Thailand: trekking through Karen villages in the mountains of Northern Thailand was wonderful, exhausting, eye-opening and horrifying. It was quite hard work physically and certainly a cultural shock. Even the deep knee bends, and Qi Gong every morning had not really prepared us.
Our guide was a Karen man, who knew the area intimately and led us along barely marked routes, through dense foliage and magnificent tall trees. It turns out that he has completed his degree at University, but still returns to his home farm frequently, to help out at busy times. he told us about the food and medicinal uses of trees we passed, and even made us sunhats from giant leaves.
We met no other trekkers, only a family of Karen who came up behind, leaping along where we were searching for every foot hold. Each was carrying a sack of rice, weighing 40 kg, destined for the market.
All day, we clambered up hills and slithered down root-strewn tracks, stopping to catch our breath and look out over peaks and valleys stretching away in layers of blue and green.
By the end of the day the golden light saw us walking along narrow tracks beside knee high rice- swollen and yellow. Our guide said it was still a month before the harvest, when Karen families would come together and share the task of gathering in the crops.
Finally it was over a nerve-wracking bamboo bridge and we saw the smoke rising from our camp site. We dropped our packs in our sleeping hut, covered up with sarongs and staggered into the relatively cold waters of a waterfall. Bliss.
The Karen people are one of the many hill tribes, living in the mountain regions north of Chiang Mai . We camped near our guide’s village, and ate a meal of rice, pad thai and vegetables, cooked over an open fire, by two of the village men. After the meal, the full moon shone across the valley. The older man brought out his seven-stringed bamboo harp, and quietly chanted some traditional songs.
Our guide soon joined in to serenade us to sleep in our basic bamboo hut. It sounds romantic, describing the camp lke that. It was, in a rural and well used kind of way, but the squat toilets took all our courage to face, when absolutely necessary. Here Therese is being very brave.
The next day we were served coffee from blackened kettles , as the sun rose over the rice and vegetable terraces.
There was a pretty Catholic church, to minister to the mostly Christian tribal families.
In one village we saw absolutely no-one. The houses had been abandoned, along with personal belongings and piles of rubbish. Our tour leader, Veronique was astonished. ‘Last time’, she said, ‘there were 28 people living here. Now, look, they are all gone.’
Our local host explained that these particular Karen are nomadic people. When the food supply runs out, or the water becomes polluted, they simply move on to another site. They will clear the new land and grow cash crops intensively, until the soil is depleted again. The King has initiated many projects to help the Karen people farm their lands more sustainably- we could see the need for this long term process.
As we left, we met an elderly women, who must have walked from deep in the mountains, with a huge load of thatching reeds on her back.
It was a long hot road, and our guide said she covers the distance most days. Her sons rode by on motor scooters, but she likes to do what she has always done.
It was a wonderful experience to come upon these isolated villages in the jungle, living in a cooperative and harmonious manner. It was very helpful to listen to our guide who is standing between the old agrarian lifestyle and the new city-based life. He believes it is possible for this pattern of living in two worlds to continue for generations.
A different view was offered by another Karen family we stayed with, where the parents have been rice farmers all their lives. Their educated daughter runs a resort on family land, and is determined that her little daughter will go to University and never work on the land. She raised the question of who will care for the land as people become more educated and develop other ambitions.
To us it seemed idyllic to live in both worlds, especially when there is a nearby lake at the end of the dusty day.
Danielle and Ceridwyn with the Karen farmer and our guide for the day, about to take a swim.