The other day I was exploring on the east side of the Ping river, cruising down a narrow road (that’s beginning to sound redundant, isn’t it?) when something caught my eye. I think it was a large brightly painted multicolored elephant. I stopped my scooter a few doors down, parked and started walking back to take a look.
Before I got there, I noticed a store selling woven goods. I was immediately drawn inside, where everything I saw was a pure wonder of color and detailed design. Silk and cotton wall hangings, multicolored handbags, silk scarves, baskets and more. The color and beauty were totally arresting.
I started asking questions of the French woman tending the store. She told me about Sop Moei arts, a non-profit devoted since 1988 to the support and preservation of indigenous arts among the Pwo Karen people of southeastern Thailand.
Actually, the Karen territory straddles Myanmar and Thailand. I knew them from my time living in Burma to be proud and independent people fighting for independence from the government, now for a half-century. The Karen are now part of Myanmar as well as Thailand.
What the owner, Kent Gregory and Sop Moei Arts have been doing for over 25 years is encouraging and supporting the preservation of indigenous arts, reinterpreting them for the modern commercial world and developing this enterprise as a sustainable means of revenue for the tribe. They have been so successful that malnutrition has been alleviated, employment is growing and standards of living have been rising. I urge you to take a look at this beautiful story.
The textile skills are traditionally known to the women who, being denied access to monastic life, developed the intricacy and colorful variety of design as an expression of devotion. It is both a utilitarian as well as a sacred art. The men are the ones doing the baskets, although the number of men choosing to become skilled in this art, with other more lucrative occupations beckoning, is declining.
Oh, yeah. The elephant? Check this out.