Visiting the Karen in Thailand During January I was lucky enough to travel to Thailand with Mumu, who worked with us in aged care as a Karen interpreter. Mumu lived in Mae La camp for most of her life until moving to Australia four years ago. This was her first visit back to visit friends and family. Travelling with Mumu meant I had the opportunity of living with Karen people, who were all so very welcoming. I learnt a great deal more the Karen, how they live and their culture.
We based our trip in Chiang Mai, travelling to places which Mumu knew of but had never visited, having been under the restrictions of a refugee camp. We were hosted by Thai Karen people, family friends of Mumu’s in a tiny village, Mae La Oop deep in the mountains North of Chiang Mai. Life here seemed to me quite idyllic! I found a strong sense of community amongst the people there who shared the daily tasks, picking coffee beans, sorting the harvest of red beans and sharing ‘Ohmer’ (meals) with whoever was visiting at the time. For the women weaving their traditional clothes was another part of daily life, though again collective, with several women working to complete one item. Mumu and I couldn’t resist buying plenty of amazing pieces. Once it was known that I was a basket weaver, it was soon organized for me to spend time with a wonderful old man of 90, who happily showed me all the different basket styles and how to make the different stitches.
Our next trip was to Karen state, across the Moei river and the border with Thailand, where we were met with equal warmth to that of the Thai Karen families. We stayed with Mumu’s childhood friend Hser Gay Paw whose job it was to mind the children in an orphanage. A small space was cleared for us on the floor of the living area of her home, next to a small bundle on a tiny mattress, a two day old baby Hser Gay Paw had just taken charge of! We had timed our visit to coincide with a celebration, the remembrance day of General Bo Miya.
The village was small, but hundreds of people had made their way to the event in their best finery. Well the women at least, all the men seemed to be in Army green as they make up the Karen State defence force, excepting those who had sufferd land mine injuries. The day was filled with singing, traditional dancing and wonderful food. Following the festivities I was introduced to the new general, General Nader, his English was good and invited Mumu and to have a sit down for ‘talks’. The Aussie flag had even been put up in our honour, in my wide sunhat, I felt somewhat like the Queen!
There was one more important visit to make, Mumu’s old home in Mae La camp. The public are not allowed to just visit the camp, so Mumu made special arrangements via a contact in the camp for us to be allowed in. Our journey took us down the border road passing through several checkpoints. We drove through beautiful countryside along the Moei river, with row after row of steep mountains as a backdrop until we came to a long stretch of bamboo houses up close to the road which seemed to go on for ever. We were met at the special gate and walked past closely packed in houses until we came to Mumu’s old home. She excitedly pointed out where she used to sit to do her homework, their kitchen, their washing facilities and their backyard with the jackfruit tree and the pigs. Next we wandered up the narrow path to the school and Mumu’s auntie’s house. Her aunt hadn’t been expecting us, so we were met with gasps of delight and immediately invited to share a meal. An hour later and our time was up, we had to leave before the gate was shut for the night.
A very brief but impressionable visit as I tried to gain a better understanding of the Karen people. There was such a stark difference between the freedom to live and work peacefully of the Thai Karen compared to the Burmese Karen, with their daily struggles to survive.
A young Thai Karen man I met has a project to support his fellow Burmese Karen in a tiny hard to access village in need of a clean water supply. This project led by a local seemed like a fantastic way to make a meaningful difference.
For the sum of $1400 he can complete the project and improve the lives of an entire village. Please have a look at the project and make a contribution https://pozible.com/project/clean-water-for-wao-gaw-ki
Written by Caroline Hawkins