Posted by: adventuressetravels | December 4, 2012

Music: the Universal Language

Tenacious ivy vines of haunting music wound their way into the tent waking me up.  A few moments later my travel buddy Joe my travel buddy poked his head into the tent:

Joe and I had rented a motorbike in Chiang Mai and driven down to do a little camping on the “roof of Thailand, Doi Inthanon National Park, the highest mountain in Thailand in a 482 km National park with nature trails  a holy temple.  We had visited stunning waterfalls, picnicked by the languid river, and found our way to one of the campsites in the fading tatters of dusk.

Exhausted from a long day, it didn’t take me long to call it a night.  Less than an hour later I was awakened.

“Sally, you’ve gotta come over and meet this guy.”  Tired as I was from long days of travel, meeting interesting people was always energizing.

My breath froze in the chilly mountain air and I huddled in my thin jacket as I walked brusquely to the fire.  The temperature change from the steamy lowlands was unbelievable.

The slightly-built Asian man sitting by the lively little blaze introduced himself as  Keifku, a park ranger.  Where was he from though?  He had soft features, a genuine smile, and not even an echo of the angular cheekbones that all but define the Thai face.   When he told us that he was Karen, it made perfect sense.  Karen, the largest of the 10 hill tribes in Thailand is an ethnic minority from Burma.

Over the campfire he told us that he wanted to improve his English.  I was amazed at how fluent and well educated he already was.  Not only could he speak and write in his mother tongue Karen but he could also speak and write in Thai.  Though he modestly said that he couldn’t speak English, his conversational English surpassed 95% of the Thai people I had met, and he wanted to learn.  Not only were these three languages in completely different language families, but the alphabets were different as well.

But as fascinated as I was to get to know Keifku better, the music had me entranced.  I yearned to hear more of his singing.  The haunting strains of music that came dancing out of the tena he played wove a spell over the campsite drawing all listeners into another world.  As lovely as the instrument was, it came a distant second in beauty to the singer’s ethereal voice.  Without even language in common the man’s throaty voice vibrated with a magic that superseded any need for a common tongue: emotion was the common language.

The tena was a stringed instrument that bore a faint resemblance to a lute crossed with a harp.  The body looked similar to a half-papaya and the neck stretched upwards to curve in a crescent.   Karen believe that if you can’t make an instrument you shouldn’t be playing it, Keifku told us.  He  had fashioned his tena from native wood motorcycle parts and a gas can and somehow the resulting instrument produced music more lovely than many professionally made store-bought instruments.

Between talking, singing, and sharing the hours slipped away.  Before I knew it the fire was burning down and the chill mountain air plunging its icy fingers into my very bones.   Our impromptu concert was at an end, but that wasn’t the end of the world.  We had to get up early; we had an invitation to Keifku’s village at the top of the mountain the next day.

That night I drifted to sleep floating on the beautiful memory of Karen songs; songs of love, loss and bravery.  I didn’t know the words but the melody spoke volumes.  At once calming and stirring, the resonant voice that held me mesmerized on a mountaintop in Thailand still haunts my dreams.


Doi Inthanon National Park

–          200 Baht ($6) park entrance

–          30 Baht ($1) per person camping fee

–          40 Baht ($1.25) temple entry


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