Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Pai, Karen Hill Tribe Village (2 of 2)

July 9th - July 12th, 2012

After a day of being ill in bed and despite a still weakened stomach, Julian was ready to venture out to see Pai with us.  Paula took us to Bueng Pai Farm for a fabulous breakfast (porridge with mango, banana, fresh yogurt and coconut milk, Mmm!).  For the first time since arriving in Pai two days prior Julian was noticing the stunning surroundings.  Acres of rice paddies and farm land tended to by local people in straw hats, small mountains rising in the distance covered in thick foliage and small hamlets punctuated by the inevitable multi-roofed temple. 

On the motorbike we toured the surrounding areas.  The small waterfall would have been a lovely spot to spend the afternoon but we were not the only people who thought so.  Crowded with tourists we quickly got back on the bike and left for the Chinese village.   Passing through the red gates felt like crossing the boarder into rural China; possibly the most authentic feeling thus far.  We followed the steep road past humble restaurants and shops, all signs in Chinese.  Mist hung in the air as we neared the top to a viewpoint the poor long suffering Honda struggling up the last 500m of unsurfaced road.  I hesitated at 20 baht they requested on arrival not quite understanding why we should have to pay for the privilege of standing on top of a hill.  Passing over 40 baht anyway we were immediately offered a banana by the elderly Chinese gentleman and he began preparing us a pot of green tea.  We wandered the grassy hilltop to the far edge and looked down upon villages in the valley below.  Clouds clung to the surrounding hillsides and I felt overwhelmed with beautiful energy of this foreign landscape. 

Getting to know us and the type of experiences we seek from our travels Paula pulled a phone number out of her hat which would shape entirely our following day.  She arranged for us to venture out of Pai to cross the next mountain pass northwest and in the neighbouring valley pay a visit to a Karen Village, a hill tribe of Burmese minority people.  Back on the wonderful highway 1095 in the rain through stunning farmland and jungle, we got lost a couple times in the back lanes but finally found the muddy dirt road which would take us into the village.  Up and down the steep terrain I found myself clutching on for my life as Julian giggled his way through 9km of slippery mud and deep puddles, the 125cc Dream stoically pulling us forward despite almost grinding to a halt, the clutch smoking at some of the gradients.  

A final ascent lead us into the village and we found ourselves riding through bamboo houses and wooden shelters, pigs and goats tethered to the stilt supports, but not a soul in sight.  Passing a school at the top of the village the children playing in the yard greeted us with 'Hello's', big smiles and waves.  We were surprised to see a couple satellite dishes and solar panels on select rooftops in the village. Upon reaching the top of the village we ran out of road and after consulting our hand-drawn-not-to-scale map procured from a guest house (during our "scenic" route in) turned to return the way we had come. A local man on his bike approached us and indeed this was the man Paula had contacted that morning. He introduced himself and bade us follow him, whereupon we were soon invited into his home. 

Taking off our shoes we walked across the threshold into his lounge and into the backyard where he offered us his toilet of the squat variety which sat in the middle of his yard, not walled for privacy.  I was relieved that I had gone at the side of the road moments earlier and didn't ned to use his facilities.  Underneath his house two pigs enjoyed a muddy pen and to the left a tree with large oval fruits I did not recognize.  As soon as we asked about them he retrieved a long bamboo pole and began prodding the fruits until one of them fell to the ground.  "Jackfruit' he informed us. 


He lead us through his lounge and into his kitchen and began washing and cutting this large fruit.  The floor here was of bamboo, sliced and laid curved side up, the walls of woven bamboo and the roof joists of thick bamboo poles supported the traditional thatch we have seen right up the peninsula.  Pots and pans surrounded an open fire pit for cooking; running water came through a plastic pipe into a plastic bucket used as a sink.  He served us the sliced jackfruit at his low table in the lounge, we sat on the wooden floorboards asking him questions about his family and life in the village, often re-wording our sentences many times to reach across the language barrier, although his English was a whole lot more coherent than our Karen.  

Understanding that the Karen Tribe are famous for their exceptional weaving skills we inquired about it and asked to see it.  Expecting to be lead into a shop of shorts he left his home and soon returned followed by four smiling women, one of whom was his mother, all dressed in weaved sarongs and scarves.  The youngest of them, a girl of about 17, sat on the floor and set up her loom. One end was attached to a beam low on the wall, the other to a belt around her waist and she continued her weaving whilst the other three women began laying out their handcraft of exquisitely woven bags, scarves, blankets and traditional sarongs and vests they wear.  The English spoken among the women was little to none but we managed some small talk interweaving both English and Karen to form what we thought was comprehensive light conversation, sharing a joke with Julian as they implied that the rich white man should buy from each of them as he played along, insinuating he would fill a large cardboard box with everything they had and dress himself from head to foot, including accessories of purses and hats before we could all be satisfied. Our host cooked us up a lunch of noodles and egg on his wood burning stove as we purchased a few things happy to see our money go directly in into the hands of the people that made the goods rather than through a tourism agent or to shops with overheads.  We offered sincere thanks before finding the road back to Pai. 

Whilst some of the Karen Villages, in particular the long neck Karens, have tours arranged to bring people to visit, this village we were extremely fortunate to visit one that was not part of these group tours. It made for a very unique, personable experience.  An experience that once again we never would have come across if it wasn't for Couch Surfing, Paula truly went above and beyond with this suggestion for exceeding anything we could have hoped for in our search for authentic Thailand, off the tourist track experiences with local people. 

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