Travel Photography Diaries: A week with The Karen Hill Tribe

 

In December 2016 Liam and Stam, co-owners of Collard Studios, visited the Karen Hill Tribe near the border between Thailand and Burma. Here they discuss how they organised their visit to this remote community, pick out their favourite pictures and reveal what they learned along the way. 

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Introducing the Karen Hill Tribe

Liam: The Karen Hill Tribe has lived near the Thai-Burmese border for many centuries, starting in Burma before moving into Thailand in the 18th century. Karen communities can be found in 15 different provinces along the border, speaking a number of different languages.

Stam: Their traditional dress is made up of colorful woven tunics and turbans and they are known for farming rice, which they cultivate via crop rotation. They are also thought to be Thailand’s only tribe that owns elephants!

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The importance of planning

Liam: Stam organised this trip as she speaks Thai. This was extremely useful as it meant we were able to sort out the logistics of getting to Pai, a northern city in Thailand with access to the mountains where the tribe live.

Stam: When researching the trip, we found a hiking guide called Pong who runs survival trips to this remote region. Once we were there, he led us up some dirt tracks and 100km into the Thai rainforest to a Karen settlement. Pong knew some of the village elders having passed through the area on a number of occasions over the years, and agreed to introduce us to the tribes-people.

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Preserving Karen culture

Stam: The Karen’s culture and language is under threat as they integrate more and more into Thai society, so we felt it was a unique opportunity to capture their authentic way of life, clothing and rituals before it is all lost forever.

Liam: It felt like we were photographing the last elders to live in these traditional ways, as all the younger tribes-people spoke Thai and wore modern clothing.

A warm welcome

Stam: The Karen are among the most hospitable and friendly people we have ever met. We stayed in the house of one of the village elders, and she walked around with us to introduce us to other families, making it very easy to then capture some authentic moments.

Liam: One of the female elders was a little unnerved by our lighting, so Stam held her hand for the first few portraits we took to reassure her that the light was harmless. She seemed to really enjoy it after that.

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Picture perfect

Stam: We have selected our favourites from the trip for this blog post – pictures that we think best the story of our time with the Karen Hill Tribe. My absolute favourite is the below portrait of one of the village elders, who invited us into her home for some food when we got the opportunity to take it. 

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Christmas celebration

Liam: It was Christmas when we went to the village, and this particular settlement is Christian, having been visited by missionaries 100 years ago. We were treated to the most beautiful carol singing once the sun went down, and the whole village then walked from house to house by candle light, singing and dancing to more Christmas songs along the way. It was quite unexpected and really atmospheric.

What we learned

Stam: The Karen are not granted citizenship and are constantly being forced deeper and deeper into the mountains as commercial farming encroaches on their villages. Despite this they appeared so content and were unbelievably kind and welcoming to us when we stayed there.

Liam: Sometimes it’s the people with the least who display the most generosity, which always surprises and amazes us.

 
Liam Collard