As the World celebrates another Women’s Day with much fanfare, here is a tribute to the Karen Tribes in Chiang Mai and scores of women who go through the journey of ‘Life’ all silently with great resilience, across various households, from posh homes to refugee camps. Each one’s struggle may be different but the struggle invariably stems from the fact that ‘She’ is born a Woman. Let us support each other in the right spirit, in truthful ways and work towards real ’empowerment’!
My first tryst with the Karen Tribes in Chiang Mai
“100 baht”, quotes Phen for the fourth time.
I smile, shrug and pursue, “Please give 3 for 200 baht. If I convert this to Indian Rupees it amounts to 400”.
I find the price too steep for the small packet of candied peels though I hate to bargain with these hardworking tribes. She dons a wry smile and gestures in a way that is neither assertive nor negative.
I am bemused. I wonder if this lady with a long white V-neck tunic understood my explanation behind the haggling.
‘Are you from India? , she asks me. I nod affirmatively.
She proclaims, ‘I love Bollywood movies’ with a wide grin that reaches her stoic eyes. I am stumped yet I manage a half-hearted exclamation of ‘Wow!’
In this fleet of a moment, I wonder if it is a routine marketing technique being employed by her to thrust the agricultural products for her quoted price. But her eyes and smile are not in tandem with these sceptical thoughts of mine. They look genuine.
‘I love Shahrukh’, declares Phen and shocks me further!
I am unable to fathom that a remote region of Doi Inthanon with sparse population has access to technology and the last thing I expected was Bollywood movies. And above all, I am in a market of Karen Tribes in Chiang Mai who are refugees from Myanmar, settled in the bordered mountainous regions of Thailand. Many of these tribal settlements lack basic amenities like electricity, proper roads and sanitation.
So, I move away from the candied fruit peels over to other products, take permission to click few snaps of children playing there and enquire the rates of other items on display in the stalls under the thatched roofs.
I conclude that this Karen lady must have picked a few words from Indian tourists like me. And, she is using them to impress and strike a chord with me as a customer. On hindsight, I also wonder if she shared with me this interesting piece about herself and her secret fascination for Shahrukh Khan, the Most Popular Actor of Hindi Cinema, as I am a woman. Would she have shared this with others? I doubt…
The Revelation and Friendship over Candied Fruit Peel
With these thoughts in mind, I slowly rummage through the mess in my handbag, pick out the mobile to open the photo gallery. I confidently show Karen a photo of my family with Shahrukh Khan. Her eyes brighten up and she squeaks in happiness recognizing him. She enquires if I am related to Shahrukh and is a little disappointed when I respond negatively. Phen keeps shifting her gaze from me to the photograph as if in a daze.
Phen then reveals that her brother is a stunt-man in the Hindi Bollywood industry, thus, squashing my ignorance and preconceived notions about her and the Karen Tribes in Chiang Mai. We exchange pleasantries and she cajoles me to give her bytes about Bollywood. She introduces me to her friends and informs them that I am an Indian.
I offer the crisp notes of the Thailand currency in exchange for candied fruit peels at her quoted price with no words exchanged. Finally, we both click a snap together for keepsake!
And just before our car was to zoom away on the smooth as butter roads of the mountain, Phen enquires,”Meenu, when are you coming again?”
I am overwhelmed with the guilt of having been judgmental and prejudiced towards a warm and friendly person like Phen and promise her, ‘I shall come back soon to meet you, Phen!”
The Karen Tribes in Chiang Mai
Doi Inthanon is abundantly gifted with waterfalls, gurgling streams, lush fauna and flora and is also home to many hill-tribes. This mountain range which is nearby to Chiang Mai is actually the tapering end of the Himalayan ranges and is also the highest point of Thailand.
Also, the Karen Tribe in Chiang Mai is by far the largest of the Hill Tribes in Thailand, representing about three thousand people and Doi Inthanon is home to many of them. These tribes are largely concentrated in the North of Thailand, near the Myanmar border and are divided into four main sub-groups: White Karen, Kayan Lahwi, Black Karen and Red Karen.
Most of these tribes stick to agriculture for their livelihood. They sell their agricultural produce in the markets alongside the mountain roads. It is while stopping by one such tribal market that I got to meet Phen-the Karen lady. Yes, you could shop in the night markets of Chiang Mai too, however, these tribal markets are a source of livelihood for these tribes.
Colourful Tribal Markets
These mini markets run by the Karen Tribes in Chiang Mai stock farm fresh fruits and vegetables.A heap of fruits looking like mangoes with a pointed nose turned out to be Canistel fruit. They also sell different fruit wines, nuts, handmade woollen articles of clothing, handicrafts et al. And the women belonging to this tribe are indeed Super-Women who manage it all…
Apart from farming, the Karen Tribes in Chiang Mai are famous for their weaving skills. The men work at home as artisans and craftsmen too. Their clothes and handicrafts are uniquely skilled. Many of the Karen people wear their traditional outfits. Also, unmarried women and men dress differently from the married ones.
I observed that many of the hill tribe people, especially the younger generation, have switched to western outfits.
Thailand is one country apart from India, where I have seen a lot of women juggling multiple chores, having no qualms about it and going about everything with a smile on their face.
The Long Neck Kayan Women
The women belonging to Kayan Lahwi /Padaung tribes are also known as the long-necks. They are concentrated around Mae Hong Son province in Thailand and attract tourists in large numbers. They are another group of Karen Tribes in Chiang Mai.
I did not tag along with our group to the village of the long-necked tribes owing to some work and also my varied views on visiting such a dwelling as part of tourism. I am documenting the information that the group shared with me along with my thoughts on this traditional practice.
As per the Kayan traditions, the more the rings the prettier the woman. Later, the practice was reduced to only girls who were born at a particular time of a given month. The girls start to wear the rings from the age of 5-6years. They start with 5 rings around their neck and subsequently, two rings are added every year.
The heavy rings around their necks end up smashing their ribcage and shoulders down over the years giving an illusion that their necks are unusually long.
I was reminded of the carbon dating of trees where the rings reveal the age of a tree. Do women not deserve to be treated better than the trees, I wonder and shudder!
Nowadays many girls of the tribe wear these rings, not because of traditions but simply to entertain tourists and help their families make more money. More power to these women to indulge in what they want rather then what has been imposed on them!
As I leave Doi Inthanon, I just pray for a better future for these innocent kids belonging to the Karen Tribes in Chiang Mai who were playing alongside the stalls, unaware of a refugee’s life.
The other set of inspiring women were the workers of the Umbrella Village in Chiang Mai.
You may read about them here: Bo Sang Umbrella Village
I have shared my experience and interactions with Karen Tribes of Chiang Mai located in Doi Inthanon, Thailand, a couple of times on other forums but strangely never on my blog here. I still wonder what could have been the reason for ignoring to document this enlightening experience!!!
Anyways, better late than never… to document about a local connection that was forged unexpectedly but is etched in my memory as if it happened yesterday. And, I guess the best way a nomad like me can celebrate Women’s Day is by remembering the wonderful women met on travels!
I am sure each one of you must be having such stories of local connections and about women who made an impression on you … So, why don’t you share few candied fruit peels of your tales in the comments below or leave a link to your blog post on the same!
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