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Karen Hilltribe People Living with Nature

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The Karen or PgaGaYaw is the only tribe in Thailand who migrated from Burma since centuries ago. They live on the Thailand-Burma's border. Their ways of life impress the outer world for their knowledge, local wisdom and the way that they live in harmony with nature without destroying them.


The Karen are not only unique in their knowledge of the forest, but also in their cuisine. The Karen are known to be a peace-loving people who live in close harmony with their surroundings. They respect the woodlands, do not abuse it and find contentment in their forest-dwelling lifestyle. They have a profound knowledge of the forest and divide it into three categories, depending on the altitude above sea level. The first, which extends from the plains to a height of 700m, they call pa teng rang. This is where trees lose their leaves during the hot season and the forest becomes extremely dry, with frequent forest fires. At this altitude the trees need a hard, thick bark to retain as much moisture as possible to help them survive the intense heat and fires. The forest ground does not have a layer of topsoil and is dry and arid. At an altitude of between 700 and 1,300m, the land is more abundant. Trees grow close together to create a dense forest and are always shedding their leaves. As the old ones fall, new ones form to replace them. The old leaves create a layer of rich topsoil, full of nutrients, which help the forest remain humid and moist. Another important feature is that the temperature remains between 20 to 25C throughout the year.

It is at this altitude that the Karen make their homes. Between 1,300 and 2,600m, the land is considered as a source of water. The weather is cold at this height and even though the Karen do not reside here they protect the high-altitude forest because it provides them with water. The Karen cultivate rice for food. In the past they cultivated it with other crops. Using an old-fashioned technique, some of the crops were harvested before the rice. But now their farming methods have been influenced by the methods used in the lowlands. Rice and other crops are now grown according to season.


Areas where the Karen live are covered with vegetation. The reason for this has to do with a marvelous tradition associated with birth. When a Karen child is born and the umbilical cord is cut, the father takes the severed umbilical cord, puts it into a bamboo tube, and takes it out into the forest where it is buried next to a tree. That tree is then the sole property of the person whose umbilical cord was planted near it. No one can cut it down or harm it in any way. A family with many children will have many trees, and as the years pass it is the responsibility of younger family members to tend to the trees of their parents and ancestors, as well as their own. If there are not enough trees in the forest, a sapling is sometimes planted along with the umbilical cord.


There are many other interesting traditions linking the Karen to the forests they live in. There is also an incredibly rich body of traditional Karen knowledge concerning food. They know which plants can or cannot be eaten, as well as which ones can only be eaten in a particular season. They can tell which mushrooms become toxic if certain plants are growing nearby _ if there are growing near poisonous plants, they can be lethal. Then there are certain plants _ the mimosa-like cha-om, for example _ that would seem to be edible throughout the year. But the Karen believe that when the cold weather arrives in October, the plant should be left alone because it becomes poisonous and if eaten, it upsets the stomach. The Karen cultivate many crops, including taro, sweet potatoes and beans. With root vegetables, they don't eat only the tubers, but the tender plants as well. They also know all the edible plants that grow in the borders around the cultivated fields, and along watercourses. Among the non-fresh foods eaten by the Karen, one item that is found in every household is the fermented peanut product called thua nao. The method used to make it is similar to the one used in other Northern households. Peanuts are boiled in salted water until very soft and then pounded, after which they are dried in the sun. When completely dried they are tightly wrapped in a banana leaf and then stored. Karen thua nao is different from that made by the townspeople. The Karen version is in the form of a thick cake rather than a thin sheet.


Another essential commodity in the Karen kitchen is coarse salt, since they don't use nam pla. No meal is complete without a chilli sauce or nam phrik. The Karen nam phrik is easy to make. Garlic is pounded with dried chillies and salt. When it reaches a fine consistency, thua nao is added, then a little water, and it is ready. A favorite soup-like dish called tom phak ruam is also easy to prepare. First dried chilies, garlic and thua nao are pounded together to make a basic curry paste. Water is boiled and the paste is added. If chicken is available, then that too is added, along with salt for taste. Finally, all kinds of vegetables are added.



The Karen house makes maximum use of kitchen space. In the past, a single room would make do for sleeping and eating, but now houses are divided into two rooms. Some even use two separate structures, one for living and sleeping and the other for cooking. The stove is set in the centre of the kitchen. It takes the form of a square tray with sand at the bottom, although this sand usually can't be seen because it is covered with ashes. Three stones, called the sao, or pillars, are set in it to support pots for boiling or frying. Only wood is used as fuel. Two or three bamboo grates are suspended from the roof and hang over the stove at some distance from each other. They contain shallots, garlic, thua nao and dried fish. These grate-like trays are covered with a thick layer of black soot, a substance that has an important use in the household.

When a member of the family feels unwell, a piece of burning firewood is put into a dipper of water and salt and soot scraped from the bamboo grates are added. The Karen believe that the soot has medicinal properties since it comes from the smoke made by burning the edible plants, which are often used as traditional medicines. Another nam phrik made by the Karens is nam phrik nam poo. Field crabs are pounded to extract juice, which is then simmered to make nam poo, or crab sauce. In preparing the nam phrik, dried chilies are pounded with garlic and salt, and the nam poo is mixed in. Finally some yellow eggplant, cut into pieces, is added. Tom khao buea is very similar to tom phak ruam. To make it, rice is boiled until the grains start to swell, water, chicken, chilies, salt, galangal, lemon grass and turmeric are added, and the mixture is allowed to cook for a while.   These are a few of the traditions and culinary techniques of the Karen, who love and respect the forest. Their knowledge becomes more relevant to daily life as people everywhere are becoming more aware of the value of our shrinking woodlands.

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