Saturday, April 11, 2009

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.
















1 comment:

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