A Ugandan in Southeast Asia

by Patrick Kabanda

It was as if I was in Thailand before I got there. The similarities with my country Uganda—landscape, banana plantations, flowers, and fruits—were arresting. On road trips, there were moments I thought I was in Africa, but the majestic Buddhas are nowhere in the Uganda I know.

I made my first trip to Asia in 2005 to play an organ recital at the Hong Kong Cultural Center. Later, during the summer of 2012, I spent considerable time in Asia, visiting Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. I spent most of my time in Thailand at the Mae Fua Luang Foundation Under Royal Patronage, working with other students to improve the Foundation’s communication strategy. We were based at the Foundation’s Doi Tung Development project in Chiang Rai, Northern Thailand. This photo essay is a selection from hundreds of photos I took on this trip.

1. As Heavy as Gold

During our orientation in Bangkok, we were taken to see Wat Phra Kaew, the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha, located in the heart of Bangkok. Wat Phra Kaew was built in the early 1780s when King Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke (Rama I) moved Thailand’s capital from Thonburi to Bangkok. Around the temple grounds are artistic items ranging from highly decorated walls with glowing intricate golden patterns to fanciful mythological animals like the ones depicted above. As someone who loves art and lives within its terrestrial and spiritual influence, I was at home here. Bangkok is bustling with vehicles, tuk-tuks, malls, night markets, and clubs. But since I grew up at a cathedral in Kampala, nothing captured my attention as much as this Grand Palace. As those from Bangkok put it, this place is “a proud salute to the creativity and craftsmanship of [the] Thai people.”

2. The Process of Making Tea

Our assignments required an understanding of the Mae Fua Luang Foundation’s sustainable development practices, so we were taken around to see a number of development projects. This photo depicts the inside of a small-scale tea factory in Chiang Rai. Even though my grandmother’s village in Uganda is near a tea plantation, this was the closest I have ever been to a tea-processing machine. The tea pictured above will be sun-dried after a final spin of intense speed.

3. Picking Tea

When I stepped out of the tea factory, I saw some farmers working in the tea garden. It was difficult to get close to them, but I was able to photograph them through the long weeds. I wish I had the opportunity to ask the tea farmers what sustainable development means to them.

4. Planting Rice

Much as Uganda is the Banana Republic of Africa, Thailand could be the Rice Republic of the world. We were taken to Udon to visit rice paddies like the one photographed above. We jumped into the paddies and planted some rice, too.

5. Planting Rice II

Thailand is known as the world’s leading exporter of rice, and its rice exports fetched more than US$6 billion in 2011. A backbreaking and muddy practice, rice farming is a vocation increasingly left to the older generations. Young people are staying in school longer, and metropolises like Bangkok are luring the country’s best and brightest away from rural farming areas. Thai elders and experts are worried about who will labor in Thailand’s rice fields as older workers die off. After all, this practice is a key component of the country’s cultural identity.

6. Purple Rice

Since rice cultivation is entwined with the country’s identity and its livelihood, rice symbolizes the Thai-ness of the land. In rural Thailand, it is difficult to avoid having rice for each meal of the day. As the country’s staple food, it comes in many forms, such as the purple rice in the above photograph. The accompanying flowers are edible, and the banana leaves in which the rice is wrapped give it a special flavor. This reminded me of home, because we use banana leaves to prepare food in Uganda.

7. “From the American People”

As we moved from village to village touring tea farms and rice paddies up and down the valleys, we stumbled across these USAID water tanks. These were in a small village in the middle of nowhere, and they were fairly nondescript. I noticed a tiny inscription stamped on them below the acronym USAID. It read: “From the American People.”

8. Wired Twice

There were many amusing sights, but the spider photographed above provided a good excuse to take another picture. In Uganda, I grew up being told to stay away from spiders, as they can be poisonous. That said, I didn’t have a powerful zoom, so I took a chance. I got as close I could to capture the tiny spider threads that blended in with the metal net.

9. Advanced Weaving

The next web of threads I photographed was manmade in the weaving factory at the Doi Tung Development Project. I wonder whether this woman purposefully wore a shirt and mouth mask of the same color as the threads she was spinning or if it was just a coincidence. In many parts of the world, weaving is part of the local culture. Here it was good to see ways in which groups, such as elderly women, earn income from their cultural creativity.

10. We’re Akha!

One evening, we were taken to see a traditional performance of the Akha people. Their performance was as colorful as their traditional attire. The items these ladies are holding, including the bamboo stick, are instruments. As a musician, this was an indelible dose of rural Thai culture.

11. Mekong River

As my days in Southeast Asia were waning, I took a night boat down the Mekong from Chiang Rai, Thailand to Luang, Prabang, Laos. The Mekong reminded me of the Nile, the world’s longest river that terminates its journey in Egypt, draining into the Mediterranean. The source of this north-flowing river is disputed, but some say it is in Uganda on Lake Victoria. The Mekong, said to be the world’s twelfth longest river, runs through China’s Yunnan province, Burma (or Myanmar), Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

12. Lao Tree Feeding More than Itself

The picture of the tree above was taken at the banks of the Mekong in Luang Prabang. What appears between the branches and the tiny leaves is not the sky; it is the waters of the Mekong.

13. Sleeping Buddha, Laos

In addition to beautiful nature, Laung Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has notable spiritual and cultural symbols. Its blend of Lao and European architecture renders the promise of cultural fusion. According to UNESCO, Luang Prabang is “the name of the famous Buddha image brought earlier from Cambodia.” The picture above depicts a sleeping Buddha, whose grace and beauty I found captivating. “According to legend,” UNESCO says, “the Buddha smiled when he rested here for a day during his travels, prophesying that it would one day be the site of a rich and powerful capital city.” Indeed, history provides that Laung Prabang was once the capital of Laos, before Vientiane took that title in the 1560s.

14. Floating Home, Cambodia

After Laos, I went back to Thailand in order to get to The Kingdom of Cambodia. I flew to Siem Reap to see Ankor Wat. While I was there, one tour guide suggested that I should go see a nearby floating village. Photographed here is one of the floating homes in the village.

15. Getting Around the Floating Village

The poverty I saw at the floating village was widespread, and I was reminded of the daily struggles in Cambodia.  I was told that this village is mainly inhabited by Vietnamese people, who for one reason or another, have learned to call this place home. I visited a “floating school” run by a “floating church,” and while the poverty abounds, the children there play as children anywhere. Moving from place to place ranges from tourist boats to improvised means of transport. The child above is getting around in what appears to be a metal basin.

16. Water Forest

When the water levels rise, the nearby forest becomes one with the water, transforming into a transfixing place of swaying shadows and reflections.

17. “Nice to see, good to hold, if it’s broken, it’s considered sold!!!”

Given that my only way out of Cambodia was by plane, I took a tuk-tuk back to Siem Reap airport, arriving there early for my flight. As I wandered around, the items I saw there were as fancy as at any other airport—in Bangkok, Entebbe, or Boston—a contrast to what I saw at the floating village. The sign next to the sculptures above, “Nice to see, good to hold, if it’s broken, it’s considered sold!!!,” reminded me of some Ugandan sales receipts. They read: “Once goods are sold, they are not returnable.” Well, since people are not goods, we can return to wherever we’ve been before. I hope to return to Southeast Asia again in the future.

About the Author

Patrick Kabanda is a Class of 2013 graduate of the Fletcher School.

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