Thursday 16 December 2010

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of ... Erhus

This is a photographer's dream ... the vivid textiles, the ornate costumes, the beautiful innocent faces. Snap! Snap! Snap Snap! "Over here, darling. Work it ... Work it!" I call out to the slightly reluctant uber-exotic models as my little Canon Ixus 200 Point-n-Shoot goes into overdrive.

"You should shoot the men; it's very rare to see them in full garb, especially with head-dress," counsels my friend, David, a veteran of this festival. Spoilsport!

What I'm gushing over is the Bua Tong (Mexican Sunflower) Festival, which has been staged in Hua Mae Kham each November for the past 21 years. The name becomes self-explanatory as you take the excellent new road all the way to the hill-tribe town nestled on the hills of the Thai-Burma border, a couple of hours northwest of Chiang Rai. 

This really is the end of the line, geographically, for northern Thailand. But what a splendid view ... a carpet of yellow flowers, like daisies juiced up on, um, whatever it is that the Chinese ladies swimming team allegedly uses. As far as the eye can see.

In low gear, through army checkpoints and golden rice fields awaiting harvest, you arrive up at Ban Hua Mei Kham. Children ride oversized bicycles, and dogs rest in the shade of nipa huts. Chickens cross the road, just like in the joke.

There is no parking lot of course. Civilisation thankfully has not reached this far. But marshals do their best to shepherd people into suitable spaces among the bushes and houses. The swelling crowd is a mixture of outrageously costumed hill-tribes and locals. (The whole day I will only see around 6 farangs, most of them being the friends I came here with.)

With the Burma election recently completed, the Thai border patrols are on high vigilance with a flood of refugees expected. Major Saphun, a 13 year veteran of the military police, is on red alert, chatting up some Lisu girls on the verandah of a house, posing for photos with them and generally trying his luck. Sgt Niphun the same. "I come here to do security every year," the major tells me. I feel reassured.

What few soldiers are here, with M-16s slung over their backs, are all photographing the pretty village girls amid much laughter, as are a posse of high-ranking police officers all aglitter with medals and paratrooper wings.

If you sense that the atmosphere is folksy, you're absolutely spot on. The village cascades down the vertiginous hillside; some houses here, a store there. All overlooking a natural amphitheatre, which is where the festival is held.

As I scramble down the steep path, a pick-up stops alongside me. "Come," says the smiling major who’s pulled himself away from the village girls for a while. We hop into the back for the extremely short ride downhill.

Yellow, yellow, yellow. Sunflowers galore. Shortly, we pull up at the field, where makeshift bamboo benches have been installed among the flora as vantage points.

Some unseen guy blasts away on the Tannoy in Thai, no doubt telling us fascinating details about what we're seeing and about to see. There are troupes of Lisa, Akka, Hmong and many of the other half dozen or so hill-tribes who live in the surrounding mountains. Most used to toil on opium poppies, helping legendary local Khun Sa become the world's largest drug lord. But now, thanks to the Royal Projects, they grow other crops like rice, and have beautiful roads installed.

It feels like the cross-roads of China with all these ethnic minorities who originated in southern China, some with Tibetan and Mongolian origins. Raspy bamboo flutes and Erhus slice the cool air. The groups in turn parade and perform a song-and-dance routines. Some with a mint of coins in their hats. Others with shells on their costumes. Some with embroidered beads. All with brilliant colour.

One troupe grabs my eyes more than others -- a tangerine-clad group from a little Chinese village near Doi Mae Salong. They break into a routine that seems like a hybrid of Kylie Minogue's 'Do the Locomotion' and a traditional Fan Dance, jing jing.

The youngest performer on the day was a girl of about ten named Pepsi. (No truth in the rumour her brother is called 7-Up!)

As an example of the fascinating ethnicity of this area, they speak Yunnanese, "and only little bit Thai." At a rustic noodle shop up the hill (where we gorge on Yunnanese fishball noodles for only 20 baht), my Thai companion speaks Mandarin and some Yunnanese dialect to the Thai vendors.
The major walks past, chatting with some village girls. He smiles, winks and waves. Thailand’s national security is in good hands.

The sun begins to set on the marvellous valley. A chill comes into the air. I've got a full belly. And a full memory card in the camera. I just hope we've got a full tank of petrol to get us back to Thoed Thai.

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