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Karen hilltribe children smoking tobacco by John Spies

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Karen hilltribe children smoking tobacco by 

In remote villages in the mountains of northern Thailand, the children in some ethnic groups including Karen Pwo, smoked rough tobacco cheroots and pipes. When schools were established in the 1980s, the practice declined. The parents, also avid smokers and betel chewers, had no idea that smoking was bad for their children’s health. Taken in the early 1980’s with a Nikon FM2, Nikkor 28mm lense and kodachrome slide film. Natural light.

I am an Australian expat living in the hills of Mae Hong Son province Thailand (please visit I photograph almost everything, above and below ground.

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  • Yool
    Yoolalmost 6 years ago

    Excellent capture !!!!

  • John Spies
    John Spiesalmost 6 years ago

    Yool, thanks for your positive comments on my hilltribe photos, I appreciate them all!

  • gato
    gatoalmost 6 years ago

    great shot!

  • micheleirene
    micheleireneover 5 years ago

    Wow…incredible journalistic type image John! I love their looks of curiousity, and interesting story behind this.

  • Thanks Shelly, western visitors to their remote villages were an oddity back then, hence the curiousity. We could draw crowds of more than 100 villagers with mouths agape.

    – John Spies

  • marcwellman2000
    marcwellman2000over 5 years ago

    your images brought a smile to my face. I am an ex-pat Canadian living in China last 9 years and your images triggered a desire to see northern Thailand

  • Thanks Marc, things have changed a bit since scenes like this were common, but the north of Thailand is still a great place to visit.

    – John Spies

  • MrJoop
    MrJoopover 5 years ago

    I couldn’t help but go: Of dear! to the screen. Fantastic capture but at the same time disturbing. Sad.

  • It was a bit disturbing seeing children so young addicted to nicotine, but it was also hard to not record such a scene, knowing that it would soon become history.

    – John Spies

  • hohoemi
    hohoemiover 5 years ago

    Its such a great photo!!!!! I love it and at the same time i agree > disturbing :-(

  • appreciate and understand your comment Erin, thanks

    – John Spies

  • gato
    gatoover 5 years ago

    magnificent shot! and very interesting story!
    was the kid posing for you like this?

  • No he wasn’t. Western visitors were a novelty back then and we would attract crowds of curious villagers. Most of the kids were smoking and if I pointed my camera at them they were very natural and unassuming, and would just carry on doing whatever they were doing.

    – John Spies

  • Gili Orr
    Gili Orrover 5 years ago

    great image and interesting info.

  • Thanks Gili, it is one of my favourites

    – John Spies

  • Mary Campbell
    Mary Campbellover 5 years ago

    Your images are very thought provoking, and some sad like this one too. One has to wonder where they picked up the habit of smoking?

  • Thanks for your interest Mary. I have heard that Portugese traders brought tobacco from Sth America to SE Asia more than 500 years ago. In archaeological sites where i live are tobacco pipes 5-700 years old (see image Angels pipe). I think the habit spread extremely quickly, and back in those days children in Europe smoked as well…the hilltribes just took a little longer to catch up on the smoking/death connection.

    – John Spies

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