Ban Huai Kaipa is a small village in the province Mae Hong Son, which is situated in the north west corner of Thailand close to the border of Myanmar (Burma). There is no public transportation to such small villages. The only way to get there is actually with the yellow 'taxis' which are actually privately-owned re-built vans. The problem, however, with using these taxis is that it's almost impossible to know when you'll be able to get back to your original starting point.
There are about 200 people living in Ban Huai Kaipa, all part of the largest hill tribe in Thailand called Karen. The majority of the Karen people live in Myanmar, and yet they also form by far the largest of the major tribes of northern Thailand.
There are as many as 280,000 Karens living in Thailand. There are, however, several subgroups of Karen people. The one in Ban Huai Kaipa is part of the group, 'Sgaw Karen'. Karen women are known all over Thailand for their weaving skills, and their products can be found both in Chiang Mai and in Bangkok. However, if you're considering buying any of the products, you should preferably buy them in any of the villages, since that's the best way to ensure that your money goes straight to the women and not to the businessmen.
Karens are originally animist, but about 25% of the Karens in Thailand have been converted to Christianity. Ban Huai Kaipa is a Baptist village and almost everyone there is a devoted Christian. It's very hard to know for how long the village have been Christian since the people there really don't like to talk about it. Also, the whole subject of Christian missionary work here is a bit if thorny subject. The first missionaries came from Germany and after them, more missionaries followed from countries like America, Sweden and New Zealand.
The Karen people have a different food culture than the Thais. It's this Researcher's belief that they take what nature offers them more readily than the Thais do. The food is always served with rice, with several small dishes - one of them always seeming to be fried eggs.
Some of the more odd things you might be served are:
Fried ants - a quite tickling feeling in the mouth, but it don't taste much.
Boiled rotten fish - this Researcher can't really recommend that one.
Boiled frogs - tasty; at least it looks like chicken.
Fried beetles - doesn't taste of much, but very crunchy!
Monkey - light meat, hard to explain the taste. Like other meat, but harder to chew.
The Sgaw Karen people have their own language and alphabet. Their language is called 'Packayah' and isn't even closely related to Thai; the Thais don't understand a word of Packayah. Most of the Karens understand and speak Thai, though, especially the younger people, since all education nowadays is held in Thai.
Some common Packayah phrases are:
- Tabblu - hello, thank you
- Tabblu doma - thank you very much
- Tabba ta namiba - (Same as the Thai word 'mai pen rai') you're welcome, never mind, whatever
- Gaulla geh - good morning
- Halla geh - good day
- Nila geh - good evening
- Nalla geh - good night
- Oshua - how are you
- Oshu - I'm fine
- Ome - eat
- Ome villi - (I've) already eaten
Since the village I lived in was strictly Christian Baptist there were no alcohol or drugs other then tobacco there. However, their homemade cigarettes are really good. They remind you more of a thin cigar than a normal cigarette and are made from homegrown tobacco and small pieces from the tamarind tree. Although it looks as if many of the elderly people are full of blood in their mouths it is nothing to worry about. It depends on the tobacco they are chewing.
In the rice season (from June to December) rice is the only crop that the Karens grow. In the rest of the year, however, the people grow crops from which it is possible to make money ie, tobacco, garlic, soybeans and eggplants (aubergines). In the evenings the people in the village spend time together and often they will gather in front of the fireplace and just talk. The people don't have much in the way of material wealth, but they've still they got everything they need. What they need isn't much. And they don't seem to wish for more either. This Researcher envied them for this.
From what I have seen I would say that the Karen people are a very easy-going and friendly people who really seem to care about each other. Everywhere you go you are always greeted with a big smile and an oshua? (See Language section above). You smile back and reply with an oshu! They will always offer you to join them if they are going to eat or if they are eating when you arrive.
If you go hiking in the northern parts of Thailand you can be sure to come across people who want to sell you a guided tour to 'a real hill tribe village', often a Karen village. There's nothing wrong with these tours since it's the only way for many people to see and meet the different hill tribes. Just have in mind that the people in the village get paid for having people like you to come and meet them. Therefore what you see is a staged show for tourists rather than a snapshot of their everyday life. The Longneck Karen are such an example. The tradition and culture that makes the women wear rings around their necks are long gone and is only kept alive for tourists who pay a lot of money for the opportunity to meet and photograph them. Other Karens don't like to be associated with them and tend to see them as 'sell-outs'.