Posted by byHillTribe on July 10, 2012

Longan harvest season begins at Na Sai Karen Hill Tribe Village


It’s been a while since our last visit to Na Sai Village, a Thai hill tribe village predominantly made up of the Karen tribe, the same Karen hill tribe village that at one time busily crafted each individual silver jewelry components we’ve all come to know as “Hill Tribe Silver”. Our visit today is not about silver but more about what’s coming up in a couple of weeks– harvest time for the Logan ลำไย plantation การเก็บเกี่ยวลำไย.

This is suppose to be the mother-load harvest of the last decade for some families, including a large Karen family we’ve known for many years. Everyone’s excited, including us! That’s awkward considering we’re now receiving more orders to manufacture silver beads than we have in the previous 6 months. In actual reality, we should be very excited to get back to hammering and string out silver beads and jewelry but this year is much different. Our Karen families have been waiting for this year for a very long time. Like any other plantations, the biggest harvest season doesn’t come every year and even if it did, the price for the fruit doesn’t always make it profitable. This year is different. Not only did the Longan tree yield more fruit, the price is also at the highest per Kilogram than any previous year. The Eakarak, Karen family is expecting to realize profit of nearly 1 Million Baht for this year’s Longan Harvest season. Manufacturing silver beads will have to put on the side burner for a couple of weeks… we can understand why and certainly hope our customers will too.

Longan fruit nearly ready for harvest.

Our Karen artisans are the hardest working people we know. Often it seems that’s about all they are focused on– work. family. future. profit. survival. Don’t get us wrong; just as in any society, there are always some rotten or over ripe people that bring a bad name to their people. There is still much needed education in the village as euphoria of ignorance still remain, pushing many adolescents to drugs and prostitution. Fortunately this is rare enough that it doesn’t concern us any more. None the less, the world seems to rotate differently in Na Sai Village and we’re only an hour away from the big city of Lamphun.

“Out here time move slower, thunder is louder, stars are brighter, skies are clearer and 1 Baht can actually buy something,” Mr. Sak reminded us. On this particular day, we are envious of such wonderful atmosphere. Then we asked, how long will it take to harvest the Longan– “about 1 month,” he continued. “It takes a group of 4 all day to harvest all the fruit from 1 Longan tree,” he adds, “it may take us longer than a month this year considering the volume…” Counting only what our Karen families have in total, there are 880 Longan tree ready for harvesting. WOW. There looking for help so we may just be headed back up here with our own team to help our friends. Anybody interested– they’ll pay a labor fee of 3 baht per Kilogram! Maybe more if you’re a foreigner. LOL.

That said, we have to strategize our inventory and manufacturing procedure. Being that this too is our peak months of the year, we have to carefully plan how our artisans can benefit from both worlds– their Longan and also their skillful hands as silversmiths. Going head on and hammering out each order as normal is out of the question. Good thing the Karens produced more women than they do men. As it so happens, the Karen hill tribe women are just as useful, often more resourceful than their men. No offense but this part is true at least for the village of Na Sai, Prabhathuaythom, Lamphun, Thailand. So in conclusion, from the next 45 days, we will be relying on the Karen women of Na Sai to produce our silver– for the most part. We look forward to seeing the results and instead of thinking of this as a setbacks, we will look at this as an opportunity to see the difference in outcome of quality as well as reliability. We’ve work with these Karen families from Na Sai for many years– they are part of our extended family. That is we eat, play, giggle, laugh and cry together when the time come. Today we’re excited and when the Longan season is done and every fruit is cashed in, we will be joyfully laughing, celebrating and looking forward to a brighter future than before.

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Posted by byHillTribe on June 21, 2012

Na Sai Hill Tribe Karen Village in Li, Lamphun; Day’s trip to visit silversmiths


Thailand to do | Na Sai Hill Tribe Karen Village in Li, Lamphun; Day’s trip to visit silversmiths, Prabhat Huaytom Village, Kruba Siwichai.

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”.

karen hill tribe silversmith hammering beads

silver beads are hammered into shape using tree stump

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”.