Have you walked through a warren of alleys, turned a corner and been startled by a cacophony of color, light and pattern? Visuals so loud and discordant that you had to blink three times to tone it down?
This happened to me in an outdoor market in Northern Thailand. I’d stumbled into hat makers alley. A place where ladies surrounded by gaily colored fabric, sewed ribbons of bubbles and baubles on to hats, aprons and vests. They draped themselves with vibrantly patterned scarves with no apparent concern for color harmony. The laughed and chattered among themselves, ignoring the tourist fidgeting with her camera and trying to isolate a shot.
Later when I uploaded my photos I ignored all of these photos. I had liked one but decided that the frame was too full with color and pattern. It was hard see the subject against the distraction of background.
Fast forward to years later. I’m searching through my catalog looking for interesting B&W portraits. I find this old photo and casually flick it to B&W. What a difference.
The moral of this story? Never discard photos that you like. Maybe your eye saw something your brain did not. Time will tell.
If we were having coffee it would be decaf because it’s late. We’d talk about everything and eventually get around to music. I’d tell you about my new favorite band, Kaleo. They are an indie alt-rock/pop/folk group that’s just hitting the air waves in the US and Canada. I like their bluesy “Way Down We Go” and have it on repeat on my player. Blues is not really my thing but as I’ve grown older and traveled wider, I’ve found that many of my favorite things change with time and place.
When I was growing up in Jamaica, reggae was the background sound track of daily living. It was the only music on local radio and Bob Marley was considered an upstart for bastardizing the sound of roots reggae. Little did we know that he would be the impetus of reggae going mainstream. I didn’t fully appreciate the range of his impact until last year when I was in Northern Thailand. While driving through the narrow, pot-hole riddled mountain roads, our driver turned up the volume on “Exodus”. We forgot about the nauseous highway and started jamming all the way to Chiang Mai.
During my first year in Beijing, I discovered a love for hard paced rock. Green Day’s “Holiday” was my favorite work-out song and I had sweat inducing playlists with The Killers, Nickelback and Lady Gaga. In 2009, the Great Firewall closed off the world-wide part of WWW and it was impossible to access popular western music legally. Illegal pirated copies? No problem.
The biggest selection of western music was in Sanlitun, a popular bar street district defined by the international embassies around it. The unnamed store had a huge selection of music and movies, shrink-wrapped with discs on the outside of glossy paper box packaging. Occasionally, during government invoked piracy raids, the storefront disappeared overnight. But if you looked around and hung around long enough, someone would beckon you over and lead you to the basement. There the goods would be temporarily housed in makeshift stalls. I am not a fan of buying pirated goods but there were no other listening options at the time. The unexpected outcome was that I bought many CDs blind and in the process, ‘discovered’ music I wouldn’t normally have heard.
In Singapore when I’m held captive in a taxi, I am forced to listen to 70’s crooners and ’80s style pop. Once after hearing one too many songs by the Carpenters, I asked the driver if this was the only radio station in Singapore. He said “I don’t listen to the music. They have good traffic reports.”
In my house I keep my internet radio tuned to my favorite Toronto station. I hear the winter weather reports (not missing it) and Spence diamond commercials (annoying but somebody has to pay for free radio.) I also hear the latest in the alternative rock scene.
Which brings me back to my favorite new band. Kaleo from Iceland. A group of young musicians who combine the chords of the ’60s with the rhythm of gospel tinted blues, to make a vibrant rich sound.
It was late afternoon and we were making our way back to Chiang Mai city after a day spent in the mountains. We drove through miles of hillside farms and orchards filled with avocado, orange and litchee trees. At one point we saw people harvesting peanuts and we stopped to take pictures. The sun was at that optimal position where the light against the hillside was perfect. The colours were vibrant and intense. The shadows subtle. The highlights spot on.
Waiting on the day’s crop
Carrying the harvest down the hill
Resting after the harvest
I took several pictures but my favorite ones were of two kids playing in a peanut patch. I loved the impish expression of the boy and the contrast of colour, light and texture of the girl. While the photographer in me loved the pictures, the mom in me was apalled at their dirtiness. Oh my!
The wonder of digital is that I can switch to Colour or B&W easily. In Colour I maintain the brilliance and vibrance of the scene. With B&W I retain the expression, the contrast and the light but (or and) I lose the grimeyiness of the kids. What do you prefer?
When Luc and I first talked about visiting the Hill Tribes of northern Chang Mai, I had a vague idea of seeing aboriginal people decked out in traditional dress. I half expected real life version of displays in ethnological museums. In my normal fashion of last minute packing, ticket, keys and bag checking, I did not research the trip. Even as we drove out of Chang Mai and the city congestion gave way to verdant hill sides and crisp mountain air, I thought only about the scenic vistas, the roadside fruit stalls and the grinding gears of the SUV climbing up the steep and narrow roadways.
After two hours we arrived a Baan Tong Luang, a cultural preservation village for the six hill tribes of Northern Thailand – the Karen, Lahu, Hmong, Akha, Palong and Kayaw. The settlement was an almost real village of traditional homes and farming community. Real, because these were actual family homes with actual working farms. Almost real, because it was a planned community set up specifically for tourism. The people lived in the villages, farmed the rice fields and earned a stipend from the entry fees and souvenir sales. In exchange, tourists were welcome to peer into their daily lives.
A single page brochure was handed out with the admission ticket. On it were brief descriptions of the hill tribe’s origin and traditional dress.
“Karen people originally came from Tibet before moving into China and entered to Burma around Salween River. Later, they had conflict against the administrations of Burma, then a lot of them moved into Thailand. Their dressing style appeared distinctly as an indentity of them is the clothes of Karen women. They are in the clothes weaved by themselves with the red-white stripe across the body and wrap a piece of several color cloth around their head. The Karen virgin is in white clothes. Mostly Karen people wear necklace made from natural materials such as bean, Job’s tears, etc.”
Excerpt from Baan Tong Luang brochure
The hill tribe villages have come under attack from various eco-tourist groups. Describing them as ‘human zoos’, they point out the under-privileged status of the immigrant tribes and lack of access to education and medical benefits. Particular to the Karen Long Necks, or Padaung, vehement criticism is levied against body-mutilation in the name of tourism.
During my Baan Tong Luang visit, I knew nothing of this. I enjoyed the tidy layout of the bamboo and thatch style houses, the quiet demonstration of textile making, the understated display of crafts for sale.
In many ways, my walk through the compound felt like similar walks through private homesteads in Cambodia and Vietnam. The difference was that people here wore traditional dress and were comfortable in posing for pictures. The homes were authentic and lived in. The indoor kitchen was shady with dappled sunlight streaming in through the slatted walls, the single open room tidy with sparse rugs and containers shuffled into a corner. A group of boys clustered around an outdoor pipe and basin, arguing excitedly about their fishing catch from the rice fields. A dog barked. A waft of country air carried a hint of buffalo, hot packed earth and green fields. What was missing was the rubbish of discarded plastic bags and the re-used or discarded detritus of people living in extreme poverty.
I admit to pausing though, when I saw the long necked women in the Padaung village.
Two little girls were sitting on the porch talking to a visitor. Decked out in carefully applied make-up, shiny bronze necklaces and leg bracelets, they were in animated conversation. With guileless coy they giggled and dangled their legs over the raised platform. As I looked at their feet I was reminded of my daughter’s toes stretching and curling as she swung from a playground swing. When she was their age, she’d had the same careless wit & joy of childhood. But she’d also had the unlimited potential of choice for growing up. What choice did these girls have?
A few houses down there were older Long Neck women. The brace coils wound longer and heavier around their necks and legs. Their posture was stiffer and less mobile. A girl, no more than five years older than the two little girls, wore a neck brace twice as long. Seen in silhouette her head was distended, awkwardly stretched away from her disproportionately small shoulders. She walked with an unnatural gait that made me feel guilty about taking her picture.
Despite their name, the Padaung women do not have longer necks. Rather, the bronze necklaces push down on the rib cage, compressing and distorting the clavicles and ribs, giving the illusion of long necks. The necklaces are made from a single bronze rod coiled around the neck starting at age five. As they grow older the necklace is removed and the coils adjusted in width and number. Aside from this adjustment the necklaces are never removed. By sixteen the women typically stop adding coils. By adulthood the necklaces weigh upwards of 11 kg.
It is easy to pity these women. The willful disfigurement seems cruel and archaic. And yet, a little research shows a different view. The Padaung people are originally from Myanmar (Burma) where they’ve been brutalized for decades. When Myanmar outlawed the brass rings as barbaric, many Padaung fled to Thailand as refugees. With no legal status, they have limited rights and uncertain status. However, they are left alone to practice their tradition and villages like Baan Tong Luang provide them with an income. Their life here is better than they would have had in Myanmar. They chose to leave Myanmar because of the brass rings. They wear the necklaces as a matter of heritage and choice .
The pretty girl at the hotel reception told us that there was a free daily shuttle to Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar.
“Is there a pickup point for the ride back?” we asked.
“Sorry, no pick-up,” she said.
“We take a taxi then. About how much is the fare?”
“No taxi working today,” she said. “Red truck only.”
She pointed her finger to her chin, blinked and thought.
“100 to 150 baht,” she said.
As it turns out, taxis are not so plentiful in Chiang Mai. We had taken a blue taxi from the airport to the hotel but didn’t see another for the duration of our stay. More common for public transit are red-trucks and tuk-tuks. I call them red trucks but the real name is song taew.
They are converted flat bed trucks outfitted with bench seats and overhead hang rails. Song taews are not always red, they can be white, blue, green and yellow depending on the outlying city region served. The way to engage a red-truck is to flag down a passing driver on the street. You tell him your destination and if he’s going in that direction you can negotiate the fare. The good news about red-trucks is that you’re driven directly to your door. The bad news is that in a crowded truck, you’ll get driven to everyone else’s door too. It’s not a bad way to see the city. Unless you’re in a hurry.
The other alternative is Tuk-Tuk. Motorized tuk-tuks are common throughout Asia. In Chiang Mai it is normally a two person carriage mounted behind, or alongside, a motorbike. Depending on the owner, the tuks-tuks can be vehemently decorated. We once traveled in a thud-thumping tuk-tuk liberally decorated with flashing blue led lights. It was never a problem to locate him for return trips. Typically, the tuk-tuks are clean with clipped back plastic curtains for rainy days. Reading material is strategically posted by the driver seat with laminated brochures offering day trips to Elephant farms, Tiger reserves and shopping.
Less common are the old style cycle rickshaws or samlors.
Waiting for rides outside of market
We saw a few in Chiang Mai and they were mostly driven and ridden by older Thai locals. We never saw a Westerner in a cycle rickshaw. Maybe because it wasn’t commonly available. Or maybe it was just self-preservation by the drivers.
Later that night, Luc and I took the hotel shuttle to the Night Bazaar. The shuttle was a squeaky clean, pristine white golf cart. We arrived early and choose the middle bench seat. We were followed by a fellow guest who squeezed his six foot tall two hundred and fifty pound frame into the back seat. As the golf cart lurched and settled two inches lower than when we boarded, I could see why rickshaw drivers wouldn’t want Western riders.
For our return trip to the hotel we decided to take a red-truck. We approached a driver standing beside a queue of trucks lined up beside the bazaar. Luc handed over the hotel’s take-me-home card and asked for the fare.
“Hmm. 200 baht,” the driver said.
“No, too much. 150 baht,” Luc said.
The driver hesitated and yelled something in Thai to the group of drivers clustered behind him. They yelled something back and the driver shook his head.
“Maybe later. After more passengers,” he said.
We walked a bit further and easily found a tuk-tuk driver who agreed to the 150 baht ride.
While researching this article I looked for the expected fare price for rides within Chiang Mai. Red-truck fares are normally 50 – 60 baht per person.
Fresh fish does not smell. Fresh fish and giant prawns shimmer on the cracked ice and look at you with glistening, clear eyes. Bamboo trays with silver fishes are laid out ready for the steamer.
Dried fish and smoked fish are fanned out in beautiful platters.
The fish lady shows off a bag full of huge fish eggs – one wonders at the size of the fish it came from. Such eggs are sold at a premium, 1,000 baht ($30) for 100g. Beside the dried chillis, garlic and curry pastes, a surprising dish of water beetles (Mang Da ) are on display. They look like overgrown cockroaches but we are assured that they are not. Rather, they are cooked in curries and prized for their aroma.
Water beetles for flavoring curries
What does smell is dried squid. Dried squid drape their long tentacles off the table and mounds of brilliant minature dried shrimp (kung-haeng) stand ready for phat-thai noodles.
Palm sugar (Nam-taan-peep) is made from either the sap of coconut palm or sugar palm. It tastes like caramel fudge and has the consistency of fine, wet sand. In the market the vendor sells them by the weight and here, she’s pre-filling cello bags from a tin can packed with a homemade supply of sugar. She offered me a taste and it was like eating candy. On another day I went by the same vendor and saw the tin can clearly labeled ‘Solvent for removing paint’ !
Tuk Tuks are a cheap form of transport around town. For 100 baht ($3) you can go anywhere in HuaHin. They are everywhere waiting for the next ride and if they see you (an obvious tourist) walking the driver will wave & yell out ‘Tuk tuk ??’. Driving in a tuk-tuk is similar to riding a bike, but faster and with more company. They are essentially three wheeled motor bikes hooked up with a chassis.
Luc did not feel safe in the tuk-tuk and eventually found the slowest tuk-tuk driver in all of Thailand to put-put around. This tuk-tuk tookum to the Monkey temple, the silk market and the night market.
The Fresh Market in Thailand is a sensory overload of sights, tastes and smells. Produce and seafood are incredibly fresh. Vegetables that are strange and exotic .
See the ‘winged beans’ (Thua-phuu) at top center, crushed cucumbers (taeng-kwaa) below and super fresh oyster (het-nang-faa) mushrooms to the left.
Fresh bamboo shoots and strange, licorice type herbs which freshen the breath.
Fresh green peppercorns (Phrik-thai-awn) and tiny pea eggplants (Ma-kheua-phuang) for Thai curry dishes.
The green peppercorns have short bursts of flavor and are added to the curry dishes , more like a vegetable than an spice.
Talking about curries … in the market they sell hills of brilliant curry pastes made of pounded chillies, shallots, garlic, galangal, lemon grass, kaffir lime, coriander root, peppercorns, cumin and dried shrimp paste (Ka-pi).
Every curry deserve fresh chillis.
The smaller the chilli , the more intense. Special complement to chillis are water bugs. Insects which look like gigantic cockroaches. Our guide assures us that these are cleaner than any poultry or meat. Exhorbitantly expensive the bugs are purchased one at a time and crushed with chillis into a flavorful sauce. The bugs have a pleasant flowery aroma and if you can get beyond the gross factor, it is easy to see how they complement the fruity palate of chilli flowers