Snapshot: Karen Hill Tribe, north-west Thailand

Snapshot: Karen Hill Tribe, north-west Thailand
By Sophie Baker
A culturally, politically and religiously diverse people, the Karen are an ethnic group of South-East Asia who reside in both Myanmar (Burma) and mountainous north-west Thailand, where there remain ancestral Karen villages.

The "Thai-Karen" population today is estimated at about 300,000, accounting for more than half of Thailand's hill tribe population. They have legal status, though not all are Thai citizens. An estimated 140,000 Burmese refugees, mostly Karen people, fleeing violence, forced labour and military rule in Myanmar, many who had their land confiscated, are now also living in Thailand. 

Migrating from Tibet and China via Myanmar, the Karen people were established in the western hills of Thailand by the 18th century. While the seven million or so Karen remaining in Myanmar have battled civil war for decades, in the hills of Thailand, traditional Karen practises, language and systems could be preserved, though geographic alienation has come with its own challenges.

The Thai-Karen, whom I visited after travelling half a day out of Sankhlaburi in the Kanchanaburi district, are renowned for their skills in farming and weaving, being among the first of the hill tribes to develop environmentally sustainable terraced rice fields (as opposed to traditional methods of slashing and burning, which was destroying the Thai forests).

A variety of crops are grown in abundance and sold to the city as a source of income, along with beautiful, hand-made silk products. The Karen tribe's people learned these methods of conserving forest land and resources as a part of the "The Royal Project" founded by King Bhumibol in 1969 primarily in an effort to end the cultivation of poppy plants, thus bringing about an end to the violence associated with the opium trade in Thailand.

The Royal Project also allocated funds to teach the hill tribe about sustainable agriculture, as well as giving the people of the tribe legal status in the country as long as they agreed not to use their land for the growing of poppy plants.

While modern living is encroaching on the tribes people – technologies like trucks and electricity – the older generations are finding it hard to keep tradition alive, with many of the younger generations leaving the tribe for the city due to a better education and greater exposure to the modern world.

I spent an afternoon at one of the tribe's kindergartens, and was greeted with a traditional welcome dance by the women who care for the children. After visiting the kindergarten, we met with some local women who showed us their crops, and how they husk their rice: first by bashing it using a heavy wooden log (not unlike a giant mortar and pestle), and then skilfully sifting out the husk using a woven sieve, the wind and a lot of practice. They graciously offered me a turn of each process.

The husking log was very heavy and I was useless (much to the women's humour – silly white girl!) and the sifting process. Let's just say the wild chickens had a good feed, and the women were very kind about my complete lack of coordination, and the fact that I'd probably just lost their rice for the night.

The women cooked us lunch, including fried banana flowers and local ferns picked from around the village. They also showed us how they died and washed their silk, and then how they wove it. Their silk products are a key point of income for the tribe's people, and its production is helped by funding from The Royal Project.

The boy on the bridge was a local tribal boy who treated us to an in-depth tour of the bridge and its surrounds – unfortunately, we could not understand him, nor could our local guide who did not speak the boy's tribal tongue. When he was done he climbed his way down the sides of the rickety bridge to join his friends in a game of volleyball in the valley below.

Sophie @ Girl With a Satchel