The Sockeyed Blog

Ben Johnson's Blog

Posts Tagged ‘Chiang Mai

Something’s Hmong with this Picture

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My train was an hour late getting into Chiang Mai, so that limited my already limited time there. Greg Rekken, the CUSO cooperant from Vancouver who I met before he headed out to Thailand, greeted me at the train station with his motorcycle. Groggy from a not-great sleep and my cold, and by the fact that my monkly companions woke at 5:30 and started chatting, our first stop was for a coffee.

Time didn’t allow for a trip out to the model farm which I documented last year, plus I found out that some of the folks I’d met last year had moved on, so instead Greg and I met up with Jeremy Mak – an American working with Burmese NGOs whom I met last November – at a restaurant in a large cob building near the university.

It was fun to drive through Chiang Mai again, seeing many familiar sights. We all caught up with each other’s activities over a lunch that was tasty but long in the delivery. Too long, unfortunately, to allow me to get my traditional mango sticky rice in the old town near the Tae Phe gate. Greg got me the airport in good time for my flight and I ventured on.

The ATR-72 Chinese-made copy of a Russian plane stayed aloft by the grace of Buddha and we touched down in Luang Prabang at around 4pm and I rode a mini van to the Wheelers’ house, down a lane across from the Rama Hotel in a nice part of town about a 10 minute’s walk from the old core. Ron was there to greet me as were their two cats, Patches and Casper, adopted as kittens abandoned on their front door. Alisa arrived soon, but was tied up with work at the Children’s Cultural Centre that evening. We shared some beer, Alisa returned to work, and Ron and I walked out to dinner at the Blue Lagoon, where I ate otlam stew and sticky rice. The food was tasty, but prepared for western tastes, so it wasn’t as spicy as what the kids made last year at the CCC.

After dinner we dropped by the CCC where a weekend of teacher training was taking place. In the evening that revolved around skits, singing and dancing, which was good entertainment. Ron and I were enticed onto stage for some festive group dancing (all moving in a circle, one hand facing up, one hand down).

I spent most of yesterday with Ron walking and biking around the town. I am struck by how beautiful Luang Prabang is, surrounded by mountains and lying between the Mekong and the Namquan rivers. There is a classic colonial feel to the architecture, and it is all really quite calm and quiet despite the larger number of tourists (perhaps because in part they are the older, calmer variety). Orange-robed monks are still ubiquitous.

Ron and I started with lao coffee (with condensed milk) and a baguette warmed over a fire at my favourite coffee shop down on the Mekong where Jeremy and I spent a lot of our mornings last year.

After that, a stop at the Viva Travel to book onwards tickets. A setback there because all of the outbound flights to Vientiane are full for the week, so I’m aiming for a standby flight today. There was a little bit of activity at the CCC when we walked past, but the kids showed no sign of recognition despite the fact that I spent a week there last year. This is not entirely suprising given the number of farang who pass through Luang Prabang.

We returned home to pick up the bikes, then went for noodles (phe) at a favourite shop in the west part of the old town, followed by a ride over the old bailey bridge and down a dusty bumpy road to the village where the weavers are. I found one of the women that I photographed at Naga Textiles last year and gave her a number of photos of her and her sister, and she was very pleased. We rode home via a Beer Lao pit stop, then had naps. I was doing ok until a Lao Airlines prop plane flew low overhead and woke me up, then I couldn’t snooze again, so I went for a wander in town with my camera, and strolled along the Mekong waterfront as the sun set over the river.

Alisa was home when I returned to their place, and we all decided to go to Nisha, the Indian restaurant. Alisa ordered a wonderful assortment of very tasty dishes which we came close to almost finishing. The owner of the restaurant is from South Indian (Madras?) and is married to a Lao women, and together they have at least three gorgeous children including one daughter about 45 days old.

On our way home we talked through the night market which is almost overwhelming in terms of how nice the goods for sale are, even if they become variations on a theme after a while. I bought two Hmong embroidered baby hats (one old, one new), plus two pairs of little shoes for Asha. For me I picked up a Lao PDR t-shirt. I love mine from last year and I wanted a second for when it wears out.

I slept well last night for the first night in a while, and my cold seems to be a bit better today. Ron was off to work before I got up, but Alisa took a day off, so we went for coffee/baguette down by the river again, then back via a quick stop at the market where I bought an embroidered Hmong duvet cover and pillow cases for 230,000 kip, about $30. Beautiful stuff.

A final pack, a tuk-tuk, and now I’m at the airport. There are two flights today and I’m on the standby list for both (#5 on the first, #3 on the second). I’ve got my fingers crossed that I’ll be able to get to Vientiane today. Luang Prabang is a nice place to be stuck, but I would rather get on the road at this point.

Written by sockeyed

November 17, 2008 at 20:00

Chiang Mai and Mango Sticky Rice

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I’m feeling somewhat satiated after finally getting my mango sticky rice. I arrived in Chiang Mai almost 24 hours ago, but it took until breakfast this morning to get some. I’m spending my time in Chiang Mai photographing a project by an NGO called NEED which promotes sustainable local development and human rights issues. The initiative is called the “Food Security and Human Rights Awareness Project.” The subject of my documentation is actually a young Quebecois volunteer who is funded to do work here by CUSO. The project he is leading is the creation of a small farm which will be used to train Burmese in practices of sustainable organic agriculture and educate them about human rights issues. Nicholas, the volunteer or ‘cooperant’, is very passionate and driven about the work, putting in long hours seven days a week in most cases. He is working out of the NEED office here in Chiang Mai. The office is an open-air house that is actually home to about six Arakanese Burmese, from the state of Arakan in the far west, right next to Bangladesh. All are in Thailand illegally and will face 10 days in jail and deportation if caught by the authorities. All arrived here independently of each other.

The farm itself is 20km from town. We got there on motor scooters on some of the more chaotic but actually reasonably safe roads. To call it a farm is a bit of a stretch; it’s only about 3 acres or so, and has one bamboo house that they built together, but it makes sense that it’s small as it should replicate conditions back in Burma. The land is mostly planted in rice from seed that they scavenged and collected. There is some mixing of crops, too: beans, okra, pumpkin, banana, mango and herbs all grow in raised beds among the rice. It is harvest time, so I watched Nicholas and two of the Burmese harvesting the rice with sickles. One, Kyaw Aye, was a real pro and could gather up great bushels in short order. It was hard work, though, no doubt. Nicholas was right in the middle of the action, and he spends every day out on the farm. He seems to really thrive on the work, though. He certainly doesn’t take the easy way here, working alongside the Burmese farmers. His intention is to stay for 5 years. We all spent a great late afternoon in the fields, and I think that I got some decent shots in the warm, low-angle light. Back in town we socialized over some beers in a local Thai watering hole. Six big bottles of beer and snacks came to about $11. My treat.

We’ll be going out to the farm again over the next few days. Tomorrow will be a big work day – I’ll hire a car (they have a very limited budget) and we’ll take all the Burmese folk out to the farm. They plan to raise beds, and harvest and thresh rice. Should be an amazing experience. Jeremy arrives on saturday. I hope to take him to the farm, but we’re not likely to spend a ton of time here before heading east to Luang Prabang in Laos.

Getting to Chiang Mai was a bit of a whirlwind experience. Flying on Cathay Pacific, I landed in Hong Kong on sunday night and made my way by public bus to Kin-yi’s apartment in Tsuen Wan. She’s on some mysterious trip to the UK, from what I know. A good night’s sleep and I was up and running errands around Hong Kong – getting memory cards, portable hard drives, and dropping things off at Joseph Yao’s shop in TST. It was a bit surreal, obviously.

That night I flew to Bangkok and arrived at midnight. I put myself up in the KT Guesthouse at CUSO’s suggestion. It was kind of out in the middle of nowhere, but it was convenient to their office. After a lousy sleep, I stumbled to the subway and rode a couple of stops, then walked to the CUSO office, which was even more in the middle of nowhere. There I met with the regional director, Thomas Achillles and we planned out my trip and contacts in various places. He treated me to a great lunch in a nearby eatery.

I collected my things from the hotel and zipped downtown on the subway then skytrain to the Sala Daeng station, where I met Simon Larbarlestier, an English photographer living in Bangkok whom I’d met through a couple of online forums. Being a small photographers world, we also know quite a few folks in common. We had a good long chat, joined partway through by another local friend (a painter), over ploughman platters and lager in an Irish pub. I’ll see Simon again in Siem Reap in a while.

A short subway ride and I’m at the train station. CUSO provided me with a ticket on the night train to Chiang Mai, which was a great experience. I love trains, especially sleeper trains. It’s a narrow-gauge railway, so there weren’t separate compartments, just semi-ingenious fold-down bunks and convertible seats. The train pulled out at 7:35pm. I read The Great War for Civilization, then crawled into my curtained-off little bed area. I slept very well, bouncing down the rails. We pulled in to Chiang Mai at 9:45am and I took a tuk-tuk to the Roong Ruang hotel by the Ta Phae gate, where I stayed two years ago. Good location and decent enough. Nicholas met me there, and we set out on our day.

Written by sockeyed

November 15, 2007 at 17:29