She was beautiful. But beyond her deep, dark brown eyes was a hint of sadness.
And for a moment, I didn’t know whether to feel sad or happy that I am here. Was I just another one of them tourists who treat these women like a circus? Or am I one of those who would rather immerse in culture, appreciate and respect?
I wasn’t sure.
My friend and I headed to Mae Hong Son, a town about 100+km from the main Pai town via a motorbike. The night before, he mentioned it was only about 50km from Pai, according to Google Maps, but you know Google maps, when they say its this distance, it’s really not.
We had dinner with the folks at the Pai River Lodge the night before and they didn’t have the grandest review about the Karen village in Mae Hong Son. Despite it all, we ignored all negative thoughts and made our way to Mae Hong Son.
The road was clear, straight and good compared to the mountain roads in the Philippines. It’s definitely a good thing for our little townie scooter.
We stopped at two viewpoints along the way and even climbed the highest of Pai, with me semi-freaking out at the steep road. Luckily, my driver is not as easily panicked as I am.
We stopped about an hour of driving in a small town just to get gas.
“Do you think we’re here now?” my friend asked me.
Honestly, I could just be the worst travel partner in the world. I had no idea.
But when we checked Google Map, we weren’t even close! And according to the road signs, we were still, oh well, about 50++km from Mae Hong Son!
Imagine our confusion. But we moved on. Since we almost died, possibly could’ve gotten eaten by a Wrong Turn tribe somewhere while looking for the Pai Viewpoint just the day before, what the hell did we have to lose today, right?
About an hour later, we finally reached that huge arch that served as a gate.
It said: Welcome to Mae Hong Son!
I couldn’t help letting out a whoop of rejoice. At least this time, we are actually heading somewhere…real.
Since we had no idea where the Karen tribe was, we found the Tourism office first.
The friendly people from the Tourism office gave us a guide. They were surprised to find out that we would only be in Mae Hong Son for the day, as of course, they knew it would take 2 – 3 hours to come from Pai. And we had no idea.
After another 7km, a road divided several times by rivers, the motorbike slipping on one of them, sending me and my friend whooshing into the cool waters and the brittle river stones scratching my right foot and a sign that says “Please don’t honk, there’s an elephant on the road,” we finally reached what looked like the Karen village.
And for a whopping 250 Baht, approximately P350 (that again we had no idea about, we are so bad in research), we entered the small village of the Karen women.
The hostel owner told us the night before that the village was just blah, a non-worthy sight after traveling 3 hours. And while 1/3 of me probably agreed as we slowly caught sight of the tiny, tiny strip of village (yes, that in the picture is it. Seriously.), I am still definitely glad we did the trip.
I wouldn’t have done otherwise.
We walked, gingerly, along the narrow trail surrounded by Karenni stores on both sides, selling various traditional items, including the same braces on their necks, postcards, beautiful clothes and keychains.
As much as I was tempted to buy so many things, I couldn’t really get my fingers on anything just yet. I wasn’t on my last leg and I didn’t want to bring so much items from Pai to Chiang Mai and Bangkok.
I did buy a Karenni postcard though for my friend Andrew. It cost 20 Baht, by the way, Drew, 15 baht more expensive than other postcards! You owe a postcard from Canada big time.
Anyway, we walked along the village. My friend took pictures with the Karenni women. She offered for me too, but for some reason, I just didn’t feel worthy to sit beside her and take pictures with her.
The first woman we saw was sweet. She smiled, she waved, she engaged.
But just beyond all her smiles, I thought I saw a hint of sadness. Was it because these braces are risky for her health? Or because the tribe’s culture and tradition is slowly dying?
The next woman we looked at had 24 braces in total! And she was damned proud of it. According to legend, the more braces that you have, the more beautiful you looked.
Farther down the street was a younger Karenni. Now this girl was beautiful (her picture at the top of this article). She had her whole life ahead of her and she smiled sweetly as she weaved. But just like all the others, she seemed sad. Why?
The last woman at the end of the street had a different kind of tradition. Instead of the braces that lengthened her neck, she had a huge earring that made the holes in her ear so big that it dragged down to her shoulder. Slightly creepy. But interesting.
We only did the tour for about an hour or so.
Then we headed back on our motorbike, carefully waded through the rivers this time and ate lunch somewhere in the sleepy town of Mae Hong Son.
As we raced the dark clouds and our slowly emptying gas back to Pai, through the freezing cold of the atmosphere and beyond the beautiful mountains of Thailand, I wondered if anyone else felt the same. These women were beautiful. But did others feel the same way? Or are they just a topic for Facebook?
Despite what others may say (or maybe I’m just not in the position to decide as I wasn’t driving), the 5 hours on the road to see the Karen women, on a motorbike was worth every second.