While on an off-road trek in Karen hill tribe lands on Doi Inthanon in Thailand’s northern Chiang Mai province, I came across a remarkable young poet.
After five hours of traversing difficult terrain during the rainy season with my guide, Rak Tima, I limped out of the forest directly into the back yard of his auntie in the hamlet of Thae Ho. My knee was the size of a pummelo. Rak Tima had long since cut me a bamboo staff, from which I drew much comfort, and taken upon his slight shoulders my backpack. Without him I wouldn’t have made it. Of course, without him I wouldn’t have been there in the first place.
I had trekked with Rak twice before in small groups and was impressed with the adroit way he handled groups of disparate day-trekkers. He spoke five languages and his English was enhanced because he had a large vocabulary. I decided to hire him exclusively for myself, and he suggested a trip to his uncle Sook Joy, headman of a Karen hamlet on Doi Inthanon. I agreed immediately; the chance to meet members of his family in the tribe was too good to miss.
Of six tribes in the hills where Thailand, Burma, and Laos come together to form the Golden Triangle, the Karen are the largest, estimated at about 1.2 million, and themselves containing six clans, including the Paduang, the long-neck Karen. Rak was from the Pwo clan. Most had fled persecution in Burma years before where currently they are still struggling in an all but forgotten war.
“Karen people have no land,” Sook Joy told me in halting English later during my unexpectedly long stay. The sad tone of his voice and the look of despair on his face as he uttered those words haunt me still. Both he and Rak had fought the Burmese. Rak bore arms for seven years with the Karen Liberation Army after graduating from college, but after the death of his father on the battlefield became sick of war and moved to Thailand to begin a new life.
So, the opportunity to meet his family on my own was not to be missed but the effort had left my knee swollen. I hobbled up the stairs of his aunt’s house and after the appropriate greetings was given a straw mat on the floor to sleep on. It was my space and as I sat there unpacking my stuff, the entire perimeter of the mat was lined with all the local kids who had come to see the tall stranger who had fur on his arms. For a good number of them I was probably the first foreigner they had ever seen. Obviously they had been told not to bother me, which they took to mean they could not step on my mat. I was ready for them. I pulled out a packet of balloons I had brought and started handing them out. Soon I was alone again and after I’d washed up and changed into fresh dry clothes, I took my seat at a day bench in the wooden house. I wasn’t going anywhere for awhile.
About 40 people live in five or six houses without electricity but with water running down a bright blue pipe along the wet red dirt of Thae Ho. I knew there would be children so besides the balloons I’d brought some small but challenging puzzles, and a bunch of small notepads and pencils, all of which proved to be big hits. The notepads had vanished by the next day. I learned that they had been appropriated by the men who used it to roll tobacco.
Often times, as I wrote in my journal, two or three curious young faces mere inches from my pen watched it leave its track across the lined pages and as soon as I put my pen down a child would pick it up and write alphabets or draw or doodle on the pages, sometimes even when I was away about the house or yard, taking my first tentative steps. I came upon my open notebook on the day bench where I sat most of the time and saw that there were seven lines of organized handwriting in the Karen script. I asked Rak what they meant.
Silently, he read the lines then said, “It’s a love poem.”
Immediately, I was intrigued. “Who wrote it?”
“What does it say?”
Rak replied that he had the gist of it but wanted to check once with Wha Pwo who was out, either in the fields or hunting. Wha Pwo was about 18 years old and still a bachelor.
Wha Pwo returned at about half-past five and dropped his canvas field bag down near my feet. The little children adored him — the perfect big strong brother, handsome, confident, smiling and kind, who was always there for you when you needed him, and they gathered around him to hear of his day. He undid a buckle on his bag, gave it a shake, and out onto the wooden floor slithered a six-foot long dead snake. The poet had returned.
Everyone who wanted to had a chance to admire the serpent and to handle it. All the children had a go at it. I declined but in pantomime asked Wha Pwo if he had killed it with the slingshot around his neck.
He shook his head, no. Then with his toe he pushed the snake’s tail forward to shove an S-curve into it and as the light glittered off its scales, he stepped back into a crouch. Like an actor certain every eye in the house was glued to him, and they were, Wha Pwo stalked forward one step, snatched up the tail in one powerful scoop that carried the snake through a flashing silver arc until its head smashed against a rock. The snake never knew what hit it.
Of course, all the little ones strong enough to pick up the snake wanted another go at it to imitate the deed of big brother and for a few moments Wha Pwo indulged them but as it was getting close to time for the evening meal, he unceremoniously snatched it up and carried it off to the kitchen.
After a dinner of rice with fiery chili paste and what I thought was chicken with an unusual texture but an interesting flavor, which a few of us adults washed down with a glass of home-brewed rice whiskey, Rak asked Wha Pwo to read the lines he had written in my journal.
He did with a passion that astounded me.
When Rak said that I wanted to write down each line in English, Wha Pwo immediately took up the pen and dashed off eight more lines. Again, he read and I was able to follow the beats of his expression right down to the very last word. Enthralled, I listened and watched as the youth recited the entire verse and Rak silently reading the Karen script.
Then the diorama’s focus swirled away to something else. Wha Pwo brought out his “t’dah”, an eight-stringed harp that Karen youths traditionally carry about until they are married. His was in the shape of a deer’s head that he cradled in his arm. The soft sounds he plucked from its metal strings twinkled through the dark tropical night. It was a timeless moment.
About five days later I felt recovered enough to walk “a few kilometers” to a village where we’d likely be able to hitch a ride, probably in the back of a farmer’s pickup, into Mae Chaen and from there catch a bus to Chiang Mai. At least that was the plan as Rak and I set out. The path out of the hamlet that we were walking on was recently hand-dug by the Karen villagers. It connected a string of villages and family compounds and was wide enough for a motorbike, which meant that a young Thai teacher could drive to the village and prepare the children for school. Wha Pwo had himself worked on the road for 100 bhat a day, about C$3.00.
As we walked, I thought about the poem.
“So,” I asked, “would a road engineer working in an official capacity likely have been the first Thai government official Wha Pwo had ever met?”
That took care of two lines of the second verse.
The next concepts we worked out were orphans and family love.
Karen people live in extended families and everyone takes care of everyone else. Even Sook Joy, the 47-year-old head man, would mind an infant wrapped in a shawl on his back as he went upon his rounds in the village; very young children were encouraged to care for even younger children who were in some distress. It was a way of life.
After night fell but before everyone went to bed, they squatted in a circle around a small pine fire in the clay stove which earlier had cooked the rice. The little ones would go from one to another, the adults would talk and smile. I watched it every night and from time to time became a part of it. It seemed to me that these people had survived in these conditions only because they had woven a network of love for each other that extended from the youngest babe to the oldest person, usually a woman, in the tribe. Seeing it on this scale amazed me.
Previously, on the streets of Bangkok, I had had an encounter with orphans while crossing a traffic-choked street on a pedestrian overpass. I came across three or four ragged homeless boys sleeping on the pavement, their dirty white paper cups set out for passersby to drop in spare change. In a city of 10 million these boys had no one to love or care for them, except each other, perhaps, in a toxic environment that imprisoned them as surely as if they were shackled and forgotten in a deep fetid dungeon. They were about as far away as one could get from this remote mountain hamlet where everyone loved everyone else every day and there was always somebody around.
And as we trekked through the misty hilltops, in and out of rain showers, the last conversation I had with my father came to mind. We had long since reconciled and he told me that day in the garden of his nursing home on the banks of the Red River in Winnipeg that because his mother and father back in Russia had died when he was four years old, all his life he had hungered for “mother love”. Two weeks later, he died.
So, as translated by Rak and me, here is Karen Love Song of Wha Pwo.
Dear, don’t forget me.
Do you have a boyfriend already?
As for me, I don’t have a girl friend yet.
I want to see you all the time.
I want to sing to you.
A beautiful flower was on the rock
If I take it, will it still be a beautiful flower, or not?
The road engineer makes easy money,
The worker digs in the dirt,
The orphans are not so lucky as children with parents.
Boy friend, girl friend love each other
And when they are together
Rich or poor doesn’t matter.
Four years later Rak and I returned to Thae Ho, by the same route, overland, but during the dry season so the trek took only three hours. It was exciting to see the positive changes. A young Thai teacher now drove into the village every day to teach the children. Wha Pwo was married now, the father of two children. I asked him if he had written anymore poems. He laughed and said now he did not have time for childish things.
About the Author:
George Evashuk is a Canadian who has wandered across Asia for over fifteen years as an English teacher and became fascinated at the life style of Thailand’s ethnic hill-tribes, especially the Karen and the Lahu. Before that he was a commercial photographer for twenty-five years and held a lot of jobs that can only be classified as miscellaneous. He lives in Thailand now where he now has the leisure to write.