I first met Boowa in 2004 when he was the principal at Maw Wah Khee school, the starting point of my journey with the Karen people. The first time I saw Boowa he didn’t come out of the school to acknowledge my husband Bob and I; I think he’d seen enough farang (foreigners) to know not to get excited about another stanger who comes in, often with gifts that have no value and promises that will remain unfullfilled. I think we won him over with the quality of gifts we brought; medicine, workbooks, and warm clothes for the children and on a second visit blankets for the elders and specific items requested directly by the teachers.

Over the next ten years we worked on many projects to increase education possibilities for the Karen people. We have remained friends and I have had the priviledge of travelling with Boowa to places I would have never known existed.  I am honoured to be welcomed by his family, who live throughout the Doi Inthanon mountain area, and friends where ever and when ever we show up.  I am often uncertain of the exact location of our journeys, there are few signs, certainly none that I can understand.

Doi Inthanon, nicknamed the “roof of Thailand”, is located in the Thanon Tong Chai Mountain Range in Chiangmai Province. It is Thailand’s highest mountain, at 2565 m. The national park covers an area of 482 square kilometers and is home to 4,500 Karen, Meo and Hmong people. In 1954, the forests around Doi Inthanon were preserved, creating Doi Inthanon National Park.

Over the years Boowa has come to know about my affinity for waterfalls, especially those that remain unspoiled by human intervention. As is the way for many Karen people he has a way of just turning up when word gets out that I am back and in an area within his reach. So it was one day, when I was in Nong Tao with no intention of exploring the mountain’s back paths, that Boowa invited me to go on a journey with him. I enjoy our travels and finally gave in under his encouragement to come along but with a stern warning that I did not have proper shoes so would not be climbing.

Off we went, stopping here and there along the way, visiting and buying supplies on the way to explore a new-to-me waterfall. In my enthusiasm to again experience the beauty only nature can create and my confidence in Boowa’s knowledge and abilities I ignored the condition of the small rocky path we turned onto. It is definitely not a path for motorbikes, our usual mode of travel when we’re not on foot, and it was then I realized the portent of my words, “I don’t have proper shoes”. Boowa was determined that even without shoes he was going to make it possible for me to experience a new waterfall, and then, we tipped off the bike as the front wheel hit a boulder.  The bike rattled and banged back down, we looked at each other in shock, righted ourselves and shook it off as no immediate damage was visible. Back on the bike, a little further down the path I started to feel a little woozy and felt a trickle running down my right shin. I jumped off the back and my leg gave away, as I fell in a heap. I had a deep puncture in my shin and the blood was running down my leg. Boowa’s face turned to horror as he realized I was hurt and even worse that, in his mind he was responsible for my pain.

Boowa and I have an interesting way of communicating, with my Karen and his English about on par we speak a kind of Karenglish; depending on our other senses of communication, including body language and the understanding of another that come about during the regular course of building friendships. When he started to apologize I responded with our usual, “Don’t sorry me.”, a statement that has grown from our common interest to understand each other and learn about our cultural similarities and differences without judgement. At that moment foremost in my mind was the fact that we were in the middle of nowhere, as far as I knew and had no first aid supplies, (yes, again).

It didn’t seem to bother Boowa as he walked a little distance, grabbed a handful of leaves and chewed them up as he returned to where I was sitting. He spat the mixture into his hand and placed it on my wound; a minute later he checked it, chewed up more of the same and again applied it to my leg. The bleeding became a mere trickle!

It was not a small wound, and in fact I had thought I was in real trouble. However, with the bleeding under control I dug through my pack, found a facecloth and scarf, bound up the leg, took a deep breath and we were back on the motorbike. Really, what else was there to do? Fighting off the light-headedness I began to hear the roar of the waterfall. At this point I had virtually no interest in the waterfall, I was more interested in how long it would take us to get off this non-road.

Boowa was not to be discouraged; of course he was not the one in pain, I thought, as he pulled the bike to the side of the path so we could make our way to the waterfall. However, his attitude of carry on was exactly the thing to do, as is the way in this kind of situation. There was no path, you simply climb up the rocks wading through neck high bush and grass; everyone’s path is their own in this kind of effort. I looked up, tightened the scarf around my shin and made my way to, what was now, the damned waterfall.

But that's another story...

But that’s another story…

Unable to scramble around or climb to the top I sat on the rocks watching the water flow, disappointed that my throbbing leg continued to interfere with my ability to enjoy the beauty. I opened my make shift bandage to see if the damage was really as bad as I’d first thought;it certainly looked as if a stitch would have been a good idea, but I wasn’t about to mention that to Boowa. He probably would have made a jungle needle and thread and got down to it. My pity party was interrupted as I became aware of Boowa’s movements. He was coming towards me, chewing on something. He knelt down, took a gob of plant from his month and slowly placed it on the wound; I guess he knew it was going to sting and sting it did! It was some kind of natural antiseptic and slowly the pain was relieved as well.  As my pain dulled I wrapped my leg back up, took one last look at the waterfall and made my way down the mountain to our bike and on to the refuge of his uncle’s home.

I am convinced that Boowa has made it a personal goal to make sure I see every waterfall in his homeland. I have every confidence that with his propensity to survive and vast knowledge of the jungle that if it’s at all possible I will. I’d better start documenting the waterfalls now… if I only knew the names.

Cheers from Thailand!

— Coleen

For more information about the Karen people in the highland areas of northern Thailand please click here.