Finally we arrive. Our five bodies fall out of the truck like clowns unpacking from a comedically miniature car. The nine hour rocking horse road trip from Chiang Mai to the Mung Fun Karen Hill Tribe Village, has left two of us severely car sick, one of us in intolerable pain and only our guide, Dino, and driver, P Pun, in lively spirits. Show offs.
The Sun is setting and the shadows fall long across the village landscape, revealing purple mountain top against mountain top, appearing surreally two dimensional, like community theatre background flats. Immediately six Karen men, four women and 8 children materialize with silent stares for greetings and extra hands for unloading our volunteer project’s belongings from the truck bed. Gallons of clean water, pounds of fresh vegetables, traditional Thai mattresses, sleeping bags and backpacks are whisked away into the largest of the village huts.
I am told that 100 people live in this unmappably remote community, however my eye can make out only seven huts in the immediate area. It dawns on me that many people share one hut and that there are still some Karen isolated even further away from this community, whom stay in the fields during rice season. I’m pretty sure everyone at this location, however, is currently present and staring at us white volunteers as if we were grotesque alien giants. “We come in peace – not to preach.” We come to learn about your elephants.
I step inside to see the Journey to Freedom guides have already constructed a temporary “room” for my partner, Teddy, and I to sleep in during the next three nights, composed of a mosquito net surrounding two Thai mattresses, miniature pillows and sleeping bags set on a bamboo mat over an unfinished teak wood floor. I notice that this home appears to be the largest in the village, with an enclosed living room and two bedrooms housing normally a family of nine.
This and all of the Karen homes are raised on logs, like stilts – I assume to accommodate the monsoon rains which climax from June – Sept, I am warned. Now, late December, is not the rainy season and temperatures are a hot 85 degrees F in the Sun during the day, but can fall to 45 at nite, moist and chill. The homes are constructed of local teak, hardwood or bamboo. For every enclosed room, there might be an equal number of covered rooms, with no walls, but a roof made of meticulously folded titan leaves or corrugated galvanized steel. This home has a large covered room for community rice storage. By the light of the setting Sun and one energy efficient bulb, run off a large battery, the men sit down on the floor to prepare our welcome dinner.
Rice whiskey is passed around and even after asking several times, I am yet unsure if it is fermented like sake or actually distilled like whiskey. The few sips I enjoy are sweet and tasty and bring a camaraderie, when shared, amongst the Karen, the Thai and the Americans that language barriers otherwise prevent. The Karen kitchen is an enclosed room with a sunken fire pit in the middle with shelves above. Stray dogs and cats freely roam in and out of this room, enjoying the heat, like we humans. Teddy discovers that the fire pit is constructed of a hard wood box, about 3′ by 4′, lowered into the floor with a plastic “burlap” sack lining and 4″ of soil insulation, on top of which a small fire is kept stoked for food preparation. One of Dino’s true passions is revealed to us this evening, as he enthusiastically prepares vegan dishes, explaining every ingredient like fermented soy cake, tofu, mushroom powder, unsalted Japanese soy sauce, cabbage, morning glory, tomato, red pepper and the Thai essential; rice. We are famished and a decorative bamboo mat is spread out on the floor to dine on. The love that went into the preparation of our vegan meal just enhances the already-exceptional flavor. Dino’s passion for vegetarian food preparation is only paralleled by his passion for eco-tourism, we discover later, after his whiskey sets in.
hand singnal under chin in Karen, means “handsome”