Lessons from a Remote Karen Hilltribe


Karen is a broad, westernised term for the numerous Indigenous groups who inhabit the mountains of the Thailand-Burma border region. Most Karen people are traditionally subsistence farmers, who live off the land in a seasonal pattern of planting and harvesting. Houses are built on stilts, with the animals living downstairs and several generations of the family living upstairs. 

Karen people bathe in rivers and waterfalls, camping means sleeping outside on a woven bamboo mat, and children start learning how to gather vegetables and trap fish almost as soon as they can walk. A lifetime of living in harmony with the environment has adapted their feet. Karen people can scale slippery waterfalls, glide through rivers without stumbling while wearing flip flops a few sizes too big, and have no trouble walking up loose rocky mountains in shoes without grip.

Generosity is a way of life, and principles of reciprocity dominate. Hitch a lift from another villager and you will leave with a bunch of eggs, or milk, or some other gift. The people respect each other, and the land, and it shows.

Most houses are built in a way so they could never completely separate from the outside world, and the entrances require you to walk through someone else's yard, yet there were no reports of anyone having had anything stolen, ever.

From industrialized food production and the mechanisation and division of labour, we have gained so much. We have more time to pursue our desires, convenience, and a sense of many possible paths to follow in the uncertain future. 

But what does time mean when you think in terms of people? A bell announces the Sunday church service in this Karen village, and the ‘time’ changes from week to week depending on when the Priest will arrive from the neighbouring village. Rushing from meeting to meeting, at set times, as is the Western way, would be considered rude.

And what is the meaning of the future when you so intensely inhabit the present?

And what is it that we lose, when we live so disconnected from other people, from the land?

Culture is a lens through which we inhabit the world, and in the words of Baba Dioum; “in the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”