The Elephant Caretakers of Thailand

Celebrating a Language
July 31, 2023

By Kate Walker – 4 week photography intern

Nestled in the lush hills of Thailand resides the Pakinyaw people, also famously known as the Karen people. This remarkable community have woven their lives intricately with nature, practising both agriculture and the ancient art of elephant keeping.

One of the most captivating aspects of the Pakinyaw community is their role as revered elephant caretakers, also known as mahouts. Being a mahout is a role passed down through generations, typically from fathers or experienced elders to their sons. This tradition is viewed as an honour and a privilege, as it involves a deep connection with elephants and a profound understanding of their behaviour and needs. For generations, they have formed an unbreakable bond with these majestic creatures, serving as their caretakers, companions, and guardians. The Pakinyaw people’s deep understanding of elephants has made them vital contributors to Thailand’s cultural heritage.

Beyond their role as elephant caretakers the Pakinyaw community predominately engages in agricultural pursuits, primarily cultivating corn and rice. The picturesque landscape of the hills offers the perfect setting for these farming activities. With dedication and time-honed techniques, they have sustained themselves and their communities through the bounties of the land.

They are also renowned for their exceptional weaving skills, crafting a variety of items such as scarves, tops, bags and bracelets. Their intricate designs and dedication to the art of weaving showcase their cultural heritage and creativity. The traditional attire of the Pakinyaw people consists of tunics and sarongs, intricately handwoven by the women of the family. Additionally, they adorn their heads with turbans made from wrapped cloth.

The spiritual tapestry of the Pakinyaw people is equally captivating. A majority of them practice a unique blend of Buddhism and Animism, a belief in spirits residing in natural elements. This coexistence is a testament to their ability to adapt and fuse traditions over time. Additionally, a small portion of the tribe practices Christianity, showcasing the diversity within their community.

Within the village, you’ll encounter glimpses of their animistic beliefs. Practices such as “geejus”, a wrist-tying ceremony, hold immense significance. These charms are worn as a defence against malevolent spirits, symbolising the Pakinyaw peoples deep-rooted connection to the unseen forces that shape their lives. Foreigners or “golas” are welcomed into the community embrace with a “geeju” bestowed upon them by the elder of the household. The “geeju” must be worn for a minimum of three days before it can be taken off. This gesture signifies the tribe’s openness and commitment to sharing their traditions with outsiders.

The language of the Pakinyaw people has undergone adaption, with only a handful of elders retaining the ability to write in the traditional form. Presently, the language is transcribed phonetically in Thai or English to reflect its spoken form.

The Pakinyaw Hill Tribe stands as a testament to the harmonious coexistence between nature, tradition, and spirituality. From their role as elephant caretakers, to their dedication to agriculture and the practice of animist beliefs, their way of life serves as a source of inspiration and wonder. As I explored the captivating intricacies of the Pakinyaw people, I am reminded of the rich tapestry of cultures that make out world so beautifully diverse.

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