Eh Paw our guide and driver is harried when he arrives at our hotel. He is a little late and I see him physically take a moment to collect himself and say hello after we greet him. But it’s just a moment and almost simultaneously he is grabbing our ragtag assortment of bags and stuffies and throwing them into the back of his gleaming white Toyota four door sedan. Today is the day we go to the village for three nights. I have a little knot of fear in my stomach. The fear of the awkwardness of being in someone’s home, a strangers home. How are we going to make small talk? Google translate doesn’t have Karen. I’m worried about them feeling like they are in a zoo being stared at while we gleefully stomp through snapping pictures cooing at their simple life.
Eh Paw’s English is great and he can answer our questions and help outline what will be happening for the next three days. About two hours out of Chiang Mai we arrive at the national park there we meet an other guide who will hike with us to her village two kilometres away. Meanwhile Eh Paw has to visit his father in the hospital – this fact accounts for his slight sir of impatience. Deung Soo is wearing a long traditional skirt with a hoodie (it’s crazy hot!). Of course we completely gloss over the “hike” aspect and practically shouted over Eh Paw in the car when he brought it up. Somehow neither kid seems perturbed and we start off. Luckily it’s through the forest so it’s cooler – and the promise of a beautiful waterfall and maybe swimming seems to be keeping the kids whining at bay. Deung Soo points out some trees – cinnamon!! And small plants whose leaves delicately curl down when touched – carnivorous plants! Then a bright leaf green snake coiled and draped in a small bush to the side of the path – pit viper!!! Whoa! Yes a green snake otherwise known as a pit viper. They are deadly – we know this because we went to the snake farm. They are mostly nocturnal and strike quickly when they sense heat. They are the most common snake bite in Thailand. Not usually fatal if you can get the anti venom within three hours. Apparently the bite is very painful – luckily the two we pass are sleeping. Then she points out a HUGE spider – like freaking huge – suspended between bushes on the side of the path in the centre of a beautiful web. At this point I don’t know if I’m happy to have Deung Soo here to point out all the deadly creatures nearby or annoyed that she keeps pointing them out. I decide on happy and relieved. The waterfall is suitably magnificent – after all the creature spotting the kids have zero desire to go off piste and hop into the cool pool of water. Luckily it’s still cool in the canopy of the forest so I can claim that I’m not hot enough for a swim. My sweaty face isn’t fooling anyone. We carry on – by now Chris is carrying Sabine and maneuvering the bamboo ladders and walkways down and over the river and up the bank on the other side and finally up and out of the forest. In the clearing there are rows and rows of flowers up and down the valley. This used to be poppies but now since a new initiative from the King in the late 80’s they grow marigolds, carnations and gerbers. Through the fields and then up and into a Karen Village. Deung Soo deposits us at a coffee shop. A thatched roof over a fire pit with a blackened kettle on it. There is a small bar at the front with a hand crank grinder on it. The coffee shop owner grinds the beans and offers to let Anderson try. He then pours boiling water into the ground beans stirs it and pours that through a cloth filter into a tin coffee pot. He directs us to a low table under an other hut and we sit and sip this most delicious coffee out of small ceramic saki cups. He cultivates, picks and roasts the beans. Lining the walls of his shop are photos of the king and the Princess (the kings mother) visit to this area in the 80’s when they started an initiative to educate the villages and to stop the production of opium/ growth of poppies. The government started to provide education in thai and mathematics as well as agriculture so the villages could be self sufficient and rely on other crops – coffee and flowers and nuts. He also teaches us how to say hello in Karen – oh mucho bueh and thank you – tah blueh and thank you very much – tah blueh pah dough. Next thing we know Eh Paw is there to drive us into Pha Mon the village we will be staying at and where he lives.
The highway is two lanes and weaves in switch backs higher up into the mountains and then abruptly Eh Paw turns the wheel and I think he is turning us into an actual tree but there is a narrow road beside the tree that dips down and around and over a river finally curving out into a village – teak and bamboo houses on stilts. Although stilts isn’t really the right word because they are thick posts. There are fields in a valley and up through the hill houses are scattered and then packed closer in. The road is very steep in spots. We round an other sharp bend and pull into a driveway which is under a house – we are here!
I always thought the houses were raised because of rainy season and it is that but it’s also where they keep their animals, keep clothes, keep firewood and other things. We are welcomed in by Boe Dee and her mom Bae Joo and Boe Dee’s four year old daughter Key Mu. There are actually two houses – the one we parked under is where we stay and the the main house is across a little dusty square. Both houses are teak and the main house has bamboo flooring – it’s peeled bark lain flat. Like a tube sliced and flattened. The kitchen is the centre of the house and off the kitchen is a room with fire pit in the floor where we will eat all our meals. The other room has a loom, a small fridge and an altar. There is a little raised area at the back that is a bed and a small room that looks to be an other bedroom as well. There is electricity but only one led light per room and the windows are small with no glass just shutters. Our house has two bedrooms and a main area and a small deck. We also have electricity, large thin mattresses on the floor and huge mosquito nets that float above and down around the mattresses.
We are set up in our home and then taken on a little tour. I end up weaving with Grandma Bae Joo. The loom is a long bamboo branch with different length pegs in it and we are creating the width of the fabric. The colours are bright. Deep pinks, vibrant reds, navy blue, yellow and white. The women wear long narrow skirts – there are no chairs anywhere so everyone just squats like toddlers. Bae Joo is unbelievably nimble she can stand right up from a full floor squat lickity split. Forget yoga just remove all the chairs and tables from your life and start squatting. The older women also wear what appears to be a hand towel or kitchen towel on their heads. In fact many turn out to be hand towels. The men wear thai pants and wrap tops or woven pull over tops. Boe Dee wears the skirt but with a t shirt that says chill on it. There is a fair amount of charades and we are relying on google translate – but it only translates to thai not Karen so there is an other level to decode. It’s a little stilted but the family is quick to laugh and we manage to make jokes. They serve us dinner and then leave the room. We are seated on the floor on a rug and the food is family style on a small raised tray. They won’t eat with us and try as we might they insist on leaving us to eat. When we are done they return and light the fire in the small pit on the floor and gather around and we talk. It’s simple conversation by now as we are all so tired and we quickly retire.
After breakfast – eggs, rice, greens, soup and fruit we follow Boe Dee and her husband Laah down a path leading from their garden to their flower fields. Their 13 year old son So Pah joins us to pick gerbers under the already intense morning sun. The boys head up one row while Sabine and I trail behind Boe Dee and Laah powers through the field. Gerbers are surprisingly hard to pick. The stems are actually quite strong and a little prickly or rough. We walk back to the house with Laah carrying all the flowers in a basket on his back. Then we set out packaging them for the market. The flowers are picked every two weeks and driven to Bangkok the flowing day. The are wrapped with a small cello bag over the head of the flower and then bundled into twenties. We all do it sitting on a rug pulled out from somewhere in the house and set up under our house. The only thing really difficult about it is the sitting cross legged or on our knees – you’re not supposed to show the bottom of your feet so I can’t stretch out my legs and I am for sure the most inflexible person ever and I can’t even imagine squatting for an hour.
There is also a wedding happening – we were told that we could attend the night before and we are so excited to see it. We have asked what to expect and when it will happen but we aren’t able to really ascertain anything. It turns out that there are several ceremonies and they happen over two days – one day at the brides parents and one day at the grooms parents. Everyone is invited and food is available all day – when a guest arrives they are seated and fed. The wedding happens to be just a few houses down so we can see and hear the party. People are also dropping by Boe Dee’s all day as well. Maybe because they are coming and going for the wedding or maybe because they want to check us out. Surprisingly I realize that we are like the living zoo – everyone is so very curious and also so incredibly generous – they bring gifts of fruit, they take us on walks to see other parts of the village and feed us. No one will accept anything from us. The kids grab Sabine’s hand and they play chase and she brings out her toys and all the little kids gather around to play together. There is a lot of laughter and a lot of talking and crouching around. All the women are wearing traditional skirts and tops and the older women are wearing the tea towels. The afternoon is spent visiting and just hanging around. As the afternoon wears down the older kids head to the football pitch and I join Boe Dee and her sister to prepare dinner. We have yet to eat a meal with them and I am now suspecting it’s because we are given simple – read not spicy -dishes and they want to eat with some spice. Every meal is rice, eggs and some vegetables and fruit. Finally BoeDee’s sister gets me making the most delicious concoction in the mortar and pestle – it’s like a salsa or sauce and it’s magic. Whole heads of garlic, whole tomatoes, whole shallots and green chillies are roasted over the open fire then ground into a sauce with a mortar and pestle. Fish sauce is added and lots of fresh dill and cilantro. After dinner we all sit around the fire talking and charading and laughing – it’s warm and friendly and surprisingly easy. Everyone is very interested to learn about us. The village seems very healthy – new homes are being built and there are nice trucks and lots of scooters. People seem very affable and happy. Of course I know that we won’t get a full picture of village life in the same way they won’t get a full picture of our lives. The Grandfather expressed his concern about keeping the forest safe but said he needs nothing more than what he has here. It reminds me of the fisherman John Snow in Newfoundland who hadn’t travelled more than three hours in any direction from his house because he loved where he was and had no desire to see anything else or go anywhere else. There is incredible beauty in being with people who are content. Interestingly their altar is a Catholic altar complete with a soft blue image of Jesus (white man with long hair) and an open chest exposing a garish red heart. I tried to find a way to bring up religion to ask why they weren’t Buddhist – but I wasn’t able to find a way to do it – I was scared of offending them – it’s very tricky to ask questions through google translate. Chris accidentally pushed a little too far asking about a shirt that Grandpa was wearing – the shirt said something about changing the world and it sparked Chris to ask a philosophical questions that inadvertently offended grandpa and consequently he took off the shirt! It was awful for us and we apologized and hopefully they understood. So I am a little hesitant to ask about the underside of the idyllic village life.
The next day we walk up to Eh Paw’s which is just directly up the hill and a sharp turn to the right – he is working on building a terrace but graciously stops to brew some of his coffee for us. He grows and roasts it just like the man from the first village but he brews his in an Italian stove top espresso maker that he adds a small flat paper filter to. The coffee is incredible and I am so happy to have it. We have been drinking “three in one” instant coffee that is pre sugared and creamed. It’s horrible sometimes we can find instant espresso – also not yummy. But up here in the villages I have had two of the most delicious coffees of my life. Eh Pah explains how land works here – the Villages are located inside a national park so the land could be taken from them at any time – but the King is very supportive of Village life and has a keen interest in preserving the culture while also encouraging development and sustainable growth. It was his mother that started the initiative to stop growing poppies and introduce other crops as well as being educating the Villages in Thai language and mathematics. Most families build onto their lands and they have learned and adapted as technologies have been introduced to the villages. We have seen satellite dishes as well as cell phone towers and on the football pitch most of the kids have cell phones.
On our last day Eh Paw takes us to an other village for an other wedding. The previous day we had seen the two fathers meeting – they drank homemade whiskey on a rug beside the tables laden with food and surrounded by people. The father had arrived with a group of men and boys banging drums and getting pelted with small buckets of water to signify a new start. This time we drive the winding one lane road past the fallow rice fields and vibrant flowers in their rows. We arrive in the next village and pull over beside the gas station (see picture). Eh Paw knows everyone – he is gregarious and warm and fatherly even though he is barely 40. In fact he had stopped a few times driving up the narrow road to chat with people walking. He also has a hurried and slightly distracted air about him perhaps because his father is ill, or because he seems to be doing many jobs. He guides us over to a table covered in bowls of food. A water bottle of homemade whiskey, a bottle of strawberry Fanta – yes its a thing here – and a bottle of Pepsi. The food is wonderful. Fiery and bright. We are the object of much staring and smiling. Eh Paw introduces us to a few people but at the same time ushers away some others – gracefully but with a few words in Karen that of course we don’t understand they smile and bow away. As we are leaving we catch a glimpse of the Buddhist ceremony with four monks chanting as the couple sit cross legged with their heads bowed. I am starting to understand that there are many intersections of faith here – Buddhist, Karen, Catholic and they are woven together to create unique ceremonies. Faith and life are ever evolving but at the core is family, friendship and community. The most impactful times are spent engaged with the world around us no matter how small and simple that world is. It’s not new and earth shattering but a beautiful reminder.
We leave the village that evening with hugs and well wishes and I feel so lucky.