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A Different Pace

24 August, 2008 (23:38) | Travelogue

Light slips in through cracks, illuminating the longhouse provided for us in Karen.
For more serene photographs of Thailand, click here.

In the mountains outside the city of Chiang Mai lies a series of villages which are merely referred to as Ban Mai in Thai. To the people of these villages, our guide Samruam (Sam for short) among them, they are known by different names. Sam and his people call their village Karen, the same name they use to refer to their local mountain dialect. This Karen, like most of these villages which seem to have adopted the same title, is a primarily agricultural community. Its 110 inhabitants grow rice and raise livestock at .6 miles (1 km) above sea level, nearly three times the elevation of the city of Chiang Mai.

Karen emerges from the woods like an oasis from the dense foliage. Birds, crickets, and small Thai cicadas chirp and buzz in the distance. Radios play the same station from nearly every house while the sounds of chickens, pigs, and wild dogs intermingle with children playing in the oncoming dusk. Everything is there, and yet it’s oddly quiet for having so many sounds playing right alongside the crunching gravel beneath my feet.

Though Sam and his family live in Karen, he’s been acting as a guide across the Chiang Mai province for nearly 20 years. Only recently has his home village accepted tourists.

“Tourists are good,” Sam tells me. “They bring ideas. The people learn. They get ideas from tourists. It makes our people strong. In some villages, people don’t want tourists. They are scared. But in Karen, I tell our people that tourists bring ideas and money. Some are teachers. They help us. They help us grow stronger.”

Sam used to take tourists through other regions of Chiang Mai, but robbery and threats made it too dangerous. In his village, Sam is respected. His father was a leader and Sam, who once wanted to be chief, will soon follow in his footsteps. Every four years, there is a democratic election for chief, though they can run as many times as they want. Many of the villagers in Karen wanted Sam to run this last year, but he felt he was not ready.

“I used to want to be chief,” Sam said, “but no more. I was young. Now, I just want good things for Karen.”

“We have a saying in America,” I tell him. “The best leaders do not want to lead.”

Sam laughs at this. “Some people, they want me to try, but I have job. Spend time with son and daughter,” he tells me, referring to May, his 7-year old boy, and Mai, who turns 4 on Sunday. “Next time, I say. Tomorrow, I vote. Next time, maybe I become chief.”

Tomorrow is a region wide election. From the chiefs of the 10 villages here, one will be elected to represent the region with the local government. Signs on buildings indicate there’s more going on than that, but Sam says he doesn’t have the English to explain.

Signs about the election are nailed and stapled to the side of a building.

Last year, the government laid pipes bringing running water to the villages. Eight months ago, they began installing solar panels, giving Karen artificial light for the first time. The solar batteries have enough power to keep a radio running for a day, or a TV running for an hour, before they need recharging. Still, it’s the ability to see without fire that marks the biggest change.

“Very different,” Sam tells me. “We used to make fires. The smoke very thick. Coughing. It is much better now.”

The building we’re staying in does not have electricity. Most buildings don’t. Water and electricity wasn’t guaranteed to the local villages. Some still haven’t received this treatment. Sam tells me the reason is drugs.

“Many villages had problem with heroin, opium. Thai government gives solar panels if village stop drugs. Villagers happier with radio, TV than drugs. It is very good.”

Not all regions have cleaned up, according to Sam. Many villages near the Burma border still have serious problems. While opium grows naturally here, heroin is processed in factories in Burma and brought in through these mountain villages. Sam claims that the majority of heroin for China, India, and Southeast Asia comes from Burma’s factories. Given the extremely closed nature of Burma’s activities to journalists and watchdogs, it would not be surprising.

As it gets dark, candles the only source of light left in our Thai longhouse, Sam collects the children of the village to sing folk songs to us. Though the music is foreign, the performance hearkens back to typical elementary school recitals, some of the children moving their mouth randomly and chatting with each other while others sing with far more effort than musical talent. What we end up hearing is a magical performance such that can only come from the mouths of children. While we sit there smiling, still entranced by the recent show, Sam asks for a donation, the money to pay for paper, pens and pencils, books and basic equipment for school.

Sam plans to run for chief on the platform of education. Already, his push to allow tourists into Karen has helped finance several childrens’ educations, allowing him to send them to high schools and universities. He hopes they will learn and then come back to the village to teach and return the favor. A few of these students have decided they want jobs in the cities after graduation instead of returning to the village. For these, he asks they come back and help for four years to repay the village for the education before moving on.

“They do not always want to come back,” Sam says with a smile, “but I speak with their family after first year and they come back to help. Better they teach than me.”

Sam’s son May smiles, his eye swollen from a bee sting, as another boy rests against a tree.

During his days off, Sam helps teach at the elementary school. There’s only one for the 10 village district. Five days a week, his son makes the hour and half trek to school with the other village children. On the days Sam teaches, he walks right along with them. In the evenings, they all walk back and help with the farming or other chores. Sam wants to open at least one more school.

Despite the mandatory elementary education, most of the village is still illiterate. There is no newspaper and because of the local dialect, even hearing Thai on the radio can be difficult. Twice a day-once in the morning at 9 AM and once in the evening at 5 PM-an AM station broadcasts an hour mixed in Thai and the local mountain dialect. The mountain dialects are similar enough to be commonly understood, but different enough for each village to have their own. Thai, however, is little heard, though it’s taught in school.

When we’re done with this three day trip, Sam will spend a few days in Chiang Mai collecting supplies for the village. Most of these supplies will be for the school or medicine for the sick and old. Just like there is only one school for the area, there is only one doctor for the region as well. With so little attention for such a large area, the doctor has his hands full. Often, medicine is the only help he gets.

Sam’s grandmother is 91 years old, and though she’s no longer mentally capable of working the fields, her health is not in question. Sam tells me most people in the mountains live into their 80s, a much better life expectancy than the crowded cities of Thailand. He says they eat better, breathe cleaner, and exercise more. Sam himself became primarily vegetarian last year because of diseases in the livestock. Apparently the meat in mountains often gives the doctor work. Suddenly, I’m a little worried about what I ate for dinner.

The village of Karen has changed significantly in the last few years. The people have embraced these new and different things, Sam helping lead the way to a better tomorrow. Still, life is simple here and there are many more changes to come.

With the last of the candles burning down, sleep comes easy. It’s warm enough that no blanket is needed, the cool mountain breeze soothing us aurally and keeping us temperate. The distant chirping of insects peppers the darkness, our dreams full of this enchanting little village in the mountains of Thailand.