Victoria Vorreiter shares the results of five years trekking in Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle.

The Golden Triangle — the mountainous expanse where Thailand, Myanmar/Burma, and Laos converge — is home to over 130 different ethnic groups and subgroups. The region remains one of the most culturally diverse places on the planet, with each community representing differing worlds, each unique in their histories, languages, customs, arts, beliefs, and dress.

These are animistic societies, rooted in oral culture. With no written record, their beliefs are imprinted in the memories of those who continue to live them. Songs, ceremonies, and stories then become the chronicles and oracles of traditional ways of life. Yet the advance of globalization and the rush to modernity entice young people to forego the ways of their ancestors. Should one generation fail to pass on what it knows to the next, thousands of years of accumulated knowledge will die with little trace within a few decades.

I felt compelled to move to the area to witness these communities where music continues to play a primal role in guiding people in their lives, connecting them to their first ancestors and the spirits that animate their world. I’ve traveled throughout the region since 2005, documenting their traditional songs and ceremonies in an attempt to honor and preserve them before they vanish. To learn more about my project, visit my website Tribal Music Asia.

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The Golden Triangle

The rugged -- and, in some places, impenetrable -- mountains, river valleys, and forests have formed natural barriers that make for rough-going terrain. This is home to some of the world’s oldest civilizations.

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Harvesting rice

During the harvest season, fields in northeast Myanmar are dotted in bright red, as Palaung families gather their rice crop. Here, a 15-year-old girl separates the chaff by slapping each bundle from on high. Since she is of marriageable age -- and finding a partner can happen anytime, anywhere -- she is always dressed in her most colorful clothing.

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Shepherding cattle

An Akha Mu La woman shepherds her cattle at day’s end along a winding path to her village in the Shan State of Myanmar. Dressed entirely in indigo from headdress to leggings, she switches a long tree branch and shushes the stragglers, just as her ancestors have done long before her.

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Fabricating clothes

Following the traditional lifestyle of their ancestors, girls learn from an early age the steps of clothing fabrication from their mothers and grandmothers -- from growing cotton, ginning, carding, rolling, spinning, winding, weaving, dyeing, to embroidering and adorning their textiles. Every garment is a demonstration of skill, love, and creativity that protects and identifies the wearer. Here, a Hmong Tsai (Striped) elder unravels hemp fibers she has spun on a massive wheel in her mountaintop village in Phongsali Province, in the northeastern corner of Laos.

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Wedding celebration

A large celebration was taking place with prayers, feasting, and singing near Muang Sing, Laos, when I stopped to visit. It was the wedding day of Pelia, aged 18, and his bride, Mipia, aged 19, who was already several months pregnant with their first-born. In Akha Puli Hulai tradition, the boy’s ceremonial headdress is as imposing and magnificent as that of the girls, and can reach one tier higher than this one shown, measuring up to 13 inches.

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Headdress

In the Golden Triangle much can be perceived from the garments people wear, as clothing serves many purposes. Caps, hats, and headdresses in particular are both functional and decorative -- worn to give protection from the elements, as a sign of wealth and beauty, to indicate status and one’s phase of life, to ward off evil spirits, and to identify one’s community. This Akha Nuqui infant of Laos sports a cap colorfully embroidered and adorned with coins and talismans for luck and safekeeping. When she reaches adolescence and weds, she will change roles, adopting the sail-like headdress of her mother.

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Akha Nuqui family

It is the season of harvest and corn is drying in the rafters. This young Akha Nuqui Madonna from Laos, dressed in everyday garments, supports her baby girl. She is surrounded by children of family and friends, each revealing a different gaze, a different thought. Hers seems inquisitive, unsure. Having never seen a camera before, the young mother could not stop looking around to see what was at the interior of my lens, which in a certain light revealed her reflection. At the moment she became aware of her own image, she burst into laughter.

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Eng percussionists

For the Eng villagers who inhabit the Shan Hills near Keng Tung, Mynmar, the full moon of the third month is the occasion to honor spirits of forests and mountains, seeking good fortune during the hunting season. Young Eng women launch this three-day festival of chants, trances, prayers, and supplications, by beating percussion instruments, whose deep, metallic timbre reverberates off mountain walls, so that nature spirits from far and wide can hear their summons.

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Lahu Shi musician

On the occasion of the Women’s New Year at the end of harvest, a Lahu Shi musician in Burma’s highlands, sets the beat for festival dancing on his jegkho drum, while his grandson absorbs the vibrations in his dreams. To me, this image says everything about the interconnection between cycles of seasons, passages of life, honoring spirits, and the role music plays in them all.

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Nyi Pa Phii Shau Tae Festival

Every 15 years the Nyi Pa Phii Shau Tae Festival takes place in an Akha Puli Hulai village in Laos, when a gathering of shamans (nyi pa) supplicate the spirits (phii) for two days to bless both villagers and village. In December 2006, it was my unimaginable good fortune to witness this ceremony.

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Kwae horns

High in the forested mountains near Chiang Mai, Thailand, Thayae and his brothers follow in the footsteps of their Karen ancestors as they ‘blow’ in the New Year on their kwae horns. Each man produces bursts of tones in improvisatory patterns which, when played together, create musical vocalizations much like the birds treasured by the Karen. Every expressive phrase takes several minutes followed by a long silence as the players recover their breath.

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Mien high priest

A Mien high priest (tsow say) in northern Thailand speaks to members of his community from a makeshift sanctuary -- ‘the house of seven angels’ -- during the end of year festival to honor P'an Hung, the ‘dragon dog’ founder of the Mien people. Deep in trance, the priest hides his face behind a sacred black fan that quivers uncontrollably, as he relates the counsel of the spirits to his audience.

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ladder of swords

Lisu Shae Shae shamans in the mountains of southwest Yunnan, China, are endowed with supernatural powers to walk through fire and climb ladders of swords, practices they demonstrate at the New Year Festival and in celebration of Wang Yi, a warrior hero who protected the Lisu from attack during the 15th century. Extensive ceremonies of offerings and chanted prayers before and after their feats are required, seeking protection as they undertake the seemingly impossible.

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Hmong Tsai boys

At the New Year festival in Phongsali, Laos, Hmong Tsai boys practice the gheng, an instrument of six bamboo pipes of varying lengths, curved in an elegant arc and rooted in a wooden wind chamber. Each pipe has been fitted with a metal reed so that when played together they create contrapuntal melodies related to Hmong songs. Young men demonstrate their musical and athletic prowess as they perform dance-like movements while playing the gheng, often near the edge of a cliff.

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Lolopho New Year Festival

The Lolopho New Year Festival is a time when the entire community returns to the village not only to honor ancestors and spirits, but also to feast, visit family and friends, and renew their culture through music. For these young girls, aged 8, 12 and 14, in Laos, the festival offers an opportunity to dress in their finest. During the months preceding the event, they will have spent hours decorating their turbans with bright patchwork and silver pendants, weaving new belts, and sewing multi-colored bands on their tunics in anticipation of meeting boys from neighboring villages.

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