As part of the LIFESAVER Thailand Clean Water Project I wanted to offer our blog readers an insight into the people I spent a week living with in the Karen village of Ban Hak Kia in Doi Inthanon National Park, Northern Thailand. Much of the information below is general to the Karen and not specific to the people of Ban Hak Kia.
History of the Karen
The Karen began to move into Thailand around the 17th century. They occur in large numbers in the western part of Northern Thailand, in particular on the ranges west and south of Doi Inthanon.
The Karen tend to live in villages of around 25 houses raised on stilts. The villages tend to cluster. Each household consists of the parents and their unmarried children. Married daughters and their families may also live in the same house. The highest authority is the village priest who runs the village along with the elders.
The Karen usually live in close-knit communities, with a strong sense of community spirit and high moral and religious values. Karen families are cross-generational, often with grandparents, parents and children living together under the same roof. The average number of children per family is three. Each village is presided over by two headman; an appointed headman, who represents the villagers in external and political affairs; and a 'people's' representative headman, who is elected by the people.
The Karen have rituals to live harmoniously with the "Lord of the Land and Water", as well as with nature spirits in the rocks, trees, water and mountains that surround them. They also have guardian spirits and believe in the soul. They use a system of rotation over a large area of land and do not cut all the large trees down when they clear a plot.
The Karen people live within dense forests filled with teak and other tropical plant species. There are hundreds of villages tucked away on the sides of the mountains, sometimes 90 kilometres from the nearest hospital or secondary school.
Karen cloth is hand-woven on back-strap looms and is predominantly red with white, blue or brown vertical stripes. Stitching is clear and decorative. The men may wear simple forms of this material in a sleeveless tunic (or northern Thai clothing), while the women wear more elaborate styles on their sarongs.
The women's blouses are made of dark homespun cotton with horizontal embroidered patterns decorated with seeds woven onto the lower half.
They make their own costumes and shoulder bags which are hand woven by the women sitting on the ground using a traditional strap loom. Patterns are handed down from generation to generation. Weaving is a skill that remains important to the culture.
Health is monitored by small health clinics, sometimes up to 10 kilometres from a village. Local people are trained to treat malaria and other minor issues. Hospitals can be 90 kms from the village but there is no public transport.
Housing and Amenities
Traditionally, they build their stilted houses from teak or bamboo. The space underneath the houses is used for animals, (buffalo, pigs, chickens). The Karen people have few possessions and usually sleep on mats on the floor. Cooking is over an open fire on earth or the wooden floors of the house. Occasionally, a wooden frame is built to store equipment. There is generally no furniture.
Although the Government have given them water tanks, it is not clean enough to use as drinking water, resulting in high levels of typhoid and other water borne diseases. Often water has to be collected from the rivers and much time is spent collecting and boiling water for drinking. Where they have access to drinking water their health improves and they have more time in the day to work in the fields and get to schools.
The water tanks in Ban Hak Kia have been built with the help of the Thai charity The Pakanyor Foundation and while the village’s drinking water has improved, the LIFESAVER Thailand Clean Water Project will maintain a safe water supply for many of the families in the village.
The traditional Karen diet is made up largely of rice, eggs and spices. There are also fruits (papaya, banana, mango, lychees, longan), chicken, pork and fish.
Farming and livelihood
Heavy rains and severe droughts bring difficulties. Villages are often cut off for weeks in the rainy season.
The Karen are traditionally subsistence farmers who have been dependent on rice and vegetables grown in small plots around their villages or in forested areas. New controls on land use however, have restricted traditional forms of agriculture, and the Thai Government has converted much agricultural land into pine and teak plantations.
Recently, the Karen grow less rice and instead produce and sell crops such as soya, garlic and the longan fruit. The new cash crops mean that Karen farmers are now vulnerable to marketing fluctuations in prices. They have to travel further to sell their goods and compete with an influx of foreign products.
I found the Karen people to be very friendly, gracious and kind. The family I stayed with let me sleep in the biggest room of their hut (essentially their living room) and tiptoed out when they went to the paddy fields early in the morning. Despite me not understanding Karen (their mother tongue), they welcomed me with open arms.
The Karen Hilltribe in Chiang Mai, 2013. Window to Chiang Mai [online]. <http://www.chiangmai1.com/chiang_mai/karen.shtml> [Accessed 6 August 2013].
Community, 2013. The Karen Hill Tribes Trust [online]. <http://www.karenhilltribes.org.uk/about/who-we-help/community.html> [Accessed 6 August 2013].
Culture, 2013. The Karen Hill Tribes Trust [online]. <http://www.karenhilltribes.org.uk/about/who-we-help/culture.html> [Accessed 6 August 2013].
Environment, 2013. The Karen Hill Tribes Trust [online]. http://www.karenhilltribes.org.uk/about/who-we-help/environment.html [Accessed 6 August 2013].