At first I wasn’t sure how I was going to write this piece.  I’m on record many times in this column saying as photographers and journalists we have a responsibility to accurately photograph “Thailand.”  What most tourists and even seasoned journalists end up photographing and showing are the most different subjects like the Long Necked Karen (Lisou) villages, the poor, and old rural villagers.  From outside the country those searching the internet to learn about Thailand then see a disproportionate number of these images giving the impression that Thailand is some newly discovered country which hasn’t changed in 1000’s of years.  In truth, a great part of Thailand is every bit as modern as any western country.

 

A well balanced portfolio of Thailand, in my opinion, should represent the entire population and its demographics.

 

 

 

 

Perhaps the most photographed and talked about group of people in Thailand are the Long Necked Karen’s, of which the Lisou are part.   In fact, only a small number of the Lisou practice these customs and most are no more different than the clothes they wear and the more common differences in regional physical features.  The real way to tell the Lisou apart from other Lisou, is by the colors and design of the colorful dresses and suits they wear.

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L USM  @F8  1/500th  42mm  ISO 100

 

Perhaps the most photographed and talked about group of people in Thailand are the Long Necked Karen’s, of which the Lisou are part.   In fact, only a small number of the Lisou practice these customs and most are no more different than the clothes they wear and the more common differences in regional physical features.  The real way to tell the Lisou apart from other Lisou, is by the colors and design of the colorful dresses and suits they wear.

 

 

 

 

The Karen’s within Thailand’s Lisou community (not including the tens of thousands of Burmese Karen refugees) number roughly 40,000 and are spread out in small villages throughout the region.  I visited one small village near the outskirts of Pai and could immediately they weren’t well represented.  A casual observer filtering through galleries of images on Thailand can be forgiven for not knowing most of the people in these villages live in extreme poverty using centuries old traditional methods to produce food, clothing, and other necessary items of subsistence.

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L USM  @F2.8  1/600th  70mm  ISO 400

 

The Karen’s within Thailand’s Lisou community (not including the tens of thousands of Burmese Karen refugees) number roughly 40,000 and are spread out in small villages throughout the region.  I visited one small village near the outskirts of Pai and could immediately they weren’t well represented.  A casual observer filtering through galleries of images on Thailand can be forgiven for not knowing most of the people in these villages live in extreme poverty using centuries old traditional methods to produce food, clothing, and other necessary items of subsistence.

 

It only took me a few minutes to know I didn’t want to photograph the common colorful holiday ceremonies or shows put on for tourists.  Instead, I wanted to roam the backstreets of the actual village where your average Lisou villager lives and show you the true flavor of these people.  How they live their daily lives when not putting on shows for tourists.  If you checked in to gawk at the Long Necks then you might be disappointed initially, but if you stay with me a little longer you’ll know a lot more about how these people really live and what they face in their day to day struggle. 

 

 

 

 

The picture above was captured far back in the village where you won’t find any tourists.  A Lisou woman sits on a low stool processing local crops and in the foreground you can see bags of rice and a wooden appliance used to hold and distribute the rice from.  Please excuse my ignorance on the exact names of the produce or machines as I wasn’t there long enough to gather this information.

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L USM  @F8  1/50th  62mm  ISO 200

 

The picture above was captured far back in the village where you won’t find any tourists.  A Lisou woman sits on a low stool processing local crops and in the foreground you can see bags of rice and a wooden appliance used to hold and distribute the rice from.  Please excuse my ignorance on the exact names of the produce or machines as I wasn’t there long enough to gather this information.

 

 

 

 

This elderly man napping outside his house is a common sight.  Throughout the village I observed children, the elderly, older women, but nowhere could I find the youngest women or any man older than 15 but younger than 45-50.  I was told they were away “working.”  Usually when these demographics are missing from villages the youngest women are somewhere being sexually exploited and the men physically exploited.  Indeed, traveling through the region I noticed such men on construction sites and in the fields, and was told of places where I might find the women.

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L USM  @F8  1/60th  70mm  ISO 400

 

This elderly man napping outside his house is a common sight.  Throughout the village I observed children, the elderly, older women, but nowhere could I find the youngest women or any man older than 15 but younger than 45-50.  I was told they were away “working.”  Usually when these demographics are missing from villages the youngest women are somewhere being sexually exploited and the men physically exploited.  Indeed, traveling through the region I noticed such men on construction sites and in the fields, and was told of places where I might find the women.

 

 

 

 

The lone exception.  An actual mother with her child where the mother was under 35-40.  She was happy to be photographed and her young son looked on with curiosity.

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L USM  @F8  1/200th  55mm  ISO 100

 

The lone exception.  An actual mother with her child where the mother was under 35-40.  She was happy to be photographed and her young son looked on with curiosity.

 

 

 

 

 

This group of older ladies was gathered outside a store which appeared to be delivering goods around the area via motorsais with caged sidecars

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L USM  @F8  1/200th  42mm  ISO 100

 

This group of older ladies was gathered outside a store which appeared to be delivering goods around the area via motorsais with caged sidecars.

 

 

 

 

 

Small village stores are common everywhere in Thailand and the Lisou village was no exception.  This small store was being ran by and older lady and didn’t seem to offer many items.

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L USM  @F8  1/40th  40mm  ISO 320

 

Small village stores are common everywhere in Thailand and the Lisou village was no exception.  This small store was being ran by and older lady and didn’t seem to offer many items.

 

 

 

 

 

There is a sort of energy hierarchy throughout Thailand and I wasn’t surprised to see the Lisou were at the poorest end.  The most privileged in Thailand cook and run most of their homes with electricity, next down are those using propane (LPG), further down are those using actual coal, and at the extreme edge of poverty you’ll still find rural villagers using ‘found’ wood from the local forests.  This lady wasn’t splitting logs, she was splitting small pieces of found wood into even smaller pieces to offer for sale to the other villagers.

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L USM  @F8  1/100th  62mm  ISO 100

 

There is a sort of energy hierarchy throughout Thailand and I wasn’t surprised to see the Lisou were at the poorest end.  The most privileged in Thailand cook and run most of their homes with electricity, next down are those using propane (LPG), further down are those using actual coal, and at the extreme edge of poverty you’ll still find rural villagers using ‘found’ wood from the local forests.  This lady wasn’t splitting logs, she was splitting small pieces of found wood into even smaller pieces to offer for sale to the other villagers.

 

 

 

 

These older ladies were taking an afternoon break and were all smiles and were almost posing for us.  Notice the stone wall in the background?  I couldn’t help but notice the local construction used a very high percentage of locally available products which could be gathered from the immediate forests and mountains.  Rocks, bamboo, leaf roofs, mud walls, very few commercial building materials could be found.

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L USM  @F8  1/60th  70mm  ISO 100

 

These older ladies were taking an afternoon break and were all smiles and were almost posing for us.  Notice the stone wall in the background?  I couldn’t help but notice the local construction used a very high percentage of locally available products which could be gathered from the immediate forests and mountains.  Rocks, bamboo, leaf roofs, mud walls, very few commercial building materials could be found.

 

 

 

 

These two images were strange and I couldn’t find anyone who could explain. The small handmade container holds shoes, shirts, bowls and some produce items.  It sat by the edge of a cornfield, almost as if the workers took off their shoes and shirts and left them here for safety before entering the fields

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L USM  @F8  1/100th  46mm  ISO 100

 

These two images were strange and I couldn’t find anyone who could explain. The small handmade container holds shoes, shirts, bowls and some produce items.  It sat by the edge of a cornfield, almost as if the workers took off their shoes and shirts and left them here for safety before entering the fields

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L USM  @F8  1/60th  25mm  ISO 100

 

These two images were strange and I couldn’t find anyone who could explain. The small handmade container holds shoes, shirts, bowls and some produce items.  It sat by the edge of a cornfield, almost as if the workers took off their shoes and shirts and left them here for safety before entering the fields.

 

 

 

 

 

You can often tell a lot about a village from its roads.  The material of construction, what types of homes are near which roads, and what they connect.  Most roads were dirt or gravel, but other roads were made from concrete and winded between high fences blocking the view of the nicest homes in the village.  I couldn’t ascertain if these specific roads were built by government services or privately, but I’m guessing privately.  If they were built by government services they were probably built at the request of the property owners.

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L USM  @F8  1/250th  24mm  ISO 100

 

You can often tell a lot about a village from its roads.  The material of construction, what types of homes are near which roads, and what they connect.  Most roads were dirt or gravel, but other roads were made from concrete and winded between high fences blocking the view of the nicest homes in the village.  I couldn’t ascertain if these specific roads were built by government services or privately, but I’m guessing privately.  If they were built by government services they were probably built at the request of the property owners.

 

 

 

 

 

This is the villages water supply and was located up above the greater part of the village.  Concrete holding tanks with inadequate wood and tin covers using gravity fed 2 inch lines to provide water to the residents below.  Two 2 inch lines would not provide much water at all considering the number of structures in the village.

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L USM  @F8  1/40th  45mm ISO 125

 

This is the villages water supply and was located up above the greater part of the village.  Concrete holding tanks with inadequate wood and tin covers using gravity fed 2 inch lines to provide water to the residents below.  Two 2 inch lines would not provide much water at all considering the number of structures in the village.

 

 

 

 

These were two of the nicer homes complete with a carport (far end of the house) and a cement drive.  The home right next to it is barren in comparison sporting windowless cement block construction and an open roof.

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L USM  @F8  1/100th  38mm  ISO 100

 

These were two of the nicer homes complete with a carport (far end of the house) and a cement drive.  The home right next to it is barren in comparison sporting windowless cement block construction and an open roof.

 

 

 

 

This is a good example of a more common road, a fence and outbuildings made from local materials, and not much else.  At first you might not notice the lack of power poles and cables but it doesn’t take long until you notice most houses aren’t supplied, and the few which are will invariably be the nicest structures in the village.

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L USM  @F8  1/100th  63mm  ISO 100

 

This is a good example of a more common road, a fence and outbuildings made from local materials, and not much else.  At first you might not notice the lack of power poles and cables but it doesn’t take long until you notice most houses aren’t supplied, and the few which are will invariably be the nicest structures in the village.

 

 

 

 

 

This is one of the nicer homes housing field workers.   Because these villages are built on mountainsides you’ll find small terraced fields everywhere you look.

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L USM  @F8  1/80th  24mm  ISO 100

 

This is one of the nicer homes housing field workers.   Because these villages are built on mountainsides you’ll find small terraced fields everywhere you look.

 

 

 

 

No, these aren’t poppies.  This is wild garlic and a very valuable harvest for the locals.  They’re put out to “dry” under these lean-to structures which I’m guessing must take a long time because it’s always raining and wet.

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L USM  @F8  1/80th  70mm  ISO 320

 

No, these aren’t poppies.  This is wild garlic and a very valuable harvest for the locals.  They’re put out to “dry” under these lean-to structures which I’m guessing must take a long time because it’s always raining and wet.

 

 

 

 

 

Lisou18

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L USM  @F8  1/80th  24mm  ISO 100

 

It was a relief to find a local schoolhouse.  It appears to be an “all-grade” school house.  The school was open, the faculty was present, but there were no children on this non-holiday weekday which I found a bit distressing.  You didn’t see many school age children at all in this village which made me wonder where they were.  Three visits in three days, all on weekdays during school hours, but no children.

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L USM  @F8  1/60th  60mm  ISO 250

 

It was a relief to find a local schoolhouse.  It appears to be an “all-grade” school house.  The school was open, the faculty was present, but there were no children on this non-holiday weekday which I found a bit distressing.  You didn’t see many school age children at all in this village which made me wonder where they were.  Three visits in three days, all on weekdays during school hours, but no children.

 

 

 

 

This is interesting.  A traditional house built from mud walls with galvanized steel functioning as a door, a prop-up window for good weather, and a small porthole high on the mud wall.  I’m guessing it’s there to let smoke escape from the cooking fires, serve as the only light source during daylight hours, and it’s height keeps the local critters from getting inside. Notice there is no power wires?

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L USM  @F8  1/125th  55mm  ISO 100

 

This is interesting.  A traditional house built from mud walls with galvanized steel functioning as a door, a prop-up window for good weather, and a small porthole high on the mud wall.  I’m guessing it’s there to let smoke escape from the cooking fires, serve as the only light source during daylight hours, and it’s height keeps the local critters from getting inside. Notice there is no power wires?

 

 

 

 

 

A better build home constructed from cement blocks, corrugated tin roof, a single wood covered window opening, and a fairly large enclosure for chickens there in the foreground.  Again, local river rocks were used to build the foundation and fences.

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L USM  @F8  1/250th  38mm  ISO 100

 

A better build home constructed from cement blocks, corrugated tin roof, a single wood covered window opening, and a fairly large enclosure for chickens there in the foreground.  Again, local river rocks were used to build the foundation and fences.

 

 

 

 

 

A cozy place to keep out of the rain?  What you can’t see is that behind this structure there are 4-5 other outbuildings built up against a hillside.  The outbuilding are used to store and process the locally grown produce during the harvest season.

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L USM  @F8  1/200th  46mm  ISO 100

 

A cozy place to keep out of the rain?  What you can’t see is that behind this structure there are 4-5 other outbuildings built up against a hillside.  The outbuilding are used to store and process the locally grown produce during the harvest season.

 

 

 

 

 

Our last picture was of the only school aged child I saw in the village.  She was friendly enough, but pretty hyper and obviously protected by the older ladies.  I wonder if she was somehow ‘slower’ than the other children who were being kept elsewhere doing I’m not sure what.

Canon 5d Mark II, 24-70mm F2.8L USM  @F8  1/60th  70mm  ISO 125

 

Our last picture was of the only school aged child I saw in the village.  She was friendly enough, but pretty hyper and obviously protected by the older ladies.  I wonder if she was somehow ‘slower’ than the other children who were being kept elsewhere doing I’m not sure what.

 

As you drive through the village you’ll notice some cultural differences.  It appears much cleaner than your local Thai village.  You won’t find garbage anywhere.  I’m sure they don’t produce as much garbage, but they certainly seem better at rendering it than most .  I didn’t see any dogs or cats either.  Old men grouped with other old men, and old ladies grouped with other old ladies. 

 

These villagers didn’t seem adverse to work either.  For what they had, it was remarkably well maintained, free of garbage and junk, and everyone seemed to be busy or have some sort of job most of the time.  Most seemed reserved, while only a few appeared extraverted.  My guess is we were the first white faces they’d seen in these areas in a long time if ever.

 

Karen’s are good at “making do..”  Despite whatever hardships they face I’ve always observed them with high morale and working hard.  Their homes always seem clean and well kept, the grounds of their homes are just as well maintained, and yet there are signs of poverty and perhaps oppression everywhere I look.  It would be hard not to find a high level of respect for these people.