This is Pat

Pat was our guide when we visited the Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand. With his straggly beard and woven shirts, Pat channeled a laid-back hippy vibe. He drove us around in a beat-up minivan equipped with semi-functional a/c and fully functional speakers. Pat was a Bob Marley fan and we listened to the song Exodus as we bumped along the hillside dirt roads.

The Hill Tribes refer to the ethnic groups living in the mountainous regions of north west Thailand. They inhabit both sides of the border with Laos and Myanmar. As far back as the 19th century, the tribes lived in the mountains and were the largest non-Buddhist group in the region. That combined with their relative inaccessibility might explain their historical isolation from the dominant ruling groups. For the most part, the ethnic Thai occupied the fertile basins and valleys, while the less powerful groups lived in higher elevations.

There are seven major hill tribes – the Akha, Lahu, Yao, Lisu, Palaung, Hmong and Karen – each with a distinct language and culture. The Karen people are the largest with a population of about seven million across Thailand and Myanmar.

Hill Tribe migratory map

The Karen region in Myanmar was recently in the news, with reports of military airstrikes against Karenni villages on the borderlands. Hundreds of villagers fled for safety, crossing the border into Thailand. Over the past seventy years, armed ethnic groups including the Karen and Shan, have been fighting the Myanmar military and each other, for greater rights and autonomy. With the recent coup and crackdown on dissidents, many of them have supported the protests and condemned the military takeover.

Pat was an artist. I don’t remember his medium, just that he looked the part. He showed me photos of the time he visited Berlin. He was bundled up in a heavy winter jacket, one arm around his sister, his hair pulled back in a ponytail. He told me that his father was a Shan revolutionary and that many of his friends had expected him to follow his father’s footsteps.

Pat said he never wanted that life.

Shan and Karenni States in Myanmar

I hadn’t heard of the Shan before and when I looked them up, I discovered that they were ethnic Han Chinese who lived on the Shan plateau and other parts of modern day Myanmar since the tenth century. In recent times, the Shan have struggled for independence, resulting in intermittent civil wars.

During conflicts, Shan civilians were often burned out of their villages and forced to flee into Thailand. Some of the worst fighting occurred in 2002 when the Burmese army bombed the Thai border town of Mae Sai to flush out militant factions who’d fled there for safety. The conditions inside Burma led to a massive Shan exodus to Thailand. Although Thailand offered them refuge, they like other Hill Tribes, were not given legal refugee status.

Pat took us to Baan Tong Luang, a Hill Tribe ‘tourist’ village. Baan Tong Luang is well known for its cultural showcase of Hill Tribe life, the most controversial being the Karen long-neck women. Some have condemned the villages as ‘human zoos’ while others praise them for their restorative value.

While I have my misgivings on the Karen long-neck practice, it’s hard to disregard the educational and economic value of these villages. They provide income to the people, who as residents without status, receive no support or benefit from the Thai government. As a people, they fled an oppressive regime that outlawed many of their cultural practices. At least here, they have the freedom of choice.

Karenni Long Neck woman (Thailand)

Pat also invited us into some private homes. One was that of a Hmong acupuncturist, who I featured in an earlier post. Another was with two ladies who were busy making buddha cakes for a festival day.

Making buddha cakes (Northern Thailand)

At the end of the day’s outing, Pat took us to a mountain outpost. At the base there were market stalls, selling hand woven scarves, embroidered bags and other souvenirs. It was overcast, chilly and it had started to rain. Some of the vendors were packing up. Others paused when they saw us, risking a little rain for a potential sale.

It’d been a long day and I would’ve been happy to just leave but Pat wanted to show us something. We parked the car, purchased a couple rain ponchos and walked to the top of the hill.

“Over there is Burma,” Pat said.

And that was all he had to say about that.

Border of Thailand & Myanmar

Photos taken in Northern Thailand, 2015


This post took a little longer than most to write. It was triggered by recent reports of bombings in Myanmar and the military’s continued violence against protesters. I visited Myanmar in 2016 but we went to Bagan in the west and heeded travel advisories to stay away from the border states in the east. In 2015 when we visited the Hill Tribes in Thailand, I was unaware of the Shan and Karenni histories. Pat’s comments about his father have always stayed with me but their significance and that trip to Ban Nor-lae, is especially poignant now.

This is one in a series inspired by Just One Person from Around the World. Every week I write about ordinary people living ordinary lives, in places around the world. CadyLuck Leedy kicked off the weekly challenge and on her blog, you’ll find similar posts for Just One Person from Around the World. Visit her on Wednesdays when she’ll have a new post and links to other stories.

20 Comments

  1. I met Karen, Shan, and Hmong people when I visited Myanmar a few years ago, during the time when democracy looked secure. That was a short period when even on the eastern border the the Rohingya genocide seemed to have come to a halt. It is difficult to draw borders in these regions because of the migrations and mixings of the last few centuries.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A fascinating and moving post Sandy – thank you for sharing it. I know only a little of the Karen people, based on what I have read in the news. We visited several hill tribe villages in Laos and I got the impression that in recent years their position has become a little better in that country compared to some others in the region. But we’ve not (yet) been to Thailand nor to Burma. We were due to go to the latter some years ago but cancelled due to my father’s ill health. We’ve never rescheduled as we became uneasy about the political situation there and discrimination against the minority tribes, even before recent events which now put it firmly off our radar. I suspect we will never get there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank for saying so Sarah. I understand what you’re saying. There are places that I have visited and wouldn’t again, just because of what we know now. It’s a shame really because the people that we met there were uniformly gracious & generous folk.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a wonderful post, Sandy. I appreciate the education as I, too, have been thinking of my friends in Burma lately. I visited there in 2018. I spent one day in Taunggyi, in Shan state, and remember learning while I was there that it was a proud state with a compelling history. We picked up what details we could, and ate where they served traditional Shan food. We did not learn this history that you have shown, however, and so I appreciate the time you took to learn and teach. I was also in the hills with villagers outside of Kalaw for three days, and your photos of making Buddha cakes took me back there instantly. Even the structure you are in is the same kind of kitchen that I saw, which was separate from the house. It is breaking my heart that the open-hearted, welcoming, loving people that I spent that time with are now subjected to violent oppression. I knew there were airstrikes on the border and I’m glad to understand more about it now, thanks to your post.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Crystal. It took me a while to write this post & it’s a bit out of sorts to what I usually publish, so I was unsure of the response. I am glad that you could relate to the experience & also learn something new too. Your appreciation makes my writing & publishing this worthwhile.

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  4. A diverse part of the world that has been split along lines convenient for colonial interests? The Karen are a proud people and I do hope they keep their traditions. My daughter had a Karen refugee school friend, and one day I mistakenly asked her a question about Thailand. She was very offended, and answered, I am Karen, not Thai! I never forgot again!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I don’t have a depth of knowledge about this area but I think some of this predates colonialism. The Shan for instance were vassal states of the old Burmese empires in 10th century. European colonialism came much later.
      The civil wars started in the 1960’s, ten years after Burma was decolonized and they were promised independence. When the military took over government, they cancelled that promise, hence the continuing unrest.

      Interesting story on the Karen refugee. They are a proud people. I expect she’d be even more insulted it you called her Burmanese.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I suspect she would be insulted if I called her anything other than Karen.
        I know a lot of conflict in the area – Vietnam, China, Malaysia, occurred once the colonial powers departed. No doubt the Shan state is very old though.

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  5. That’s so interesting. I have also visited that village you write about and sat with the ladies with the long necks. I think I’ve also written a post about it. There is a little nursery there also for the children who were all clamouring for their photos to be taken. Did you go to Doi Inthanon as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t recall seeing a nursery and one little guy I did see was squirming to get away from his sister so that he could go & play 🙂
      No, we did not go to Doi Inthanon. We didn’t spend a long time in Chaing Mai and were focused on the Hill tribes.

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  6. Hi, Sandy – This is fascinating that you have been able to get such an upclose and personal tour. I recently finished reading Undaunted (also published under the title of ‘Little Daughter’) by Zoya Phan. Zoya is a political activist from Burma of Karen descent. Her story is riveting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hadn’t heard of Zoya Phan before but now I see that her story is so relevant to what’s happening in Burma now. Did you seek her book out because of the reports, or was this all a coincidence?

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