Friday, May 3, 2013

Ban Huay Sua Tao, Ban Huaysuatao, or Ban Huai Sua Tao

People travel for many reasons.  Some travel to escape their past or present; not necessarily to evade legal difficulties but more likely to escape the disappointments and unfulfilled personal expectations of their lifetime to date.  Others travel in order to tick off a destination on a personal, or often public quest, sort of like defining their personal worth and meaning by a series of exotic locales.  We travel in order to learn more and experience the unique locations and people that we can share with others who do not have such opportunities.

It is our desire to learn more and to experience that often leads us to return to specific locales - to better comprehend and understand the land and people.  There is a reaffirmation of the human condition and spirit that comes from learning that others in different lands, as well as cultures experience the same triumphs, disappointments or challenges that we do.

One such locale for us is Ban Huay Sua Tao which is sometimes spelled Ban Huaysuatao. or even as Ban Huai Sua Tao. Ban Huay Sua Tao is a small refugee camp located near Maehongson in Northern Thailand very close to the border with Myanmar (Burma).  The village is a refugee camp for the Karenni (Red Karen) people.  The Karenni people are known for two subgroups, the Padaung and the Kayaw people.  The Karenni are involved in a struggle (war) back in Myanmar (Burma) for independence.  The people in the camp had fled the violence as well as persecution back in Myanmar.

The Padaung people are the people that some of their women wear brass coils around their neck leading to the phrases "Long Necked Women" or "Giraffe Women" terms that I am not comfortable with.  I prefer to refer to them as "Padaung" people.  The Kayaw people are distinguished by the practice of the women to elongate their ear lobes with heavy objects or large objects.

I first visited the village in October 2006 on my first trip to the Maehongson.  Huay Sua Tao was the first of three Padaung villages that my personal guide brought me to.  Prior to going on the October 2006 journey, I had done some research.  Like many others who research the area I was made aware of the "human zoo" nature of the camps.  My sharp sense of curiosity and desire to take some unique photographs, overcame any trepidation or hesitancy that the unflattering information the guide books could have caused.  I was so glad that I went.  I was also infuriated at the arrogance exhibited in the guide books as well as the Internet. I spent over two hours at the village and got to meet and befriend three remarkable villagers.  Yes, the people were asking you to look at their souvenirs and hopefully buy some.  Yes, tour buses would discharge their tourists who would make their mad dash along the main street of the village blasting away with their point and shoot cameras, but in 15 minutes they were gone.

What I found were very interesting people maintaining their culture as best as they could in not the best of conditions or circumstances.  The people were proud and dignified.  They were willing to share their culture and life story with people who were willing to spend some time with them.  They were just as interested in learning about your culture. They were also very willing to have their photographs taken.

Our trip to Huay Sua Tao last month was my 5th and Duang's 3rd visit.  It was an opportunity to visit with old friends, catch up on what has happened during the past four years, and to reminisce about past visits as well as experiences.

Padaung Woman Weaving Cloth To Sell At Her Souvenir Booth
Just as we noticed through out Mae Hong Son Province this year, the number of people visiting Ban Huai Sua Tao was down significantly. The main street of the village was deserted except for children returning home from filling their squirt gun with water from the stream that flows along the edge of the village.

Children Filling Their Squirt Guns From Local Stream

"Main Street" - Ban Huai Sua Tao

We found Ma Plae and La Mae without any difficulty.  La Mae was Village Headman when I first met him and his wife, Ma Plae, back in October 2006.  La Mae is no longer Village Headman and has been in the refugee camp now for 22 years.  He hopes that he and Ma Plae will be able to immigrate to New Zealand in the future.  It appears that Ma Plae may be sponsored by a relative already in New Zealand.  If successful she will go to New Zealand and then sponsor her husband.  La Mae is hopeful but remains somewhat pessimistic of his chances.

Kuhn La Mae
While we were visiting them, another villager came over.  After visiting for a while she went back to her home and returned shortly.  She is in the process of applying for immigration to New Zealand.  She had a packet of documents that she was asking for help to better understand them.  I read the documents and explained them in English, sometimes more than one different way, to Duang and Ma Plae, who then explained them in Thai to the woman.  I was amazed at the complexity of the process.  One difficulty that the woman was experiencing was that she did not have a birth certificate.  Because she can not go back to Myanmar to get one, she can make a written statement as to her name, date and place of birth.  The problem is the requirement be signed by a judge, court official. or Justice of the Peace.  From the woman, I learned that it was not possible to get this from local Thai officials.  I suggested that she get her statement signed by an official from UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) organization that periodically visit the camps or some NGO official to sign as well as stamp the document.

Kuhn Ma Plae Playing and Singing
Ma Plae played her guitar and sang some traditional songs.  We reminisced about the two previous times that she and I had sung together.  Sure enough we reprised those occasions with another duet.  She singing her song and I singing "Jambalaya" lyrics to the same tune.  Soon our concert evolved into me teaching Ma Plae the English lyrics or rather teaching her the lyrics that I remembered!  I am sending her the full lyrics to prepare for our next visit.

As Duang and Ma Plae socialized I wandered about the village renewing acquantainences and making new friends.

Village Friends

Padaung Mother and One of Her Nine Children

One of the young women that I photographed had an amazing resemblance to one of my favorite Padaung subjects, Ma Jon also known as "Freida", from the camp at Baan Nai Soi.  It turns out that this woman is 29 years old which would also be roughly Freida's age today.  I knew it was not Freida because I heard 4 years ago that she had immigrated to another country, "Finland" if I remember correctly.  In talking with La Mae earlier I had learned that Ma Jon had actually immigrated to New Zealand.

Padaung Matron - Mother of Nine, Six Still Living
I returned to Ma Plae and La Mae's home to visit some more.  Soon a group of Buddhist Monks stopped by.  The leader of the group is a friend of La Mae's.  He is a Forest Monk from a retreat off of Highway 1095 on the way back to Pai.  He spoke excellent English.  As he was speaking, I realized that I too knew the Monk.  Four years ago when Duang and I last visited the area, we had visited him at his forest retreat.  At the time we were not officially married.  He told Duang to take good care of me and he told me to listen to Duang.  In the four years since then, Duang has taken very good care of me.  As for me, I listened to her quite a few times.  I mainly don't listen to her when she wants me to go to the clinic, doctor, or to the hospital whenever I first get a runny nose or other minor ailment.  When I told the Monk that I knew him from 4 years earlier, he remembered and shared his memories of the visit.  He invited us to visit him at his retreat later that afternoon.  He had some special amulets that he wanted to give us.  We promised him that we would visit later in the afternoon.

Mudhan Sewing a Blouse
On our way out of Ban Huay Sua Tao we stopped by Mudhan's booth.  She was busy sewing a new blouse - zig zag stitches by hand that looked like an electric serge machine had produced the.  Mudhan is another special person that I met on my  first visit to the camp in October 2006, when she was nineteen.  I had come upon her when I was exploring the upper street of the village - the street that few tourists wander along - no souvenir booths.  She was sitting outside her home breastfeeding her infant son.  I pantomimed a request to photograph her and her son and she allowed me to.  The photographs are some of my all time favorites.  On my return visit in December of that year I was pleased to give her prints of those special photographs.

On our last visit in April 2009, we got to play with her infant daughter, Peelada.  We asked her if she was planning on having any more children and she replied that Peelada was going to be her last child.  During this visit I made a point of reminding her and she laughed as she informed us that she had not had any more babies.  She asked if we had any babies together.  I told her that Duang could not have children now but we still keep trying!  She laughed and was still laughing when I told her we would return someday, hopefully in the near future, and check to see she had any more children.

It had been a great visit to the camp; an opportunity to share experiences with friends and to make some new friends.

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