Daughters Rising is a human rights, non-profit organization that supports, educates, employs and empowers ethnic Karen women taking refuge from Burma in Thailand. Their sister company RISE is the eagerly anticipated ethnic and ethical handbags collection combining Italian leather and tribal textiles, hand made by Karen artisans in their villages.
In October 2015 I arrived at the Daughters Rising residence in Mae Wang to humbly volunteer my fashion expertise to aid the development of their promising new project. My aspirations were to learn from the inside out about Karen culture and to participate in the launch of a collaborative ethical handbags collection with an ethnic minority group. This has been the most profound and insightful experience of my adventures around Asia so far, leading to a change in my perspective and purpose for traveling in the future. In order to understand the ugency for such a project I will explain a brief history of the shocking situation that has hundreds of thousands of Karen people in this position.
Disclaimer: Before I start explaining and sharing my experiences of the past week I want you to understand that I am in no way an expert about the political actions and human rights concerns that surround the situation in Burma. All of the information contained in this post I have educated myself about in the last week via personal discussions with team members at Daughters Rising, Karen refugees working at Chai Lai Orchid and surrounding villages and using the links and resources listed below. If you see anything incorrect please politely advise in the comments at the end of the post. Thank you.
200km away from the Daughter’s Rising residence is the border of Burma where approximately 140,000 ethnic minority Burmese refugees are living in makeshift villages. They fled their homes over 30 years ago when the Burmese authoritarian military Junta began state sponsored ethnic cleansing of minority people who did not consent to their vision for the future of Myanmar. Persecuted ethnicities include Shan, Mon, Karenni, Arkanese, Rohingya and Karen people who in 1948 when Burma became independent from the UK wanted the right to govern their own states. Initially the junta only attacked the armed minority defences and rebels but soon after they began repeated massacres of peaceful ethnic villages in rural areas, burning them to the ground and orchestrating heinous crimes against humanity.
Refugees have no ID card in the country they are occupying, under Thailand’s domestic law refugees are seen as visa overstayers and therefore criminals. It is also a criminal offence to shelter a Burmese refugee in your home. Refugee camps allow people to meagerly exist. Refugees are dependant on depleting international and outside aid as they are not allowed to work or leave the camp. After 30 years many residents have only known the confides of their camps and very little else about the outside world.
“It is so strict to live here. There is nothing to do. I am not allowed to go outside the camp. There is no job, no work. So much stress and depression. I feel that I am going to go crazy here.” (Burmese refugee, Nu Po camp, Tak province, January 2012; Human Rights Watch, 2012e, p. 18)
Refugees are the easiest and most vulnerable targets to sex traffickers. Uneducated and desperate to support their families young girls are often lured away by the prospect of working in the city as a maid in a hotel or maybe behind a bar. They are tricked into believing they will gain an ID card, a place to live, minimum wages and new clothes. Grievously however once out of sight women are locked in room and beaten until they yield. They are told that if they try to escape and don’t prostitute themselves their family will be killed and their sisters will be joining them in the whore house.
Mo Hom is the traditional indigo dyeing process of the people in Phrea province, North Thailand. The creative community of Ban Thung Hong is a small village where local artisans are renowned for their textile technique and line the streets with their inventive indigo designs.
The term Mo Hom literally translates to Mo meaning pot and Hom which is the name of the indigo plant growing local to the landscape. Mo Hom is more than just a dying process, it is known as the pride of Phrea and is the signature style of labours to that area. Mo Hom clothes have been worn by local workers for generations as the original demand for the style was developed to meet the robust needs of living on the land. The design of the fabric is said to be more durable than regular cotton but cooler and more comfortable than denim, perfectly in tune with the Thai climate and it’s people.
Similar to Shibori, the art of Mo Hom has advanced in recent years to meet the design desires of creative consumers who are more than ever on the look out for authentic artisan products. Fabrics and fashion are often mathamatically manipulated into various arrangements. Depending on the strength of dye and time soaked in the solution, when the process is finished stunning shades of indigo will vary across a spectrum from midnight to sunlight blue, leaving behind the pretty pre-pleated patterns (watch the video).
Welcome to Stylish Stays, the latest feature added to Haute Culture’s fashionable credentials, where I will select only the crème de la crème of culturally inspired accommodation in the countries and cities I travel through. The emphasis here is to seek unique environments that place pride on their traditional heritage through artistic craftsmanship and character.
We start our journey into the divine with the pretty perfect Panviman Spa Resort perched high in the mountains of Chiang Mai, North Thailand. (Scroll down for the quick review)
Let me start and finish by saying the Panviman is absolute paradise. No expense has been spared on the traditional Lanna Thai architecture, contemporary natural interior decor and the luscious landscape gardening in the resort. It is clear to me that the owner is a culture, nature, art and design enthusiast with high standards and impeccable taste. A 1 hours drive from the city of Chiang Mai the Panviman is a 4 plus star resort secluded high up in the Mae Rim Valley. Surrounded by sublime botanics the grounds are flooded with teak and palm trees, blooming with flowers, and buzzing with bees and butterflies. The word Panviman in Thai means “As if you are in heaven” and it doesn’t stop there.
If you’re not bowled over by the natural surroundings and impressive exterior wait until you get inside. From the moment you arrive you are greeted and treated like a celebratory member of an executive club. The second detail you notice is how kind and courteous all the staff are. This is a credit to the general manager Charles Sittichai, whose calm nature and life long experience working in the luxury hotel industry has left him with a wealth of knowledge and some interesting stories to tell. He has literally been there and fixed it all.
Rooms with a View
The resort has options from mid to luxe price ranges such as a hotel, 7 steam room and jacuzzi villas and 4 bungalows with private pools. All acomodation options overlook the outstanding floral and include full access to the never-ending list of facilities ( here ). After a golf buggy escort of the grounds I finally reached my private jacuzzi bungalow. Emotions ran high, almost into hysterical disbelief which one can only truly get a idea of how impressed I was through the beauty of this video!
Have you ever asked a monk to take off his robes? No? Just me then… The burning question that has been on all our minds (or just mine) has finally been answered. But asking a monk to get undressed and dressed again wasn’t as bad as it sounds. How does one find out how the Buddhist monks wear their robes? Simply by asking!
Shrouded in secrecy and sacrosanct, monks have always been an forsaken mystery to me. Wrapped from breast to toe in enough manipulated fabric to give Yohji Yamamoto a run for his money, I’ve long wondered what draping design permits the special silhouettes of the saffron sect.
As with many devoted religious groups, Buddhist monks are forbidden to touch a women, be touched by a women, too be alone with a women at any time, and even to accept offerings from a women (except in the Giving of Alms). Basically monks and women don’t mix. Such a opportunity was always going to be very few and far between. A fact I thought I would never learn. So when I glanced across a carpark and caught said monk dressing in his robes out in public, I thought there was no better time to leg it over and carpe diem!
I tore across the temple grounds with my palms in prayer position, a stupendous smile slapped across my face and translator in tow. The monk graciously stepped away from the car he was just about to occupy and walked towards us with eyebrows raised. My attentive assistant Oak from the Thailand Association of Travel Agents managed to convey that my request was purely in the aid of research. The monk took my business card and agree to share the sartorial secrets of the sacred. WATCH THE VIDEO BELOW!
Did you know that Thailand has a history steeped in scary superstitions about ghosts and ghouls? Spirit houses in every yard, incognito nicknames from birth and the parading phantoms of the Phi Ta Khon ‘Festival of Ghosts’ ผีตาโขน, are just some of the great lengths Thai people go to avoid ethereal encounters.
Phi Ta Khon “Festival of Ghosts”
Buddhist legend tells the tale that centuries ago Prince Vessandorn (believed to be the penultimate incarnation of Buddha) returned to the village in which he was previously banished. The community were so overwhelmed and happy by his return they rushed into the streets to celebrate. In all the commotion and the excitement the noise from the crowds was so grandiose it woke the dead spirits from the forest nearby. Today the parade entices the masses every year after year with a spectacular surge of dancing spirits throughout the streets and is seemingly the Asian equivalent to Halloween.
Phi Ta Khon is held over 3 days involving music, dance, games, fireworks and religious sermons. Every June it is held in the otherwise sleeply town of Dan Sai, North East Thailand, details are listed below.
Originally a children’s festival, Phi Ta Khon has gradually grown over the generations into an elaborate example of artistic ensembles. The primary focus of any costume in the festivities is the magnificent monstrous mask. Made from coconut husks and wood, the masks are deliberately hand decorated with huge protruding noses, peering evil eyes and terrifying teeth. Traditionally it was noted as bad luck to keep a mask after the festival was over and locals would instead cast them into the town’s river, but now resident artisans sell their masks to tourists for 1000s of Thai Baht each year. The costume designs themselves are often simple silhouettes focused on making the most of movement during the dances. Long strips of fabric from a vibrant concoction of multi coloured materials are either patch worked together or used for fringing decoration.