mad in pursuit notebook


Myanmar: The Karen Necklace

The Bead Collector: Thai Magic

Karen tribal necklace, MyanmarThailand, 1990

When Mary was 41, she and Blue-Eyes took his accumulated frequent-flyer miles and flew as far away as they could get—Thailand—for three weeks of exploration. The couple had been scuba buddies and ski partners for thirteen years now, but still adamant that living together would be too constricting and marriage, a jail they would each need to escape from. But they did love to share hotel rooms.

Bangkok was Mary’s introduction to Asia—mad traffic congestion and sooty air paired up with the golden extravagance of Buddhist temples. They joined a tour north and spent days trekking through the hills, pushing on to the Burmese border and the Mekong River. They slept on trains, in cheap hotels, on the floors of village huts, and on the deck of a rice barge. They met Thai, Akha, Lahu, and Lisu people and tried to learn about their cultures.

It was in this mind-boggling atmosphere, ten days into their adventure, that Mary rediscovered beads.

They were in a smoky antiques shop at the night market in Chiang Mai. As Blue-Eyes negotiated for a small Buddha statue, a monsoon rain swept through and the lights went out. The shop carried on by candlelight. Mary found herself looking at a necklace—an old necklace from the Karen tribe with four strands of worn carnelian beads and tiny bronze jingle bells. She tried it on. It was heavy and made a gentle tinkling sound when she moved.

finding bead treasureMary felt something enduring in them—treasured and authentic. She had traipsed through a dozen Buddhist temples on their trip, but here was her singular spiritual awakening. The stones had been laboriously shaped and hand-drilled, each absorbing the sighs and murmurs of its maker. The necklace had been prized, till every bead was worn and pitted—the maker’s craft now mingled with skin oils, sweat and flower fragrances. Bells made to rustle like the breeze in trees were now tuned to laughter and lamentation. The necklace had passed from mother to daughter for generations, ties broken and ties renewed. Maybe the last woman to own it had fallen on hard times, or was a refugee from the persecution of Karens in Burma. Or maybe she had made it to the big city and tossed her old ornaments aside for department store modern. Either way, for a few dollars, its magic and its history now belonged to Mary.

These exotic beads—embodying the spirit and traditions of women long past and never known—had nothing to do with make-believe pearls or hippie love-beads, nothing to do with pretense or fleeting friendships. They opened a door. Mary wanted more.

Mary became a bead collector.


A true story, adapted for Tribe of the Breakaway Beads, by Susan Barrett Price (Mad In Pursuit, 2011). The carnelian beads shown above were removed from worn cord and restrung.

Jan 16, 2012