My first visit to Na Sai Karen Village was with family and friends under directions of a local silversmith, a Karen hill tribe himself. Mr. Eakarakpongsa (can you even pronounce that name?), a local from Na Sai village was very generous with his time, meeting us in Li and then taking us into the village and actually introduced us to many of his closest partners and friends. But of course, living in a village this size, you can’t help but be friends or at least acquaintances, like it or not. This was July of 2004 when tourists entering the village was not exactly welcomed in part due to the rising demand for their renown hill tribe silver designs and the natural reflex of “protectionism”.
Here in Thailand and probably everywhere else in the world– copycats are everywhere. Fresh new idea and unique concepts are rare. Copycat is something that I dislike very much about Thailand in general. I’m not referring to copycat in terms of personality but in terms of arts, business and intellectual properties. Although, I don’t believe Thailand is as bad as the Master COPYCATS– China– I do think Thailand is the worse in terms of copying another person’s ideas in business or art form. If a neighbor sees you’re doing well with something, likely he or she will throw on his own twist to that idea and “copy” your business. Just walk around the streets of Thailand and you’ll understand exactly what I’m talking about. You wouldn’t have to walk far in shopping or business district to see a similar item for sale in a second or third shop. This goes for virtually any idea that can be turned into profit, including silver jewelry. And this is exactly what the Karen Artisans in Na Sai – Prabhathuaythom Village บ้านพระบาทห้วยต้ม wanted to avoid and they did a fantastic job keeping their crafts “in-house”, not because they kept anyone away from learning their craft but circumstances allowed it to happen like so.
This is only speculation but having been in the silver jewelry business and living in Thailand for so many years, I’ve come to my own conclusion. Although the Karens at Na Sai did not welcome visitors into their village to tour around, it happened any way. Na Sai Village, more commonly referred to as Prabhathuaythom Village is not just a Karen hill tribe village with arts and crafts but also is a heart of the Buddhist Rain Retreat for monks during monsoon seasons. Hundreds of high priest and monks migrate to the many temples in surrounding villages of Li township. One of the most renown high priest in Northern Thai Buddhism is Kruba Sriwichai ครูบาศรีวิชัย who’s body is preserved and encased in a clear-glass coffin at Prabhathuaythom – Na Sai Village. In terms of Buddhist pilgrimage, Prabhathuaythom have long been under observation by Thais and foreign tourists, therefore the possibility of hill tribe silver craft getting out and flooding the Thai market has always been there. Thank God it did not and in my humble opinion it is due to the fact that Silver in Thai culture is not highly valued. Commonly Thais judge each other by wealth and appearance. People don’t say “OOOOh” or “AAAAh” at someone wearing a thick chain of silver but if that chain was Gold then there’s an obvious change of persona. Having status and getting respect from others is done through possession of valuables. I drive on the road around Chiang Mai and daily I see people driving vehicles worth the value of my house– and I have a very nice house. In Thai society, silver jewelry will never be justified as “of great value” and therefore, silver beads and silver jewelry made by the Karen hill tribe never had a chance in the local market– not even at its peak performance between 2004 and 2007. What the Karens had was a product that could not sell locally. That’s the main reason Karen hill tribe silver never encountered “Copycats” in terms of the physical art form. Thank Goodness.
That’s not to say copycats in the hill tribe silver business is not there. There certainly are. If you use the term “hill tribe silver” in Google search, look at the top 20 sites that come up on your results page. If you review similarities amongst these web sites, one can speculate that the same company selling a single item has created many different domain names (many sites) selling the exact same product– or — one can also speculate that copycats are very obvious at “copying” other businesses and instead of copy the craft, they’ve decided to copy the intellectual property of another person’s work. Frankly, the first theory is likely the case. Eventually that person will likely end up reading this post so I want to communicate something to the as well as I believe using this method will eventually come back to bite them in the ass. Greed, and selfishness will end up being destroyed by truth and compassion.
The road from Chiang Mai to Lamphun ลำพูน to Li is fantastic and well kept– one of the nicest roads to drive on for a day trip out from the city. I highly recommend on bikes or cars. Driving out to the country side is one of my favorites things to do with family these days. There aren’t a whole lot of things to do in Chiang Mai and I seem to be frustrated with the fact that things we tend to like to do seem to cost more money than necessary. Don’t you agree? This is one reason why becoming a monk sounds so appealing– you can get away from it all. Let go of every desire and earthly possession and find enlightenment– NIRVANA — in the footsteps of Siddhartha Gautama. Boy, that’s so much simpler than being in a footstep of a suffering Christian. LOL. I’m joking by the way so don’t get jumpy if this offense you. If you think you’ve seen a true hill tribe village, I dare take the challenge and ask you where and what do they do to sustain their life and tradition? If you are a foreigner and was guided to hill tribe village, I’d have to say you haven’t truly seen a hill tribe village at all. What a tourist sees is meant “for the eyes of the tourist only”. Get out of the beaten path where villages are prepared for tourist (The Long Neck Villages being the worst of them– I’ll write about this again soon) and find out the truth for yourselves. There’s so much more to lovely Thailand and the hill tribe than what has already been prepared for the ordinary tourist. If you want to know more, just ask.
The Karens in Na Sai are some of the most productive people I can think. Far from lazy, these people should be our prime example of “sustainable economy”. Even without the silver business, they would survive and they’re doing just that by reverting to what they know best– farming. Everyone Karen at Na Sai village own or operate some type of plantation or cash crop throughout the year, rice being the crop as this is is the staple of their diet. 80% of the rice harvest by each family is retained for consumption throughout the year, the rest is sold. Other plants grown throughout the season: Longan, Potato, มันสําปะหลัง, Cassava, Tomatoes, Corn and others I can’t think of at this very moment. Aside from plants, they also raise livestock for trade and consumption; pigs, chickens, cows, etc. It’s truly amazing! Every time I visit, the Karens are into something, planting something new, experimenting on some other projects… Sometimes I worry about where the silver craft is headed as I was concerned the Karens relied on this more than anything– I was wrong! They don’t “NEED” to silversmith but rather prefer to do it as they have more fun and it is more rewarding. Their lives will be just as well without manufacturing silver, however over the last decade their silver craft peaked in demand that the idea absorbed everyone and every household in the village. My visit in 2005 was filled with ambient sounds of hammering and humming of machinery stringing and pressing silver material. It was difficult to hear anything else but artisans laughing and giggle while they work. My latest visit in January 2012, all is so quiet that even sounds children quarreling across the village is heard in echoes. I suppose it’s like anything, there’s Ups and there’s Downs. The Karens are perfectly fine with this. It’s a down time and it’s time to rest up a little bit before the next wave come in…
For many months I’ve prayed for my friends the Karen artisans but I know now that it’s not the villagers that need my prayers most. It is my customers and the countries in which they live. It’s America and Europe that I need to pray for. Something happened in 2008 and it happened for a reason. We will learn from whatever mistake we made regardless if we want to or not. Like I mentioned earlier “greed and selfishness will ultimately lose out to truth and compassion”.