Journey to the Karen Hill Tribe


This is the type of winding road that makes strong men double over and cry for their mommy.  We are sitting in the back seat – correction:  we are crammed into the back of an extra cab truck – a very nice truck from what I’ve seen in Thailand.  However, at 6′ tall, Western bodies are not made for the tool bench now being used as a back seat.  His knees are literally up around his ears.  My quads are screaming mercy as is my stomach, as we wind up, up, up the highest peek in Thailand.

After two and a half hours in this extreme zig zag fashion, we stop to let our guide, Jing Jo, out to vomit.  Again.  I take a walk along the finally still road, gazing over forever mountain tops covered densely in high-altitude rain forest.  There is an elephant on the side of the road rocking back and forth, back and forth – the telltale signs of mental illness.  Having worked with elephants, I recognize this instinctually, but a visit to almost any US zoo or circus will confirm to any attentive tourist that and elephant head bobbing or rocking forward and back is a high stress creature gone mental – not unlike humans at all.  Our guide, Dino, asks two Thai men nearby about the elephant, whom appears between the age of 6 – 9 years old.  I hear him translate that she is going through the pajan, the “spirit breaking ceremony”, that her mother died, and this Karen Hill Tribe has more elephants than any other in Northern Thailand.  They speak in Thai and for the first time, I do not need translation to understand.

We stuff back into the truck cab and zig zag down the mountain for an hour and a half more, to my and Jing Jo’s motion-sickened demise.  There are five of us piled inside:  P Pun the driver, Dino the guide, Jing Jo the motion-sick guide trainee and two volunteers from the United States; Teddy and myself.  The covered bed of the truck is loaded with five 5 gallon jugs of clean water for the week, vegetables, rice, soy milk, cookware, backpacks and the foreigner essentials: toilet paper and little pillows.

Once we’ve completed four hours of a simultaneously sickening, uncomfortable and beautiful drive away from Chiang Mai, we suddenly turn of the paved road and I discover the true definition of remote.  A dirt road with extreme jagged rock lining stretches out before us, which our skilled driver, P Pun can navigate at no more than 5 – sometimes 10 – miles/hour.  We pass cabbage and potato fields at the lower altitudes, and every time we go over a body jarring bump in the road, Dino exclaims, “Oh, potato!” and has everyone in stitches.  We stop to share the road with families of water buffalo – their eyes are tentative, lovely and seductive.  Higher up in altitude, deciduous forrest replaces fields and the air is notably cooler.  We pick up a hitch hiker whom decides to ride the top of our caravan, since we are overcapacity inside.  I fear for his life, as we essentially off-road over cliffs and chasms washed away by monsoon rains, but decide that riding the top of a truck likely ain’t no thang for our passenger when your training is on elephants’ necks over the same terrain.

He hops off the truck at the next village and eventually we get out to stretch our aching legs and backs and pick up Thai mattresses and blankets from the villagers whom apparently hold them for our infrequent project.  Emerging from shack, home, jungle and pen, the elders and the children of this tiny community all come out to watch us as if we were aliens.  I, the only blonde they’ve probably ever seen, both foreigners towering at over 5’7 in height – we must look like grotesque, light skinned giants to them.  I expected the children to point and laugh.  Instead, the entire 100 person village just … stared.

We have another 16 miles of rocky mountain off-road to survive before we find our hill tribe.  We will be staying on the floor of one of the most remote Karen Hill Tribe family’s homes.  They will not speak English.  Some will speak basic Northern Thai, I am told.  All will speak Karen.  Their huts will not have electricity nor running water.  This is the real deal.

When tourists come to Thailand, they want to experience the elephants or the Karen Hill Tribe, but they end up riding elephants or watching elephants paint or perform at camps.  Tourists end up hiring a tuk tuk to visit the most convenient Karen Hill Tribe to the city.  I truly feel and hope these tourists mean well, but they don’t take the time to actually learn about Thai culture, politics or ecology – and their trekking ends up supporting the most horrific abuse of an endangered species I have ever seen.  Their visit to the Karen Hill Tribe visit turns into a shopping spree at a commercialized village.  If I could only share my experience at the Elephant Nature Park and this project, the Journey to Freedom, with these well-intentioned tourists.  I am convinced all tourists, with a little education, would rather bathe with an elephant than break their spines under the weight of their riding bench.  I am convinced that tourists would rather live with the Karen Hill Tribe rather than exploit them.  They just need to know where.  Guide books only present the abusive and exploitative tourist options.  Local travel agencies receive commission on sales of elephant performance packages.  I, though, have nothing to earn from sharing my experience with you.  I am giving my perspective of my experience to you for free.  This experience is already changing my life forever.  It is my hope that you may share it with others.  It will change your life, too.

We pass a river running over the road with nine naked children playing and washing in it.  We continue for many more miles.







photography by Teddy Yonenaka

  1. Don

    March 5th, 2015 13:22

    Thank you for sharing your experiences and your talent. You really are a great writer. Keep a scrapbook. Take notes. Because one day you’re going to write that memoir. I will be at the release party and will massage your fingers so you don’t get cramps from signing autographs and keep your water glass full.


    • Tonya Kay

      March 5th, 2015 17:27

      I don’t know that I want to write a memoire:-) My journal here is that I’d think. Thank you for always believing in me, though. I’ll keep writing somethings.


  2. Don

    March 5th, 2015 21:07

    I’ll have to settle for your continuing inspiration and education. And hope to reciprocate.

    Oh yeah! And one dance lesson. 😉


  3. Lorra

    March 7th, 2015 21:20

    As I said before, your old post about ENP made me go to Chiang Mai 🙂 I always wanted to ride elephants when I was younger and ignorant. Thank you for that post. My experience there was so memorable and amazing.


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