We next drove to a tribal region in the Thai Hills. The first stop on the road was at the Karen tribe. A set of thick, silver earrings distinguishes this group, and they have a tradition of milling rice by slamming a heavy wooden object (called a pestle) into a bowl to separate the husks from the grain. There was a water-powered device to do this also—a large wooden spoon about four feet long that worked with the spoon side working like a ladle, sinking down into a stream and dipping up cool water that was then slowly dumped out. Once the spoon was empty, the other end of the wooden pole, which looked like a huge wooden mallet, fell into a wooden container filled with rice husks.
Under a nearby house, which like all the homes were balanced on stilts, stood an elderly woman hunched forward dehusking the rice. But instead of the water-powered wheel, she used her foot to stomp on the seesaw contraption. After a few minutes of stomping, she picked up the mixture of grains in a wooden bowl about the size of a hoola hoop and expertly tossed the mixture into the air. The husks were so light that they gently floated away while the heavier grains of rice fell safely back into the bowl. My fellow-traveler Brittany asked to try her hand at this process, and the elderly woman (with probably 80+ years of experience) laughed as Brittany tried to repeat her task.
I crossed a winding stone path that zigzagged its way through the flooded rice paddies, which looked like giant steps up the mountain. I then walked up the path through the rest of the hill and came upon the Padaung tribe. This tribe places decorative brass rings around their necks. Del irritably told one of the girls, “No, they won’t die if the rings are taken off their necks.” To which the girl insisted, “But I heard that they will die because their necks are so stretched out they’ll just fall to the side.”
Del rolled his eyes and answered, “if you stretched the muscles in your neck that far you would be paralyzed.” The girl was clearly set on her version of this urban (or rural) legend, so Del continued, “it’s an optical illusion. The rings push the shoulders down; they don’t stretch the neck. And,” he added, “they do remove the rings—for childbirth.”
Remembering this conversation, I tried not to stare too much. The women were selling handmade scarves and other souvenir items. I pretended to be interested but I was really trying to get a closer look at one of the ladies. The rings also adorned her calves and arms, but they didn’t compare in number with the ones on her neck. I continued up the hill and saw two young girls sitting on a porch. Again, I fiddled with souvenirs on the table, stole a furtive look at the girls, and awkwardly tried to hide the camera in my right hand; they saw it, so I blurted out “can I have a picture with you?” I hoped this would be less insulting than taking a picture of them from afar. “Yes,” the oldest girl said quietly. I jumped in between them and smiled broadly, a contrast to their stone set faces. The shutter snapped and I jumped up. “Thanks. Oh, I mean, khob kun ka.”
I continued up the steep dirt hill, worn down slick and flat by years of bare feet and designer sandals. I felt like kicking off my Nike tennis shoes and offering them to the girls, but instead bought three intricately woven silk scarves from them. I practiced my “thank you” in Thai once again, and made it to the top of the hill to see a Christian church and a small school. I peered through the dusty single window and saw half a dozen rows of wooden benches facing the front of the classroom. The planked floor reflected a few streaks of light that shone through the thatched hut. I stuffed some cash into the wooden donation box and walked back down the hill, lost in guilt over all of my possessions at home. I almost dove for cover when I heard what sounded like a machine gun coming from right behind me. I spun around and saw three small children barreling down the hill on plastic tricycles that thundered against the earth-packed ground. They skidded to a stop at the bottom, and no sooner had they stopped that they were running back to the top. As I watched the laughing parents, I realized that these people weren’t poor. I think many Americans might take a page out of their book on what really constitutes happiness; I know I did.
I joined a group of children who were busy shooting a crossbow. The adult in the group was giving lessons and saw me observing. He gestured me forward to try. I took the wooden weapon, loaded it with a sharpened stick, and missed the target by about two inches. The boys made a sound of approval as I handed the “toy” back to them to see how it was really done. I strolled the streets alone and tried to be inconspicuous as I watched the seemingly simply rural life, and eventually we climbed into the back of the truck that had brought us there. Back on our air-conditioned coach that certainly could not have navigated the dirt roads to the hills, I watched out the back window as the farmers disappeared with the dust.