Saturday, January 31, 2009

Give Us Our Daily ...

Your last meal most likely involved no more effort than opening your refrigerator or cupboard, gathering the necessary ingredients, and cooking in the microwave, in the oven, or on the stove top. Perhaps you were fortunate and you went out to eat, out to eat at a fast food outlet, nice restaurant, or a friend's house. Like me, I am certain that your only concerns were what you were going to eat and there were no thoughts as to whether you would eat or not - just like we are all certain that we will have dinner tomorrow, next week, and any and everyday in the future.

The luxury of not worrying about availability of food is not shared by everyone in this world. It is not shared by all the people of Isaan, in particular this elderly woman outside Kumphawapi amongst the rice paddies northeast of town.

After our adventures at the sugar refinery south of Kumphawapi, I stomped the red dust from my running shoes and cleared my head of the smells of the area to head out to visit Duang's daughter. The air around the sugar refinery was filled with a fusion of the sweet scent of fermenting sugar and the stench of sugar fermentation gone bad (terribly bad) - very similar to smelly - very smelly feet.

We drove through town and saw the local monkeys returning from their wanderings about town to their homes in the local park. Some monkeys take the high road - traversing the town along the elevated electrical and telephone wires. I have gotten accustomed to driving through town and seeing a monkey suspended above the middle of the road on a wire.

Other monkeys stick to the low road - scampering along the roads and sidewalks back to the park. Often their journey takes them across the path of vagrant dogs but I have yet to see a dog versus monkey battle. I suspect that the dogs, or the ones that are still around, have learned not to mess with a monkey. Monkeys are mean little buggers!

A third group of monkeys, small juveniles were in the middle of transitioning from the low road to the high road. An adult monkey, I don't know if it was a male or female - I didn't think it was polite to stare especially as I was driving and I didn't want any locals to see me checking them out, was on a high wire about 10 feet from a concrete utility pole. The adult had stopped and was looking back at the pole where several juveniles were climbing the pole and get to the point where they would go out on the wire. I got the distinct impression that the adult was supervising and teaching the younger monkeys. Lesson #1 - DO NOT TOUCH TWO WIRES AT THE SAME TIME. Lesson #2 - DO NOT TOUCH TWO WIRES AT THE SAME TIME.

My body hair is called "koh ling" - Monkey hair in the Isaan dialect. Duang says that the local monkeys are my brothers but she stops joking when I stare at them and start talking to them. I have had a confrontation with one that was stealing groceries out of the back of our pickup truck in town. Neither one of us was backing down. When I was giving the monkey hell for taking stuff, the monkey dropped the bag of potato chips and gave me the "dumb*ss" look as much to say "What? Me? What are you talking about? I didn't do anything!". Our standoff was only resolved when Duang came to the monkey's aid and chased it off with a broom that she had grabbed from the nearby motorcycle shop.

We manged to clear the monkey migration with causing any damage or getting damaged and hit the country road out amongst the rice paddies. The time was approaching early evening so the light was great for photography - a time commonly referred to as the "Golden Hour". It is also a time when the workers are headed back to their homes by all kinds of transport with each mode of transportation seemingly slower than the other. If there were more vehicles it might be referred to as "Rush Hour" but no one really rushes.

I have become accustomed to sharing the road with all kinds of vehicles - great and small as well as all kinds of animals. The elephants are well behaved and always stick to their edge of the road but you don't see them very often. The cattle are not adept at sharing the road, often they just mosey on up the middle of the lane or completely across the entire road. Since this is a poor region, the cattle herds are never large - usually 10 to 15 head maximum. The water buffalo are like defecating armored vehicles - a metallic gun metal grey of rippling muscles. Fortunately their herds are even smaller than the cattle. Often the cattle or water buffaloes walk along trailing an approximate 12 foot length of rope from their nose. It makes for quite a sight.

Dogs like to sleep on the road. They appear to have the knack for getting out of the way - even if it is just in time. I have seen only two dead dogs on the road in a year. In Brasil I would see a new dead dog along the main highway every other day. New? Yes in addition to the previous dead dogs. The dead dogs in the middle of the road lanes did not remain recognizable for more than a day or two. However the dead dogs in the median were a study in the progressive decay of organic matter. I observed one for over two weeks - truly disgusting.

Hens, roosters, and chicks as well as ducks coexist with both the dogs as well as cars on the road. They seem to be a problem but always get out of the way with plenty of time.

I have even gotten use to the other vehicles on the road. I do not get upset, excited, or concerned about the numerous motorbikes driving the wrong way on the road - they usually stay in the breakdown lane. I am even used to cars approaching head on as they pass one, two, three or sometimes four slow vehicles travelling in the opposite direction. I have grown to expect the unexpected when I drive - I am seldom disappointed.

As bad as it may seem, it works out - most of the time. In Brasil we used to say there were no laws or rules concerning driving. Knowing that you didn't take things for granted - you were not relying on the other guy to be following the "law". Everyone followed the same lack of laws so there was a consistency that prevented accidents. In three years in Brasil, I saw about 8 car accidents.

In Thailand the people share the road more willingly. They are not as territorial as Americans. They realize and are convinced that with every one's cooperation three cars and perhaps three cars and a motorbike can share two lanes of the road. Everyone gives a little and down the road they may take a little and it all works out - especially for cars and trucks. If there were more westerns here driving the roads with the "This is my lane and I am keeping it" mentality there would undoubtedly be many more accidents here. Motorbike accidents are a problem - I believe it is because everyone expects them to give a whole lot more than other vehicles.

Anyhow we got to Duang's daughters home - actually her mother-in-law's home where she lives with her father-in-law, grandparents-in-law, one or two aunts and uncles that always seem to be around a little two year old niece.

As everyone was catching up on local and family gossip, often one and the same, I noticed a solitary woman walking and working in the dry rice paddy across the dirt road from the house. She was dressed in typical Isaan or Lao Loum clothing and seemed an interesting photographic study. Duang said that she was gathering "hoy" snails to eat. I left the group and got my camera out of the truck. I crossed the road and walked over to her.

The woman was carrying a black plastic bucket, a plastic shopping bag filled with "greens" which looked more like weeds to me, and a five foot long wood pole with a small scoop on the end. She had gathered the greens from the paddy and along the roadside. I am certain that these plants similar to the plants that Duang eats are part of her diet.

It has not rained here since the end of October so the land in most places are very dry. The farmers have started to drain mud puddles to flood their fields for the new rice crop. This is nothing new and Al Gore need not concern himself on this issue, at this time, and at this point in time. The monsoons will return as they always do and everything will be flooded - once again. However the harvested rice paddies are dry as a bone and appear to be barren except for the stubble and weeds remaining from the harvest. As I walked the paddy in and amongst the deposits from free range cattle, I saw many mounds of dried mud.

These mounds were spiral cones of dried light colored clay fines with a small hole in the center - it reminded me of an upside down pastry coronet. The elderly woman would walk around and find one of these. She would stop and use the pole tool to dig the area beneath the coronet. After digging down about 18 to 24 inches she got on her hands and knees to finish the excavation with her hands. Many times she found nothing in the dry hole. But sometimes she found what she was after - "bpoo" (crab).

I know that they were crabs because she showed them to me as she pulled them out of the parched ground. She also showed me the very lively 12 crabs that she had in her bucket. Somethings I can not explain. I only report and write about what I have seen. Fortunately I have not seen or thought that I have seen any Phii (ghosts) so I do not have to defend my credibility on that issue - yet. However I can not explain how or why there are what looks like small saltwater crabs that I used to catch at the local beach back in Connecticut here in Isaan - 350 to 400 miles from the sea!!. I can not explain how these crabs can be pulled out of a 1.5 to 2 foot deep hole in completely dry dirt where it has not rained in 3 months. The rice paddy has been dry for at least a month. All I know is what I saw.

Lao people are very fond of a green papya salad called "Pauk Pauk". A component of Pauk Pauk is a couple of whole small cooked crabs - small as in about 2 inches across. These whole crabs, shell and all, are tossed in and pounded with a mortar and pestle along with the other ingredients. I was first introduced to this dish in Pattaya which is on the ocean and assumed that the crabs were saltwater crabs. I have seen the crabs in the local market and assumed that the crabs like the squid had been shipped up from the coast. Now I am wondering if the crabs were freshwater crabs all along. If I see or believe I see squid being caught in the local lakes and rivers I am going to be in need of some very serious professional health!

I talked a little with the woman but she didn't say much. It may or may not have been my command of the Thai language but a definite contributing factor to her silence was the fact that her mouth was filled with the various accoutrements for betel nut chewing. One time when she smiled, I got a view - I sight that I would have preferred not to have seen!

I returned to the group and got some further information from Duang about the elderly woman. She is a poor woman who wanders the roads and paddies each day gathering her food. She does not own the land that she scavenges. No body complains that she is digging on their land to harvest "their" crabs. I told Duang that in America you can not go on to other people's property to gather food without them complaining or perhaps calling the police.

Apparently here in Isaan, Lao Loum people do not want to deny anyone their daily bread even if it happens to be greens and crabs off of their own land.

Trucking, Keeping on Trucking

Yesterday, Friday 30 January 2009 was another great day here in Isaan. Although we had not planned anything special for the day, the day became memorable for several reasons.

After we did our grocery shopping, we drove out to Tahsang Village to visit family and to deliver the "Kwan" DVD. As we arrived at the village, Kwan was outside as usual with her grandmother and two other relatives. We had gotten there in time for her bath. Her grandfather brought out a black plastic tub of water that had been left out into the sun to warm and placed it on the wooden platform that serves as Kwan's playpen as well as community center. Kwan thoroughly enjoyed her short bath.

Kwan's bath and our visit brought out many villagers. Duang had purchased some fast food in Kumphawapi so in no time at all there were 5 other people sitting around eating and socializing. "Fast food" in Kumphawapi is food such as chicken noodle soup, fried rice, and such that is for sale from a "restaurant" on the sidewalk. The food is very good and very cheap. It is take -away food - take away in small plastic bags.

After everyone had finished eating, including Kwan, we viewed the DVD at Duang's parents house. Kwan's reaction made the entire effort well worth while. She recognized herself and went crazy over the music. She sat cross legged on the tile floor and danced by bouncing up and down in sync with the music - one English song and two Lao songs. At one point she stood up on her own without any additional support and squatted up and down three times to the beat before a big squat on her bottom to the floor. She is just learning to stand and is apparently ready for a quantum leap to dancing.

Duang's sixteen year old cousin who is a local dancing machine dropped by just as the big local song was playing. The song is about eating snails "Hoy" but "Hoy" is also a term to refer to part of the female anatomy (kind of like oyster or clam in English). Isaan entertainment tends to be rather bawdy and the popularity of this song is a testament to the fact. The song is kind of like "Louie Louie" - when it is played the party really begins!

Anyhow, I put on my ski toque from my last trip to Yellowsone in January 2006 and showed Duang's cousin some of my latest Isaan dance moves - bouncing up and down while alternating rapid stomps with each leg. The knitted hat is part of the Isaan dress code for men and women in Isaan and the dance moves are what the young people do to hard driving songs such as "Hee Hoy". We all had a good laugh especially when we noticed Kwan sitting on the floor moving her legs in imitation.

After our visit, we headed back to Kumphawapi to visit Duang's daughter. As we drove along the heavily rutted roads, we passed many heavily laden trucks hauling harvested sugar cane to the local sugar refinery on the edge of Kumphawapi. Somewhat similar to the "Good Ol Boys" of the USA with their gun racks in their pickup trucks, I typically carry my backpack of camera gear on our forays out into the countryside. Yesterday was no exception.

I pulled into the large flat staging area just outside of the refinery. The large field was about 50% filled with trucks loaded with sugar cane. Along the edge of the road headed into Kumphawapi, people had set up booths selling fruit, drinks, and prepared food to the truckers.

I have written before about the sugar cane harvest and the trucks clogging up as well as destroying the local roads. This blog has a picture of a typical rig. When the trucks arrive at the staging area of the refinery, they log in and wait their turn to enter and discharge their cargo. I had seen this before in Brasil in conjunction with the soybean harvest and shipping port of Paranagua. During the height of the soybean harvest, on a trip to the port, I saw 22 km (12 miles) of loaded trucks parked bumper to bumper alongside the road from the port, through town and up into the mountains awaiting their turn to be offloaded. I was told that the drivers had to wait up to 5 days for their turn. It is the same here at the staging yard - sit and wait. The men sleep in their trucks just like in Brasil.

The staging yard for the sugar cane trucks was covered in about 5 cm (2 inches) of an extremely fine iron rust red powder. The main path through the yard had been watered down in a vain attempt at dust control. Near the guardhouse/tally office of the yard, some truckers were sitting around drinking - soft drinks, and tea.

I ended up going over to photograph them and talk to them - mostly through Duang. They were very friendly - most likely happy for someone new to talk to. I suspect that had already heard each other's stories several times. I found out later from Duang that they had been waiting three days. They wanted her to talk to me about me buying the refinery. They had been waiting three days because the refinery is owned and managed by Chinese people. We had Chinese new Year at the beginning of the week so the refinery had not been functioning well. They believe that falang owner would do a better job.

I took photos of them relaxing and joking. One man wanted to be sure that I got his photo with his mustache - or rather his Isaan facsimile of a mustache. Lao Loum men are not very hairy. His mustache was a few straggly wisps of hair sort of like Genghis Khan. Earlier he had touched my hairy arms. I tried to get 5 baht from him for the privilege but he knew I was only joking. I do that all the time now - no point in getting upset over invasion of my space or privacy - they mean no harm. When people come up and touch the hair on my arms I ask for 5 baht and then tell them that touching the hair on other places of my body will cost them more. Since I have a smile on my face and a twinkle in my eye, they quickly realize that I am only joking. From that point I get to take their photographs with them thoroughly relaxed.

I got even with Mr Mustache yesterday. After he ran his fingers over the few hairs to straighten it out, I set up to take the shot, stopped looked at my camera, looked at the front of the lens, walked up to within 12 inches of him and squinted at his mustache - his buddies went crazy laughing! He laughed too.

The men said that the harvest will last two more months. I asked if they were going to fix the roads when they were done. I mentioned that the local politician said the road would be fixed in four months. One of the drivers told me that I could go report bad roads to the police.

I told him my limited Thai that I didn't like the police - police see me and they want 200 Baht (typical fine for any number of driving offenses - real or imagined). I told them that police like to drink beer. When they drink beer each time they drink a new bottle they say "Thank you foreigner". The truckers roared. They enjoyed the joke completely.

It was time for us to move on. We had miles, I mean kilometers to go, before we sleep. The truckers invited us back.

We went on to visit Duang's daughter and another surprise - a woman was in the rice paddy looking for ... the subject of the next blog

Thursday, January 29, 2009


Today, I spent part of my day, fulfilling a family request and promise. I was asked by Duang's Aunt to make a "movie" of her granddaughter, "Kwan". I promised awhile ago that I would do it but did not get around to it until today.

Kwan is 12 months old and lives in the house next door to Duang's parents in Tahsang Village. I have written about her before, referring to her as "Duang's Cousin's Baby".

I have been photographing Kwan fairly steadily since April when she was four months old. She is one of my favorite models and always a sure bet to spend some good time with.

Kwan has lived a short life unlike many if not all babies in the USA. She was born in the local community hospital in Kumphawapi. She left the hospital to live with her grandparents, and parents along with several chickens, two dogs and 3 water buffaloes in Tahsang Village.

Kwan's grandfather is a subsistence farmer who also raises the water buffaloes to supplement the family income. Her mother is partially paralyzed on her left side. She suffers from seizures and I suspect that she has epilepsy. I have not witnessed any seizures but Duang has described them to me and they seem to be grand mal seizures. She has medicine to prevent the seizures but sometimes does not have money or desire to take the medicine.

It always amazes me to know people who have chronic medical conditions and choose to not take their medication. Sometimes people are ashamed to have to take medicine everyday for the rest of their life. In other cases the medicine makes people feel better so they convince themselves that they no longer need to take the medication. These self delusions embark the person on a roller coaster ride of health and debilitation. So it is with Duang's cousin.

Kwan was breast fed like the vast majority of Isaan babies.

Kwan, like all babies spent most of her time sleeping. She slept in small wooden cradle suspended from an overhead wooden frame. During the day she slept outside on the elevated wooden platform in front of her house under the watchful eye of her mother, grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors and the two male lost souls who wander around the village.

I suspect that after a visit to Isaan, if she ever made one, Hillary Clinton came up with her book title "It Takes A Village to raise A Child". I won't debate or argue whether or not raising a child requires a village. I will attest to the fact that in Tahsang, the village does raise Kwan.

As a baby I never saw Kwan alone or unattended. She was always being held by someone or in her cradle surrounded by caring people. In Thailand, people are very free in letting other people hold their babies. A have gotten to hold many babies of strangers that we happened to come upon on the streets or in the stores. I even was offered to hold new borns in the Maternity Ward of the hospital.

Kwan has never worn a modern diaper. Pampers and their Thai equivalents are too expensive for the farmers of Isaan. As a baby, Kwan would have a thin small towel between her legs to capture waste. As she got older, she graduated to wearing cotton shorts without underwear - this always made holding her to be like a game of Russian roulette. On several occasions she wet on me. I have been fortunate so far unlike Duang and have not gotten anything worse than a little "water" on me. When nature and Kwan did their business, the grandmother would take the baby remove the soiled clothing, carry the baby to one of the large ceramic urns that captured rain water off of the house roof, clean the baby's bottom, put a new towel or clean shorts on, and returned Kwan to someones willing lap. I was always more willing to hold her shortly after a mop up operation believing that the chances of getting messed on to be much lower.

Kwan has always had a great deal of personal attention. As she got older she graduated to a hammock suspended from two supporting columns of the thatched roof platform outside of the house. Someone was always taking their turn keeping the hammock swinging. Neighborhood children always stopped by to watch and talk to the baby. Mothers with their babies always stopped by to socialize.

Kwan's first solid food was rice - no real surprise there. The rice would be mixed with boxed milk into a loose puree to feed the baby. Baby foods are not widely used in Isaan villages. Babies become weaned and move on to food off the plates and out of the bowls of the adults.

Unlike American babies, Kwan's world is bereft of toys and other objects that we consider essential for intellectual development. When she was in her cradle and hammock, there was a string across the width with a couple pieces of ribbon hanging down. Kwan does have a great deal of hands on intellectual stimulation - people play with her constantly, Lao music is often playing throughout the village, children come and sing to her and talk to her, chickens and dogs are constantly wandering around making noise. Duang, Duang's son, and I always made sure to carry Kwan to Duang's mother's market to look at the Disney character decals on the window. She loved them!

Duang and I have given Kwan a couple stuffed toys to play with. Now that she is a year old she has many more things to play with - empty plastic bottles, plastic jars, plastic lids, newspapers, calendars, pieces of cloth, and anything else that she can get her hands on.

Now that I am using a flash to photograph her - she gets quite entertained. The flash of light gets her all excited and she breaks our into laughter and looks eagerly for the next flash.

In this photo she is quite happy drinking sweet fermented milk - it really does taste good! On this day, a week ago, she realized ow entertaining she could be by laughing. For some reason when she laughed or wanted to show how happy she was, she would throw her head back and laugh. That only encouraged us to laugh which encouraged her to laugh. She is starting to try to talk so she is making some pretty entertaining noises. In truth, Kwan and I are in a fierce competition to learn to speak Thai. At the moment I have a slight lead on her!

Well I made the promised movie today. I used Microsoft Picture Story 3 to combine still photos and music into a Ken Burns type montage. I ended up with three songs - one English and two Lao and many photographs for a 14 minute DVD production. Word has already been sent to Tahsang Village so I expect that we will deliver it tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Something Walks Amongst Us

On my last trip to Duang's home village, Tahsang Village, on January 2oth, I took some pictures of the younger and older villagers. As we stopped by her cousin's restaurant, I noticed and photographed a talisman hung on a pole at the entrance into the restaurant.

Many times in my life I have said or done things that at the time did not make much sense - haven't we all at some time. However, shortly after I had said or done that were seemingly illogical, events justified my actions and I as well as others have wondered how or if I knew all along.

So it seems with my decision a week ago to photograph the Tahsang Village Talisman.

I have written about the superstitions of the Lao Loum people before and of their methods for dealing with the spirit world.

Baii Sii rituals are conducted to bind the good spirits within a person's body to prevent illness and bring good luck. I attended a special Baii Sii ritual to expel an evil spirit that had taken possession of a young woman. I believe that the ritual was quite successful - at its conclusion people gave her money - her fortune had obviously improved.

Talismen are prominently displayed at the gates of people's property. The spirits, also called ghosts ("Phii" in Thai) are afraid of the stuffed talismen and will not cross their path. The Isaan villages are populated by many gate guardians.

More affluent Isaan households such as households with a falang (foreign) husband, and Thai businesses utilize spirit houses in defense and protection of the property or household. I wrote about Spirit Houses in September of last year. Offerings of food, flowers, beverages, and incense are made at the Spirit Houses to ensure protection of the property and home.

Thai people, especially Thai women, are obsessed with Thailand's answer to American soap operas. Thai television is dominated by productions that are like American soap operas except that the Thai versions run three nights a week for no more than 3 or 4 weeks. Upon conclusion of each series, a new one starts. A vast majority of the Thai series deal with two issues - gangsters and Phii. Some series deal with both at the same time.

Phii or ghosts are portrayed as zombie like people. You know that they are Phii because they have black heavy eye makeup that outlines their eyes and runs down their cheeks - more like a KISS band member than Tammy Faye Baker. Another sure tip off that someone is a Phii or ghost is that they have light coming out of their eyes. Often these lights are quite powerful and laser like. The light beams can disarm people such as young thug gangsters. The light beams can also make beautiful women pass out - a possible photon ruffinol (date rape drug). Most of the Phii are evil and cause a lot of trouble and problems.

Tonight Duang came back from Tahsang Village after tending to family business. The big news from Tahsang Village is that Phii are walking about the village at night and in the early morning. The people are all very concerned and frightened. She was advised by her relatives to get out of the village before it got too dark.

Villagers have seen lights in the sky. They are not apparently concerned about aliens, UFOs, or even alien abductions. They are convinced that the cause of these lights are Phii. It interests me how man is quick and so adept at explaining unknown events or occurrences within their cultural comfort zone.

The incidents started last night. One of her cousins, who is 23 years old, had left his house early in the morning to go to going fishing and collect snails for the family's upcoming breakfast. No need for cereal - we have snails. Because it was still dark, he was wearing a flashlight on his head. He came upon some people also walking towards the water who did not live in the village. He asked them where they were going and they didn't answer him. He repeated it a couple times and they continued to ignore him.

He walked over to where they were and shined his light on them. The mysterious people noticed that he had a light. When his light shined on them, they grimaced and had blood coming out of their eyes and mouth - JUST LIKE ON TV! Phii!

Terrified Duang's cousin raced home exhausted with his heart pounding. He told his mother of what happened and she performed a Baii Saii ritual to protect him. Her cousin saw the Phii again - this time they were walking near the school.

Since there were no fish or snails available for breakfast, he decided to go to the next village to get some "Noo" ("Rats"). Great - another Isaan delicacy that I have to watch out for - though I believe that I am more likely to eat a nicely barbecued rat than fish with ants or ant eggs. Along the way to the next village he and the three other people with him saw lights in the sugar cane field. They looked closer and there were actually bloody eyes in the sugar cane.

Villagers in both villages have been warned and are afraid. They are not going outside of their houses at night.

I offered to go out to the village tomorrow night to photograph these ghosts but Duang insists that it would not be a good idea.

There is some good news though - because these ghosts have been spotted before they could eat anyone they apparently will not be eating anyone - this time. I guess that's one of the rules. Now that they have been disclosed, the Phii will apparently be limited to playing jokes and causing problems for the local people.

The more that I write about this the more motivated I am to delve deeper into this problem. I might be able to turn it into a Wes Craven horror movie script. There was a horror movie called "Children of the Corn". What about a new film - "Creatures of the Cane"?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Cooking and Heating in Northern Vietnam

One of the interesting aspects of traveling, working, or living in different lands is the opportunity to see and observe how mundane activities are handled by different cultures.

A common activity for all cultures is cooking food and heating the home.

In America, many people take great pride in the technology and opulence exhibited in their kitchens for cooking their food.

The ability to cook food in electric ovens, convection ovens, gas stoves, bottled gas appliances, or whatever the latest technology is a luxury that is not shared with most of the people in the outside world.

Here in Isaan many people, especially falang households, have bottled LPG cook tops. The bottles range from 7 Kg (15 pound) to 10 Kg cylinders and are stored indoors. We have a 10 Kg bottle underneath the kitchen sink just as we had in Pattaya. Some western style kitchens have one or two electric burners for a stove top. Very few Thai people or for that matter falang have ovens. We have an electric oven which we seldom use.

Isaan people in the villages may have a single bottled gas burner but more typically they cook their food over an open wood fire. To me a more appropriate terminology would be "stick" fire rather than "wood" fire. The stoves are small, approximately 2 gallon sized metal cylinders lined with refractory material. About 6 to 10 small sticks, 1/2 inch to 3/4" diameter by 12 inches to 18 inches long, are burned inside the container. The insulated cylindrical container concentrates and retains the heat of the burning sticks. It is more efficient and more economical than open fires.

Along side of the road, "restaurants" grill their chicken and pork over charcoal fires just like Americans do.

When we lived in northern Vietnam, the people had a different means for cooking and heating their homes. In Quang Ninh Province, there are many coal mines. Just like in Appalachia, the people are very poor. Everyday on my way to and from work, I saw people gathering coal off of the roads to us in their homes. Their homes were one room brick structures without running water or indoor plumbing. People would wash along side of the road where springs came out of the hillside. The men would strip down to their boxer shorts and wash themselves. Women would wash themselves underneath their wrap around shifts The community bathing area is also where the clothes were washed and drinking water gathered in plastic recycled vegetable oil containers.

Northern Vietnam gets a great amount of rain in addition to the water that is put on the dirt road to keep SOME of the coal dust down. This creates large puddles of slippery and slimy coal - dirt - water slop. People spend a great deal of time diking and containing these puddles. There is a reason for all this attention. Coal and dirt, more specifically clay, are utilize for cooking and heating.

In Northern Vietnam, especially the coal producing regions, the people cook and heat with coal briquettes. The use of bees nest coal briquettes came to Vietnam from China. The coal briquettes are a combination of coal fines, clay, and water. The 1 Kg (2-1/4 pound) to 1.3 Kg (2-1/2 pound) cylinders of compressed material have a series of small diameter holes running through them. The series of holes in the cylinder assist in the combustion of the coal fines and along with the moisture content help moderate the temperature of the fire.

A single cylinder is placed in a metal container that is lined with refractory cement. The cylinder is initially set on fire using a small amount of wood. Once the cylinder is set on fire it burns continuously without any way to stop or control the heat. Once all the coal has been consumed, a shell of brown semi stiff clay remains to be discarded. Sides of houses, alleyways, and road sides are littered with the remnants of coal briquettes.

The burning briquettes are also used to heat the small houses. Because the homes do not have storm windows, or even glass on the windows and have loose fitting doors, the dangers of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide are somewhat reduced.

The production of coal briquettes is a cottage industry. The people along the coal transportation routes gather the coal fines that fall off of the trucks. The puddles that occur along and in the road are "farmed" to produce the mix to form the bees nest briquettes.

While visiting Quan Lan Island, I watched and photographed young boys molding the mixture into briquettes. Prior to my arrival, a truck had dumped about 1 cubic meters (9 cubic yards - a little over a cement truck load) of premixed coal-clay-water on the street in front of their house. This is SE Asia and the differentiation between private property and public property is very loosely defined and seldom enforced. It is a common sight to see sidewalks blocked and streets blocked or partially blocked by defacto restaurants, building materials, canopies for celebrations, stages for entertainment, or parked motorcycles. Things are much different in the western lands of the "free".

I watched for a good amount of time as the boys converted the large amount of stiff coal mud into bees nest briquettes - one briquette at a time. I must have observed them for 45 minutes and they had made no noticeable dent into the pile.

They gathered the stiff coal mixture in their hands and dumped it into a homemade molding machine. It took about two or three handfuls, depending upon the size of the boy, of mixture to fill the mold. The molding "machine" was made out of rebar, pipe, and steel plate.

A handful of dry sawdust is sprinkled around the inside of the mold to break the bond between the eventual briquette and mold walls. The coal mixture is then set into the cylindrical mold top section, a perforated plate cover was swung over the top and secured. A second boy manning a long wood lever then pushed the lever down. The action of the lever going down causes the bottom section of the machine, a plate with a series of long slender rods, to compress the coal mixture into a bees nest briquette. The upper mold is opened up and the completed briquette is carefully removed and placed on a piece of wood in the street to set. When the wood is filled with completed briquettes, two boys carefully pick it up and more the assemblage to a flat area to offload the briquettes for curing in the sun.

Throughout northern Vietnam, you can see people handling these briquettes - gathering the fines, forming the briquettes, transporting them, selling them, using the briquettes and disposing of the spent ones.

Transportation of the briquettes, is just as interesting as photographing the making of them. Some briquettes are transported by motorbike. Two metal frames are mounted on each side of the rear tire of the motorbike. At the bottom of each frame is a 3 foot by 3 foot wood floor. Briquettes are set and stacked to about 3 feet high on each side of the rear wheel. Because the product is made out of coal fines, the motorbike as well as the bike driver are covered in black dust. As awkward as the combination looks, the drivers skillfully weave about the crowded and rutted roads selling and delivering their important cargo.

Some vendors are too poor to have a motorbike so they haul the briquettes by bicycle. Just about as many briquettes can be hauled by bicycle as by motorbike but slower. The Vietnamese are masters in the art of hauling things by bicycle and motorbike. I have seen small refrigerators being transported on the back of motorbikes. The Vietnamese can carry as much on the back of their bicycle as most American choose to carry in the back of their pickup truck.

In the coastal region where we lived, there were many boats that brought the briquettes out to the islands and floating communities where people live. This is a photo of a man with his boat with briquettes to be shipped out into the bay.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Hill Tribe People - Lahu

The Lahu Hill Tribe people, like most of the other Hill Tribes originated in the mountainous regions of Yunnan Province, China. They rebelled against central government control in the 1700s. This lead to a southward migration.

Today the Lahu people are found in China, Vietnam, Laos, Burma, and Thailand. They first entered into Thailand in the 1800s starting with the Chiang Mai - Chiang Rai area. There are around 30,000 Lahu in Thailand today.

In Thailand the Lahu people are also known as the "Mussur".

One of the subgroups of the Lahu people are the Lahu Shehleh (Black Lahu). Shehleh Lahu women wear black clothing with white trim. They wear wide pants that go down to their knees. The bottom of their legs are wrapped in black cloth with white trim. Their black robe is split at the sides from the waist down and opens in the front. Horizontal bands of white, blue, red. sometimes yellow decorate the sleeves and shoulders of the robe.

Whoops - just had to take a break from this literary endeavor. Duang just called me upstairs to see the local television broadcast of the second night's Chinese New Years Celebration. last night there were drumming demonstrations and little children dancing. The little dancers were very cute - 3 to 5 years old. They were very intense and focused with their dancing. Some were so focused that they continued to dance even when the music stopped! "Music? Music? We don't need no stinking music to dance!" Tonight the special treat (treatment?) was a Chinese matron singing a song. She had a 1950s highly teased hairdo with sparkles in it. She and her husband own the largest and most numbers of gold shops here in Udonthani. I suspect that they paid some gold for her opportunity to entertain us tonight. The highlight of her performance were the dancers accompanying her on stage. They were all Thai Kathoeys (lady boys). The dancers were resplendent in their pink spaghetti strapped sequined formal gowns. It was quite a sight to see and hear. As they used to say "That's entertainment". I am certain that I missed or did not understand their intent but I did find it all quite entertaining.

Anyhow - back to the Lahu.

Shehleh women cover their head with a large Turkish towel wrapped up into a turban. Many of the woman shave their hair high up on their forehead to be more comfortable carrying things on their back with a strap across their forehead. This is definitely not a style that I believe will catch on in the USA. It makes everyday a truly bad hair day.

In addition to some Lahu women having a bad hair day everyday, some Lahu women, typically elderly women, have bad teeth days. Their teeth may actually be fine but they look absolutely horrible. An old tradition that is still practised today by older people is "betel nut chewing".

Betel nut chewing goes back about 4,000 years. It involves chewing a slice of the Areca nut, along with lime wrapped up in a betel leave. The concoction stains the lips and gums. It also produces copious amounts of saliva - spit. It is just as disgusting to watch as watching someone chewing tobacco. In fact in a symbiosis of cultures, many people now include loose tobacco in their betel nut chewing.

The chewing initially stains the gums and lips a distinctive red, red orange. It seems to me that over time this red, red orange stain evolves into a black stain. It is very unappealing.

Betel nut chewing was not limited to the poorer classes of people in SE Asia. In museums, there are displays of fancy and expensive containers that were used by Royalty to store the various components required for their betel nut chewing pleasure.

Chewing betel nut supposedly provides a mild pick me up similar to a cup or two of coffee. This pick me up allegedly makes it easier to cope with work and hunger.

The market in Khumphawapi sells bundles of the betel leave, as well as the other necessary ingredients. Rather than keeping the components in silver, or gold containers, the Lahu and Tahsang Villagers store the items in recycled screw lid plastic jars.

The Lahu are the most Christianized of the Hill Tribe peoples. Those who are not Christians are Animist like the other Hill Tribe groups.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Yao Hill Tribe Textile Art - Part II

During our visit to Chiang Rai in the Golden Triangle Area of Thailand, we stopped and visited many Hill Tribe villages. Most of the villages had textiles for sale.

The sale of tribal handicrafts is a big component of the minority people's income.

We have a deep appreciation for the art and culture demonstrated in the tribal textiles. We seldom return from the Hill Tribe areas without some new piece or pieces of textile art. Fortunately the fabrics are very affordable.

This photograph is of the second large piece of Yao Hill Tribe textile art that we purchased in June of 2007. The stitching of this piece is not as fine as the previous Yao piece that I identified as my favorite. This second piece is not as elaborate as the piece that the elderly woman spend 15 months creating.

However this piece has its own points. The design is more simple and I tend to appreciate the beauty of simplicity more than complex or elaborate designs.

For more photographs of Hill Tribe textiles, I am including the following link to my photography web site.

Yao Textile Art - Needlepoint

Earlier today I wrote about my favorite piece of Yao textile art. I took a photograph of it to share the artistry of the piece.
The amount of work in creating the piece is incredible. The detail is very exact.
The quality is very good. There are a few pieces of thread hanging off of it which, for me, adds to the hand crafted nature of the piece.
The piece is made out of cotton - a needlepoint type backing fabric that colorful threads are inserted through with a needle to create the pictures and geometric design. After completion of the needle work, three pieces of navy blue cotton were sewn horizontally across the back of the piece to finish it.
The Yao people also known as the Mien, Iu Man, or Man are well known for their skill at embroidery. This is an example of their skill and prowess.

Hmong Textile Art - Sapa Vietnam

Yesterday I wrote a little about Hmong textiles. I attempted to do some research over the Internet to provide some specific details on it but I had no success.

There are many sites that are selling Hmong textiles but little information is available regarding the symbolism, techniques, or history of the handicraft.

Without any background or facts to cite or to justify my appreciation of Hmong and other Hill Tribe Textile art, I find my situation to be be like that of Justice Potter Stewart in 1964 when he was dealing with a obscenity (pornography) United States Supreme Court case. He stated that he could not define it "But I know it when I see it".

So it is for me with Hill Tribe Textile art. I can not define it but what I see I like and know it to be art.

We have seen and purchased Hill Tribe textile art in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. In our home we have 7 pieces decorating the wall and furniture. We have two large Yao pieces stored away that we have to figure out how to most effectively display. My favorite Yao piece is 4 feet wide by 6 feet long and is completely covered in very fine and detailed colorful needlepoint. We purchased the piece one and one-half years ago from the Yao Grandmother who had worked on it for a year and three months. We paid 3,000 baht ($100 USD) for it. A piece of art for $100 - another reason why I enjoy being in Thailand so much.

As you travel the Hill Tribe regions of Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, you will encounter many women and girls sewing, weaving, embroidering, and needlepointing. The results of their efforts are often for sale at very reasonable prices. If you prefer not to buy anything, you can photograph the walking art galleries that pass you by on the village roads or the works of art on display in the booths along the road.

Hill Tribe clothing in itself are works of art. They contain many artistic elements - embroidery, needlepoint, profusion of colors, batik, applique, metalwork, cross stitching, and beadwork. The only other clothing that I have found that approaches the uniqueness of Hill Tribe traditional clothing is on display at the Museum of the Plains Indians in Browning , Montana on the Blackfoot Indian reservation.

However examples of the Indian handicrafts and artistic skills are not available for sale.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Hill Tribe People - Hmong

The Hmong Hill Tribe people originated in the mountainous regions of Southern China. They are also known as the Miao, Meo, Maeo, or Mong. In the 1700s and 1800s there were several uprising and rebellions by Hmong people in China which led to violent suppression by the government. This along with the opportunity to make money through opium production caused the Hmong people to migrate south.

The Hmongs in SE Asia are now located from China's Yangtze River basin, Vietnam, Laos, and into Thailand. As a result of allying themselves with the United States in the Vietnam War and in the Secret CIA War in Laos, many Hmong people fled to the United States in the 1970s. There are an estimated 500,000 Hmong in the USA.

The Hmong first started migrating to Thailand about one hundred years ago. Today there are about 80,000 Hmong in Thailand excluding the Hmongs who are in refugee camps on the Lao border.

As strange as it sounds, even today 34 years after the end of the Vietnam War some Hmong continue their armed conflict with the Lao government. No wonder the Hmong fighters also known as "Montenards" by their American officers were well respected and admired. For them there are no political expediences or political correctness. For them it is victory or death.

The conflict with the Lao government has caused some reverberations back in the United States. In June 2007 a famous Hmong general, General Vang Pao age 77 was arrested in the United States for plotting to overthrow the Lao government.

We have visited the Hmong in Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. While in Vietnam, Duang and I had an interesting encounter with some young Hmong girls. These girls live in the Sapa area near the frontier with China. Although Sapa is in Vietnam and has been for a very long time, the young women did not speak Vietnamese. They spoke English rather well and were self educated in speaking, writing, and reading English. When I asked how come they did not speak Vietnamese, the language of their homeland, it was made apparent and quite clear to me that they had no interest. Another example of the Hmong spirit of independence and self-identity. These young woman hike down the mountain cross a narrow valley, and back up another mountain to go into town (4 hours one-way) to access the Internet. They spend up to 5 days at a time staying at a friend's apartment.

The Hmong are renowned for their textile art. Hmong women wear richly decorated clothing. The women are very skilled at embroidery and very often you can see Hmong women embroidering or preparing hemp or silk thread for weaving.

Classic Hmong female clothing consists of a finely pleated knee length dark blue skirt. Underneath the skirt they wear black leggings. The skirt is usually dyed with intricate patterns using batik techniques. Batik involves placing an intricate geometrical pattern on a clothe using a stylo and molten bees wax. The cloth is then dyed and the wax is removed with boiling water. The bottom of the skirt has a wide colorful border of embroidery or applique. A narrow apron over the front of the skirt is attached around the waist with a wide colorful sash.

The women wear a long sleeved black jacket that has elaborate and colorful embroidery on the back collar, cuffs, and front opening.

The Hmong people live at the highest elevations in the mountains. They farm the steepest portions of the mountains. Up until the late 1970s, the Hmong were very adept at cultivating opium poppies in Thailand. They maintained their tradition of opium cultivation and processing until their opium culture was suppressed by combined Thai and American efforts.

To make up for the lost income from the elimination of opium poppies, the King of Thailand set up many Royal Projects to assist the Hmong in developing more acceptable ways of making an earning. Today the Hmong grow flowers and vegetables on their steep plots. In addition Royal Projects assisted the Hmong in developing markets for their textiles, silver smithing, as well as tourism.

The Hmong like most of the other Hill Tribe peoples are Animists. They believe that household spirits protect people, livestock, crops, money, gold, and silver. Sometimes these spirits escape and have to be called back. Some illnesses are believed to be caused by a wandering spirit, so an animal sacrifice is performed to entice the spirit back.

Hmong people typically get married at age 17. Duang and I witnessed the courtship ritual last month during Hmong New Years Festival in Laos. The adolescent boys and girls play pov pob. In Pov Pob a small ball is tossed back and forth between parallel lines of boys and girls. The tossing of the ball back and forth is an ice breaker between the sexes. If you are interested in someone, you ensure that you toss the ball a few times to the person that interests you. The boy then goes over to the girl and they may sing a song before leaving to get a drink, snack, or go off to a much more private setting.

A boy's father has to agree to his son's selection for a wife. The girl has the freedom of choice to accept. A boy and girl can have premarital sex, which happens a great deal of the time during the New Year Festival, but the boy is expected to send a representative the next day to the girl's family to inform them, set a wedding date, and negotiate the price.

When a Hmong baby is born, the placenta is buried in the dirt floor of the house. The Hmong believe that the baby comes from the spirit world. After three days, the baby is given a name and is believed to then belong to the world of men. The baby is then considered to be placed under the protection of the house spirits.

These animist beliefs are similar to other Hill Tribe people and also the people of Isaan. Many years ago while a young boy in Junior High School, I became aware of and read a book called "The Golden Bough" by Sir James George Frazer. "The Golden Bough" written in 1922 its sub title is "A Study in Magic and Religion". In the book there is a great deal of interesting information regarding pagan, animist, and other pre-Christian beliefs and rituals. I was impressed at how many of these have parallels in Christianity.

Today I am just as impressed to witness some of these beliefs or at least some very similar beliefs and rituals being practised in the 21st century. Over all the centuries the animist beliefs and rituals remain a link to our far and distant past. Through all the centuries of progress and evolution, these rituals continue to serve man providing answers and direction to man's spiritual needs.

I am fortunate to be able to photograph, experience, and share these rituals.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Cure for Alcoholism, Deja Vu - All Over Again

Yogi Berra, a famous baseball player, former Yankees Manager as well as a former New York Mets Manager but not noted for his elocution, once said "This seems like deja vu - all over again"

So it was for Duang and I today. Although I wrote about a local "cure" for alcoholism at the end of last August, I am writing on the subject once again. This time I was better prepared to photograph and observe what was happening.

Duang's oldest brother was married in November to a local widow here in Isaan. Like Duang's youngest brother and so many other men in Isaan he has a drinking problem. Unlike her youngest brother he has not done anything about it until today.

Duang's youngest brother took the pilgrimage in late June to see the "No 1 Buddha" to get cured of his problem. I am pleased to report that to this day he is clean and sober. The village drunk of Tahsang Village took the cure earlier last year and he remains sober today as he has everyday since he made his pilgrimage south to take the cure. Duang's Uncle and one of her 92 cousins also have refrained from drinking since they visited the Monk. It may be a coincidence or not but I believe in miracles. Believing in miracles allows me to accept, at times, what can not be rationalized or fully explained. A single visit to a simple Monk curing alcoholism?

People in the United States spend 30 days at a time in special hospitals and centers attempting to cure their alcohol addiction at a cost of thousands of dollars - often to quickly relapse. The cost to the people who take the cure from the Monk is a donation in an envelope that they offer to the Wat. The individual decides how much to offer.

Not everything is the same. Today I drove to the Wat. Duang's son remained in school for the day. When she called the Monk yesterday to make an appointment, he indicated that today was the best day, Apparently several local people had died and he would be busy on Friday as well as over the weekend. I am now fairly comfortable driving so I agreed to drive down to the Wat - 100 miles south of Udonthani.

We picked up Duang's brother and his wife outside of Kumphawapi and headed south. I can not write where we went. It's not a secret. I just don't know. We used the back roads - paved two lane country roads, dirt roads through cane fields and rice paddies. There were many twists, turns, and a couple times we crossed a major road. We had to slow down four times for cattle or water buffaloes on or along the road. Every small village that we drove through had several dogs lying in the road - reluctant to get out of the way. I would not say that they were trying to play chicken with our truck because there were plenty of chickens around and they never came close to being hit. Unlike the other day when I drove back from Duang's daughter's home, there were no elephants walking along the country road.

The sugar cane harvest is still in process. The roads are filled with vehicles of all types, shapes and sizes hauling long lengths of sugar cane. You might wonder why I didn't write "trucks of all shapes and sizes". That would be appropriate for an American harvest. But this is Thailand!

There were conventional diesel trucks with single or double trailers stacked at least 15 high with stacked cane. There are no overpasses or flyovers in the country so height considerations are irrelevant except to avoid flipping over on tight curves.

Sharing the road with conventional trucks were "Tuk-Tuk" trucks heavy laden with cane. These open cabbed vehicles are powered by small yard tractor sized diesel engines that make a "Tuk Tuk" sound as they putt putt down the road. The cane is carefully stacked so that a roof is created over the top of the driver. The drivers all wear balaclavas and straw hats as they S-L-O-W-L-Y make their way along the road.

In addition to "trucks" carrying cut cane, there are motorbikes with side cars hauling sugar cane. They go even slower than the Tuk Tuk trucks.

Today we even saw one man going down the road with a bundle of sugar cane balanced on his shoulder as he steered his motorbike with one hand.

We went by one elderly lady along the road that had a push handcart. She was not "hauling" cane but she was picking up scraps of cane off the road that had fallen off of other "vehicles".

The smaller vehicles were headed to one of several weigh stations that we passed. At the weigh station the cane was offloaded from smaller vehicles and stored for loading by cranes or front end loaders on to the double trailers for shipment to refineries.

In addition to all the sugar cane moving around, the cassava harvest has started.

It was all very confusing. Three times we had to stop and ask for directions. Eventually we arrived at the correct Wat around 11:30 AM.

We entered the Wat, and waited our turn. I went to the corner and prepared my camera and flash. With our second visit to the Wat, I wanted to be able to take better photographs of a ritual that I am so impressed with.

Duang's brother went up to the Monk went it was his turn. The Monk recognized me from the previous visit (I guess that he doesn't get many foreigner visitors). He motioned me forward and invited me to take photographs of the process. I was thrilled.

Duang's brother paid his respects to the Monk, received some counselling, and had his name written by the Monk in a large ledger. The Monk then gave him a blessing and tied a cotton string around his wrist in sort of a Bai Saii ritual.

Together they walked behind the Monk's reception platform to the base of the large Buddha statue in the Wat. Duang's brother was carrying a saucer sized plate upon which he had his offering envelope, some flowers, three yellow candles, and leaves. He knelt before the statue, prayed with the Monk's hand on his head. After completing his prayers, he left his offering at the base of the statue. The Monk then walked over to a small blue plastic ice cooler and dipped a medium sized bowl into the container to fill the bowl with the pre-prepared liquid.

The Monk then stood over Duang's kneeling brother and placed his hand on her brother's head. The Monk said some chants as he assisted her brother to drink all of the watery liquid.

The Monk graciously allowed me to document this process for two other men. Upon completing the ritual for the second man, the Monk took his lunch break and we headed back on our 100 mile journey to Udonthani.

We only had to turn around three times to find our way back home! Like his younger brother in June, Duang's brother was sick as a dog several times on the way back. Amazingly as it may seem, he was sick starting at the same times, same places, and same ways as his brother. Fortunately we were aware and prepared so it was not a problem for US.

My very good friend in America, who is a pharmacist, discussed my last blog about the cure with me. It turns out that there are herbs and plants that can provide this type of reaction and aversion to alcohol. I know that aversion therapy is a focal point of treatment in the USA but the mystery or miracle to me remains how one 5 minute treatment seems to work so well here in Thailand with this Monk.

The Monk's name is Patco Pahdit Villhit Yapon. He apparently is a celebrity and appears on his own television program once a week. His Wat I believe is called Janwat Maha Salacom and is located in Baan Pon, Tambon Pon Tong Amphur Siangyun. I have his business card but it is written in Thai. Writing to him is probably more difficult than driving to him!

Again I am honored and feel privileged to be able to witness, photograph, and document an aspect of Thai life that is unique.

It is one of my goals in photography to share these aspects of world culture with others. My friend in America rightfully pointed out that the secret of photography is not simply the technical aspects but being there in the first place to take the shot and recognizing the shot.

I have been fortunate to be in so many places at the right times with such gracious people for my photographs.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Karen Hill Tribe People - Paduang Tribe

The Karen people have moved into Thailand starting in the 1700's from Burma. It is believed that they originally came from Tibet.

Today and for the past 15 years there are refugee camps on the Thailand-Burma border where Karen who have fled persecution by the Burmese regime have sought refuge. In side of Burma, also called Myanmar, there is populist armed movement for a separate independent Karen state. This conflict has lead to the displacement of many thousands of people.

For many of the displaced Karen refugees they are trapped in the border camps - they can not enter into Thailand and if they return to Burma they face discrimination, prosecution, or worse. They do not have passports, do not have Thai rights and are essentially stateless people. The United Nations and other NGO (non-government organizations) provide some minimum relief to these people.

The Karen make up the largest group of the 6 Hill Tribe peoples in Thailand. There are about 250,000 Karen in Thailand. Only the near recent arrivals from Burma are refugees and in camps. Karens who arrived in earlier times are integrated into Thai society in that they have citizenship, passports, and Thai rights.

The Karen are made up of many different subgroups. Two of the most distinct subgroups are the Paduang and the Kayaw.

The Paduang are known throughout the world for their custom of placing brass coils around the neck of their women. This custom gives the appearance of elongated necks. In reality it is the shoulders of the women that are being depressed by the weight of up to 30 pounds of metal wrapped around their neck that creates the illusion of an elongated neck. Outsiders refer to the Paduang as "Long-Neck", or "Giraffe Women".

Coils are placed around a female's neck commencing when she is 5 or 6 years old. An additional coil is added each year and on special events in her life. Some of the older woman have more than 30 coils around their neck. Often a strip of colorful cloth or a leaf is worn underneath the coils at rubbing points on the skin.

Paduang women also wear brass coils wrapped around their legs - calves and ankles.

The Kayaw subgroup live side by side with the Paduang. The Kayaw people are known throughout the world for their custom of elongating the ear lobes of females. Large diameter hollow cylinders are placed into the ear lobes of female children and adults. Some Kayaw woman wear several heavy metal earrings in each ear to extend their ear lobes.

The Karen people live in elevated bamboo houses elevated above the ground. The roofs of their homes are made out of very large leaves from the nearby forest - based upon the size as well as shape I suspect that they are teak leaves. Beneath their house they keep pigs, chickens, and water buffaloes. The Karen are excellent farmers and unlike their other Hill Tribe neighbors never were heavily involved in opium cultivation. They grow rice, squash, garlic, cabbages, and cotton.

Karen women are very skillful in weaving, sewing and dying fabrics. Until they get married, Karen women wear a white smock that is decorated with applique, and embroidery. After getting married, Karen women wear short white blouses with more extensive decoration and trim along with colorful as well as more intricate patterned sarongs.

The picture above is Freida's mother. If I counted correctly, she has 25 rings of brass around her neck. The rings start of as a long piece of brass much like the coiled copper tubing that you can buy at Home Depot or plumbing supply store. The tubing is then shaped and wrapped by hand around the woman's neck. The shaping and wrapping requires a high degree of skill. There are only a few women in the village who have the skill and experience to perform the work.

Freida is a very photogenic Paduang young woman that I have visited twice - so far. I wrote about her in an earlier blog. The following links will take you to a separate gallery to view more photographs of Freida, Paduang, and Kayaw people.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Lisu Hill Tribe People

The Lisu Hill Tribe people are believed to have originated from Tibet. The Lisu in Thailand migrated from northern areas of Yunnan province of China in the late 1800's. They first arrived in the Chiang Mai area. There are approximately 20, 000 Lisu in Thailand.

Lisu women utilize more applique and brighter colors in their clothing than the other Hill Tribe groups. They wear a typically blue loose double breasted smock. The smock has appliqued strips of multi-colored cloth sewed around the sleeves, and neck. They wear either long baggy pants or short pants with leggings. Over the smock they wear a decorated apron.

The Lisu typically settle in areas that are not easily accessed by outsiders often near the tops of mountains. Their villages have a spirit house. Like the Akha, each house has a small shrine for the spirits and ancestors.

The Lisu are a very competitive people and strive to out do their neighbors in everything. They are also considered to be a handsome people which is not lost on themselves. The Lisu are also very adept business people. They consider themselves to be a higher status than their neighbors. In many aspects it seems like I might be describing the Germans of the Hill Tribe people!

The Lisu are, like the Akha, animists. Spirits are believed to be responsible for many problems and illnesses. Shamans, offerings, and animal sacrifices are used to maintain a healthy balance between humans, ancestors, good spirits, and bad spirits.

Lisu courting rituals are very discrete. It is taboo for a man to show interest in a girl in front of her parents or her older male relatives. The Lisu also refrain from having sex in another man's house. This is most likely a good idea in any culture especially if your partner is his wife or his daughter!

I have photographed many Lisu people and I can attest to their beauty. I have found them to be a very hospitable and gracious people. I look forward to visiting them once again.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Akha Hill Tribe People

There are six major Hill Tribes in Thailand. They are the: Akha, Hmong, Lisu, Karen, Lahu, and Yao.

Over a hundred years ago the Hill Tribe people immigrated to Thailand from China, Tibet, Mongolia, through Laos, Vietnam, and Burma. The people were nomadic farmers. "Nomadic Farmers" sounds like an oxymoron but these people farm an area and when the soil was depleted they moved on to the next site.

Each of the Hill Tribe groups is different with their own separate language, culture, religion, art, and clothing.

During the past three years, I have had the pleasure of meeting and photographing all six of the major Hill Tribe groups in Thailand. I have also visited some of the groups in Laos, and Vietnam.

I have no favorite Hill Tribe group. I find each group fascinating and just as interesting as the others. However I do believe that the Akha (Ekaw) people are the most photogenic in the sense of colorful and unique dress.

It is believed that the Akha people migrated from the southeastern region of Yunan Province in China. The Akha spread through Vietnam, Laos, an Burma. Around the start of the last century, they began entering Thailand from Burma.

The clothing of the Akha women, in my opinion, makes the group the most interesting to photograph. The women wear a helmet shaped hat that is heavily decorated with silver coins, colorful strings of beads, and colorful feathers

Akha women wear long dark skirts over dark leggings, a sash around their waist, and a long sleeved jacket made out of indigo dyed hand woven cotton. All of the vestments are heavily decorated with colorful embroidery, silver, and colorful beads.

Akha villages have an elaborate gate at their entrance. Guardian spirits are believed to watch over the village. The village is also believed to be surrounded by many evil spirits. The sacred gates divide the area between the humans and spirits. Each year before planting the new rice crop, the village men led by a shaman rebuild the gates and decorate them with charms as well as symbols of wealth. The evil spirits are warded off by symbols of wealth.

Outside the gates there are figures of people "doing the horizontal mambo", "boom booming", "screwing", "doing the nasty", "humping" or whatever your euphemism is for sexual intercourse. The men although smaller than the women statues, have very large "members". Supposedly human sexuality also keeps the bad spirits away.

The Akha village also has a common area with benches where young people get together in the evening. The young boys and girls have fun flirting, singing, dancing, and "courting". The Akha believe that sexual intercourse strengthens boys and matures girls so I can only imagine what "courting" entails. Duang and I were there in the morning and saw the village men cleaning up the area by trimming the bushes and raking up leaves so I have no details to provide at this time. Perhaps after our next trip to the Akha people, we will have more details but most likely no photos or at least photos that can be shared on the Internet!

Akha houses are raised up on posts. A thatched roof hangs very low over the house sides and the porches on each end.

Inside the house there is an altar for ancestor worship. The altar is typically a bamboo shelf high on a wall with three rice stalks from the latest harvest on it. The floors are compacted dirt and there is a small hearth for cooking over a small wood fire.

The Akha, in my opinion, are the poorest of the Hill Tribes. They were also the most aggressive in wanting money. They push very hard the selling of their handicrafts, and souvenirs. Many expect or ask for money to be photographed. Many Akha just out and out beg for money.

This may be disconcerting to many people but the amount of money to appease them is very small. When you see their situation and understand their limited opportunities, it is not so offensive. You give them some to help them survive or you politely refuse.

My philosophy is to always buy some handicrafts and if asked donate some money to a person for posing for several photographs.

Given the same set of circumstances and conditions as the Akha, I question how aggressive any of us would be. I know how I would be.

To the extent that I can, I would not want to deny someone their daily bread.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


18 January 2009

Thailand's Answer to Costco or Sam's Club?

The other day we drove to check out "Tang Ngee Soon Superstore" on the outskirts of Udonthani. No, the attached photo is not the store. The photo is from Maehongson and I just wanted to share it.

Shopping for groceries in Udonthani is an adventure especially if you are looking for foreign foods. There is not a single source for falang needs. The large supermarkets are Big C, Tesco-Lotus, and Tops. Big C is a sort of Thai K-Mart and we pretty much avoid it.

Tesco-Lotus is a British company that has grocery stores around the world. They are on the verge or at least were on the verge of entering the US market before the economic crisis hit. We sometimes shop there but because this is Isaan they have a great deal of Lao food cooking inside the store. This might not be a problem if the store had a properly designed ventilation system. In the meat and fish section of the store, they are always deep frying some Lao food that is very spicy. There are no fume hoods or fire protection system above the deep fryers. The pungent and irritating fumes permeates the entire store. I find it to be unpleasant and prefer not to shop there. Many expats avoid the store because of all the loud music. The store does have some foreign foods for sale. However it doesn't always have the stuff that we are looking for. The store's fruits and vegetables leave a great deal to be desired.

We normally shop at Tops. The Tops store is located on the third floor of the main shopping mall in the city center. The store is much smaller than Tesco Lotus but carries just as many and for some items (frozen turkey) more foreign foods as Tesco Lotus in a more appealing environment. The problem with Tops is that many other foreigners shop there so the foods that we all buy are not always in stock. Once you have finished shopping you have to carry your groceries down two fights of escalators through a crowded mall and across the main street of 4 lane traffic to where your vehicle is parked. Tops's fruits and vegetables are even worse than Tesco Lotus.

Duang buys our fruit and vegetables at one of the main markets in the center of town. This market is a labyrinth of booths selling prepared foods, fruits, vegetables, and all sorts of dry goods. The fruits and vegetables are excellent. However there are no imported or foreign foods available there. Because it is in the center of the city and carries local foods, parking is very difficult to find in the narrow crowded streets bordering the market. Inside the market, the narrow aisles are congested with people. Duang warns me about being aware for pick pockets so it is not one of my favorite places to shop. Duang usually goes there once a week with her son and girlfriend to shop for our needs. She ends up spending around 500 baht ($15 USD) a week.

Carrefour, a large French based grocery company is building a large store near our home. I am hoping that it is similar to the store where we did all our grocery shopping in Pattaya. It had a great selection of foreign foods, great meats, seafood, fruit, and vegetables - a one stop source for all our needs. Time will tell.

Any how we checked out the "superstore". It is very convenient to our home and the road is wide and not congested to get to it. The store has a large parking lot with plenty of space for me to park the truck (I am still not comfortable in pulling into narrow spaces driving on the right hand side of the truck).

The superstore is huge. It is a large warehouse structure very similar to a Costco or Sam's Club in the USA except that it is much cleaner. In Thailand labor is very cheap so stores can afford to maintain large cleaning staffs.

The superstore had all the dry goods as well as brands that we normally buy each week. The prices were also cheaper than what we typically pay. Unlike Costco or Sam's Club, we did not have to buy jumbo sized containers or bundles of the product.

There were many foreign products. However the store had no fresh fruits or vegetables - I suppose that they realize that they can not compete with the local markets.

The meat section of the store consisted of a small upright freezer about the size of the soft drink refrigerator at a small pizza parlor in the USA. The freezer had small packages of frozen hamburg patties, two types of sausages, pork chops, and beef steaks from an English butcher in Pattaya.

The dairy section consisted of two similar sized refrigerators. One contained packages of processed cheese slices, about 8 small packages of three types of cheese, and Kraft's Thai equivalent of Velveeta cheese. The other case had yogurt, and fermented milk products.

The dry goods section of the store was excellent and all the prices were cheaper than we pay elsewhere. M&Ms were 17% cheaper at the superstore. We ended up walking out of the store with 5 plastic bags of groceries for $20 USD.

I guess our shopping regime will now be Superstore + Local Market + Tops. Hopefully this will only be until Carrefour opens up - soon.

I have a little joke with Duang. I often tell her that something will happen "soon". I then remind her that in English "soon" means "in a short period of time" but in Thai "soon" means "zero". I tease her about whether I am speaking English or Thai when I say "soon". She has caught on and now will ask me if I am speaking Thai or English.

So it may be with Carrefour, they are rumored to be opening "soon"

Life in Isaan is very rewarding and I can not complain. However when we were in Bangkok at the end of December, we got to go to a "real" grocery store in the basement of Paragon Center. It was heaven. It would have put many grocery stores in small US towns to shame. All kinds of spices, cheeses, meats, seafood, bakery goods, and foreign foods!

Perhaps soon we will have the same here in Isaan.

Friday, January 16, 2009

16 January 2009 Lack of Privacy

Earlier this week, I obtained an important Thai document, my Yellow House Book.

In Thailand, Thai citizens must be recorded in a House registration Book called a “Tabien Bahn”. For Thai people, their name is recorded in the blue registration book for the house that they live in. If they are not “permanently” living in one place, they have their name registered in the house book of one of their parents or grandparents. Thai people who rent a house, condo, or apartment are registered in the respective house book.

The house book is used to establish identity along with the National ID card for legal matters such as voting, banking, getting a driver’s license, registering motor vehicles, obtaining utilities, obtaining credit, getting married, getting divorced, and receiving certain government services.

For foreigners like me, the “Yellow House Book” will allow me to register a car in my name, and most importantly of all help me in proving my residence to Thai authorities.

Obtaining my yellow book was a rather involved process. We had to go to the Amphur Office, a sort of state office. I had to submit stamped translated copies of my US passport title page, and Thai Visa page. Along with those papers, we had to submit our marriage certificate, and Duang’s Blue House Book. There was also a requirement to submit two passport photographs.

The process had several steps. After each step, we had to go to the next room and obtain Xerox copies – along with everyone else who was doing official provincial business that morning! There is only one Xerox machine and one operator so the line and wait to get your documents can run up to 15 to 20 minutes – EACH TIME.

Fortunately the process of getting a Yellow House Book was on the same floor as the Xerox machine. When we registered our marriage in December, we made at least 6 trips up and down the stairs for copies and signatures.

The final action prior to picking up my yellow book was to sign the plain paper ledger book where my photograph and a bunch of Thai writing had been added. The completed book was available to pick up a week later.

Like many countries in the world, Thailand has a National ID Card. There is no current National ID Card required in the USA. Such a requirement is opposed by many people based upon personal privacy issues and others for religious beliefs.

There is a prophecy in the Bible that predicts a time when everyone will have to have a mark or a number, without which they will not be able to participate in the economy. Some Christians believe that this imposition of a National ID Card will fulfill the prophecy for the “mark of the beast” in the “Last Days”.

The day that we registered our marriage, Duang also changed her last name from “Veeboonkul” to “Hale”. This necessitated her to also get a new National ID Card.

The National ID Card is a credit card sized plastic card similar to a driver’s license in California.
At the top of the card is a unique 13 digit number. Below the unique ID number is the person’s name written in Thai. Below the Thai spelling, the name is written in English.

The date of birth is written underneath in Thai followed by the birth date in English. Following the birth date information, the person’s home address is written in Thai. The last section of the center of the card indicates in Thai as well as English when the card and when it will expire (7 years later on the day before the person’s birthday).

In the lower right hand corner of the ID card is a photo (mug shot) of the person digitally taken when the card was created. Underneath the picture, Duang’s previous ID card number was printed.

There is a bar code on the left hand side of the card.

The big feature of the card is located on the left hand side of the card approximately ½ way down – an embedded computer chip. This chip is amazing. Prior to giving the new ID Card to Duang, the government official placed the card into a card reader. The computer on the desk top quickly refreshed and showed Duang’s information – everything that I have described previously PLUS digital copies of her fingerprints from a central government database.

The computer chip has holographic protection on its reverse side. The entire ID Card has holographs on its face as security protection.

This was astounding to me.

Privacy is a big issue and concern in the United States. My opinion is that it is already a lost cause.

Although there is no National ID Card in the USA, much of the information expected to be contained in such a card as well as much more that we may prefer to keep private is readily available from other sources.

Remember those unsolicited offers to refinance your house mortgage that you got in the mail? They had your address, the current balance outstanding, as well as your current monthly payment – all correct and obtained legally from public records.

Some time ago, I purchased a camera lens on EBAY. It was a large lens with limited application. When the lens arrived, I was curious about the person that I purchased the lens from. I knew his name from EBAY. The person had included a return address on the UPS box.

Using Google, I searched the Internet and determined that this person was associated with two of the largest sporting goods stores in the Chicago area.

From the zip code of his return address, I went on the United States Census website and determined more about this person. From the Census site I found out the median income of families in that neighborhood, education levels, racial make-up, family size, as well as other details – quickly, easily and legally.

My curiosity was appeased and I ended at that point. I had invested little time and no money to get a fairly good profile of this “unknown” person.

If I had wanted to spend some money, there a multitude of services that will provide detailed information from public records such as birth certificates, marriage licenses, divorce papers, court records, etc.

With a person’s social security number, a copy of their credit report can easily be obtained which provides very detailed financial information.

As part of developing my photography website, I obtained a free Google “key” that allows me to geo tag my photos on Google maps.

Google maps use a combination of commercial satellite and traditional maps to locate coordinates around the world. Coordinates can be uploaded from a GPS unit tied to the camera, manually entered, or determined by locating the spot form Google maps/satellite photos.

My efforts were astonishing. In late July, I had photographed Duang’s relatives planting rice. They were planting rice on their plot of land outside of Tahsang Village about 10 miles from Kumphawapi in the Isaan region of Thailand. Kumphawapi has a population of 29,000 so I did not expect it to “be on the Map”

Utilizing a combination of traditional map along with satellite photography I was able to see and identify the actual field where the photos had been taken. A small field in the middle of rice paddy country in rural NE Thailand easily identified with readily available resources – to anyone.

Intrigued I used Google Map and to find my property in Walnut Creek. Sure enough, I was able to view my house with my former car parked at the side of the house. Tweaking the system a little more I was able to view a ball park in Walnut Creek to such detail that I saw people playing on the field. I could not identify them but I could count them. This was performed using commercial satellite technology. I can only wonder what “state of the art” technology is capable of doing.

The battle for privacy was lost long ago.

Be it in Thailand or the USA, your information is available – it is only a question as to the ease that it is available.


This content is not yet available over encrypted connections.