Visit To The Hill Tribes – March 2000
When I was a child the jungle always conjured up visions of Tarzan assisted by his faithful chimpanzee swinging from vine to vine to rescue some Banana Republic clad idiot in a pith helmet from some pack of cannibalistic savages. Upon achieving puberty this image was slightly altered, and perhaps perverted, to Tarzan swinging from vine to vine to rescue Maureen O’Sullivan – whose scantily clad body fueled several sexual fantasies which were only quenched by my wife’s acquisition of a leopard-print one-piece swimsuit.
Fast forward to thirty-five years later and here I am outside of Chiang-Mai crammed in the back of an old Suzuki truck with two tour guides and a driver en route to a two day trekking tour through the mountainous jungles of Thailand. I’ve shelled out six thousand baht to be taken to Khoon Win, a remote village of one hundred seventy-five Karen tribes-people buried deep in the jungle without electricity or telephone service.
We travel south on the well paved Chiang-Mai Hod before turning onto the Samueng- Hang Dong district road. For an hour we wind our way through a series of corn, garlic and onion farms as the chief guide Surin Riangtong, an ex-Buddhist monk and recent graduate from the University of Chiang Mai, gives me a quick lesson on Karen history. This is partially so I know a little about where I am going and also so Surin can practice his English, but mostly it is to divert my attention from the daredevil antics of our driver, Kai – who every time we approach a bend seems to be conducting a protest against Thailand’s tradition of driving on the left side of the road. While we weave back and forth across the center yellow line and cars and motorcycles swerve out of our way, Surin explains the Karen are the largest of the many tribes inhabiting the Himalayan foothills of northern Thailand. Over the last two hundred years more than three hundred thousand of these subsistence farmers and master weavers have been forced to emigrate from their homeland in Burma due to numerous atrocities and ethnic cleansing programs undertaken by several generations of Burmese despots who would make Slobodan Milosevic’s mouth water with envy. Since 1948 the Karen have been waging a guerrilla war along the eighteen hundred kilometer Thai-Burma border.
“Border – it more than one hundred kilometers from here, and Pagayor Karen we will visit are not involved in any military skirmish; so no need to worry,” Surin correctly observes the stress written on my face, but misdiagnoses the source of my anxiety.
“Look out,” I yell to Kai, who doesn’t understand English and blithely aims our vehicle at an oncoming semi-truck.
It is alleged that during the moments immediately preceding death one has their entire life flash in front of them. If this is so I would like to register a complaint with whomever is running the near death department in Thailand, because as I brace myself
for the accident which is about to happen I realize I have been shortchanged. I’m not seeing any of the highlights of my life – no losing my virginity, no receiving my first gold record, no marrying my wife, my mind is stuck on eating
that bug back in Bangkok. What the hell was I thinking? Who was I trying to impress? It wasn’t like when I was nineteen and infatuated with Margie Diefenbach and took up parachuting under the misguided belief she would see how fearless
and daring I was and would therefore come down with a severe case of nymphomania which could only be cured by having constant sex with me.
Gradually it dawns on me that I have had far too much time to dwell on these thoughts, and rather than hearing the crunching of metal that should precede the crunching of me, the Suzuki is merely shaking badly and we somehow avoided the oncoming truck and being dispatched, if the Buddhist religion is correct, to our next lives.
As soon as my heart starts beating again I ask, “Doesn’t the double yellow line in the middle of the road mean you’re not supposed to cross it?”
“Not exactly. It mean you no have right of way.”
“Then why is Kai crossing it every time we come to a bend?”
“If you drive straight through bend it shorter, easier and save expensive gas,” Surin replies before translating my concern to our driver.
Kai laughs and points to the ceramic Buddha on the dashboard, and has Surin tell me, “we have good Buddha. No harm will come to us.”
I fervently hope he’s operating on some inside information which I am not privy to, because the driver has now taken his hands off the wheel to wai a shrine on the side the road. As I belatedly reach for my dictionary to look up the Thai word for
‘look out!’ (it’s ‘rawang!’) I spot a town up ahead and request we stop under the pretense that I need to go to the bathroom. In reality it is already too late – I merely need to empty my boot.
Surin tells me we are in Samueng, the market town for the various hill tribes, including the Karen, inhabiting the Mae Wang district. Kai halts the truck in front of the central market, next to a pair of elephants who are happily devouring several bunches of bananas.
The market consists of a collection of stalls selling live poultry, dead poultry, meat, fish, vegetables and other foodstuffs, articles of clothing, cleaning supplies, farming equipment and motor oil. Prices are quite cheap and I manage to haggle the price of a pair of Calvin Klein underwear down to twelve from thirty baht as replacements for my soiled ones. At the urging of Surin I also purchase several bags of sweets as gifts for the Karen children whose parents evidently never warned them of the perils of accepting candy from strangers.
We decide to eat lunch in Samueng and our trail guide Boon Luert, a Karen tribesman whose English is only slightly better than the driver’s, leads us to what he claims is the best restaurant in this booming town of fifty thousand people. We walk a few meters past a couple of grazing buffalo and come to a four table outdoor eatery where we sit under a portrait of King Bhumibol.
There is no menu. The chef comes over and tells us what ingredients are loitering around his kitchen, and once I ascertain that there are no insects in his pantry I ask my companions to order me whatever they recommend. Soon a whole procession of dishes
arrive at the table and we are awash in food. There are papaya salads with squid, pad thai, sticky rice, and how mak pla a spicy fish soup with eggs, vegetables and coconut cream. The aroma of our lunch attracts a squadron of flies from some nearby
elephant droppings and I eat quickly, examining each bite to make sure that there are no additional protein supplements to an otherwise delicious meal. Lunch is cheap – the bill amounts to only ninety baht, or just over two dollars for
the four of us and our dipterous guests.
We pile back into the truck and drive another forty kilometers to a remote tourist police checkpoint, where Boon has to go around back to wake up the middle aged policeman whose portliness attests to his having one of the least taxing jobs around. The cop yawns and asks for my passport, copies down my name, address and nationality so he can notify the proper authorities if something gruesome happens to me and then sends us on our way.
We turn onto a narrow dirt and rock road that seems to have been cloned from one of those macho four wheel drive commercials targeted at NRA members (Be the first on your block to get the brand sparkling new Testosterone enhanced Dodge Gas Guzzler ZX,
with suspension so smooth you can safely construct pipe bombs while driving over even the roughest terrain. Factory installed gun rack, missile launcher and girl with big knockers are not standard options and may cost slightly extra). Unfortunately
our vehicle has neither any suspension nor four wheel drive and by the time Kai halts at our drop off point, a telephone booth on the edge of a garbage dump fifteen kilometers further up the road, I feel like a James Bond cocktail – shaken
(from the ride) but not stirred (by the scenery).
“Here is your backpack,” Surin pulls my twenty kilo monument to thorough preparation from the truck. I have read my guidebook carefully, and followed the author’s recommendations to the letter. Not only am I wearing jeans and a long sleeve shirt to ward off leeches and thorns, I have packed one complete change of clothing, a sleeping bag, a sweater in case it gets cold, emergency food, two liters of water, Thai-English dictionary, soap, and toothbrush. On my own initiative I’m also carrying a digital camera, laptop computer, ten tablets from my new valium stash and a Thai fortune of twenty thousand baht in case I encounter someone in need of a bribe.
Kai promises to meet us tomorrow evening, floors the accelerator and heads back to wreak havoc upon any stray motorists between here and Chiang-Mai.
We saddle up and follow Boon along a faint path into the sweltering jungle. About a half hour into our march up and down the mountainous terrain I start getting as bored as I am hot. This is not the jungle of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Rudyard Kipling.
Yes, I’ve seen a veritable botanist’s wet dream of trees and vegetation, but I haven’t seen one tiger, lion, charging rhinoceros, wild elephant, screaming monkey, not even a mildly distressed squirrel. I’ve heard nary
a jungle drum, seen no grape vines to swing from, and have been unable to spot a single mass of quicksand sucking any B movie heavies to their demise. Someone has stolen all the clichés right out of my jungle and I’m feeling a little
I share my concerns with Surin, albeit in a slightly more diplomatic way. “What happened to all the wildlife? Is this their day off?”
“No. Animal hear or smell us and hide. No want any part of man.”
“Nawk chaak ngou,” a grinning Boon adds.
I remember ‘nawk chaak’ means ‘except’, but I don’t recognize the latter word. “What’s ‘ngou’ mean?” I ask Surin.
“Snake,” he smiles.
My guides are smart. They know exactly which button to push to discourage any bitching on my part. Although I consider myself fairly intrepid – having climbed mountains, parachuted, bungee jumped, eaten insects, taught my wife somewhat how to drive, flown Korean Airlines, worked with Ted Nugent, and even gone to a performance art exhibition with Agatha – there is one primordial fear I have never been able to divest myself of…the fear of snakes. As far as I am concerned all snakes are poisonous and to be steered clear of. I no longer feel gypped and appreciate the jungle as a dangerous place full of lurking reptiles ready to strike, especially after Surin adds, “there are one hundred twenty-five varieties of snakes in Thailand. Fifty-six species are poisonous, and most of them live in jungle.”
We keep on walking. Boon never changes his pace, and I never stop looking for snakes and wondering whether either being stuck by a few thorns or sucked on by any of the as yet unseen leeches is any worse than sweating to death. We go up hills. We go down hills. We go around hills. We jump over small streams. We wade through larger streams. We pass beautiful waterfalls which would proudly grace any picture postcard. But mostly it’s trees, trees and more trees; bamboo, rubber, pine, teak and banana – and Surin seems to know a story to go with each one of them. In 1970 Thailand was fifty percent covered by rain forest, and now that figure has shrunk to below twenty percent due to illegal logging operations, slash and burn farming and the Thai elite’s unquenchable thirst for golf courses. Because of the decline of vegetation and natural habitat the elephant population, which was estimated to be close to one hundred thousand at the turn of the twentieth century, is now down to five thousand. Similar declines have landed the tiger, rhinoceros, mouse deer and other wildlife on the endangered list. This of course causes me to wonder why it’s always the cute animals, the ones Disney turns out sappy movies about (and then churns a gazillion dollars in profits upon successfully convincing Occidental children that they must not allow their parents to sleep until they have bought every piece of said animal’s expensive merchandising made by some poor ten cent an hour laborer in Thailand), that end up on the verge of extinction. Why is it you never hear about the spitting cobra, banded krait, or the pit viper facing nature’s Grim Reaper?
It’s two hours later and we are still walking, or to be entirely accurate, Surin and Boon are walking while my movement is down to a slow trudge. I’m sweating profusely and warding off mini-rebellions from muscles which I heretofore had not known existed within my body. Meanwhile Boon and Surin look as if this has been a mere traipse through the park. Out of vanity I refuse to accept that this is due to their being in superior physical shape and instead attribute it to their wearing short sleeves. So I challenge nature to unleash a plague of leeches by changing into a far more comfortable St. Louis Blues T-shirt.
Boon grins and states, “diao-ni pom mai kit wa kuhn ba ba bo bo,” which if I understand correctly means he doesn’t think I’m stark raving mad anymore.
“Why did you think I’m crazy?” I inquire in Thai.
Boon replies too rapidly for me to comprehend, but Surin steps in to translate, “Only a crazy person would wear a long sleeve shirt in this heat.”
“I was only following my guidebook’s recommendations.”
“You need new guidebook,” Surin opines.
Right now I tend to agree. It was the same book which claimed this was going to be a romp through nature at its unparalleled best.
We press on. To distract myself from thinking only of snakes and how tired I am, I ask Surin how often he makes this trip.
“I’ve only been to Khoon Win one time, but I go jungle every week. I soon going to be sorry and miss it.”
“What do you mean?” Unless my guide has some peculiar fetish involving sweating amongst a bunch of trees and leeches I can’t fathom what there is to miss.
“We have military draft in Thailand. Day after we get back from jungle I must go to my home village and take one of two balls from hat.” Surin goes on to describe the process. If he draws the red ball he immediately begins Army basic training, but if he is fortunate and pulls the black ball he avoids conscription. This whole process could be circumvented if he had money. A ten thousand baht bribe paid to the local commandant would mysteriously remove his name from the eligibility lists, but he already borrowed 78,000 baht to go to college and has to send the bulk of his six thousand baht a month paycheck to support his family.
“How do you feel about that?” I ask, feeling guilty since I have twice the amount of money in my pocket necessary to buy him out of the army.
“If I am chosen it would be great honor to serve my country,” he states with an air of absolute sincerity.
“I understand,” I lie, only partially because it would be rude to tell him he is full of shit, but also out of self preservation since, if he were to take umbrage, he could strand me in the middle of this jungle. I do not want to see how long it will take for the policeman back at the checkpoint to spring, or most likely in his case stumble, into action and mount a search for me.
Half an hour later we arrive on the banks of a slow flowing river where we take a rest stop. I’m happy to report I still haven’t seen a snake – which explains why I am able to continue this narration, since had I stumbled upon one, even if it wasn’t poisonous, I would have had a coronary. My thoughts drift from reptiles to how much I respect the Karen. If one of them wakes up in the middle of the night with the munchies and decides they absolutely have to have chocolate ice cream they are going to have endure quite a little adventure to get to the local 7-11. Much worse, if they wake up in the middle of the night with appendicitis they’re ten kilometers from the nearest telephone and even further from the nearest doctor.
We start moving again and I ask Surin what the Karen do in case of emergency.
“Our government trains one resident of Karen village in first aid and child delivery; but if serious they offer sacrifices to Gods. Karen we visiting are Buddhists, but they also animists. They believe in reincarnation and enlightenment through Lord Buddha, but also believe there are spirits protecting them from very bad. Spirits need to be fed and sheltered. See little house there?” he points to a couple of logs which have crudely been piled on top of each other next to the river. “Karen built house for Gods to live in so they will bless river and provide water. If Gods angry they may decide to not give rain. Without rain river dies; and without river Karen cannot plant rice; and without rice Karen die. Karen keep the Gods happy and well fed.”
“What do the Gods eat?” I want to know more about this karmic food chain. I’ve seen enough movies to know that a combination of jungles and sacrifices usually ends up with a white guy boiling in a cauldron.
“They eat pork,” Surin points to the skeletal remains of a pig lying underneath the shrine, “and other animals.”
For my first time in my trip the somber reality of life and death overrides any sense of adventure. I’m not sitting in my living room munching popcorn and watching this on a
National Geographic television special. I’m about to come face to face with a people whose religion has them slitting animal’s throats to appease their Gods. Do I yell with a missionary’s sense of self righteousness that this is wrong? I’m sure when some reformed cocaine addict Hollywood studio executive has this book adapted for the movies, my character (played by a dashing Leonardo de Caprio) will stop this barbaric practice and lead the primitive tribe out of the wilderness to a McDonalds where they will offer the Gods Big Macs because the hamburger chain paid bucketloads of money for product placement. But of course if this was a movie I would have to be gravely wounded several times to provide enough drama to sell tickets and I am far too much of a coward, and besides I have to be back in town tomorrow. So with no small degree of self loathing I elect to smile and hope the Gods aren’t feeling peckish while I’m around.
We get back on our feet and resume our march. About an hour later we come to an area where the trees are less than two meters tall and the ground looks as if it has been irrigated recently. According to Surin this land was the Karen’s rice paddies
two years ago. “Rice very hard on the soil, and fields need to lay fallow for a while after each planting. So every year tribe rotates their farmland and clears many new rai by setting controlled fires to forest. Then they dig irrigation
ditches from river and flood fields so rice grows. At end of harvest they replant many new trees and don’t farm same area for around ten years.”
A half hour later we see more signs of human life. Boon points to a hand made dummy lying under a tree with a bottle of homemade rice whiskey and says something in the Karen dialect. Surin translates, “someone in village is sick, and family is trying to get Gods drunk enough so they take dummy rather than sick Karen.”
I feel a lot better about the Karen’s beliefs. I prefer a religion which allows for a certain amount of fallibility in its Gods. Imagine a bunch of boozed up Gods staggering around the jungle too shitfaced to tell the difference between dummies and human beings. I can’t help but wonder what they take for hangovers since I doubt two extra strength Tylenol does much to remedy a night of your average God’s overindulgence . This amuses me to no end and I try to envision what my world would be like if the keepers of Christianity removed the boards from their collective asses and loosened up. Wouldn’t it be great if the Pope cancelled prayers out of fear that Jesus was too pissed out of his skull to pay close attention to what he was asking for (Look Cardinal Mahoney, I’m a little worried about the Lord. Last time I prayed for world peace I ended up with a guy from Dominos at the door with ten billion pizzas and he wanted to be paid)?
It is about three thirty in the afternoon when we emerge from the jungle onto a dirt road.
Surin expresses surprise at the existence of the road. The last time he visited it wasn’t here.
For some reason the phrase, ‘all roads lead to Rome’ sticks in my mind – and not in the sense that I expect to be imminently hit by a car (that will have to wait until the return of our driver). Just as most creeks feed rivers which feed other rivers and eventually feed oceans, roads lead to other roads which link to highways which link to cities – meaning we probably could have driven here – and spared me the five and a half hours of dragging my tired ass thirty kilometers through the mountains.
We walk five more minutes and finally Khoon Win comes into view. My first impression is it would be inaccurate to describe the village as a ‘one horse town’ since by the looks of things no one in Khoon Win is affluent enough to own a horse. However there are a buffalo and two pigs foraging in the middle of the road so it can more correctly be called a ‘one buffalo, two pig town’.
Because there are no telephones in Khoon Win it was impossible for my guides to call ahead and make hotel reservations. In fact, as I glance at the approximately forty small wooden buildings resting on stilts that comprise the town, I cannot see anything passing for a hotel marquee. No signs advertise rooms with mini-bars, swimming pools or free continental breakfasts – leaving me with the sneaking suspicion that tonight’s accommodations will not have earned any stars in the Michelin Guide. But Surin assures me there will be no problem securing lodging and sends Boon ahead to make arrangements while we wait under a shrine to the Gods of land and water at the town’s entrance.
Five minutes later Boon is standing on the porch of a hut and waving for us to come into town. We stroll past a couple of teenage girls in dirty white shifts who are strapped into looms weaving brightly colored garments. “They are soon to get married,” Surin explains that all unmarried Karen women wear white dresses, but upon getting hitched they graduate to colored outfits.
Our arrival is causing quite a stir among Khoon Win’s children and I am immediately surrounded by an eager, yet polite, throng of fifteen kids with dirty clothes and faces. I feel very important…almost like a rock star. My head swells, this reception has made the whole trip worthwhile. The Backstreet Boys can eat their hearts out. They’ve never drawn as high a percentage of any town’s local youth to a personal appearance.
“Children want candy,” Surin interrupts my ego trip and brings me back to reality. The children have learned that westerners are most likely carrying sweets. This is not adulation for the great white hero, it is merely an example of Pavlovian training.
I distribute a round of strawberry flavored candies and receive a traditional Thai bow of thanks from each child. My mood changes from exhilarated to mildly depressed as I realize I’ve just walked thirty kilometers through the jungle to feed treats to the natives in their natural habitat, no different from zoo visitors tossing peanuts to elephants. This is neither a circus freak-show nor a behavioral science lab. It is real life with real human beings. For the first time I appreciate what an insult the science of anthropology is to the people it studies – and I’m not even an anthropologist – I’m merely a sweaty tourist with several bags of candy and sore legs. I feel like I’m intruding and don’t belong here, but it is too late to do anything about it other than be nervous and try not to do anything which offends local mores.
But the children are oblivious to my unease and their number swells to include a few adults. They follow me past the thatched roof buildings as if I were the Pied Piper of Hamelin, except in this case I’m the Pied Piper of the hamlet of Khoon Win.
We come to the hut where Boon is standing with a rail thin man in dark blue cargo pants. I follow Surin’s example and remove my shoes before scrambling up the ladder to the porch where I am welcomed with an incomprehensible greeting in the Karen
language by our host, whose broad smile reveals a mouthful of rotted betel stained black teeth.
I ask Surin to make sure we are not imposing, since most of my juvenile entourage has decided to join us on the small porch.
Surin has a conversation with the man while from within the house a barefoot woman in a long red skirt and soiled blue shirt emerges with a hand broom made of leaves. She sweeps a cluster of fire ants from the bamboo floor and motions for me to sit.
I gratefully accept her invitation to collapse. It feels good to finally be off my feet and I reach into my pack and grab another bag of bonbons. I offer her one, which she accepts with a mute nod of thanks.
Surin sits down and reports, “Our host’s name is Phadi, and that is his wife Prongsi. They are very happy we stay here. Boon paid them five hundred baht which is more money than they make in two months.”
I do a rough mental currency conversion and am stunned. Phadi and Prongsi make only $6.25 a month – about what I spend on lunch on an average day. This is extreme poverty; but it is not the sexy type of gaunt-eyed distended-belly poverty that occasionally
blips across Los Angeles news programs between reports on pro athlete arrests and celebrity plastic surgery. Indeed these people are poor, but they seem healthy and relatively well fed. So there is no chance of mustering a couple of truckloads
of rock and roll aristocracy, who need a quick way to fulfill the community service terms of their latest drug convictions, to record a trite song of solidarity and use the proceeds (after reasonable attorneys’ fees and staff overheads
are deducted of course) to get the Karen a few bucks.
Two barefoot and giggling girls come bounding out the door and Phadi, through Surin’s translation, introduces his two daughters, fifteen year old Dueng-Rak and Phra-Pai who is eight. I offer the girls some sweets which they shyly accept with traditional Thai wais, while their father asks whether I am married.
“Pom mi phanraya laew,” I tell him I’m married while hoping that the next words required from me are not, “No, I don’t want a boy either.”
My guides are shaking their heads, and out of paranoia I check with Surin to see whether Phadi understands Thai and – more importantly – me.
“He understands a little Thai,” my guide laughs, “and he understands you too – although your accent is funny to everyone’s ears. Most Karen know some Thai – since for forty years all school have by law been taught exclusively in our language – though they want to talk own dialect. But don’t worry – not you we were talking about. Boon and I not married, so Dueng-Rak must spend night somewhere else. Karen believe Gods will be angry if unmarried man sleep in same house as girl who is old enough to marry.”
Another wave of guilt sweeps over me, as now I have not only invaded this family’s life with my retinue of two guides and at least ten children, but I’ve managed to evict Dueng-Rak from her home. “Is there any other place we can stay where we won’t be forcing anyone to leave?”
“Don’t worry, Karen love visitors, particularly ones carrying candy and money.” Surin reassures me, “and believe it would upset Gods even more if they turned away travelers.”
I pause briefly to consider the theological implications of this situation. If the Karen’s belief system is essentially correct and the Gods have already found that bottle of whiskey back in the jungle, the last thing anyone would want to do is piss them off. I never have toiled as a building bribe collector, I’m sorry I meant building inspector, but in my astute judgment there is no way any structure in town could withstand a bunch of irate drunken deities in some sort of metaphysical barroom brawl. The result would be total devastation, famine and quite possibly Agatha opening up an art gallery in Khoon Win. Keeping the Gods content is certainly the optimal approach – and to this end I resolve to buy the next God I see a stiff drink just to make sure I’m on His good side.
I’m sinking into a comfortable stupor speculating on what the favorite drink of the Gods might be, and thinking of the possible marketing opportunities (Jack Daniels – if it fucks Him up, think what it’ll do to you!) when my train of thought suffers a head-on collision with the oncoming freight train of my Western values, or at least non Kentucky/non-Tennessee/non-ex-Rolling-Stone-bass-player values. Surin said Dueng-Rak is only fifteen and inferred she is of marriageable age. “How old are the Karen when they get married?” I ask.
“Usually seventeen,” my guide replies.
“Then why does Dueng-Rak have to leave? She’s not old enough to get married.”
“Sometimes girl marry earlier – especially when husband can pay good dowry.”
“How much do they consider a good dowry?”
“One pig and maybe a buffalo. Good buffalo worth eight thousand baht; pig one thousand eight hundred baht. That big money which very hard to turn down; but as you see not many people have much money so doesn’t happen often. How much it cost to get married in your country?”
“You don’t have to pay anything up front in America.”
“Really?” Surin seems surprised.
“No, wives are like cellular phones in America. They give them away for free as loss leaders and then soak you for payments every time you use them.”
“I not understand.”
“Be grateful you don’t. But trust me, they wind up costing a lot more than a whole herd of buffalo.”
Surin translates our conversation for Phadi, who asks if an American wife is more expensive than an elephant.
“How much do elephant go for?” I question.
“Lots of money – maybe 100,000 baht for baby elephant; more for older one, but you can rent elephant out for big money to your neighbors to plow field,” is my host’s translated response.
“Tell Phadi that in the end my wife has cost a whole lot more than 100,000 baht, and as much as I would like to I haven’t been able to hire her out to plow anything.”
Phadi takes a betel nut from his pocket and wraps it in tobacco while Surin relays my response. He shakes his head and says something to Surin before stuffing the wad into his mouth.
Surin doesn’t translate Phadi’s response, but there is no need. I’m sure I just heard the Karen word for ‘sucker’.
Before I can get too deep into thoughts on who back home in Beverly Hills might want to rent out my wife for her soon to be learned plowing skills, I notice that all the Karen children are staring expectantly at me which makes me somewhat uneasy. I nervously
dole out another round of candy while realizing that very subtly the tables have turned – and it is I, rather than them, who am the zoo creature on display. They are not content with a few morsels of candy, they want to see the sweaty Caucasian
I survey my audience and recognize this is going to be a tough room to work. I can’t sing a song from my latest album, because I don’t have a wall of guitar amps to cover up the fact that I can’t carry a tune with a bucket – and even if I had the proper equipment there is no electricity to run it. Due to their not speaking English, I cannot draw upon my vast reservoir of politically incorrect jokes and stories about the peccadilloes of various rock and roll celebrities.
I have the same sinking feeling I last experienced when I was in first grade and forgot to bring anything for show and tell. But at least that time I managed to bluff my way out of it by claiming to have an invisible midget named ‘Jacques’ on my shoulder. My classmates swallowed my story hook line and sinker – and I was the most popular student at recess as everyone wanted to play with Jacques. My teacher, Mrs. Goren, seemed to buy into my lie too and shortly thereafter passed me into the second grade – although in retrospect she may have been far brighter and advanced me merely to insure that she didn’t have to suffer through another daunting year of my presence.
Only a few seconds tick past before I thankfully remember that I am not unprepared – and do have something which should produce the same awe as my first grade comrades had. I reach into my knapsack and pull out both my digital camera and laptop computer.
“Phom khaw thaai-pharb khun dai-mai?” I ask whether it is okay to take their pictures.
Phadi nods, while Dueng-Rak reaches behind her and with what I construe as an ‘in case you were laboring under the misconception that we’re a bunch of backwoods hicks – we’ve seen a camera before’ look proudly hands me an envelope full of photographs.
I momentarily put my camera aside and examine the pictures. The first shot is of a dozen military helicopters hovering a few meters over Khoon Win’s rice paddies. This is followed by one of a stylish older woman standing on one of the helicopter’s stairs in front of a crowd of kneeling villagers.
“It is Queen Sirikit,” Surin says reverentially in English, before launching into a conversation with Phadi in the Karen dialect. While they are talking I continue going through the photos. Most of them are slightly out of focus snapshots of the Queen greeting smiling villagers – many of whom I recognize from our front porch.
“Phadi says our Queen came here last November during winter when spirits were very angry at village. Temperature dropped as low as zero degrees Centigrade and many people were truly freezing to death. It was coldest time in memory and villagers only had their fires to keep warm. Khoon Win priest knew he must bring spirits back into harmony, so he had big pig sacrificed. It worked perfectly. Spirits told Her Majesty the people were cold. Queen Sirikit immediately organized relief effort and personally flew in supplies of warm clothing, blankets and other essentials. Her Majesty also had Army build the new road into Khoon Win in case there ever is another emergency.”
While Phadi and his family nod at the translation, I study Surin’s face to see if it reflects any of the healthy skepticism which certainly must be etched across mine.
Like everyone else who reads the supermarket tabloids I know the unseasonable temperatures were in reality caused by a global warming ray wielded by a one hundred ten year old Adolf Hitler from his bunker hideout in South America. But I decide to play along and act like I actually believe a bunch of spirits brought on the inclement weather by asking, without the slightest trace of sarcasm, “what made the spirits angry?”
Surin relays my question to our host, who softly answers, “a few months ago someone, we don’t know who, cut down a tree in the forest. This make the spirits very mad.”
My guide sees that I am struggling to establish the connection between the felling of a tree and the spirits being irritated. “Karen believe man and nature must live in harmony. If man cut down tree he is not supposed to, balance of nature is off and spirits have no choice but to get revenge.”
My cynicism evaporates. I cannot but admire an environmentally friendly God who likes to tie one on every now and then – in fact I’d probably vote for one if they could drop the plank demanding animal sacrifices from their platform. They certainly seem brighter, more compassionate and a hell of a lot more fun than the gun-toting Bible-thumping Republicans back home who keep trying to present themselves as true moral guardians…and I find myself speculating as to whether slightly inebriated Gods might not be able to tell the difference between a pig and George Bush or at very least Dick Cheney. Maybe PETA would sanction just this one little bit of animal testing…
Sadly my pleasant ruminations are interrupted by the realization that everyone is still waiting for me to entertain them. I pull out the camera and snap Dueng-Rak’s picture. My camera has a video display on the back and I show her the photo.
Dueng-Rak gasps, then laughs and points to the screen in amazement as everyone crowds around to gape at the latest in LCD technology.
Sensing I have the crowd baited I open the laptop and turn it on. This produces a discernable level of excitement amongst the villagers, and Dueng-Rak asks whether the computer is a television.
“No it’s not a TV,” I tell her in my fractured Thai, “this is a computer.”
There is a sag in the crowd’s energy as I plug the camera into the laptop.
“Children are disappointed,” Surin tells me, “they never see television and hope your computer was one.”
It’s one thing not to have electricity but quite another not to have television. Forget starving children – Sally Struthers should be frog marched at gunpoint from standing in front of her open refrigerator to host a telethon and get the Karen television sets. They have been deprived far too long and need to experience the warm companionship that television affords. These poor people have never experienced the joy of watching live police chases, infomercials starring over the hill celebrities cajoling people to buy revolutionary products without which one cannot live a fulfilled life, and shows so inane that producers had to add canned laugh tracks to let bored viewers know the banality they are suffering through is funny. How can one expect them to lead useful lives?
“Ni dikwa thorotat,” I try to win back the crowd by lying and telling them the computer is better than television. It takes a few seconds to download the picture into the laptop and I show it to them.
There is enough open mouthed gawking to satisfy most egos, but I haven’t elicited the full on reverential bow-down-to-the-great-and-magical-white-god treatment which for some inexplicable reason I crave. So I open up the Photoshop program in my computer and manipulate the photo. I change the color of Dueng-Rak’s face to a shade of indigo. Everyone claps and laughs wildly – except for Prongsi. Her face is white with fear. “What’s wrong with her?” I ask.
Surin speaks with Prongsi, nods his head in understanding and then reports back, “Prongsi is worried you are taking the soul of her daughter into your computer.”
“Tell her I’m only running Windows Me – Bill Gates hasn’t developed that feature yet.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” Surin says earnestly, “can you explain so I translate?”
My audience does not seem interested in a lecture on the inherent evil of the Microsoft empire, so I try to come up with an equally plausible albeit slightly less political explanation to mollify Prongsi’s fears. “Take a picture of me,” I hand the camera to Boon.
He snaps my photo and I load it into the computer, and distort it in Photoshop by using a fisheye effect and then give my skin a pukish green tint. I show her the picture and ask Surin to tell Prongsi that I would not willingly lose my soul.
This seems to placate Prongsi, and immediately everyone wants their picture taken and processed through the computer. For the next twenty minutes I’m snapping pictures of the villagers and then to their delighted oohs and ahs, twirling, solarizing, polarizing, pixelating and otherwise making a thorough mess of the shots.
An attractive, and from the dirty white dress she is wearing, unmarried girl has Surin ask me whether I’m a great magician.
“Tell her I’m flattered, but I’m no David Copperfield.”
“Who is David Copperfield?”
“He’s an amazing magician; he turned Claudia Schiffer into his girlfriend.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Claudia Schiffer is the most beautiful woman in the world and she is going out with this geeky magician who everybody thought was gay…” I recognize that I’m rambling and cut myself off before they think I’m delusional and have me forcibly committed to the Karen version of a mental hospital.
“This Copperfield…he must be powerful shaman,” Surin comments.
Living in Beverly Hills, my experience with shaman is limited to smarmy conmen posing as mystics fleecing sun-addled Range Rover-driving, double latte drinking trendies out of their residual checks from the episode of Magnum in which they appeared wearing a bikini and yelling, “Duck Magnum duck.” Consequently, assigning that bastard Copperfield to the head of the shaman class is not very difficult. “Yes he’s quite a shaman,” I agree, perhaps guilty of applying too much stress upon the first syllable.
“Does Copperfield go around curing all the people in your village?” Boon asks in Thai.
“No, he works in another village called Las Vegas, and I don’t think he has cured anyone,” I reply slowly in Thai, frequently consulting my dictionary.
“He no good shaman,” Boon states in fractured English, before launching into an explanation in rapid fire Karen, which Surin translates.
“The Karen believe shaman must be very wise man in touch with nature. Good shaman will know if a bad spirit stay inside person’s body. If there is, shaman lures spirit by offering very delicious meal of chicken or pork, which they put in corner of house away from any people. As soon as spirit comes out to eat, shaman throws both meal and spirit into a basket and take it deep into forest and dumps it.”
My mind wanders for a moment as I picture myself living in Las Vegas. There is a knock on my door. I look through the peephole to discover Claudia Schiffer standing there smiling wearing the white shift of an unmarried woman. I quickly unbolt the door to let her in when all of the sudden David Copperfield jumps out from behind her with a tray full of food…and the next thing I know I’m being stuffed in a basket and carted off to the Jimmy Hoffa Memorial Toxic Spirit Dump operated by a division of the Teamsters Pension Fund from behind the Flamingo Hilton sign which is flashing, “Now appearing David Copperfield the World’s Greatest Magician and Shaman, live showgirls, $1.99 pork and chicken buffet, keno and the loosest slots on the strip.”
It’s far too depressing a thought to contemplate and I’m grateful when Surin breaks the quiet by inviting me to accompany him and explore the great metropolis of Khoon Win, “because we don’t want to be out after dark.”
“Why? Is this a bad neighborhood?” I ask reflexively. Judging from the absence of horses, much less motorized vehicles, Khoon Win doesn’t look like the sort of place that suffers from frequent drive-by shootings, and I hadn’t noticed any telltale spray painted graffiti warnings… hell I hadn’t even noticed any paint in the whole town.
“No shootings. Tonight no moon so no light. No know where you step. Cannot see holes in paths or other things.”
“What other things?”
“You said you scared of snakes.” Surin reminds me with a smile.
“Are there snakes here in town?” I question, trying not to appear too much the quivering coward in front of the very same people I was trying to impress moments ago.
“Of course. We in jungle. Snakes live in jungle,” my guide gives me a course in jungle street smarts.
Not without trepidation I put my shoes on and scurry down the ladder. We walk past several homes similar to our hotel, each with several chickens competing with various pigs and goats for the remnants of the residents’ discarded meals underneath.
“Each house have small building always diagonally across from it,” Surin points to several small uninhabited structures made from the same bamboo and thatch of which the dwellings are constructed. “Those rice storage buildings. Every family have one. Karen always build it on ground lower than main house. Also, never build it behind or in front of their home.”
“Is this another one of those bad spirit things?” I venture, trying not to sound sardonic.
“Yes. Karen believe sickness will follow if rice is stored above home. They have many beliefs concerning where you put house. Families build homes close together in group of three, but never want equal distance between them because this will bring bad luck.”
My initial thoughts are to dismiss the Karen as a bunch of silly superstitious people but before I can adopt too superior an air I contemplate my own Christian heritage. From birth I was inculcated with a belief in a God who among His highlights was born from a virgin, turned water into wine and came back from the dead. For over a millennium any who challenged the Christian tenets were labeled as barbaric infidels and swiftly attacked in a righteous war to the death. I come to the realization that the difference between religion and superstition is that religion is what I believe and superstition is what the other people believe. By some sort of philosophical/ mathematical transitivity formula I conclude that the Karen’s beliefs are therefore just as valid as my culture’s and I instantly become more respectful.
Thankfully, before I sink into whistling We Are The World Surin rescues me by pointing to a seesaw-like device being operated by two teenagers, a boy who looks to be sixteen and an unmarried girl of roughly the same age. “They are thrashing the rice from its husk. This is one of favourite jobs for teenagers because it one of few places where they are allowed to be alone with opposite sex.” My guide proceeds to explain that Karen children are segregated by sex once they reach puberty. They only come in unchaperoned contact with each other when working in the fields and during religious rites such as funerals.
“Funerals are big holidays for Karen. All work stops and entire village and people from surrounding towns, gather to ask spirits to take soul of dead to a better place far away. Young people are left alone to sing all night long around the funeral pyre. Seeds for many marriages are planted during these events.”
I never imagined a funeral as being a good place to meet women. Somehow I sense the Thai version of How To Pick Up Girls is a tad different than the one I used to borrow from underneath my brother’s bed.
We walk along a path taking us across a field of dry rice paddies to Khoon Win’s school, which is closed for the summer. Unlike most of Khoon Win’s homes the two room wooden structure has a tin roof. There are holes cut along the side for windows but there is no glass. Instead there are bamboo shutters which can be opened to allow ventilation. I peer into the first classroom where next to a commemorative King Bhumibol calendar there is an old blackboard with the forty-four consonants and thirty-two vowels of the Thai alphabet neatly written across it – leaving little vacant space. There are no desks, no chairs and no books.
We walk down the exterior hallway to the other classroom. It is slightly less Spartan. On the walls there are postcard sized pictures of wild animals, two brightly colored murals of fish and flowers, and a bulletin board with various notices posted from the central educational authority in Bangkok alongside several students’ completed homework assignments. There is one crudely fashioned desk with a book entitled Learn English Fast on top of it.
I ask Surin if the Karen are being taught English.
“No. Book must belong to teacher. He probably tries to learn English in free time. Is good book?”
I open the book to a random page, and laugh as the first phrase that catches my eye is “Do you want to go to a massage parlor?”
“Book no good and make you laugh?” Surin queries.
“No the book is okay,” I reply, scanning down to the next phrase (“The girl has been to a doctor today”). “It’s funny because it is English written from the Thai perspective.”
Boon joins us and I change the subject by asking him to tell me about the Karen’s educational system.
Surin acts as our interpreter, “We are treated same as all Thai children so we must go to school for six years. Afterwards if child wants, he or she can go to secondary school in Chiang-Mai; but because Chiang-Mai is far, child must live there which cost too much money for parents. Teachers are not from our tribe, they are Thai natives. This way government knows children speak Thai rather than our Karen language. Town give home for teacher to live in, but teacher never wants to be left with no electricity and modern conveniences, so they only stay here during week.”
“Where do they go?”“
"They walk to their homes in city, same way we come here.”
“They walk thirty kilometers?”
“Yes. But sometimes they get tired and not come back for many days.”
“What happens then?”
“Kids not have school.”
“How often does that happen?”
“A lot,” Boon replies, while flashing me the same smile that still to this day crosses my face when I remember the joy of waking up to discover school was cancelled due to snow.
“Do Karen children like school?” I ask Boon in Thai.
“Suan maak kit wa rong-rian mai dee,” Boon goes on to tell me a majority of the Karen think school is not good. “Tribal life is simple – and most believe knowing how to read and write will not make them better farmers or hunters. But for me school was good because I learned Thai and was able to go to the city and find work so I can make good money. I earn ten times more than Phadi does. School has made me successful.”
Because of his schooling, Boon is raking in a cool seven hundred fifty bucks a year. If that isn’t a testament to the value of education I don’t know what is – and I hardly dwell on the recollection that I know a singer in a multi-platinum
rock and roll band who has personally made over ten million dollars in the last decade despite his not being able to read or write.
It is getting dark so we walk back to Phadi’s where a meal of spicy catfish, long green beans and fresh rice – which tastes no different than the processed rice one buys in any supermarket – is quickly consumed on the porch.
The temperature drops with the sun and we crowd into the interior room and join our host’s family around a small fire burning in a crude pit in the floor. The flames provide the only light for me to survey the living quarters. There is not much – a .22 caliber rifle in the corner, a rusted iron frying pan, an equally corroded pot, four rolled up sleeping mats, and a basket which is used to carry wood into the house. Beyond that there are the remnants of a slaughtered pig and tonight’s supply of wood, which keeps Phadi occupied as he constantly hacks it into kindling with a hatchet.
Phadi has Surin ask me if I have any pictures of my home in America. I fetch the computer and show him photos.
Phadi smiles, “You have nice house. Do you have electricity and telephone?”
“Three,” I reply.
“You rich man – have telephone, electricity and television. What you do for money?”
It is hard enough to explain what a record producer does in English (get paid bucketloads of money to act like they’re doing something vital to a band’s sound while all they’re really doing is trying to latch on to any stray groupies who might be drug addled enough to confuse them for a rock star and want to have the type of sex with them that you only read about in letters to Penthouse) but I cannot possibly describe my vital job in Thai. So in the interest of simplicity I tell him I’m unemployed.
“You must be the youngest child in your family.” Phadi makes me believe he has far more psychic abilities than I ever had.
“So you inherit this house from your parents?” Surin interprets my host’s question.
“If you no work, Phadi think you must inherit your home from rich parents. In Karen culture youngest child must live in parents’ house until parents die. That way someone always there to take care of parents when they too old to work –
and youngest child gets rewarded for help,” Surin outlines the Karen’s non-primogenital version of social security.
It is an incredibly sensible and economically viable system for a society which has little money. However, being the youngest child I am thankful I grew up in a culture which did not require me to live with my parents because I spent the first sixteen years of my life having my father yelling at me to turn the goddamn stereo down – and since both the Karen and Thai cultures teach respect and deference to elders I still would never have heard anything beyond Frank Sinatra – and would have been deprived the joy of irritating them with my constant playings of Iggy Pop’s I Wanna Be Your Dog.
Rather than trying to detail how I basically won the lottery by producing a quartet of clueless crossdressing hair tossers who sold several million records – I rationalize my good fortune in terms that have meaning to the Karen, “A nice
spirit gave me my house.”
I consider myself a fundamentally decent human being. To the best of my recollection I haven’t kicked my dog, beaten my wife (probably out of self preservation since she could kick my scrawny ass from one end of my house to the other without breaking a sweat) or shot out my local high school in at least the last two years. But I sure as hell know I would have a whole lot of jealousy and possibly rancor if our positions were reversed. But Phadi’s reaction is far more mature and quite frankly foreign. He flashes a genuine smile and gently states, “I can see by house – Gods like you. You very good man.”
I barely resist the temptation to hire Phadi on the spot as my public relations person. I’m sure I could curry a great deal of favour back home with his testimony – in fact given my country’s proclivity for electing demagogic self-righteous bible-thumping idiots, I could probably use it to get myself elected president. “Do you want electricity?” I ask.
“Town headman talk many times about bringing electricity. But if we get electricity, I no want. Electricity change life too much…and be too expensive. I truly happy now… have food, have family, have land, have house – no need more.”
I decide to leave the task of educating Phadi to the true meaning of happiness – the spiritual nirvana which can come only from massive consumption and spending – to someone far more qualified than I, and make a mental note to persuade my wife to make a house call to Khoon Win sometime.
Dueng-Rak departs to her friend’s house, and I get the impression Phadi’s family is ready to go to bed, so I take my leave and retire to the porch and crawl into my sleeping bag. Although it is only nine-forty-five, I’m exhausted and quickly fall asleep.
My sleep is short lived. It’s eleven-thirty and I’m wakened by the incessant sound of wooden cowbells and stomping of hooves. I humor myself by imagining that the entire hooved population of Khoon Win is conducting a demonstration against the town’s practice of animal sacrifice, “We, the fraternal order of water buffalo have come to enlist you – the great white vegetarian – to lead our protest and put an end to their barbaric rites.” But, like most protesters – they don’t know to quit while they’re ahead – and after several hours of their incessant clanging about, I am seriously contemplating a nice juicy water buffalo burger with a side order of dead pig.
At around three-thirty the Khoon Win animal stomp is still in full swing and not only am I tired but I also feel the urge to answer the call of nature. Going to the bathroom is something which I have always taken for granted. Back home I’ve got it down to a science, not even needing a nightlight to guide the way. I merely extricate myself from between the two dogs, three cats and one wife who cohabit my bed and try not to stumble on any of the overflowing detritus from the aforementioned wife’s shoe closet before arriving at my porcelain throne. I expel my bodily waste carefully and take a few panels of Charmin and wipe my butt – and then through the wonders of modern science, with one flush everything is sent down our pipes into the sewers to a building where upon occasion it is treated before being dumped into the Santa Monica bay. However in Khoon Win there is no indoor plumbing. There are no toilets. There is however a jungle… the same jungle which I am keenly aware is the home to fifty-four varieties of poisonous snakes.
As I’m contemplating this cheerful thought I come to the realization Surin was correct in suggesting I need a new guidebook. Mine told me to bring soap and a toothbrush. It strongly suggested bringing a long sleeve shirt. It stressed the need for bringing bandages. It instructed bringing water. It did not say anything about bringing toilet paper. It also forgot to mention the importance of bringing a flashlight.
Fortunately I have learned something from my Buddhist hosts – the power of meditation and contemplation. It is merely the principle of practicing mind over body. “You don’t need to go to the bathroom,” I tell myself, “relax
and this earthly urge will pass momentarily.”
Unfortunately I must not have learned my lessons well and the only thing that passes is huge blasts of gas…enough to fuel an entire fleet of methane burning vehicles. I am forced to make a decision – do I soil my pants or brave the wild of the jungle?
I choose the latter and compose a silent prayer bulk addressed not only to my culture’s God but any stray Gods, spirits, buffalo, or snakes who might be lurking about Khoon Win. To whomever may be listening – please let me defecate in safety. Amen.
Grabbing my shoes, I crawl down the ladder and stumble twenty meters up a hill to a log which I’m pretty sure marks the outskirts of town. I strip a tree of an indeterminate species of several leaves and drop trousers and empty myself. I wipe gingerly
and hope that whatever tree I am using is not protected by some stray God who is now pissed off and hell-bent on retaliating by giving me a serious case of poison ivy in my nether regions.
I quickly retrace my steps and just before I come to Phadi’s ladder trip over a formerly sleeping, and presently squealing, pig. I land face first into a soft substance which smells similar to a certain something which I left up the hill.
The pig’s squeals roust most of the town’s dogs from their slumbers, and they attempt to harmonize with the porcine victim of my transgression, causing my host to emerge from the hut carrying a piece of burning wood for illumination.
Since my Thai is limited, the only way I can apologize profusely for rousting him from his sleep is by repeating the word for sorry, “kaw thot, kaw thot maak”, I blabber on.
“Tok-long,” Phadi tells me it’s okay and brings his torch close enough to illuminate me. He erupts in uncontrollable laughter, motioning to my face. “Kuhn tongkarn narm dai mai?” he asks whether I need water.
“Dai kraap,” I answer in the affirmative.
Phadi motions for me to follow, and using his fire for light we navigate one hundred meters through dried rice paddies to a small running brook. I wash my hands and face while my psychic intuition tells me Phadi is busy composing the first of several thousand jokes about me which will be circulating around town for the next few years – How do you get a farang shitfaced? Tell him to go to the bathroom.
We walk back to the house with Phadi still chuckling and me taking solace in the fact that if I should ever need to be put into the Federal Witness Relocation program there is no possibility they will be able to place me anonymously in Khoon Win.