Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Night Before Songpoo

It was the night before Songpoo and call kinds of creatures were stirring throughout Tahsang Village ...

Monday night, 29 March, was the night before Songpoo Day here in Isaan. There was a full moon (duangchan) on 30 March so there was close to a full moon on Monday night. It was determined that because of the imminent start of Songpoo Day as well as the state of the moon, that a special, once a year, religious ritual would be conducted at the Buddhist Wat that is located outside of Tahsang Village.

Tahsang Village is a small Lao Loum village here in Isaan which has two Wats, (Buddhist Temples) for the benefit of the villagers. One temple is located inside of the village limits and the second temple is located outside of the village on the edge of flood plain/swamp that is accessed by a narrow rough dirt road through the village sugar cane fields and rice paddies.

We have attended rituals and celebrations at both of the temples over the past three years, but Duang favors the Monks at the "outside" Wat. Her preference has something to do with religious practices and behaviors. I don't get involved in those types of issues but if I had to choose it would be the "outside" Wat. My choice has nothing do with religious practices. I would prefer the "outside" Wat because it is the temple where "Rocketman" resides. "Rocketman" is a Monk that supervises the construction and launching of Tahsang Village's gunpowder rockets. For me he appears to be a larger than life character and I always enjoy my visits with him.

Duang and I arrived in Tahsang Village with a load of water, soft drinks, and snacks for the Monks as well as the villagers for the evening ritual and for Songpoo the next day. We stopped at Duang's parent's home to pick up our 13 month old grandson, Peelawat and Duang's mother for the drive out to the Wat.

The Wat was filled with people of all ages, chickens, and some dogs scurrying about. Many of the Wat's Buddha statues had been relocated to a temporary low wood shelf surrounding the ruins, seem to be ancient to me, of a previous Wat on the site. I have seen previous ruins in Chiang Rai area and they were listed as being from the 1400's. The purpose of placing the statues outside was to prepare for Songpoo Day. On Songpoo Day, villagers as part of their merit making ritual pour water over the statues to wash and cool them.

On Monday night many people were occupied setting up booths and stalls for the next day's celebration. Most of the booths were to be used to distribute donated soft drinks and food during the Songpoo Day celebration. One booth was already in operation - a sort of "game of chance" booth very similar to booths that we had seen during the past few months. People pay a small sum of money and get a short piece of drinking straw with a piece of rolled up paper inside of it. Once the paper is unrolled, a number is revealed. The number corresponds to a number assigned to many prizes. You win the prize that corresponds to the number on your piece of paper. The profits from the booth are used to support the upkeep of the Wat.

This Wat needs a great deal of support. The Wat's Bot, main worship hall, was a very old rustic cinder block building in need of a great deal of repair. It needed so much repair, that it has been demolished. A new Bot is being constructed. The site of the old Bot has been raised about a meter which is a good idea due to its close proximity to the water. New concrete foundation beams have been installed and the recycled concrete columns from the previous Bot have been set. The project is being performed by donated labor so it is a very slow process.

For the evening ritual, a temporary Bot was constructed. Several canopies, like those used for wedding and funeral celebrations were erected to provide shelter from the sun and remote possibility of rain. The first canopy was dedicated to the Monks and Buddhist statues. The back side of this canopy was sheathed with bright orange fabric to create a wall behind the raised wood platform upon which the Monks would sit. Very fine nylon nets, the type used to capture rice kernels that fall off the sheaves in preparation for threshing, were placed upon the ground beneath all of the canopies. Woven sahts some of them 30 feet (10 meters) long were placed on top of nylon net to create a floor for the worshippers. Just as in permanent Bot structures, people remove their shoes or more likely flip flops upon entering. In the corner of the raised wood platform reserved for the Monks, there were two richly lacquered etagere upon which Bhudda statues were placed. The etageries are often placed in richer people's homes to create a worship area in their home. In front of the statues there were other objects associated with worship and ritual such as candles, vases, flowers, incense holders, and a large pressed metal elaborate bowl.

Upon entering the area, I immediately noticed something new and very different. There was a grid suspended above the area where the worshippers would be seated. The square grid was created using cotton string - cotton string that used to used by meat cutters in older days and refereed to as "butcher's string" At the intersection of the crossing strings, long pieces of vertical drops of cotton string were tied to the elevated grid. The elevated grid was connected to the statues on the etagere with the same type of cotton string. Another cotton string ran from the statues to a ball of string placed on the platform where the Monks would be seated. I had witnessed the string from the statues to the Monks many times before but this was the first time that I had seen a grid of string above the worshippers and the statues. I believe that the use of the cotton strings has more to do with the vestiges of Animist beliefs than Buddhism. Cotton strings are used, sometimes in Bai Sii rituals, to bind the 32 spirits within people to ensure health, wealth, and good luck.

I got to take care of Peelawat during what ended up to be a two hour ritual. That was fine with me. Peelawat is a very good boy who is satisfied to just sit in my lap which still leaves my hands free to take photographs. I show him some of the photos in the screen on the back of the camera which keeps him entertained while he sucks his thumb. We sat up front next to off to the side of the Monk's platform. This was a good place to take photographs and a great location for both Peelawat and me to observe what was going on. I do have to say though that he stares much more than I do.

About one hour into the ritual the worshippers unravelled the vertical strings from the suspended grid and looped the free end of the string around their head. Relatives took care of putting the string around the head of children. As is typical at Lao Loum ceremonies, most of the men sat separate from the women and children. The other aspects of the evening's ritual were familiar to me. Just as when we had our house blessing ritual, Duang's uncle, the Abbot, allowed burning candles to drop wax into a large pressed metal ornate bowl. The shape of the wax that solidifies in the cool water is interpreted by the Monk to determine the future. Since the ritual was rather long, Peelawat got tired, perhaps from the hypnotic chanting in Pali by the Monks and villagers, and without crying decided to take a nap.

I placed him upon the saht in front of me with one of his blankets. He slept very peacefully until Rocketman walked around sprinkling people including me and Peelawat with the water from the large bowl - very similar to sprinkling of Holy Water in Catholic ritual. When the water blessing hit Peelawat he became startled and woke up. I calmed him and reset him upon the saht where he promptly returned to sleep. When Rocketman returned on his second pass to bless everyone, he had a big grin and seemed like he was going to get Peelawat and me once again. I said "No, the baby is sleeping" He laughed along with everyone else because he was only joking - apparently Peelwat and I only needed the one blessing!

At the end of the two hour ritual, people cut the vertical cotton strings and brought them up to the platform to have either the Abbot or Rocketman tie the string around their wrist. Duang and I were doubly blessed - the Abbot and Rocketman each tied a string around our wrist.

Apparently the ritual with the string around the head is a special ritual and only observed once a year. It was very interesting and with taking care of Peelawat very enjoyable.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Saht Weaving - The Rest of the Story

On Friday I wrote about "Saht Weaving Time" based upon my observations that day as well as several occasions observing Lao Loum women creating sahts over the past two years here in Isaan. In writing Friday's blog, there were many questions that I realized that I did not have the answers to. How long does it take to make a saht? How much does it cost to buy one? What type of weaving is employed to create a saht? How is the warp set up? How is the saht removed from the loom? How do the people keep the completed saht from unravelling?

If no one else was interested, at least I wanted to know the answers to these questions. There were two avenues available to me to find the answers to these questions. The first was to do some research on the Internet. I am amazed at how the Internet has contributed to and improved our life. When I first started out as a field engineer before fax machines were commonplace, there were many times when we needed technical information to do our jobs. Often the technical information was not readily available, i.e. on a drawing or in a catalog, physically located at the job site. We would have to find a possible source for the information, call or write to the possible source to confirm they had the information, and then wait one or two weeks for the information to arrive - if it actually arrived. Not so these days. As I sat in Udonthani, Thailand in my home on Saturday, I decided to learn something about weaving. I wanted to know and more importantly better understand what I had been observing and writing about. In writing this blog I have written that I describe what I have seen and what I have experienced. I don't necessarily understand, believe or can explain everything. I try to make no attempts to justify or rationalize however I do have the personal goal of ensuring that what I write about is accurate. It is important to me to communicate accurately about the sights, events, sounds, smells, and beliefs that I have encountered. I leave it up to the individual reader to determine their own sense or version of reality and truth. For a minute or two on the Internet I can better ensure what I describe is accurate. So it was with weaving last weekend.

Duang and I returned to Tahsang Village on Saturday to tend to family business. As I normally do on our excursions about Isaan, I brought my camera. The two sisters that had dyed the Ly plants earlier in the week were now busy weaving sahts from the dried reeds. I spent a good part of my time in the village photographing and trying to understand the process.

Today we returned to the village specifically to take our 13 month old grandson, Peelawat, to the clinic. Since we left on a semi-emergency basis, I did not bring my camera today. This ended up being an opportunity for me to better observe the process and get my questions answered without getting distracted by my photography efforts. Since Peelawt ended up getting an injection at the clinic while Duang held him he had difficulty sleeping during the afternoon and preferred my company to Duang's. Peelawat and I sat in a chair outside next to the weavers and watched them for two hours. It was a nice afternoon - watching the weaving, giving Peelawat comfort, and having him give me his version of "kisses" (gently bumping heads together followed by a wide grin).

Sahts are woven on a rough lumber framed horizontal loom about 6 feet wide by 9 feet long placed on the ground. The members of the loom are fastened together with a combination of large nails and rope - as is the case in Isaan whatever is available is used as long as it is fit for purpose. The looms are a simple rectangular frame - two parallel or close to parallel pieces of lumber set on edge and two cross members set flat at each end of the rectangle. The looms are often set up underneath the shade of a large tree in some one's yard. When there is a threat of rain the looms are set up underneath the extended overhang or a house roof or underneath an open sided structure often found on the grounds of local Wats.

At the head of the loom where the weaving commences there is a stiff solid wire rod about 1/8 inch in diameter that runs along the edge of the cross member. The rod is kept in place and is guided through a series of small nails that have bent over to form rough semi-circles along the cross member edge. At the other end of the loom, which I will refer to as the "foot of the loom" there is a row of small nails more like upholstery brads than construction nails partially driven into and running over the top of the foot cross member about 1/2 to 3/4 inches from the edge of the wood. The nails are roughly 1/2 inch on centers along the width of the loom. Often the loom is tied to a tree or set up against a couple of iron spikes driven into the ground to provide some additional resistance to movement of the loom during the weaving process.

The saht is woven using plain weave also referred to as tabby weave and sometimes as taffeta weave technique. Plain weave is a very basic weaving technique - a process where the lengthwise threads, referred to as "warp", and the crosswise threads referred to as "weft" are in a crisscross pattern. The weft threads go over and under the warp threads in an alternating pattern across the width of the textile.

After setting up the loom, the saht weaving process with installing the lengthwise threads (warp). For sahts the warp is not actually a thread but is a string. Plastic string typically about 1/32 inch (1 mm) in diameter is used. The plastic string is generally not a high quality mono filament line that is used to crochet fishing nets but is a higher quality than the polyethylene strapping used in packaging. The warp can be of any color with yellow, blue, and black chosen the most frequently. Spools of this type of plastic string are readily available from small hardware type shops in the larger villages and cities. The spool of warp is often set inside of a small plastic bucket to keep it clean and away from the marauding chickens searching for food. The warp runs from the bucket up and over a low hanging tree limb or roof beam down to the foot of the loom. The free end of the warp is placed through a hole or slot in a flat board that in textile weaving is called a "rigid heddle". The rigid heddle is a flat board about 16 inches tall and the width of the desired saht width. Along the width of the heddle are a series of alternating small diameter holes and narrow slots. The holes in the heddle prevent the warp thread going through them from changing their relative elevation whereas the warp threads that pass through a slot are free to change their relative elevation as limited by the slot. After passing through the first hole in the heddle, the warp thread is pulled along the length of the loom to the head.

The free end of the warp thread (plastic string) is then passed over the top of the small diameter rigid rod and looped pulled back towards the foot of the loom. When the warp string encounters the heddle once again, it is run through the slot adjacent to the hole that it previously passed through. When the free end of the warp reaches the foot of the loom a second time, the warp is trimmed to allow the warp to be tied off to each of two adjacent nails. The weaver pulls on the warp to ensure that the warp is taut. I doubt that I could pull the warp tighter than the Lao Loum woman can with their bare hands and fingers. This process of through a hole, over the rod at the loom head, through a slot, and both ends being tied off at the foot of the loom is repeated until all holes and slots of the heddle have a single warp thread running through them.

The heddle is used in conjunction with a piece of bamboo about 4 to 6 inches in diameter to lift alternative warp threads to create a space between the threads. This space between the alternating threads across the width of the textile, called "shed" is where the weft (Ly reeds) are inserted during the weaving process. One of the women worked the heddle while the other woman who sat to the right of the first woman ran the weft (dried reeds) through the shed. After selecting the proper colored reed, the weft feed bent on end of the selected reed over the blunt point of a long and narrow strip of bamboo. Using the bamboo strip she slid and pushed the reed across the shed to the far end of the textile's width. The heddle operator used her left hand to grasp the bent end of the reed and release it from the bamboo strip. The other woman then slid the bamboo strip from the shed and prepared the next reed for insertion. The heddle operator in the meantime used both hands to align and position the inserted reed. With a hand on top of each end of the heddle, she forcibly pulled the heddle towards her to push and compact the new reed agaist the reeds that had been previously woven into the textile. She then slid the heddle away from her to prepare a new shed for the next reed. After each reed has been compacted into place, the women braid the ends of the previous past two reeds to create a braided edge along both sides of the growing textile. This process continues for approximately two hours when the saht was completed.

After the last reed was woven into place, the women used some old thin knives to trim the reed ends along the sides of the saht that protruded past the braided trim. Both knives were too dull to accomplish the task so one of the sisters took them to the back of the house and rubbed them on a rock to sharpen them. Upon completing the trimming of the side, one woman slid the small diameter steel rod from the head of the loom thus releasing that portion of the saht from the loom. At the foot of the loom, the other sister cut the paired warp threads at about six locations. After cutting a pair of warp threads and before cutting the next set of threads, she tied the threads together using a square knot to prevent unraveling. After tying off the last set of warp threads, she cut off all the remaining warp threads releasing the saht from the loom and leaving the saht with a fringe on that end of the textile. Later that fringe is braided and trimmed with a series of cotton strings to create protective edge.

Each saht takes around two hours for two people to weave. Sahts are sold for 80 to 100 baht (about $2.50 to $3.00 USD) for the typical sized saht.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Saht Weaving Time

I have recently written about the diminished activity in the fields and waterways of Isaan coinciding with the rising temperatures as well as the dry season. This does not mean that there is not plenty going on to witness, observe or photograph in the rural villages of Isaan.

As you drive through the small villages that are scattered along the back roads of Isaan, you will find bunches of reeds laid out along side of the village streets drying in the sun. These are the marsh reeds, called "Ly" (?) that are used to weave the ubiquitous Lao Loum textile called "Saht". I read that the Khene musical instrument defines the essence of Lao culture. My opinion is that if the khene defines than the saht reaffirms the essence of Lao Loum culture. The saht is a scatter rug, a substitute for carpeting, an offering to Monks, a place to eat your meals, a place to drink, a substitute for a mattress, and a gift. People in Isaan villages place sahts upon the floor of their home to eat their meals. Sahts are placed inside of hammocks to create beds for babies and toddlers. Some people sleep atop sahts placed upon the floors of their home. Sahts are placed upon the floor of Buddhist temples for the worshippers to kneel and sit on. People place sahts on the ground for sitting on at outside shows as well as outdoors concerts. The body is placed upon a saht inside of the coffin prior to cremation.

Sahts are a multifunctional woven read mat that is typically around 39 inches wide and around 57 inches long. The width of the saht is restricted by the height of the Ly plant at harvest time. The Ly plant is cultivated very much like rice is here in Isaan however it does require more and a more reliable source of water than rice. It is harvested every four months - roughly Mid-March, Early-August, and December.

When the plant is about four feet high, it is cut using sickles that are also used to harvest the rice crop. The light heads are cut off the reeds and the reeds are laid out flat along the side of the street or in people's compacted dirt yards to dry out in the sun. Isaan villagers do not have lawns. Their yards are compacted dirt that they often sweep with long handcrafted brooms to remove leaves that fall from surrounding trees. Roving groups of chickens also assist in maintaining the yards.

During hot and sunny weather like we experience in March and April, the reeds are dry in three to four days. Later when the weather is not so sunny or dry, it takes one to two weeks for the reeds to dry out. After drying out flat, some villagers hang the sheaves of dried reeds over the top of their bamboo fences to protect the reeds from wandering water buffalo, cattle, dogs, as well as chickens. The local children seem to be well trained and avoid damaging or soiling the reeds along the street.

Most people dye the dry reeds before weaving them. I guess it is like any personal endeavor and enterprise, the villagers want to add some personal touch and style to their product. I have seen some plain dull brown sahts but not very many of them. Most of the finished sahts are very colorful. They typically are a mixture of orange, red, yellow, and blue. Just as with the local cotton and silk weavers, the saht weavers have the designs and patterns of their textile memorized. I have watched cotton and silk weavers here in Isaan as well as in Laos, and I am continuously amazed at how they can create such colorful as well as intricate patterns from only their memory. Saht weaving is a great deal easier for me to try to comprehend. The design and patterns are created using single reed of one color whereas in certain silk weaving some of the individual threads are multi-colored. Most sahts have no more than 4 distinct colors. I have seen some silk weaving involving 8 different colors.

Last week during one of our trips out to Tahsang Village we saw two of the village women busy with dying some dry Ly reeds. As so often is the case here in Isaan as well as in neighboring Laos, the Lao Loum people make do with what they have or with what is readily available. They were using a commercial water based dye that requires hot water. To heat the water they had built a small wood fire. In Thailand, as well as the rest of Southeast Asia, people are free to perform outdoor burning. Most people in the villages cook their meals outside over small wood or charcoal fires. The wood fire that the village women had built for dying the reeds was comprised of several logs each about 4 to 6 inches in diameter. As the wood underneath their pot of boiling by the small fire, the women maintain the fire simply by pushing the remainder of the logs to the center of the flames.

For a container to boil the water and dye mixture in and to contain the reeds, the villagers used a large metal container that had been used to store cookies. The container was about 4 to 5 gallons capacity. For stirring the mixture and removing the hot dyed reeds, the villagers used two pieces of readily available local bamboo. One of the women, gathered a sheave of dried Ly reed and twisted it together as she placed it into the pot of boiling dye mixture. She used a bamboo stick to ensure all and every part of the reed bundle was submerged into the red liquid. After about two minutes in the pot, the woman removed the reed sheave, now a shiny brilliant red, from the pot using the two pieces bamboo as a pair of long chopsticks. Carefully using the pieces of bamboo, she carried the steaming mass of stringy red reeds over to the other woman. The second woman was busy untangling the reeds and laying them out in the sun to dry once again. It is important that the reeds not be bent or twisted for weaving. After cooling the reeds will be hung to complete drying out.

Weaving of the Ly reeds into sahts is performed at people's homes and in covered areas at some village Wats. The weaving is a two person operation typically older women. They weave the reed upon a home made loom made from rough lumber and pieces of bamboo. The looms are set up on the ground. Plastic string is strung through a wide piece of wood with a series of holes drilled in it from one end to the other end of the frame. One person takes a colored reed to be woven into the saht. The selected reed is attached to a thin bamboo stick and pushed along the width of the textile between the two layers of the plastic string. The second woman manipulates the wide board to push the new reed up against the previously woven reeds. They talk and gossip all the while that they are working. Neighbors and family members often stop by to socialize with the weavers as they toil.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

New Photos Added to Gallery, "Isaan Go-Go Girls"

New photos from this weekend's Mahlam Lao Show in Ban Non Makha have been added to my gallery, "Isaan Go-Go Girls"

In addition prices for all prints, larger than 4"x6", have been significantly reduced

Monday, March 15, 2010

Mahlam Lao Show - Ban Non Makha

Things have gotten hotter here in Isaan and it is not just the weather. Our daily weather high temperatures are now ranging from 95 to 100F (35 C to 38C) as we head for the hottest months which are April and May.

The sugar cane harvest is winding down. The next crop of sugar cane has been already planted. The limited second crop of rice, for those farmers who have access to water, is well established and it is a matter of waiting to harvest it when it matures. The same is true for the cassava crop. The water levels are very low so there is very little fishing available or going on.

This is the time of year when village women weave sahts. Sahts are woven reed mats that take the place of throw rugs and rugs in Lao Loum culture. They are also a substitute for indoor as well as outdoor furniture. The mats are placed on the concrete, tile or compacted earth floors of homes for people to sit on, and sometimes to sleep on. Sahts are placed inside of hammocks for babies to sleep upon. At concerts and shows many people bring a saht from home and place it upon the ground for sitting, drinking, and eating snacks during the show. When we went to Tahsang Village yesterday, a photographed some of the villagers dying the dried reeds in preparation for weaving - but that will be the topic of a future blog.

The rainy season will not start for another two months. With the limited amount of necessary work in the fields now, and with the coming of Thai New Years, Songkran, in a month there appears to be an upswing in the number of shows and festivals in Isaan at this time of the year. I questioned my wife about this to determine if there was a conscious effort to take advantage of the dry weather and lessened work load for the villagers to enjoy themselves more here in Isaan. She told me "No. People in Isaan like to have party all the time. People die all the time. People get married all the time. Boy become Monk all the time. People have party all the time. People in Isaan like to party all the time" It is difficult to disagree with that especially after my experiences of the past three years.

Yesterday there was a party at the Wat in Ban Non Makha. Ban Non Makha village is a neighbor to Tasang Village. The party was being held on the grounds of the local Buddhist temple. In Isaan, as well as the rest of Thailand, the Wats serve many purposes. Besides being religious and often educational centers for their communities, the Wats also are social centers for the people. The party in Non Mahka was being held to raise money to support the Wat. There was a Mahlam Lao show similar to the type that Duang's youngest brother performs at weddings, funerals, funeral anniversaries, house warmings, Monk ordination celebrations, some religious holidays, local festivals such as the recent "Mango Festival" and even sometimes "Thank You" parties sponsored by local politicians. Yes, Duang is absolutely correct in saying "People in Isaan like to party all the time". As we drove out to Non Makha village we saw several large trucks from at least two other different Mahlam Lao troupes traveling along the main road that connects the Lao border town of Nong Khai to eventually Bangkok. It still seems to me that the number of parties is increasing.

On March 30th, Duang's brother will be performing in Tahsang Village for Songpoo Day. The following two days after his show will involve shooting home made gunpowder rockets into the sky. This will be my third "Songpoo Day" in Tahsang Village and I still don't understand what it is all about. The previous two "Songpoo Days" came at the end of Songkran. I thought that because they came at the end of the extended Thai New Years celebration, it was like the official end of Songkran. That theory worked until this year when Duang told me that it was going to be held before the start of Songkran! It was being held before Songkran because the villages wanted it then. Another theory that I had was that Songpoo commemorated Thailand's most famous poet and was like a national education day. That theory was proven to be incorrect too. No matter the case, I have learned that I do not have to understand or to be able to explain everything. I know that I do not have to intimately and completely know about something to be able to enjoy it. Although I am not a Buddhist, I find comfort in the Buddhist belief that we should question everything. I, in my older age, have accepted that there may not be answers to all my questions but I should continue to question everything and seek all of the answers.

Ban Non Makha village has about 400 inhabitants and is located about 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) from Tahsang Village which has about 250 people and about 8 kilometers (5 miles) from Ban Non Daeng which has about 250 people. Throughout Isaan there are many of these small villages dispersed amongst the rice paddies, sugar cane fields, and cassava fields. Through word of mouth, mostly amongst relatives, word of the local shows travels far and fast. The shows are always well attended ... "People in Isaan like to have party all the time".

We arrived at the Wat around 10:00 A.M., the roadies were still setting up the stage for the show. A booth where you paid 20 baht ($0.60 USD) to get a short piece of a small diameter straw. Inside the straw, was a piece of rolled up paper with a number on it. The number on the paper corresponded to prizes on display. A young boy about 10 to 12 years old in front of me won an electric fan. Duang won a small container of scented powder. Off to the side, a man had set up a tub of water with several tiny gold fish in it with one fairly good sized black molly fish. Young children were trying to scoop the fish out of the aerated tub with a flat net about 3 inches in diameter which also had a 2 inch tear in it. The process brought into my mind the old saying "Like taking candy from a baby". I watched for awhile and never saw a fish captured however all the little children were thoroughly enjoying themselves.
Behind the fish game of "chance" (little chance?), several children were having a grand time bouncing up and down on two trampolines. I have chosen the words carefully. They were literally and figuratively bouncing up and down on TWO trampolines. Many of the children would bounce from one trampoline to the other trampoline. There were no spotters or protective padding or mats. It was groups of children absolutely enjoying themselves on a hot and sunny day.

At the far end of the grounds, small battery powered cars were available for toddlers to ride. In the center of the grounds there was a booth very similar to what we saw at the Mango Festival where children could race small battery powered remote controlled cars on an elevated plywood track. Vendors strolled around the grounds selling various creatures and objects created out of inflated balloons. As is typical at all these events, there were many booths, stalls, and push carts selling all types of food, soft drinks, and beer.

Sahts were set up to the side as well as the front of the stage. Through choice and selection, the areas were segregated unto women with young children, men heavily into drinking, mixed teenagers, young boys, and eventually Ladyboys.

We went to witness some of the villagers earn merit by offering food to the Wat Monks. We were joined by Duang's cousin and her young daughter, Kwan. At 11:00 A.M. the show commenced.

The show was excellent and followed the typical format for these performances. It started with a raucous rock and roll song (Mahlam Sing) with Go-Go dancers. That was followed by a young male singer and then a female performer who sounded very much like the famous Mahlam Morlam singer, Siriporn Ainphaipong. She was a performer because in addition to singing she also danced during many of the songs that the men sang. After the opening sets, the troupe performed several Mahlam Lao (traditional Lao music) songs. The Mahlam Lao songs are a tie to the past as well as a tribute to the Lao Loum culture that transcends the borders of Thailand and Laos.

Having paid tribute to the past and their ancestors, the troupe focused on more contemporary songs and arrangements. As the show continued on and the spectators drank more and more, many more people were moved by the music leading them to get up and dance in front of the stage. Dancing here in Isaan is more of an individual or group exercise than a couples event as shown on "Dancing With the Stars". People basically get up and start dancing. They may be alone, part of a group of same sex people, or sometimes in a mixed group. Very rarely can a single man and single woman be identified as dancing together.

As occurs at all these shows two groups dominated the area directly in front of the stage. Teenage boys, that I refer to as the "Young Bucks", many of them feeling the affects of beer as well as whiskey, form a sort of "Mosh Pit" at center stage. These guys are usually the best and definitely most energetic of the dancers. At times it appears to me that they will challenge each other to show off their best moves - sort of like the old style break dancing competitions.
Younger brothers and male cousins, 10 to 14 years old, hang around the edges of the Mosh Pit practising their moves and yearning to be part of the older group - some day, some day soon.

The second group are the Ladyboys. Today they took over stage right since the young bucks had previously set up at stage center. The Ladyboys stick pretty much to themselves and can be counted on to show some very animated dance moves along with their vamping. It all makes for some very interesting entertainment. Even out in these outlying areas, I am amazed at the number of Ladyboys. At this show, 10 Ladyboys attended. When they made their grand entrance, I heard some laughter from the other spectators but nothing derisive. The initial laughter only seemed to encourage the Ladyboys to do their thing.

Around 1:00 P.M. the show was going on in full force and swing. The Ladyboys were dancing up a storm. The Mosh Pit was hopping. The Go-Go girls were quite animated. The singers were in fine form. The band, as always, was great. The beer was cold and plentiful. The whiskey was great with coke. The local whiskey, a sort of moonshine, Lao Kao or Lao Lao, was in plentiful supply. It was a great afternoon under the hot Isaan sun. A great day without any policeman around. No police? That was strange. There usually are Police at these events.

As I was taking a break from taking photographs and showing how we used to dance in the old days, I noticed a vendor walking around gathering up and removing the empty bottles laying around the spectator areas. I thought this was very environmentally responsible and indicative of the people's sensitivity towards recycling. After my break I went to the edge of the Mosh Pit to take some close ups of the Go-Go girls. All of a sudden there was shouting, yelling, and a surge of people towards me - a fight had broken out. This was not unexpected - it happens at every show. This was the first time that I came close to being in the middle of the people surge though. I once was involved in a near panic surge of people at a soccer game in Brasil so I am very leery and familiar with the awesome power of a mob. I quickly got out of the way and immediately set about preparing my camera gear to leave the event.

Fights in Isaan are usually very short lived initial events. Typically they last no more than a total of more than 4 or 5 blows. The show immediately stops at the start of a fight. Once two people start at it, their friends separate the combatants. At the same time police, when they are in attendance get, involved to separate the people. Village Headmen and older men also help to restore order. People in general listen and pay attention to the Village Headman out of respect or perhaps due to the realization that he or she can make things difficult for you for a long time. Elderly men are also respected so they have some influence in stopping the fight(s). Since these a family events, the most effective peace making force is always in attendance - Grandmothers, Mothers, and Aunts! Grandmothers, Mothers and Aunts wage in and remove the initial battlers from the scene scolding the fighters as they lead them away.

After things calm down, the music starts up again. Typically there will be another fight. Yesterday the second fight started even before Duang and I finished our preparations to leave because of the first fight. It was during this second set of fights that I realized why the vendor had been picking up the empty glass bottles. I saw a drunk with an empty bottle prepared to throw it. Thankfully he did not. The second round of fights typically involves the first set of fighters and others who suffered some perceived slight or insult during the first go around. "Face" is very important so it leads to many confrontations during these events.

Why do people fight to begin with? It basically boils down to too much drinking and people not being able to handle their liquor. Just as else where in the world, some people get mean when they drink.

We learned today that there were actually 5 fights, 3 after we left, at yesterday's show. The show was stopped at 3:00 P.M. when the final fight broke out, the last straw - Ladyboys fighting each other!

Duang has told me that there will be Police at the 30 March show along with a big Police truck where they can lock up people.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Mango Fair

Yesterday was the start of the annual Mango Fair in Non Wai about 20 miles from our home. We drove out to Amphoe Nong Wau Sor, where Non Wai, is located, in the early afternoon not quite knowing what to expect at the fair.

We arrived at the fair around 3:00 P.M. and found many of the booths still being set up. The fair was fairly typical for these types of events throughout Isaan. There were two large stages set up at opposite ends of the fair where elaborate stage shows would be performed. The shows typically start around 8 or 9 P.M. and conclude much later in the night with many shows going on into the early hours of the morning. I learned today that one of the shows for this fair ended at 5 A.M. this morning. There was a small area where children could jump on trampolines, slide down a large inflated multi layered structure, ride on a couple kiddie rides or ride on tiny motorcycles. There were also the ubiquitous "Pop The Balloons With Darts" booths as well as a couple booths where you could fire plastic ball from a rifle to knock down objects to win a prize. One booth was a race track where small radio controlled cars navigated through a series of painted obstacles. Along with the many booths selling local foods and soft drinks, there were some booths selling articles such as clothing and hats. A couple of beer gardens were set up where people could eat and sing karaoke along with their drinking. Best of all, for me, there was an area where local farmers were selling mangoes.

The best mangoes, large, unblemished, and uniform in color were for sale from 30 to 35 baht a kilogram ($0.48 USD a pound). In addition to the sweet mango there were also plenty of the hard green mangoes that are used in cooking as well as for eating either with a chili dip sauce, dry chili along with salt, or just as they are. We ended up with three plastic bags filled with delicious mangoes - $1 USD worth.

During our wanderings about the fair we came upon a small booth where some been were drinking beer. Since, as is often the case, I was one of very few foreigners at these events I tend to attract attention. They invited us over to their booth to have a drink with them. I drank a glass of beer and told them that I could not drink much because I had to drive the truck back to our home. They then showed me and I realized that THEY WERE THE POLICE!

They had a karaoke system set up and were singing. They had me sing some songs in English. After awhile and some more beer, we were singing songs together in Thai or my feeble but earnest imitation of Thai. We were having such a good time that some of the performers from the nearby stage area came over to investigate. They had been putting on their make-up and costumes in preparation for the start of their show.

These were not the typical female singers or Go-Go girls that I photograph backstage. These were female impersonators. They were not Kathoeys (Lady Boys) who strive and for the most part succeed in transforming themselves into appearing as females. These performers were more "campy" with their outlandish makeup and over the top movements. They made no effort to disguise their low voices or to even ensure that they had recently shaved their face. I took several photographs and they were faithful to their representations as performers. They were very photogenic. I viewed the experience as a good opportunity to work with a different type of people under different, if not challenging, conditions to create interesting photographs.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Life Along the Water - It Is All About Water

It is already March here in Thailand. Today is a holiday - the start of Buddhist Lent. It is also the start of the four day Mango Fair in nearby Non Wai in Amphoe Nong Wau Sor. We will go to the fair later this afternoon.

February went by so quickly. It doesn't seem all that long ago that we were returning home from our trip to Luang Namtha. Perhaps because the trip was so enjoyable that our memories and thoughts over the past month numbed our consciousness to the passage of time.

Throughout our trip, I was impressed with the importance that water played in the day to day life of the minority people of the Luang Namtha region. For many of us, water is taken for granted. It is readily available and at our disposal by merely turning a faucet open in our kitchen, in any number of our bathroom sinks, flush one of our toilets, our bath tub or tubs, our shower or showers, and the valves outside our home for watering the lawn and plants in our yards. Many of our refrigerators automatically create ice from the water that is hooked up to the appliance. We have no reservations about pouring a glass and drinking straight from the tap. The water is always there. The water is always potable.

That is the way that it is in our world. We may have concern regarding the availability of oil and its associated products. We are definitely concerned about the price of oil and its associated products. Seldom and perhaps never, are we concerned about the availability or cost of water. But this is not the way it is in most of the world.

We can live without oil albeit not as comfortably as we do now but all people, all creatures as well as plants, must have water. Unfortunately, for many people in the world access to water is not often reliable, convenient or even potable. To address some of the water issues, many people have settled alongside sources of water.

Every village and settlement that we came upon in the Luang Namtha region was along the banks of a river, stream, or spring. These sources of water were heavily utilized. In the late afternoon, we could see the villagers bathing in the flowing water. Typically in the morning, clothes were washed in the water although some people multi-tasked by washing clothes as part of their bathing ritual. No matter the time of the day for bathing, buckets of water were gathered and carried back home. At the Boat Landing Guest House and Restaurant, small pumps take water directly out of the adjacent Nam Tha River and lift the water to elevated storage tanks to be used as required. In some of the settlements the source of household water was nothing more than a slow flowing drainage ditch between the road and the house. The same water used for washing clothes, and bathing is often is also used as a food source and for drinking water. The same water is often used by children as a playground. The same water is also used by the villager's livestock. What water is readily available is well utilized.

There was photographic opportunity that most likely will forever be fixed in my mind. Outside of Xieng Kok on the road back to Muang Sing, we came upon a mother standing in a shallow ditch in front of her home no more than 12 feet from the edge of the main road. She stood ankle deep in the water, having completed her bathing, wringing the water out of one side of her sarong that due to some semblance of modesty she was still wearing. Joining her in the ditch were three little boys and a little girl - all under three years old. Watching over the scene were three other little children. I often write about the lack of privacy here in Isaan but this scene often repeated during our Lao trip exceeds what is the situation in Isaan.
Once in Peru, my wife at the time remarked about the personal hygiene of the local people in Cusco, Peru. Shortly after she made that remark, I saw out of the train window, a small girl, perhaps 6 years old, struggling to carry two filled yellow Prestone Anti-Freeze containers of water from the small community water tap in the middle of a flat compacted bare earth area at the edge of the village. I pointed the scene out to my wife and remarked that the child was bringing water back to her home for cooking as well as bathing. I asked my wife how many baths would she take and further pointed out the water was cold. Again, for much of the world bathing is not as convenient nor as private as is our experience. Most people do not have the luxury of closing a door, turning a faucet or two, and enjoying an unlimited amount of hot water upon demand. Our Lao experience reminded us of our fortune - a fortune that we should not take for granted.

So today as I wind up reviewing and editing the photographs from our Luang Namtha journey, so many of them having water in them, I reminisce about the experience mostly of life along the river.

Life along the river, life along the stream, and sometimes life next to the ditch - I can almost hear once again the sounds of clothes being slapped against rocks, the soft ruffling of clothes being hand washed, the occasional plop of a fish as it reentered the water after catapulting upwards to snare a meal, the sharp staccato of rocks hitting upon each other as village women wade upstream overturning them in their search for food to bring back for the family meal, the sound of wet clothes being beat with a wooden club to clean them, the excitement as well as exuberance of young boys and girls exploring the banks together - each discovery evoking a conference as well an animated discussion with one child naturally evolving to be the group's leader, the sounds of community gossip in a six tonal language by village women as they congregate in mid-thigh high water to bathe, the soft crescendo of mono filament fishing nets being flung over the waters as the sun sets and a full moon rises ... Yes it is all about the water. - Life along the river in Laos.

We will hopefully never take our water for granted again.