After Nepal, Bangkok is thoroughly modern with its skyscrapers, freeways and late model cars and buses, but it's peak tourist season now and a sweaty 39oC. The place is full of Aussies escaping the winter and who probably got the same cheap airfare that I did. The only hotel room I can get is a box with no windows and a very noisy airconditioner. I am not looking forward to spending my last two days here so in the morning I take a VIP bus and head for the hills.
In the morning I am off on the back of a motorbike again. A mini bus group tour may have been slightly cheaper but it would have included monkey and snake shows, more temples and elephant rides which would all have required additional entrance fees. I am also getting that been -there, done -that feeling. After a brief stop at a beautiful orchid farm which grows its own butterflies we continue up the mountain to a Hill Tribe Village.
The Hill Tribe Village seems a bit contrived. It has been built by the government and is a bit like a living Museum - a human zoo -as one writer put it. It is also rather expensive but it does save several days trekking in the mountains and the money supposedly goes to the communities. The guide is a member of the White Karen. As he tells it this is a vast improvement on the days when the government literally persecuted the hill folk. From 1992 onwards they were no longer allowed to burn the jungle in order to grow food because of fears that this practice was responsible for deforestation. However, when they came to the cities to try to find work, they met with discrimination and were harassed by authorities because they did not have ID cards.
Craft stalls at the Hill Tribe Village help to produce income
The first rings are put on when the girls turn five. According to the guide they were originally to protect them from tigers. I am not sure about the boys. I didn't see any. Perhaps they have all been eaten by tigers.
Representatives of six major tribal groups including the Hmong, the Lahu, the Lisu, the Palong, and three different Karen groups occupy houses in the village and practice their traditional forms of craft and agriculture. Their value to tourism revenue has been recognised but I wonder out loud what it's like having visitors photograph you all day and poke their noses into your house. The guide introduces me to members of his family. They certainly don't look unhappy. They share their meal with me - crispy fried chicken skin, fish and rice and tell me that they love being here. The guide says the women just enjoy coming here to gossip.Lunch with members of the White Karen
The houses are simply constructed of timber with rattan walls. They have large open verandahs where most living takes place and airy spaces underneath like Queenslanders. Because it does get cold at night, the hearth is in the centre of the house. Above it are shelves for pots and pans. In one house there are posters of pop stars on the wall. I assume that it belongs to one of the teenage weavers. I imagine that for the young, life here in this ethno eco-agricutural village probably holds more appeal than living a completely isolated traditional life in the hills. There is a small school here and a church is being built. While older women and girls weave, the young ones play a game like Jacks with stones. Interestingly, an Argentinian woman tells me that the same game is played there and beats the little girl at the game.
For a totally different view of Karen life, read the story by
Antonio Graceffo in the Asian Sentinel (07 May 2007) http://www.asiasentinel.com/index.php?Itemid=34&id=482&option=com_content&task=view
A teenage Karen girl weaving
Beautiful entrance to the Silk Making Workshop
The whole process from the cultivation of silk worms, to dyeing and weaving to tailoring and can be seen on the premises. Beautiful silks and ready to wear items are for sale.
Charming hostesses at the Jewellry and Gemstone workshop. However, no photos may be taken inside this glass and concrete Aladdin's Cave