Saturday, October 31, 2015

Additional Photos - Isaan Go-Go Girls

Dancing At A Tambon Nong Roy Wan Party
 Eleven new photos have been added today to one of my more popular photo galleries, "Isaan Go-Go Girls"  My brother-in-law stages and performs in shows all over this area so I have a great many opportunities to photograph the action.  Best of all - I get backstage with no trouble at all.

These shows have a combination of old music - Mahlam Lao (Morlam Lao) and Mahlam Zing which is updated electrified music with dancers.  The motivation for haing these shows is quite varied - from raising money for the local Buddhist temple to celebrating good fortune at winning the lottery.

The new photos added today are from three separate shows - a local government employees retirement party, a Tambon Nong Roy Wan Party, and a House Warming Party.

I suspect most people are not familiar with a Tambon Nong Roy Wan Party - sometimes referred to as a "Bone Party".  Some of the best parties that I have attended have been these parties. Theoretically, 100 days after a person has been cremated, there is a big merit making celebration.  Part of the celebration is to make offerings to the local Monks and to the spirits.  The other part of the ritual is to a big party - plenty of food, too much drinking, and a big show of ethnic music complete with 1960s style Go-Go dancers.

House Warming Party Entertainment

Friday, October 30, 2015

Cottage Industry of Thasang Village

When I was younger and in Junior High School, I guess what they now call "Middle School", I learned of the term "cottage industry".  Cottage industry was the method in which many goods and services were provided before the industrial revolution and the advent of today's factory system.

In the cottage industry system goods are produced on a small scale often on a part time basis by family members at their home using their own equipment. It is a situation that I have witnessed quite often here I southeast Asia, in particular here in Isaan at my wife's home village - Thasang Village.

The people that I have encountered over the past nine years have impressed me greatly with the self-reliance and self-sufficiency.  Naturally these traits are exhibited most visible in their cottage industry endeavors.

The people weave their baskets, weave fish nets, weave cloth, assemble school uniforms from factory pre-cut pieces, process imported frozen fish, and weave mats from reeds that grow in the local wetlands - to name a few of the cottage industries.

The people do this out of necessity to meet their needs and to make some money to support their family.  There is no welfare system here in Thailand.  People in need are supported by their family, my their community and to a limited extent by the local Wats.  There are some programs largely sponsored by the King and local government.

Years ago, a representative sponsored by the King came to Duang's village.  The intent of the person's two week stay at the village was to teach local women how to be seamstresses.  I am amazed and also proud to see Duang look at clothes in a store or look at outfits in a magazine or book to then sit down with a sewing tape, some large plain paper, a pencil, several metal French curves, "S" curves, and other items and create a pattern to reproduce the clothing in our home.

A couple of years ago, a representative from the local government went out to Thasang Village to teach woman how to prepare and cook popular treats ... food items that can be produced in their hoes and then sold in the local markets.  Here in Thailand people are taught techniques to help them to support their family rather than being sustained through government hand-outs
with no skills that will allow them to rise above their current economic condition.

Federal and local governments do help local people by not overburdening them with regulations.  Local people quite often set up little restaurants - often nothing more than a couple plastic tables and plastic chairs for customers, a small charcoal furnace and a big pot of soup.  Some people, like my brother-in-law and his wife, have sidecars hooked up to their motorbikes from which they sell freshly brewed lemon ice tea, soft drinks, fried meats such as hot dogs, beef balls, and pork balls.  Some other people have a similar set-ups but sell freshly cut iced fruit. There are also other motorbikes with sidecars of fried silk worms, fried grasshoppers, and other bugs that look like cockroaches.

The common denominator of all these activities is that the people are free and unencumbered by regulation to pursue them.  There are no permits, tax numbers, licenses, health regulations, safety and health plans, local tax withholding, national tax with holding. mandatory retirement contributions, and so forth.

Last month when we visited Duang's Aunt who was popping rice as a step to making kao tawtek, we became aware of another cottage industry in Thasang Village.  As we were getting into our truck, there was a shout out to us from the house across the street.  We went over to her cousin's house to check out what was going on.

Making Cookies In Thasang Village
Underneath the overhanging roof of the house, her cousin and some family members were baking cookies to sell directly at local markets or to sell to vendors.

Cutting the Dough Into Bite Size Pieces
At the far end of the partially enclosed patio area, there was a gas fired oven - a sort of pizza oven, that you will often see outside of bakeries in the city (cuts down on the heat inside of the bakery).  The oven was obviously quite old but was "fit for purpose".  There was no need for specialized piping to supply gas to the oven  The oven was fed propane through a regulator and reinforced vinyl tubing from a 15 Kg gas bottle.

Duang's cousin handled the cooking - placing the pans of dough into the oven and emptying the cooked cookies into a large container to cool.

Two family members took large sheets of the cookie dough and cut them into small bite sized pieces to be cooked.  The family had mixed the dough before and allowed it to rest.  The cookies were very similar to "Snickerdoodles" but without eggs of milk.  As best as I could determine the cookies were made out of rice flour, sugar, vanilla, baking powder and I suspect water.  They were sweet tasting and melted in your mouth.  Delicious.

Packaging Cookies For the Market.
After the cookies had cooled, the laundry basket of cookies were carried a short distance to the packaging line underneath a small sheltered platform that is located in front of many Isaan homes - a place to eat, drink, sleep, care for babies, and socialize.

Duang's niece sat cross legged on the rough wood platform, filling cellophane bags with a measured quantity of cookies and sealed the top of the bags with elastic bands.  We enjoyed some samples and ended up buying a good sized bag, enough for three days, for 20 Baht ($0.60 USD).

There is a saying that "Where there is a will there is a way".  Here in Isaan - there is plenty of will and many ways - ways to help support yourself and your family.  People doing what they can and have to do to survive.  Freedom is not free.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Additional Photos Posted - "Runny Noses & Dirty Faces - Children"

Sixteen new photographs were added today to my photography website.  The photos are added to the end of the gallery.

By far, "Runny Noses & Dirty Faces - Children" is my most popular gallery on my website.  As of the end of September 2015, there have been 189,605 page views compared to the next most popular gallery, "Maehongson Oct 2006", with 80,094 page views.

Twenty-six prints from "Runny Noses & Dirty Faces - Children" gallery are hung in a hospital located in Germany.  I am pleased to have been selected for the project to redecorate the hospital corridors.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Popping Rice In Isaan - Kao Tawtek Time.

Popping Rice In Isaan

I first encountered the Isaan specialty, Kao Tawtek, seven years ago.  I often refer to Kao Tawtek as "Thai Cracker Jacks"

Cracker Jacks are treat for the past 129 years in the United States.  They are molasses flavored, caramel covered kernels of popcorn and peanuts.

Early September is the time, when Lao Loum families gather together to make Kao Tawtek.  Rice is one of the main components of the delicious treat.  Last year's harvest of rice is stored in small raised sheds adjacent to each house.  Large 50 kilogram (110 pound) recycled fertilizer bags, sugar bags, and rice bags are filled with sun dried rice kernels each October and November.  The bags are kept in the raised granaries and removed as needed to feed the family or opened to obtain offerings at special events such as funerals, bone parties, Tambon Roy Wan -100 day death anniversary, weddings, and Monk ordinations.  Families who are unable to make offerings of cash, make donations of rice.  The cash as well as the rice are then offered to the Monks in merit making rituals.

The stored rice has husk in tact.  In order to eat the rice, the rice is brought to a local miller to remove the husk, rendering the rice to the state that most people in the USA are familiar with at their grocery store.  Many bags of rice are not milled in Isaan because they are the seed stock for next year's crop.  Other bags of unmilled rice are saved to make kao tawtek.

I suspect that it is not by coincidence that the time to make kao tawtek is a month before the harvest of this year's rice crop.  Families now know how much rice they have as surplus from the last harvest, so that are able to make the special treat without fear of running out of rice before the new harvest is available.

Early last month, after our return from Vietnam, we drove out to Thasang Village.  Members of Duang's extended and extensive family were popping rice as part of the process to make this year's Kao Tawtek.

We ended up at one of Duang's Aunt's house.  Alongside of the house underneath the shelter of an overhanging corrugated metal roof, there was a stove made out of a modified steel barrel. The barrel had been cut in half with a large notch cut into the side. The barrel was then placed upside down on the dirt so that the notch served as a door to the interior of the barrel. A small wood fire was burning inside of the barrel using long pieces of fire wood. As the fire burned down, people shoved the unburned portions of the logs deeper into the barrel. On top the barrel was a large and heavy wok type iron frying pan. A woman was popping rice in the hot wok. She would take about a quart of brown rice seed from a woven wood basket and sprinkle it into the wok. She constantly stirred the seed inside the wok with a rustic broom made with a wood handle and reed bristles. In no time at all, the seed started to pop. With snap, crackles and pops the white interior of the kernel burst forth - much like popcorn.  She continued stirring the seeds despite the updraft of hot rice puffs. When the wok seeds were fully engaged in popping, she placed a battered old metal container attached to a wood handle over the wok to contain the rice puffs.

The sound of the popping rice seed, the swirling smoke, the swishing sound of the stiff reeds on hot metal, the sight of white rice puffs bursting upwards, and the smell of a wood fire all created quite a sensory explosion.  The shelter of the overhanging roof ensured that the pending rain would not interfere with the activity.


Occasionally another woman would stoop down and tend the fire. Most of the time tending the fire was adding just a couple more inches of the small pieces of wood into the fire. Other times tending the fire involved splashing some water on the coals to maintain a desired temperature in the wok - too hot a temperature would end up quickly burning the popped rice before it could be removed.

As the popping came to a conclusion, another woman would approach the fire to take hold of the large metal bowl that had been used over the top of the wok. She held the bowl at an angle as she swept the hot rice puffs into it.

The puffed rice was then carried to another woman who was tending a woven basket suspended from the overhead beams. The hot rice puffs were dumped into the woven basket that she rocked back and forth by hand to sieve the product. Unpopped seed and smaller puff pieces fell through the basket onto a mat comprised of sahts, woven reed mats, along with flattened recycled rice, sugar and fertilizer bags.. The rejected product is used to feed chickens and cattle. The acceptable puffs were dumped into metal pots and eventually placed into clean empty fertilizer plastic sacks to be used another day with the other ingredients.

The plan for the day was only to pop the rice and to wait until another day to cook in the sugar, millet, coconut, peanuts and package the delicious treat.

The work proceeded with a great deal of laughing and talking - very little transpires here in Isaan without a great deal of talking and gossiping.

The Kao Tawtek is finished for  Wan Kao Saht the Mid Autumn (Moon) Festival.  On this day, the Lao Loum people of Isaan make offerings to the hungry phii (ghosts).  In making the offerings to the phii, the people ask the ghosts to watch over and take care of this year's rice crop which will be harvested in October and November.  Close to the harvest, the people want to ensure that there are no problems with the crop.  The kao tawtek is a special treat for the spirits.
Kao Tawtek is also offered to the Monks as they complete roughly 60 days of the 90 day Buddhist Lent also referred as the Buddhist Rains Retreat. Families can also make extra income by selling surplus kao tawtek to people who want and need it but are not able or willing to make it themselves.
I am in constant admiration of the local people's self reliance and willingness to take advantage of the opportunities, many of them self-made, to support themselves.  Fortunately, especially for them, there is not much interference from government in the people's efforts.

The Lao Loum people, be they living in Thailand or in the Lao People's Democratic Republic (Laos), may not live in "the land of the free ..." but they are free to make a living without cumbersome regulation.  My experience is also the same for the people of Vietnam.


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Gave Me Some of That Good Ol' ...

In planning and scheduling our trip to the Tonkinese Alps of Vietnam last month, I was fixated on timing for the rice harvest.  We had previously visited the area in late April at the tail end of the rice planting  season.  I wanted to capture photos of the ethnic tribes people harvesting the rice by hand, or at a minimum if my timing was off - photographs of golden rice terraces ready to be harvested.

It was difficult to determine exactly when to go in order to achieve my goal.  I contacted some people in the area and did not get a specific answer. The harvest depends each year upon when the crop was planted due to weather conditions in April or May, the weather conditions during the growing season, and the weather conditions leading up to the harvest. The harvest even depends on the location of the crop - elevation and micro-climate can drastically affect the rice cultivation.  My research indicated that the harvest season was early September to the end of October.  I decided to err on the side of caution - preferring to be too early rather than miss the entire event.  I chose to travel to the Sapa region during the first week of September for the rice harvest.

I was very pleased upon our arrival on 5 September to discover that the rice harvest had just begun.  I was also surprised to find that we were just at the tail end of the corn harvest.  Corn is grown in the area by the Hmong people.

Harvesting Corn From Patch Along the Roadside
Cultivating corn in Northwest Vietnam is similar to rice cultivation.  It is all done manually.  Small plots of land carved out of mountainsides or along the banks of streams or rivers are used.  Even if the people could afford to purchase or rent mechanized equipment, the size of the plots prevent the use of machines.

Harvest Basket of Corn Straight From the Field
There are Hmong food dishes that use corn.  I suspect that since Hmong people raise pigs, that the corn is also used as animal feed.  What I did not appreciate, until this visit, was how much of the corn is used for the production of "corn liquor" - "White Lightning","Moonshine", "Hooch".

Bac Ha is famous for, besides its Sunday Market, its Moonshine and Tam Hoa plums.  The Hmong people have a very long tradition and culture for making corn liquor.  The Hmong people around Bac Ha are famous for the quality and quantity of the Moonshine that they make.

For hundreds of years, the Hmong people practiced and most definitely enjoyed this aspect of their culture.  There were attempts on the 1960s and 1970s to regulate Vietnamese traditional alcohol production but the attempts failed.  The government failed to recognize and appreciate the strong tradition of the ethnic tribes for their culture of making booze.  Sound familiar?

The most recent attempt by the central government to regulate, if not control, the production of traditional alcohol was in 2013 when people who manufactured traditional alcohol were supposed to register and obtain a permit.  Based upon my conversations in the area the people's reaction is very similar to the famous quote by the character "Gold Hat" from the 1948 movie, "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre"

 - “Badges (Permits)? We ain’t got no badges (Permits)! We don’t need no badges (Permits)!  I don’t have to show you any stinking badges (Permits)!”

I find it refreshing as well as reassuring that there are still places, but more importantly people, who resist the intrusion of centralized government into their lives and culture.  I am even more impressed to learn that some governments know better than to push their luck and not aggressively impose their will on traditionalists.

The baskets of corn from the field are brought to a central location where they are emptied and the harvest is consolidated into empty recycled sugar, rice, or fertilizer sacks.  Depending upon the quantity of the harvest and number of motorbikes available, the 50KG bags of corn are brought to the home on motorbikes or farm wagons.  I saw some horse drawn carts during our visit and I suspect that may be used too.

Once back at the farm house the corn is spread out to dry in the sun.  Provisions are made to shield the drying corn from the numerous rain showers that still occur in early September in the mountainous region.

After the corn is sufficiently dried, it is shelled - the kernels are removed from the cob by hand or with a specialized machine - either manually or electrically driven.  The corn kernels are then spread out on a tarp in the front yard and often times alongside the road that runs in front of the house to dry further in the sun.

 On our trip up to the Can Cau Saturday Market, I noticed many people buying 20 liter (5 gallon) translucent plastic bottles filled with liquid.

The next day at the Bac Ha Sunday Market, I saw many more of these containers being purchased.  At first I thought that they might be containers of cooking oil.  I knew that they were not bottles of diesel or gasoline because the liquid inside was clear.  Based upon the lack of color and sheer size of the bottles I eventually ruled out cooking oil.  Still somewhat confused as to why mountain people in an undeveloped area with plenty of rivers and streams would end up going to a weekly market I settled on assuming the people were buying drinking water.  It was only upon our return to our hotel that I found out that the people were buying 20 liter containers of moonshine - mountain dew, corn liquor, hooch.  Twenty liters costs $30 USD ($1.50 USD a liter).  Many people were buying more than one container too.  A good profit can be made selling smaller quantities out of the 20 liters and even better profit is made by aging it for a year and then selling it in smaller containers - so I was told.  The going price in a year is around $5.00 a liter.  I am still trying to figure out how storing alcohol in a plastic container improves it after one year. Well if that is what the people believe and it works for them, who am I to spoil it for them. Perhaps I should go back in a year and taste for myself  - if some of the 17 containers will still be around then.  Whiskey is aged in oak barrels to develop much of its flavor and all of its color.

Bac Ha is famous for its Moonshine and Tam Hoa plums.  What if the two were combined?  I know.  I know from experience.  With our dinner at Sa House on Saturday night, all guests were offered Moonshine and "Plum Wine".  The corn liquor was potent - I believe it to be 90 proof.  I tasted the "Plum Wine" and was surprised how strong it was.  It had a pleasant flavor but also packed a punch.  I asked if the moonshine had been added to the wine.  Yes, it had been "fortified" with corn liquor.

Duang does not drink so I ended up with two generous shots of corn liquor and two shots of slightly less potent "Plum Wine".

Duang had complained about having trouble sleeping in Hanoi because I was snoring.  Sunday morning I asked her how she slept or at least how she slept until the early morning thunderstorm.  She said that she slept "Very good.  You not make noise.  Whiskey good for you!"

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Bac Ha Sunday Market

Breakfast At Bac Ha Sunday Market
Duang and I accepted Mr. Sa's offer to take us down the hill from Sa House to the weekly market down the hill in the center of Bac Ha.  We rode down on the back of motorcycles driven by Mr. Sa and his brother who works at the hotel.

In no time at all we were at the intersection of the village road and the main road in town that leads on to Can Cau and the border with PRC.  The center of town, which was quite quiet and boring just 24 hours earlier upon our arrival by bus from Lao Chai was now teaming with people and the air was charged with the excitement often encountered when people from rural areas go into "the big city" for periodic shopping excursions.  However the difference here was the unique cultural aspects of this local market.  Most of the patrons of the market were hill tribe people - typically Flower Hmong and Black Hmong.

Flower Hmong People Selling Produce From Their Family Garden
There were two main reasons that they had come into town for the market - to buy things and to sell things.  People came to sell fresh produce from their family gardens. People came to buy things such as rice threshing machines, ready made clothing, plastic toys, livestock, and large translucent plastic filled containers.  Side activities included socializing and getting haircuts with perhaps a restaurant meal.

Checking Out A Manual Rice Thresher
Unlike the Can Cau Market, 20 km to the north, which is set in a rural location, the Bac Ha Market is in a more "urban" environment.  I have researched the population of Bac Ha town but I have not come up with any statistic other than the population of the entire Bac Ha District which is roughly 50,000 people.  My guess is that the population of the town is around 5,000 - small by many standards but large enough to have  a couple hardware shops where foot operated rice threshing machines can be purchased and where people can get their chain saws repaired if they choose not to buy many of the new ones on display in the shops.  Other permanent town shops offer goods and services that the rural people are unable to make for themselves.

The Bac Ha Sunday Market is situated in the town square area and like tentacles of an octopus or squid reaches out along side streets as well as alleys adjoining the square.  It seems that every open space during the remainder of the week is commandeered on Sunday - merchandise is sold off of tarps and sometimes just an empty rice, sugar, or fertilizer bag set on the ground tended by vendors squatting next to their goods sometimes under a handheld umbrella for protection from the sun.

In the more "developed" sections of the market, stalls are set up underneath large tarps, typically blue, Suspended from temporary wood columns and tied off to just about anything that the people can find.

Shelling White Corn At Bac Ha Sunday Market

Woven Baskets for Transporting Animals - Small Animals and Tightly Packed Animals

At the edge of the market is the area where animals are bought and sold.  There were only a few water buffalo for sale but there were plenty of ducks, pigs, chickens and even some small dogs.  The pigs were small and spent most of their time in a gunnysack.  When an interested buyer showed up, the piglet was pulled out by its hind legs and displayed for the potential buyer to checked out.  No matter if a sale was concluded or not the pig, often with some difficulty, was returned to the recycled  rice, sugar, or fertilizer bag.

Bac Ha Pig Market
Ducks as well as chickens were kept in either hand made woven baskets or commercially made wire baskets.

Bac Ha Poultry Market
As you will find at all markets in Southeast Asia, there are plenty of stalls, booths, and outdoor restaurants where you can buy a snack or a "sit down meal"  The sounds and smells of ethnic foods being prepared as well as cooked adds to the exotic atmosphere of these markets for foreigners.  You want to know what the local people eat?  Go to a market and watch.

Markets are also a great location to people watch and for environmental portraits - portraits of people doing what they typically do and where they do it - a moment captured as well as a glimpse into their everyday life.

Markets are also a family affair - often 4 generations of a family along with extended members travel together for their "day" at the market.  They arrive on foot, in the back of pickup trucks, in the back of stake body heavy vehicles, on the backs of motorbikes (2,3, 4 and sometimes 5), mini-vans, mini-buses, with a few even arriving on horse back.

One of my favorite locations at the Bac Ha Market was a section where a couple of stalls were selling bulk tobacco.  The vendors had large mounds of chopped new tobacco on their tarp placed on the ground.  This chopped tobacco did not look like the tobacco that you find in commercial cigarettes.  The tobacco at the market looked exactly like shredded tobacco leaves direct from the outdoor drying racks that you can find outside of the homes where it is grown.  I guess it didn't have all the 599 ingredients that American companies have admitted to using such as ammonia, Ethyl - whole bunch of different stuff, Dimethyl - whole bunch of stuff, grape juice, Sodium - various things, Sugar - not components of tobacco but things that they added to THEIR tobacco.

Customers Sampling Some of the Tobacco Mounds

Customers are encouraged to sample the tobacco that is offered for sale.  The vendors had 4 to 6 bamboo bongs readily available for their customers to use.  Smoking for many people in southeast Asia, especially hill tribe members, is very different than what many foreigners are accustomed to.  First of all they do not typically smoke cigarettes or even in what we call "pipes".  The people smoke the tobacco using bamboo and sometimes PVC bongs 4 to 6 inches in diameter.  They also do not use a great deal of tobacco when they smoke - about 1/8 teaspoon placed in a very appropriately sized small bowl near the bottom of the bong connected at an angle with a small diameter tube.  The tobacco is ignited and the user sucks in with their mouth and nose the prodigious amount of smoke that exits from the top of the bong.  The smoker savors the smoke for a short while and then blows it out through their mouth and nose.

After spending time at the tobacco vendors, we walked over to the edge of the market where two men had set up competing barbershops on the opposite sides of the footpath just down from the pig markets.  As we approached, one of the barbers and his customer enthusiastically welcomed us and motioned us to sit down on the small home made wood bench at his area.  After walking around for at least three hours with my 15 pound camera gear backpack on, I welcomed the opportunity to take it off and to sit down.  Duang, however, had other ideas.  He walked over closer to the barber and off to his side.  After the barber and his customer finally realized that speaking Vietnamese to Duang did not do any good, they realized that she was just observing and not interested in sitting down.  If I had $1 USD or 22,000 VND for every time that people thought that Duang was Vietnamese, I would be writing this blog entry from Vietnam on our second trip to Vietnam in a month.

Haircut Time In Bac Ha
Why was Duang so interested in observing.  Nine years ago she graduated from beauty school.  Since then she has cut my hair every month.  She does a very good job but she is slow.  I have often joked with her that if she had a beauty shop, she would go out of business fast - doing 4 haircuts a day at $3 each.  Duang cuts my hair mainly with scissors and finishes it off with electric shear.  Most of the barbers that I have seen use the electric shears and finish off with the scissors.  Duang has her way and I do not complain - when you are retired, what difference does it make if it takes 30 minutes for a haircut or 5 minutes?

We had a nice time - the customer and barber trying to get me to have my hair cut while I kept telling them that Duang cuts my hair at home - for free.  We all gave as good as we got.  I kept busy photographing while Duang was observing.

A Satisfied Customer  "Hansum" Man

The other barber across the walkway was doing just as much business.  He also had observers but unlike Duang, they were actual Vietnamese people

We have been home back in Thailand now for a month.  Duang has cut my hair once - applying the technique that she learned back at the Bac Ha Market.  She now uses the electric shears for most of the cutting and uses scissors to apply the finishing touches.  She is thrilled and ... much quicker now.

In doing my extensive research for our trip to Vietnam, I came across several blogs and websites where people wanted to know about which market was the best to visit and if you could only go to one, which would you pick?  Some of the answers as well as some reviews of the markets talk about the markets in terms of losing their ethnic flare, becoming too commercialized (hmmm - rather odd for markets?), and being crowded with tourists - Vietnamese, Chinese, and Westerners.

Well - here is my quick answer - "It is up to you"  Personally I would go to both!  One is on Saturday and the other is on Sunday.  An overnight stay in Bac Ha is not expensive.  My attitude is typically - this is a trip of a lifetime and when do you think or expect that you will return.  Getting somewhere is typically the biggest cost - spending an extra day or two to see everything is much cheaper than returning again.

As for guide books and Internet travel sites - I read them all the time and use them to plan our trips.  My wife and I are travelers rather than tourists.  Travelers?  Yes - travelers go places and do things that tourists do not.  Perhaps they are orientated more for tourists than travelers. Our travel style and preferences are shared in these blogs.

 As for the Can Cau and Bac Ha Markets being crowded with tourists - that was not per our observations.  I saw perhaps 10 to 20 obvious tourists - people who did not appear to be locals.

 I ran into the same issue in regards to attending the Poi Song Long Festival in Maehongsong - "crowded" according to the "experts".  Our experience for all three visits - 40 - 50 for the daytime processions but 4-6 tourists at 4:30 AM, "the best time", when the boys are dressed and have their make-up applied by family members inside the designated Wat.

Travel guides and some reviews advised against visiting the refugee camps of the Kayan people ("long necked women") referring to them as "human zoos" and "circuses".  I have been there 6 times and Duang has gone 4 times and did not have that experience.  We ended up making friends and learned some of their life as people without a country.  The key for us was to spend up close and personal time with the residents - not jumping out of a bus with 30 other people with 30 minutes to spend.

My research for a trip to Cusco, Peru for Inti-Raymi indicated that the city was crowded for the festival.  In reality, I had no difficulty booking my hotel of first choice, or watching the 12 hour parade in the center of town - crowds were 2 to 4 people deep along the parade route - overwhelmingly Peruvians.  Leaving the reenactment site for the festival was crowded ... but that is to be expected for event with thousands of spectators again the vast majority being Peruvian.  I considered it to be part of the event experience.

My use of travel resources is to determine locale opportunities and to develop my initial expectations but never to make a decision to go or not go to a certain locale or event.  My mind is made up, and my goals are defined before I start my research.  I have yet to be disappointed in not completely trusting travel resources.

The Can Cau Market and Bac Ha Market visits, eight years in the making, were work the time, money and effort.  For me a highlight of our trip to Vietnam was being told by my wife, who had vowed to never return to Vietnam 7 years ago - tell me out of the clear blue sky (well actually overcast sky) that she wanted to come back soon with our grandsons, Peelawat and Pope.

In the end, as Duang so often says "Up to you"


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