About-face

This post is part of A Word A Week Challenge: Face, run by A Word In Your Ear.

Akha hilltribe woman, Doi Suthep, Thailand, 1991, by © Caron Eastgate Dann, 2011. Acrylics on canvas board.

Akha hilltribe woman, Doi Suthep, Thailand, 1991, by © Caron Eastgate Dann, 2011. Acrylics on canvas board.

I met and photographed this Akha hilltribe woman at a village on Doi Suthep, near Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, in April 1991. Twenty years later, when I first took up art as a hobby, I decided to paint her portrait.

She always stuck in my mind, because she was the only Akha living in a Lisu village. Through the guide, she told me she was aged 39 and had three children.

I had been living in Nonthaburi, central Thailand, since December 1990 and we had taken advantage of the songkran (Thai new year) holiday to travel up north for a few days.

The Lisu village we visited was a set-up for tourists really. I still have my journal from that time, in which I’ve written that the Lisus usually live in isolated villages high in the mountains, but this village had been persuaded by an elephant training centre to relocate within a half-hour trek of them so they could bring in tourists to buy their arts and crafts.

In those days, the village had no electricity, no running water, no TVs or even radio. In the past, the hilltribes relied on opium as their cash crop, but the Thai government had banned its sale, so they had to find other ways to make a living.

Lisu hilltribe woman, Doi Suthep, 1991. Photo ©Caron Eastgate Dann 1991.

Lisu hilltribe woman, Doi Suthep. Photo ©Caron Eastgate Dann 1991.

This woman was also at the Lisu village, sitting in the same hut as the Akha woman. They were both doing some sort of needlework.

Picture © Caron Eastgate Dann, 1991.

Merchants at a Hmong village, Doi Suthep, Thailand. Picture © Caron Eastgate Dann, 1991.

The next day, we went to a Hmong village that was not so far up the mountain and that we could drive into. This husband and wife were among the stall-holders there. All the adults then wore traditional dress and—even though there was an element of showmanship for tourists—I found the images unforgettable. Children at the more isolated village we had visited also wore traditional dress—at least for the cameras—but at the Hmong village, many were wearing T-shirts and track pants.

In my journal from that time, I’ve written about the Hmong village: “There was no road to the village until 12 or 13 years ago, and villagers once went to Chiang Mai only around once a year. Now they go more often, but still they resist development, although we did notice a pick-up truck in one garage.”

They resist “development” no longer, it seems. In November 2012, more than 21 years later, I returned to the Hmong village. These days, there are no traditional costumes to be seen, just jeans, T-shirts with marketing logos and other ordinary Western clothes. There are pick-up trucks everywhere. Most people speak English as well as Thai.

The village market today is full of the same “hand-made” crafts you can buy in Bangkok, Phuket, or anywhere else. There are still people assembling these goods, but they seem to come ready-made in large batches, to be quickly pieced together on site. Someone is making  a fortune, and it’s surely not the hilltribe people.

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11 thoughts on “About-face

  1. Sometimes you want keep the authenticity of the place for its own good but the people might want to try a different experience for them, something new. And then the place loses its charm.

    • Yes, so true. Travellers often say they’re looking for an “authentic” experience, when really they’re looking for something that existed in the past, or something they’ve seen on a film or read about in a book. I’m really interested in how writers and artists represent cultures other than their own.

          • You definitely need at least a month. You also have to resign yourself to the fact you won’t scratch the surface. My trip was a great first trip. Started in Delhi. Then Agra (Taj Mahal). Then we went all through Rajasthan. Varanasi (where all Indians want to die or at least have their ashes scattered in the Ganges. The spiritual foundation of India and a must-see. But not an easy place which is why my travel agent put it in the middle of my trip. ). Then Mumbai and then a week in the South, in Kerala. I loved all of it, to be honest. There may have been a couple of places in Rajasthan I think we could have missed, but I know they were included to break up very long road trips. I will tell you what a friend of mine, who was living in Delhi at the time, told me. Because it is so huge and it has so much to offer you should try to figure out what kind of trip you want. Spiritual? Culinary? Architecture? Textiles? Once you know that you can start to figure out where you should go and how ling to spend along the way. In the end I wanted my first trip to cover the basics. To let me get a glimpse of the past and a look at the future. To give me a taste of what makes the country tick. To sample the extremes. You need a travel agent who specializes in India and I wouldn’t dismiss the idea of a small tour — 6 to 10 people. My agent is from India but lives in Toronto. But she has clients everywhere. In fact we had a couple from Australia on our trip. Happy to give you her contact info.

            • Thank you for such a fulsome reply. I love the idea of figuring out the type of trip you want. I think mine would be literary/arty and culinary. I haven’t used an agent for travel for a very long time, but I agree, it’s such a big country, a good agent would be beneficial in this case, and maybe a tour for part of it. Does she have a website? I will archive your advice, so thank you again for taking the time.

              • She doesn’t. Or at least she didn’t. I bugged her about it all the time. When I get home I will check. If she doesn’t I will send you her coordinates.

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