24 hours in Ban Yafu

In pictures. And words. Lots of words. Some possibly exaggerated a wee bit.


1900:     Return from waterfall, sweaty, footsore, hungry.

1930 – 2000:     Eat a lot of rice. Then some more. Maybe some vegetables and pork/chicken (indistinguishable).

2000:    What are you going to do now? I guess you could buy a warm beer from the lady who runs a ‘store’ out of an old cooler.

2030:    Getting dark. Solar panels should’ve grabbed enough juice to power a single malevolent fluorescent bulb for an hour or two. You   could crawl under the mosquito net you’re sharing with 3 other guys and read.

2030 – 2100:     Check for bugs and spiders inside the secure perimeter of your mosquito net. Find some. Realise that the bamboo floor you’re sleeping on basically lets crawling things come and go as they please.

2100 – 2200:     Read something. If you remembered to bring a book. That guy has a laptop. Jerk. Your body will start going to sleep round this time, not so much  ‘lay me down to sleep’  as  ‘a blanket on a bamboo floor provides very little cushioning and I can’t feel my legs anymore.’

2200 – 2300:    Fall into a fitful sleep, despite the noise of the insects that seem to have equipped themselves with microphones and the PA  from Wembley Stadium.

2300:     Wake up. Realise that the although everyone is in bed nobody has got up to turn off the light.

2301 – 0230:     Sleep, periodically waking up to massage blood back into your hands/legs

0231 – 0235:    A small skirmish between two dogs. Some snarling, snapping, a yelp. Silence.

0300 – 0330:    The yelper from the previous scrap when and got some buddies. Now it is ON. Every dog in the village (and possibly a ringer or two from the village over) is now involved in an battle to the death. The snarling of the combatants mingles with the sounds of rending flesh and the terrified howling of dogs bleeding their last into the muddy thoroughfare. What I assume are dog body parts slap messily against the pilings of the building below us.

0330 – 0400:      The pigs get involved. Whether enlisted by an enterprising dog faction, unwillingly dragged in as collateral damage, or simply going for an Orwell thing, they add their soul-wrenching squeals to the fray. This only fuels the wild bloodlust of the surviving dogs and the sounds of tearing flesh, spurting blood and mortal agony escalate further.

0401:     Instantaneously, the cacophony stops. The now total absence of noise causes everyone to awake with a start, kicking the brain back a 100,000 years or so to caves and fear and shapes in the darkness.

0401 – 0500:      ???

0501: Roosters. First one. Then all of them.

0501 – 0600: More Roosters. They’re competitive.

0600 – 0700: The displaced owners of the house shuffle in to start cooking breakfast at the indoor firepit. Some smoke, but less than you’d think. A nagging thought that you’re lying under a very flammable nylon net in a dry bamboo structure while a small fire spits sparks less than a meter away is buried in the fog of sleep deprivation and lack of blood to the extremities.

0701: Stagger outside on deadened legs, blinking against the morning light. Register momentary surprise that the ground is not strewn with minced pork and dog limbs and that in fact all animals seems to be present, unharmed and snoring lazily in the morning sun.

0730 – 0830: Breakfast! Probably the same as dinner. Eat more rice than you would previously have thought was possible in the knowledge that there’s work to be done.


0830 – 0930: Ablute. There are several concrete and bamboo buildings around for this purpose, offering varying takes on the them, bucket, tap, hole in the ground. Probably annoy the villagers no end by tying up all their sources of running water for half and hour or so.

0930: Work begins! Make your way down the slippery gully at the rear of the village to the rice fields below. Grab a hoe if you’re quick, a bucket if you’re not, and stand around getting in the way and generally being useless if you’re especially tardy. 20 or so bodies matched with about 10 tools does not for efficiency make, but it provides plenty of extra bodies for when you discover…

0945: A rock! Dig around it! See how big it is! It’s bigger than you thought isn’t it?! Argue endlessly with those around you on the feasibility/necessity of digging it out. Decide to do so anyway. Grunt, flex, generally interrupt the flow of useful work to participate in a group display of machismo.

1000: Eventually haul the rock out of the hole you dug and roll it down the hill, Victory! Back to digging!


1000: Eventually give up when you realise that a hoe and a prybar are no match for a boulder the size of a small car, Concede! Back to digging!

1130: Stop for lunch. Realise that you’ve probably poured about 6 litres of water down your throat but have no desire at all to pee. Idly wonder if you should be concerned about that at all.

1130 – 1330: Rice. Meat. Vegetables. Bananas and whatever else you can knock out of a nearby fruit tree. Sweaty, insect harassed nap.

1330 – 1630: Repeat from 0930 to 1130 above. Probably with more rocks and increasingly lacklustre hoe and bucket work. Feel inadequate next to the tireless efforts of the villagers who only stop digging to light a fresh filterless roll-your-own cigarette.

1630 – 1700: Trudge slowly back to the village. Decide you won’t go to the waterfall this evening. It’s too far away and you’re knackered.

1705: Get talked into running to the waterfall before dinner.

1745: Arrive at the waterfall after a spine jolting downhill scrabble.

1746: Jump in the cool water and wonder why you ever even considered not coming down here tonight.

1747 – 1830: Soak. Try to shed the accumulated sweat and dust of the day. Lie back under the cascade and imagine being pummeled on the back by the pudgy fists of a thousand irate toddlers. Relax.

1831: Get out of the water and contemplate the hike back to Ban Yafu. Remember why you considered not coming down here tonight.

1900: Return from waterfall, sweaty, footsore, hungry.

Repeat for a week. Do not rinse or lather. Derive immense satisfaction and joy from riding the twin highs of manual labour well done and sleep deprivation.

Living La Vida Lahu


So week two of our volunteering was survived by all attendees, and took the form of a homestay in Ban Yafu village, which is hereabouts (ie basically nowhere). As previously mentioned, Ban Yafu is home to about two dozen adults, a few score children and about 13000 pigs, dogs and chickens. More on those later.

The job for the week was to help with digging rice terraces. The Lahu previously lived higher in the hills (as with the other hilltribes. Hence the name. Hilltribes.) but recent national parkification and general development has seen them driven further down and into more marginal land. The main issue (from an agricultural stand-point, they have others) is that they traditionally practiced hillside, paddyless rice planting. Basically plant a bunch of rice on a hillside and let rain and gravity do it’s thing. There are numerous downsides to this including things like only being able to harvest once a year; being rain dependent; and to move on every 3 harvests or so (as the soil nutrients get stripped out), slashing and burning a new section of rainforest as they go – this also entails moving the entire village periodically. The latter thing is what causes the Thai government the most consternation, nomadic slash and burners not really gelling with ideas like the modern nation state or jungle conservation.

So – dig some rice terraces. No more slash and burn, villagers can harvest a few times a year with less effort and less reliance on mercurial rainfall and people like me can drop a marker on a map and say “that there is Ban Yafu” and it probably won’t move.

The (next) problem is labour. Looking at the picture above you can kinda see that Ban Yafu isn’t exactly furnished with a range of options for entertainment and/or entreprenuerialism for those of an adolescent bent (who, despite differences in language, dress and overall life experience, are as easily identified as ‘teenagers’ as their sullen, coiffured peers everywhere else in the world) so first chance many get, they’ll head off to try their luck in the city (Chiang Rai in this case) or larger surrounding villages. If succesful, they become a source of much needed cashflow for their family but they are regardless depriving the village of their petulant, “hang on I’m just trying to get mobile signal” labour.

That’s where we come in. The Thai government isn’t exactly tripping over itself to throw money at the hilltribes – the plan seems to be to just deny them citizenship/education/healthcare and generally pretend they don’t exist until they don’t.* They are of course happy to take the tourist dollars their presence generates, and if some NGO wants to send a bunch of falang up there now and then to dig some holes, why the hell not?

Hence, via a brief and probably inaccurate overview of Lahu culture and the Thai ethno-political scene, we ended up staying for a week in a Lahu village.

Phew. Sewious. Wordy. More on this whole subject later.












Main street, Ban Yafu













A Pig, A Chicken











*not entirely fair, there are a number of Royal projects underway in the area we were staying in, but even these seem to stop short of actually acknowledging that these people are ‘Thai’ in any sense.

Starting with the man in the mirror

Filtered for your ironic amusement

Sarah’s lodgings at the Mirror Foundation


Presently sitting in an internet cafe in sunny Chiang Rai, full of Khao Soi (find it, buy it, eat it) and waiting for our ride back to the our on/off accomodation for the last week and next two.*

That accommodation is courtesy of the Mirror Foundation**, a local NGO that works with hill-tribe folks (and others) on such issues as getting Thai citizenship, drug rehabilitation, school visits, building projects etc. The foundation budded off the Mirror Art Group,  a bunch of Thai students in the 90s that toured the country hosting teach-ins and putting on theatre performances to  protest against the military government of the time, and bring light to taboo issues like AIDS and domestic violence. After seeing the plight of the hill-tribes, a largely stateless people being steam-rollered by logging, missionaries, restrictions on movement, access to healthcare/education etc. they ‘shed their idealism’ (their words) and started a permanent foundation to try and tackle some of this stuff.

The place is run by a mix of hill-tribe people, local volunteers and falang like myself, some of whom seem to hang around for a few years. They seem to have some success so far and are growing year by year.

So yeah, consider that your new benchmark for success theatre people. (I jest, I know you guys don’t do ‘success’) .

Sarah and I are contributing a fairly token effort in the form of an ‘outdoor’ volunteer program for three weeks. Week one (last week) was mostly a meditation on the art/science of brick making with a side of “go stand in that rice paddy and move some of the mud from that place to that other place and watch out you don’t grab a snake that bitey feeling is probably just mud crabs don’t get malaria now”. Week two will be a home stay in a Hilltribe village of the Lahu people (look them up, they’re interesting). Apparently we’ll be diggin rice terraces. Week three? Who knows, they like to play things by ear a fair bit.






*re-editing this for publishing a week later, this paragraph is still entirely true. New habits form quick.

**Hence the title. I’m not contemplating any Michael Jacksonesque self-inflicted disfigurements just now.

Normal service is always this spotty

Current location: 19° 54′ 34″ N, 99° 49′ 39″ E (ish)

So a combination of sweltering heat and spotty wifi is thwarting my update schedule somewhat, but posts are in the pipeline around the volunteer project Sarah and I are currently involved in, some amusing things we’ve seen/done and ‘various things that I have found crawling on me while I tried to sleep’. That one’s a doozy.

As a stop-gap, here’s a brief review of a movie I went and saw today:

Abraham Lincoln – Vampire Hunter

So there’s this guy right? Abraham Lincoln. He hunts vampires. He is assisted in this endeavour by his trusty axe, a childhood friend, one of the O’Poyle brothers and more melodrama than you can shake a fist whilst throwing your head back and roaring to the sky at the indifferent gods at.

Then the civil war happens but it wasn’t those nasty racist southerners fault, it was the vampires. They’re not racist, they just use the convenience of the slave trade to eat a bunch of slaves. There’s probably some sort of pithy social commentary there but it gets buried under a CGI fight scene carried out across the backs of a herd of stampeding horses.

I give it four score and seven out of a possible 100% of all reviews that have probably already used that joke.

A belated itinerary of sorts

Occurs to me that 3 out of the 4 potential readers of this have no idea what I’m on about, where we are going, or who in fact “we” is, given my well known disdain for all things royal*.

Can’t offer much help for the first but for the latter two:

- “we” is me and my partner of disputed length, the ineffable Sarah Sorsby (who I’m currently in the process of trying to coerce/cajole/confound into writing her account of the journey)

- “where” is parts indo-Chinese, Sino-Chinese and future-Chinese (you read it here first. Sorry Japan.). (Slightly) More specifically – having breezed (breezen?) through Singapore and the southern bits of Thailand, we are now heading north to salve our whiteliberalguilts with some ‘voluntouring’ (a special hell for coiners of portmanteau) near Chiang Rai, before popping over the border to Laos, dawdling down to Cambodia, trotting up through Vietnam into China and skimming the surface of Japan. Finally, some time in early November, I’ll roll out of a plane onto the tarmac of Melbourne Australia – penniless, homeless, unemployed and probably pushing the boundaries of public decency on the swarthiness front. Sarah will join me after a brief stopover in New Zealand to remind her nieces that she exists, primarily by getting them all wound up before bed time.

We call this “our recession plan”.

*to be suspended in the name of prudence whilst in the land of Thai.

Very little ado about not much at all.

Copied from the physical to the electronical aboard the Bangkok – Chiang Mai overnight express. The fold down sleeper berths are adorable. I have my own little fort with torchlight ‘n all.

As I’m sure the citizenry of New Zealand is keenly aware, I’ve been absent my birth country a full ten days now, yet there is little of interest to report. Unless that is, you’d like to be regaled with lengthy tales of “an exceedingly pleasant afternoon cycling along Singapore’s east coast” or “that week we spent dozing on or near a beach”? Perhaps “shopping for children’s stationery at a Bangkok suburban shopping mall” is a plot synopsis to have you at attention.


You’ll have to wait then (oh ye, probably non-existent reader) for more interesting times. Leaving behind the comforts of one of Bangkok’s dingier and more remote ‘tourist class’ hotels for a mud wall, single sex (possibly single occupant) dormitory and some outdoorsy activities should hopefully furnish those in bulk.

Unless you’d like to hear the one about the bad shrimp and the long, sleepless night of “soul searching” that followed. Except that everyone already knows that one, including the twist ending where my soul is eventually discovered in a place unlikely, but by that point basically inevitable.

So this thing is back

Probably. At its new home.

Come in, make yourself comfy. Things are still a little messy, links are broke, pictures are overflowing their boundaries. I may or may not tidy things up. I probably will write some stuff about traveling through south east asia.

I know, all the cool kids are on tumblr.


The Adventure Begins (again)

2 packs, 7 countries, 140(ish) days, 6 pairs of underwear. Should be fun.

“There Was Never Any Pay-day For the Negroes”

Excellent stuff:

Dayton, Ohio, August 7, 1865: A letter from a freed slave to his former master, in response to the latter’s request that he return to the homestead.

The whole thing is brilliantly written and laden with a certain grim wit, but the post script just seals it:

“Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.”

Read it at History Matters  here.

via 3QD

The subliminally implanted choice of a new generation

This comes via one of my students, who gave a presentation this week about the development and effects of video games (or something. It was about video games anyway).

They began by running through a few ‘classic’ video games (classic to people born after 1990) including the usual cast of hedgehogs, bandicoots and italian plumbers. The greatest nostalgic sighs however were reserved for this guy, heretofore unknown to me :


Game synopsis (based on my viewing of the above): Our spandex clad corporate branded hero, Pepsi Man, is on the trail of a delivery truck with an improperly secured cargo of sugary caffeine water. On his way he must battle the evils of the municipal trash delivery, jaywalkers (who by the looks of things he ruthlessly murders on contact) and white picket fences. Each level ends with our hero posing mightily in front of a Pepsi vending machine, from which he drinks a well-earned can of Pepsi. Its a shame they felt it necessary to cut the most exciting part, where Pepsi Man restocks the machine with the bounty of soda that he found on the roads, backyards and living rooms of the game’s denizens.

By way of background: Bahrain was for many years a no-Coke zone, for various reasons that I can’t be bothered researching properly (*cough*bottling-plant-in-Tel-Aviv*cough*). Pepsi was (and to a large degree still is) the sugar-water of choice. The good folk at PepsiCo obviously decided that the next step from complete monopoly was ‘use video games to indoctrinate a generation of spandex clad Pepsi fueled super-soldiers’. Death to the Jaywalker!

NB: I understand that the sequel: “Pepsi Man 2:  Battle against Type 2 Diabetes and Tooth Decay” didn’t do so well, despite what critics described as a “thrilling final boss fight” (against colon cancer).