It`s HUGE!!!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Crossing paths with Headhunters in Burma

Who hasn't opened an old issue of National Geographic when they were a kid and looking with utter fascination, disgust and wide eyed amazement at the shrunken heads taken by such tribes as the Jivaro of the South American Amazon?
What kid hasn't wanted one of those creepy heads for themselves?
You kidding? Where can I get one?

Replicas were so popular that hobby shops sold shrunken rubber heads with stitched lips and eyelids.

In former times perhaps as little as one generation ago, two very different ethnic groups chose to
hunt human heads in Burma. One group are the Naga tribes of Burma's north west whose settlements straddle the border of India. Particularly the Konyak Naga were feared for taking heads in combat as a way to display their fierce courage. Arrows were driven through the eye sockets to prevent the spirits from finding their way back home.
That is one impressive set of trophies on your wall, Buddy.
Beats the hell out of bowling.

The other group of headhunters are the Wild Wa from northern Burma bordering China's Yunnan Province whose autonomous region boasted of whole villages whose walkways held human heads in various degrees of decomposition in stone lanterns. One such village was said to have an avenue of 300 such heads. Was it still there? Was it possible to visit?
Of course I had to find out if it was possible to find them.

Years ago in 1984, I was invited to a meeting by Abel Tweed the Foreign Minister of the Karenni Tribe deep into the jungle close to where the Moei River meets the mighty Salween River. Four hours in an 8 wheeled truck led to a river bank, the last outpost before we needed to take a long tailed boat maned by armed camouflaged soldiers up the turbulent river.

Karen children ran on the banks amidst fluttering butterflies with lengths of yarn hanging out of their earlobes.

Arriving at the camp, I was told that every one of the rebel leaders was here at this meeting of the National Democratic Front. General Bo Mya of the Karen, Brang Seng leader of the Kachin Independence Army and Ma Ha San the Prince of Vinghun, the leader of the Wa.
I wanted to meet him and to ask him to write me a letter of introduction so I could take photos of the Wild Wa.
I was told who to contact.
Every member was there.
"And he is here?".
"Yes, really".
"If you want to meet him now you can go along, he is staying in the house of my brother".

Walking over to a bamboo hut raised on wooden stilts, I walked up the stairs and entered a room silhouetted with figures sitting cross legged around a small fire drinking tea.
I sat down with my interpreter and was offered a cup.

Turning on my Sony Professional recorder I asked permission to record.
What followed was a remarkable interview with Ma Ha San, President of the Wa, one of the last living headhunters.

For those of you who have my book "The Vanishing Tribes of Burma", a new interactive edition has been published in Apple ibook. Utilizing the latest technology, we were able to combine 70 photos of more than 35 diverse Burmese tribal groups along with explanatory text from the Exhibition Edition
which was launched by Nobel laureate Aung San Su Kyi in Rangoon and combine that with short audio clips of tribal music including the 11 minute interview with a headhunter as relayed above.
Also the ibook has video clips of Aung San Suu Kyi's speech, and my speech at the opening of the exhibition as well as a video of me visiting the source of the Worlds Finest Gemstones, Mogok Burma in March 2014.

The brand new interactive ibook, The Vanishing Tribes of Burma can be purchased here for $4.99.

Order one now for the experience, the sights and sounds of a cultural world, which has, in many ways, already vanished.

Many thanks,

Richard K. Diran

Tuesday, June 3, 2014


After the Ethnographic Exhibition in Rangoon Burma which was opened by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on September 28, 2013 was complete,

all 70 photographs were donated for permanent display in the National Museum of Burma/Myanmar, so it was decided that a new set of the 70 photos should be printed and travel to Stockholm Sweden, and then move to Oslo Norway for new exhibitions.

We arrived in Stockholm on a direct flight from Bangkok on the 2nd of May 2014. The event would not begin until the 6th of May, so we had a few days to relax at the Helsten Hotel, a beautiful elegant old hotel in the center of town.

We had called our old friend Andy Mccoy formerly the guitar player with a fantastic band called Hanoi Rocks and asked him and his wife to come visit. They were living in Helsinki Finland.
We had met Andy and the band years ago in Japan, then saw them perform in Bangkok Thailand.
After that we toured with them in England and watched them at the Lyceum Theater in London.
Andy came to stay with us in San Francisco, and I stayed with him in L.A in his house formerly owned by Rock Hudson. There he gave me a plexiglass guitar which Keith Richards had given to him, the one Keith played on the album Goats Head Soup.

It was wonderful catching up with him again. There is a statue of him in Finland and he is soon due to be issued on a postage stamp!
Walking the streets of Stockholm it was evident that many people recognized him. He later came over to our hotel with an acoustic guitar and played flamingo music like a gypsy.

Andy came to the Stockholm opening where I gave my speech. He was accompanied by his friend a photographer named Oskar Ohlson who had photographed Lemmy from Motorhead, Johnny Winter,
Mink Deville and of course Andy. There were 150 Vanishing Tribes posters put up all over Stockholm for the event which opened on May 6th 2014.

After Stockholm our friend from the Swedish Peace and Arbitration Society, the oldest peace society in Sweden founded by a Nobel Laureate, packed up all 70 photos in a van and we drove towards Norway. We would stop on the way at our project manager's father-in-law's farm. There were a few Burmese traveling together with us who were also speakers at the events. One young woman who is incredibly courageous named Zin Mar Aung was a former political prisoner who spent 11 years in prison, 9 in solitary confinement.

In 2011 she received the Clinton and International Women of Courage Award. She has a great sense of humor and a compelling story. We were treated to home baked breads and barbecued moose.

After 2 nights in the glorious countryside of Sweden, our caravan drove off to Norway,
The event in Norway was hosted by Partnership for Change. My photos were set up in an opulent hall where the speakers included the former Prime Minister of Norway Kjell Magne Bondevik and Leymah Gbowee Nobel Peace Laureate 2011 whose role during the Women Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement was pivotal in ending the Liberian civil war in 2003. I also was able to give a short speech at the event which opened May 13th 2014.

After the Oslo event ended on May 15th, the photos were taken to Gothenburg, but my wife and I decided to have a look at Norway. Leaving by train from Oslo through beautiful scenery, we arrived at Flam a small town at the end of a 200 kilometer long fjord with towering snow covered mountains and lusty waterfalls. Flam also brews some very fine beers. We stayed overnight in Flam and departed by ship sailing west down the fjord.
Occasional villages dotted the way, miniature below the towering snow covered peaks far above tearing at the incessant lumbering storm clouds. Followed by screaming sea gulls and leaping dolphins we arrived at a town called Gudvagen. From here we took a bus on the Stalheimskleiven Road twisted with astonishing hairpin turns. It was May 17, Norwegian Independence Day. The streets of Voss were filled with families of flag waving revelers all dressed in traditional costume as if they had stepped out of a centuries old oil painting.

After a few hours in Voss we caught a train to Bergen. My wife's research had landed us the best hotel room in Bergen, the only one directly on the water. The old town of Bergen is a scene from a fairy tale with rows of pastel colored store fronts which are hundreds of years old. There is a fish market dating from 1296. Passenger liners, old sailing vessels, fishing boats, and expensive yachts line the waterways, and at night the ebb and flow reflects the sparkling colored lights of Old Bergen.

From Bergen we went directly back to Oslo, traversing Norway by train. Many of the mountain passes were still covered in a thick blanket of snow with temperatures of 4C. The next day we caught a direct flight from Oslo to Bangkok arriving at about 8am May 22nd. Bangkok was 37C or 100F. A few hours later martial law was declared, and then the army announced the coup d' etat with a country wide curfew from 10pm until 5am.

Never a dull moment!


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Mogok the land of Rubies

The first thing that we do coming into this world is scream to be heard and then try and stand to be noticed.
It is the nature of being human.

Early in March 2014 I arrived back in Burma now known as Myanmar with the intent of traveling to Mogok,
fabled land of the world's finest rubies.The first order of business was to visit the Shwe Dagon Pagoda rising majestically above Rangoon, gold covered, gem encrusted, legend infused, whose construction is said to have been started during the life of the Buddha, 2,500 years ago.
Walking around the massive bell shaped pagoda clockwise I stopped at the animal which represents the day of the week I was born. When you ask a Burmese citizen their birthday, they will answer a day of the week, in my case, Thursday represented by the Rat .Rats are industriousness, intelligent and always seem to be the first creatures off a sinking vessel.

I had been assured by friends in Yangon that it would be "No Problem" to go up to Mogok although I thought that I would need special permission. I assumed that what I was being told was correct.
My old Burmese friend and I flew up to Mandalay from where the last kings ruled Burma. It was from here
that King Thibaw was deposed and sent by the British into exile in India. He croaked in penury.

From the airport we drove to a cave pagoda called Datdawtaung near a town called Kyaukse which was isolated and a few hours drive down unpaved dirt roads. There were no signs and when the road would fork we had to wait for someone coming along to give us directions .Finally we arrived at the base of the hills and began to climb. climb and climb. Some of the bricks in the stairway were large tablets of the same era as the Pagan period proving that this place had been visited for many centuries. After several hours climbing ever upwards we came to the entry way of the natural cave with long dripping stalactites and huge stalagmites. Below was a gold covered reclining Buddha at least 75 feet long. Other than a monk and a friendly dog, there were no other visitors.

The next morning we drove out of Mandalay on the new road to Mogok. About 40 miles out, a remote controlled bomb had injured 3 people a week ago including the Chief Minister of Mandalay General Ye Mying. I had heard that this road was closed but clearly it is not. We stopped at a Shan Restaurant and I had a Myanmar beer and soft boiled eggs served submerged in a bowl of hot water. A Shan girl peeled a banana and ate it out of the skin with a spoon.

After several hours the driver told me to lay down in the back seat concealing myself. This didn't sound good. We stopped at a check point which was serious. "No Foreigners Allowed Beyond This Point" read the sign. A young guard with a G-3 machine gun opened the back door of the car where I lay down hiding.
 "Bad stomach",says I.
"Yeah right'.

The driver and my Burmese friend were escorted into Mogok where they were told that I needed to apply for the proper paper work to gain entry to
"No problem" became "big problem". and we were forced to return 6 hours down the hills back to Mandalay. $150 bucks up, $150 back.
I again checked in to the Shwe Phyu Hotel and sent my Burmese friend back to Rangoon to apply for the proper papers.
This left me with several days of nothing to do but to explore Mandalay. I found an old friend, a Shan who accompanied me to the Mandalay Jade market. The Chinese buyers will take a day trip from Yunnan, buy their jadite and return the same day. I was looking for multi-colored pieces, but there were few to be had and the prices were crazy. Like so many of the stones in Burma, the Chinese had inflated the prices of jade beyond the world market.

I went to see the Mahamuni Buddha taken from Rakhine State centuries ago. The faithful press sheets of pounded gold leaf on the statue which is now several inches thick.

It began to feel like "Ground Hog Day" where waking up is a repeat of the day before. I found a reliable motorcycle taxi driver named Win who would drive me around Mandalay and see the sights. In the afternoon when it became really hot, we would go down to the port and watch the boats unload clay jars and screaming hogs.

In one area of town all the shop houses were engaged in the carving of a pure white marble lending an eerie
ghostly layer of white powder over everything including the carvers. The subject of the carving was almost entirely that of seated Buddhas. I asked about where this marble was quarried and was told there was a marble mountain about an hour and a half drive from here in Mataya Township.The mountain did indeed have a massive seam of pure white marble being quarried by earth moving machines.

I spent time looking at over priced stones of mediocre quality, but I did see a large optically clear piece of
quartz crystal with an interesting inclusion of hexagonal crystal inside which was probably just dark quartz. Even for this the owner asked $5,000!

There was a traditional dance show which I photographed, and I had such traditional culinary offerings such as chicken anus, luckily unstuffed.

Finally after 10 days of eating Mandalay dust, and fighting mosquitoes as big as birds, my Burmese friend called from Rangoon to tell me that the permission papers were complete, and that he would fly back to Mandalay with them the next morning. Promptly at 9am we left Mandalay.
Hours after leaving the sizzling plains, and climbing into the mountains, the temperature dropped and became refreshingly cold. Having my paperwork in order, immigration was a breeze and we passed into Mogok, fabled land of the world's finest rubies, sapphires, peridot and bright red spinel.

I had completed photographing more than 45 different tribal groups out of what the government says are a total of 135. This erroneous number is perhaps from General Ne Win himself who altered the number from 142 to add up to his favorite astrological number 9. 1 plus 3 plus 5 is 9. Even 135 is wrong as even the Chin themselves are listed as 53. Fifty tribes out of 135?

Now a census is being done in Myanmar. This census is to determine how state funds should be allocated to the various groups. There are 41 questions on the census. One is of religion. Animist is a choice, the box I would check. One is of ethnicity. In Kachin State the Kachin Independence Organization will not take this census. How can they grant access to their territory when they are at war?

This will not be done. There's 2 million missing from the list.
Karen State government refuses to allow villagers evicted from their homes by the Burmese military to move into rebel held territory. A census here can not be done.
Same with the Northern Shan State, North East Kachin State or Karrini State, the Chin Hills or Nagaland.

Hello Konyak Naga, how many in your household? Aggha, don't cut off my head! Good luck there.

Wa State will take their own census.
The Rohinga can only be listed as Bengali. Unlike the Maramagji, the Shakama, the Mro, and Daignet who live in Arakan State and are listed as distinct ethnic groups, the Rohingya are not on the list. What do you check if you are not on the list?
Are they not part of the fabric of what is Burma?

No ethnic group can choose more than one ethnic category. What category shall the Rohingya choose?
What about a mixed heritage?
 A Maru and a Jinghpaw?
A Khaku and a Lashi?
A Burman and a Azi?
Some groups are listed twice under different names. Other groups like the Banyok of Kayan State who were described by Scott in 1900, a tribe that used to bind the heads of their children to appear as cone heads have vanished.

What if Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is barred from running for president next year 2015 because she had married a foreigner, and has children with British citizenship. Will she be barred from contesting the election and to not be able to complete a Mandella like transformation from political prisoner to head of State?

I will not speculate. I ain't on the census. Honkey ain't a category.

Ethnographic inclusion to the Union of Burma is part what got General Aung San, Daw Suu Kyi's father assassinated only six months after concluding the Panlong agreement in 1947 giving certain tribes autonomy under a federal system. Ethnicity. A very touchy subject in a country where the diversity of tribes are perhaps the most varied in the world.

 Beside wanting to look at the source of the best stones in the world, to visit Mogok, is for a gemologist as necessary as a  Muslim entering Mecca,

I was also interested in seeking the local tribes of that area. Our driver is a Lisu and knows of a village nearby of Shwe Palaung, the Golden Palaung. Previously I had photographed the Pale Palaung close to Kalaw in Southern Shan State, and the Silver Palaung near Kengtung. The Shwe Palaung do not wear these cloths everyday, as those other groups do, but they are stored at the monestary and only worn during the festival days. The blouse is incredibly ornate and stiched with tiny glass beads. The girls were very playful and aware of their own beauty.

High in the hills of Mogok close to a huge sapphire mine is a village called Stone Elephant. The rock formations here are of weathered marble jutting out of the earth like sharp teeth.There was an old Lisu woman I found in her kitchen boiling water. Her dress was also particular to this area near north west Shan State. Other Lisu I had photographed such as the smiling girl on the cover of my book, Vanishing Tribes lived near the Thai border of south east Shan State. Another style of dress was that of the Bhamo Lisu with broad stripes who lives in north east Shan State. And then there was a lovely girl who is a Lisu from Putao, northern most Kachin State. She and her dance troupe happened to be visiting Mogok and was eager to be photographed.

Mogok is indeed a magic place with fog filled valleys and huge trees. The incredible diversity of gem stones mined here and offered in the gem market everyday has been happening for many hundreds of years.
It will I suppose continue until Mogok has given up the last of her treasures.



Sunday, February 16, 2014

Winter in Japan

Over the New Year celebration my wife and I went to Japan. Deep in the mountains of the Japanese Alps
is a very ancient town called Hida Takayama. Some of my wife's family lives there and some of her school friends.
Neolithic stone implements can be found there proving that it has been an inhabited for thousands of years.
During the Heian Period, two powerful clans, the Genji warrior clan, and the Heike who were a more of an aristocratic clan  fought a war which saw the Genji defeat Heike in 1185 AD. Many of the Heike fled from Kyoto, their former seat of power to the Hida Takayama area and
continued their artistic culture.


The town has many beautiful and original buildings from the Edo Period from 1600 to 1868.

Close to Takayama is Shirakawago which is a world heritage site, a very mountainous and cold region. Until very recently Shirakawago was extremely remote but  tunnels were bored through the mountains making access to that region easy.

There is a Japanese style inn run by an eccentric old man with a wispy white beard who owns the mountain where bear still roam. He brews his own sake. He sprays water on the trees creating a crystal ice forest one frozen layer at a time. If the temperature is sub-zero, he will step outside and make soap bubbles which freeze instantly and float through the forest like glowing orbs. At minus 10 degrees Centigrade, the large flowing bubbles crystallize as dancing glass spheres reflecting the colored lights hidden in the ice.