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Grim, Northern Laos

John Spies

Mae Hong Son, Thailand

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Artist's Description

Lying amongst the garbage by the butcher stall at the back of Muang Sing market in northern Laos, Akha hilltribe opium addicts stoke their pipes. Living out of cardboard boxes that protect their pork-fat flames from gusts of wind, the addicts do any work for meagre sums of money to buy their opium. Their wretched existence in town as slaves to their drug contrasts with the plight of the elder addicts in the mountain villages who have extended families to grow their opium and take care of them. The old colonial French market was once one of the major opium trading centres in the notorious Golden Triangle region. Mule caravans brought the raw opium from distant regions and traders then carried it to the towns and cities of SE Asia. I took this photograph in 1994, when the first tourists were ‘discovering’ the quaint town of Muang Sing. The market was a colourful mix of lowland Lao, Chinese merchants, Tai Lu and Tai Dum and highland peoples from the Akha, Hmong and Mien ethnic minorities. The Akha inside the market were dressed in their finest traditional clothes (see my image ‘Muang Sing market’) and I was quite shocked to see such squalor at the back of the market after the beauty and cleanliness I had witnessed inside. The people attending the market ignored the addicts; they were always there, part of the trash out the back. Shortly after I had left Laos, the local authorities decided to expel the addicts from the market, as the town was trying to clean up its image to accommodate the blossoming tourist industry. I have since heard that the old market is no longer used, and the town has developed rapidly as a tourist destination and trade centre for products from China.

Artwork Comments

  • MrJoop
  • John Spies
  • Angie Muccillo
  • John Spies
  • Margaret Harris
  • John Spies
  • Cat2be
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