Most all the houses and apartments in the main part of the downtown Khon Kaen, Thailand are connected to the main streets by alleys. Not far from the Hotel Sofitel is an alley that has no special notoriety. So in terms of how this particular alley looks and the purpose it serves are no different from any other alley that one might travel. By chance, I picked this alley to walk along with my camera. I wanted to step off the normal tourists paths and mingle with the people that live there. This photo essay shows some of the faces of those who live along and are a part of the alley's character.
The people I met and the sites I saw were well worth the fifteen minute walk from the hotel. The residents and proprietors there were not used to seeing a "falang" (white foreigner) visiting the alley during the morning daylight hours. During the night hours, men familiar with the area and seeking female companionship, would often visit the food and dance parlors that were there. So my visit was initially looked on with suspicion since there did not appear to be the usual motive.
A smile and a softly spoken "so-wahdee krup" (translation:hello) from me would build instant trust and acceptance. I walked along the alley several different days in order to take many photographs. The eight photographs shown here were chosen from among those. The personalities were many. These pictures show just some of them.
On one of my photographic treks there, I walked the alley just as the sun was coming up. There was a tuk-tuk driver seated at one of the tables of a closed restaurant. He sat at the table waiting for the girls that worked the parlors by night. Many of them were married with children and husbands. They would be emerging from the brothels to return to their real homes by day. He would provide transportation for at least one of them. If he arrived early enough, sometimes there was time to sit and talk with them, perhaps sharing some breakfast that he had brought. He seemed like a lonely man. He was wearing a flower patterned shirt and seemed to be better dressed than most tuk-tuk drivers that I had been used to seeing outside the hotel. Obviously, he was wanting to look his best for these very special customers.
At one part of the alley, I discovered a small shack adjacent to a larger residence. I saw two men inside. It was a hot day and the door was left open. This was the neighborhood barber shop. I walked up to them and said "hello".something that I was getting pretty good at saying in Thai. They stopped the haircutting process long enough for the photograph. I stayed and watched the actual haircutting. It seemed like any other haircut except it concluded with a free cleaning of "wax" from the customer's ears. The barber kept a cotton covered swab in his shirt pocket specifically for that part of the service. I did not know how to ask in Thai nor did I really want to know if a different swab was used for each customer.
Almost anywhere you walk in Khon Kaen you will find people selling food. This alley was no exception. One lady had a small restaurant on one end of her house. Everyday she would deep-fry fresh fish and sell them to the neighborhood. In the evenings she would sell other cooked Thai food to the patrons that frequented the small establishments along the alley.
One of the residents of the alley had a concession at the central market where he sold sliced "Thai apples" rolled in sugar. He used the main living area of his home to prepare the specialty fresh every day. Later he would transport it to the market by motorcycle.
The outdoor cafes had no customers during the daytime. Local children however would often sit or play at the tables. Food vendors would travel the alleys. The children would often scurry to buy the sweeter offerings, given notice by a bell or horn that announced the vendor's arrival.
I met an old man sitting outside one of the alley homes. He had an interesting face; and on closer inspection, he was nearly blind. Cataracts were very thick on both eyes. His skin was leathered from the sun and wrinkled from aging. He held his head close to an old transistor radio that was playing Thai music. He seemed very happy with his simple life. I was told that his daughter owned the residence and cared for him since he could no longer live alone on his rice farm. He had been without teeth for over forty years, but I observed him eating rice and chicken one day without any trouble whatsoever.
One morning along the alley, I was very touched by a woman I saw there. She looked to be in her 70's or 80's. She was rummaging through the trash barrels. She would pull out the bottles and cans and place them in the cart she was pushing. I saw her stick a partially eaten cake in there too. I asked to take her picture. She barely understood me but stood there cautiously allowing me to shoot the photograph. She was totally confused at why I would want to do such a thing. I gave her 1000 baht and she dropped to her knees and hugged my legs. I lifted her to her feet. I think she thought I had dropped down from the sky. I never saw her again on subsequent days. I wondered if I saw her again would she be wearing a new shirt.
At the end of the alley there is a very nice home that is surrounded by spiked steel fencing and coiled razor wire. It is a sharp contrast to the shanty type dwellings that lie closely spaced everywhere else along the alley. Through the fence I saw a well-dressed lady sitting in the doorway. She seemed miles away with her thoughts and totally unaware that I had captured her with my telescopic lens. The corner grocery store owner told me that the lady who lives in the nice house is the wife of a local police officer.
I am sure this alley is not so different from the hundreds of other alleys in the city. Different faces, different lives--each person along the alley had a story of their own to tell. Their faces alone often spoke the words and no dialog or written account was necessary.