While in Mae-La village I have gotten to understand and experience much of the culture. The culture belongs to the Karen tribe. During the course of my stay I have witnessed a Karen funeral, a wedding, various customs, and home life in the village. As an outsider looking into the culture, I have learned much about a different way of life from my own. Explained below are the various aspects of Karen culture that I have experienced so far.
The majority of Karen people originally lived in Burma. Due to military hostility carried out on the Karen and their homes, many came to Thailand as refugees. Karen villages are scattered all over Northern Thailand and they have resided there for multiple generations. I have been told that the Mae-La village has been in existence for just over a hundred years. Their culture and customs can be linked to the many tribes found all over the Northern Thailand mountainside.
Starting with the food, I have gotten to eat alongside the villagers. Most days I eat with the other teachers at the school; on special occasions, I have been invited into the local huts and given the opportunity to dine. Most of the meat consists of pork (fried, grilled, or boiled in curry) over a bed of rice with some mixed veggies. Fish is occasionally on the menu, cooked whole, and eaten whole. One dish that I have had the opportunity to try is a delicacy for the Karen, only eaten on special occasions. This dish consists of raw pork that is chopped, mixed with pork blood for a dark red color, and finally heavily mixed with multiple spices to kill any bacteria. The dish is incredibly spicy, and hard to go down after watching the process. Fortunately, I didn’t get sick.
As for the drinks, I have also gotten to consume some alcohol with the locals. The drink of choice is a locally made rice whiskey, tasting similar to sake with a slightly higher alcohol content. Most of the time we have a few drinks, sit around the fire stove in the house, chatting and laughing. Jed the English teacher is able to translate the Karen language and help me communicate with the villagers…this leads to conversations about international politics, sports, and of course jokes. On the occasion that I have been able to have a few drinks with the villagers, it has been an unforgettable experience.
The women and men in the village have a traditional wardrobe. Married women in the village wear a dark red dress – signifying their marital commitments. Single women and young girls wear a white dress. Instead of wedding rings, dresses are used. Men wear a woven shirt that ranges from multiple colors, not signifying a certain status. Young boys also wear the shirts. Inside of the homes it is common to see the older women of the village weaving the traditional clothing. The intricate nature of the craft looks to be a skill that could take a lifetime to master; almost every woman in the village can weave.
Soon into my trip, I attended a funeral. The woman who passed away was a grandmother of one of my students. At the house of the deceased, a closed casket was set inside. Many candles lit the entrance to the scene. The entire village came to pay respects. Never have I seen such a celebration of life; people gathered around, laughed and told stories, and played multiple games late into the night. Nowhere could a sad face be found, or a lack of support. Around the casket, villagers prayed and sang songs. The event lasted three days leading to a burial somewhere near the village.
Traditional Karen culture is based on animism. Animism has to do with a belief in spirits belonging to households and in nature. Before the elderly women passed away, she had her own house built right next to her immediate family’s home. This is done so that when she passed away, her spirit wouldn’t haunt the household. After her death, her house was torn down, and the ground was set on fire. Ghosts, or spirits, are believed by the locals to frequent the village. So far I have luckily not come across a ghost.
At the wedding, the whole village was in attendance. The night before the wedding I was invited into one of the homes to sing songs and play guitar. The hut house was packed with people as we sang wedding songs. During the day of the wedding, the whole village, traditionally dressed, walked with the bride and groom up to the local church for the ceremony. Afterwards a feast was held where a pig was roasted, and made into multiple dishes. Afterwards we drank rice whiskey, and sang songs to celebrate. The groom moved into the bride’s house that night, where we stay up late congratulating and joking with the newly wedded couple.
Coming from America, with little international experience, the hill tribe has shown me an immense amount of culture outside of my own familiarities. While some things are similar, the way the Karen people go about life and events is distinctive to a rich culture of community cohesiveness, food, and celebration. Almost every day in the village there is something new to observe and appreciate. It feels as if I am becoming a part of the community, and feel such an acceptance from the people. When the day comes to leave, it will be truly difficult to say goodbye to such beautiful people, living in such a majestic landscape called Mae-La village.
On-site intern, Thailand