Saturday, March 28, 2009

Going to Maehongson - 12 Hours To Go

We are just about ready to leave in 12 hours to Maehongson - one of my very favorite places in all of Thailand. This will be my fourth trip to the area.

We will leave tomorrow morning around 5:00 A. M. and drive to Chiang Mai, spend the night there, and get to Maehongson the following afternoon. The trip could be done in a single long day of driving but the last four hours is on a winding and twisted road with many sights to stop at so we will make it a two day trip out to Maehongson.

We are looking forward to the Shan festival of Poi Sang Long. The cameras have been cleaned. The digital media has been formatted. The batteries are all charged. We have packed some foul weather gear and will take whatever is presented to us.

Since this trip we will be driving, I am bringing a tripod and some other equipment that was not possible before when flying into Maehongson. I will experiment with taking some night shots of the two Wats along the pond in the middle of the town. Although we have not planned on it specifically, we are hoping to get out to some of the Hill Tribe villages to visit some of the people that we have met on previous trips.

Upon our return in a week there will most likely be over 2,000 photos to edit along with plenty of experiences and observations for future blogs.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Isaan Fishing Derby - Additional Photos

After working on yesterday's photographs of the Isaan farmers fishing in the Sa Doong Village Wat's pond, I have set up a new gallery located at

It was quite a morning that we spent photographing the people fishing. Once again I was left to try to undestand who had more fun - me photographing the people or the people watching me. Everyone is always friendly and curious towards a falang that they encounter in these out of the way locales.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Isaan Fishing Derby

Just about every time that we go off in the pickup truck, other than shopping trips, I haul my backpack of camera gear along with us. I have found the highways and byways of Isaan to be extremely interesting and fascinating. Bringing the camera gear affords me the opportunity to document and share the various aspects of life here in Isaan. Today we were going out to Duang's daughter's place to take her, her husband, and their 6 week old son out to Duang's mother's place in Tahsang village. Later in the day Duang and I were going to the next village to watch Duang's brother perform. We had been invited the previous night by the village headman. Just as is advisable in any country to ensure good relations with those in power, we agreed to attend despite Duang's concerns for possible violence. Mahlam Lao shows have a reputation for bringing out the worst in people. Actually is not the shows themselves but the heavy amount of drinking associated with the shows by the spectators.

We got a late start because we had to purchase some items for Duang's mother. It was late morning as we approached Duang's daughter's village. Just outside her village alongside the road is a Wat with a fairly large pond or maybe a very big mud hole. The water is about 15 feet to 20 feet below the elevation of Wat and is about 300 yards in diameter. Ponds similar to this dot the Isaan countryside. They are used to impound runoff water during the rainy season. During the remainder of the year many of them are used to raise fish, prawns, or ducks as well as providing water for crops.

Today was a special day and a great day to have a camera with you. The pond and the rim around the pond was filled with people. The people were fishing. Duang asked if I wanted to take some photographs and said we could turn around if I did. There was need to ask again as I made the u-turn to return to the Wat.

The Wat was raising money to help support the Monks as well as maintain the buildings. To raise the money, the people were being charged 100 baht each to fish in the pond. When a person paid their 100 baht to a layperson they received a paper crown with a ink stamp on the raised portion of the crown. Duang inquired and determined that 100,000 baht had been raised (1,00 people). We arrived around 11:00 A.M and the oppressive heat and sun was already taking it toll on the fishermen. Many were packing up and leaving in their farm trucks.

During the year the pond is home to many fish perhaps even a breeding population. Fishing is not allowed and feeding the fish is a favorite pastime of the local people. In Bangkok, along the Chao Phraya River the waterfront Wats are sanctuaries for the local fish population. Fishing is not allowed along the river in front of the Wats. People along the bank as well as people in long tail tourist boats feed bread to the fish - thousands and thousands of fish. It is amazing how many fish and how large they are. It is always a good laugh to see some tourists get wet from the fish floundering around in a feeding frenzy.

Today there was no feeding frenzy by the fish in the pond but there was definitely a fishing frenzy by the people. People were fishing along the banks of the pond. People were fishing from narrow steel dugout style boats. People were fishing from rafts made out of rubber inner tubes and pieces of bamboo. Some people were standing in the shallow water fishing. Some people even appeared to be standing on the water fishing!

Standing on the water? No, this turned out to not be some kind of miracle or super religious experience. The people had modified motorcycle wheels to create platforms to stand on while fishing. Short pieces of metal pipe with steel plates on one end had been welded to the wheel. Pieces of bamboo about 4 feet were inserted into the steel cups and the assembly was then inverted, with the bamboo thrust into the muddy bottom to create a place for the fisherman to stand in the shallow water.

There was not a single fishing pole in sight or a hand line. The people fished by either of two methods. The first method, I had photographed several times before in Isaan. This method is what I call the "dip net" method. According to Duang it is called "Sa Doong" - ironic in that the name of the village is "Sa Doong" - but things are often ironic and unexplainable here. It is part of the charm and allure of Isaan. The Sa Doong is a 20 foot by 20 foot fine monofilament net suspended from a long bamboo pole. Bamboo poles are also used to hold the net in a square shape. The fisherman stands in the water and dips the net into the muddy water. After a short period of time, the fisherman rears back from the waist, and using their back muscles lifts the large net out of the water.

The other method of fishing is using a hand thrown monofilament net. This is called "hair". This is the same type of net that I saw being crocheted in Tahsang Village late last month. Hand nets were being thrown all over the pond. They were thrown from boats and rafts as well as by some people standing in the water. Throwing the net is more effective most of the time from the platforms in the water. The additional elevation acquired by standing on the platform helps spread the net out over the water. For some people though, the process of standing on a small diameter platform on flimsy bamboo legs in the water while heaving a large diameter net with all their might ended up spreading their body over the water as well as their net. Whenever someone catapulted themselves over the water ending up with a big splash there would be an outburst of hoots and hollers from the other fishermen and their families on the elevated banks of the pond. There was plenty of hoots and hollers during the hour that we were there.

It appeared to be a fairly successful day for the fishermen. They were happy to show off their catch. Some fish were pretty large - 10 to 15 pounds.

Exhausted and thirsty we left to continue on our original agenda.

After visiting Duang's mother for awhile, we went to the next village. Duang advised me not to bring my camera which was very good advice. We were there for about an hour and there were four fist fights to go along with scores of falling down drunk people. We gladly left - safe and sound.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Monk Ordination

At the end of this month, we will be travelling to Maehongson to witness ans photograph the Shan people's celebration of "Poi Sang Long". During the celebration of "Poi Sang Long" young Shan boys are ordained as novice Buddhist Monks.

This will not be the first time that I have witnessed the festivities associated with a young Thai boy becoming a Monk. Many of the parties that we have attended have been for family member's and friend's sons entering into the sanga (religious community). Every Thai male 20 years or older is expected to be a Monk at some point in his life. It is believed that a boy can only become a man after serving as a Monk. Even the current King of Thailand spent time as a Monk.

Being ordained as a Monk earns great merit for a boy's mother and to a lesser extent his father. The boy's mother gains more merit because the act of becoming a Monk is not available to women. The boy's father naturally had the opportunity to earn the merit by becoming a Monk himself.

Duang's son became a Monk in early January of 2007. His ordination occurred during my first visit to the Isaan region and her home village of Tahsang. The following is a description of the events and rituals culminating in his ordination. The events as well as rituals are typical of all ordinations but not exactly the same for all.

On Tuesday Duang, her mother, an aunt, and an uncle went into Kumphawapi to purchase all the trappings and accoutrement's deemed as necessary to become a Monk. We went to a very small and dark wooden shop that specialized only in Monk accessories. To me it was like going to a specialty store to outfit your child back in the USA for Boy Scout or Summer Camp. The Monk articles included robes, towels, candles, drinking cup, soap, matches, flashlight, wash bucket, candle holder, ceremonial fan, and so on. Monk things are of a special color - saffron. The shop keeper was very gracious and considerate much like a bridal consultant or wedding planner in the USA. Just like in the USA she worked the angles well to insure that the young man had everything that he should have for his special day.

That night after a large family meal - large in terms of the number of people and amount of food, we went to one of the local Wats. There is a Wat inside the village, but for some reason we went to the Wat that is set out in the middle of the rice paddies and sugar cane fields. At the Wat, Duang's presented himself to the Monk and told him that he wanted to become a Monk. Some candles were lit, some incense was burned, some prayers and chants were made prior to going back to the village.

Duang's son spent the next two days preparing to enter the monkhood. He had to go see people that he may have hurt, apologize, and seek their forgiveness if not their blessing.

On Friday we arrived at Duang's parents house in the early morning. The place was a center for all kinds of activities. The narrow village road in front of the house had been commandeered for the festivities. Two large awnings had been set up in the middle of the road. Underneath the awnings wood platforms had been placed and covered with sahts (woven reed mats) for guests to sit upon. Although we had arrived fairly early in the morning, several family members had already started to eat as well as to drink. For this great celebration the beverages of choice were beer and Lao Kao (moonshine whiskey).

In the backyard in front of the rice shed, a temporary outdoor kitchen had been set up. Underneath temporary tarps, numerous female relatives were occupied cooking food in large woks, kettles, and cauldrons over propane gas burners and charcoal fires. Other women were busy preparing foods on hand made wood tables. The air was filled with the sounds of gossiping relatives, the chopping of foods, sizzling food, boiling liquids, the sounds of Duang's uncle's water buffalo next door as well as all of the village's chickens and dogs. Other women were busy washing the continuous procession of pots, pans, dishes, and other paraphernalia associated with the food preparation and consumption in the front.

Inside the dimly lit house, several men were sitting on the floor with some large round cutting boards, heavy knives, a leg of a cow, and assorted pieces as well as parts of a cow. Items such as stomach, liver, skin, and intestines were cut and sent out to the kitchen to be boiled. The meat from the leg was cut and chopped with the heavy knives until it became a pasty consistency. It was then mixed with cilantro, garlic and chilies to be used a a raw dipping sauce for sticky rice. This dish is served at all celebrations. The leg of beef is purchased from a local open air stand where beef products hang for sale. The men were busy with their cutting, chopping, scraping, and drinking Lao whiskey and beer.

The first ritual, cutting of the hair, started at 9:30 AM. After washing the feet of his mother, father, and grandparents, Duang's son came out to the front of the house and sat in a chair placed in the middle of the road. Family members lined up to take their turn in cutting off some of his hair with a pair of scissors. In accordance with tradition and as a sign of respect for elders, his grandparents were the first to cut his locks, followed by his mother, his father, and then surprisingly me, his wife, and then his sister. The remainder of the relatives and friends some how managed to sort themselves out orderly and without any difficulty.

Duang's son sat bare chested with a pakama (a article of clothing - a cotton plaid strip of cloth used for many purposes) draped over his shoulders. He held two plastic lotus blossoms in his hands that were kept in a chest high wai gesture. In his lap was a large lotus leave where the shorn locks of hair were placed as they were cut by each person. As each person cut his hair they gave him their blessing, forgave him for any of his past transgressions and wished him good luck in the future.

The cutting of one's hair goes back to ancient times. The first Buddha was originally an Indian prince named Siddharta. In the times of Siddharta long hair symbolized royalty. Siddharta prior to becoming enlightened and becoming Buddha had shaved off his hair to indicate his renouncement of all his worldly possessions. That act is repeated by young men becoming Monks. After their relatives and friends have cut off his hair, a Monk shaves the young man's head and eyebrows. The lotus leaf along with the cut pieces of hair are taken back to the Wat by the Monk

The young man is now after renouncing his worldly goods is considered to be a "naga". Naga is a mythological serpent that can take on many forms. When Buddha was walking around preaching and teaching his disciples, Naga The Serpent King took on human form, asked to become a Monk and followed Buddha around listening to the sermons. One day the naga fell asleep and reverted back to his snake form. Buddha told him that he could not be a Monk because he was not of this world - only humans could be a Monk. The naga agreed to leave the Monkhood but requested a favor. He asked Buddha that all young men who are about to be ordained as Monks be called "nagas". Buddha agreed. To prevent a recurrence of this incident, all young men as part of their ordination are asked if they are human. The naga despite leaving the monkhood continued his devotion to Buddha and is often depicted in art as the seven headed cobra shielding Buddha from the rain. Nagas also are depicted as statues running along the handrails on stairs into temples.

After having his head as well as his eyebrows shaved, Duang's son showered and put on some special clothing. He wore a special red garment that he had borrowed from a wealthier relative with a white crocheted shawl over his shoulder. Duang loaned him her gold necklace and bracelet to wear. He then placed a handkerchief atop his shaved head and then his fancy headdress. There is no apparent religious significance to wearing of the gold. It is more like just an opportunity to show off to the neighbors the family's economic status. The Shan people of Thailand do make a similar demonstration of wealth as well as the heavy use of makeup to dress up their young nagas which is most likely attributable to their wish to imitate Buddha's young princely son who followed in his father's footsteps and was the first Monk.

Around 3:00 P.M. and after some serious drinking by most of the revelers, except the naga (Duang's son), the procession through the village started. The family pickup truck was brought up to the house. People draped pakamas across the hood as well as along the sides of the truck. Pieces of wood were placed in the pickup truck bed to create tiered platforms upon which heavy wood chairs were placed for the naga and his grandparents. The naga sat ahead of his grandparents clasping two lotus blossoms on long stalks and three joss (incense)sticks. His hands were supported by two colorful square pillows called "mohn" in the wai (praying position). Behind him his grandparents sat side by side - his grandfather holding the ceremonial fan while his grandmother carried offerings of monks robes, ceremonial bowl and floral arrangement. A large ceremonial umbrella (sapatone) towered over the naga. His grandmother also carried her own umbrella for protection from the afternoon sun. An uncle sat in the back to ensure that everything stayed in place and Duang's granddaughter (three years old) also rode in the back of the pickup.

Following the pickup truck was a large farm truck outfitted with a sound system. The sound system consisted of a portable generator, over 24 industrial or rather concert sized speakers, a P.A. system, and CD player. Loud, driving, and native music "Mahlam Lao" blared from the truck. "Mahlam Lao" is the music of Isaan - very conducive to dancing no matter how much or little you may have been drinking. Dispersed amongst the vehicles were family members, friends, and well wishers. They all had been drinking for most of the day so this was to be a dancing rather than marching parade through the village. The purpose of the procession through the village has nothing to do with Buddhism. The origins of the procession is linked to the region's religions prior to the arrival of Buddhism. The intent of the procession is to let the spirits know that the young man has decided to become a Monk - consideration to the elements of Brahmin and Animist faiths that remain active and prevalent today throughout Isaan.

The parade danced through the village, crossed the main country road, danced through the second half of the village, and retraced its steps back to the starting point. All the while, people were drinking whiskey and beer. Young people ran up and down through the ranks of dancers ensuring that dancer's glasses were filled. Some people would break off from the parade to stop into small local markets to ensure a fresh supply of beer for everyone. People drank from bottles, glasses, and plastic pitchers. There was a great sense of community and affinity with people coming out of their houses to watch or in many cases join in the celebration.. Occasionally fireworks were launched into the late afternoon sky - loud whistling spinning disks that after reaching their apogee high in the sky would explode in a large bang.

Upon return to Duang's parent's house, her son went off to spend some time with his wife and child. The revelers continued their socializing, drinking, and eating once again. Although the awnings had been removed from the street, the family had not relinquished possession or control of the street in front of the house. Around 4:30 P.M., two large trucks arrived filled with scaffolding and roadies.

The roadies immediately commenced erecting a large elevated stage that spanned the width of the street. Duang's father had been an entertainer when he was younger. Her younger brother continues the family tradition and is a professional entertainer. He stages and stars in stage shows unique to Isaan. These are song, dance and comedy extravaganzas that remind me somewhat of the USO Tour scene from the American film classic "Apocalypse Now". The music is mahlam lao and mor lam with go-go dancers as well as anywhere from 8 to 16 piece bands. These shows are very popular and are employed at all kinds of celebrations in Isaan.

Prior to the start of the show at 10:00, Duang and I went along to pick up the go-go dancers. We went to the nearby city Kumphawapi some twenty minutes away. The dancers were arriving from Udonthani on a regular commercial bus. We picked them up at the intersection of the main road to Bangkok and the road that lead back to Kumphawapi city center.

The show was great and ran from 10:00 P.M. until 3:00 A. M. Everyone in the village as well as many people form nearby villages attended. Local policemen ensured that the fights did not get out of control. These shows or perhaps the drinking associated with these shows are famous or rather infamous for fighting. In two years of attending many of these shows, I have only witnessed one where there wasn't an incident or two. This celebration was no exception.

After resting for an hour we got up at 4:00 P.M. for the next ordination ritual. We drove to the large Wat in Kumphawapi. Because Duang's parent's were coming along, we sat in the open pickup bed. The combination of the previous night's partying and the cold pre-sunrise temperature made for a long and uncomfortable journey.

Upon arrival at the Wat, we circled the building carrying the offerings for the Monks three times in a clockwise direction. We climbed the stairs into the bot following Duang's son. As he got to the top of the stairs, he threw some coins and small candies over his shoulder. This was another sign that he was renouncing his worldly possessions. People quickly gathered these up as they are considered to be good luck charms.

We presented the assembled nine Monks with our offerings. After some chanting by the Monks, Duang's son presented himself to the head Monk, the Abbott. He placed his Monk robes to his left and prostrated three times (once for Buddha, once for the teachings of Buddha, and once for the religious community). Duang's son then placed his robes over his forearms, made his hands into a wai position and started chanting in Pali - the ancient language of Buddhist scriptures. After a short period of time, he took off his white shawl and the Abbot placed the Monk's shoulder cloth (amsa) over his head. Duang's son then went off with a couple of Monks and very shortly returned wearing the rest of the Monk habit.

Fully dressed as a Monk, he faced the Abbot and formally declared in Pali:

I go to Buddha for refuge

I go to the Dharma (Teachings of Buddha) for refuge

I go to the Sanga (the Buddhist religious community) for refuge

He was now declared to be a "samanera" much like a seminary student in the Catholic religion.

A Monk then told him the 10 rules that had to be followed as a "samanera" Duang's son repeated each rule as it was given.

The samanera then placed his alms bowl over his shoulder and told the Abbot that he wanted to be a Monk. The Abbot then taught him the Pali names for the three robes and alms bowl.

Duang's son then went to go to the back of the temple and prepare himself for the examination. He stood with his hands pressed together in a wai. He was asked a series of questions in Pali to ensure that he was fit and prepared to be a Monk. These questions included ensuring that he did not have certain diseases, he was debt free, he had his parent's permission, and that he was at least twenty years old. There was also the question of "Are you human?" to ensure that he wasn't the Serpent King "Naga"up to his old tricks.

He was then brought back to the assembled Monks and through chanting they were informed that he was found to be worthy and acceptable. Duang's son prostrated three times. The Abbott accepted his request to become a Monk and then asked him the previous questions again to be sure that he was in deed ready. There was some more chanting and the ceremony was completed with him being a full fledged Monk.

Since it was now around 6:00 A.M. with sufficient light for the Monks to see the lines on their hand, it was time for the Monks to go out and make their alms rounds. As Duang's son walked down the temple steps as a Monk, he was greeted reverently by his immediate family who were the first people to offer him his first food as a Monk. It was a very touching scene and one that I will always cherish.

We returned to Duang's parent's house. Although we had left early to complete the ordination rituals, the house was not vacant. During our absence, some of the many aunts and uncles had been busy. They had used the early hours of the morning to prepare "The Mon's Breakfast". To celebrate the ordination of the new Monk and to earn additional merit, the family was going to feed the Monks. We arrived back at the house around 7;00 A. M. to help finalize the arrangements. This included opening all the windows, laying sahts on the floor, setting out trays with various foods and fruits. The relatives who remainded behind had already set up a small shrine in the room and set out bottles of drinking water for the expected esteemed guests. The ten Monks arrived around 8:00 A. M.

Duang's uncle who is a Brahmin acted as the master of ceremonies. He performed some sort of welcoming ritual with chanting, lighting of candles, and burning of incense. The ritual included the binding of spirits with cotton string. The Monks did some chanting and gave their blessings. They were offered the various trays of food and placed what they were going to eat in their alms bowls. People also made some offerings such as buckets of Monk toiletries and supplies to the Monks. After they had eaten, the Monks including Duang's son left to return to the Wat in Kumphawapi.

It had been a very special two day celebration that I had been priveldged to participate in.

Thursday, March 19, 2009


In Isaan and the rest of Thailand preparations are being made to celebrate the Songkran Festival. Songkran is celebrated from April 13 to April 15 each year - a lot more and much less.

The Holiday is officially three days but because this is Thailand it often is more like 7 days than three days. In fact some areas celebrate it on slightly different days. In Pattaya, Songkran is typically celebrated on the 18th and 19th of April.

This blog will deal with the celebration for the closing of Songkran last year in Tahsang Village on 20th of April.

Songkran is Thailand's New Year's, Easter, and Mardi Gras rolled up into one. Like Christmas the religious aspects of the holiday have been overwhelmed as well as somewhat subverted by secular interests along with overt commercialization.

Songkran originally marks the beginning of the solar New Year - the sun moving into the Aries zodiac. It is at this time, in the middle of Thailand's hot season which also coincides with the end of the dry season, that Thais and other Southeast Asian peoples traditionally travel to their homes to visit as well as to pay their respects to their elders. In Isaan, with its young people scattered and working all across the country, additional time is apparently required for the people to get back home by train, bus, or most likely in the bed of pickup trucks. This ends up being quite a migration. Unfortunately it results in mayhem as well as blood on the roads. During the Songkran holiday over 500 people are killed in highway accidents - the local newspapers keep a running score against the originally government forecasted death toll. The causes of the accidents are the same as those in the USA for New Years or Memorial Day - speed (literally and figuratively), fatigue, alcohol and stupidity. Additional Police roadblocks and checkpoints are set up during the week in attempts to reduce the number of accidents.

This year we will be celebrating Songkran here in Udonthani just as we did last year. It will be one year since I retired and relocated to Isaan. The spirit of renewal as well as change remains strong.

Last year we went out to Duang's home village, Tahsang, for a celebration on April 20th. It was the celebration for the end of Songkran. For almost a week prior to the 20th we ran the gamut of water throwers as we drove along the roads. Songkran is a water festival. Originally young people demonstrated their respect for older people or people of higher social status by gently pouring scented water over their hands with sometimes water being sprinkled on their necks or faces. This besides being a show of respect helped to cool the people from the heat that often ranges from 95 to 100 F during the middle of April. The use of water at this time is also associated with the need and wishes for the return of the rains at the start of the rainy season.

In urban areas subject to many foreign tourists, the sprinkling of water has evolved into all out water warfare. Pickup trucks roam or rather clog streets with 55 gallon drums of water in their bed. The barrels are manned by people of all ages with pots, pans, bowls, squirt guns, and scoops that they toss the water onto other vehicles, pedestrians and motorcyclists. Just about everyone is fair game for a "shower" - including police! It can be a great deal of fun. It can also be annoying - the difference is "who" and "how".

Often you will encounter a charming Thai child whose parents will ask your permission first. The child will overcome their initial fear of a foreigner give you a wai (respectful greeting gesture) and sprinkle your hands or squirt you in the stomach with a little water. Difficult to get upset about that. And then there are other occasions. Occasions where you are confronted by drunken Westerners who forcibly throw water directly in your face.

Sometimes the revelers will place perfumed talc on your face as part of the Songkran ritual. This also has some religious apects in that Monks use a paste made out of chalk to make incantations on the roofs of cars to protect them.

My favorite Songkran was in Maehongson two years ago. We were in a car driving along steep and narrow roads in Hill Tribe village areas. We would end up on lonely stretches of road before coming to a settlement of perhaps 5 to 10 houses. There would be a roadblock typically manned by 3 to 10 small children. As you stopped the car or if you were unfortunate motorbike, they would pour or toss some water on the car. They were getting such a kick out of it that it was entertaining for us. I kept wondering how long they had patiently waited for another vehicle - we didn't see too many others on the road. I also thought of how little these little rascals had available to them for entertainment. At other times of the year, we often saw them working in the fields.

Since Thai New Year, Songkran is the start of renewal and the marking of change, people go to the Wats and bathe the Buddha statues with water. This earns the people merit and also reinforces their desires for the return of the rains which are required for planting the crops.

Homes are also cleaned at the start of Songkran along with burning old clothes. Making merit is also associated with Songkran. Making merit involves getting dressed in your best clothes and marching to the local Wat to pray, listen to a lecture from the Monk, offer food and gifts to the Monks.

We arrived to Tahsang Village early in the morning. People were in a festive mood which only increased as the day went on from drinking beer and local moonshine. The woman were busy setting up and organizing their food trays for the Monks. The children were busy being children - some of them setting off firecrackers. Some of the men were occupied setting up a large farm truck to be a mobile sound system. Other men were busy collecting donations to place on chunks of banana stalks - I refer to them as the "Money Tree".

Banana plant stalks about four feet long are cut and long and slender pieces of bamboo slivers. People place paper money in the split bamboo slivers to create a money tree. Once the food, sound system, money trees, children, rockets, and after some drinks, the village set off in a grand parade to the Wat. Lao Loum (Isaan) music blared from the big sound truck as we all danced to the Wat. It was quite a sight to see and hear - but typical of so many celebrations here in Isaan.

Many of the Wat's statues had been placed outside underneath a temporary shelter at one of the Wat's ruins. People of all ages prayed and respectfully poured water over the statues. As part of their prayer offerings, they lighted a yellow candle and burned three incense (Joss) sticks.

The food offerings were brought inside the Wat and presented. After some chanting as well as a lecture by the Monk, the people went outside and the Monks retired to eat their meal.

Chairs had been placed outside on the Wat grounds by volunteers. The elderly members of the community sat down in a long row of the chairs. Younger people as well as some children came forward and reverently sprinkled water on the elderly hands. The elderly people then gave their blessings and best wishes to the young people. It was very touching and more in line with the original traditions of Songkran.

Women then went back into the Wat to retrieve any leftover food from what was donated to the Monks. Monks are not allowed to cook or to store food so whatever they do not take for their two meals, is given to the people or Wat dogs. We ended up with a big picnic on the Wat grounds.

After eating, some activity started off to the side. On the Wat grounds overlooking the flood plain, young men were building a wood trellis - which actually turned out to be a rocket launch pad. Underneath trees and underneath the patio of a building where the Monks slept, other men (older men but not very wise) were busy assembling and fueling the rockets.

The rockets that I had seen in our parade were now being fitted out. They were pieces of blue PVC cylinders strapped to long pieces of bamboo. The men were busy filling them with gunpowder. I surmise that they were calming their nerves by smoking cigarettes as they worked at tamping the gunpowder into the rocket tube. The Monk was busy watching over the action and apparently many Monks are the repository of technical information regarding rockets. There are competitions during the rainy season between Wats with each Wat having their own secret recipe for rocket fuel.

Everything went well and their were no mishaps. All rockets were launched successfully several times and all fingers, toes, and eyes were accounted for at the end of the day. Again the firing of the rockets had religious connotations in that they are offerings to make the rains reappear.

It was a very pleasant day. A day that we hopefuly will enjoy once again upon our return from Maehongson.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Hmong Music

Almost two years ago Duang and I ventured to Chiang Mai to visit the Hill Tribe people as well as to celebrate my birthday. I had contacted a tour company that I had previously used on three trips to Maehongson and one trip to Chiang Rai.

One of the many highlights of our trip to Chiang Mai was a visit to a Hmong village on a mountain top outside of the city. Our guide attended university with one of the village leaders who was working on opening up his village to tourism. The Hmong were once very much involved in the cultivation of opium poppies and production of heroin. The illicit trade has been largely eradicated and programs instituted under Royal sponsorship to provide other income streams for the Hmong people.

As we drove up the mountain towards the village, we saw evidence of some of these programs. Large fields of flowers and associated small support buildings for a commercial nursery clung to the steep hillsides. In other areas large plots of cabbages were growing on the steep hill sides.

We arrived at the village and were met by two of the village elders dressed in traditional Hmong clothing. They lead us on a walking tour of the village and tours of some of the homes. We watched a woman working on producing batik cloth with traditional Hmong designs. She was using a stylo and melted bees wax to make intricate geometric patterns on white cotton cloth. Later the cloth would be dyed to produce a distinctive blue on indigo fabric.

After awhile, we were informed that there would be a special party in honor of our visit and my birthday. The festivities commenced with a welcoming ceremony and show put on by the villagers.

The village Headman played traditional music a large as well as long reed instrument called the "qeej". The qeej is played by a combination of blowing and sucking air in and out of the qeej. The qeej is often used to perform traditional music at Hmong funerals and at New Years celebrations. Traditional music is played mostly for ceremonial purposes and our visit was apparently considered cause enough.

Hmong music is an extension of the Hmong language. Each note represents a word. To the Hmong people the qeej sounds are a speech. To me the qeej was unlike any music that I had ever heard before. To me it lacked the harmonics and melody that we associate with music. It was interesting for sure. Qeej players are story tellers who perform centuries old songs. They often dance as they play the 5 to 6 foot long reed instrument. The village Headman was no exception. He danced as he played. He danced in a very fluid and graceful manner as he managed to keep the qeej mainly parallel to the ground. He turned quickly to the left, to the right, and in complete circles as he played.

The Hmong people are mostly Animists and believe that when the qeej is played, ghosts will go after the musician. To prevent the spirits from following him, the musician dances in a circle to lose the spirits.

After the qeej music, a village woman in traditional Hmong clothing played a "ncas dai npib" (mouth organ). The ncas dai npib is the Hmong equivalent of the Jew's harp. The ncas is a very thin metal blade that has several slots cut into it. It is placed in front of the musicians open mouth with one hand and struck with the other to produce a very soft almost like a whisper sound. The ncas is used for private communication. It is specifically used in courting rituals. A young Hmong girl will go to sleep or pretend to go to sleep inside her parent's home and her suitor will appear outside the window to tell her of his love, admiration and what ever else will likely work for him using the ncas. Again the music notes are words so a great deal can be conveyed by the song.

Another part of the villager's show was a man leaf blowing - "daj plooj". He used a banana leaf held between his thumbs to create music by blowing air across the leaf's edge. We were told that people can communicate from mountain to mountain using leaf blowing. He was able to effortlessly make some very large sounds of different pitches and tones. Despite never being very successful back in New England with "grass blowing", I accepted the offer to demonstrate my leaf blowing. Through much patient assistance and advice, I was able to get a sound, more of a squawk out of the banana leaf much to the delight and amusement of the Hmong villagers. I don't know if it was my labored efforts or the actual sound that was so funny. Knowing now that tones are also words, my "music" may actually have been saying something funny or embarrassing.

There was also a demonstration of swordsmanship. Again there were fluid and graceful movements utilized to show the villager's prowess with the Hmong sword. Fortunately, I was not asked to demonstrate my swordsmanship.

At the conclusion of the show, we went inside for a sit down dinner. From community bowls, we shared a very tasteful meal of chicken, forest soup, rice, green beans, and other vegetables. The food was washed down with bottomless small cups of rice wine. The liquid was called "wine" but it was more like vodka in taste as well as strength. The rice wine was produced in the village and was quite potent - I suspect around 60 to 80 proof. The food and drink was very conducive to lively and animated conversation.

We learned about the King's program to provide alternatives to growing poppies for the Hmong people. One of the village men had been selected to receive silversmith training. He had gone to Bangkok to be taught silversmith techniques. He became quite adept at it and was part of the Royal artisans producing intricate as well as delicate pieces of silver jewelry. He showed us some of his work and it was very impressive. His hope is to set up a shop and school in the village to train other people of his village. The villagers asked us about our lives and families. It was a very nice evening - good food, good drink, and great people.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Ramakian Murals

Wat Phra Kaeo, part of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, is also commonly referred to by many non-Thais as the "Wat of the Emerald Buddha". Wat Phra Kaeo is the home of the relic that was brought from Laos to Thailand in 1779. The Emerald Buddha had originally been located in Northern Thailand commencing in the early 1400s and was attributed to miracles where ever it was kept. Perhaps for that reason, it was taken to Laos for 200 years until King Rama I seized Vientiane and returned it to the new Thai capital city, Bangkok. Besides being famous and revered for the Emerald Buddha, Wat Phra Kaeo is also renown for the Ramakian Murals.

The Ramakian is the Thai version of the Hindu epic poem "The Ramayana" which is based upon Hindu mythology. The Hindu epic poem was written over 2,000 years ago. Like other epic poems such as Homer's "Iliad" and ""Odyssey", "Aeneid" by Virgil, "Paradise Lost" by Milton, "The Ramayana" is a long narrative poem that contains a central hero that embodies a society's values. There are episodes that are important to the history and development of a country or race. Like the aforementioned epics, "The Ramayana" also contains Divine intervention in the lives of humans.

In "The Ramayana" the story of Prince Rama of Ayodha. His wife is kidnapped by a demon king - King Rakshasa of Lanka. Much of the epic is related to the struggles and adventures of Prince Rama to regain his wife and to deal with King Rakshasa. The story is about the triumph of good over evil along the conflicts of duty as well as moral obligations

There were written versions of the epic prior to King Rama I of Thailand but they were destroyed when the previous capital of Siam, Ayutthaya was sacked and burned by the Burmese in 1767. The story in "The Ramakian" is the same as in "The Ramayana" but names, locations, weapons and descriptions are adjusted to take into account Thai realities.

King Rama I, who is recognized as the founder of the modern Thai state was also an accomplished poet. As the new palace was being constructed in Bangkok in the style of the previous palace in Ayutthaya, he also supervised the writing of the "Ramakian". He actually wrote some of the episodes himself. As the palace was being constructed and the Thai version of the epic was being written down, 178 murals at Wat Phra Kaeo were also started. The purpose of the murals were to help communicate to people the virtues exemplified in the epic.

"The Ramakian" has a very strong influence on Thai literature, dance, art, and drama. It is considered to be a Thai masterpiece and is read, and taught in Thai schools.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Shan People

It has been a busy but very pleasant past three days here in Udonthani. The weather has cooled off a little and the highs for the day is in the high 80s F to low 90s F rather than the previous mid and high 90s. There still has not been any rain.

We have been very busy with the new grand baby (one month old) visiting with his parents. He is a very good baby - never cries, very attentive, and quite entertaining with all his little noises and faces. House guests like his parents are always welcomed - they do the cooking, yard work, and helped rearrange furniture.

Now to today's topic - "Shan People". I have previously written about the Hill Tribes of Northern Thailand - the Karen, Lisu, Akha, Hmong, Lahu, Kayaw, and Paduang. There are other peoples who immigrated and now inhabit Northern Thailand. One of these people are the "Shan".

The Shan people also known as "Tai Yai" are believed to have originated in China like so many of the other groups that eventually found their way into Thailand and settled. They entered into Thailand from NE Burma (Shan State of Myanmar). Because the Shan typically live in valleys they are not considered to be a Hill Tribe people. In 1830, arriving to work the large teak forests of that time, the Shan founded Maehongson (Mae Hong Son) and today constitute the majority of the local population.

Due to Maehongson's remoteness up to recent times, the Shan in the area have been able to maintain their culture, dress, and traditions without too much dilution from central Thailand people or government.

The Shan people in Myanmar are in conflict with the military dictatorship. There is a Shan Army that battles the Myanmar Army. As is always the case in these situations, the Shan civilian population is caught up in the conflict. The Myanmar government persecutes and oppresses the Shan people within their borders. Refugees continue to flee their homeland.

Like the vast majority of Thai people, Shans are Buddhists and like the Lao Loum people of Isaan there is a very large component of animism in their beliefs as well as their practices.

Shan architecture is very distinctive in the Maehongson area and is very similar to the style of Burma in particular the Shan State. "Tai Yai" architecture consists of many unique components readily visible in Shan temples. The temples are built of wood, have galvanized corrugated metal or small tile roofs, and very intricate galvanized sheet metal filigree trim along roof edges.

This picture is of a Shan temple in the "Tai Yai" style. I first saw it during my first trip in October 2006 but it was not until a return trip in December that I was able to stop and photograph it in the light of the golden hour.

One of the traditions that has been retained by the Shan in Maehongson area is Poy Sang Long ordination ceremony. Young boys 7 years old to 14 years old are ordained as novice Buddhist Monks. For a short period of time they study the Buddhist doctrine. Like the Buddhist followers in Isaan their ordination earns for the young boy's parents.

The celebration takes place for four days. The young boys called "luk kaeo" (jewel sons)dressed up in elaborate clothes, wear jewelry and wear heavy makeup on their face to resemble celestrial princes. There are many processions where the "luk kaeo" are carried upon the shoulders of their father or elder brothers through the town. Traditional music, Shan foods, and traditional dancing are all part of the great celebration.

This year the celebration is from 31 March until 03 April.

It should be a unique photography event. Duang and I will be there.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Damnoen Saduak Floating Market - Love it or Hate It

The floating market, Talat Naam (Water Market) or Talat Klong (Canal Market), of Damnoen Saduak is an extremely popular tourist attraction in Thailand. It is located 106KM (60 miles) southwest of Bangkok in the primarily agricultural Ratchaburi Province. It takes approximately 2 hours from Bangkok or 4 hours from Pattaya to get to the market.

The surrounding area of the market is filled with many small farms and orchards producing vegetables, coconuts, bananas, oranges, grapes, pomelos, and my favorite - mangoes. The fertile land is low lying and crisscrossed with canals that provide irrigation for the crops and easy access routes to markets.

One route to Damnoen Saduak passes by the salt flats. Large shallow ponds are created by using short earthen walls to entrap the natural brackish water of Bangkok Bay. These ponds are allowed to successively evaporate over a period of time to create a layer of salt. The salt is harvested and sent to market. Like so many other areas of Thailand, this section of road is filled with small stands and booths were you can buy bags of the various grades of harvested salt. It is interesting, even after 3 hours of riding from Pattaya, to see this from a speeding minivan. Someday we will go back on our own to tour and photograph this specialized process.

The floating market at Damnoen Saduak is not the only floating market in Thailand or even in the Bangkok area. There are some factors that are the cause of its popularity and, for some people, excessive commercialization. The biggest factor leading to its popularity is that it is open every day of the week from 6:00 AM to around 11:00 AM. There are other floating markets but some of them are open only on weekends or "Sat, Sun, and 2nd, 7th, &12th days of the waxing and waning moon". Buddhists are very familiar and their lives are synchronized with the lunar calendar but I doubt that many Westerners, i.e. tourists, including myself, have any clue as to which days are "2nd, 7th. & 12th days of the waxing and waning moon" of any given month. This cuts down on the availability of these markets for busloads of tourists. Another floating market that I have heard of is opened on certain days of the month coinciding with a high tide at the appropriate time. This market can only be reached by boat so the time of the high tide is critical to getting there and getting back. This is much too complicated for paying hoards of tourists.

Another factor that contributes to Damnoen Saduak's popularity is accessibility. The market is readily accessible to cars and buses. Main roads connect the market to population and tourist centers of the region. There are large parking lots next to the market. There is a bridge over the narrow canal where you can stand and photograph the floating market without ever getting near the water. Each side of the canal is flanked by covered areas that provide protection from sun and rain.

Damnoen Saduak Floating Market can be accessed two different ways - one by land and two by sea. Whoops - I am getting confused that was Paul Revere's warning for the British coming. In Damnoen Saduak you will find Russians, Poles, Indians, Chinese, Koreans, Americans, Japanese, and just about any other nationality along with the British. There is no need for warnings of their coming - they do everyday around 8:00 to 9:00 AM.

Many of the tourists and you can to arrive at the market aboard long tail tour boats. These are long and narrow wood boats with high bows powered by a propeller on the end of a long shaft attached to a recycled car engine. They are loud, often smelly and I find them to be a lot of fun. They carry about 6 to 8 passengers each or you can rent one for just yourself. As most things are in Thailand - they are available for a price. The price is not necessarily the price quoted or asked at first - buyer be aware or is it buyer beware? I prefer "aware" because "beware" evokes fear and most likely will prevent you from proceeding whereas "aware" implies knowledge for you to make informed decisions to take full advantage of available opportunities. As is said so often here - "UP2U"

You typically board the long tail boat some distance from the floating market. The boat tour lasts about an hour before depositing you at the land portion of the Talat Klong or Talat Naam. The boat tour travels through the matrix of canals and passes by orchards, homes, and water side shops. You get a close eyed glimpse into river life. The sanitary conditions of the water and shores may be of some concern to certain people but the experience is reality. This is the way and how the people live. Seeing and experiencing these things is one of the points of travel. You don't have to like or approve of it but you should at least experience it first hand.

The long tail boats deposit their passengers at one of two large covered galleries on each side of a canal. These buildings house countless shops, restaurants, booths, vendors, and touts. Everyone has something to sell and they expect you to buy it. The corridors through the gauntlet of vendors and tables of goods are very narrow and packed with other tourists. There are no bargains here but hopefully you did not go to purchase things at the Floating Market. The point of going to the floating market is the experience.

Another way to arrive at the Floating Market is by a small wood boat that you can rent for a specified amount of time. These boats carry 2 to 3 passengers and are typically paddled by a woman wearing traditional farmer's clothing with the area's unique straw hat. These small boats take you into the floating market. You actually become part and participate in the total market experience. Your boat as well as all the others will choke the waterway between the two covered galleries. It is important to keep everything such as hands, fingers, and arms inside the boat because the boats often come into contact with each other - not violently but more of a sliding or banging motion that would still hurt pinched appendages.

Once again it is the experience that matters. The "real" floating market for the locals is pretty much over by the time the tourists arrive around 8:00 AM. However the ambiance remains until the market peters out around 11:00 AM. I have been there four times - 3 as part of a tour and once as an independent traveller. I enjoyed all the visits. I can not say which is the better way to experience the attraction. For me, my favorite experience was as an independent traveller.

Duang and I arrived by personal vehicle and toured the land portion of the market by foot. When the crowds got to us we would just sit on the stone steps leading down to the canal or grab a seat at a food booth to enjoy a cool drink. We ended up sitting on the stone steps to enjoy our early lunch. We ate freshly prepared "kanom kow" (some type of filled turnover). An elderly woman prepared and cooked them in her small wood boat. They were cheap and delicious. For drinks we had two green coconuts - cool and refreshing. All the while our meal was being prepared I got to photograph the goings on of the floating market - up close and relaxed. Later we rented one of the small boats and entered the fray.

Our small boat took us into the center of the floating market. We were surrounded by boats filled with bananas, rose apples, pineapples, papaya, soft drinks, hats, clothing, umbrellas and assorted prepared foods. Often we could not move due to the congestion of vendor boats and other tourist boats. No matter the case there were scenes to photograph at every turn of the head. It was a very good people watching venue. For me the highlight was stopping along side a boat selling a special Thai dessert - Rice, Mango, and sweetened Coconut Milk. Duang fed me this fantastic dish as we were paddled out of the floating market madness into more tranquil areas of the canal complex.

Our boat took us into smaller canals where the long tail boats could not access. Along these canals there were homes and small shops along the canal bank. Colorful hammocks were hung in the bright sun awaiting a buyer. Food vendors with the small children that they were caring for were set up along the canal banks. The sights, sounds, and smells of ordinary daily life along the klongs were readily apparent as we meandered along. It was a very memorable and pleasant experience - the entire day.

Each part of the day had offered its unique opportunities and experiences that we made sure that we took full advantage of.

Is it a place for everyone? I believe so, but then again it is and will always be "UP2U"

Sunday, March 1, 2009


My travels, whether for pleasure or for work, have given me the opportunity to witness as well as to experience several deeply moving events. Typically these have been related to religious rituals, celebrations, and observations. I have experienced Christian, Muslim, Pagan, Buddhist, Animist, and Hindu religious events.

I have previously written about the self mutilation of the Mar Songs during the Phuket Vegetarian Festival. Just yesterday some Thai friends were visiting and asked to see photos of the event. When I was asked why the people pierced their bodies with all sorts of objects. I explained that the Mar Song utilize the mutilations as testimony to the strength of their gods. They asked me if I believed. It is difficult to say that you do not believe in a religion that others are so passionate about. I have seen things happen that I can not explain but that does not mean that I believe. What I do is respect as well as admire the faith and passion of the believers. They are living their life to the fullest extent and with passion.

Witnessing the strength of peasant people's faith in the Cathedral in Cusco Peru during the feast of Corpus Christi was inspiring to me.

I was moved at the sight of a newly ordained Buddhist Monk exiting the ceremonial hall into the early and cold morning seeking his daily meal. As he walked down the stairs he was encountered by his parents and grandparents who gave him his first offerings in his new life as a Monk. The son and grandson of the previous day had been elevated to a position of reverence and deep respect through the century's old ritual of ordination. His choice to become a Monk had earned merit for his parents - merit that will be considered in determining their status in future lives.

Watching the reenactment of Inca ceremonies in Peru impressed upon me our need for hope, direction, pageantry as well as answers in our daily life.

Ramadan and the Feast of Eid al Fitr which celebrates the end of Ramadan are testaments to the faith and devotion of the adherents. These religious events bind them to their ancestors over many centuries while providing a direction into the future.

I have witnessed Animist ceremonies and rituals here in Isaan and with ethnic minorities throughout Thailand. Again the steadfast faith and confidence in their beliefs provided solutions, and resolutions to the participants.

While in Malaysia, I was able to observe some Hindu rituals and pilgrimages. Once again the passion and devotion of the believers was inspiring.

While in Brasil, I attended a celebration of Corpus Christi in the colonial town of Lapa in the state of Parana. Lapa is a small town with approximately 41,000 people not very far from Curitiba. The center of Lapa is very quaint with cobblestone streets and colorful homes in the Portuguese colonial style. I refer to Lapa as the "Alamo of Brasil". In the early 1890's there was a rebellion against the Republican government of Brasil. Approximately 600 Lapa rebels held out against over three thousand Federal soldiers for almost a month. This delaying tatic bought time for the rebels to organize and prepare to defeat the Federal troops in a subsequent battle. A monument in Lapa honors the sacrifice of the defenders of Lapa.

My friend and I drove out to Lapa to witness the unique way that the feat of Corpus Christi is celebrated. In Lapa there is a large cathedral on a hill. This church is where the people worship now a days. The original church, much smaller and very much older is located in the lower central part of the town. Paved streets and a wide boulevard with a wide divider of vegetation connect the two churches.

We arrived early in the morning to witness the preparations for the celebration of the Feast. At the end of the mass at the large cathedral, there is a large procession to transport the Holy Eucharist to the historical church in the city center. The procession walks the entire route on top of religiously inspired paintings made out of colored saw dust, grains, flowers and leaves. Religious pictures out of prayer books, Bibles, Gospels, and masterpieces are used as guides as well as inspirations for the paintings. The finished paintings provide a profusion of color, symbolism, and inspiration upon which the believers trek. Along the path, people set up small altars as shrines and offerings.

The altars are small tables, often elaborately carved wood, with intricate lace or embroidered cloths covering them. Typically there is an open Bible or Gospel on the table flanked by two elaborate candle holders, vase or two of fresh cut flowers, a crucifix, and a statue. The priests carrying the Holy Eucharist stop, pray, and give blessings at these alters along the way.

Other residents along the route, place make shift shrines in their windows using most of the items used at the alters along with a religious painting or picture. The entire route is lined with an out pouring of religious faith and devotion.

We walked along the edges of the procession being careful not to walk upon the artwork. The true believers walked with the priests upon the completed art work. The procession was large and walked the route with a very deliberate and reverent pace.

Once again a religious observance had provided a passionate moment along my journey in this life. The character and culture of a people and a nation were demonstrated in the devotion to their faith and religious zeal.

It was an experience that has been repeated many times and in many places. All of them proving that no matter how different we appear to be, we are very much alike.


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