Thursday, December 31, 2009

Death In Isaan, Another Lao Loum Funeral

Three days ago, one of Duang’s Aunts died. She died at home like most of the villagers in Isaan do when their time has arrived. She died at 65 years of age from complications of diabetes which is a medical condition that many Lao Loum people suffer with. Upon her death, her family contacted the Monks of the village Wat who helped with the arrangements for her funeral.

Her family cleansed and tended to her body prior to her laying in repose inside of her home. She was placed inside of a simple white coffin atop a woven reed mat (saht) – most likely woven by her. She was dressed in typical Lao Loum woman’s clothing – a straight heavy cotton ankle length skirt, I guess that it is actually a sarong, with intricate geometric patterns and a simple fitted tunic style cotton blouse. A colorful square cotton pillow, called a morn, with intricate designs was placed underneath her head. Her pakama, a versatile strip of cotton fabric that is used as a head cover, handkerchief, belt, towel, as well as a shoulder adornment was placed underneath as well as alongside of her head. On one of her wrists there were several strings of plain cotton string similar to butcher’s string that were tied around her wrist during a Bai Sii ceremony. The strings were tied around her wrist, in the Animist belief, to bind the 32 spirits that are contained within people and required to maintain good health. The Bai Sii ceremony is also used to wish people good luck and prosperity. On her other wrist was a nylon string crocheted bracelet that is typically placed by a Buddhist Monk during any merit making ritual. My understanding is that this bracelet serves the same purpose as the cotton strings placed during a Bai Sii ritual. In Isaan, many of the rituals and beliefs from the Animist, Brahman and Hindu religions have been assimilated and adopted into the Buddhist rituals. The deceased woman’s hands were placed into a wai (position similar to traditional Western praying position) with a single yellow candle between her clasped hands. The candle is about the size of a typical birthday cake candle is used as an offering during merit making rituals. The white coffin was placed inside of an elaborately decorated refrigerated outer metal container that is rented for the mourning period. The refrigerated container is plugged into an electrical outlet in the main room of the home and preserved her body for the next three days.

Yesterday we planned on spending the entire day at the Elementary School Field Day, a sort of Olympics, just outside of Tahsang Village. We did not get word of the Aunt’s death until we had already left Udonthani for the student games. The funeral ritual was to start at noon and we were asked to attend. There is an extremely strong sense of family in Isaan as well as the Lao Loum culture so we were obliged to pay our respects – literally and figuratively. Duang suggested that we go to Nongdahn Village for the start of the funeral rites, pay our respect, and make a donation before returning to the student games. I was not so sure. I had attended one Isaan funeral before for one of the Tahsang Village women. Like most interesting things, I like to experience it more than once to fully understand and appreciate it. I have been to Machu Picchu twice – the second time to take the photos that I didn’t take the first time. It took three trips to the Grand Canyon to fully appreciate or comprehend its magnificence. I have been to Maehongson four times – so far. An invitation to attend another Lao Loum funeral seemed to be just such an opportunity to better understand the ritual. I asked Duang to keep an open mind which she did. We attended the entire funeral ritual and missed out on the soccer and volleyball competitions.

We stopped in Tahsang Village and picked up two of Duang’s Aunts and arrived at the deceased’s home at Noon. Outside of the home, five rented canopies had been erected along side of the home and in the backyard. Underneath two canopies in the front yard, tables and plastic chairs were set up for serving meals to funeral attendees. The two canopies were occupied by women. A canopy on the side of the house was occupied by men. Lao Loum men and women sit separately at Buddhist rituals and many social functions. On the tables were large bottles of soft drinks and large bottles of beer. At the men’s tables, the men had a couple bottles of Kao Lao (a brand of moonshine whiskey also known as Lao Lao) that they were hitting pretty strongly. The other two canopies covered cooking stations where mounds of food were being prepped and cooked for the funeral guests. Several charcoal fires and propane gas burners were blazing away with pots of rice, soups, and boiling concoctions. At a small desk just to the side of the door into the house, there was a bowl where people made their offerings. A person recorded the name and amount of the donation. The money as well as the ledger would later be offered to the Monks at the Wat as part of the ritual. Donating money to the Monks at a funeral earns merit for the deceased as well as for you. The money is used to maintain the Wat – the center of village religious and social life.

We made our way to the tables and canopies to “take care” (say hello and pay our respects) of guests and family members. Paying respects to people is extremely important in the Lao Loum culture. I am honored and often amused when parents have their children – many of them as young as one year old perform the deferential “wai” greeting to me. I must admit that it is this sense of social responsibility and awareness that enhances the quality of life here.

Although many of the women were dressed in black, there was not a great sense of mourning amongst the people. At the first funeral that I attended some people were playing cards. There was no card playing at this funeral. Being a foreigner and often the only foreigner at family events and local celebrations, we often get a great deal of attention. One of the men, I believe a brother in law of the deceased woman who also had been hitting the Lao Kao, offered me drinks of whiskey. Since I was driving and the Police had already been setting up roadblocks on the roads in anticipation of New Years Eve, I politely declined – several times – every time that he offered a drink! He then asked me several questions about funerals in America – all made more difficult by the fact that he was asking in the Lao dialect which I don’t speak at all and Duang was often preoccupied with conversation with others. The worst part of these events is not being able to be courteous and converse with people easily. Somehow we all managed and I spoke to him as well as others regarding Christian funerals. As much as I am interested in Isaan’s culture and traditions the people there were just as interested in my culture. When I told him that many people cry at Christian funerals, he told me that they do not cry so I could cry for them if I wanted to. When I told the people about mortuaries, morticians, and underground burial they were shocked.

The lack of emotion at funerals is apparently a reflection of Buddhist philosophy and beliefs. I never saw any demonstration of emotion, or grief throughout the ceremony just as I had not at the previous funeral. The belief in reincarnation, and therefore the continuous cycle of birth, death, and rebirth until Enlightenment is achieved removes much of the finality that Christianity associates with death. We speak of life everlasting and being reunited after our time is completed on Earth but we behave much differently when someone actually does pass on. What I did see all afternoon long during this Buddhist ritual was caring, solemn, and respectful consideration for the departed person. It appeared that just about the entire village showed up and many of them participated directly in the funeral.

I had to take pictures of some of the guests – they insisted. One woman was a little embarrassed to smile because she was missing several teeth. She told my wife that she wanted a foreign husband. I honestly told her that she was number 78 on my list of foreign husbands to find. She was concerned about missing some teeth. I had her show me how many teeth were missing and I assured her through Duang that some foreign men like women who were missing teeth. She got my rather ribald joke, a remnant of my university days, and laughed like crazy. The Isaan sense of humor prevails at all times.

We were offered food and soft drinks. I ate some of the typical Lao Loum foods served at celebrations – chopped up raw beef with chilies, cilantro, and garlic, sticky rice, and raw Chinese cabbage. My new friend with the missing teeth asked how the food was, I responded in Lao that it was very tasty and then told her through Duang that you didn’t need teeth to eat it. The woman laughed like crazy.

Inside the woman's home, several Monks, 19 to be exact, and family members were seated on the floor with the body inside of the refrigerated container. Atop the rented container, a large artificial flower arrangement, some candles, three cloth bags filled with something, some buckets of offerings to be made to the Monks, and some plants were placed as a sort of altar. Of to the side of the container an 11" x 17" framed photograph of the woman which appeared to be taken off of her National I D card was supported by a tripod stand. The Monks and people inside chanted some prayers. People underneath the awnings joined in the chanting. Duang’s Aunt was not as poor as the other woman that we attended funeral. A deceased person earns merit by having more Monks participating in the funeral ritual. Another important consideration is that the total number of Monks can’t be divisible by 2 – hence 19 rather than 18 or 20. Duang’s Aunt did not have any sons – only daughters so some of the Monks were her Grandsons and Nephews. In Thai culture, a son shaves his head, shaves his eyebrows, dons Monk’s clothing, and becomes a Monk for the three days between his parent’s death and their cremation. This act earns merit for the deceased to help them in their next life.

If parents do not have sons, grandsons and nephews take on the responsibility and duty to the deceased. I spoke to Duang in regards to me and she readily offered up that her son, our grandson – Peelawat, and her cousins will perform the service for me. Since Peelawat will only be one year old on February 4th – I do hope that he is able to when my time comes!

After the chanting and merit making ritual inside of the home was completed a man drove a pickup truck up to the home. Other men started taking pieces of ornate sculpted gold colored wood out of the house and placed it in the truck. Later personal effects such as cushions, and bags of clothing were added to this truck.

Several village men and male relatives went into the home. They rolled the refrigerated container out of the home and respectfully placed it in the back of the pickup truck. As the body exited the home, a string of firecrackers were lit off to scare away any local Pii (spirits or ghosts). By now many people dressed mostly in dark clothing started to form up around the truck transporting the body. The 19 Monks appeared and went to the front of the truck. A man produced a long white rope that was attached to the truck. The other end of the rope was held by each Monk in the lead followed by several people that appeared to be relatives. The remainder of the people followed escorting the truck that transported the body. One of the village men carried an ornate pressed metal offering bowl filled with puffed rice and sprinkled it along the route. Many people carried offerings for the Monks.

The procession slowly marched to the Wat inside of Nongdahn Village with the silence of procession occasionally interrupted by firing noisy whirling fireworks high into the sky. To get to the Wat the procession had to cross and walk along the main farm road. A couple of times, tandem trucks heavily laden with harvested sugar cane were forced to share the road with the procession. As the procession entered into the Wat grounds a large firecracker was set off hopefully to scare the spirits as much as it scared me. The funeral procession circled the Wat's crematorium three times. Most of the people upon completing the circumambulation of the crematorium entered the simple temple next to the crematorium and sat upon sahts (colorful woven reed mats) placed on the tiled floor. Other people sat outside in the rows of plastic chairs that had been set up outside of the bot. Some of the village men removed the refrigerated coffin from the truck and carefully placed it on the concrete slab in front of the crematorium. It was opened and the simple white coffin was removed and carried up the stairs to the doors of the furnace. The coffin was placed upon two metal sawhorses. Some other men then unloaded the woman’s personal possessions and placed them alongside of the crematorium on the ground to be burned separately.

People then went into the simple temple where offerings were made to the nineteen seated Monks. Like the number three, nine is a very good number in Buddhist beliefs. Nine Monks is considered to be a good number for occasions such as weddings, house blessings, and funerals. During the offering ceremony, two young girls passed out small containers of chilled soft drinks and water. The offering ceremony appeared to be like so many of the other ceremonies that I have attended for all kinds of different reasons.

In observing the ritual, I did not see anyone that I would consider to be a "professional" in these matters. There were no funeral director or mortuary representatives. Once in awhile the local Monk provided a little direction to the local men but for all intentions it appeared that the lay people were handling the rites. I asked Duang about this and found out that it was the villagers and family that handle the funeral activities with guidance from the Monks. There is no "big company" involved in funerals. The family washes and prepares the body. Villagers, friends, and neighbors pay their respects by handling other activities. Once again I have witnessed a strong sense of community in Isaan.

I am now well known about the village, family and surrounding area so I was encouraged by many people to go about and photograph the ceremony. The people were always motioning me forward to photograph some new aspect of the rites. I had learned from the previous funeral rite that no part of the ritual is off limits to closer observation or photography. This time I was determined to take photographs that I was too shy to photograph the last time. It was extremely interesting to observe and I made a great effort to be respectful while seeing and learning as much as I could.

As part of this funeral’s ritual, a tray of food along with two small glasses of whiskey were brought from the bot and placed upon the top of the closed coffin. The three cloth sacks that had been atop the coffin were removed and brought into the bot to be offered to the Abbot of the Wat. Two men read the names, ages, and home villages of her brothers and sisters as well as her children. As their name was read, they stood up, walked over to the man, received a plain white envelope, and offered it to one of the Monks. Duang told me that each envelope contained 2,000 baht for a total of 38,000 baht (over one thousand US dollars). In making the offering, the family members earned merit for the deceased as well as for themselves – thanks to the generosity of the deceased’s immediate family. After the offering ritual in the bot was completed, some men removed the lid on the coffin for the next part of the ritual.

A nephew had prepared several green coconuts using a long knife to cut off the tops to open up a small hole to exact the clear liquid inside. The other end of the coconut had been cut square so that the coconuts be stable when placed on the concrete slab next to the coffin. Another man had several pieces of bamboo about 18 inches long with a strap of thin bamboo strung through the slanted top. One of the daughters filled the bamboo with water that had a very fragrant liquid soap or oil added to it. The fragrant oil or liquid soap is purchased at Buddhist Religious Shops and used in rituals.

By now the family had appeared and climbed up the steps of the crematorium to where the coffin rested. They started taking the coconuts and emptying the contents into the coffin as well as from the bamboo tubes. Duang has told me that everyone in Isaan has their face "washed" with coconut liquid because everyone likes green coconut water and it cleans the face. The purpose of the offerings is to nourish the spirit and cleanse as well as cool the spirit for its upcoming journey.

The remainder of the people including many children of all ages had now lined up at the foot of the stairs. Here in Isaan, death is not hidden and kept secret. The children learn of death at the earliest of ages. At the base of the stairway there were two large bowls with little packets made out of bamboo strips and paper. Each person took one of these things and placed it upon the body when they paid their last respects. As they descended the stairs of the crematorium, one of the deceased woman's daughters gave the people a a hard candy similar to a lollipop without the stick. After everyone had paid their last respects, the bamboo strip and paper offerings were removed and placed upon the personal possessions pile to be burned. The coffin was drained of the coconut water and scented water. The saht was removed and placed on the pile to be burned separately along with the floral arrangement along with the personal possessions. The Abbot ascended the crematorium stairs said some good words along with the woman’s youngest daughter. They then threw small packets of coins wrapped in colored foil and hard candies to the people below.

The coffin was then placed inside of the furnace and the furnace door was closed. The furnace was ignited and as the first wisps of smoke came out of the crematorium chimney, we left. The entire service had lasted three houers.

This ritual was simple, touching, and very dignified. I was once again very impressed with the sense of caring, sense of community and respect exhibited by all the people. It was interesting as well as reassuring to see how the people took care of each other with dignity and compassion.

We returned home tired from our eight hours of Student Games and funeral. I now have 629 photos from the day to edit and file as well as at least one more blog after this one to write

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Keeping America Safe

Hmmm... My 45 year old Thai Buddhist wife, who has a Thai Identity Card and Thai Passport in the last name of "Hale" could not get a Visa to visit her in-laws in the USA but a 23 year old male Muslim Nigerian, who apparently traveled to Yemen and is on some kind of watch list got a Visa to visit the USA. Oh - his father was Chairman of the First Bank of Nigeria. I, an American citizen, could not get a specific answer from an American official as to why my wife was rejected other than "she didn't convince the interviewer that she would return to Thailand" (where she owns two houses and has extensive family). My wife told me that the interviewer asked to see my passport, records of my income and my banking, and questioned her as to how much Thai I spoke - all not requirements on the application or on the State Dept websites. No appeal allowed. No advice or guidance was given as to what documents we need to produce that are not listed in the application or websites so as to avoid a repeat rejection other than we can apply again for $131. We know of some people who applied 5 times before they obtained a Visa for their Thai wife.

I guess the Nigerian did not have to convince his interviewer that he would not try to blow up the plane!

Oh I need to mention again - his father was Chairman of the First Bank of America.

Sleep well America you are well protected from middle aged Thai women!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

An Isaan Christmas

As Christmas comes to a close on the West Coast of the USA, we are half way through the next day here in Isaan.

We had a very nice Christmas yesterday in Isaan. In the morning we loaded up the truck with the Christmas cookies that we had baked the previous afternoon - 4 hours of effort. Duang knew intuitively that we would take most of the cookies out to Tahsang Village to give to the little children.

Christmas in Isaan was a normal day. Children had school to attend. Businesses were open. Farmers were working in their fields.

The country roads are now travelled by trucks of all sizes transporting harvested sugar cane to the local refineries. In some areas, where there is readily available water, the paddies are being prepared for a second crop of rice. It will not rain again until May so it is essential that a reliable natural source of ground water be available for a successful crop. Rice in Isaan is grown using the wet land method so most farmers are able to only harvest a single crop per year.

On our way out to Tahsang Village we stopped in the village to bring our grandson, Peelawat, his portion of the cookies. Peelawat was asleep outdoors in a hammock watched over by his Great Grandfather. Peelawat's outfit for the day was laying on the platform underneath his hammock. His Uncle, Duang's son had given him a Christmas Santa Claus suit. It was a red snow suit - pants, jacket and elf hat with white trim.

Peelawat and his mother joined us on our trip out to Tahsang Village. We passed some relatives with their babies walking along the village road and told them to meet us at Duang's mother's house. Soon we had the babies all assembled to receive their cookies. Typical of babies here in Isaan, their faces had been powdered to protect them from the sun. What cookies that the grownups managed to save for themselves were devoured by the children. In five minutes, the product of our four hours of effort were completely devoured. The children were very happy to have some treats and we enjoyed watching them.

After our visit in Tahsang, on our way back to Peelawat's village, we stopped at a local school. At the end of the year there are competitions between the students of the local schools. On Christmas, Tahsang Village was competing against another local village. The school's athletic field was ringed with push carts selling food and drinks. At some of the cement tables and benches that the students use to eat their lunch, some men were congregating drinking Lao Kao (moonshine style whiskey) Under the shade of trees, families and teams were resting, relaxing, and eating picnic style atop sahts (woven reed mats). It was very festive as well as interesting.

The students competed in volleyball, futball (soccer), and takraw. Takraw is similar to volleyball but uses a 12 cm woven rattan ball and you can not use your hands - only your feet and head.

The competition between the schools was fierce but good sportsmanship as well as good manners was very evident. It was quite entertaining. As an added bonus, Tahsang Village was triumphant. The teacher who was also the coach of the volleyball team received money from some of the happy adults. She gave each of the team members 100 baht to buy food and drinks. I am not totally familiar with NCAA rules, but I suspect that players receiving money, albeit $3.00, is some kind of violation. Fortunately, Thailand is not so concerned with student athlete regulations. Also, although the players were no older than 13 years old, I did not observe any potential US university caliber talent. It was just great to see children enjoying themselves and trying their best. It was a great experience.

After returning Peelawat and his mother to their home, we returned to our home to complete our holiday celebration. I made, as best I could, a traditional holiday meal for Duang, her son, and his girlfriend. Many of the ingredients for a traditional meal are available in Isaan but with ingenuity, creativity, substitutions, and alternatives a fine feast was produced - turkey breast, garlic potatoes, stuffing, steamed carrots, gravy, and Christmas cookies. I suspect that they liked it because all plates were cleared.

All and all it was a very pleasant day - a Christmas in Isaan.

As in most aspects of life it amounted to being thankful and enjoying what we have rather than dwelling upon what we don't have or what we would like to have.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve In Isaan

It is now Christmas Eve in Isaan.

Christmas comes early to Thailand - due to the International Date Line.

I got motivated yesterday and decided to share a little of my past and culture with Duang, my Lao Loum wife. I decided to make a traditional Christmas dinner for us, a task made all that more difficult because we live in Isaan. There are many alternatives and substitutions required to recreate an American tradition here.

First of all there is no hoping or wondering if there will be a White Christmas. It does not snow here in Isaan in fact when it does get "cold" here it is more likely to be around 65 to 70F.

Secondly, there are not very many Christians here in Isaan. Like the rest of Thailand 95% of the people are Buddhists. Despite the small number of Christians, ther are Christmas decorations in the malls and many of the businesses. Christmas music is also played in the shopping malls at this time of the year. The overall effect is to provide a flavor of the holiday without the craziness of the season in America. Yesterday we went to the Mall to try to pick up some last minute items for tomorrow's dinner. The Mall was not crowded at all. We were unable to find everything that we need for dinner - items like white wine, pork sausage for stuffing, bread cubes for stuffing, yams, and dates for special Christmas cookies.

Today we drove to another store to see if we could complete our list. At the French based grocery store, we found a bottle of Gewurztraminer - a product of Thailand. I could not find a Wine Spectator rating for 2006 Knight Black Horse wine - no matter the case I am just thankful to find a bottle of white wine. It will be used in the stuffing as well as in the gravy. Whatever is left over we will hopefully enjoy drinking with our meal. I could not find any typical pork sausage so I will substitute some English Breakfast Sausages that I had in the freezer. There were no dates so the stuffed Christmas cookies have figs substituted for the dates. I found some sweet potatoes to substitute for yams in making candied yams. Duang pointed out several worm holes in the 5 remaining potatoes so we will have steamed carrots instead. There is no point in getting upset or stressed in not finding everything to have a traditional celebration. This is Isaan and not America. I am thankful to be able to enjoy the day with my wife and be able to give her a little glimpse into my heritage.

Tonight as I started this blog, I got a phone call from Bangkok. A very good friend of mine from my last job in Thailand and a friend of Duang's called to wish me a Merry Christmas. Just as back in the USA, it is the best wishes of family and friends that truly makes the holiday special.

Today we baked Christmas cookies all afternoon long. Tomorrow we will bring the cookies to our Grandson, Peelawat, and the other children in Tahsang Village. They don't celebrate Christmas or even know about its significance but being children I am certain that they will enjoy the sweet treats. Of course their parents and grandparents can enjoy them too - there will be plenty for all.

When I was divorced and had custody of my two sons, I always made cookies and a traditional meal to celebrate Christmas. That was a long time ago and far away so now the tradition will continue for my new family here in Isaan.

So tonight will be low key and relaxing for us here in Isaan. There are no gifts to wrap. There are no private or family parties for us to attend. There are no wagons, bicycles or hot wheels to assemble. Duang and I will just lounge around and wind down from our long afternoon of baking as well as cleaning. There are drinking pavilions set up along with performing stages set up in downtown Udonthani across from the Mall. They will be open starting tonight until the New Year.

Perhaps New Years Eve, we will check it out but Christmas Eve, for me, is for family and quiet reflection.

Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Give Us Our Monthly ...

Three days ago, Duang and I went to Tahsang Village to assist one of her Aunts. Duang's Aunt needed to go to the Amphur Offices in Kumphawapi to register to receive year monthly allotments during 2010 or 2553 of the Buddhist calendar here in Thailand.

In Thailand, as part of one of the King's programs, the government gives 500 Baht ($15.11 USD) each month for Thai citizens who are 60 years and older. Government officials go out into the villages on the first Monday of each month to hand out the money to qualified recipients. The people of the village go to the village community building or community pavilion, present their National ID card, and collect their money once their identity is cross checked against the master list. The process is very similar to going to the polls in the USA to vote in an election or referendum.

In addition to people over 60 years old getting a monthly allowance, people with disabilities also receive 500 bahts a month. Elderly people who also are found to have disabilities receive an additional 500 bahts per month allowance. Duang's Aunt is blind and over 60 years old so she gets $30.22 USD a month - her only income. This is her only income. In perspective, a 50 kilogram sack of rice costs 500 baht or $15.11 USD. Elderly Lao Loum people continue to work as long as they physically can after which they rely upon their children, typically their youngest daughter to provide for their basic needs. In the Isaan culture people readily and freely share their food which is good given the lack of resources available to elderly people. After Monks have taken their food offered by people, the remaining offerings are available for lay people to consume.

Duang's Mother had called the previous day to ask us to take care of the Aunt. We drove her to the Amphur Offices and Duang ensured that she was properly registered in order for she would receive her 1,000 bahts each month during the upcoming new year.

The parking lot of the Amphur offices was set up to process all the registrants of the amphur. Canopies and tables were erected at the edge of the parking lot parallel to the city street. People at the tables were passing out prepared lunches in Styrofoam containers and plastic cups filled with a special iced drink to the applicants. As I was photographing the food line, some of the workers called out and motioned to me.

They gave me a cup of the special beverage to drink. They told me that it was a special Isaan drink. The drink, called "Kongwan" was very cold and was a version of what I am accustomed to drinking called "cha menow" (ice tea with lemon. Cha Menow is made with tea, sweetened condensed milk and lemon flavoring. However the special drink that I was presented with also had Chinese noodles in it. Very different. Rather unusual in my experience but very refreshing. I drank and chewed some of the drink and brought the rest over to Duang and her Aunt to drink as they stood in line waiting to register.

Other pavilions were set up in the parking lot to shelter the applicants and workers processing the required paperwork. People of all ages and various disabilities along with their caretakers, waited in organized confusion under the late morning sun to complete their application. I use the term "organized confusion" because I saw no lanes, signs, or structure to the process. Some people awaiting their turn had set up plastic chairs scattered amongst the people standing. It was a very fluid process with no clear traffic lanes set up or maintained. I had no idea what was going on but some how it seemed to work. It worked fine for the people. There were no fights, confrontations, arguements or disputes. There was one incident where some people set up chairs that blocked the progress of an old man being moved in a wheelchair. They apparently could not hear so there was an awkward stand off. I got involved and helped to let the people know that they needed to move their chairs to let him and his attendant pass. I then pretended to be a Policeman, like the one in the parking lot, and pantomimed blowing a whistle as I gave them hand motions to return their chairs to their original locations. Since it was going to be awhile before it would be the Aunt's turn, I took her to another pavilion that had plastic chairs set up for people to wait sheltered from the sun. There were a couple leather couches under the canopy, but I have lived long enough in Isaan to know that they were reserved for Monks or Officials. Around us some Amphur workers were organizing and supervising games for entertaining the people. I also found it entertaining - teams building long poles out of plastic straws, teams doing relay races in passing an egg between themselves using only a metal spoon in their mouths.

After an hour and one half, Duang's Aunt had her turn at the registration table. Some people had books similar to passbooks or Thai House Registration Books that identified them as "PWD" (Person With Disability). Duang's Aunt did not have one for some unknown reason. It did not seem to matter. Each person was interviewed and after stating their disability, they were checked by an offical who was filling out their papers. Duang's Aunt is blind apparently from cataracts. The pupils of both eyes are white and no responsive. The official shined a flashlight in each of her eyes and satisfied himself that she was indeed blind. Her papers were completed and stamped for submittal as well as processing by another official. Duang told me to return to our home and she would return later in the afternoon with her son.

When Duang returned home later in the afternoon she told me that it took another 2 hours to complete the process. despite the time and effort, I felt good that we were able to help someone who needed the help.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Blurb Publisher's Holiday Discount - "Isaan Introspections"

A Falang's Insights...
By Allen A. Hale

Blurb is running a discount program for the Holiday season. There is a discount of $10 USD on my second book "Isaan Introspections, A Falang's Insights Into the Lao Loum Experience of North East Thailand""

I have books in the Blurb Bookstore that might make great holiday gifts. Blurb will give you $10 off on your first order for any of my books.

Just use the codes below when you place your order, which are based on location and currency (the promo code must match currency used).

Orders from the US (using US $): GREATGIFT

Orders from UK (using UK £): GREATGIFT2

Orders from EU (using EU €): GREATGIFT3

Orders from AU (using AUD $): GREATGIFT4

*Offer valid through December 31, 2009 (11:59 p.m. PST). This offer covers $10, £6, €8, or AUD $12 off the product total on your order of Blurb books of at least $29.95, £16.95, €24.95, or AUD $39.95, to one address. This offer is good for one-time use. Valid for transactions in US $, UK £, EUR €, or AUD $ only. Not valid toward the purchase of gift cards or items in the Blurb Gift Center. This offer cannot be combined with any other offer or used for adjustments on previous orders.

Blurb Publisher's Holiday Discount - A Year In Thailand

The Beginning of a ...
By Allen A. Hale

Blurb is running a discount program for the Holiday season. There is a discount of $10 USD on my first book "A Year In Thailand, The Beginning of a New Life"

I have books in the Blurb Bookstore that might make great holiday gifts. Blurb will give you $10 off on your first order for any of my books.

Just use the codes below when you place your order, which are based on location and currency (the promo code must match currency used).

Orders from the US (using US $): GREATGIFT

Orders from UK (using UK £): GREATGIFT2

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Sunday, December 6, 2009

"I Never Will Play the Wild Rover No More" - RIP Liam

I learned today the passing of Liam Clancy, the last surviving member of the groups, "Clancy Brothers" and "The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem".

Liam died on Friday 4 December in Ireland from a form of cancer. He was 74 years old.

My grandfather had once remarked that the worst part of getting old was that your mind kept expecting your body to do things that it no longer could. He was usually correct, so the second worst part of getting old must be seeing others that mean much to you moving on. So it is with Liam. Tommy Makem passed in 2007, so the "Clancy Brothers" and the "Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem" are no longer physically with us. Fortunately their music lives on. Their music is available on vinyl, CDs, and MP3. Some of their performances can be viewed on the Internet via You-Tube. We are fortunate to be able to enjoy and cherish such a rich heritage that they have given us.

I first was introduced to the Clancy Brothers when I was in Junior High School. My father had given me a small transistor radio that I would listen to "Folk Singers New York" hosted by Rambling Jack Elliott. It was in the early to mid 1960s with wonderful folk singers such as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Tim Hardin, as well as groups like the Clancy Brothers introducing a whole new world of struggle, hardships, and oppression to anyone who would listen. The new songs of protest meddled quite freely as well as effectively with the old traditional songs from long ago.

I particularly enjoyed the rowdy songs of the Clancy Brothers. I was drawn to the Irish songs of rebellion and drinking perhaps not unexpectedly for a boy in the midst of puberty.

One of the best concerts that I ever attended was in 1978. I was living and working in Northern Alberta - 800 miles north of the US border. Fort McMurray was a boom town in those days and just as wild. Winters got down to -40F which is the same as -40C. There were 30 frost free days a year up there. There was not much for entertainment at the time. One spring night, we drove up the hill from the lower town where we lived to attend a concert at the school. Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem were performing. The venue was very simple - a school cafeteria with portable metal chairs. The concert was just these two fantastic musicians and singers along with their instruments. There were no backup singers, lighting or even amplified sound. It was very intimate with perhaps 100 people in the audience. They performed all the Irish folk standards and conversed freely with the audience. At that time, Liam Clancy was living in Calgary and had an award winning television series on Canadian TV. They sang with such energy, passion, and emotion that it was difficult to consider it as a formal concert rather than a jam session with life long friends.

Years later, when I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area, there was a concert at UC-Berkeley - "The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem in Reunion". Naturally I attended the concert and thoroughly enjoyed it. I consider myself fortunate to have witnessed the talent of these famous performers. Liam's ballads were as poignant as ever.

Now they are all gone. Listening to them on my MP3 player will not be the same from now on. I will get used to the fact that they have moved on and I will remind myself that the world was enriched by their music which will endure. It is still sad that Liam will not be performing anew "I Never Will Play th Wild Rover No More"

Rest In Peace, Liam.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Our weather here in Isaan continues to be very pleasant - high temperatures in the low to mid 80's F with plenty of sunshine. I believe that the humidity is also down. The weather is very good for continuing the rice harvest. The rice harvest continues and is focused mainly on gathering up the rice and threshing the rice. Today on our trip out to Tahsang Village, there was still plenty of activity in the rice paddies.

Villagers are occupied in bringing the dry sheaves of rice to the threshing machine to separate the rice kernels from the straw stalk. The straw is ejected to form a pile that is used to feed cattle. The rice is bagged at the end of the threshing machine. The bags of rice are brought back to the village and stored until they are taken to the miller to have the husk removed. Only after milling can the "sticky rice" be soaked overnight and steamed prior to eating.

The sugar cane harvest has started to accelerate as well. Some of the fields have already been harvested and we came upon a field in the process of being harvested. Several Lao Loum farmers dressed as they had for harvesting rice had traded in their sickles for a thick and heavy machete type knives to cut the cane. They had spread out single file across the face of the sugar cane field and were cutting their way into the towering mass of dry cane. The harvested canes are roughly trimmed of dry leaves and placed on the ground for further processing. Later the canes will be completely trimmed and bundled together for transportation from the field to the refinery. The staging area for cane trucks just outside of the sugar refinery in Kumphawapi has started to acquire the large tandem truckloads of cane. The road from Kumphawapi to Tahsang Village has recently been rebuilt and repaved. It is very nice now that all the potholes have been eliminated. Unfortunately with the unset of the sugar cane harvest, the road will most likely return to its normal pot holed state by the end of the harvest in March.

We had gone out to the village in preparation for Father's Day. No, we are not jumping the gun on the holiday. In Thailand, Father's day is celebrated on the King's Birthday which is 5 December. Duang has been very busy lately sewing. She has made several skirts, pants as well as a blouse for herself, a skirt and complete pants suit for her mother along with three skirts for my mother. For Father's Day, she is going to make a new pair of pants for her father.

As a young boy I often watched my mother sew dresses for my sister prior to the start of each school year. Watching Duang is a completely different experience. My mother always went to a store and browsed through various catalogs. From the catalogs she obtained a size and style designation for what she wanted to make. My mom or a clerk then went to a large set of cabinets and retrieved the applicable pattern. The patterns were a series of thin tissue paper templates that were pinned to cloth for cutting into that various sections to be sewn. Duang does not go and and purchase ready made patterns - if they even exist here in Isaan.

Twenty years ago Duang was taught by a woman how to create patterns and to sew as part of the King's program to assist Lao Loum women. Duang has a book that indicates where to take various measurements. Duang writes the measurements down in her notebook. From the measurements she uses measuring tape, steel straight edge, and steel curves to draft her own patterns based upon the measurements that she has taken on large sheets of plain paper. Rather than sitting at a drafting table or even a kitchen table, Duang squats in the dining room and draws upon the paper as it lies on the tile floor. Once the templates meet her satisfaction, she cuts them, pins them to the fabric and then cuts the cloth into the appropriate shapes.

Her sewing machine is set up next to my computer work station in the dining room so we spend much of our day side by side working away on our individual projects - not a bad way to spend a day.

The scheduled "Battle of the Villages" is actually at the end of this month so there will not be pictures of school children competing for about a month. We have made some calls to Laos to determine when the Hmong people will be celebrating Hmong New Years this month. It appears that the celebration will be Dec 16 to 18th. The Khmu people in Lack Paid Village have not decided on when they will have their festival this year. The Village Headman will be able to tell us on December 10. With some luck we will be able to attend both events later this month.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Yes, They Khene

Last Sunday, around 7:30 P.M., we received a phone call from Duang's brother, "Number 4", asking us to attend a performance that he was giving in Udonthani that night at 9:00 P.M. I always enjoy the shows as well as the very interesting people watching opportunities that the audiences always provide so we accepted without hesitation.

Well it turned out that the performance was not exactly in Udonthani, as in the city of Udonthani, although we had to drive through the city to get to the location. However, the village was in Udon Thani Province so perhaps it was our misinterpretation. Fortunately his girlfriend waited for us in her car inside the city so that we could follow her to the performance.

The performance was held in a small farming village typical of this area of Isaan - in the middle of the rice paddies, narrow streets, and a combination of raised wooden houses and concrete block homes.

Upon arrival we realized that this was another funeral celebration. Several awnings had been erected with guests seated at tables that had bottles of beer as well as whiskey set upon them. Some young women and young men were busy bringing food to the guests.

Off to the side of the awnings and next to the house was a long table. Upon the table were three "bahn" (Thai) "hehan" (Lao). These are handcrafted spirit houses made largely out of banana stalks and bammboo. They are quite ornate and are used as and in offerings to the spirits. Next to each bahn was a framed photograph of a deceased family member. Small yellow candles were burning in front of the photographs.

The people of Isaan, the ethnic Lao Loum, believe that the spirits of deceased people need to be nourished with food and drink. As part of their Buddhist beliefs, the people believe that they can assist their ancestors in the after life by earning "merit" for them. Buddhists believe that we are in a continuous cycle of of birth, death, and rebirth until we reach enlightenment. Until we reach enlightenment, our new life's status is determined on how we lived our last life and how much "merit" we had gained. Living relatives can earn merit for themselves as well as for their specified departed loved ones by making offerings in their name and honor. Often these celebrations are held one year following the person's death however the ceremony is quite often delayed until the family can save enough money to afford it.

Part of the celebration involves having a group like Duang's brother's to perform. It is quite interesting to see go-go dancers, electric guitars, and electric organ perform in an event associated with death. One thing for certain is that at these events there will be playing of the khene.

The khene is a free reed bamboo musical instrument. It is the quintessence of Lao culture and the Lao experience. The khene, which is also spelled "kaen", "khen", and "khaen" is a mouth organ comprised of several bamboo tubes of various lengths, each with a free reed inserted in them connected to a hardwood chamber. The instrument has been around for thousands of years and is considered the mother of Lao music.

Kaens come in various sizes but all sizes share the similarity of being constructed of two rows of bamboo tubes. There is a 6 tube size, 14 tubes, 16 tubes, and 18 tube size. The length of the khene is related to the number of the tubes with the 18 tube version also being the longest of the instruments.

The khene is played by blowing into the central chamber and using the fingers of both hands to change the notes. The instrument is related to the harmonica and accordion of Western music. The sound, to me, is a very rhythmic "sing-song" sort of like a "Hee-Hawing" or braying of a donkey. I find the music to be rather hypnotic and I can easily accept as well as recognize its ancient heritage.

As part of the morlham shows that are widely held throughout Isaan, a portion of the show is focused around the traditional music of Laos or more specifically "Lao" people. Laos is a political demarcation determined in a large part by the European colonial powers. The ethnic Lao people, in particular the Lao Loum, Low Land Lao, inhabit Northeast Thailand as well as Laos. The shows typically start off with rocking electrified music complete with go-go dancers. After about three or four of these songs, which seem intended to get every one's attention as well as to stir them up, the tribute to the Lao traditions starts. The recognition of today's music's origins as well as honoring the Lao Loum heritage involves singing with only a khene as accompaniment. The songs initially are performed by either an older man or woman. They sing traditional songs in the traditional style. The traditional style involves an introduction that involves the extended pronunciation of words in a sort of warbling tone. Each word is stretched out using the singer's complete range until it seems that they will run out of breadth. After the introduction, the singer sings in such a manner that their voice is almost as much an musical instrument as singing the words. As much as I detest American "Rap" and "Hip Hop" (I won't call them music), the traditional Lao music is similar in that it tells stories with the verses often being created on the spot. I am pretty certain that the violence and vulgar lyrics of the modern form is not used in the Lao.

For funeral celebrations the traditional portion is a greater part of the performance. I get the feeling that the traditional music serves as a link and bridge to the past a manifestation of the bonds that keep the family traditions alive. After several traditional songs, the band will play several modern songs - several of which utilize the khene. Since the khene is not an amplified instrument, the khene player will either stick a microphone in his belt or the singer next to the khene player will use their microphone to ensure that the audience can hear the khene.

After completing the modern music set, the performance returns to a very traditional ritual. The relatives of the deceased go up on stage and kneel facing the audience. The relatives have offerings of food, drink, and items such as sahts (woven reed mats) and mohn (ornately decorated small rectangle pillows)set before them along with a framed photograph of the deceased. A singer then will perform several traditional Lao songs in the warbling lament style with only the amplified khene providing the accompaniment.

After the offering ritual, the show returns to it's modern music. The khene player provides great entertainment during the modern songs. Whereas during the traditional music, he was very still and respectful, during the modern songs, he, as we used to say back in Rhode Island - "He gets down and dirty". The khene player dances and prances around the stage while playing. Quite often he accentuates a hard drum beat of the song with a severe pelvic thrust usually in time with similar motions by the go-go dancers. At times the khene player will jump into the air and move his feet through a bicycle motion while playing. On some songs that have fast driving beats, he keeps time to the beat with a flury of pelvic thrusts while playing. No one gets offended. In fact the more antics like this that he does, the more the audience goes up to the stage to give him money.

Yes he khene ("can" - a play on words, they are pronounced the same) and he does.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Big Box Battle -The Struggle Against the Multinationals

My stated goal in both this blog as well as my photography is to share and show how different people in various lands are but in doing so, show how much we are alike.

My experiences have demonstrated to me that people all want the same things - they want to be able to take care of their families, they want to be happy, and they want to live in peace - "Peace" as in the absence of armed conflict, and excessive interference from governments.

With the common desires of people, there are common conflicts and issues that confront people no matter their culture or location.

Earlier this week, I became aware of a current conflict in Khumphawapi that is not unlike the conflict that confronts many smaller communities in the United States. The conflict is the encroachment and impact of "big box" multi-national retailers such as Walmart upon the local business environment.

In Isaan, most people purchase their goods from small stores and markets. I have written about the market in Khumphawapi where vendors rent space either inside the open sided structure or outside to sell their items. These markets are situated throughout the larger towns. In smaller villages, such as Tahsang Village, some people run very small markets, approximately 10 ft by 10 ft, out of their homes to support some of their neighbor's needs. Night markets are set up on specified nights throughout the week to support the greater needs of people living in the smaller villages.

In addition to the above locations where goods and perishables can be purchased, there are larger distribution shops. These larger shops, typically around 30 ft by 30 ft and stacked from floor to ceiling, sell bulk items. It is at these locations, sort of like micro Costco or Sams Club, that the small village shops purchase their inventory to sell back in their village. The price of the goods in these distribution shops, typically owned and run by ethnic Chinese Moms, Pops, and Sons, reflects a discount to the bulk buyer.

Larger cities such as Udonthani have Western style big box retailers such as the British chain "Tesco-Lotus", and the French chain "Carrefour". These stores could be transported to the USA and would not be any bit out of place. In fact it is my understanding that "Tesco-Lotus" is venturing into the American marketplace.

Here in Isaan, the status quo is being challenged mainly by Tesco-Lotus. They are establishing stores outside of the metropolitan areas very similar to the Walmart practise. In addition they are building smaller local mega-shops sort of like mega 7-11's in cities. These endeavors are a threat to the status quo, culture and social fabric of the local peoples.

The current system of markets serves their communities on a very personal level. The vendors for a large part are selling items from their farms or that they have gathered. Duang's sister and brother-in-law often rent space at the Kumphawapi market to sell vegetables from their farm. Other people sell mushrooms that they cultivate at their homes. Shopping at these markets is a social event as much as it is about buying what you need. Gossip, news, and pleasantries are exchanged during shopping. This strengthens and cultivates a sense of community and community commitment unlike the sterile and impersonal experience of shopping in a big box multi-national establishment.

Tesco Lotus is planning on building a large store just outside of Kumphawapi. The land was back filled and prepared for building earlier this year. Construction has not started yet but appears to be imminent.

Just as Walmart entering into a small community, the planned arrival of Tesco-Lotus has stirred up some opposition. Across from the market in downtown Kumphawapi a sign has been erected - a very serious sign. The sign, as translated by Duang, states "You work for Lotus, You will die, now!" I guess it is up to the reader's supposition as to whether their death would be to natural or un-natural causes. For me, it gets my attention and I believe! Interestingly this sign in the middle of town, on the main road through town, 100 feet from where Police are either directing traffic or checking motorcycles for compliance to various laws, remains for over 5 days. We do not know who is behind this sign or similar signs erected around Kumphawapi as well as at the entrance to the projected Tesco-Lotus site but the commonly held suspicion is that it is the ethnic Chinese merchants. It is fairly common in Southeast Asia for the ethnic Chinese merchants to be suspected of any and most nefarious plots.

The struggle against and issues related to big box multi-national stores in Khumphawapi is very much like in the USA however the degree of intimidation being employed is obviously much more transparent.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Every Picture Tells A Story

The cliche, "Every Picture Tells A Story", has been used widely as well as often.

I would like to use it today to provide my interpretation of a few photographs from the recent rice harvest here in Isaan.

I had written about the rice thresher that had been used to thresh the family rice last Saturday. I described how it was old, had no doors, and was most likely held together by the many coats of paint on it. Today while editing photos from my other camera of the threshing process I came upon some photos of the thresher. One of the difficulties of maintaining a blog and taking so many photographs is that there is often not sufficient time to review and edit all photos before posting a relevant blog entry in a timely fashion. My preference is to post blogs in a timely fashion because it better connects this world with the readers world(s) in real time. I want to share the life of real people in real time with others to enhance the experience for all. This often requires a compromise with writing the blog and perhaps using all the optimum photos.

When I worked on the photos of the threshing machine today I remembered the cliche and it occurred to me that every picture tells a story but what story does it tell? It is like a picture of a 12 oz glass with 6 oz of water in it. Is the story concerning a half empty glass or a half full glass. We all know that the story is based upon one's perspective, experience, and personal agenda. So it is with these photos.

One story about these pictures could be centered around the negatives and the things that the thresher, machine and man, do not have. There are no doors, there are not adequate lighting, there is no air conditioning, there are no safety belts, there are no ..., he doesn't have much money, he doesn't take care of his equipment well, he doesn't look after his safety very well, he doesn't ... , he isn't ... This is the story of pessimism.

The story that I want to share is a story of optimism. I see a piece of equipment that is fit for purpose and gets the job done. In more developed countries or areas, a threshing machine could cost $100,000 USD or more - well beyond the ability of Isaan farmers to purchase or to support. This threshing machine, in its current state and condition, serves the needs of the local community of subsistence farmers. The owner besides being able to provide a needed service to his community as well as to support his family.

On a typical day of the month long harvest season, he will be paid about 8 bags of rice for a total of 240 bags for the season. One bag will feed his family for two months so he will acquire more than enough bags of rice during the harvest to feed his family. He will be able to sell the surplus rice to dealers and agents for about 500 Baht ($15.11 USD for 110 pounds of rice) a bag to pay for diesel fuel, and other operating expenses as well as to support his family.

In a one month harvest season, he will earn 117,000 baht or the equivalent of 9,750 baht a month for the year. This is no where nearly as good as the crab fishermen on television's "Deadliest Catch" but pretty good for a Thai farmer.

This story of optimism is also a testament to the freedom that many people here in Southeast Asia to make a living as best they can and anyway that they can. There are not many government regulations, permits, reports or applications necessary to start up a small business. The people are free to exercise their initiative and entrepreneurial skills to make a living no matter their economic status. They focus on what they can do rather than finding or wallowing in the excuses for all the things and reasons that they can not.

Although there is not a Thanksgiving holiday here in Isaan, I am sure that the Lao Loum people are thankful to be able to earn a living, with minimal governmental interference and involvement, even with equipment that is only just fit for purpose - a blessing that we should all enjoy.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Good Harvest

Saturday, 21 November, was the completion of the family rice harvest.

Cutting the ripe rice had taken three days of many family members in the heat and under the glaring sun. Four rhai, 1.58 acres of rice had been completely cut using only sickles. After laying in the sun for three days to further dry out, the cut stalks were bundled into sheaves using stalks to bind the sheaf together. Many of the sheaves had been gathered the previous day and transported to a central location of the paddy to create a large mound atop a fine mesh blue plastic mat. The mat captures for storage any rice kernels that fall off the stalks due to handling of the sheaves. It is surprising how much rice separates from the straw just through manual handling. The family are subsistence farmers so there is a great deal of motivation to minimize waste. The harvested crop will feed the family for the next year. Although there was a large mound awaiting the arrival of the threshing machine, there remained many sheaves scattered about the paddies.

The first task of the day, was to gather up the scattered sheaves and transport them to the large mound. Workers gathered up the dried sheaves from the field and tossed them up to another worker who stacked them up in the back of the farm truck. Once the farm truck was filled it brought the sheaves to the big mound where they were off loaded by hand.

The family uses the services of a local man who owns a rice thresher. The man is from Tahsang Village which was fortunate. The family field could be accessed using dirt roads through the sugar cane and rice fields rather than on the public highway. The threshing machine was mounted on the back of a pick up truck frame. It appeared to me that the vehicle could have been a 1957 Chevy. The vehicle was handed painted blue and I would not be surprised to determine that the paint was largely holding it together. There were no doors on the truck and the interior was completely gutted with wires, and remnants of fabric. I did not see any registration plates on the truck, or an inspection sticker on the windshield.

The man with the threshing machine does not get paid in cash for his services. He charges 4% for threshing a crop. For every 100 50 KG bags of rice product, he receives 4 bags of rice in payment. This may explain the dilapidated condition of his transport vehicle. The actual threshing machine was in better condition so once the machine got to the field, there were no problems or concerns. The Thresher goes from paddy to paddy, by appointment, each day threshing the rice of his neighbors. At the end of each day he returns home in his rig with his bags of rice payment stacked around his machine. On a typical day, he earns 8 bags in payment. Each bag is 110 pounds, 50 kilos, of rice and is sufficient to feed an Isaan family of four for two months.

The thresher eventually showed up at the paddy and was set up on top of the blue mat next to the large mat. The thresher is set over the mat to capture any spillage of rice from the process. Family workers took their work stations and the process was ready to commence. The owner of the threshing machine took his place on a small seat that protruded from the side of the thresher. In front of his station was a flat shelf that served to feed the sheaves into the thresher. With his hands the owner ensured a smooth and constant flow of material into the thresher. Workers atop the sheave mound threw sheaves down to other workers who through a combination of tossing and placing got a constant stream of sheaves on to the feed shelf. A chute located on the opposite side of the threshing drum forcibly ejected the waste straw, dust, and dirt off to the side to create a large pile of straw that will be used for animal feed. The afternoon winds blew the debris everywhere. To get the sun at my back to ensure better photographs I was often in the vicinity of the debris stream. When I changed locations for different perspectives, I was surrounded by straw cast about by the winds. The workers were also in the predicament - just a part of the job. Immediately upon returning home, I was banished to the shower to wash away the dust and straw that I had accumulated over 4 hours of watching and photographing the threshing operations.

At the end of the threshing drum, a screw conveyor ejected the rice. Other workers manned this station to fill the grain bags. Local hardware stores sell the bags for 6 baht each $0.18 USD each. Many of the bags have advertising on them for fertilizer as well as grains. These bags are apparently surplus, rejects, or recycled from others. Little is allowed to be wasted here in Isaan. The heavy flow of rice from the thresher filled the bags rather quickly and constantly. There was a choreography of motion to ensure that the bags were completely filled, removed from the discharge chute, and a new empty bag put into position to be filled without wasting rice as the machine continually shot out rice.

Several workers shuttled back and forth from the threshing machine to an area where the filled bags were being stored and sealed. One worker ensured that the filled bags were placed neatly and vertically in neat rows. He twisted the tops of the bags closed and tied them off with bamboo strips. The bamboo straps for tying the bags had been cut and shaved from local groves.

As the sun came close to setting, the threshing was completed. For the 4 rhai (1.58 acres) of land that had been planted in July, 38 bags of rice had been produced. The yield ended up being 2,645 pounds per acre - well below the United States average yield of 7,039 pounds per acre - a testament to the poor soil in Isaan as well as the lack of applying fertilizers. When the rice seed was first sowed, fertilizer was hand broadcast lightly - the first and only time that fertilizer was used. I have tried four times to grow some vegetables and herbs at our home - I have failed every time. The closest to any degree of success was squash which did at least sprout!

The thresher was paid one bag for his services. Thirty six bags were transported back to Tahsang Village to be stored in the raised rice shed at Duang's parent's house. Two bags will be reserved for seed to be used next July. The remaining 35 bags will be milled in about two months and used to feed the family and others over the next year.

The family will have plenty of rice for morning, noon, and night for the next year, so despite the low productivity when compared to United States standards, this year's harvest was a good harvest.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Latest Photo Gallery Available to View

There is a new gallery available for viewing on my photo web site.

The gallery documents the harvesting of this year's rice crop in Isaan, specifically in the proximity of Tahsang Village in Udon Thani Province - about 60 miles south of the Laos.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Threshing Rice Outside Tahsang Village

On Friday morning we drove out to Tahsang Village for a couple of reasons. Duang's daughter and her husband were still busy with harvesting the rice from the family paddy so we had the chance to care for Peelawat. Secondly, some of Duang's 93 cousins were going to be threshing their harvested rice just outside of Tahsang Village so there would be photography opportunities for me to take advantage of.

On our extended visits to Tahsang Village, I bring my camera gear as well as my laptop computer. While Peelawat sleeps I use the computer to organize and edit photographs. Lately I have been waiting until around 2:00 P.M. to go out to the fields to commence photographing. I find the lower light of the late afternoon more conducive to photographing the workers and harvested rice. The late afternoon sun gives an overall golden hue to the scenery.

On Friday afternoon when we was going out to photograph the threshing operation nearby, Peelawat was awake so we decided to take him with us. It was a bright and hot afternoon so we attempted to shield him with a large hat. Peelawat would not cooperate and kept brushing the hat off of his head. Fortunately near where the work was going on there was a typical rest platform. Rest platforms are scattered about the fields and provide some protection for the workers from the sun. The platforms have either a thatched or corrugated (usually rusty) metal roof. Workers eat their meals underneath the roofs and sometimes take a nap in the middle of the day to deal with the heat of the day. This was a good place for Duang and Peelawat to sit while I went about the field. Peelawat watched me the entire time.

The rice in the paddy had been cut and bundled into sheaves previously. A very large mound of rice sheaves had been created in one corner of the complex of paddies. The mound had been built up upon a very large blue mat of very fine mesh plastic netting. The netting captures the rice kernels that fall from the stalks due to handling. The threshing machine is also set up to ensure that the loss of product is minimized. There were also many sheaves of rice stalks scatter throughout the paddies. The first task of the day was to gather up, transport the scattered sheaves, and add them to the large mound. The workers set about gathering the sheaves and piling them into a wagon pulled by an "iron buffalo". The workers were in fine spirits, singing to the Mahlam Lao music that blared across the paddies from a portable radio that they had placed on the ground - UNTIL - until one of the cousins backed up the rice laden wagon over the top of the radio. The last song abruptly terminated with a large scrunching sound.

After awhile the threshing machine arrived. It was the same machine and operator that I had photographed a year ago at another cousin's field.

The machine was set up on the blue netting and the crew began feeding the sheaves into the middle of the machine. Dust and straw was forcibly ejected from a chute at the other side of the threshing drum. Additional debris was ejected from a screw conveyor beneath the drum at the same side as the straw ejection chute. Rice kernels left the machine at the back end in a heavy stream.. The rice was collected into 50 kilogram bags. As the bags were quickly filled, they were carried away to a storage area where their tops were closed and tied off with thin strips of bamboo.

We spent about an hour and one-half there before returning Peelawat back to his home. The little guy had done well on his first photo shoot in the field.


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