Saturday, February 28, 2009

Thailand Elephant Encounters

Thailand has many attractions to visit and enjoy whether you are a tourist or a resident. The off shore islands are famous for their beaches and beautiful waters. It is not surprising that many international class resorts have been developed to exploit the natural beauty of the islands.

Bangkok is a large international capital city with certain charms and quaintness that appeals to all types of visitors. We have been there several times and still do not believe that we know the city. After 5 trips to the Grand Palace, I am only now beginning to understand it. It never seems like you can take a long tailed boat tour of the Thonburi canals too many times. Each tour surprises you with different sights, sounds, smells and experiences.

Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai offer smaller provincial cities with rich histories and architecture. Many days can be pleasantly spent exploring and photographing these culturally rich locations.

Another attraction that Thailand has to offer is elephants. Elephants are important parts of Thai culture, religion, and history. The elephant was part of the Siam (predecessor to Thailand) national flag for many years. The White Elephant remains a symbol of divine Royal power. In historic times the number of white elephants held by a SE Asian King determined his power in the eyes of his neighbors. Today the King of Thailand has 10. Although he is the only King in the region, the powerful symbolism of the white elephant has not been lost by all of his neighbors. The military regime in Burma did a national search a few years ago to obtain white elephants and maintains 4 in captivity.

There are around 2,600 domesticated elephants in Thailand today. During the good and bad old days, the King would have up to 20,000 war elephants at his command. The King needed all that he could get for the history of Siam/Thailand as well as SE Asia is a long history of wars. The elephants are found throughout the country. I have seen elephants walking along the roads here in Isaan, Pattaya, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Maehongson, and Phuket. I have heard of elephants blocking traffic in the streets of Bangkok.

Rather than wandering aimlessly around the countryside looking for the elephants, or waiting endlessly for an elephant to pass you bye and it could be a long ordeal in both cases since there are only 2,600 in the entire country, you can go to the elephants.

Elephants perform in simulated battles at cultural shows. There are botanical gardens and farms that have resident elephants that perform. The elephant shows typically include the animals bowling, dancing, playing basketball, playing soccer, and creating paintings. The shows often include the elephants interacting with selected members of the audience. The interaction usually is in the form of an elephant or two picking up the person and giving them a ride or perhaps giving the person a massage while they are laying on the ground. It might only be my imagination but it seems like the only people that get selected are young blond buxom women who are on the verge of falling out of their blouses. I guess that even the mahouts (handlers)who perform the same show every 2 hours three to four times a day seven days a week need some entertainment of their own.

There is an internationally famous elephant round up in Surin each year. The most accessible locations to interact with elephants are at elephant camps.

Elephants were used in the harvesting of teak and other exotic woods in Thailand's dense forests for many years. Due to economic and political pressures (less places for Communists to hide), the forests were decimated. With the introduction of conservation measures, many of the working elephants and their handlers became unemployed. Some elephants remain working and can be occasionally be seen walking to and from their work sites hauling their heavy logging chains on their backs. Just like unemployed semi-skilled people, the elephants along with their handlers migrated to the cities to try to make a living. Think in terms of the person at the freeway exit with a cardboard sign, or the people who wash your windshield while you are stopped in traffic and then expect payment. This was not an acceptable situation for anyone. In response to the problem, camps in the countryside were set up to maintain the elephants and their handlers through revenues generated by tourism. Elephants can work for up to 40 years so the solution is for the long run.

Today the camps provide the opportunity for elephants and their mahouts to earn a living. Mahouts handle a single elephant for life - either the elephant's or the man's life. Since the life expectancy of an elephant is approximately that of a man (especially of the man does not have a motorbike) often a mahout's son will finish the work that his father had started.

There are three ways that a mahout controls his elephant. The first way is by verbal commands. Elephants are intelligent and respond well to human verbal communication.

Another method the mahout uses to control his animal is to use his feet and legs to apply pressure to various parts of the elephant's body.

The last method available to the mahout is his prod. The prod is a short wood stick with a steel hook on the end. The mahout taps parts of the elephant to communicate what and how the next task is to be done.

Besides handling his elephant, the mahout is also responsible for feeding, cleaning and watching over the elephant's health. They are a team whether logging in the forests or performing in the arenas

At the camps you have the opportunity to pose with an elephant (even if you are afraid) and to go on an elephant trek. Elephant treks are also available at the farms and gardens but at the camps you trek through more realistic terrain. At some camps you even get to cross a river while atop an elephant.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Isaan Area Back Roads

Driving along the roads of Isaan presents a series of challenges as well as "surprises"

Having developed a certain familiarity with driving on the left hand side of the road is not the conclusion of adapting to driving in Isaan. Isaan is an agricultural area so many of the roads traverse fields and farming villages. Although the roads are typically paved, there are many dirt roads or partially paved roads that add to the challenges of driving here.

In areas where sugar cane is grown and along the country routes to the sugar refineries, the roads are seriously degraded. The large and heavily laden trucks hauling cane breakdown the pavement very similar to the breakdown of roads in northern climates due to frost heaves. The soil in Isaan is mostly clay which is not a very good engineered fill material. Houses and roads are built upon elevated sections of land created by backfilling upon clay with more clay. These elevated portions of ground are not resistant to infiltration of moisture or worse yet - errosion by rains during the rainy season. I was advised not to buy a home that had not weathered at least two rainy seasons. Some newer houses have cracks and settlement issues during the first two rainy seasons due to improper backfilling operations.

The United States has areas with similar soil conditions as in Isaan but utilizes different construction methods to ensure adequate structural soil base for roads and homes. In Louisiana, oyster shells, lime stabilization, geo-textile fabrics, and importation of granular engineered fill materials are used in combination to provide structural integrity.

Here in Isaan the techniques used in Louisiana are too expensive if they are even available. After the heavy haul season, which will end in about 4 months, the roads will be repaired. They will be repaired by removing the damaged pavement, filling in the ruts with more dirt, compacting the backfill, blading the surface to required contour, and paving with asphalt. This will provide a fairly nice road until next year when it will all have to be redone - just like this year.

The ruts, dips, and in some spots - holes create a maze and challenge for driving. When I first started driving here, I seemed to hit every road hazard that there was. Now my driving skill has evolved to the point where I can dodge just about all of the hazards. Dodging involves swerving or driving in the wrong lane along with driving on the shoulder to avoid obstacles.

Now that we are in the dry season, large clouds of dust are kicked up as you motor along the roads out to the villages. Young women driving motorbikes have adopted a technique of squinting their eyes, covering their mouth and nose with one hand as they drive with the other hand. The young boys, in general, just tough it out.

Just outside of a local village the road has been undermined by running water creating a fairly large as well as deep hole that encroaches into 1/3 of the road lane. When the hole first appeared about 9 months ago, one of the villagers placed a broken tree branch in the road as a warning ahead of the hazard. In Thailand as well as Malaysia, broken branches are used to warn motorists of disabled vehicles or road hazards. As you drive along and see a fresh tree branch in the road, you need to watch out. The use of the broken branch is a good idea except that most of the time it is only 10 to 20 feet from the hazard - you see and have react to the branch at the same time as the hazard. Now that the hole in road has been there for 9 months the villager no longer sets out broken branches. A more permanent warning has been installed for the dangerous hazard - a long bamboo stick has been placed in the hole. The bamboo pole protrudes about 5 feet out of the deep hole.

As you drive along avoiding all the road surface hazards, you must be aware of the surrounding traffic sharing or in some cases usurping the road. Along the country roads there are many farm vehicles similar to trucks. These vehicles, called "etan", transport workers to and from the fields as well as tools along with harvest. They are always slowly moving no doubt due to the small (lawn tractor sized diesel engine) engine that powers them. As they move down the road they make a "tuk, tuk, tuk" sound. They are not pretty. They are not fast. But they are reliable. I have yet to find one broken down along side of the road. One of my favorite sights here is to see one of these running down the road with the driver's wide brimmed bright yellow straw hat with the brim flipped up vertically in the front from the breeze with 6 to 12 family members of all ages standing in the back cab on their way back home after a long day in the fields. These farm vehicles are a menace only in that they are so slowly moving.

As you drive in addition to all the motorbikes, driven by 12 to 80 year olds, you will encounter three wheeled motorcycles called "somlaws". Somlaws are used for just about all purposes. They are used like taxis to take people to where they want to go. Some people own a somlaw rather than a motorbike or car. At the markets you will find many somlaws parked waiting to be hired. Somlaw drivers like most people here carry cell phones and can be called for door to door service. There are no posted rates. The price of your journey needs to negogiated and agreed to prior to departure. The charges are reasonable - one way within Udonthani limits is around $2. We pay the somlaw driver that comes to our home, takes us into town for shopping, and brings us back - $6.00 USD for our 2 to 3 hour trip. On main roads there are locations will congregate. These locations are where people get off of songeaws (songtels). The songeaws are pickup trucks that have a canopy and two benches in the pickup bed for passengers. The songeaws travel a set route. The trucks have a number as well as color that specifies the route that they travel. Duang and I have traveled fro Udonthani to Tahsang Village entirely by songeaw - a journey of 30 miles for 50 baht ($1.43 USD) each - one way. It is a very economical way to travel but slow. It takes 2 hours whereas I drive it in 1 hour. It is reassuring though to know that if we did not have a vehicle we could still get around even if it is slow.

Regular trucks drive the back roads of Isaan. But, this being Thailand, "regular" is a relative term. Just as in the case of songeaws where I have seen 20 people riding in the back, outside of the back, AND ON TOP OF THE PICKUP BED CANOPY, passengers, sometimes ride outside of the cab of trucks. There appears to be no problem in this behavior. The police stop mostly motorbikes for lack of helmet by the DRIVER (Passengers are apparent exempt from the requirement), and to check for the appropriate license. Cars are stopped mainly for driving in the passing lane without actually passing anyone (Yes,I was guilty as charged - 200 baht, $6.00 USD fine "on the spot") or speeding.

Besides the other vehicles you encounter livestock along Isaan roads. All cattle here are "free range". There are no feed lots for cattle. The cattle with their herder wander about from early morning until sunset foraging for feed. The cattle consider the road to be an intigral part of their territory. They have a great deal of practise in that they do not panic when they encounter any type of motorized vehicle on the road. They continue at their determined pace in crossing the road or in their ambulation along the side of the road oblivious to the speed, size, or number of vehicles trying to get by them.

Sometimes you will come across an "etac". Etacs are versatile devices. I refer to them as mechanical mules. They can be used to plow and prepare the ground for planting. A compartment can be added to them to transport goods or in this case a family and their best friends. These vehicles which are much smaller, and slower than the etans share the road with everything else. As you drive your full sized pickup truck you execute all kinds of twists, turns, swerves, accelerations, and deaccelerations to avoid the roadway challenges as well as perils.

With this being Isaan, it all seems to work out somehow rather harmoniously. You don't get upset to see someone coming straight at you in your lane. You pull slightly over to make way for him and they only take what they need of your lane to get around whatever is in their lane. Lane designations are more of a suggestion in people's minds than a territorial demarkation. Everyone gives and takes without emotion as required by the current situation. To avoid having to travel a little out of their way to find a turnaround along the road, some people driving any and all types of vehicles will travel in the wrong lane towards on coming traffic. They do this in the breakdown or shoulder along the road so as far as I can tell (so far) head on collisions are avoided. I have become comfortable to expect the unexpected here and I am seldom left unamazed at what passes for driving

Duang has remarked that I drive good in Thailand now. She then smiles and adds that I will need to be afraid, and the police will complain when I drive again in America.

I believe that she is right. It will be different.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

It's Entertainment

Yesterday we were off to Tahsang Village on family business after completing our grocery shopping. We got there at a good time - the lighting was good and the children were coming home from school.

It was nice to see some of our local friends excitingly headed back to their homes from their day in the class room. The younger school girls wear red school uniforms and the older school girls wear blue uniforms. The boys wear either brown or blue uniforms. The blue uniform is the most prevalent including university students. On certain days of the week the students wear military type uniforms - boy scouts, girl scouts, sea scouts type organization. But that may all be a topic for a future blog not today's which is about "Entertainment"

I stopped the truck to photograph some of the houses in the village to use in a future blog and to add to my photography portfolio. At one of the houses there were some young children who do not go to school. They were curious about the foreigner taking pictures. So curious that they quickly overcame any reservations or shyness that they had.

They had a couple puppies that they had been playing with and were eager to show them off to me so that I could photograph all of them. The little boy and his two sisters posed for several pictures with their puppies. They enjoyed seeing their pictures on the camera's screen. It was entertaining for me to be able to share with them something that they had never seen before. Cameras and photography are luxuries well beyond their family's or village's means.

Children in Isaan do not have the sophisticated toys or quality toys that clutter the homes and yards in the USA. They pretty much make do with what is available to them. This often involves plastic containers, old bicycles, sticks, pieces of cloth or string, and often dogs. The children use their imaginations to entertain themselves and seem no worse for wear. They are always active, happy and apparently never bored.

We stopped by to see Kwan, Duang's cousin's 14 month baby but she was not home. Fortunately Tahsang Village is very small and we found Kwan with little difficulty. She was sitting in on a small but hot card game in some one's backyard. The temperature was in the high 90's and six adults along with Kwan and Fern were sitting in a circle on sahts. Gambling is not allowed in Thailand other than the daily national lottery. I did not see any paper so I guess the coins that I saw on the ground were being used to keep track of the "points". Gambling is illegal in Thailand. But then again not everything is always what it appears to be in Thailand. But it was certain that everyone was having a good time on a hot and sunny afternoon in Isaan.

As we got into car I saw some of the school children, that we had seen earlier, either playing or working a little further down the street. We drove down and stopped to photograph them. They were hard at it - either playing or working on a large pile of sand. Three little girls, two plastic buckets, a shovel, and a hoe in the golden glow of the late afternoon of a hot Isaan afternoon - that's entertainment for me. The adults watching over the scene got into the spirit of the moment. They liked seeing the results of the photography efforts. They also posed for their pictures. In no time at all we had spent 30 minutes at this rest stop along our way.

There are many photographs here with us in Thailand of my life going back to when I was a baby. There are many more back home as well as photos of my parents when they were young in the USA that we will view during our stay. Duang, on the other hand, does not have any photos older than 5 years ago. Even at that there are only 8 pictures.

I enjoy being able to give a little something back to the villagers even if it just a small print. It is something that I know that they most likely would not have had if not for sharing their time with me. I still remember the expressions of the Hill Tribe people around Maehongson when I presented them with prints of their photographs that I had taken on a previous trip to the region.

Last night we went out to dinner and take in one of the newest movies - "Valkyrie". We enjoyed our night out a great deal. We had dinner at a small restaurant owned,and run by a German expat. The pork at the restaurant is from his local pig farm. I had my favorite Cordon Bleu - not Chicken Cordon Bleu but "Pork Cordon Bleu". I never had or even heard of "Pork Cordon Bleu" until I came to Nobi's. Duang had Thai food which was also very good - not unexpectedly since Nobi's wife is Thai.

After dinner we walked to the mall and went to the Cinaplex to see the movie. It was our first time at the Cinaplex. The theater is very big and modern. It is comparable to anything in home town USA including Los Angeles. The only difference is the price of the ticket - last night was bargain night 70 Baht ($2.00 USD) rather than the normal 90 Baht ($2.57 USD) price. The movie was a first run feature. Tom Cruise was in it but the film did not have much character development or reveal anything enlightening about the failed plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. It was entertaining and the price was definitely right. Our entire night out cost a total of $13.52 USD.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Khantoke Dinner

I have been busy the past few days with myriad activities. My biggest investment of time has been creating another gallery, "Runny Noses and Dirty Faces", on my photography website

This gallery are some previously unposted photographs of children from SE Asia and the USA.

Last week we spent half of a day applying for a new passport in Duang's new name. Fortunately, Thailand now has a passport office here in Udonthani so we avoided the necessity to travel to Koen Kaen or worse yet - Bangkok. The process was very straight forward - show up with old passport, national ID card, blue house book, marriage certificate, MY US Passport (?), and 1,050 Baht ($30 USD). No need for photographs, digital photos are taken at the office as part of the application process. They told us that her new passport would be mailed to our home and that we would have it in 7 days. They were correct, we did have it on the following Tuesday in fact we had it on the previous Saturday. Saturday afternoon, a man on a motorbike pulled up to our gate and rang the bell. He was a courier delivering Duang's passport - 4 days after she had applied for it.

Yesterday we went out to the villages - to take Duang's father to the hospital for dental work and to visit her two week old grandson. On the way out of Udonthani towards Kumphawapi, we came upon an accident scene - 4 cars, a pickup truck laden with propane cooking gas cylinders and a motor bike. The cars had banged up quarter panels. The bike was lying on its side in a large pool of blood. Duang remarked that she thought the motor bike driver had been killed. Looking quickly as we passed, it appeared to me that the motor bike had pulled over into the far right lane to make a U turn or a right turn. The road is divided but there are some locations where there is lane that you can pull over into to make a cross or U turn. Unfortunately many Thai drivers, especially the ones who drive fast and aggressively also use the same lane to go straight. The motor bike was apparently struck by one of these people who did not see him or could not stop in time. We found out later that the motor bike driver had been killed.

Two weeks earlier a falang on a motor bike had been killed. Some people claimed that the motor bike had been deliberately struck by a sugar cane truck. The police caught the truck driver and he denied that he DELIBERATELY STRUCK the bike, "HE WAS ONLY CUTTING HIM OFF".

Since we have lived here in Udon the past 9 months we have come upon 3 fatal motor bike accidents. Not all of the accidents have been the fault of the other participant in the accident. I have been stopped at an intersection in the right hand lane giving a signal to make a right hand turn only to have a motorbike come up on my right side and make a left turn in front of me as I started making my turn. Luckily, I am aware of Thai driving practices and do not drive aggressively - I drive much more defensively around here than back in the USA and anticipate the unexpected as well as the stupid. Not every one does. There will be blood - I am certain.

On to more pleasant things - Khantoke Dinner.

Northern Thailand in the area around Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai used to be the Kingdom of Lanna. In English it is translated as the "Land of Million Rice Fields". In the Lanna kingdom people were given enough land to raise 60 kilos of rice. Princes were awarded 1000 rice fields. The Kingdom of Lanna was not incorporated into the Kingdom of Thailand until the late 1800's. The Northern Thailand regions has a distinct culture from the central and coastal regions of Thailand.

An entertaining introduction into some of the Lanna culture is to attend a Khantoke Dinner and Show. These productions are a modern interpretation of the hospitality and culture given to important guests during the days of the Lanna Kingdom.

Duang and I attended a Khantoke Dinner and Show during our last visit to Chiang Mai. It was a great experience as well as wonderful food.

We started dining around 7:00 PM. We entered the combination restaurant/theater and were graciously seated at a 3 foot diameter black lacquered circular table. At the front of the room there was a stage area. The tables like ours lined the rectangular perimeter of another performing area at the elevation that we were seated at. We sat on the "floor" but unlike the traditional Thai custom of sitting cross legged on the floor, our floor was raised so that we were able to sit in a customary Western seated position at our table.

Hostesses dressed in traditional clothing brought bowls of typical Northern Thai food to our table on circular woven bamboo trays called "toke". The hostesses wear colorful ankle length skirts called "Bhasin" that have intricate designed patterns with a close fitted long sleeve blouse called a "Suakhan Krabok" along with a shawl or sash called a "Sabai Chiang" over the blouse. In their hair the hostesses wore orchids. It was very elegant, and beautiful.

The night that we were there we had: Chiang Mai Style Banana Fritters, Clear Vegetable Soup, Chiang Mai Styled Pork Curry with Ginger and Tamarind, Deep Fried Chicken, Grilled Young Chili Paste with Steamed Vegetables, Minced Pork with Tomato Sauce, Crispy Pork Skin, Stir Fried Vegetables, Crispy Rice Noodles, Sticky Rice or if you preferred Steamed Rice, Fresh fruit, and tea. The food was very tasty and the portions were huge. It was delicious and very enjoyable.

At 7:45 PM the show started. The dancers entered the building from outside and walked between the row of tables up to the stage area. As the performers entered the room, they were performing a "Candle Dance" as a combination of worship and to greet guests in the Lanna tradition. It was very beautiful as well as elegant.

On the elevated stage the men performed a "War Dance". The war dance included some very acrobatic beating of various types of drums. In the old days these dances and drum beating motivated the Lanna troops into battle. The history of Northern Thailand is littered with battles, wars, and rebellions so there must have been a great deal of drumming in the old days.

The remainder of the show was performed at the level where we were seated. Photography as well as video was not a problem. The performers were very photogenic and reacted well to being photographed and filmed.

After the war dance, the women performed a "Tee Dance". "Tee" in Thai means "umbrella". The umbrella is often used by women in Northern Thailand and it is a symbol for Lanna women.

Following the tee or umbrella dance, a man and a woman danced an episode from the "Ramakian" The Ramakian is Thailand's greatest ancient literary work that is heavily influenced by India's "Ramayana". The man is "Hanuman - The Monkey Warrior General" He was on his way to attack a city when a female perhaps a goddess interfered and blocked his way with stones. He is upset and chases her to kill her. The female dancer represents the woman who interfered and caused Hanuman's wrath. When Hanuman catches up and meets her he changes his mind. Yes there is no telling what a good looking skillful female dancer can do to a man's heart. The dance performed is about that long ago event.

After the episode from the Ramakian the women put on traditional Hill Tribe clothing and performed a traditionally inspired "New Years Dance". It was followed by a young man doing a "Sword Dance"

The sword dance was followed by a dance called "Sueng Ka pho". The "Sueng Ka pho" is a dance that I have also seen performed in Cambodia and Isaan. It is a country dance more typical of farmers than professionals. It has the rhythm and beat of the rice paddies. It utilizes everyday items such as coconut shells and pottery to make the music or serve as props in the performance.

The last dance which included audience participation was "Rumwong" - a cheerful simple dance started in the early 1900's.

The conclusion of the show was setting off of fireworks and lighted lanterns into the night time sky. The show ended around midnight - too soon as far as we were concerned.

Writing about that special night gives me itchy feet. My feet are itchy from the mosquitoes that seem to love me but the itchiness is also to travel once again to the "Land of a Million Rice Fields".

Additional photographs from the Kingdom of Lanna can be viewed at:

Friday, February 20, 2009

Yes, We Can; Yes He Can; Yes They Do

During the recent US presidential election, the Democratic Party's slogan was "Yes we can!" I watched and heard with interest a CNN International report on television this morning where during President Obama's visit to Canada some spectator's were shouting "Yes he can!" I don't know if this was the case of Canadians misunderstanding the original campaign slogan or the case of some people expressing their confidence in him and their lack of confidence in the remainder of Americans.

In my MySpace website,, I was asked to list who were my heroes. I responded without listing any "heroes". There are people that I admire. There are people that I respect. What is a hero? To make or declare someone a hero is to give them a free pass. People should not be given free passes. Each and every day we need to prove ourselves and to be judged on what we did or did not do that day.

In my opinion there is a danger in anointing someone as a hero. Many times it sets up unrealistic expectations for future behavior or accomplishments. Lest that I be accused of being anti-Obama, I will admit that I do hope that he does succeed in resolving many of the issues confronting the United states today however I have more confidence in the American people to solve the problems.

Idol worship is not limited to American politics. Yesterday as I was being driven around the Isaan countryside, the radio was tuned to a talk radio station. The station was informing people about a rally to be held in Bangkok later this month in support of deposed Prime Minister Thaksin. The radio commentator as well as his call in listeners were all very passionate regarding Thaksin. It was obvious that in the mind of the radio participants all problems would be solved and everything would be better if he was back in power. It sounded familiar to the line of thinking in other political arenas. I was thinking that these political zealots needed a theme song when the commentary stopped and some music started. The music was distinctively Isaan. Not too long into the lyrics I started hearing "Thaksin", "Thaksin" over and over. They apparently already have their theme song.

We made our way to Tahsang Village. I walked around with my brother-in-law, we came upon a villager sitting astride his hammock weaving a fish net. I don't know how long he had been there underneath the shade of the large trees supporting his hammock. He had already created a fine fish net about 20 feet in diameter. The center of the net was tied to a branch above where he was sitting. The edge of the net was at the level where he was sitting and he was essentially using crocheting techniques to add length to the net. The net was made from very fine nylon filament from bobbin on the ground and some kind of a shuttle in his hand. He used a crochet needle in conjunction with the shuttle to produce row after row of 1 inch mesh net.

The villager took some time to show me slowly on how the nylon thread is looped and placed on a piece of flat bamboo and with some twists as well as turns using the needle to create more net. After all his patient efforts to instruct me I am still not sure exactly how it is done but I am convinced that he was very skillful at creating nets. He had a rhythm to his work that in addition to passing the long hot afternoon quickly expanded his new net. From his position at the corner of his property at the intersection of two village roads he was able to converse with passerby while continuing his repetitive and monotonous task. In Tahsang Village as well as the other villages in rural Isaan walking down a village road is not a single minded focused task. People who are not out working in the fields are sitting outside on their raised platforms tending to small children, eating, drinking, or just relaxing.

As you pass the villagers along you way, you are expected to stop and chat. Gossip and curiosity are major pastimes on a hot and sunny day. Short walks take much longer to complete due to the many stops along the way.

Watching the man creating his own fishing net got me to thinking about the self reliance of the Lao Loum people. Tahsang is a typical Isaan village - one of hundreds dotting the countryside. I am familiar with the activities of the village due to it being Duang's village and most of the villagers being her relatives. It gives me an opportunity to more fully understand as well as witness Isaan culture.

The villagers of Tahsang as well as the other Isaan villages are very self reliant. They raise their own rice. People who do not own the actual land provide labor and thus share in the fruits of the harvest. Man and women go to the many bodies of water around the countryside to fish and collect snails for food.

The flooded low land areas are harvested to provide reeds to create sahts. The reeds are cut, and dried in the sun along side the roads outside of the villager's houses. After drying out in the sun, the reeds are hung from the exposed elevated house floor beams to air dry. The reeds are dyed bright colors in barrels heated over open fires in the backyards. The colored reeds are hung out to dry. Women then weave the reeds into sahts on hand made looms outside of their houses.

In addition to rice the farmers grow peanuts, cassava, sugar cane, corn, and vegetables. The fields where the crops are grown also provide other food items such as crickets, ants, ant eggs, grasshoppers, rats and crabs. Very small birds that feed upon the rice crop are trapped and eaten. Foods that are not familiar to most westerners but enjoyed and cherished by the Lao Loum people. Coconut and banana trees are very abundant.

Many of the trees growing in and around the villages provide fruits, leaves, and flowers that provide food for the people. Many of the plants that grow in the mud puddles, drainage ditches, flooded plains and roadsides are eaten.

Water is collected off of their roofs into large ceramic or concrete vessels for household use.

Just about everyone has a few chickens that provide eggs and meat for the table. Some people also raise pigs, cattle or water buffalo. There are also some people who raise ducks for eggs and meat.

Village women weave cotton in their homes for their use or to earn some money for the family. Other women have industrial style sewing machines in their homes for assembling clothes provided vendors.

The Lao Loum people pretty much fend for themselves. Whereas we may not think that have much in terms of physical wealth, they are pretty much masters of their own fate. They are able to provide for themselves. What they have is their own. This subsistence economy provides them with independence and provides them with some protection from the vagaries of the world economy.

Their Buddhist and animist beliefs provide a moral compass and binds their culture to their shared past as well as providing reassurances for their future.

The life is not easy. They survive and are happy.

Yes we can.

Yes he can. Maybe.

Yes, they do.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Wot Sothon Dancers

Dance comprises a large part of Thai as well as Lao culture. Dance runs the gamut from 60s and 70s style Go Go dancing in the tourist venues to classical Thai dances performed on Buddhist temple grounds or part of stage productions.

Little Kwan from Tahsang Village, who is a year old now. is into "dancing". Although she can not walk yet she has been dancing for about a month. It does not take much a rhythm or beat to set her off. Hand and arm movements are essential components of Thai dance so Kwan's inability to walk is not a liability. She does try some dance movements with her legs - standing unsupported on her own and flexing a few times from her knees prior to landing on her bottom. Sitting on her bottom watching the older people dance does not prevent here from imitating their leg movements as best she can while seated. She does all this with a large four toothed grin from ear to ear. She seems to enjoy it as much as everyone who watches her.

Even in somewhat isolated villages such as Tahsang, there are numerous opportunities for dancing. In addition to someone always playing mahlam lao music loudly on their radio, there are many celebrations or festivals with live bands. The festivals and celebrations are truly family affairs with four generations attending as well as actively participating together.

In Kwan's case her care givers have some sort of Isaan rap routine that chant which sets her off to dancing. Not that Kwan needs too much structure to start her dance routines. I have seen her dance to the sound of a rough idling motorbike.

Weddings, Monk Ordinations, and many Buddhist Holidays are occasions for street processions. The villagers and friends after drinking beer and Lao moonshine will parade through the village in front of a large stake body truck laden with huge speakers, and sound system. While the truck blasts out the driving beats of marhlam Lao, the participants continue their drinking all the while dancing. It is a very merry affair.

It is a little strange to witness this merry band of "good natured" dancers in such "great spirit" to march through the gate and enter on to the temple grounds. Odd at first but after seeing it so many times and also attending stage shows complete with people getting drunk on temple grounds, you learn to accept it as a part of the fabric of Isaan life.

Last week, I wrote about the Lakhon chatri dancers at Erawan Shrine. The Erawan Shrine is not the only place to see Lakhon chatri dancers. Dance groups perform at many different Wats on special occasions and regularly at others. My favorite Wat to observe Lakhon chatri dancers is at Wat Sothon Wararam Warahan, commonly referred to as Wat Sothon.

Wat Sothon is located 100 KM east of Bangkok on the bank of the Bang Pakong River in the city of Chachoengsao. The region is heavily agricultural with many rice paddies and mango groves. I first visited it when I was living in Pattaya. Duang had arranged for my company driver to take us there one weekend morning.

Wat Sothon contains a very sacred statue of Buddha called "Luang Pho Sothon". The temple is the most heavily visited Wat in the Bangkok area. Many Thai people visit the Wat to worship. In thanksgiving for favors granted, pilgrims make offerings of boiled eggs, cooked pig's head, or commission performances by the resident Lakhon Chatri dancers.

The area where the dancers perform as well as the adjoining room where the statue is located is very crowded and filled with smoke from burning joss stick offerings. There is no air conditioning. Ventilation is provided by some large fans. Some how the sweltering heat seems only to underline the experience of this special place.

In addition to the dancing, the resident troupe also chants. Photography and video taping the performances is not an issue. The dancers are very photogenic. Outside of the area where they perform you can sit and watch them eat, drink, and relax prior to performing. Some of the performers have their children with them. It is apparent that the next generation of Wat Sothon dancers are being prepared.

You can also board a boat tour of the Bang Pakang River. The boat takes you down river to an old market built upon wood piles along side of the river. The old market has many food vendors and some old shops. The boat returns you to Wat Sothon.

The boat tour is predominately Thai families. Our tour was no different. It was especially entertaining to one little girl - a "naughty girl". I took some photos of her and she vacillated between shyness and curiosity. after awhile she evolved to the point of being precocious - a "naughty girl" and rolled her tongue as she stuck it out.

Although the dancers at Wat Sothon may not be high lighted or even mentioned in many guide books, a day trip to Chachoengsao is highly recommended.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Still At It - Sugar Cane and Corn on the Cob

This is the 100th post of Time has gone by so quickly. Creating and maintaining this blog along with my photography website at has kept me occupied and have given me the opportunity to learn new things related to Internet technology. To call them skills at this time would be giving myself undserved credit. I do hope at some point in the future to be justified in claiming them to be skills.

The weather has definitely changed here in Isaan. The high for today was 34 C (93 F). The forecast high for Tuesday is 36 C or 97 F - "hot" in either system.

Today we went out to Tahsang Village to take Duang's father to Kumphawapi Hospital for dental work. Rather than wait at the hospital I went off to the local Post Office to mail a letter back to the USA. It was a very busy day at the Post Office and in the small villages of Isaan.

Today the government was giving out 500 Baht ($14.28 USD) to elderly people. In Tahsang village, three government officials dressed in uniforms that resembled U S Navy aviator uniforms complete with gold wings and campaign ribbons had set up tables in the "community center" across from Duang's parent's house. "Community center" is a bit of an exaggeration. It is an open air pavilion with a concrete floor. Along three sides there is a concrete block wall about three foot high. This place is used for community affairs such as voting, and distribution of monthly allowances.

In more populated areas like Kumphawapi, the monthly allowance is distributed at the Post Office. By the numbers that you pick up when you enter the Post Office, there were 36 people ahead of me with only one clerk working. After a while the clerk made some kind of announcement and a bunch of people each holding an envelope or box to be mailed walked up to the counter - followed closely by me. The elderly would have to wait for the paying customers to complete their business.

I got back to the hospital just as Duang and her father had completed their business. We returned to Tahsang Village for a short visit and then on to visit Duang's daughter, well actually her brand new grandson, on our way back to Udonthani.

As we approached the Sugar refinery in Kumphawapi, we came upon a group of workers harvesting a field of sugar cane. I pulled over and got out to photograph the activity. The sugar cane harvest is still going on here in Isaan and will continue for about 6 more weeks. It is a very labor intensive process. The night before the harvest, the field is burned. The intent of the burn is to reduce the amount of dry leaves attached to canes and to open the field a little better for access to the stalks. The fire is hot and fast and does not burn the cane up. The sound of the fire racing through the tinder dry cane can be heard from far away. The leaping flames light up the night sky. Despite the absence of any fire fighting equipment or personnel, the fires do not get out of control and the fire remains contained to the designated field.

The next morning the workers arrive carrying their heavy machete type knives along with their jugs of water along with plastic bags of food. They are covered head to toe in typical Isaan farming clothing to protect their skin from the glaring sun and dust of the Isaan fields.

There are actually two types of sugar cane that is grown here. One type is very tall and develops a flowery head sort of like pampas grass. The other type of sugar cane is shorter and does not come to a head. Both types of cane when mature dwarf the farmers. Today the farmers were cutting the flowery head type of cane. Their clothes soon were spotted with dandelion type seeds from the cane flowers.

The harvesting of the burned off fields is done by hand. The farmers set off and cut the cane one stalk at a time. Due to the previous night's burn, the stalks are scorched and sooty. The ground is also covered with patches of soot. In no time at all, the workers as well as an occasional photographer get covered soot. Some of the harvesters short circuit the process and wear all black - either to not show how much work they are actually doing or to just look cleaner.

The farmers wear a glove or two gloves to protect their hands from the rough stalks. With one hand they grasp a single stalk and hold it. They then bend over and with their other hand chop off the stalk about 6 inches above the ground with a single powerful slash from the heavy machete type knife. The severed stalk is then lifted high into the air as the harvester trims off any leaves that remain on the cane from the burn off. The leave debris falls to the rutted dry ground and soon the field is a quasi minefield covered with ruts, dry leaves, ashes, and weeds. It requires a great deal of attention to not trip, fall, or worse yet avoid twisting an ankle.

The trimmed canes, about 8 feet long are cast to the side to create a row of just canes. Some of the workers go along and bundle the trimmed canes into 20 piece bundles that are tied together with cane leaves. Tonight the bundles each containing 20 stalks will be loaded on to a transport truck either by a mechanical loader or by hand using a 12 person crew.

As I have found throughout SE Asia the people did not mind being photographed either as they worked or took their rest breaks. They were somewhat amused about the foreigner scrambling around the debris and soot filled field taking their picture. I share the results with them and always thank them for allowing me to photograph them.

Just before the turn off to Duang's daughter's village, there are several stands selling local products - usually produce. Even though it is the middle of February and the first corn harvest was at the end of September, we are still able to buy corn on the cob. In general corn on the cob is sold cooked in Isaan. Wood fires boil water in large metal tubs filled with fresh unhusked corn. A bag of 8 small ears costs 20 Baht ($0.29 USD). The corn is eaten right off of the cob without the addition of butter or salt. In Pattaya we were able to buy fresh corn but it was much more sophisticated - the vendor cut the kernels off the cob into a plastic bag, added sugar, shredded coconut, and a plastic spoon.

We bought three bags and brought them to share with Duang's daughter's in-laws. They have been very generous in sharing with us the fruits of their garden and fields. They are Lao Loum people and eat the same foods that Duang is fond of. They have given us a large bag of rice from their field and many vegetables out of their garden. Whenever we visit them we always try to bring something to share with them. I am especially fond of the baby's great grandfather and great grandmother.

After our visit we drove back to our home to begin editing today's photos and to write this blog.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Bangkok Erawan Shrine

In the mid 1950s a new luxury hotel was being constructed in downtown Bangkok.

As part of site preparation for the Erawan Hotel some trees were cut down. Animists believe that spirits inhabit certain trees. Throughout Thailand you will see large trees wrapped in bands of brightly colored clothes. In addition there are often long decorated wood poles leaning against the tree trunks as part of offerings to the spirits. These beliefs have nothing to do with Buddhism but have their roots in Hindu and Animist faiths that predate Buddhism.

Supposedly the start of the construction of the hotel's foundations also was not on a "good" date. Prior to the start of important activities, Monks are often consulted to determine the best date and time to start the endeavor.

Construction of the hotel was bedevilled by many problems. Cost overruns, the loss of marble at sea, accidents, injuries to workers and most seriously the deaths of some construction workers affected the project. These problems also affected the people's attitudes and perceptions of the project.

After consultation with a Hindu religious authority a shrine to the Hindu god of creation, Bramaha on top of his elephant, Erawan, was constructed and then dedicated at the "correct" date and time.

The site of the hotel is now the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel. After the shrine was built in 1956 at the corner of the property the problems disappeared.

Legend has it that a Thai woman went to the shrine and prayed for success of her business. In return for a successful business she promised to return and dance in celebration as well as homage. Her business succeeded and she kept her promise.

Today there is a resident troupe of Lakhon chatri dancers who for a donation will dance and sing for patrons. People pay them to offer thanksgiving for granted favors or to request favors. A small group of musicians play traditional music for the classical Thai dancers. The dancers while performing hold small pieces of paper with the patron's name and reason for the performance written.

With this being Thailand, everything is not always what they appear to be. The Lakhon chatri dancers are essentially female. However not every dancer is a woman. Some of the dancers are Kathoeys - "Lady Boys". This is not a problem and is accepted without question by the Thai people.

On the sidewalks outside of the shrine stalls sell flowers, garlands, soft drinks, incense sticks, yellow candles, and other religious paraphernalia for the waiting worshippers. The tiny area of the shrine is filled with clouds of pungent smoke from burning joss sticks.

The shrine is heavily draped with garlands of flowers around the necks of the elephants. Some devotees make offerings of some small elephant figurines

There a a few concrete benches along the perimeter of the shrine and are convenient locations to watch the religious observations and to take in the aura of the devotees. Many Thai people passing the shrine either walking, riding on a motorbike, riding on the over head train, or in a motor vehicle will perform a wai in respect. Throughout Thailand, respect in the form of wais, floral offerings, joss sticks, and candles are made to shrines and statues of historical figures.

The Erawan Shrine is a Bangkok tourist attraction and worth the small effort required to visit it.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Carnaval - Oh to be back in Rio!

We just got back from a four hour expedition, second time around, to change the last name on Duang's insurance policy. Sometimes things just take longer than you expect or should take. I guess part of the problem is that there is only one computer terminal for the 5 people administering the policies in the upstairs office. Once you have done your or their thing upstairs, you have to go downstairs and wait to deal with an entirely different group. I waited outside because there were so many people. But in the end our mission was accomplished.

The weather here is getting warmer and the humidity is increasing. In the afternoon the conditions are building up towards the daily thunderstorms that we typically have in April to September. With the time I had waiting at the insurance office, and the changing weather conditions, my thoughts returned to my first stay in Brasil - the time I attended Carnaval in Rio.

This year Carnaval is February 16 to the 23. Sunday and Monday nights are the big Samba Parades at the Sambodromo. The Samba Parades are a combination of the Rose Bowl parade and Super Bowl festivities rolled up into one with the addition of the Brasilian joie de vie. Sorry I meant to write "alegria da vida" - Brasilians speak Portugues not French.

My friend and I flew to Rio de Janeiro to attend Carnaval. We discussed what we wanted to do while in Rio and he had his friend, a travel agent, make the arrangements.

Our celebration of Carnaval actually got started Thursday night in Curitiba where we were living and working. We went to our favorite place for drinks, dancing, and karaoke. With this being Brasil, the party didn't really get started until 10:00 PM. But there is no problem - the party does not end until 7:00 in the morning! Many was the night that we partied until 6:00 AM, stopped at a sidewalk cafe for breakfast, and then returned home. However because we had a 9:00 AM flight to Rio on Friday, we left our favorite or rather infamous haunt at 4:00 AM.

We stayed at a beach front suite at the Le Meridien Copacabana, now the Iberostar Copacabana. It was great - first class accommodations. But with a slight problem - there was only a king sized bed in the suite. Unlike a vast majority of the other men traveling together in Rio for Carnaval, we were not going to be sleeping together - no matter how big the bed was! No problem, we decided to take turns as to which one of us slept in the bed while the other one slept on the floor. The first night - I had the bed.

We took a taxi from the airport to Copacabana Beach where the hotel was located. From the cab driver we got our first bit of excitement regarding the festival. He filled us in on the latest gossip and rumors involving the upcoming samba competition.

We spent the remainder of the day on an arranged tour of the city hitting all the highlights of Rio. It was our first time in the city and even though the weather wasn't great, it was very entertaining. My friend and I are both into photography. We took the cog train up to and down from Corcovado & Christo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer). To ensure maximum photographic coverage for this unknown journey we agreed to split up and sit at window seats on opposite sides of the car. The cog train had wide wooden benches that sat three people across with two benches facing each other in a series along each side of the car. Our tour group as well as the other passengers on the cog train were predominately gay. There was a hetrosexual young couple in our group that stood out. They stood out for reasons more obvious than that they were a mixed couple.

They were a young couple in their early twenties most likely not married from New York City or New Jersey. The man was very attentive and falling all over himself in attempts to appease, please, humor, and satisfy his girl friend. She seemed be overwhelmed, afraid and upset regarding just about all aspects of the trip. She was what we refer to as a "High Maintenance Model". My friend and I took an instant aversion to the couple and took our chances socializing with the "other" members of our tour group. Some of the "other" members were very open and amusing to the point of being very entertaining. One person in particular was also pyrotechnic - he was flaming!

Anyhow on the way down the mountain this person and his "mates" (not in the Australian or New Zealand sense of the word) ended up in the seats in section where I was sitting alone. They started talking and in general being friendly. He ended up saying "Look at that b***h, can you believe anyone wanting her?" Not wanting to appear rude I said "I can't believe that she is worth the effort, the way she acts." He then adds "Yeah and her hair, the clothes she wears" As I am nodding my head in agreement, he continues with "and those muscles" Shocked I inquired if he was talking about a boy or girl. The woman that I was looking at did not have any muscles or at least any visible muscles worth mentioning. He clarified and pointed out to me in the booth in front of hers a young "beach boy" - all prim and prissy. I didn't say a thing to him from that point on. But I was laughing inside.

Leaving our afternoon adventures behind us, my friend and I continued with the evening part of our organized tour. Our afternoon compatriots, well actually only mine since they were from the USA and my friend is from New Zealand, had other plans which they had alluded to upon departing the tour bus. Something about party, we were all invited, Room 902, toys and having batteries. Too much info - Thank God, not any more details.

The evening tour consisted of dinner and drinks at a restaurant - a churrascaria. Churrascarias are Brasilian BBQ restaurants with all you can eat meats, salads, and side dishes. Great places! Tremendous values. Ice cold beers. Who could want anything more?

From the restaurant the tour went to the most popular samba nightclub - "Plataforma". Somehow and some way we ended up in the front row. We drank our caipirinhas and thoroughly enjoyed the show. We were having such a good time that we were not even embarrassed when the mulata topless dancers pulled us on the floor to dance with them. It's true and we have the souvenir photo-plates to prove it.

The first night of of the samba parade was Sunday. On that night, 6 or was it 7 of the top escholas da samba compete. The competition is held at the sambodromo a tiered concrete street structure designed for samba parades. The year that we went the first school marched starting at 7:30 PM. Each of the groups had 85 minutes to complete their parade or points would be deleted from their score. Prior to the start of each group there was a 7 minute long fireworks display to announce their start.

After the fireworks, a man, the puxador, would commence singing the song created for the group specifically for this year's competition. Points are awarded for the song as well as performance of the song. Songs are released in November. By the time of Carnaval in February or March, it seems everyone knows the words to the songs and is fully prepared to sing them at the competition.

The puxador starts out alone singing in almost a lament. He is then joined by a single stringed guitar type instrument that starts building the rhythm. They are quickly joined by other singers and stringed instruments followed by an explosion of the batteria - 200 to 400 drummers. It is absolutely awesome!

Prior to the start of the school's parade their followers had passed through the stands giving people plastic flags of their school's colors and emblem. The audience waves them like fanatics along with singing of the song. They also break out into dancing in the stands. Everyone is out for a good time and determined to enjoy themselves - all night long.

The drumming, music, and singing of the school's song continue over and over for the 85 minutes. It becomes hypnotic and maintains the frenzy for the full length of the allotted time for the parade.

Each escola da samba procession is comprised of the following elements:

Abre Alas - opening wing - the name of the school, the school's theme for this year's carnaval, a truck or float with the puxador and other singers and musicians.

Commissao de Frente - these are the senior citizens of the school. The school is honoring the contributions over the years of its senior members.

Carros Allegoricos - the huge mechanized floats that represent or interpret the theme of the school. These are on a par if not superior to the Rose Bowl parade floats in the USA. They are not possibly superior just because they have semi-nude beautiful women atop them. These floats are large, exotic, sophisticated, and complicated mechanical works of art.

Children's Wing - groups of children in extravagant costumes dancing in unison along the route.

Batteria - 200-400 drummers pounding out a frenzied samba beat. This group is lead by the Raina da Batteria (Queen of the Drummers). She is typically the schools leading lady - the most sexy and beautiful female representative of the escola. The rainha da batteria is the physical representation of the neighborhood's vitality and pride. She is honored and respected throughout the year. Some rainhas have represented their school for 15 years and they are only 32 years old! One rainha, my secret love (Luma), was married to the richest man in Brasil.

Photographs of her "sem calcinhas" (without panties) ala Mrs. Pierre Trudeau (former PM of Canada) during an interview with a newspaper reporter were published in national newspapers. She was upset and said that she would no longer give interviews. The papers said that they would no longer write about her or put her picture in the paper. Her picture and stories about here were rampant in the press. Even in Brasil it is true - any publicity is good publicity. I tried to send word back to here through some Cariocas (residents of Rio) that although I was not the richest man in Brasil or the USA, I could afford and I would buy her panties. I never heard back and have since moved on with my life.

Another wing of the parade is the celebrities. Each school strives to enhance their status by recruiting celebrities to march or dance in their parade. The year we went, super model, Naomi Campbell danced for one of the schools. She was not the best looking woman or dancer of that school - believe it or not! Trust me - I was there.

My next to favorite wing after the batteria is the mestre-sala and porta-bandeira. The mestre-sala is the dance master and he escorts the woman (porta-bandeira) carrying the school's flag. They are very elaborately dressed - sort of like out of a King's court. He looks like a footman from King Louis XIV's court (I know Louis XIV "The Sun King" is a French King and Brasil was a Portuguese colony but I don't know a comparable Portuguese King, am too lazy to look one up, and you most likely wouldn't have an image anyhow). The mestre-sala prances and bows to the crowd as he introduces and presents the porta-bandeira. She resembles a Brasilian interpretation of Marie Antoinette as she twirls and swirls around in a huge hooped skirt elegantly waving the escola flag. The crowd goes crazy over the pair. The flag and the duo represent the pride and dignity of the neighborhood. The inhabitants of the neighborhoods are poor people with limited opportunities. The carnaval is a chance for their neighborhood to earn respect and admiration from all of society.

Alas Baianas - These are women wearing elegant hoop skirts and typically turbans on their heads reminiscent of Aunt Jemima on the pancake mix box. This group honors the origins in the state of Bahia for Brasil's Carnaval. They do not samba - they spin and twirl along the route.

After a school has completed their parade, municipal workers in orange jump suits, sweep up the street to prepare for the next escola. This is Brasil. This is Carnaval. To write that they "sweep" up the litter from the street does not come anywhere near accurate to describe their performance. They dance. They gracefully sweep. They glide effortlessly. They catch debris thrown from the stands. They perform. They bow to the ovations that they get from the appreciative spectators.

The parades started at 7:30 PM, we left after the last escola completed their parade - around 8:00 AM - the next morning. After breakfast we slept to around 2:00 PM made arrangements to attend the second night of parades and did it all over again!

We vowed to return some day with our wives. We have yet to do it.

Oh to be back in Rio at Carnaval!

Maybe next year.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Newton's Third Law of Physics - It isn't just about Physics!

Today we had to drive north to the Lao border for me to report into the Thai Immigration Police as I am required to do every 90 days.

As far as the Thai government is concerned I do not "live" in Thailand - I "stay" in Thailand. I have a Non-Immigrant Visa that allows me to remain in Thailand for one year. Each year I must apply to extend the Visa for one additional year. I received my Non-Immigrant Visa -"Retirement" last June after submitting the paperwork for it in Los Angeles at the Thai Consulate. Since I was over 50 years old and had a certain amount of money available to support myself in Thailand, I could apply for a A-O "Retirement" Visa. It was a rather direct and simple process to obtain the Visa. I had to complete two forms, submit two photographs, submit a medical certificate, obtain a police report from my place of residence in the USA, submit my passport that was good for at least 18 months, and submit some bank statements verifying the funds available to me.

I submitted my paperwork and it was reviewed by a clerk in the waiting room. I had followed California law in that I did not make a copy of my notarized police report. The Thai Consulate needed two copies of the document and told me of a copy service across the street. I obtained two copies and returned to the Consulate. I then submitted my paperwork and fees to an official behind a glass partition. She reviewed the documents and told me to return the next morning to pick up my passport with the Thai Visa in it.

Each 90 days that I am in Thailand I must report to the Immigration Police my intention to remain in Thailand longer than 90 days. This could be done by mail but I prefer to drive one hour up to Nong Khai and handle it personally. I do not like the idea of having my passport travelling back and forth in the mail.

This reporting requirement is similar to when I was younger and each January the US government advised all "aliens" that they needed to register each year.

I have made a decision to "stay" in Thailand and I accept that I am responsible to comply with the rules as well as regulations associated with the privilege to remain in Thailand for a year. I understand that I am a guest and that I need to be a good guest in the land that I have chosen to stay. I do not have a right to be here. In Thailand there are some expats that complain about how they are treated. One complaint deals with having to report every 90 days. The other common complaint is the fee charged for Visas, Re-Entry Permit, etc. Some falangs complain about being stopped at road blocks by Police.

I have lived in Thailand for almost three years and have no complaints. Already this year, I have been stopped at road blocks twice - along with the Thai drivers around me. I was treated with respect and after showing my Thai driver's licence along with the required vehicle documentation, I was sent off on my way. Police checks are more frequent here than in the USA but then again this is not the USA. I suspect that some people would complain about anything anywhere that they happened to be.

I am hopeful that before I started to complain where I am a guest I would just leave. I know that I expect guests in my country to behave the same way.

Newton's Third Law of Physics states "For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction". This law which so far has not been proven incorrect in the scientific world also applies to other aspects of our world - your world as well as "Allen's World".

I was extremely fortunate to be raised with the idea that I needed to be responsible and hold myself accountable for my actions. This philosophy has given me freedom to live my life happily and to a high degree of potential. This philosophy also is analogous to the Third law of Physics - to paraphrase somewhat - "Our actions and in-actions have consequences"

I attribute much of my satisfaction and contentment to the fact that I have always considered the consequences of my actions or in-action and assessing my willingness to accept them prior to making my decisions.

Today, Fox News was after Nadya Suleman, the 33 year old, unmarried, unemployed mother of 6 children, three of whom have special needs, who recently gave birth octuplets following IVF procedure. I have mixed feelings about her. I will start by writing that my opinion is that criticizing her is somewhat akin to treating the symptoms of a disease without eliminating the cause of the disease. I do not approve of her actions. The consequence of her actions are now well known to the world.

The adverse reactions to her deliberate actions is manifestation of Third Law of Physics applied to human behavior.

It is important to understand that up to this point, Nadya Suleman and her doctor have not been accused of breaking any laws. They may have exercised poor judgement or conducted themselves in what could be judged as reckless behavior. But no one has identified a law that has been broken. This is not to condone their behaviors, judgements, or decisions but my point is to put what happened into terms of a symptom rather than a cause.

As a society we, Americans, tend to not want to become involved in the intimate details of each other's lives. It has been written that people don't want to determine or be involved in how many children a person decides to have. I support that philosophy. It is none of society's business. It is none of society's business as long as IT REMAINS NONE OF SOCIETY'S BUSINESS.

When public funds are spent due to a person's actions, it becomes society's business.

We are all very familiar and to a large extent very proud of the advances of modern medical science.

At the time that medical science has been advancing, there has been an absence of national discussion or debate regarding the ethics as to how or when this technology should be applied. These are uncomfortable and unsettling topics that because they have not been addressed, situations such as an unmarried and unemployed 33 year old woman of 6 children can give birth to 8 more children due to IVF procedure can occur.

If a person in Nadya Suleman's situation was able to pay all their expenses and be able to support their family without society's assistance, we could accept but not necessarily agree with their actions. Basically their decision would have minimal consequences for society.

However in her case, the hospital is already seeking funds from the state of California and federal government for the extraordinary costs associated with the birth of her 8 children.

It is alleged that three of her previous 6 children have special needs and receive money from the federal government. According to a report in the Huffington Post one son is autistic.

Court cases have determined that all children are entitled to an education at tax payer expense. This has resulted in some children going to high cost private intuitions because their special needs can no where be addressed in a public school environment.

In the case of autism, local school boards have been forced to spend in excess of $100,000 a year for an autistic student's education. Education which is experimental and has no guarantee of success in enabling a person to avoid future dependence upon society for support. At the same time programs for other "special needs" students, those with above average abilities are reduced or eliminated.

Again this is not a reflection upon Nadya Suleman or her doctor. They apparently have not committed any crime. They have taken advantage of the "opportunities" that current American society allows them and all others in the USA.

However when public money is used to support and subsidize a person's actions and questionable decisions, society should and must be involved.

A consequence of Nadya Suleman actions is the current firestorm of personal criticism.

A consequence of society's failure to discuss, debate, and resolve the ethics of modern medical technology is the current Suleman situation and the possibility if not the probability of many others to come.

In the back of my mind I also wonder that if Suleman's doctor had refused to comply with her wishes would he had been sued or accused perhaps of "discrimination"

Ignoring the consequences does not prevent history from being repeated nor does it make the cause of a problem go away.

Where is that old time religion of accountability and responsibility?

Monday, February 9, 2009

Homecoming in Isaan

On Saturday, baby Peelawat, also known as "Pee-a Lot" by me, was released from the hospital along with his mother. He had become a little jaundiced and stayed in the hospital an extra day for treatment.

Because it was a Saturday, Duang's son did not have school so he drove. We arrived at the hospital and found Duang's daughter ready to go. We all climbed into the truck and headed to her home. All as in - Duang's son, his girlfriend, Duang, Duang's daughter, her husband, Peelawat, and I. I got the honor of holding the baby in my arms in the front seat for the trip back home. We drove by the park with the marauding monkeys and passed a young elephant with its mawhut (handler and trainer) without incident. Duang's son did drive more conservatively - he was warned by his mother!

People in Isaan do not use car seats. Everyday you will see motor bikes running along the road with a small child standing or sitting on the bike. Mothers sitting behind the driver will hold a baby in their arms. Sometimes a toddler will be sandwiched on the seat between the driver and passenger on the bike. I have just started to see some motorbikes with a small booster seat mounted on the bike in front of the driver with a strap for the toddler. Kwan, Duang's one year old relative, likes to ride her grandfather's motorbike in her seat . Sometimes you will see two small children riding unsecured on a motorbike with their parents. It is pretty scary but so common that after awhile you become accustomed to the sight. Thank God I have never come upon the scene of a motorbike accident involving children.

Since Peelawat arrived home in the afternoon on Saturday, his official welcoming was postponed to the following day.

We went out to his new home yesterday morning, Sunday. Peelawat lives on a small plot of slightly elevated land in the middle of the rice paddies along a dirt road. There are two small concrete and brick houses on the property. With Peelawat, there are now four generations of the family living on the land.

We went into the house were Peelawat is staying. An elevated wood platform, very much like the one outside had been placed in the kitchen of the house. The platform is built out of recycled wood and has a floor made out of wood slats covered by sahts (woven reed mats) which in turn are covered with a coarsely woven cotton blanket. Duang's daughter was laying on one side of the platform - resting. We had called earlier and found out that she had not gotten much sleep the night before - the baby had cried most of the night. On the other side of the platform, Peelawat was asleep in his cradle.

In Isaan there is not much formal furniture in the homes. Typically it is just a couple of cabinets to store blankets and sahts. People eat, drink, socialize, and watch TV sitting atop sahts placed on the tile floor. There are also less territorial boundaries with the Isaan people - everyone seemed to have no problem with sitting on the hospital bed with the new born baby and mother. I couldn't bring myself to it and sat on either the floor or couch in the hospital room. Isaan people are adept at packing a motor vehicle well beyond what would be accepted in the US - without any objections. I have seen pick up trucks carrying 18 people - paying for ride.

Since this was a large platform, I sat on it to visit. I got an immediate surprise. The platform was hot - uncomfortably hot. I got up and looked beneath the platform. One of the wood stoves, refractory lined 2 gallon sized bucket, used to cook food was underneath the bed with a charcoal fire blazing away!

I then became concerned about the fire hazard but I was assured that this was not a problem. This was the way that it is done in Thailand. Later I saw Duang's daughter moderate the heat by sprinkling some water on to the cotton blanket out of a bowl she that kept atop the bed. Definitely different!

I was also concerned about carbon monoxide poisoning and carbon dioxide levels from the charcoal fire inside of a room. My concerns were somewhat allayed when I noticed that there were no glass windows in the room. The window openings had poorly fitted and constructed wood shutters. These closures as well as the exterior door most likely will provide adequate ventilation. I cautioned Duang's daughter about the concern but she assured me through Duang that there is no problem - "This is how we do it in Thailand - no problem"

Peelawat's cradle is hand made. Calling it "handcrafted" would be to give it more compliment than is merited. It is made out of recycled wood and an assortment of various size as well as types of nails. It very well may have been his father's or even his grandfather's cradle. A pakama (strip of colorful plaid cotton cloth) with a piece of bamboo at each end has been suspended from the frame to create a comfortable baby bed. A string from the side of the pakama goes to the side of the platform where the baby's mother stays. A few gentle tugs of the string sets the cradle to rocking and keeps it rocking with little effort.

Most of the afternoon was spent watching and tending to the little guy. Around 2:00 PM we had some lunch. The food was typical "Kao Lao" - Lao Food. I ate the grilled beef and sticky rice. There were some other foods that looked interesting and not too exotic. One dish was boiled stalks of a green plant. It smelled like boiled corn on the cob. The stalks were about 12 inches long and about 3/4 of an inch in diameter. I expected the food to taste like the husk of newly picked baby corn sort of like the baby corn in stir fry dishes. Duang took a stalk and started to peel it. She removed several layers to expose a very limp central core. It turned out that this was sugar cane sprouts. Now I was fully prepared for a treat - boiled sugar cane sprouts - had to be good - right? No! It was bitter - very bitter! I ate the stalk. I ate a second one just in case I had gotten a "bad" one the first time. It was the same. I had enough. I could eat it if I had to. I didn't have to so I saw no need to.

The second dish was clumps of fine green plant stems with very small buds as well as very small flowers. It reminded me a little of dill. Duang told me that it was "pock-a-dow". I grabbed a bunch and like everyone else, I stripped the buds and flowers from the fine stems. Like my current experience with the Dow Jones Average in the US Stock market, this "dow" was also a bitter experience. This was even more bitter than the sugar cane sprouts and tasted like I was eating dirt.

In Pattaya I had eaten some Lao food with Duang and her friend. Those plants were also very bitter so I now suspect that whereas Thai food is along the lines of spicy and sweet, Lao food is bitter and more bitter.

While we were visiting, I got some photographs of Peelawat's great grandmother. She is Lao Loum and 76 years old. She has a medical condition where she is permanently stooped over. When she walks she is bent over about 45 degrees or more from the waist. This does not stop her. She is a working machine. I have never seen her when she wasn't doing something - cooking, preparing food, feeding the two year old that the family takes care of, weeding the garden, harvesting things from the garden, weaving a saht, or preparing betel nut for chewing.
She also has a great sense of humor or maybe she is just amused by me.

Yesterday I photographed her weeding the garden. She was using a long pointed stick to weed the garlic. The garden is a large source of food for the family. Many familiar vegetables are grown in the plot along with stuff that I have no idea what it is except that it is "Kao Lao". I also photographed her preparing the ingredients for chewing betel nuts. She was a good sport about it all.

She gave her grandson some instructions. He grabbed a hatchet and climbed barefooted a tall tree in the backyard. He then proceeded to chop down three branches about 8 inches in diameter. It turned out that this was a "pock- a- dow" tree - the source of the earlier vegetable dish that I had tried. The leave/flower clusters were cut from the limbs and brought to the outside platform where everyone was sitting. The women, lead by the great grandmother sorted the clusters, removed excess leaves and tied them into bundles.

Around 6:00 PM, we found out that the Baii Sii ceremony for little Peelawat would not start until 10:00 or 11:00. Since we had already been there for 8 hours, we decided to return home. We had our own little ceremony where Duang's family tied strings on his wrist to bind the good spirits into his body for health and protection. They had also bought some gold and placed his gold bracelets on his wrists and ankles. The wearing of gold no matter how small is also believed to be good for babies.

Before we could graciously depart, we had to eat some more food. Peelawat's great grandmother motioned to me to stay and eat before leaving. A large pot filled with meat had been placed over a wood fire earlier. I had a pretty good idea what was in the pot but asked Duang anyhow. She told me "Inside carabao" (Cow Internals). My suspicion was confirmed. From my junior high school biology classes, I had identified, stomach, heart, lungs, liver, spleen, as well as veins. Assuming this was a bull, I asked Duang about other organs in the pot. She said "No, can not".

Duang got a bowl of the "insides carabao" and we ate it along with some more sticky rice. The insides were not that bad but I prefer them to be grilled rather than boiled. Duang said that they had not finished cooking yet. They had been boiling for about an hour so I guess they have to be cooked until maybe you are drunk enough to think they are great. It might be like they say about the girls all look better at closing time or viewing the girls through beer filled glasses - "The food always tastes better at the end of the night"

Peelawat was officially welcomed home. Our work for the day was done and we returned to our "falang" (foreigner) home - happy.


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