A Disaster in the Karen Country
A very ancient jeep, a dangerous, narrow dirt road, a very remote location, a massive thunderstorm and combined this with an idiotic driver - me - and you have a recipe for disaster. Sure enough, it happened!
I heard about a number of Pwo Karen villages that were located south east of Mae Sariang and about 200 kilometers south west of Chiang Mai. The most interesting village was 14 kilometers off the main road. I asked at the police box by the road if it was possible to drive there. They looked at my jeep rather dubiously, said Yes - but be very careful. So, nothing daunted, my two Thai friends and I set off. The road started bearably bad, but quickly become more and more worse. At some points it was difficult to see where the road actually was! However, driving slowly and carefully, we arrived at the village feeling quite triumphant.
The first sight of the village certainly lived up to my expectations. The Pwo Karen are a truly fascinating group. Unmarried girls wear long shifts, undyed but with beautifully embroidered hems and seams. They also wear lots of locally produced makeup and jewelry, even when they are very young. What is most odd is the unmarried men adorn themselves by wearing their long hair tied up to one side, and with many silver clips holding it in place. Women and girls wear many brass bracelets on their arms and feet. Perhaps the bracelets total as many as 100. They almost all smoke small wooden pipes -- again even quite young girls, and all the older people chew betel nuts, staining their teeth almost black and their lips dark red.
Upon our arrival there was quite a reaction. The children all ran away looking terrified. But it was not long before curiosity got the better of them and they crept back. Later becoming so brave they were crawling over the jeep. The adults remained aloof, but after a time the younger men were friendly and fascinated by my very detailed map of their area. Nobody spoke Thai, only Karen, but it was still possible to communicate using gesture and body language. They had no idea what a map was but by doing demonstrations of birds flying high and looking down, they got the idea quickly of the purpose of the map.. I pointed at local villages and said the names. They were so interested while discussing what they saw amongst themselves very animatedly.
By now, we were quite a hit with everyone in the village. The sky was getting very dark, thunder was rumbling in the distance, and it was definitely time to leave. We shooed off the children, who were honking my horn happily, we set off in the jeep. At this moment, huge drops of rain suddenly hit us. The drops were so big and falling so fast that they stung the skin. As the jeep crawled out of the village the intensity of the rain increased to a torrential tropical downpour. The lightning was overhead by now with blue flashes every few seconds, and earsplitting thunder. I have had a morbid fear of lightning bolts after being hit with lightning as a teenager.
The narrow dirt road quickly turned into a river of mud. There was a steep drop on one side and a rock wall on the other. I could barely see, my sedate and elderly windshield wiper (the other one did not work at all) was struggling but not up to performing the necessary job. We hit a puddle hiding a deep pit in the road. There was a sickening crunch and we stopped suddenly. I crawled into the mud under the jeep and groaned. The transmission had snapped, and we were not going anywhere. Luckily some Karen tribesmen saw us, and came over to help by starting to push which proved impossible. More Karen men arrived, and the jeep started to roll -- very, very slowly. We had about eight kilometers to travel, and I calculated we would be at our destination the start of the dry season. However, more and more Karen men arrived, so that after a kilometer or so I counted about thirty men. Someone brought a thick rope, and by using a large tree branch as a lever many people pulled in the same direction. We were all totally caked in liquid mud, so that no one could tell the difference between a Westerner and a local. Minutes of huge effort were followed by shouts of joy as we crested a hill and coasted briefly down to the bottom before another hill reared up.
Meanwhile, Thai friends had tramped off to get help trekking through the slippery mud for a ten kilometers distance. Several hours later, the rest of us arrived at the police box, where my friends were waiting. They had arranged for a welder, who quickly repaired the transmission and finally we could leave. I jumped on the bonnet of the jeep to thank my many Karen helpers and offered them 1,500 baht - - all I had in my wallet. Their spokesman said no, no, no, and waved good bye. I made another speech about how generous they were before realizing they were not waving good bye at all. The entire group were waving five fingers at me -- meaning they wanted five thousand baht!
The welded transmission only lasted about ten minutes - - but that is another story. So, the next time you consider a trip like mine, make sure your vehicle is safe, and keep an eye on the weather -- it can change very rapidly. If not, you may not be as lucky as I was.