Monday, April 27, 2009

Wat Rong Khun - A Man's Devotion and Obsession

Two years ago during our tour of the Chiang Rai area, we visited a place called Wat Rong Khun outside of Chiang Rai. In addition to enjoying the physical beauty of the Wat which is under construction, we also got to meet and speak with the the creator, Khun Chalermchai Khositpipat.

Khun Chalermchai Khositpipat is a famous Thai artist. I am not well versed in art or art history, but his painting style reminds me a great deal of Salvador Dali. However, Khun Chalermchai deals almost exclusively with Buddhist themed works. I use the term "almost exclusively" because I know that he has done at least one painting of the King of Thailand.

Khun Khositpipat style, in my opinion, utilizes very bright colors, intricate composition, and sharp details. There is a certain degree of surrealism in his work but not to the extent of Dali.

Chalermchai was born in the village of Rong Khun in 1955. He attended college in Thailand and graduated with a degree in Thai painting. In 1977 he won the National Arts Contest. From 1980 to 1996 he traveled the world painting and exhibiting his works. In 1997, he ceased painting for patrons or art markets and returned to his home village of Rong Khun.

He returned to his village to commence his mission to contribute to his country, his religion, and the people of the world. His contribution was to be a Buddhist work of art that would be considered as one of the world's greatest works of art. The greatness of the work would reflect upon the greatness of Thailand. These are pretty much his own words. Like many artists, either great or marginal, he is somewhat eccentric which is part of his charm.

His inspirations for the building of the Wat complex were nationalism, religion, and royalty. The artist is very proud of his nation and views his art as a contribution to the Thai heritage. Buddhist religion is a passion for Khun Chalermchai. His current lifestyle and attitudes are much opposed to those of his earlier years. Like many reformed people, be they recovering alcoholics, born again Christians, or other types of "saved" individuals, he has a desire or perhaps a need to bear witness to his redemption. Creating this work of art is undoubtedly a great testament to his redemption and salvation.

In 1998 he started construction of Wat Rong Khun. He no longer sells his works and has used his personal fortune to finance the creation of his offering to Buddha and the Thai nation. He is often seen at the construction site motivating and inspiring the workers. The day that we visited the Wat we inadvertently became involved with him.

We saw a man dressed in blue farmer's jacket and a dark pith helmet walking around very animatedly with a couple of Europeans. After awhile they came to where we were standing. Being curious, I listened in and determined that he was the artist behind the place and was being interviewed by a German magazine. They were interviewing him in English and had asked him a question that he did not understand and they could not rephrase so that he could better understand. I interjected and gave him some English words and phrases to better understand "passion, passionate". He ended up graciously posing for some photos by us.

I listened to his interview and was fascinated by his vision and goal. He indicated that he was tired of living. He did not mean that he wanted to die now but that he was tired of the Buddhist concept of reincarnation where by he was continually being born, dying, and being reborn until he reaches the point of enlightenment when it will stop. As part of he progress towards achieving enlightenment, he was earning merit in this life by building this exquisite Buddhist Temple.

Typical of Thai Buddhist temples, the concept motivating the design and construction of Wat Rong Khun is to depict Heaven on Earth. What is striking about Wat Rong Khun is its brilliant white color and reflective surfaces. The white color symbolizes the purity of Buddha while the reflective glass mirrors represent Buddha's wisdom spreading truths and shining all around the world as well as the six types of rays that emanate from Buddha's body.

To enter the Ubosot, consecrated assembly hall, you must cross a bridge. This is also symbolic. The bridge symbolizes the crossing of a circle of life upward to heaven, then upward to world of Rupa Brahma, and further upwards to two more higher levels until finally entering the hall - Nirvana.

There are large monster statues that represent the 16 types of passion (passion is not a good thing in Buddhism).

There will be 9 buildings each with their own distinctive architectural style when the complex is completed. Although each building will be different they will all have Buddhist meanings. Included in his grand plan is to build the most beautiful toilet in the world. Khun Khositpipat estimates that it will take 90 years to complete the project. Although he will be gone before the project's completion, he is leaving plans and instructions to ensure it is finished according to his vision. Part of his involvement in supervising the daily construction is to train local artisians, architects, and designers. These people and the ones who follow them will continue his work to completion.
Our visit to Wat Rong Khun was very interesting as well as entertaining. It is always good to have the opportunity to meet and speak with people with such interesting personalities.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Three significant developments to report today.

My Visa has been extended for another year here in Thailand.

I have a new Multiple Re-entry Permit from Thailand so I can leave and more importantly return any number of times for the next year without MOST IMPORTANTLY having to reapply for a new Visa.

I have finally completed the gallery of Maehongson/Poi Sang Long Festival photographs.

The link is as follows:

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Newest Photo Galleries

We have been very busy lately. To go along with writing these blogs, reviewing, and editing photographs associated with the blogs, we had to go to the American Embassy in Bangkok regarding personal business. Two documents notarized - $60 and 10 minutes. Getting to and from the Embassy - 17 hours on a bus plus overnight in a hotel. We get to do this all again in a month.

Tomorrow we are off to Nong Khai to extend my long term visa to remain in Thailand - more photos, and paperwork but worth it all.

I have managed to complete two photo galleries associated with two of the most recent blogs - Death in Isaan, A Buddhist Funeral, and Isaan Rockets.

The galleries are located:

I am still working on the large Poi Sang Long gallery and will indicate when it is ready to share.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Maenongson 03 April - Poi Sang Long

Thursday 03 April 2009, was the fourth and final day of Poi Sang Long Festival in Maehongson. It was also known as "Kham Sang Day". Although it was the final day in Maehongson, Poi Sang Long festivities were starting on Thursaday at Mork Jam Pae Temple in Muang district, and Wat Pa Kham temple in Pai district. People told us that at one place there would be 100 Sang Long (jeweled Princes). This was good information for future reference for our plans were to witness the final Maehongson procession in the morning and then to spend the remainder of the day at the Baan Huay Sua Tao refugee camp.

The procession on the last day of Poi Sang Long in Maehongson was restricted to circumambulation of Jong Kum Lake three times in front of the Wats. Once again a good number, 3, played a distinctive part in the ceremony. I am sure that the number 3 is representative of Buddha, the teachings of Buddha, and the Buddhist religious community.

Prior to the start of the morning procession, many families posed for photographs with their Sang Long. Mothers, Fathers, Grandparents, and siblings assembled around their jeweled Prince to be photographed by another family member or friend. Their sense of pride was very evident much like graduation photos in America.

Today was a little different in that some of the porters carrying the Sang Long around were very energetic. Some of them showed off their strength and agility by dancing around with the boy atop their shoulder. A couple men got into an impromptu competition to see who could bend their jeweled Prince lowest and most parallel to the ground. Yes - the acrimonious banging, clanging, and drumming music continued. There was quite a festive air to the morning event. After the procession, the boys entered the Wat and were ordained. We did not stick around for that and left that as a reason for having to return next year for Poi Sang Long.

After the procession we headed out to Baan Huay Sua Tao. As with the previous refugee camps there were few tourists visiting. As I was pulling over to park the truck along side of the road in the Shan village outside of the refugee camp, I spotted a very interesting sight. Three elephants were walking through the village. Rather than their handlers riding atop each elephant, there was a single mahout riding a bicycle besides the elephants. Occasionally he shouted out a command and all three elephants instantly obeyed. I jumped out of the truck and hustled ahead of the upcoming elephants to get some photos.

As we entered the refugee camp it was very reassuring. The wooden bridge over the stream that runs through the village had been upgraded. The village looked very much like it did two years ago only it had been maintained during the period to prevent deterioration. Soon we were recognizing familiar faces. We stopped by Khun La Mae and Khun Ma Plae's house and learned that they were not home but would return in a while. We headed to the higher portion of the camp and came upon Khun Mudan.

Khun Mudan was the young Paduang mother that I first photographed in October 2006 breast feeding her infant son. She now has a 5 month old daughter named "Peelada". Peelada was a very charming baby. She was very active and curious about all things. Hands, fingers, legs, arms, feet and toes were every where exploring her world. To all of her body movements she had a wide range of sounds. Khun Mudan recognized us and in no time at all Duang had confiscated little "Peelada". We both had a quickly passed 30 minutes playing with Peelada and to a lesser extent her brother. He is a grown up 3-1/2 year old now so he is very independent. This is it for Khun Mudan. She has had two babies by C-section and will have no more children. She lives with her mother-in-law and husband so she has help with the children. It seemed ironic that Duang's 12 week old grandson is named "Peelawat". I am certain between Peelada and Peelawat there is in deed a great deal of "pee".

As Duang continued her conversation with Khun Mudan in Thai, I headed off and took photos of a Paduang women washing and brushing her teeth. I also found an older Paduang woman straining tea into a thermos bottle. These were people that looked very different from all the other people that I have seen in my life all over the world. But they were doing what all other people do every morning every where. Personal hygiene or preparing meals is not much different around the world.

We decided to check in on Khun La Mae and Khun Ma Plae once again. It was not much of a surprise. They were expecting us and warmly greeted us. The camp grapevine had notified them of our presence in camp.

Khun La Mae is no longer the village headman. He was replaced by another man about a year ago. No matter the case, I told him that I still considered him to be a friend even though he was not "big man" any more. I had seen enough of the camp and observed the inhabitants sufficiently to tell in confidently that the state of the camp as well as its people was a testament to his and the new headman's leadership. The camp and its people were in much better state than the other two camps that we had visited. Khun La Mae informed me that the camp was going to butcher a pig that afternoon and that there would be a festival the next day. As tempting as the offer was to stay with them in the camp and to extend our trip by an extra day, we declined. It was getting tiring and we needed to get back home as scheduled. We promised to return later in the afternoon and returned to the hotel for lunch.

After lunch and relaxing for a short period of time in our air conditioned room, we drove back out to the refugee camp. I did not know if I would have to pay admission to reenter the village. It turned out to not be an issue. I showed my receipt from the morning and was waved through.

When we got to Khun La Mae and Ma Plae's home, they were busy with some friends. The men were drinking Lao Kao - the infamous moonshine of the region. I was given a glass with two shots in it and downed it. I then made sure that everyone knew that I would not be drinking because I was driving. They respected my position and from then on only kept offering me and filling my glass with rice wine. There were three plastic garbage cans of the fermenting brew awaiting the festival to start the next day. The rice wine was exactly like the brew that we drank at the Khmu New Years Festival in Laos during our December trip except that it did not have vinyl tubing to suck on. Khun Ma Plae served the wine in a glass direct from the fermentation vat - complete with rice grains, chaff, hulls and assorted other debris. I quickly developed a techinque where I strained the drink with my teeth and then discretely picked and spit debris out of my mouth onto the dirt floor. Even so it was hours before the last of the debris was finally expelled from my mouth. All in all it was some pretty good stuff.

Writing of good stuff - Khun Ma Plae was also preparing food. She prepared the food and the men grilled it on an open wood fire. It was just as well that she prepared the food because some of the men did not appear to be in any condition to be handling knives. Although I refrained from drinking moonshine, there was no reason for them to refrain or even moderate their consumption. We ate with the people - the first time that I have eaten grilled pig intestines. Actually the first time that I have knowingly eaten pig intestines cooked in any manner or raw. It was not that bad tasting - sort of like eating a hot dog with very thick casing and nothing inside.

While we were eating and drinking, two Kayaw men walked by with a pig slung underneathe a bamboo pole that they carried between them on their shoulders. This was the "guest of honor" for tomorrow's festival. I ended up going to the back part of the village to photograph the children playing a game on the school play field. It was an interesting game. It appeared to be a fusion of cricket, dodge ball, bowling, and baseball. Lacking a ball to play with, the children had created a ball out of a plastic sandwhich bag and some small rocks and forest debris. A stack of empty metal "Birdy" drink cans was erected at one end of the field. A girl threw the "ball" at the pyramid and missed. The boys taunted her. A boy picked up the "ball" threw it and knocked down several cans. The girl ran and picked up the ball as he ran to a "base". He got off the base and taunted the other players to throw at him. While this was going on some of the other players were hustling to reerect the pyramid out of the cans. This action appeared to be correlated to the time that the boy spent off or on the base. It was confusing to watch but the children were enjoying themselves - except for when they were arguing over some fine points of the game - which was often

After observing the children playing and realizing that I would never understand their game, I headed over to where the pig was being butchered. The animal had already been dispatched when I arrived. The men with assistance from the women were busy shaving the hair off of the pig. The men used long knives to scrape the hair and bristles off of the pig. The women were busy in the houses boiling the water required to scald the hair and bristles. Children of all ages gathered around and watched with great interests. No doubt these children can answer the question of "Do you know where your meal came from?". I am certain that they can even tell you how it came to their plate. I photographed the process and left shortly after the insicision had been made and the men were pulling out the pig's entrails. I left just in time. Not that I was squeamish - surprisingly not but Duang had set out looking for me and was wondering where I had disappeared to. I guess she had her fill of intestines.

During our little get together, we were joined by a Kiwi (New Zealander) who now lives in Australia. Wayne had spent the night in the camp and was going to stick around for the festival the next day. He was an "alright and decent chap" as they say. He offered to burn some CDs of Ma Plae's music on his computer so that she had more copies to sell at the family's booth in the camp. Wayne is one of those people who are travelers and not tourists. He spends time to learn and experience the lives of the people that he encounters on his journeys. More importantly, he takes the time and makes the effort to help out in any way that he can. In our conversation about taking photographs, he mentioned about the things that you could do on the Internet. I told him that I had a blog as well as a photography site. He asked who I was, so I gave him my name and the name of this blog site. He exclaimed "I know you, I read some of your blogs and I have seen your photos!" It was a very pleasant surprise to meet someone who follows these efforts. I know that to date since February of this year this blog site has been visited 408 times from 43 different countries. The top two countries are USA (29 states) with 123 visits and Thailand in the lead with 139 visits. The associated photography site has had 307 visits from 41 countries. For the photography site, the leading country is the USA (33 states) with 132 visits followed by Thailand with 66 visits. It was a pleasant surprise to meet and talk to a human associated with some of those numbers.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Maehongson 02 April 2009 - Afternoon

Back to catching up on the activities and events of our trip to Maehongson -

After watching the Poi Sang Long parade in the morning, we returned to the hotel to freshen up and eat lunch before heading out for the afternoon.

There are three camps in the Maehongson area where Paduang people live and you are allowed to visit. They are Baan Nai Soi, Baan Huay Pu Keng also known as Baan Nam Piang Din and Baan Huay Sua Tao. We had previously visited the camp at Baan Nai Soi, so the agenda for the afternoon was to visit the camp at Huay Pu Keng.

Using the local map from a previous trip and memories from past visits to the area, we set off to find the boat landing where we could rent a long tailed boat to take us to the village. It was actually a great deal easier than I had anticipated. I had checked with the desk at the hotel and verified that there actually two boat landings with the second boat landing a little further down the asphalt road from the first. This information came in very handy when we arrived at the first boat landing and found it to be closed. We drove further down the road and located the second boat landing which we both instantly recognized from our trip two years ago.

On our last trip in the middle of April 2007, the boat landing was filled with tourist vans of international travellers. It was not the case this year. We were the only vehicle and tourists . As we approached the small ticket office I told Duang to tell the man that I wanted his best price for the trip (not the foreigner price) or I would go to the other boat landing (the one that we had just gone to that was closed). I think the man understood enough English to get my joke. He quoted a price and I asked if it included admission into the camp. He added the amount that we had paid to enter Baan Nai Soi for me and indicated that Duang did not have to pay because she is Thai. I then pulled out my wallet and started to pay the man and completely blow our "hard bargaining". He had quoted 685 baht ($19.57 USD) to have the boat take us to the village and back when we decided to return including admission fee to the camp. I started to pull out 1,370 baht when he as well as Duang started to protest. The quote was "all in" for both of and was not for each of us. We had a good laugh to my relief and definitely not at my cost. I was impressed with the man's honesty. I explained to Duang that typically in America, those types of costs are quoted on a "per person basis". So it is important to ask and understand exactly what the quote includes and its basis no matter where you are. Sometimes it is different than what you expect or are accustomed to.

We climbed into our narrow wooden boat which was propelled by a recycled car engine mounted on the stern. It was a very pleasant journey along the river to the settlement. There was no traffic on the river. Fires 4 inches to 6 inches high were burning down the hillsides to the water's edge in several locations.

Baan Huay Pu Keng was the single village where all the Paduang people were supposed to or at least were encouraged to relocate to. I had heard this from Freida two years ago. I had read that additional facilities were going to be built and others improved at Huay Pu Keng to accommodate the new residents. As we approached the village, I did not see any new construction, It appeared to me that the village was two years older without any maintenance over the ensuing two years since our last visit. I suppose that this is not the first time nor will it be the last time that government as well as politician's intentions or promises get "delayed" or don't happen at all. There is an expression often used in Thailand - "Same, Same"

We walked into the village and came upon a little girl playing a guitar that was larger than she was. She was on the porch of her house with her mother, brother, sister and another woman with her daughter. The other people were occupied preparing raw garlic to eat while the little girl played and sang Karen music. We approached the little girl and we were quickly seduced by her charm.

The little girl was four years old. She was quite the entertainer. She did her repertoire of songs for us. She had a very animated singing style and was obvious that she enjoyed being the center of attention. The adults joined us and it appeared that they were happy to have someone to talk to. Duang and the two women talked, and talked and talked some more. I suspect, as someone who had lived in a closed camp for awhile, that the people had grown tired of each others stories and were happy to listen to someone new with different stories. I was in my own world taking pictures so the time passed very quickly for all of us. The little girl's mother grabbed the guitar and performed some songs. The little girl joined in and was very thrilled to be able to sing with her mother. The girl also put on quite a show of animated motion to the songs - much like small children in America singing "Itsy Bitsy Spider" or "Wheels on the Bus". We spent so much time with the families that the little girl ended up wearing herself out. Just like most children her age, she got a little cranky and ended up cuddling up on her mother's lap for comfort. It was a treat to see the child learning from her mother how to play the guitar and sing the songs associated with their culture. It was reinforcement for me of my goal in my photography to show how different we all appear but that we are all alike. These are extraordinary people in difficult circumstances doing exactly what other people do everywhere else in the world.

With the little girl drifting off to sleep, we said goodbye and promised to return later in the year. We walked up further into the village and came upon a Kayaw (Big Eared) woman that we met on our last trip. We recognized each other and sat to talk. She was eight months pregnant with her second child. Her daughter, about 8 years old was busy eating as we got caught up on the events of the past two years. She confirmed that Freida was now in the closed refugee camp.

After walking around the village a little bit more we headed back down the hill to the boat. After stopping by the refreshment stand run by the Shan family with the twin daughters and "naughty little boy" we set off back in the boat. The naughty boy is now 7 years old with a buzz haircut and was wearing military clothing that said "US Army". He is still more of a terrorist than any type of professional soldier. I gave him some help as to how to properly salute - American style. If he ends up with some other nation's military clothing, I hope and trust that some passing tourist will give to him the appropriate instructions. I hold out no hopes as to him getting discipline.
As our boat pulled into the river we passed several children enjoying themselves swimming and diving in the cool water. Young Paduang girls with brass rings around their neck were immersed up to their necks in the water keeping cool on a hot and humid late afternnon in the Thai - Burma border region.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Friday 10 April - Isaan Rocket Program

Last Friday, April 10, the day after Songpoo Day here in Isaan while the world was preoccupied with indignation regarding North Korea's ballistic missile test over Japan, Isaan, or more accurately Tahsang Village, commenced a new season of rocket launches.

Last year upon arrival in Isaan from Vietnam, we attended Songpoo Day celebrations in Tahsang Village. As part of the celebration last year, the village launched several rockets from the Wat grounds. It was my understanding that these launches like the launches associated with Bang Fei Festival in another Isaan town were associated with wishes for the return of the rainy season. From May through September, you can often see contrails from the ground reaching high into late afternoon sky. Last year we also attended a local competition where rockets from several villages competed against each other for bragging rights.

On Friday the launching of the rockets was staged outside of the Wat walls. Whereas the cover story for these launches was offerings for the return of the rainy season similar to North Korea's claim to be launching a satellite it appeared the main reason for the launches was to demonstrate the prowess of the various rocketeers. Rockets were set up on the launch pad and unlike the North Korea's rocket setting out and being visible to American reconnaissance satellites for weeks, the Isaan rockets were only visible until all negotiations were completed. These were not negotiations related to any United Nation's resolutions or Party of 5 or 6 or any other number of nations participating or even independent international inspection agencies. The negotiations involved the rocketeer and the witnesses to the launches. Until the rocketeer had acceptable commitments from the launch witnesses. Several people walked around apparently as intermediaries with handfuls of cash.

Back in California I would have been convinced that there was wagering and gambling going on. Here in Thailand as I have mentioned in several blogs, gambling other than the National Daily Lottery is illegal. It appears that some of the Monks may have provided escrow services in that many people gave money or perhaps offerings to the Monks.

One of the launches was delayed and only after a prolonged as well as loud discussion did the rocketeer agree to launch his vehicle. During his ranting and raving he had approached me -apparently seeking my involvement in the financing of his research into aerodynamics. I feigned ignorance and he eventually came to an acceptable arrangements with others.

Rockets were transported to the launch site in the back of local pickup trucks. Technicians loaded the empty rocket casings with black gunpowder and apparently some other secret ingredients next to their pickup trucks. Since at this point in the development of the Isaan rockets are solid fuel vehicles, the alcohol that was available in the area was consumed by the rocketeers and associated launch crews.

Booths at the launch site sold soft drinks as well as beer and Lao moonshine. The booths did a very good business. Other booths sold small bottle rockets. One woman set up a BBQ grill and was cooking chickens to feed the spectators. For people who are not fond of chicken there were trays of cooked (sauteed and fried) insects and dried frogs available to purchase for consumption.

There was a temporary awning set up close to the launch pad. Launch, but apparently not government, officials sat underneath the awning along with the PA system. An electrical cord ran from this area approximately 100 meters out to where the launch observers where located. From this point the officials announced the launch and tracked each rocket's progress. Most importantly of all there were two men who determined the total elapsed time from launch to return to Earth for each rocket. The results were announced and the results recorded by a young woman underneath the awning.

The launch pad director sat in a chair between the awning and the launch pad. He had a board upon which he wrote information in chalk for each rocket. Close to him was the launch pad safety officer. The safety officer carried a long bamboo pole with a flag on each end. Just prior to a launch, he flipped the pole around so that the green flag was elevated otherwise the red flag was elevated. It was surprising how long it took for a rocket to return to the ground. The results were announced and some of the spectators were very happy and could later be seen with wads of money clasped tightly in the hand. I am not sure that the launch results are not classified so I will not divulge them.

We left as the sun was getting low in the sky. It was another interesting day here in Isaan. Interesting to observe and fun to write about.

Dying In Isaan - A Buddhist Funeral

Things have been very busy here in Udonthani for us. Besides reviewing and editing many but not quite all the photographs from the photography shoot in Maehongson region the first week of this month, we went to Bangkok to visit the American Embassy to deal with US Federal Income Tax Return issue, and to obtain a document required to extend my visa to remain in Thailand for another year. Sounds simple enough but to complete the 20 minute task at the Embassy required an eight and one-half hour bus journey to Bangkok, and overnight stay to be ready to report at my appointment time of 08:30 A.M. followed then by an 8.5 hours trip back by bus to Udonthani. We have made this trip by overnight bus with an immediate return after our Embassy appointment but it is brutal and travelling by bus at night is not as safe as travelling during the day. There is no problem with violence at night. The problem is buses tend to run into or off of things during the night. Spending a night in a hotel and travelling by day is easier on the body as well as the mind. To underscore this concern, the day after upon our return, we drove out to Tahsang Village for "Songpoo Day". Along the main road to Bangkok just outside of Kumphawapi there was a bus in a rice paddy - all smashed up and partially burned. It did not look good at all. Later we found out that no one had been killed but many people were hospitalized.

We returned to Tahsang Village the day after Songpoo Day for "Bang Fei" - rocket launchings. Photographs from both days had to be reviewed and edited. Both days will also be included in blog entries - someday.

On top of all these activities, we have been experiencing intermittent Internet access issues. The rainy season is rapidly approaching and we get a good thundershower at least every other day now. Rain and accompanying wind seem to knock out Internet access at the house. TOT has customer service numbers but does not answer the phone. Eventually service gets restored - between 2 hours to 48 hours.

On top of all of this I am busy with paperwork for finally closing on the sale of the house in California. Finally it has been sold.

To further complicate time management and occupy our time, Thailand is celebrating "Songkran", Thai New Year's - a very big family orientated 4 to 6 day holiday.

Yesterday however was not a day for celebration. We went to Tahsang Village to attend the funeral of an old woman from the village. The woman was the mother-in-law of one of Duang's friends. I first met the woman in January of this year. I had photographed her as she was preparing to chew some betel nut. I have often written about the sense of community and lack of privacy here in Isaan. This woman was no exception to these facts. Duang was fond of the woman and was very sympathetic towards her. During their conversation, I learned that the woman had breast cancer and had recently been operated on. As if to validate what Duang was translating the woman, without any prompting on my part, showed me her mastectomy. I was taken aback at this unabashed gesture on her part. Later during the chat under the glaring hot sun, she removed both the towel and ski toque from her head. It was plain to see that in addition to surgery she had also undergone chemotherapy. It was touching to observe the sense of caring and love between Duang and this impoverished old lady. Many of the people in Tahsang Village are poor but this woman was poorer than them so I use the term "impoverished". She was the widow of a poor subsistence farmer and lived alone in a ramshackle hut in the village.

Two weeks ago we visited her at her home in the village. Her health had deteriorated significantly. She was outside laying on a saht (woven reed mat) underneath the thatched roof of the raised wood platform outside of the house. Family members, friends, and neighbors surrounded her attending to her and keeping her company. Children wandered around or played in close proximity to her. It was apparent that end was approaching for her. True to form, and practise here in Isaan, she despite being in at times a semi-conscious state, willing shared her condition. Her cancer had returned and whereas in January when her chest looked healthy her chest was swollen and had dark mass protruding from it. Duang and I paid our respects to her for what was to be the last time.

Three days ago, she died. She died at home like most of the villagers in Isaan do when their time has arrived. Upon her death, her family contacted the Monks of the village Wat who helped with the arrangements. Her family tended to her body and she remained inside of her home. She was placed inside of a simple white coffin which had only a couple of decorations on it. This white coffin was placed inside of an elaborately decorated refrigerated outer coffin. The refrigerated coffin plugged into an electrical outlet and preserved her body for the next three days.

We returned to her home yesterday morning under a hot and blazing sun around 12:15 P. M. Outside of the home, two rented canopies had been erected along with the permanent platform. Underneath one canopy there were several card games going. Gambling is not legal in Thailand so the money on the floor must have been some means for determining "points" in the games. The players were not loud or boisterous. Although they were not visibly grieving, they were not celebrating. Their demeanor other than intensive focusing on the game was solemn. Prior to going to the funeral I had asked Duang about what to expect. Like most Westerners, I have largely avoided going to funerals and of the few that I have attended have all been Christian never Buddhist rites. Duang said that there was a little bit of sadness at first because the woman had died but not too much because she was old. On a more personal level, Duang informed me that the woman had been very poor, had not had a good life, and now she would not be suffering any more. More importantly, the woman now had the opportunity to come some day for a better life.

This attitude is apparently a reflection of Buddhist philosophy and beliefs. I never saw any demonstration of emotion, or grief throughout the ceremony. The belief in reincarnation, and therefore the continuous cycle of birth, death, and rebirth until Enlightenment is achieved removes much of the finality that Christianity associates with death. We speak of life everlasting and being reunited after our time is completed on Earth but we behave much differently when someone does pass on. What I did see all afternoon long during this Buddhist ritual was caring, solemn, and respectful consideration for the departed person. It appeared that just about the entire village showed up and many of them participated directly in the funeral.

In side the woman's home, several Monks, and family members were seated on the floor with the body inside of a refrigerated coffin. Atop the rented cooler, an 11" x 14" framed photograph of the woman which appeared to be taken off of her National I D card, an artificial flower arrangement, some candles, and some plants were placed as a sort of altar. The Monks appeared to have completed their meal. The Monks and people inside chanted some prayers. People underneath the awning closest to the house joined in the chanting.

After the chanting a young man drove a farm truck up alongside of the home. Other men started taking pieces of ornate sculpted gold colored wood out of the house and placed it in the truck. Later personal affects such as cushions, and bags of clothing were added to this truck.

Off to the other side of the house, an older man was sweeping out the back of a farm truck. After cleaning out the truck, he backed it up to the house. Several village men that I knew and recognized went into the home. They carried the the refrigerated coffin out of the home and respectfully placed it in the back of the farm truck. By now all the card games had ceased and people dressed mostly in dark clothing started to form up around the truck transporting the body. Five Monks appeared and went to the front of the truck. A man produced a long white rope that was attached to the truck. The other end of the rope was held by each Monk in the lead followed by several people that appeared to be relatives. The remainder of the people followed escorting the truck that transported the body. The second truck of personal possessions joined the procession. The woman's daughter carrying the photograph of the deceased walked alongside the truck. One of the village men carried an ornate pressed metal offering bowl filled with puffed rice and sprinkled it along the route. Many people carried offerings for the Monks.

The procession slowly marched to the Wat inside of Tahsang Village with the silence of procession occasionally interrupted by the staccato of firecrackers. The funeral procession circled the Wat's crematorium three times. Most of the people upon completing the circumambulation of the crematorium entered the simple temple next to the crematorium and sat upon sahts placed on the blue tiled floor. Other villagers, who had not participated in the procession were congregated underneath the elevated bot protected from the beating sun.

Some of the village men removed the refrigerated coffin from the truck and carefully placed it on the concrete slab in front of the crematorium. It was opened and the simple white coffin was removed and carried up the stairs to the doors of the furnace. The coffin was placed upon two metal sawhorses. Some other men then unloaded the meager amount of personal possessions from the second farm vehicle and placed them alongside of the crematorium.

People then went into the simple temple where offerings were made to the nine seated Monks. Like the number three, nine is a very good number in Buddhist beliefs. Nine Monks is considered to be a good number for occasions such as weddings, house blessings, and funerals. During the offering ceremony, two young girls passed out small containers of chilled orange drink and later gave each person a small glass of iced fruit drink - welcomed refreshment on a very hot and humid afternoon. The offering ceremony appeared to be like so many of the other ceremonies that I have attended for all kinds of different reasons. I did notice that at one point, there appeared to be some confusion as to which Monk would lead the Monk's chants. The local Monk, that I refer to as "Rocket Man" because his knowledge and involvement of launching local gunpowder fueled rockets, ended up leading the chants in conjunction with another Monk.

There were a couple of times where the Monks were not in synch with their chanting. Later I found out why. The five monks that lead the way for the truck carrying the body were not full-time "professional" Monks. They were two of the woman's sons, two grandsons, and a nephew. In Isaan, and I assume the rest of Thailand, sons and grandsons shave their heads, and shave their eyebrows, and don Monk's clothing to honor and take care of the deceased person. In Thailand, all men are expected to become Monks at some point in their life - typically around the age of 18 to 25 years old dependent upon the family's ability to pay for the ordination ceremony. As such, men in Isaan are very familiar with the chants and rituals. They are familiar but not necessarily proficient at the chanting thus explaining the confusion during this funeral ritual.

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

I am now well know about the village and surrounding area so I was encouraged by many people to go about and photograph the ceremony. The people were always motioning me forward to photograph some new aspect of the rites even when it exceeded what I thought would be respectful detachment. It was so interesting to observe and I made a great effort to be respectful while seeing and learning as much as I could.

After the offerings were completed in the temple, some men set up the open coffin for the next part of the ritual. The woman lay in her coffin clad in the simple clothing typical of a Lao Loum farmer. Her hands were clasped in the prayer position with three joss sticks and a small yellow candle between her hands as if she was making an offering to Buddha. Her favorite pakama (long plaid cotton strip of cloth) was bundled and placed by the side of her head which was supported by a small Isaan style pillow.

A young man produced several green coconuts and used a long knife to cut off the tops to exact the clear liquid inside. Another man had several pieces of bamboo about 18 inches long with a ring of colored ribbon strung through the slanted top. These tubes were like the tubes filled with cooked sticky rice with bananas that are for sale alongside of the roads.

By now the family had appeared and climbed up the steps of the crematorium to where the coffin rested. They started taking the coconuts and emptying the contents into the coffin as well as from the bamboo tubes. Curious I climbed the stairs to see what actually was going on. One of the men gave me a bamboo tube and motioned me to go ahead and tend to the body. I lifted the bamboo to my nose to determine what was the liquid was. The bamboo tube was filled with scented water. I went to the coffin and started to poured the liquid on the torso of the body. The man motioned to me that I should pour it on the face which I did with the remaining liquid. I later found out from Duang that everyone in Isaan has their face "washed" with coconut liquid because everyone likes coconut water and it cleans the face.

The remainder of the people including many children of all ages had now lined up at the foot of the stairs. At the base of the stairway there were two large bowls with little packets made out of bamboo strips and paper with a small yellow offering candle. Each person took one of these things and placed it upon the body when they paid their last respects. While this was going on, a man started a small fire out of twigs and leaves at the back end of the crematorium just off of the concrete slab. He and a couple other men added some cardboard boxes and plastic bags to the fire. These meager items from a life now completed were the favorite items such as saht, cosmetics, toothbrush, comb, and clothing were being burned to accompany the woman on her journey. A woman from atop the crematorium platform tossed handfuls of penny candy and one baht coins wrapped in colored paper to the people - reminiscent of the act done for a newly ordained Monk.

After people had paid their respects, local villagers poked holes in the plastic liner of the coffin to drain the coconut water and scented water. The coffin was then placed inside of the furnace. The coffin and body was sprinkled with benzene and the furnace door was closed. The furnace was ignited and as the first wisps of smoke came out of the crematorium chimney, the sky darkened with the sound of thunder rapidly approaching. By the time we walked back to Duang's parent's house the village was hit by a furious thunderstorm.

Duang indicated to me that the family was very poor. Rental of the refrigerated coffin was 800 baht ($22.85 USD). A falang (foreigner) who is married to a Tahsang village woman donated the water and soft drinks that were offered to the Monks. A local man had donated some money to pay the funeral. Duang told me that the funeral was small and that people with more money would have a bigger funeral with more talking.

For me a richer family could not have had a grander or better funeral. This ritual was simple, touching, and very dignified. I was very impressed with the sense of caring, sense of community and respect exhibited by all the people. It was interesting as well as reassuring to see how the people took care of each other with dignity and compassion.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Maehongson 02 April 2009

Wednesday 02 April 2009, the third day of the festival called "Hae Krua Lu Day", by all official and unofficial accounts, there was to be the big parade through town as part of the Loi Sang Long ritual. The parade was scheduled to start at 7:00 A. M. so we got up at 5:00 A. M. to get over to the Wat at 6:00 A. M. to catch the preparations.

We arrived at Wat Jong Kum-Jong Klong just before 6:00 A.M. in plenty of time to witness the preparations for the grand procession. The Wat's grounds were filled with family member in their best clothing. Relatives were going to walk in the procession along with the jewelled princes and their porters. As part of the procession today the families were carrying offerings to be made at the Wats.

In general the offerings were carried by the women and young children. The children carried small decorative bowls, flowers, and small decorative objects such as candle holders. The women carried buckets of toiletries, linens, food items, and pillows suspended from a bamboo pole carried between the two women on their shoulders. It seemed a little ironic that this procession was occurring just before Easter. The parade participants were definitely dressed in the Shan equivalent of their Easter suits.

Just as in the previous procession through town this procession was led by the Shan elders and the fancy horse. The shaman type man, dressed in white, carried a fancy offering bowl that was filled with some plants as well as a bottle of drinking water. Today there were two floats that would be hand carried by four men along the route. One float was a model of a Wat. It was very fancy and about 15 feet tall which required a great deal of focus as well as care to carry it beneath some of the utility lines that crossed streets on the parade route. Fortunately there were no incidents during the parade involving this float. The second float was shorter - about 8 feet high. It was also hand carried by four men along the parade route. It was a sort of pyramid shaped object made out of serving trays, bowls and dishes all topped off by a very fancy white lace umbrella.

Today unlike the previous parade there was a musical float - well actually it was a heavy industrial duty flat bed truck decked out with bunting. On top of the flat bed were four women dancers dressed in fancy outfits. The rear of the flat bed also contained the Shan band - four men - a drum player, a gong player, a stringed instrument player, and A LEAF BLOWER. No not a leaf blower machine to clean driveways but an elderly man who had a branch from a tree that he blew on the leaves to make music (more like squawking sounds). This is similar to the Hmong traditional music and communication technique using leaves that I had previously witnessed and wrote about in an earlier blog. Oddly enough the band put out some pretty good music. I am not sure that someone on the old Dick Clark TV show, American Bandstand", would have rated it very high because "It had a good beat and you could dance to it" but the female dancers had not trouble dancing to it.

Some of the relatives marching in today's procession carried long poles with decorations made out of tied handkerchiefs. I suspect that inside the handkerchiefs were some food offerings. Earlier in the trip I had sampled a Shan treat - a ball of popped rice in a caramel type binder. It was very to the Thai Cracker jacks that I watched being made in Isaan last Fall. Just as the treat was in Isaan, this was very tasty.

The parade got off more or less on schedule. We knew the route so we took a short cut and set up on the sidewalk awaiting the procession. As the procession advanced, elderly women would walk up to the various components of the procession and gently toss popped rice on the participants - including the horse. This was a sort of offering and blessings similar to tossing rice on newlyweds in the West.

One component of today's parade was a group of women who performed traditional dances. They were dressed in very pretty traditional Shan clothing. They were very graceful and like other groups in the parade, received popped rice offerings.

The jewelled princes were much more animated today. They bounced, waved fans in dance movements, and in general thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

After the procession passed by we returned to the truck and headed back to the hotel. We had breakfast, I showered, and we set out for the remainder of the day. The afternoon's activities will be in the next blog.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Maehongson 31 March 2009 Afternoon

After returning to the hotel, eating breakfast, and showering, we set off for the remainder of the day. I didn't have a specific itinerary for the day, but I did want to go out to the refugee camp at Baan Nai Soi to photograph "Freida" (Ma Jon) the young Paduang woman that I had met twice before. We also wanted to see how she, her mother and her sister were doing. I had heard and read that there had been an effort to relocate all the Paduang people (long necked women) to a single refugee camp. Prior to setting out we checked but did not double check and then verify that Paduang people remained at the Baan Nai Soi and Ban Huay Sua Tao camps.

We had a map with us and I remembered a great deal of the route from my previous trips to the area. As we approached the area where Baan Nai Soi is located we passed by two large wood barns similar to the tobacco drying barns that I saw as a youth in the Connecticut River Valley. Next to the barns was a field where several Shan people were busy working on stalks of dry garlic. We quickly turned around and returned to the sight to photograph the workers.

The workers were taking stalks of garlic that had been drying in the open field and placing them in bundles that were secured with wraps created out of long thin bamboo strips. The bundles of garlic were then hung over long bamboo poles. The garlic laden bamboo poles were then carried into the barns where they were hung creating a dense matrix of hanging stalks from ceiling to floor.

The Shan people grow garlic on a very large scale. It is rotated with their rice crops during the off growing season. Garlic is eaten raw as well as cooked in Shan cuisine.

We spent about 30 minutes with the workers talking and photographing them at work. They were curious as to where we were from, what we were doing, and where we were going. They were pleased to see pictures of themselves on the monitor of the digital camera. It is amazing how digital cameras have opened up the world. Now it is no problem at all to show people the results of your work. Often showing the people what you are trying to accomplish with your photography, increases their confidence and comfort with your presence. It is a wonderful ice breaker and works with people of all ages.

We found the exit off of the paved road on to the dirt road that leads to the Baan Nai Soi refugee camp without any problem. I remembered the water crossing and since we were in a pickup truck rather than a regular car, there was no difficulty. We continued on the rough, narrow, and dusty dirt road. We came to a steep rise in the road that appeared to have about 12 to 18 inches of talcum powder consistency dust on it. Learning from my previous experiences on Highway 1095 to Maehongson, I downshifted into a lower gear and speeded up to attack the rise. The truck made it about one half way up before bogging down. No problem, I put in the clutch and rolled down the hill to retry. Seeing a couple of motorbikes behind me, I waved them forward before trying to conquer the hill a second time. I dropped the truck into first gear, reved the engine up and let out the clutch. The truck aggressively attacked the hill and made it up 3/4 of the way of the hill before the fish tailing and lack of traction bogged us down. This was now serious! There were two people on a motorbike waiting for us to climb the hill before they descended. This was personal - me against the hill. I backed down the hill and got as far back as I could on what was a straight run before the hill. I put it in first gear, reved up the RPMs, and popped the clutch to build up as much speed as possible prior to climbing the hill. The engine was roaring. The back end was wildly fish tailing side to side but we were making progress. I countered the swerving rear end and kept the RPMs up. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the motorcyclists as we passed them in a huge billowing cloud of tan dust. The people were closing their eyes and covering their mouths as we struggled by - but we made it. Duang and I laughed at how crazy the road was. Later at the hotel, we saw a layer of fine dust covering the back bumper.

Because Duang is a Thai citizen, she did not have to pay the entrance fee into the camp. Despite showing my Thai driver's license, I had to pay 250 baht ($7.15 USD). From the girl at the entrance booth we learned that we had just missed a festival at the camp. The three day festival had ended the day before. As we walked into the camp we were surprised at the state of the camp. Houses that we knew the people who lived in them were gone with only compacted dirt and a few bits of wood remaining. One half of the houses were gone. Very few people were visible. Unlike previous visits to this camp there was no contingent of school girls at the entrance to greet you or seduce into buying postcards, stationary, or other small trinkets. One little girl that we had previously met would also play her guitar and sing. We have seen her in documentaries regarding the Paduang people.

We found several men and women at a long table underneath the canopy of a village hut. They were spending a sunny and hot afternoon drinking coke, beer, as well as whiskey - perhaps leftovers from the festival. These people made no attempt to engage us in any conversation or tried to sell us anything. There was not much available to be bought at the little booths in front of the huts. We continued our walk around and through the village. We found a small hut that was the village health clinic. A young Thai man was in charge of the clinic and from him we learned that about one half of the people had relocated out of the camp. He works in the clinic on a grant from the thai government and also deals with NGOs for the benefit of the camp residents. As he prepared to each his lunch, we walked over to the group of residents that we had seen on our way in.

I asked about "Freida" (Ma Jon) and one of the men told me that she had died. I was shocked and asked when she had died. He said that she had died last year. Somehow I didn't quite believe him and asked him if he was joking. He eventually admitted that she had moved to another camp. She wanted to be located to a foreign country so she had moved from Baan Nai Soi into a closed camp of 20,000 people on the border. Tourists or "travellers" are not allowed access into the camp. Freida's mother and sister had also joined here in the closed camp. It was apparent that there were some issues between this man and Freida. I guess no matter who or where you are, there will always be interpersonal issues. We inquired about the sad elderly widow who had lost her daughter three years ago. The woman had moved away just like the school girl that used to greet people at the gate. It was a depressing place and it appeared that the people themselves were depressed.

We watched two young boys playing beach volleyball in front of the new school office hut. The old school buildings were very ramshackle and I suspect but could not confirm that they had been abandoned. We did find out that some of the children that remained in camp went to class in the new school office hut.

We came upon a young school girl. She reminded me somewhat of Freida. She had a brightness to her eyes and a charming personality that remind me of the waste of so much talent in this world due to economic or political adversity. This 11 year old girl, her 9 year old brother, and her 11 year old friend were manning a small booth. They study English, Thai, Burmese, and their native languages in the village school. They also study geography. I asked about science and she did not know what I was talking about.

We spent about an hour talking with the children before buying a couple of trinkets and setting back to the hotel. The girl asked if Duang could bring her some pants when we return. We plan on returning in September or October and will keep our promise.

We returned to town with both Duang and I thinking that the children's parents had not had their children's best interests in mind when they refused to relocate and elected to remain in this particular camp.

Maehongson - April 1 2009

There were no scheduled public Poi Sang Long events on April 01 that we were aware of. Despite assurances that there was nothing going on, I got Duang up and headed out to the Wats at 6:00 A. M. There was no acrimonious music to be heard - confirming that nothing was going on. Duang took it well but I did hear about a couple times during the day about how I had not listened to her. I told her it was an April Fool's joke to go to the Wat early in the morning and we both ended up laughing.

Duang wanted to see the Monk who lives in a cave so we headed north out of town and back up the long and winding road that goes to Pai (Highway 1095). We had stopped by the cave on our way into Maehongson the previous day but he was not there.

We stopped at the cave and the Monk was there. A young boy from the nearby village was preparing the Monk's food on a burner set directly above a LPG bottle. The food smelled good. We talked to the Monk for a while and received his blessing. I first visited him in October of 2006 and make a point to stop in and see him whenever I am in Maehongson. Today he had another Monk visiting him. While we were there a married couple from the local village arrived and made offering of food to the Monk. After they received their blessing, Duang talked to them and learned that the woman had a small restaurant at the entrance to Fish Cave National Park. From the woman we learned that the Monk's name was "Thom Padang".

When we had stopped at the Monk's cave the day before, I took photographs of the various statues of Buddha outside of the cave. Of the four trips to the cave, this was the only time that the statues were dressed in vestments. Each statue was covered with an orange cape that had fancy bead work on it. I told Duang that I thought that the cape had something to do with the Poi Sang Long Festival. Duang asked the Monk and found out that the sautes were wearing capes because the weather had been cool. After Songkran, 15 April, the Monk was going to remove the capes. Although we had visited the sight two years ago during Songkran, we did not see the statues clothed. Duang told me that she believes that before not too many people visited the Monk so he did not have the money to buy the clothing. Now he is apparently getting more visitors and has the material means to buy clothing for the statues. This would also help to explain why he now has a chain link fence and metal framed chain link door across the entrance to his cave as well other developments such as new tarps lining the inside of the cave. Dressing the statues is not limited to this location. In Bangkok, the King but most recently the Crown Prince change the clothing on the Emerald Buddha at the changing of each season in a very special ceremony. We bid farewell to the Monk and promised to return later in the year. Interestingly yesterday Duang informed me that the Monk had a special request for us. She had told him about why we in Maehongson and that we knew people in the Huay Suay Tao refugee camp. Apparently the Monk also knows Khun Ma Plae and requested a photo of her. Monks are celebrate and are not allowed to be touched by women. Thom Padang's request is interesting and I will be happy to comply. Duang believes that he will send us amulets that will protect us - he is supposedly Number 1 Monk for car accident prevention. With an amulet from him, we will not have an auto accident but if we were to have one - we would not be killed. OK. With the way I have seen so many people drive around here, I am not about to turn my back on any possible assistance to stay safe.

After visiting the Monk, we stopped at Fish Cave to grab a bite to eat at the woman's food stall. There were hardly any people at the park. There is typically 5 to 10 vans of tourists in the parking lot. There was only one other pickup truck besides ours. We ended up spending about 30 minutes sitting and relaxing with the woman and her young son.

We then drove to the Buddhist Meditation Center a little further up the road. We had discovered the retreat on our last trip to Maehongson. It is a very peaceful and relaxing setting with impeccably maintained grounds nestled along a fast flowing stream between a series of craggy hills. People from around the world go to the center to learn or to improve their meditation techniques.

As we pulled off of Highway 1095 to drive along the narrow road to the Center, we came upon four young boys absolutely enjoying themselves at the local swimming hole. A small dam across the stream running parallel to Highway 1095 has developed a small area of deeper water suitable for swimming. After overcoming their initial shock of me stopping the truck in the middle of the road, getting out, and starting to photograph them, the boys put on a show for us. They took turns running across the road and doing somersaults into the water. As I showed them their photographs, their enthusiasm increased proportionally. After demonstrations of their acrobatic prowess, there were a couple of races between the boys. It was entertaining for us to watch the boys enjoying themselves in such a simple and innocent past time.

We eventually arrived at the Mediation Center - we met the Abbott and he invited us to join the students for lunch. We had eaten at Fish Cave so we declined. As Duang paid her respects and made her offering to the Buddha shrine, the Abbott and I started talking. Duang joined us and we ended up talking for an hour prior to his next scheduled class. He was well educated and well travelled. He had travelled several times to the USA to teach meditation.

The Monk gave us his blessing, and gave us some unsolicited marriage counselling - I was to be sure to take good care of Duang as well as listen to her (how did he know about this morning?) and she was to take good care of me as well as to listen to me. As part of our discussions we talked about life in Thailand and in the USA. The subject of recent violence in America came up. I remarked that in general Americans had placed their faith in material things and material institutions. Now that there is a crisis and these items are wiped out or greatly reduced, these people have nothing left to believe in. Their faith and confidence have been greatly affected. For many this has deprived them of a moral or ethical compass to proceed with their life. The results are increased violence and depression - mental as well as monetary.

From the mediation Center we continued on to the end of Highway 1285. End of Highway 1285? On the map it showed that there was a market town of Ban Huai Phueng on the border with Myanmar (Burma). We had never been there before. We had time. We had a truck, so we headed north west. We passed another Army checkpoint without any incident. The Thai Army has many checkpoints in the area in efforts to prevent smuggling of refugees as well as amphetamines into Thailand from Myanmar.

After awhile the excellent two lane paved road narrowed down to a narrow road winding through small settlements. At one point where the road had narrowed to a single lane we came upon two large stacks of dried garlic bundles along side of the road. Two men were walking up a steep hillside to road level with huge piles of garlic suspended on both ends of a long bamboo rod carried over their shoulder. We stopped to photograph the men at their work. They were Shan farm workers paid to harvest the dried garlic from the fields in the land below the road elevation, transport it up the hill and stack it along the side of the road awaiting transport by truck to a large drying barn like we had visited the day before. The men work from 8:00 A.M. to 5:00 A. M. and earn 100 Baht ($3.50 USD) a day. This is back breaking manual work performed in a smoke filled atmosphere for $0.43 an hour. Of course there are no social security benefits, retirement plans, unemployment benefits, life insurance coverage or medical insurance available for these workers.

We spoke with the two workers and learned that they were happy because there was plenty of work available these days. I could not help but think that at $3.50 a day no doubt that there would be plenty of work available!

The men told us about the area up ahead on the road to the border. We set out for the market town but never got there. We got close but not there. When we were about 5 miles from the border we came to a roadblock. The military man was undoubtedly surprised to see a falang driving a truck out in the middle of no where headed for the Burma border. Through Duang I found out that the area was closed beyond the road barrier and that photography was not allowed. He was friendly and pleasant so I informed him through Duang that if photography was not allowed, I didn't want to go there. We all had a laugh. We turned around and returned to the garlic worker's work location.

I parked the truck off of the road and we walked over to better view the work. We climbed down the hill about 200 feet to a narrow bamboo bridge spanning a clear stream. I set up and photographed the men crossing the four bamboo stalk wide bridge with their loads of garlic on their journey to and from the garlic fields to the staging point high above along side the paved road. The land from the road to the stream was filled with long yai fruit trees. The long yai fruit is very tasty and refreshing. The long yai trees are also the favorite habitat of the red ants that the people of Isaan are fond of eating. It turns out that the Shan people also eat the ants and ant eggs.

The workers invited and eventually convinced us to cross the bamboo bridge. We followed the men across the bouncy bridge and joined them on the other side. The other side was a series of dry and harvested rice paddies. On a previous trip in December 2006 to the region, I had photographed local people planting garlic. Crops are rotated in rice paddies to optimize available growing seasons and to assist in improving the poor soil. After harvesting the rice crop in November, the Shan people had planted garlic as a supplemental crop. That crop has completed growing, drying in the field, and is now ready to be harvested in April. After navigating a maze of dikes surrounding the paddies and crossing some paddies we arrived at the work sight. Several men and women were on their knees busy pulling garlic bulbs out of the ground. They were surprised to see us, mostly likely me in particular. I surmise that not to many foreigners make it out to this garlic field.

In no time at all, Duang had charmed them and I had sufficiently amused them so everyone was comfortable as well as relaxed. My previous photographs at the bridge were facing the sun. Now that we were on the other side of the bridge, it was possible to have the sun at my back. I made my way back to the bridge over the flowing waters. Carefully selecting where to place my feet, I was able to make it to a large rock in the middle of the stream - safe, sound, and dry. I did have to share my perch in the stream with many small butterflies as well as many flying insects. The flying insects were annoying but apparently not health endangering.

I spent a good amount of time in the stream taking photographs of the men transporting the garlic across the bridge. I went back to the harvesting site to see that Duang had joined the team in harvesting the garlic. Since I was wearing my pakama on my head like Lao Loum men in Isaan, the Shan people decided that I needed to try my hand at harvesting garlic. After an initial failure in harvesting grass rather than garlic which created a great deal of laughing, I was able to make some progress harvesting the garlic. It was back breaking work. I joked that with the way I worked, I would make about 5 baht a day. The Shan people were not done with me yet. I had harvested a good handful of dry garlic on their stalks but not enough to create one of the many bundles required to be placed on the bamboo poles to be hauled up the hill. My picking partner gave me her garlic. A man came along and tied the stalks together with one of the many strips of bamboo that he had on his back. One of the porters that we had spoken to earlier came up to me with his loaded bamboo rod. My new bundle was added to the load and the bamboo pole with garlic bundles was placed over my shoulder. The bamboo rod is about 4 to 5 inches in diameter and about 6 feet long. Each end of the rod is loaded with approximately 25 pounds of garlic. It was definitely a load. I may have been able to make it to the bridge but there was no way I could have climbed the four bamboo rungs to get up on to the bridge. On a very very good day, if some how I had managed to get across the bridge with the garlic, I possibly and just maybe may I would be able to get the garlic up the 200 foot high 35 degree slope to the paved road. To do this for eight hours a day - no way! To do it for $3.50 a day and not complain - as they said in the 1939 classic film -"Gunga Din" based on the Rudyard Kipling poem - " You are a better man than I am, Gunga Din" The Shan farm workers have my admiration and respect. Once again the reality of the world collides with our past experiences and perceptions - another reason why I enjoy living in S.E. Asia learning and experiencing life from a different perspective.

We returned to the hotel around 5:00 P. M. exhausted, satisfied, and content with the day's activities as well the insights into other people's lives that we had witnessed.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Poi Sang Long Ritual - Day 2

Tuesday, 31 March, according to the Abbott of Wat Kum Klang, the "official" printed festival brochure, as well as several local people, was the morning when the young boys would be dressed up in their finery and made up to be paraded through Maehongson. After yesterday's serendipitous discovery of the head shaving ceremony, we were determined to check, double check as well as to verify exactly what event was scheduled as well as its starting time.

We got up at 4:00 A. M. so that we would be at the Wat for 5:00 A. M. As we approached the Wat on foot from our parking space across the lake, we heard the continued acrimonious clanging, banging and beat of the previous day's music. We learned that as long as this music was going on, something was happening.

We arrived just about the right time at the Wat. The bot was filled with family members attending to their young boy. This morning the "Sang Long" (jewelled sons) were being dressed up in fine silks, brocades, jewelery, and complicated millinery. Their mothers, sisters, and aunts applied makeup to the boy's face that would be the envy of any Bangkok or Pattaya Kathoey (Lady Boy). In fact I suspect that many American women would love to be made up and look as elegant as these young boys do. Each family set up their spot on the floor in the bot. A few foreigners freely mingled amongst the Shan people photographing and filming the Shan tradition. Outsiders were very welcomed by the families and the atmosphere was free and relaxed.

The boys were being made up to resemble Princes. When the dressing and makeup had been completed the boys looked like they were little Maharajahs out of some Rudyard Kipling story. This was not a Halloween masquerade type skit but a financially taxing attempt to emulate royalty. Some of the clothing cost upwards to 10,000 baht ($286 USD). We were told by one family that they had gotten the cloth for their son's outfit from Cambodia. The clothing was colorful, intricate, and very fancy. Dressing up your son for his ordination is very analogous to the tradition and social pressures in the USA for having your daughter get married. To suitably impress the relatives, neighbors, and friends, families take on a large financial burden. Almost $300 for a child's outfit even in the Western World is not a trifle amount. Here in Thailand the average farm worker makes 100 baht ($3.50) a day. A can of Coke or Pepsi costs 15 baht so although I often write about how cheap things are here in Thailand, I am using an American perspective. At 100 baht a day, the average Thai farm worker is not going to be buying too many cans of soda or saving very much money in a month. To stage this family celebration many families pool resources and many end up borrowing money to finance the spectacle. We met and spoke with some young boys who had not been through the Poi Sang Long ceremony because their family could not afford the expense. Peer pressure is very strong for every family to somehow and someway to come up with the money to participate in the tradition.

The fathers focused their efforts on dressing their son in all the various articles of clothing. The proud fathers also gave their sons words of comfort and guidance. Other male members of the family sat next to the young boy. In many places, hired men also sat next to the jewelled princes. Once the boy has had his head shaved, his feet no longer touch the ground. The jewelled prince is carried upon the shoulders of his father, grandfather, uncles, and older brothers. To supplement the contingent of male relatives, some families hire men to carry their son on top of their shoulders during the rituals and parades. In many cases the porters for a particular boy are smartly dressed in pastel tailored traditional Shan outfits. Several men are required to carry the boy along the parade route. As a man becomes tired, the boy is transferred to a fresh man for his turn to carry the jewelled prince. Some of the porters with a great deal of energy from the clanging and banging music or perhaps the whiskey that you could smell on their breadth, danced enthusiastically with the boy on their shoulders. A couple of the porters appeared to have a de facto contest as to which one of them could get their prince lowest and most parallel to the ground without dropping him. I suspect that these were professional porters and not some one's crazy uncle or older brother. The fact that no princes were dropped also leads me to believe that professionals were at work. The mothers completed the outfitting of their princes by placing their gold chains around their necks and placing gold rings on their fingers. It was interesting to watch combinations of tape and yarn being utilized to ensure that the family jewels stayed on the boys small fingers.

After all 40 boys had been prepared, they ate a small breakfast of fried rice and plain water. They were carried outside to be organized into parade formation. Outside family members congregated awaiting the start of the early dawn parade. A small Asian breed of horse was waiting outside to lead the parade. The horse was immaculately groomed - to the extent that its mane had been cropped where a large garland of flowers had been carefully placed around its neck. Two men wearing traditional Shan clothing tended and led the horse. Another man who appeared to be some type of shaman led the parade along side of the horse. He was dressed in white pants and tunic with his head covered in a white turban. He carried a ceremonial offering bowl.

The boys were carried on the shoulder of a man and was surrounded by men in waiting - waiting to have their turn at carrying the boy on their shoulders. Each boy is also shielded by a large ornate golden umbrella attached at the end of a long wood pole carried by a man walking to the side of the elevated boy. The umbrellas were very ornate and decorated with flowers, garlands, and intricate decorations. The umbrellas are also heavy and unwieldy
, so just as in the case of the boy, men take their turn in carrying the umbrella and ensuring that it shelters the specific boy.

Some families also hire "professional" musicians to bang gongs, clang cymbals, and play the unusual drum in the same style as we had been hearing since arriving in Maehongson. Some of the "bands" had long mechanical racks that played several cymbals at the same time. Two men carried the rack and a third man "played" the cymbals by moving a lever back and forth. The din of the amateur musicians along with the professionals created quite an atmosphere.

The parade left the Wat complex at sunrise and headed through downtown Maehongson. The entourage stopped at a local temple in the center of town. The purpose of the stop was for the boys to let the spirits know that they were becoming Monks and to ensure that the boys had been forgiven. The parade then moved through the airport on the edge of town to visit a Buddhist temple. At this location the boys requested forgiveness from the Abbott. It was at this point that we decided to move on to our hotel to shower and have our breakfast. It had already been a long and tiring morning even though it was 8:00 A.M.


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