Long-neck women in Thailand

By alex Uncategorized

Long-neck woman posing by her souvenir shop.

One of the main reasons to drive up to North Thailand (watch the whole round trip description in here) was to be able to see the long-neck women. I hadn’t seen much more than a few images and, though I felt lazy to investigate further, there was some sort of fascination about it. Why would these women self mutilate in such a way? Was it purely aesthetics? Was it some sort of captivity? I heard that after many years wearing brass rings, the neck muscles couldn’t hold the head anymore (not true, at least, in the majority of cases). Was it some sort of male dominance over women?

The same lady, posing among a group of tourists.

I wondered (and still do) what would be for these women to do sex?! Anyway, there was cooler to visit the people than to read on them over the internet, so off I went.

From Mae Hong Son to Ban Nai Soi, there wasn’t much more than half an hour; from the village to the Kayan camp, maybe another half, as the road wasn’t in the best condition.

I remember seeing a barbwire fenced gate of a refugee camp that wasn’t accessible to tourists – spooky! What wound be going on, inside? Guerrilla movie scenes and torture camps in tropical jungles, crossed my mind. Previously, on the road from Pai to Ban Nai Soi, there were quite a few huts along the roads, with guards controlling them. They were always friendly, never asked for any documentation or searched the motorbike and I never managed to know what were they controlling…

Advert, with a short explanation, at the entrance of the village.

What is this concept of “refugee” imposed by Thai government? On a stop for lunch on a small restaurant by the road, there was a group of Karen music players. (Karen is the whole ethnical group where the Kayan belong). They were polite and introduced themselves. At first I thought they’d be asking for money, but I was totally wrong. All they wanted was someone to talk to, in English – and their level was probably better than mine.

Ban Nai Soi Kayan village, entrance view.

From what I understood (and confirmed later) the Karen fled to Thailand to save their lives from the ethnical cleansing attempts from the Burmanese majority in Myanmar, happening in various waves, since the country’s independence. Thai government allows them to stay in certain areas, but they cannot leave them (that’s why all the road guards), or work, meaning: if they want to sustain themselves or their families, either they live on tourism, or they work illegally, for a fraction of what a Thai citizen would earn.

The long-necks, being displayed on zoo-like villages (some charging an entry fee), live on showing themselves to tourists and souvenirs selling. That’s why some young women choose to wear the rings, as it’s a way to a guaranteed sustenance.

As for the remaining Karen, they dream with independence or immigration, and there are communities being settled in the US and Canada, from the early 2000’s. That’s why they prize so much education and English proficiency.

I said goodby to the group of artists and proceeded to the long-neck village. It was nearly empty. At the entrance, there were two souvenir shops, and one long-neck woman. Soon, a second one joined, as more tourists were coming. I followed the main path, found a few kind youngsters waving from their motorbikes, and a simple village, made on wood and dry leaves.

The only sound of human activity came from the school, so I sneaked-in. Classes went on an orderly manner, kids were attentive and, though it seemed poor, for European standards, it also seem way more productive.

Coming back at the entrance, a group of tourists was chatting to one of the long-neck women and finding out roughly the same as described above. Again, the lady spoke really good English, and also played the guitar.

She had some sort of conformed, passive temperament, and didn’t seem, at all, revolted or unhappy with her faith. That caused a deep impression on me. I couldn’t possibly accepted being displayed as a tourist object for life!

Visiting this lost tribe among the jungle ended up being a strong lesson on temperament diversity.


Surin Elephant Round-Up

By alex Uncategorized

Among many of Thai festivals and events, I was particularly fascinated by Surim Elephant Round-up, and felt lucky it was happening during my stay in the country.

The beginning of the show, when the mahouts present the elephants to the crowd.

At the time (2015) there wasn’t much information on the Internet about it, so it wasn’t easy to find the actual dates and plan – just that it was happening on the second weekend of November. I ended up missing one of the main festival’s events, because of that. There is a whole Wikipedia article, about it, so I’m not repeating – only sharing some personal impressions and essential information.

Baby human and baby elephant in the festival area at sunset.

I traveled from Ayutthaya to Surim by train. People coming from Bangkok (480 km away) can either take the train, which takes slightly longer (8h) or the bus (around 7h) There is an overnight bus, arriving near 4 a.m, but I know nothing about its safety and comfort. From Ayutthaya, the trip takes around 5 hours, which isn’t much. However, the first one departs around seven, arriving past 12. As I did it on a Friday, I missed the elephant arrival procession and following banquet, which had already taken place in the morning. For this one, expect around 300 elephants, and nearly 50 tons of food.

The festival area, during the day, not yet crowded.

The festival lasts for over a week, but all the main events happen on the first weekend. Both Saturday and Sunday mornings there are the shows at the Elephant Stadium, contiguous to Si Narong Stadium, South of town.

Baby rabbits being sold as pets on Surin Round up festival. It was a total first time to me, and I didn’t particularly fancy the clothing. Nonetheless is an interesting perspective of a different culture.

(Update: Friday and Saturday evenings, there are light and sound shows with music, dance, and historical reenactments at Prasat Si Koraphum, a 13th century Khmer temple located a 30-minute drive outside of Surin. I found this info, years later, so don’t really know if it’s still happening and how it is.)

A traditional music performance. One of the many side events to the festival.

As for the shows: There is a free area, on both sides of the stadium stands. For that one, you must arrive early as only the first row gets a sort of clear view. Be prepared to stand for about three hours under the sun. -that’s how long it takes. For the stands, there are different price tickets depending if on the middle or on the sides, with is indifferent. You want to stay on the higher seats, the only shady ones. The remaining are unbearably hot, as the white walls reflect the sunlight. So, if you get yourself a central spot un a low area, you’ve made a bad deal. The best ones (for price) are the top sides. If possible, stay in the South stand as you’ll have the sunlight in your back. Buy them in advance or ask hour hotel to do it for your (and expect to pay a high commission).

Chestnuts and other fast food delicacies on sale at the festival.

During these 3 hours, it can be a bit boring. There were interesting parts: when hundreds of students play traditional music instruments and dance; also when they enact a battle between Thai and Khmer armies (if I understood it correctly); the initial presentation, when all elephants and mahouts fill the stadium.

Other parts, like elephant soccer playing and hula-hops, I found quite uninteresting. Anyway, the overall show, is a must-see. I attended both (Saturday and Sunday), despite being the same show, to be able to shoot from different angles. A slightly longer tele (300 mm) would have done wonders, I didn’t have it yet.

At the end of the shows, people are encouraged to take pictures with the animals, for a small fee.

Apart from the show, there is an adjacent area (around the Athletics stadium and before that one) with some food and attractions, nothing too fancy, but good enough for some food and spending time. Every now and then, mahouts will show up with their elephants, encouraging people to spend 20 Baht for feeding them.

I had mixed feelings about this. Elephants, of course, didn’t seem too happy. …But then again, the Kuy (the name of the Surin residents) have always been mahouts and elephant hunters and their tradition is as deeply routed as horse riding is on the Western world.

Maybe they’re not as “humane” as some thing they should be, but that’s their life, their culture and their land. Feel free to attend it or not, but refrain from judging.

If you decide to go, it’s better to book your room, as near as possible from the festival area. Streets will be absolutely crowded, specially during evenings, and walking is, pretty much, the only way to reach the area. Also be ready to quit drinking, at least for those days, as alcohol is strictly forbidden.


A Funeral in Sumba (Indonesia)

By alex Uncategorized

Warning: graphic images, below!

Preparing the area, meaning, the village square for the ceremony. Notice the children on top of a tomb.

During my stay in Nihiwatu, as dive instructor and photographer, I was invited, by one of our boathouse staff members (Martinus) to his father funeral. He hardly spoke any English, I can’t speak more than maybe a hundred words of Bahasa Indonesia, and far less of any Sumbanese dialect.

Despite our verbal communication being scarce, he seemed an honest, thought, straight-forward, man – someone we could trust – which is important when we are daily playing with our lives on the wavy and treacherous waters of the Sumbanese sea.

At the time, there was no-one to ask the meaning or the whole content of such a ceremony. I was just told what to do, when invited and stuck to that.

Mother and child, attending the funeral. There is absolutely no feeling that blood shedding and death is improper to children. All seem to coexist with life and death.

On the first day, me and another staff members were invited to his home, near Pantai Rua where we stayed, accompanying the living and the dead. Sitting at a traditional house’s porch, we drank either coffee or tea, smoked, chewed betel nut, and watched our colleagues play card domino. It was funny, as the loser must hang a pig jaw in his ear, as a punishment for his loss.

Martinus and his brother (the only family members I knew) were visibly shaken, but for most of the crowd, and there was maybe a hundred of them, it was just something normal.

We went back to the resort, and I’m not aware of what happened during that night. On the following afternoon we returned for the buffalo slaughtering ceremony. I believe it is part of the Marapu religion, but there was no priest to be seen (or, at least, I couldn’t tell them, among the crowd).

Villager, traditionally dressed, waiting for the ceremony.

One by one, buffalos were brought to the centre of the village, where the ancestors tombs stayed, tied with long ropes, pulled by around ten men. Then, someone would take the parang (small sword) and cut their throat, leaving them bleeding to death.

As the last one was slaughtered, they soon proceeded to dismember them, and cut in small pieces. As far as I understood, some would be boiled, some would be smoked, and some would be taken to the attendant’s home. People, however, didn’t seem too interested on the meat, on a gastronomic perspective. I remember seeing the elaborate sculptures made from pork meat and fat, at the temples and ceremonies in Bali. There, it was all about processing it fast. Unfortunately we weren’t able to stay and attend to what I believed to be a following meal… There was, however, a caged pig on site so, most probably, the ceremony would last for some days, with a few common meals.

Caged pig, waiting to be slaughter of one of the following meals.

The pig’s jaws and buffaloes heads, are kept at the traditional house, as a memory of the event. That memory is crucial, as all the animals offered are expected to be retributed when the offerer need to have his own ceremony. This chain of offers and debts can grow to astronomical values (I heard one Buffalo with specially big horns was valued in 10.000 USD, but I couldn’t confirm it).

People will get in great debt, sometimes even bankruptcy, just to sustain this tradition, while living miserable lives in between.

Get the overall feeling and energy of the ceremony in the images from the following gallery:


Camino de Santiago: 1 – from Saint Jean to Burgos

By alex Uncategorized

Albergue is the Spanish word for hostel. Some are owned by the municipality or the local parish, and have cheap prices, or even work by donations. Some will have private owners and can be, from the basics to sort of “boutique hostels”. Planning distances is crucial, both on high season (when most will be full, after a certain hour) and on low (when some will be closed).

It all started during a lunch in Santo Domingo de La Calzada. I was coming from an Agro Exhibition in Zaragoza with some friends, it was winter, 10 degree cold, and we parked our car outside the city, walking to the centre in search of a restaurant to eat.

There was a “pilgrim menu” and I wondered if it was some sort of marketing strategy, special comfort food, or if there were actually pilgrims who went there to eat it. My doubts dissipated after lunch, when we were back to the track and I payed attention to one or two lonely men slowly walking along the main road. Yes, there were pilgrims! Even under such a weather! I remembered San Tiago de Compostela, as a famous pilgrimage site, but had no idea that people still went there on foot.

Made a little research and found out it was quite popular – even Paulo Coelho, the renowned Brazilian writer, made a book on the topic. Later I discovered that its Korean translation got so famous that they built a small replica, so they could “sort of” experience it.

I always hated walking – it was a waste of time, and not so beneficial, comparing to other sports. After all, people invented cars and motorbikes, for a reason! The idea of leaving in isolation and doing some sport, for a whole month was, nonetheless, appealing. At the time I was sharing home with a girlfriend who was, indeed, sweet, but whose vacuity often drove me to despair. That was a good excuse to get some holidays from her, and I could invoke a “spiritual reason”.

Some months before, a friend had invited me to accompany her on a shorter Pilgrimage to Fátima, as she made a vow and needed to pay for it. At the time it wasn’t much fun. The stages were too long, I had no preparation, whatsoever, no proper shoes, no motivation… The promise she made ended up working, but for me it wasn’t much more than useless pain.

Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the departing point from the French Route.

I’d do it differently, this time: buy myself a pair of nice hiking shoes, start training a few kilometres each day… From the local parish I got a pilgrim passport – a way to stamp all stages along the way. Dusted my teenager backpack, bought a train ticket, got my camera and a few lenses, and off I went: from Lisbon on the night train, first to Hendaye and then to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

Arrived early afternoon, booked a bed on a hostel, got my passport stamped and the itinerary. From the train station, to the city centre I had already realised my backpack was too heavy. Or maybe it was just me, not used to carry such a thing. Anyway, there was nothing to do about it, but to carry on.

The afternoon was spent on sightseeing and degustation. The night wasn’t so restful as there were a few snorers in the dorm.  I woke up before sunrise with the intention to break the rules: from  Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncesvalles (a Benedictine monastery on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees) there was two ways: Napoleon crossing the high mountains, in an allusion to the French invaders who chose it, and Valcarlos, longer, but contouring the highest peaks.

Some more images from Napoleon way, until Roncesvalles:

Napoleon way was officially closed due to snow, so there were no restaurants, no hostels, no nothing, along the way, but there were no police, no roadblocks to prevent people from going. If you do something once in your life, you must do it properly and enjoy the scenery. No way I was missing the snowy mountains!

That was the reason I wanted to start so early: in the dark, less people would see me and try to prevent me from going. It happened I was not the only one!

Crossroad on mid Pyrenees, on Napoleon way, descending towards Roncesvalles.

The loneliness, at least for the majority of the way, was inspiring. The views, breath-taking. I arrived to Roncesvalles soaking wet, as many kilometres were done with snow up to the knees and sometimes I just sat and let myself slide down. I got lucky with weather. Mostly sunny and not windy at all. Still, my shoulders and legs were totally worn out.

Below: Roncesvalles monastery and one of the dorms:

On the following day I felt fine. Despite starting a bit later, meaning, around 7, I arrived to Zubiri way before lunch time. Walked around the village and most hostels were closed, and so did the restaurants. The only open Hostel didn’t seem to clean, so I chose to carry on until next city. That would have been fine, if there was one in the next 5 or 6 km, but I ended stopping at Arre, which is 15 km ahead, totalising 36, instead of the planned 21! I got swollen ankles and knees, blisters on my feet and a strong back pain, in reward for the foolishness.

From Roncesvalles to Zubiri.

The hostel, however, was a charming old monastery, the monks were super kind. I was placed in a room along with a middle-aged super polite Mexican guy (Roberto, his name.) who gave me a pair of earplugs, as he snored heavily. He was quite agile and a good dining fellow.

Below: a small church along the way, and Arre village, with the monastery beside the bridge:

The third day was, probably, my worst. The pain was nearly unbearable, I had to walk extremely slowly, stop along the way. As I reached Pamplona I wanted to walk alone the streets where I’d previously ran along with the wild bulls, but I wasn’t able to. Just went to the altar of San Fermin, and re-read the prayer as so many times before. It felt weird and lonely to be there without all the other runners. After all, that was the first time I went to Pamplona without the San Fermines.

Below: San Fermin altar and prayer.

I was stubborn enough to push myself further and not stay in Pamplona. Those were another 28 km, which might have been ok if the backpack was lighter or my preparation stronger. Neither of those were true.

Below: From Pamplona to Puente de la Reina

The last mistake I made was to push myself on the next stage, doing nearly 29 Km, from Puente de la Reina to Ayegui for the sake of the fountain of wine.

Puente de la Reina, shortly after sunrise – the beginning of another stage.

Ideally, I would had stopped in Estella, which had more to see and to enjoy. But that would mean I’d arrive to Bodegas Irache during morning, and that wouldn’t be a good time to start drinking. So I stretched it to Ayegui, where I arrived past 3:00 pm and left my backpack. From there, it was 800 metres more to the wine fountain, and to the cellars and monastery itself. It ended up being a nice visit. Out of curiosity, the wine was free, but the glass, if you’re not bringing your own, was 1 euro, through an automatic dispenser. There was a video camera on top, so feel free to drink, but not to bring home! The wine was far better than I expected. Quite drinkable, even without food.

Below: Irache monastery and cellars, seen from my dorm window. / The fountain of wine.

From that day on, I got in a vicious circle of pain and struggle, where beauty and images were no longer important. What mattered was to accomplish my self-imposed schedule. I was no longer enjoying the energy of places, the beauty or the nice people I found on the way. The important thing was not to stop, not to admit defeat. Weariness, both mental and physical, was accumulating and the night sleep simply wasn’t enough to recover.

Ruins of San Pedro, church in Viana, Navarra.

Vineyards, in Navarra. A presence for many kilometres, along the way.

Some days later, I ran across a Dutch nurse, Ingrid her name, on the same homestay. At that time my knees and ankles were visibly swollen and she helped to drain the liquid back into circulation, something that allowed me to carry on. Funny as it seems, I had already seen Ingrid while walking and didn’t sympathise with her. That was a great lesson.

The pilgrimage got new colours after Los Arcos. That’s when I stayed at the same hostel as a cheerful drinking / partying group – there was people from England, Portugal, Holland, Ireland, Belarus… I hope I’m not forgetting anyone. We started to drink mid afternoon, and ended around midnight, having an abundant dinner in between. At that dinner, if I’m not mistaken, two Englishman found out that they had taken Napoleon way by mistake, believing that was Valcarlos.

Shoes at the entrance of a hostel. Another typical view from the Camino meaning that either resting resting time, or another stage was on the way.

Like me, they went trough the snow, until Roncesvalles – however they were wondering how much harder “Napoleon way” would have been! Hilarious! Those two guys were consistently getting drunk every night, but were also consistently walking next morning. I’m still wondering how they were able to keep the pace.

Strangely, I was not hung-over on the following day. In fact, the pain was becoming more bearable. …and that kept happening: we planned in which hostel to stop, and as people kept arriving, the party started. The routine was roughly: wake up after 6, have a quick breakfast, walk until 10, have a second breakfast, walk until 1 (or shortly past that). Check in at the hostel, shower and eat heartily. The “menu del pelegrino” started to be a daily reality and so did the go-along bottles of wine.

After that, came the “siesta”, from, maybe 3 to 5, and then more drinking and dinner. Bed time would be in between ten and midnight.

Not all days were the same, despite the schedule not changing much. That depended on the available dining and sleeping options. Some hostels allowed or even encouraged the party mood. Two scenes are worth relating:

One of many dinners. Group was still comparably small.

One, I believe was somewhere between Castilla and Léon. After dinner at the hostel, and old man came and sang with loud and powerful voice a traditional Spanish tune which left everyone impressed. People tried to take turns on performing something related to their home country until an Englishman turned to the Koreans and say: Sing Gangnam Style! They didn’t find it too funny, but everyone laughed for looong time.

Other was a quemada in Galicia. That’s a traditional drink made with a local spirit (orujo), flavoured with special herbs or coffee, plus sugar, lemon peel, coffee beans and cinnamon. That is set on fire to reduce the alcoholic strength, but it still remains quite powerful. As it’s prepared, a spell is recited, supposedly to keep bad spirits at distance.

After around two weeks doing over 25km per day on average, the miracle really happens. For no apparent reason, I stopped feeling the muscle and joint pains, and, though I’d get tired or cold, hiking was something like hovering over the ground. It not only happened to me, but to other in the group who struggled to continue. There is something spiritual that allows the pilgrim to overcome what he believes to be his limits; even despite drinking, sometimes, over two bottles of wine in one day. As I mentioned before, that never caused me a hang-over, though I’m pretty sure I’d have a bad week if I tried it on a single day.

Below: landscapes from Atapuerca.

Pilgrimage was more that eating and drinking. There were days we were sheltered by monasteries, bigger and smaller. Volunteers shared their own experiences. We got visits to cathedrals ruins, towers, museums, cloisters. On many occasions we attended catholic services, masses and prayers – some with a really deep spiritual energy.

Below: Burgos views and good times.


Bullfight – Samora Correia (Portugal) 19 August 2013

By alex Uncategorized

Samora Correia, is a small city in Ribatejo region of Portugal which, like many others has their traditional festivities on August. At that time (2013) I had (what would be considered today) a very primitive camera (12 Megapixels). Low light performance was poor, I had a second hand lens with barrel issues, though I was willing to improve my skills and eventually become professional. The photos below are more heartfelt than technically correct.

I’m late posting these cherished memories of a memorable day. In the morning the bulls were brought from the field, and I had the privilege to be in the truck, though I didn’t shoot, to avoid scaring the bulls and disturbing the operation. These are wild animals and every sound or movement need to be carefully planned.

Once we arrived at the city, later in the morning, they were released to the sound of a rocket.   Along with meek oxen, they were paraded throughout the village, into the bullring, with a good crowd attending. For many, that was already time for partying and drinking. (I guess some were still partying from the night before). As the bulls arrived to the bullring, they were then kept in separate cages, waiting for the main event.

The bullfight happened at night, and ended being a very good show, very emotive, with an awesome performance from Luis Rouxinol, displaying an impeccable technique, commitment and emotion;  some daring “ferros” (spears) from Felipe Gonçalves, sometimes allowing the bull to get too close,  and Sónia Matias. Some bulls were what I would consider “overweight” meaning near (or exceeding) the 600 kg, which made “forcados” life very hard. Still they managed to grab them.

It is always heart touching to watch a whole community involved in such a celebration of art, faith and courage, and it’s one of the things I really miss, while living in another continent.

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