Sunday, May 31, 2009

Fawn Leb Dance

In addition to being a significant religious attraction, Wat Phra Doi Suthep outside of Chiang Mai has cultural offerings.

On the day of our visit, two university students were performing classical Thai dances in the courtyard that surrounded the various buildings of the Wat complex. There was also an orchestra of 7 younger students of approximately high school age playing traditional Thai instruments to accompany the dancers.

Of the various dances performed, my favorites were the "Tee Dance" or "Umbrella Dance" which we had previously seen performed at the Khantoke Dinner and Show and the "Fawn Leb" Dance.

For the "Fawn Leb", a Northern Thailand dance style, the dancers wear 6 inch long brass fingernails on their fingers to accentuate the movements of their hands. The intent of the "Fawn Leb" dance is to reflect the beauty, calm, and peacefulness of the Northern Thai (Lanna) people. The long fingernails extend the supple fingers of each dancing thus emphasizing the graceful movements or both their arms and hands.

The dancers wore their hair in the chignon style accentuated with a yellow floral tiara along with a chain of jasmine flowers. Their silk costumes were traditional, simple and elegant - all of which complimented the grace, beauty, and elegance of the performance.

The orchestra wore plain and simple farmer style clothing - heavy cotton yellow tunics with a black wrap around cotton belt and loose cotton green trousers. They played various string, wind, and percussion instrument to accompany the dancers.

It was all very beautiful, emotionally uplifting and memorable.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Yao Hill Tribe People

The Yao people are found in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and China. They are believed to have originated in China and migrated south. Migrations were centered around the opium trade in the 1800's and 1900's as well as the Mien peoples support of the CIA's secret war in Laos.

Today after the heavy suppression of the opium trade by Thai authorities in the late 20th century, the Yao cultivate rice, corn, cabbages, other vegetables and fruit.

Today there are approximately 55,000 Yao living in Thailand.

The Yao people are well known for being the businessmen of the Hill Tribe peoples. They are peaceful and skillful at resolving conflicts. These skills have assisted them greatly in assimilating into Thailand.

Yao women are well known for their needlepoint and embroidery skills. They install the cross stitching from the backside of the cloth as opposed to the customary front side by Westerners. Sales of their handicrafts supplements family income greatly.

Many older Yao women shave their eyebrows as it is the traditional practice. It is also traditional that Yao women shave their bodies but I am unable to confirm if the practice continues - and I am not interested in confirming either.

Yao women wear very distinctive clothing. They wear a large black turban on their head which is sometimes adorned with silver decorations. Yao men are skilled silversmiths so it is not surprising that silver ornaments would be worn.

The women wear a long dark blue or black jacket that is trimmed with thick deeply red boa on the lapels. They wear loose pants that often have intricate needlepoint designs on them.

These women are very skillful embroiders and adept at needlepoint. Their village was filled with booths selling Yao handicrafts.

The textile art was very pretty and well crafted. It was difficult to resist buying all that you wanted. I actually ran out of cash and was forced to stop. There were not any ATM machines in the village and I suggested that they make arrangements for some to be installed.

I told them that I did not understand the origins for the name of "Yao" people but I suspected that it may possibly be attributable to all the falang (foreigners) that visit, buy their beautiful art work, look in their wallet and exclaim "Yao! - I've spent all my money!"

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Morning With The Monks

The weather has changed and I guess that we are now officially in the rainy season.

Last Friday we spent a very rainy day in Bangkok dealing with American bureaucracy - not that American bureaucracy is any worse than any other but when it involves your own country it is much more difficult to tolerate if not to accept.

On our bus trips between Udonthani and Bangkok, the seasonal weather change was most apparent the further south that we were. The rains have flooded many of the rice paddies and it is amazing what a difference a little water makes. The flooded fields that a month ago were desolate and barren are now bursting with bright green rice shoots. Farmers were busy in the fields preparing the land for planting. Earlier this month, on May 11th, Thailand celebrated "Royal Ploughing Day". The festivities which were telecast over national television, involve royal officials plowing the earth outside of the Grand Palace in Bangkok using a team of oxen. The ceremony in conjunction with religious observations is an offering for a good harvest and is an indicator if it will be a good harvest. After the oxen have finished plowing they are offered plates of grass, corn, rice, beans, sesame, liquor, and water. The Royal Soothsayer observes what the oxen choose to eat and makes his prediction for this year's crops.

This year the oxen ate corn and grass. The Royal Soothsayer has predicted a good year with abundant rains and healthy crops. It is too early to determine the accuracy of the crop prediction, but we have been getting plenty of rain - so far.

Today we went into Udonthani to celebrate Duang's brother's new home. He has bought a home on the street next to Wat Matchimiwat where many of the Luuk Thung performers live. He had rented a place there but his landlord needed money, so she sold him a place for 40,000 baht ($1,143 USD).

We arrived early at his home and work was still going on getting it prepared. His place is directly across the street from the Wat so I grabbed one of my cameras as well as the video camera and walked over to the Wat. There always seems to be something going on at a Wat in Thailand. Even when there is nothing exciting going on at a Wat, they are refuges from the din and chaos of the city or village life. Wats always have many trees and plants on their grounds. The trees and flowers on the Wat's grounds provide a very peaceful as well as tranquil respite from the world - including dealing with bureaucracy! This morning was no exception. The restful noises of the chirping birds was joined by the rhythmic sweeping of coarse brooms on the concrete and tile paving. The Monks of the Wat were busy cleaning the grounds. There were 30 Monks busily sweeping up dirt, debris and leaves. The Monks were mostly young boys and young men. Two older Monks were obviously in charge but they also swept along with the boys.

The Monks toiled mostly in silence. Being young boys, despite being Monks, the workers were quite amused and giddy about being photographed. Their smiling and curiosity did not interfere with their duties. Fortunately they were able to complete the cleanup prior to the onset of today's rains. I ended up finding shelter beneath an exterior stairwell of one of the Wat's buildings. Our rains are not day long events. Although it may rain most days, the actual duration for the rain is around 2 hours. Today the rain although heavy at times was over in twenty minutes.

When the rain had completely stopped, a small procession entered the Wat grounds and circled the assembly hall three times. A young man dressed in white lead the procession. He was going to be ordained as a Monk today. His family and friends were with him to witness this major milestone in a Thai man's life.

I joined the witnesses and spent the entire ceremony photographing and filming the ritual. Although I had witnessed the ordination ritual several times, each time that I do I understand more and develop a greater appreciation for the tradition and devotion associated with the ceremony. I am also amazed at how free and open the Thai people are towards "outsiders". Photographing and filming of Buddhist ceremonies is not an issue. Interjecting yourself into a family's celebration is not resisted or resented. In fact at the end of the ceremony, a representative of the family invited me to join them for dinner. As best as I could I thanked them and explained to them that I was having dinner with my brother-in-law across the street as part of his house warming celebration
I returned to my brother-in-law's home and observed the preparations for the arrival of the Monks. Around 10:45 A. M. five Monks arrived from the Wat. The Monks sat atop the elevated concrete structures that had been built in the front part of the house. Sahts were placed on the tile floor for everyone else to sit. Plastic chairs were also placed outside on the sidewalk for guests to sit. There was a ceremony lead by a Brahman with the Monks supplementing the ritual. After the ceremony, the Monks were given offerings of food. There was a great quantity and variety of food given to the Monks. When they completed eating their meal, the leftover food was taken outside of the house and the neighbors, and other guests ate it as part of their meal.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Dancing Lao Loum Farmer - Video

Yesterday, I learned how to post a video to this blog. It was actually not difficult at all to do.

I had mentioned about perhaps posting a video of a new friend dancing at the Kham Chanot concert. Today I am posting that video.

He was a local farmer that absolutely enjoyed himself as well as the Lao Kao (moonshine whiskey which is very popular in Isaan) He took a liking to me and ensured that no but he got took close to me while I was filming. He even got into a little directing - motioning me to come closer to the stage to get a closer view of the Go-Go girl that he was most interested in. I showed him how I could zoom in for closer shots without having to move. When I showed him in the camera monitor screen how I could zoom in for just that special shot that he wanted, he got all excited and started clapping me on the shoulder in appreciation. I then showed him how that wasn't very good in that it shook the camera and ruined the scene. I did not have to show him again.

This clip shows a little of the spirit and energy which is so often observable here in Isaan. The people really enjoy their music and dance. They while being modest are typically uninhibited at these events. The energy and enthusiasm along with the heavy drinking often leads to flare ups.

The concert on Saturday was no exception - there were some fist fights towards the end of the concert. As happens at every event that I have attended the flare ups are directly in front of the stage and involve teenagers. Unlike some concerts, Lady Boys (Kathoeys) were not involved. There were plenty of police around so matters were contained and were brief. No problem - everyone enjoyed themselves. Perhaps they did not enjoy themselves as much as the "Dancing Lao Loum Farmer" but not many people can.

Isaan Rocket Launch Video

This is a video clip of one of the rocket launches that we witnessed on 10 April 2009 at Tahsang Village in the Isaan Region of Thailand.

I had previously written about the events in my blog entitled "Friday 10 April - Isaan Rocket Program" posted on 4/16/9. Another related blog entry to this tradition is "31 August 2008 - Prapheni Bun Bang Fei" posted on 1/9/9

Photographs of the event can be viewed at //

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Video of Tham Chanot Go-Go Girls

Yesterday, I wrote about the concert at the doorway to the water underworld.

Today I am attaching a clip from the over two hours of video that I shot of the show. I am learning that filming is not necessarily too difficult to accomplish but capturing good audio is very difficult. Although I set the camera's microphone to low setting, the sound is blown out due to the loudness of the speakers and intensity of the bass portion of the music.

If this experiment works out, I will most likely post some clips of a guy who became my friend during the show. He is the drunk guy dancing up a storm. He had moves that I had not seen in over 40 years and most likely won't see for another 40 - if I live that long!

I spent all day editing the video to produce a DVD for my brother-in law. I have a draft but I need to edit it some more to get it completely on a single DVD.

All this editing and viewing has inspired me - I will now create a gallery entitled "Go-Go Girls" at

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Go-Go Girls At The Door to The Water Underworld

It has been over a week since my last blog, but it is not because we have not been doing anything. To the contrary we have been very busy. I have completed reviewing approximately 2,000 35mm slides from the past 32 years. I ended up with 57 packets of 35 slides with identification labels attached. After boxing them up, we were off to the Post Office to ship them to the USA where they will be sent to India for digital scanning.

Saturday we set aside everything and went to a show put on by Duang's brother.

Her youngest brother continues the family tradition of performing. Duang's father is a former mahlam morlam (Lao traditional music). His youngest child puts on and performs in the modern versions of the shows. The shows are popular throughout Isaan. Performances are presented for religious holidays, weddings, festivals, anniversaries of a death, Monk ordination celebrations celebrations, and sometimes - to just have a party. Often as you travel the roads of Isaan you will pass trucks loaded with staging, sound equipment, musicians, and dancers traveling to or from a performance. Often in the middle of no where, you will stumble upon a show venue. The shows are put on in the morning, afternoon, and nights - sometimes all night long.

The shows are typically comprised of a live band. For big shows such as Siriporn Amphaipong the band has 16 musicians. Duang's brother's band runs 6 to 8 members. In addition to the lead performer there are other singers. Duang's brother typically has 3 to 4 other singers whereas big shows can have up to 8 other singers. The shows always have dancers. At one Siriporn Amphaipong concert that we attended, I counted 56 dancers - male and female. Duang's brother has 3 to 4 female Go-Go dancers. His show's complement depends on how much money that he gets paid for the show. More money gets more performers and more musicians. Typically a show will last 6 to 8 hours. Most of the time the shows are free. When we attend the big Siriporn Amphaipong productions, it costs around $3.00 USD for the 6 hour show.

In downtown Udonthani, there is a street alongside Wat Matchimiwat there is a street where many Mahlam Morlam performers live. They live in very narrow and small tin roofed buildings with large advertising banners for their shows over the doorways or utilized to provide additional weatherproofing to the structure. The entire front of their home opens up to the sidewalk when the sliding doors are opened. The residents can always be found sitting at concrete tables and chairs that are set on the sidewalk. There is a very strong sense of community amongst the residents of this street.

Saturday's show was scheduled to start at 10:00 A. M. at Wat Kham Chanot about 2-1/2 hours from Udonthani, so we arrived at the performer's street at 6:15 A. M. As we sat outside on one of the concrete benches, people were just getting up and starting the day. In addition to Duang's brother's show that morning there was another show to prepare for. Young girls, the Go-Go dancers came out of their houses and either set off to the local market to buy breakfast or to sit on the concrete benches to commence doing their hair.

Go-Go dancers in Thailand wear elaborate hairdos. The hairstyle, like their dance moves, are very reminiscent of the late 1960's. Typically hair pieces are worn that provide long tresses down the dancer's back and a large bun of curls on the top of their hair. A tiara is often used to accentuate the hair style.

Upon arrival at the show sight, the girls set their shopping bags of cosmetics and plastic boxes of costumes in the sheltered area behind the stage that the roadies had set up earlier. After placing sahts, the ubiquitous woven reed mats, on the ground the dancers commenced the laborious task of applying their make-up. Like the singers in the luuk thung shows, the dancers wear heavy makeup. The eyes get very special treatment - many different layers of powders, liners, and outrageously long eyelashes.

I sat down and just photographed the girls as they prepared for their performance. It was not long before we were joined by some young children. Two young girls stood by intently observing the go-go girls applying their make-up. Their attentive demeanor was much like any young girl watching a bride to be applying her make-up on her big day. These young girls were perhaps dreaming of the day when they will be watched as they apply their make-up before a show. This is a reality of Isaan. To escape the grips of poverty and limited opportunities in the region, many young women enter into the entertainment field. The villages of Isaan are continuously supplying fresh young dancers and entertainers to local shows as well as to the tourist centric establishments in the bigger cities.

In a previous blog I noted that people working in the garlic fields make 100 baht a day ($2.85 USD). The 18 and 19 year old dancers that work for Duang's brother are paid 500 baht for a 6 to 8 hour show. In addition the dancers are often given tips from people watching the show. Spectators often walk up to the edge of the stage to hand a singer or dancer a gift in appreciation of their performance. Gifts are often 20 or 100 baht bank notes but sometimes are fresh flowers or paper chain necklaces like we used to make in elementary school to decorate Christmas trees. The exchange and acknowledgement of the gifts is a significant as well as important component of the performance. Tips from a show can run from an additional 200 to 1,000 baht for a dancer depending upon the venue.

Saturday's show was at a Wat Kham Chanot out in the middle of no where. This Wat is an important place for the local people. It is located in an area known as "Wang Nakhin" - (Naga Place). Nagas are water serpent creatures that have mystical powers. In ancient times the worship of naga spirits was practised in China, India, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. The belief if not worship of these spirits remains today in many areas - in particular Laos and Isaan. There is a shrine located on an island out in the middle of the rice paddies that is reached by walking along an elevated zig zag concrete elevated bridge. At the head of the bridge leading out to the island are two naga heads. Their bodies lie atop the railings of the bridge out to the island. The shrine is built on an island where the local vegetation has remained untouched. Huge palm trees and all kinds of tropical plants flourish at the site. The name of the site "Kham Chanot" is derived from the tall chanot palm trees that grow unencumbered on the island. There is a large elevated pool of water at one side of the site. People walk up to the side of the pool to collect its waters in plastic bottles or to sprinkle the water over their head while reciting some prayers. I was told that this was very special water because it was very old and came out of the center of the Earth. This mystical and spiritual site is considered to be the door way to the water underworld of the naga. Outside of the shrine there were three gongs varying in diameter from 6 feet to 2.5 feet. The gongs were made out of thin metal and had a round protrusion pressed out in the center and smaller bumps pressed out of the disk closer to the edge. I have seen these before and I have actually rung them using a mallet placed near them. However Saturday was different. After kneeling before the gongs, saying a prayer or two, the worshipper placed their hands inside the hollowed out protrusion and vigorously rub their hands back and forth. For most of the people, and for some unexplained reason - all the children, the gong would start to vibrate and give off a loud as well as an un-earthly hum. Apparently this facilitates the prayers being heard by those who can do something about the requests.

On the land side of the Wat complex, a festival was being held. These festivals are very similar to the church bazaars held by the Catholic Church back east in America to raise money to support the Parrish. There were booths with local foods for sale. Other booths sold small fireworks. There were stalls where typical festival games such as breaking balloons with darts, shooting targets with air rifles, and throwing rings over bottles. There was a small merry go round for very small children as well as a large inflated slide. There were even two trampolines for children to jump on. I knew that I was not in America when I noticed not "Release of Liability" documents to signed by the parents, anyone spotting at the side of the trampolines, 3 to 5 children jumping on each trampoline, and no lawyers hovering around in eager anticipation of a negligence suit. The children had a great time just being children on a hot sunny day jumping and falling on a trampoline under the shade of a blue plastic tarp. Part of the joy I have in Thailand is due to the innocence of the children as well as the adults here. It is much like the America of my parent's childhoods that they told me about so many times. A place where people are free to be themselves and not preoccupied with the fears of not being politically correct or intimidated by the specter of capricious litigation. A place where you can stop and talk to babies without aggravating the parents. A place where taking photographs of strangers is accepted as an honor or compliment rather than as a perceived threat.

The festival at the Wat was several days long. As part of the celebration rockets were being launched. Saturday there were several rockets launched with a great roar and swoosh. Little boys perhaps in dreaming of or contemplating the future fired smaller bottle rocket type fireworks into the sky at the edge of the rice paddies.

The previous night a stage had been erected and a makeshift movie screen had been set up. A movie was shown for the enjoyment of the villagers and others. Others? The movie was apparently a comedy that the villagers enjoyed very much as well as the phii (ghosts) that showed up to watch. Apparently several ghosts had been observed watching and laughing along with the people. This area is well known amongst local people for having friendly and good phii.

Anyhow - back to the Go-Go girls.

The show started at roughly 10:00 A. M. The girls danced with a great deal of energy as well as enthusiasm - song after song after song. The music has a rapid driving beat and the dancers synchronize their movements to the music. Often strong drum beats are accentuated with large pelvic thrusts by the dancers. Other popular dance moves are leg kicks, flailing arm movements, and even squats. The routines are very similar to what American teenagers and Go-Go dancers were doing in the late 1960s. Can it really be 42 years ago? Despite the provocative dance movements, the dancers are actually rather modest. They wear a tight opaque short tee shirt over their bra and underneath the "brassiere" portion of their dance costume. Underneath their dancing skirt they wear pantyhose covered by black very short-shorts. More skin is seen at any beach in the USA than is seen on these Go-Go dancers. Of course more can be seen inside the clubs and bars of the bigger cities but that is an entirely different culture and venue. The modesty of the dancers includes their costume changes. There are no dressing rooms at the concert venues so the girls change costumes behind the stage. They put on a typical Isaan or Lao long skirt and pull it up to their arm pits and change inside the skirt.

The Go-Go girls danced outside the doorway to the naga waterworld from 10:00 A. M. until approximately 1:00 P. M. when the show took a 45 minute break to eat. The show and their dancing resumed from 1:45 P. M. until 4:00 P. M. in the glaring sun. The temperature was at least 90 degrees F or 95 degrees F all afternoon. The afternoon set was more energetic than the morning set. The catalyst was the audience. The audience was very energetic and animated in the afternoon. The performers fed off the crowd's energy. The catalyst for the audience was beer, and whiskey. By the afternoon after several hours of drinking, everyone was in a party mood. I was busy filming the show at my brother-in-law's request so my involvement in both the drinking and dancing was limited. Even so, by 3:30 P. M. I was sick - sick from the heat and sun.

The go-go dancers had danced approximately 4.5 hours during the 5-1/4 hour show but their day was far from over. They and the rest of the company had to drive 4 hours to the south in order put on another show starting at 9:00 P. M.. The night show would continue through the night and end around 7:00 A. M. The dancers would earn another 500 baht plus tips for the second show. We were invited to join them for the second show but I wasn't too proud to admit that I couldn't handle it. I needed to get home and recuperate from another memorable experience in Isaan.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Nong Thong Lisu Village

APRIL 2007 - Maehongson - Nong Thong Village

Nong Thong Village is a small Lisu Hill Tribe village located close to Soppong, a market town along the road, Highway 1095, from Maehongson to Pai. and then on to Chiang Mai.

We happened upon Nong Thong Village by chance during our trip to the Maehongson area for the Songkran holiday.

We arrived in the village in the late afternoon during a rain shower. As we drove into the village we passed a young girl dressed in traditional Lisu clothing walking in the rain with a determined walk carrying an umbrella to ward off the rain.

Upon exiting the car we came upon a young mother feeding her baby. She was very photogenic and did not mind at all the attention that we were paying to her as well as her little baby.

As we were photographing the farm houses and hay stacks a Lisu woman walked by. She was very friendly and spoke very good English. It turned out that she was married to an American from California. She invited us to accompany her to her home.

We walked the short ways to her home. We met her husband and ended up having a very long conversation while drinking tea.

The couple run a Community Based Tourist program. Their goal is not to have tourism become a alternative income source or focus of the villagers but to have tourism be a supplementary activity that serves as a catalyst to maintain the traditional subsistence activities of agriculture and forestry.

In addition the couple practise traditional Lisu herbal healing, Lisu massage, natural diets, and spiritual healing.

Susanan was born in the village and she is an expert in medicinal and edible local plants. She is also a message therapist.

Albert has an advanced degree in clinical psychology and once
had his own detox retreat in Northern California. He also is a Master Jeweler and teaches jewelry making.

As part of the home stay program in the village, four hour classes are available. These classes cover a wide range of topics and interests.

Classes include: Lisu Music, Lisu Dance and Chant, Lisu Sewing, Lisu Weaving, Bead Work, and Basket Weaving, Mushrooms and Wild Edible & Medicinal Plants, Lisu Diet & Food Preparation.

This was all very interesting.

Costs for two people for room, board, classes excluding class materials were about the same cost as a room at one of the resorts in Pai. The cost is less than most motel rooms in the USA.

The opportunities of a home stay in the Lisu village are far greater.

The photography opportunities are immensely more diversified and unique.


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