Sunday, March 11, 2012

Hill Tribes

Licking the roti off our sticky fingers, we left the Mae Hong Son market and set off on an even greater adventure... a long-tail boat trip to visit two of Thailand's Hill Tribes. 

Our boat was piloted by this father and daughter, while Grandfather sat in the bow and watched for logs, rocks and other hazards. There were quite a few of these, and the water was swift, so we appreciated their concentration.

The little daughter was quite a charmer. She "visited" with me with smiles and sign language, and seemed to have as good a time as we did.

We traveled along the Pai river for half an hour or so, passing dense jungles along both banks. Just over the mountain is the border between Thailand and Myanmar (formerly Burma).

Around a bend in the river, we abruptly came upon the village shared by the long-necked Karen tribe, and the Kaya, a related group. Both tribes speak the Kareni language. If you look closely at this photo, you can see a group of men replacing the thatch roof on one of the houses.

As we left our boat and walked into the village, we stopped to talk to this woman.

She was busy cleaning a nice fat rat that she had caught across the river near the corn fields. She said (through our guide) that she wished we could stay for dinner as she was planning to stir-fry the rat with some nice fresh basil. (We had enjoyed beef with basil the night before, and weren't sure that we would like it made with rat.) As we started to leave, she stood up to say goodbye.... We were stuck by the irony of someone wearing a Mickey Mouse t-shirt planning to eat a rat for dinner. Some things are stranger than fiction.

Wickipedia says that the members of the long-necked Karen tribe, also known as the Padaung or Kayan Lawhi, are a sub-group of the Red Karen tribe. The women of this tribe, which is originally from Burma, are known for their tradition of wearing a series of brass rings around their necks. Young girls begin to wear the brass coils, which are added to as they grow. By the time they reach adulthood, their necks appear to be elongated. However, this is an illusion produced when the shoulders are forced down by the weight of the coils. We were told that wearing the brass coils is an option for the women. We met several of different ages who wear them, along with their traditional colorful clothing.

One young woman wanted me to have my picture taken with her, then she placed one of the coils around my neck so I could see how they felt. They were quite heavy.  I understand why a number of the women have chosen not to wear them, even though an elongated neck is considered beautiful in their culture. 

The other tribe which occupies the village is the Kaya, or big-eared tribe. The women of this tribe  wear discs in their ear lobes, and sometimes brass rings on their arms or legs.
Many of the women have small stalls set up in front of their houses where they sell their hand-loomed scarves and other items such as jewelry or hand-carved figures.

The scarves are woven in several traditional designs, and in a rainbow of colors.  They usually sell for 80 to 100 Thai baht, depending on size. 

The women have an interesting device made from a piece of PVC pipe, sticks and cords, which holds their yarn in preparation for weaving the scarves.

The scarves and traditional clothing aren't the only colorful things in the village. This rooster crossed our path in search of bugs. When he stopped to eat one, we were amazed at the colors he displayed.

With our guide, Duke, as interpretor, we could have spent several more hours visiting with these interesting people.  We interacted mostly with the women; the men were either away or working, like these fellows who were repairing the roof on one of the houses.

There is some feeling that these hill tribes are being exploited by the tourist industry and forced to continue practices which are detrimental to their health.  However, the people that we met appeared healthy and happy.  A number of the women, like this young lady who was expecting her first child, have chosen not to wear the brass coils (or the disks in her ears if she is of the Kaya tribe).      

Our visit to the hill tribes was one of the highlights of our trip to Thailand.  Like the other people we met, they were friendly and gracious.  We hope to return to spend more time there.

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