The Karen tribe is an ethnic group living mainly in the mountainous regions of northern Thailand, near Chiang Mai. Known for their unique traditions and traditional way of life, the Karen have a rich culture dating back centuries. Karen women are famous for their distinctive clothing, including colourful dresses and long silver necklaces. They are also known for their craft skills, particularly the making of handmade textiles and jewellery. The Karen often practise slash-and-burn agriculture and live in harmony with the surrounding nature. Despite social and economic changes, the Karen tribe remains deeply attached to its traditions and community. I was lucky enough to spend two days and one night trekking through the Karen villages to meet a family, their culture and their way of life. I tell you all about it…
Hiking in the mountains of northern Thailand near Chiang Mai
After spending a few days in Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand, I felt the need to leave the city and get closer to nature and the local people. I’d heard about a small local agency that puts travellers in touch with guides from the Karen tribe so that they can spend a few days in the Karen communities, in the mountain villages. So I decided to go on a 2-day trek in Mae Wang National Park.
I woke up very early, leaving Chiang Mai at 7am. I join a Breton family with 2 children and a family friend in the traditional Thai taxi. We don’t know it yet, but we’re going to share a very special moment together that we’ll probably never forget.
After almost 2 hours on the road, we arrive in Mae Wang national park. This is where we meet up with our guide, Poe. Poe is of Karen origin and is keen to create links between his community and travellers from all over the world. After making sure we had walking shoes and enough water, Poe beckoned us to follow her… This is where the hike begins. The hike (or should I say stroll) is fairly leisurely. First we’re on dirt tracks from which you can see a few dwellings in the distance, and then we arrive in the jungle. It’s a real pleasure to be in nature, disconnected from the outside world. There’s no real network here and you don’t meet many people, apart from a few insects. The hike isn’t difficult, but it’s very hot and as we walk along a small stream, all I want to do is put my head in the water!
Nature break in the middle of a waterfall
After a 2.5 hour walk, we arrive at a heavenly spot: a wild waterfall! Our guide Poe tells us that we can take the time to swim and refresh ourselves, and this is also where we’ll be stopping for lunch. The locals prepare a delicious meal for us: fish with vegetable rice served in banana leaves. The meal is delicious and I can even say now that it’s one of the best meals I’ve tried on my entire trip to Thailand!
*A little anecdote: the fish we’re eating was bought that very morning at the market where we all stopped together. It was wrapped up alive in a plastic bag and was sitting right under me in the taxi-tuktuk – in the sweltering heat of course. We didn’t see it straight away but we could hear a strange noise every now and then and after looking to see where the noise was coming from, we discovered this poor fish wagging its tail…
(A little thought for the fish of course, but also for my immune system 😉 )
After a well-deserved lunch break, we set off again along some fairly steep, but still very scenic paths. After 1 or 2 hours’ walking, we reach the first Karen tribe village. The change of scenery is still there, as the houses here are built from bamboo and raised to make room for the animals. As we pass through the village, we come across the inhabitants sitting in front of their houses or strolling down the street. Thanks to our guide Poe (who plays the interpreter), we manage to share and chat. We’re clearly not in a tourist area and you can feel it. As we chatted with our guide Poe (who acted as interpreter), I suggested to some people that I should take their picture and share it with them afterwards. They smile and the idea is a hit! (By the way, the photos are being sent as I publish this article…)
At the end of the afternoon, we arrived at a primary school after classes had finished and the pupils invited us to a football match. I didn’t have time to make my way to the playing field when some little girls took my hand and invited me to dance with them. It’s a very special moment, filled with smiles and mimes to make ourselves understood!
A night with the Karen in Thailand
After this wonderful opportunity to meet new people and exchange ideas, we set off again for the home of a Karen family, where we would be spending the night. The house is made of bamboo and you have to walk barefoot through it. There are no windows; the house is open to the 4 winds, to ventilate the wood fire used for cooking. Like the other houses, it is built high up, because underneath there is food for the animals and various storage spaces. The bedrooms are very simple, with mattresses at ground level and mosquito nets for the night. We make our way to what could be the living room, and I let out a “Wow! The view is magnificent!
We’re literally alone in the middle of nature and the cows. The only downside to this view is the smell of smoke coming from the surrounding area… It’s February and the burning season has already begun (in this region, farmers burn the land at the end of the harvest season before the new season)…
A few moments after putting my bag on my bed, I find Dada, a little girl who was at the school leaving earlier. Dada lives with her uncle and grandmother in this house. She looks at me with a big smile. She’s 12 years old and doesn’t speak English, but her eyes are very expressive. She beckons me to follow her and the two of us head off into the forest to a viewpoint…
I can’t really talk to her, but the non-verbal communication works like a charm!
We then went home to the family with whom I was sharing this experience and we all got together to prepare dinner. Before nightfall, we also take advantage of the sunlight to go and take our (cold) shower while we can still see, as there’s no electricity in the house and therefore no light as soon as it gets dark (but fortunately I’ve taken a torch with me). Mealtime is also a time to learn more about the Karen people and their authentic way of life. We all sit together on the floor around this big wooden table. We light up the table with a few candles and our mobile phones (well, for those of us with batteries) and it feels like a moment suspended in time…
At the end of the meal, we all sit down together around the fire to warm up while admiring the stars in the sky. Our hosts suggest we cook sticky rice for dessert. Rice is cooked in a bamboo stick over the fire for an hour… It’s a long process, but the sticky rice is just delicious!
Before going to bed, after such an intense day, my eyes are full of stars for everything I’ve just experienced! It’s magical!
The next morning, I woke up gently to the sounds of nature (and especially the crowing of the roosters) in this small Karen village. It’s very early in the morning but it doesn’t matter – I can see the sun peeking out from behind the hill. It’s a peaceful place with no distractions (there’s no wifi, of course, as there’s no electricity or network). At around 9.00 am we left the house and the family who had welcomed us and set off again…
My experience will continue in an elephant rescue centre unlike any other. I’ll be sharing this experience with you very soon on the blog…
My thoughts on this touching experience
I had an absolutely incredible day and night!
It was a bit like stepping out of my comfort zone, because there was no electricity, no network, no reference points, but at the same time it was such a rich experience. It’s by living these experiences, disconnected from all my points of reference, and as close to life as possible, that I realise that we quickly lose sight of what’s really essential when we’re living our little daily routine. Wealth is hardly to be found in material things, because you can be without anything but still feel so good. For me, those two days were one of my most beautiful memories during my 6 weeks in Thailand.
I feel very lucky to have been able to live this experience and I can only recommend it to all curious travellers!
So don’t hesitate any longer and dare to set off to meet other people!
How to meet the Karen in Thailand
- My advice is to find out about the small local agencies that offer these experiences. Personally, I contacted Marine, a Frenchwoman, who runs Adventhaï (for more info, leave me a message). Marine is married to a Thai of Karen origin and they both live in northern Thailand.
- Mae Wang National Park is about 1 hour’s drive from Chiang Mai.
- I recommend that you speak English so that you can talk to the guides (who can act as interpreters for communities that speak little English).
- I advise you to stay at least 2 days and to spend one night there (even if the night is very rudimentary, it’s the most intense and beautiful part of the trip. It’s also the best way to take the time to chat). Avoid day trips, which are tourist excursions and not at all based on exchanges.
- To find out more about the Karen minority, see here
If you have any questions or if you want to share your experience, your feelings, leave me a comment 🙂