Daughters Rising is a human rights, non-profit organization that supports, educates, employs and empowers ethnic Karen women taking refuge from Burma in Thailand. Their sister company RISE is the eagerly anticipated ethnic and ethical handbags collection combining Italian leather and tribal textiles, hand made by Karen artisans in their villages.
In October 2015 I arrived at the Daughters Rising residence in Mae Wang to humbly volunteer my fashion expertise to aid the development of their promising new project. My aspirations were to learn from the inside out about Karen culture and to participate in the launch of a collaborative ethical handbags collection with an ethnic minority group. This has been the most profound and insightful experience of my adventures around Asia so far, leading to a change in my perspective and purpose for traveling in the future. In order to understand the ugency for such a project I will explain a brief history of the shocking situation that has hundreds of thousands of Karen people in this position.
Disclaimer: Before I start explaining and sharing my experiences of the past week I want you to understand that I am in no way an expert about the political actions and human rights concerns that surround the situation in Burma. All of the information contained in this post I have educated myself about in the last week via personal discussions with team members at Daughters Rising, Karen refugees working at Chai Lai Orchid and surrounding villages and using the links and resources listed below. If you see anything incorrect please politely advise in the comments at the end of the post. Thank you.
200km away from the Daughter’s Rising residence is the border of Burma where approximately 140,000 ethnic minority Burmese refugees are living in makeshift villages. They fled their homes over 30 years ago when the Burmese authoritarian military Junta began state sponsored ethnic cleansing of minority people who did not consent to their vision for the future of Myanmar. Persecuted ethnicities include Shan, Mon, Karenni, Arkanese, Rohingya and Karen people who in 1948 when Burma became independent from the UK wanted the right to govern their own states. Initially the junta only attacked the armed minority defences and rebels but soon after they began repeated massacres of peaceful ethnic villages in rural areas, burning them to the ground and orchestrating heinous crimes against humanity.
Refugees have no ID card in the country they are occupying, under Thailand’s domestic law refugees are seen as visa overstayers and therefore criminals. It is also a criminal offence to shelter a Burmese refugee in your home. Refugee camps allow people to meagerly exist. Refugees are dependant on depleting international and outside aid as they are not allowed to work or leave the camp. After 30 years many residents have only known the confides of their camps and very little else about the outside world.
“It is so strict to live here. There is nothing to do. I am not allowed to go outside the camp. There is no job, no work. So much stress and depression. I feel that I am going to go crazy here.” (Burmese refugee, Nu Po camp, Tak province, January 2012; Human Rights Watch, 2012e, p. 18)
Refugees are the easiest and most vulnerable targets to sex traffickers. Uneducated and desperate to support their families young girls are often lured away by the prospect of working in the city as a maid in a hotel or maybe behind a bar. They are tricked into believing they will gain an ID card, a place to live, minimum wages and new clothes. Grievously however once out of sight women are locked in room and beaten until they yield. They are told that if they try to escape and don’t prostitute themselves their family will be killed and their sisters will be joining them in the whore house.
Mo Hom is the traditional indigo dyeing process of the people in Phrea province, North Thailand. The creative community of Ban Thung Hong is a small village where local artisans are renowned for their textile technique and line the streets with their inventive indigo designs.
The term Mo Hom literally translates to Mo meaning pot and Hom which is the name of the indigo plant growing local to the landscape. Mo Hom is more than just a dying process, it is known as the pride of Phrea and is the signature style of labours to that area. Mo Hom clothes have been worn by local workers for generations as the original demand for the style was developed to meet the robust needs of living on the land. The design of the fabric is said to be more durable than regular cotton but cooler and more comfortable than denim, perfectly in tune with the Thai climate and it’s people.
Similar to Shibori, the art of Mo Hom has advanced in recent years to meet the design desires of creative consumers who are more than ever on the look out for authentic artisan products. Fabrics and fashion are often mathamatically manipulated into various arrangements. Depending on the strength of dye and time soaked in the solution, when the process is finished stunning shades of indigo will vary across a spectrum from midnight to sunlight blue, leaving behind the pretty pre-pleated patterns (watch the video).
Are you looking for the best fashion show in Asia? Do you love handcrafted artisan ensembles? Unknown to most is that Vietnam has a staggering 54 different ethnic minorities, many of whom’s cultural costumes are more creatively crafted and indigenously inventive than those so called couture designers in Paris.
Check out Haute Culture’s essential guide to the real originators of individuality and style in South East Asia.
“No. No you can not see”, was the answer I was not willing to accept when investigating the location of the elusive Lolo people. The Lolo people (also known as the Yi people in China) are a very special 1 in 54 ethnic minorities from Vietnam living in the tiny remote village of Lung Cu. Lolo people believe in folkloric stories, sharing tales of the past through dancing, festivals and playing music on sacred brass drums. They worship and celebrate legends, spirits and gods of nature. Lolo people have no distinguishable identifying features in the day time because they wear regular western clothes, but during very special occasions a few times a year the women wear the most elaborate, vibrant and intricate costumes.
“Put your money where you mouth is” holds a whole new meaning to the Black Dao and Hmong women living in the mountains of Ha Giang, North Vietnam. A sparkling smile catching the light across a corn field can symbolise a few meanings to the unsuspecting onlooker in the ethnic minority market towns of Meo Vac and Don Van.
Caked in gold, silver and holographic metallic’s, wearing neon pink, canary yellow and lime green, the girls flirt in full flare skirts coordinated with beads, sashes, aprons and head scarfs. It was like watching a group of women going out for a night on the town, only it was 7am…
AT – DONG – VAN – MARKET – IN – THE – MOUNTAINS – OF – VIETNAM.
A short 30km ride from Mai Chau nestled away from the mountains main road is the tiney tiny village of Pa Co. Small in size but heaving in habitué at the weekend, for the Sunday markets main trade is in textiles, costumes and haberdashery for the ethnic Red and Blue Hmong people. (Reading time 3 minutes) Continue Reading
Mai Chau is a seeming easy 150km cruise out of Hanoi. Only a 3-4 hour drive they say! Hmmm well, Im currently sat in my idyllic stilt house listening to White Thai women sing their folk songs in harmony with the crickets, but it didn’t start out that way. For those of you the don’t follow me on Facebook yet please click the link to read the funny story that matches the picture below of what actually happened on the first day of the rest of my life. (Reading time 4 mins)
Transcending Ethnicity and Crossing Cultural Identity: Interview with Alisher Sharip about his new photography exhibition Babylon 21Posted on May 31, 2015
A few months ago I was invited to join a photography project exploring the identity of international residents living in Hanoi. The only mandatory obligation was that the model must wear a headdress of some kind in a bid to disguise their traditional appearance. Intrigued I agreed to participate as I saw it as a rare opportunity to appropriate my Vietnamese hill tribe accessories with contemporary fashion trends for a credible cause. (reading time 10 minutes)
About Babylon 21 Transcending Ethnicity
“This series of photographic portraits by Alisher Sharip represents the diversity of Hanoi, an amazing ethnic and cultural melting pot that is home to people from all around the world.
Moving from portrait to portrait, the viewer’s eyes go on a journey of individuals shaped not only by the communities in which they grew up but also by life in cosmopolitan Hanoi, an environment that often triggers creativity and allows a person the chance to develop abilities otherwise repressed by the demanding social-economic reality of the places they came from.
Life in Hanoi challenges identity at all levels, professional, social, religious and cultural. By stepping out of the stream of daily routine and creating unconventional images, the participants question the concept of ethnicity itself and demonstrate how contemporary cities eliminate ethnic boundaries and create global citizens.” For more information visit the event page on Facebook.
Interview with photography Alisher Sharip
- Can you briefly describe your background and experience in relation to working creatively and living in a multicultural society.
In a way I’ve lived in a multicultural societies for all my life. Born in a mixed family in Uzbekistan (USSR at that time), I grew up in Belarus, did my MA and PhD in St. Petersburg, worked in the US and Vietnam. In all those countries I’ve always been a foreigner occupied in creative fields like icon painting, copywriting, journalism, TV production and scholarly research. The camera has been my working tool since early 2000s and a few years ago I started to make a living as a freelance photographer.
- How did the project start? Are there any personal experiences that inspired the project?
It started spontaneously. I was working on a series of portraits of Mai Khoi the singer, and one day we were having a session with her and another singer, Dong Lan, they both wore scarves on their heads and I was amazed how the beauty of their facial treats stood out. Combining headpieces with ethnic clothes, I experimented the concept with a few other people. Hoang Minh Chau suggested making more similar portraits for an exhibition.
- You previously named the project Ethnica, why did you change the title to Babylon 21: Transcending Ethnicity?
Ethnica sounded too broad. At some point I started thinking how to narrow it down and focus on the national and ethnic diversity of Hanoi. Then the metaphor of Babylon popped out in my mind and I decided to use 21 as a reference to both 21st century and the number of participants that equally distributes gender presence.
- How many people from different cultures and ethnicities are involved in the exhibition?
There are people from different Asian countries, Europe, Middle East, and Africa. Quite a few people in the series have mixed ethnic origins.
- What is the significance of the cultural costume, headdresses or props in the portraits?
My idea was to take people out of their everyday context, make them look different but still the way they wanted to look. So I asked them to prepare any sort of ethnic outfit they could think of – not necessarily representing their ethnicity but anything they associated themselves with. It was interesting to observe how some of them preferred their traditional costumes and others experimented putting together various national elements of costume, accessories and props to construct their identity.
- Working in fashion design and specialising in cultural costume I understand that our first impressions are often heavily influenced by the way individuals dress, do you think Babylon 21: Transcending Ethnicity challenges social stereotyping?
In a way it does. When we see a person dressed like that we are puzzled for a moment trying to classify what we see. Traditional “hippie” label doesn’t always work these days so we might have to think of a new decoding system to read people’s style.
- As a participant for me the project aspires to explore, challenge and combine the visual identity of the diverse ethnic and cultural community currently residing in Hanoi, would you say this is a accurate perception?
Yes and no. I didn’t try to show what people really wear in Hanoi in order to create or highlight their identity. It was rather an attempt to change the frame, get rid of conventional brand clothes that we usually wear without thinking twice. I wanted people to look different. And I liked the transformation. Human beauty shines when our ordinary perception is shaken a bit, when we visually slapped in the face and puzzled for a moment. I can’t wait to see participants at the opening, browsing among their portraits, taking selfies next to their framed images and comparing themselves with their photographic doubles.
- Will you reveal the portrait participants true ethnicity or will the observer have to guess?
I decided not to reveal their ethnic identities. Let it be a little hide and seek for the audience.
- How do you think multicultural communities have changed the creative scene in Vietnam over the past 10 years?
Dramatically. I came here 8 years ago and couldn’t find a joint with live music. Vietnamese artists were trying to create new forms coming up with something that had been out of date at the Western art scene for decades. I observed the emergence of the musical groups and was myself a part of it for a few years. I remember how traveling musicians Jason and Luke started Cinemusic Wednesdays and Phuong Dang was a part of it too and the place was always packed with local and foreign listeners. Now you can just open Grapewine or TNH and pick a gig where to go every day. It’s a completely different world and huge part of this change is multicultural influence.
On Wednesday 3rd June 2015 my portrait and 20 others will feature in a photography exhibition titled Babylon 21, exploring how contemporary multicultural living in the 21st century can challenge, change and create continuous conversation questioning who we perceive people to be based on their appearance.
Babylon 21 photography exhibition opens on Wednesday 3rd June 2015 at 6pm at Chula 43, NHAT CHIEU , 396 LAC LONG QUAN, Hanoi, Vietnam.
A weekend adventure motor biking around the mountainous province of Ha Giang Vietnam. 1000 metres above sea level Ha Giang boarders the southern Yunnan province of China. At last count over 60% of Vietnams hill tribe minorities call Ha Giang home, making it a culturally diverse and naturally beautiful destination to explore. There I met with local men and women on the markets and at their homes whom took great pleasure and pride in adorning me with their costumes and customs. Reading time 13 mins or scroll down to the bottom for my travel tips and advice on Ha Giang.
“HA GIANG”, “HA GIANG” I heard the guy yelling in my direction. I woke up to realise that there was only myself, the driver and bag boy left on the coach. I got down from my bunk bed, gathered my belongings and stepped out onto a flood lit derelict construction site. Wicked!! I sarcastically thought to myself, time to jump into action and figure out what to do next. It’s 4:30am. I hear sounds of chattering over the wall ahead and see an exit leading out onto a road. Looking like a rabbit in the headlights, I sense the local men sat outside the station are laughing at my expense. I hear a guy wolf whistle which instantly puts me on tenterhooks, Vietnamese men don’t normally do that, I thought. Another “wit whooo” comes my way and I’m feeling really uneasy. I look left and right for my friend Esteban, “Wit whooooo…..DONNA!” I breathe a sigh of relief, it was him all along.
Ha Giang City is No Sapa
I spend my first day in Ha Giang City just chilling out with some friends who are living there teaching English. They were working all weekend and I was hesitant to travel up into the mountains on my own. For one I don’t think I would get that far and I felt a bit paranoid about getting lost or in an accident. As a solo female traveller and don’t want to take unnecessary risks. I read online and my friends confirm that there is a guy in town that offers motorbike tours, normally for 3 or 4 days. So I set off to convince Jonny Nam Tran to take a day out of his normal adventurous schedule to chaperone/babysit me for a day. As I wondered around I realize Ha Giang City is nothing like Sapa. In Sapa everyone is a “Del Boy“. You can’t go to the toilet without someone asking you if you want to do a homestay, go on a trek or buy a bracelet, bag or blanket. Elaborately dressed Hmong and Dao women with children strapped to their backs line the streets with handmade ethnic textiles, crafts and jewellery. Coaches, buses and motorbikes wizz through the busy streets as tourists sip on their lattes in the French cafes overlooking the chaos. It’s full on, but at least you know you’re in the right place. Ha Giang is not set up for tourism at all, I only saw a couple of very basic hotels, cafes and convenience stores. Getting around to see the sights would not to be that easy without Jonny. No one is trying to sell me anything, no one gives a crap that I am there, and from what I can tell there is nothing to do apart from make my plans to head for the hills.
Occupied by monks and monkeys, and surrounded by tropical forests and flourishing gardens, Siem Reap in Cambodia is famously home to some of the most mesmerising archeological architecture in the world.
The UNESCO protected Angkor world heritage site houses the astonishing ancient capitals of the Khmer Empire. Dating back to the 9th Century the site covers a colossal 400sq kilometers and is literally littered with temples and Tuk-tuks. I had 3 memorable days of meeting musical monks, learning to spin silk with local artisans at the Angkor Silk Farm and temple trekking.
I fell in love with it’s colourful and cheery people, fascinated by the meticulous attention to detail of the dramatic masonry, and got lost in the wondrous awe of the diverse ancient architecture. Siem Reap is hand’s down my favourite destination so far, lets see why…. Reading time 10 mins.
Ankor Silk Farm Siem Reap
On day 3 I visited the Artisans of Angkor Silk Farm. As educational centers go it’s pretty well organised and hands on. You can book a free tour on arrival or just walk around and the super friendly staff in each section will explain about silk worm cultivation. You get to go to the mulberry bush plantations where the silk worms traditionally live and feed. Learn about the hibernation and incubation cycle. See them being boiled alive 🙁 and even have a go (i specifically requested this) at removing the silk thread from the cocoon and spinning silk like a real life spinster! A life long ambition of mine. After that you can read all about natural dying ingredients before seeing the silk woven into luxurious brocades on the hand looms. There is even an exhibition of traditional Cambodian silk textiles and costume history. Boom! What more could a cultural fashion and textiles lecturer want? I highly recommend this place.
Before the crack of dawn, there is 4am. This is the time your alarm will go off if you want to see the sun rise behind the magnificent silhouette of the world’s largest religious monument, Angkor Wat. What you don’t want to do, is drink a skin full the night before (just saying). It was my birthday and to celebrate I booked a long awaited weekend from Hanoi to Siem Reap. My friend and I arranged a Tuk-tuk to collect us at 4:30am. It was pitch black and surprisingly very cold driving to the entrance of Angkor Archeological Park which was about 25 minuets away from the city centre.
When we arrived I was naively shocked by how many people were there. Hundreds of Tuk-tuk drivers, motorbikes, coaches, tour groups, families and backpackers, all pushing in line to get their entrance permit. We arrived at Angkor Wat with just enough time to find a good spot for sunrise. The energy was electric with the anticipation of seeing the building shrouded in darkness in the near distance. Known as the 7th wonder of the world, nothing can really prepare you for just how beautiful it is, maybe I’m romanticising over my memories but shear scale of Angkor cannot really be described.
Built by King Suryavarman II the monument was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. It’s outer walls are ornately decorated with stone carvings of stories, myths and legends from life time lived long ago. The design itself is meant to represent the cosmic world and the universe on earth. The five peaks in the centre of the building correspond to the five peaks of the mountain Meru located in the Himalayas in India, and the 200 meter wide moat is surrounded by flooded gardens, ponds and rivers to symbolise the ocean. It took over 30 years to construct and spans over 500 aches.
The park is practically impossible to explore by foot and at $20 per day walking would not be the most economical option either. We had a great Tuk-tuk driver who spoke fluent English and seemed really proud to explain and accompany us around the sights. Temple trekking in Siem Reap was one of the most surprising and impressive experiences that I had seriously under estimated. “You’ve seen one temple, you’ve seen them all” right? Believe it or not (for those at home) that’s how it sometimes feels traveling in South East Asia. People become desensitised through over exposure of everything being amazing all the time. This is fondly referred to in backpacker land as being “templed out”. But NOT in Siem Reap. Every site is completely different. Competition was fierce as each Khmer King had his own memorable mark to make in place of the previous ruler. The diversity of the environment, the design aesthetics, the style of architecture, the stone, the colour, and the craftsmanship is all different, making you feel like Christopher Columbas with every new site explored.
Although Angkor was built as a place of Hindu worship in the 12th century, the grounds have been recycled over the centuries to accommodate different religious faiths of the ruling king of the time. Currently enclosed within the gardens of Angkor Wat today is a working Buddhist monastery. It was here wondering around I fell completely in love with the kind nature, cheery but peaceful ambiance of both Cambodia and Buddhism.The sweet smell of incense burned gently in the air, and there was a faint sound of wind chimes and mantras being chanted in the distance. Everywhere you turned there was a beautiful kaleidoscope of rainbow coloured paintings, fabric, decorations and shrines, all in honour of Buddha and his teachings.
Set back from the main drag, there was a communal tea room where monks were playing traditional Cambodian musical instruments and welcoming passing tourists to participate. Being the musical misfit that I am, I gladly took part in embarrassing myself just for the experience of having a go and spending a bit more time in their beautiful environment.
Cambodian Calamity Concluded
A long weekend in Siem Reap was a hard pushed escapade to fit it all in, but I’m so glad I did it. Sometimes we/me can put things off waiting for the right time to do it all at once. Just arriving in Cambodia for this trip was a personal victory for me. In 2011 I had flown into Bangkok and travelled directly to the Thai Cambodian boarder with high hopes of spending a 3 weeks gallivanting around on my first solo adventure. However this didn’t pan out. As I presented my passport to the boarder control officer, the page with my visa attached painstakingly fluttered out and landed on the floor. “You no come Cambodia. You go Bangkok and see you embassy”. Flabbergasted, confused and gutted, I returned to Bangkok and spent 3 days in and out of the British embassy. With an emergency visa in hand my Cambodian expedition had finished before it had even got off the ground, my options were to go home or stay in Thailand. I chose the latter and dedicated my remaining time to traveling Thailand, a previously shunned option.
This trip to Cambodia was just a sweet snapshot of what the country has in store for me. In 2014 I hitch hiked from Thailand to Cambodia on Christmas day to Koh Rong Island, that was an incredible journey but not really suitable content for this blog. On my way back to Hanoi I stopped in Siem Reap City and cycled my way about town taking snapshots of the local street style fashion. My experiences thus far in Cambodia have challenged and inspired me on both a personal and professional level. I’m so looking forward to going back in 2015 and exploring the full potential the country has to offer.
Has anyone else had a planned adventure stopped in it’s tracks and had to adopt a new strategy? If so i would love to hear about what happened in the comments below.
Carrie Parry How Silk is made fibre to fabric
Youtube Silk Farm Cambodia: This is how silk is made
Artisans of Angkor Angkor Silk Farm
Tourism Cambodia Angkor Wat
UNESCO Angkor World Heritage Site
Round the world traveler Angkor Archaeological Park