be a

Nee with a neighbor's daughter
Nee with a neighbor’s daughter

common phenomenon. She tells me, “No, it’s growing.” When she left a little over 10 years ago there were only 50 houses. Now about 100 homes are here.

For a moment I think about San Francisco. I think about the places I have been where everything is happening at once. Where every dinner party or networking event feels like ‘the place to be’. Where the flash of California and the innovation of Silicon Valley give you a sense that you are in the center of the world…

But that was just me creating a perception within my perimeters. San Francisco was my village. I was just one of the drummers there, entranced by the intensity of its music.  The world is so much bigger. It’s made up of millions of ecosystems just like this one with their own center, their own heart, their own beat. No Apple, or Facebook, or Google is required for this one. It beats just fine. Slow and easy and fine.

Video of my trip with Nee to the Karen village

By about 3pm we’re exhausted and need a nap. So we curl up in the family room for a while. Nee and Mint wake up before me and went for a walk. When I get up, Nee’s mom expresses to me with some sign language they are not far off. I thought I’d just wait for them but then she motions me to follow, so we make a tour around the village. It was one of those moments where I wished I spoke every language in the world (or at least this one). She speaks to me even though I don’t understand, and I like this about her. Her mom has such an excitable energy. A wild spirit. I’ve watched her catch a cricket with her fingers, eat on her haunches, and spit with cool indifference. Nee’s father is more reserved. He eats meticulously, speaks Thai as well as his own dialect, and manages affairs in the village. Which is all fine, but if you had to bet if she or husband would make a better game hunter, all my money would be on her!

Together we walk down to the school and she asks some boys playing there if they had seen Nee. I shrug, ‘it’s okay’ and we kept walking past house after house – almost everyone is outside or on their front porch, chatting with Nee’s mother as we pass. One lady hands me a guava. Another woman is weaving a beautifully patterned garment on a very simple loom and stops to say hello. It’s clear by the stares that my white skin is a bit of a novelty. When we arrive back at the house, some of the neighborhood kids walk over just to get a closer look at me. I don’t mind it. They are as novel to me as I am to them.

Nee and Mint arrive home and we sit together with some neighbors on the front porch, eating more cooked bananas and coconut milk. One grandmother comes with her granddaughters and asks Nee if she will take some pictures. They are combed and dressed in their traditional white dresses ready to stand in front of the church (about a third of the village is Christian). Nee tells me she gets the photos printed for the woman in Chiang Mai and brings them back on her next visit. And then it really occurs to me… This cute 14 year-old girl in front me and her little sisters have never owned a camera.

I take the pictures for the girls. Some in front of the church and some in front of the beautiful mountains. You can see one of them here:

Friends of Nee's family in the village
After dinner, we sit relaxed in the family room. Nee’s father tells the story of how he found God and became a Christian. I don’t understand what he is saying, but I can hear the sincerity in his voice. There’s a stillness in the room. It’s clear he is a good storyteller. The girls are listening so closely I don’t want to disturb them by asking for translations until the very end. When he finishes, Mint has tears in her eyes. I think what a beautiful moment it is.

A little while later, a woman comes by with notes on a crumbled piece of paper. She consults with Nee’s father, and then he goes out to make announcements on the loud speaker. I learn he is one of the village leaders. Suddenly my understanding of Nee becomes deeper. She tells me that she will leave her job at the guesthouse and look for something better. I ask if she’s worried about finding a new one but she tells me there are many jobs in Chiang Mai so it will be okay. I think for a moment how her parent’s feel about her being in the city. Are they proud or do they wish her home? And I suppose it’s no different than my own parents. I suppose it’s a little of both.

Just before bed, Nee’s father takes a rooster from the yard and kills it. It will be our breakfast. I don’t question the ethics that may be imposed on this by the outside world. This is life here. It’s vibrant. I am grateful just to be a welcome part of it for a short while. I remember my old anthropology professor and college advisor, Dr. Davis. He would tell us to eat anything we are offered in a hosts’ home. He taught me so much. I long to be able to pick up the phone to call him and share this whole unique experience.

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