Postcard From Chiang Rai

In Travel by David13 Comments


Hello from rainy Chiang Rai. We arrived yesterday, spent today walking the city. Much smaller than Chiang Mai, has a really nice vibe. A little less modern, less busy. But man is it raining. Just torrential. Tomorrow we set out for a two day trek among the hill tribes. I’m going with mixed feelings about it, never completely at ease with this kind of intrusion. But done right these can be moments of learning, insight, and mutual respect and I’m hoping that’s what happens. I’m also hoping I don’t fall off my elephant because I fell off my camel in Tunisia and elephants just seem way bigger.

Thailand continues to challenge me. I do these trips for specific reasons, in this case to gather images for a book. Inevitably the trips have agendas of their own and teach me lessons I had no intention of learning. Haven’t uncovered that lesson just yet, but it has to do with what draws my eye, I think. Perhaps a rut I’ve fallen into, perhaps just a keener awareness of what does and doesn’t turn my crank visually. Have 6 days left to figure that out. In the mean time the food is spectacular, the people so kind it kills me to have taken so few photographs of them. We visit temple after temple, at all hours, and they seem generally empty of monks or visitors and as I came, in part, to photograph expressions of Thai Buddhism, I can’t believe I don’t have a single shot of a saffron-robed monk.

Anyways, just dropping a line to say hello, let you all know I’m alive and well. Will do what I can to drop a final postcard into the mail before I leave Thailand, but my last couple days are scheduled for the beach and, well, there’s a chance I might just not find the strength to put down my fruity drink and pick up my laptop. 🙂


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  3. “…never completely at ease with this kind of intrusion…”

    I know what you mean, because I lived in Thailand for 9 years and spent very little time among the hill tribes. They are exploited there by the tour guides, and in turn, you as a tourist/viewer are also being exploited by them because they are anticipating and expecting you to stay a night or buy a trinket or two. All in all, it often feels staged & unnatural, much like a circus.

    A couple years ago I spent 7 weeks traveling through Guizhou, China, hopping from one minority village to another, trying to catch as many markets as I could. I was welcomed over and over again, invited into homes more times than I can remember, and drank too much rice wine which the locals demanded I drink with the lunches they insisted I eat. What struck me the most was how little they had and how much they offered. It seems to me in all of my travels, mostly in Asia, that the less we are expected to be there, the more welcomed we often are.

    I am a male, only 5′ 3″, and so I am not an intimidating presence. As well, I travel alone, which makes a very big difference.

    This is my first comment to your blog – I’ve enjoyed reading it for a long time now. Thanks for offering so much.
    I hope to join you on one of your excursions one day…

  4. Hey David – I remember you feeling something similar in Cairo. But you came through with some great images.

    I think there is something of a preconceived expectation we get when travelling as a photographer. When it doesn’t turn out quite as expected we feel unsettled and perhaps a little anxious that we won’t get the shots we had anticipated. To some extent that is a challenge.

    I also think that what maybe happening for you is that you are being far more discriminate in what you shoot. You may have less images but I suspect more of them are keepers 🙂


  5. I think Craig is correct. I did not get a chance to visit them but with all the tours that were offered, I think the Hill Tribes are another tourist attraction like the Elephant Conservation Centre near Chaing Mai. Ironically, both the elephants and hill tribes lively hood relies on the retention of their culture. It’s nice to see some cultures cling to their past, even if it’s for financial gain. It beats extinction.

  6. Dave –
    I have a friend whose wife had family in the Chang Rai area. If you need to connect I’ll be happy to help. Let me know.
    And definitely dont’ fall off any elephants.

  7. Hope the ‘muses’ are a little less obstinate over the next few days 🙂 And the rain stops! Don’t want those ‘phants bogging down.

  8. Hey Dave! What Craig said 🙂 I’ve heard stories of hilltribes asking “sing a song” and singing Brittney Spears songs by the fire 🙂 You should have gone to Isan for a “more genuine” but probably less colorful “tribal experience”. The monks around Chiang Mai are mostly out in the mornings by the way, pretty early.

  9. Brings back memories of my trek there 30 years ago (!). The forest – wouldnt call it jungle – was already secondary – the villagers were already used to trekking parties and the food our guide conjured up from out of his backpack was legendary. Ám looking forward to read what a trek there is like now. Wifi on the veranda? No, probably it is just as cool as I remember. I still correspond with the couple from Vancouver that were in the small trekking group. Enjoy!

  10. Glad to hear you’re doing ok. Those hill-tribe treks have been going on so long now that it’s probably not much of an intrusion anymore. In fact, the tribes probably now depend on trekkers for their livelihood. Don’t be surprised if they ask you for money for photos.

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