Peanut Kids in Chiang Mai

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.

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?


Northern Thailand, 2015


Hill Tribes of Chiang Mai

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.

Hmong Batik Collage
Hmong woman making Batik

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?

long-necks-7074A 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 .

Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand (2015) 


For more photos, see my Flickr album at Chiang Mai Hill Tribes


Bali Snapshots

Our photo guide, Yande was a taciturn man. On the first day of our photo shoot, we met in the 5am dark at the hotel’s entrance. He quietly greeted us, packed our camera gear and silently drove into the brooding night. Initially, I welcomed his silence. However, in the ensuing four hours of travel we exchanged less than ten words per hour. Forty words. Barely enough for a story stanza, hardly enough for a short story.

That day we had a sunrise shoot on Sanur beach with a local fisherman as a model. It was either his first time or a repeat of many similar times. Either way he was stiff and formal. He wore a cone straw hat and a pressed golf shirt neatly buttoned up. With awkward lassitude he stood against a rising turquoise sky. He held his fishing net with an arm stuck out, stiffly perpendicular to his body. It was a perfect silhouette of a one legged mail post. As the sun lightened up, we beckoned him on shore for portrait close-ups. With a stare reminiscent of mug shots and do-not-smite passport pictures, he stared blankly into the camera.

On a whim, I showed him the pictures on my camera’s LED screen.
“Beautiful,” I said.
BaliSnapshots-4628In my next shot I noted a gradual easing of his cheek. The slight, almost imperceptible crinkle at his eyes. It was the beginning of a potential for a smile.
Later I told Yande that one of my better pictures was a closeup of the fisherman.
“What’s his name?” I asked.
“Bugis,” Yande said.

On our second day, Yande took us to the hills to greet the sunrise at Ulun Danu. On the way we were stuck in a narrow winding country road, in a slow moving cavalcade of cars and farm vehicles. At one point we were cut off by a motor bike hauling a makeshift bamboo trailer. In the trailer, precariously maintaining his balance, was a large pig. White exhaust belched from the bike’s muffler directly into the pig’s face and the trailer lurched and swerved around the many pot holes. In this stretch there were more holes than road and I wondered how the pig stayed upright.

Poor pig. I thought.

“That’s a happy pig,” Yande said.

“Why? Isn’t he going to the butcher?” I said.

“Oh no. He’d be in a different position if it was the butcher. He’d be lying down. That pig is going to visit a lady pig.”

“He’s a bull pig?”

“Yes. The owner probably got a call just now. So he’s off to make a service.”

“How does the owner get paid? With the baby pigs?”

“No. No. He gets paid in cash for his service.”

“What if there’s no piglets?”

“It’s no matter,” Yande laughed. “Services rendered. No returns.”

Balinese homes have a feng shui type arrangement – walled compounds with a single gate for entrance and exit. Money and prosperity flows in and with careful watch, does not  flow out. The unofficial gate house is the kitchen, where mother stands guard. Everyone must pass the kitchen. Even a daughter’s boyfriend. Especially a daughter’s boyfriend.

In the Bali compound a system of houses are arranged in strategic north-south, east-west placement. The parent’s house faces West, the grandparents’ faces East. The eldest son’s family home faces North and the tombs of deceased family members face South. Yande says that the North symbolizes youth and prosperity; the East, longevity. Longevity without wealth is not good. Wealth without longevity is even worse. North East is the best.

“If the eldest son lives at home,” I asked “where does the second son live?”

“First son has to live at home with the parents, so that he can take care of them.”

Yande’s voice deepened with the weight of an observant son.

“He makes all the decisions for the family and has all the responsibility and power, but he can never leave the village. He doesn’t even get to choose his wife. His parents arrange the marriage. The Second son has all the freedom. He can leave the family village and do whatever he wants. He can choose his wife. He can marry for love. Buy his own land. Setup a new home.”

Yande paused before deciding to tell us a story.

“My uncle, my mother’s brother, is a second son. A long time ago he met two sisters and fell in love with the younger sister. She was very beautiful. He noticed though, that whenever he went to visit her, the older sister was always there. When it came time he wanted to marry the younger sister. But the girl’s parents said no, he could only marry the older sister. Although they were very rich, they owned two separate houses, they had no sons, only the two daughters. As an incentive, they said he could get the family home, if he married the older sister.

So he did.

Still, in his heart he loved the younger sister. After several years of marriage and the birth of his own son, he again approached the parents. Eventually they agreed and he married his true love. Today, he has two wives and two houses.

He is very happy.”
Bali Gate-5281

Gates are a big thing in Bali. Large stone structures, they are ornately carved portals which loom eight meters high. Yande said that the gates are built in the image of Balinese mountains because all life comes from there. Fresh water flows from the mountains and food grows abundant with seasons.

“True Balinese people are farmers,” Yande said. “They work the land and harvest the crops, three, four times a year. Balinese are not like the Bugis who live near the sea. Bugis are lazy and have no patience. Give the Bugis some seeds and three months and they don’t know what to do. They prefer the easy prosperity of the sea. They cast their nets and draw their catch.”

“Bugis,” he said with disdain “are not loyal to the land. They take their boats and scatter far away. Bugis are in Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines. Even Singapore! They plunder the sea and go everywhere.”

On our last day in Bali, we walked along Jimbalan beach and watched the fishermen bring in their catch. It was scarcely 9 am, but most of the boats had been docked and unloaded for the morning market. Wiry and burnt brown from the unforgiving sun, the men cleaned their catamarans and untangled their fishing nets. When a late coming boat approached, everyone dropped their work and hurried to help dock the vessel. Lined up on either side, they hoisted the heavy boat onto a barrow trolley and pulled it ashore. With the waves bashing against the fully loaded hull, it took twelve men and nearly an hour of heaving to bring the boat ashore.

Jimbaran Fisherman-5202My final shot of the Bugis is of two young men, classically posed against the breaking waves, patiently waiting for the boat to approach and begin the arduous work of bringing in the day’s harvest.


Indonesia, 2015