Thursday, April 29, 2010

Baan That International Rocket Festival - Rocket Builders

Tuesday, 27 April, was the first full day schedule of the Ban That International Rocket Festival. It had opened the evening before with a beauty contest. Since the festival is about 45 minutes from our home and in an area that we had not been to before, we decided until morning to check out the festival. It was a wise decision, Monday night the area was hit by very strong thunderstorms. Here in Udonthani, we lost our electrical power momentarily three separate times and we lost Internet access until the next morning.

We stopped in central Udonthani to pick up Duang's youngest brother AKA "#4". He wanted to attend the festival and had once been to the area to perform a show. All along the way from our home out to Ban That we saw evidence of the ferocity of the previous night's storms. Trees and tree limbs littered the ground. Large billboards had been toppled. Remnants of large fabric billboards fluttered in the morning's little breeze like frayed and tattered battle flags.

We parked at the Chumchon Banthat School which is one of the main centers of the festival. Workmen were busy with a combination of tasks. The festival was still being set up. Vendors were setting up their booths. On the Wat grounds next door to the school, a gang of workers were offloading several trucks and commencing to erect another stage for performances. However most of the people were occupied with clean up from the previous night's storm. A large tree had been blown over so six workers were busy cutting it up with a very large electrical chain saw in order to remove the debris.

There were large signs indicating participation in the festival by Russia, China, Japan, USA, and India - all pylon signs blown over by the wind and now lying on the wet ground.

An extremely large sign advertising the schedule of festival events had been blown over. The mass of scaffolding frames and weatherproof sign was lying twisted, folded and crumpled along side the narrow village street between the school and the Wat.

It appeared that not much was going to be happening that morning or even during the afternoon. There were some large stage musical events planned for the night which would definitely be interesting but we limit our nighttime travels. It appeared that our trip was a wasted effort. However, this is Thailand and things are not what they always seem.

Duang and her brother stopped at a couple food carts to buy their breakfast. I wandered over to the Wat. Wat Sri Ja Rern is at the heart of the festival. The Wat had been home to a local Monk who first arrived when he was 9 years old and remained there until his death at 84 years old. The fact that he had never been married or known a woman adds to his perceived powers and esteem. Monks are not allowed to touch women once they become Monks but since men are ordained as Monks in their 20s or 30s, some Monks have known women. People have had dreams about the Monk in which he has made it known that he wanted a "big house". Apparently the deceased Monk has issued many requests from people who have prayed to him. All this has led to the Wat being a very popular place of worship for people throughout Isaan. The Monk when he was alive and apparently now that he is deceased, enjoyed "bang fei" - rockets.

His enjoyment of firing gunpowder rockets into the sky and his prowess in responding positively to prayers has lead to the development of a sort of rocket cult in the area. The Monk's ashes are interned in a chedi on the Wat's grounds. A very large area surrounding the chedi was surrounded by a low decorative concrete wall. Several large rockets, 6" diameter and approximately 5 feet long with a long bamboo pole tail, leaned on the low wall with their nose pointed towards the inside of the compound. Cotton strings from the chedi were wrapped around the nose of each rocket. Inside of the wall there were hundreds of offerings such as candles, floral garlands, sprigs of small green plants, miniature Pahm Bii Khwan and joss (incense) sticks. The previous night's rains had made pretty much of a mess of the offerings. Undeterred by the physical state around the chedi, many people were busy praying and making new offerings to the deceased Monk.

Several vendors on the Wat grounds were selling fireworks - good sized bottle rockets. Worshippers purchased the rockets as offerings prior to entering the chedi compound. Along with the standard offerings of small yellow birthday cake sized candles, jasmine blossoms, and incense, the rockets are offered to the Monk's spirit. Duang purchased four rockets apparently only an even number of rockets is acceptable as offerings. She entered the chedi compound to pray and make her offerings. Like most Lao Loum people she prayed for money to come, good health, work for her son, work for us, work for her parents, work for her parents, health for her in-laws. Duang also prayed that she would be granted a visa to visit the USA this year. She promised that if these wishes were granted that she would return in one year to fire a rocket or rockets in thanksgiving and tribute. She left her rocket offerings inside the compound along with the others. Later village children will gather the rockets and fire them into the sky to complete the ritual. I always considered myself as having a wonderful childhood but the opportunity to legally fire rockets into the sky would have only made it more wonderful.

As Duang was performing her devotion, I wandered around the perimeter of the chedi. A pick up truck arrived with three rockets in the back. Men offloaded them and placed them against the concrete wall prior to connecting string to them from the chedi. I noticed three young men each gathering a large rocket and heading out of the Wat. I am comfortable here so I followed the young men determined to take photographs of what was going to happen next. We walked through the village and turned down a narrow street where the young men entered onto the grounds of a local home. I immediately realized that I had hit the jackpot - this place although it was some one's home was also the factory where the rockets were fabricated!

My arrival at the Peenemunde (Nazi Germany's rocket center during WWII) of Isaan was not unannounced. I had not seen another falang (foreigner) all morning so my presence in the village was a source of curiosity and no secret. As I walked towards the fabrication yard local dogs were barking but not threatening me. Neighbors were yelling to the rocketeers that they were being followed by a falang with a big camera. There are no secrets in Isaan and when it involves a falang it is doubly true. I can not speak much Thai and less Essan but I am starting to understand more and more - sort of like my 14 month old grandson. I knew there were no issues and that the people were more teasing their neighbors than anything else. I stopped outside the property gate and asked the people in Thai if I could take photographs. They said there was no problem.

In no time at all I was shooting away at all aspects of the rocket production. After about three minutes, one of the men came over to me with a bottle of Lao Kao, the Lao Loum version of moonshine whiskey ($3.30 USD for a liter), and a small glass. I had seen this drill before many times in Vietnam, Laos, as well as Isaan. What I was not prepared for was the amount of whiskey that was going to be poured into the glass for me to drink. The man poured twice the typical amount of whiskey into the glass. I knew the pressure was on me. I was being offered their hospitality and I wanted to show the proper respect to the people. I wanted to stay and keep photographing. I was worried. I wasn't worried about contracting anything from the common drinking glass for I am convinced that no bacteria, virus, or amoeba could possibly survive the Lao Kao. I was concerned that what down might quickly go up. Steeling myself and rising to the challenge, I gave a toast in Essan language and downed the whiskey in one gulp. Relieved, the whiskey stayed down. I have heard about how artists have suffered for their art. I don't consider myself to be an artist but I strive to be a photojournalist. Now I have suffered for my work if not art. After downing the whiskey, I indicated to the people that I was now ready to blast off - much to their amusement.

The rocket making was a family business with the work being performed by family members in the front and side yard of home. Much to my relief, unlike the rocketeers in Tahsang Village they did not allow smoking around the rockets. Smoking was only allowed outside of their fenced property.

After about ten minutes on my own, I called Duang on the cell phone to tell her where I was. In the haze of my excitement at the wealth of photo opportunities and undoubtedly the effects of the whiskey, I was unable to guide her to my location. She had been worried about me and had started looking for me with her brother but to no avail. People had told them where they saw me but they couldn't find me. I left my new friends and brought Duang and #4 back to the "factory" This being Isaan, in no time at all, Duang and her brother were like long lost relatives with the relatives. They were sharing lunch with the extended family. With Duang available to translate, I had many more questions for the people. The family build rockets year around and complete approximately 1,000 rockets. Rockets are sold for 1,800 Baht ($60 USD)for the smaller ones and 3,000 Baht ($90 USD)for the larger ones. People call the family to order rockets for occasions such as weddings, funerals, and Monk ordinations. I asked the man if he had any requests for rockets from the UDD (Red Shirts) for their "demonstrations" in Bangkok. Everyone laughed and he said "No".

While we were there, a fresh delivery of rocket casings was delivered to the home. A pickup truck brought several lengths of blue PVC 6" diameter pipe. The PVC pipe is hand worked to form a rounded nose cone, packed with solid fuel, bored out, plugged and then attached to a long bamboo pole for stabilization.

The first step in fabricating a rocket is to form the nose cone on the end of the selected PVC pipe. A truncated wood tapered plug is driven into the end of the PVC pipe to stabilize the open end. The end of the pipe is then heated over a charcoal fire in the family's paint can sized cooking stove. The worker after heating the PVC tube to the required temperature, takes the pipe to a concrete slab under the family's elevated house and manual presses the heated end against the level surface. This is repeated several times and in combination with the skillful use of his bare hands, an open ended dome is formed at this end of the pipe. Satisfied with the shape of the pipe, a worker cuts the pipe to the required length and drives the tapered plug through the pipe and out the unformed end of the casing.

Off to the side of the nose cone fabrication, another family member is cutting flat disks out of blue PVC. He does not use a disk cutter. He does not use a milling machine. He does not even use a coping saw let alone an electric jigsaw. He shapes the flat plastic into a circle using only a typical heavy field knife used in harvesting sugar cane. Most impressively of all is the fact that he does not layout the circle on the square piece of plastic prior to commencing his cutting. He completes each and every disk without taking a measurement. This must be a skill that he has acquired from the fabrication of thousands and thousands of rockets. A completed disk is used to seal off the open end of the rocket nose cone.

A disk is placed in the unshaped end of the tube and allowed to settle down the pipe to the partially closed nose of the rocket casing. The next step in the rocket production is to load the solid fuel. The fueling of the rocket casing is the most highly mechanized step of the production process. Loading of the fuel requires the use of a hydraulic press to compress the fuel inside the casing. To the side of the family home, an approximately 4 foot high elevated wood platform has been set up for fueling the rockets. The platform has a tin roof to provide shelter from the sun and rain except for the many small holes where the corrugated metal roof has corroded away. The elevated platform supports an electrically powered hydraulic pump system. An external metal frame runs from the heavy timbers supporting the roof down to the ground. A hydraulic cylinder is mounted to a sliding arm off of the vertical frame. The lower portion of the external frame is a section of 10" carbon steel pipe that can be pivoted from vertical to horizontal. The 10" diameter steel casing allows 6' and 8" rocket casings to be placed inside the pivoting section of the frame.

To load a rocket casing, the rocket is placed inside the steel casing which has been pivoted towards horizontal from the original vertical position. After the complete insertion of the casing, nose cone down, inside the steel tube, the assembly is returned to the vertical position. Very fine sand, a special type sand that the fabricator must purchase, is then poured in the annular space between the steel pipe and PVC pipe. This prevents the PVC pipe from bulging or perhaps cracking when the internal components are compressed by the hydraulic cylinder and steel mandrel assembly. The protective sand is not placed along the entire length of the rocket casing all at once but is placed in stages. Once the sand protective barrier is in place the appropriate internal material is poured inside of the rocket casing. It was at this point that I got my first surprise in constructing rockets. The rockets are not completely filled with gunpowder. They are filled with a combination of gunpowder and the same very fine sand used in the annular space of the fueling assembly. There are four sections of gunpowder alternating with five sections of sand with the first section at the nose cone being sand. I joked with the people that I would build my rocket with just gunpowder so that it would be yai yai fei (big big fire)! We all laughed - I suspect that my super rocket would actually be a pipe bomb.

Once the required material for the section was poured into the rocket casing using a scoop created out of a recycled plastic soda bottle, a heavy steel mandrel was raised by hand and lowered inside of the rocket casing. The hydraulic cylinder was then slide along its arm to center it over the mandrel. As required due to the changing internal length of the rocket casing sections of the mandrel are removed and steel shims are used to make full use of the hydraulic cylinder to compact the material inside of the casing. After compacting the section, the mandrel is raise d by hand using a polypropylene rope that has short pieces of bamboo tied along its length to create handholds. I actually helped several times to fill a rocket by lifting and lowering the mandrel much to everyone's amusement.

The hydraulic cylinder operator had a large bag of premixed gunpowder and a tub of the fine sand next to him for filling the rocket. At one point, the supply of gunpowder was running low. Two other family members, first a young man and then a middle aged Aunt went to the side of the loading station and mixed up more rocket fuel. The rocket fuel was a gunpowder that they made out of Potassium Nitrate and Charcoal. The Potassium Nitrate, KNO3, was commercial fertilizer, 13-0-46 prills. The product that the family used was produced by Haifa Chemicals in Israel. This was another surprise to me but on further reflection it may not be so surprising. Many farmers from Isaan work on farms in Israel. They can earn much more money in Israel than they can here. It only seems logical that their experience with Haifa Chemicals would translate into importing the products here for domestic use.

The white Potassium Nitrate was weighed on a spring scale and poured into a medium sized plastic tub. Water was added and the ingredients mixed with the people's bare hands to form a very thick paste. I had questioned the clear fluid that was added to the fertilizer and I asked if it was Lao Kao. They told me it was water. I told them that I would use Lao Kao (alcohol) in my rocket to make it go faster and higher. They had a good laugh but I really would like to try it - someday. After the paste was the right consistency, they added powdered charcoal to the mix. The powdered charcoal was originally household charcoal that they had ground into a powder using a stone motar and pestle. The powdered charcoal was weighed and mixed into the paste once agqain with bare hands. My science training has taught me that their fuel should include some sulfur but I did not witness any being added to the fuel mixture. Out of respect for their trade I did not pay particular attention to the weighing of the fuel components. I did not want to learn any of their secret formulas for their fuel.

After all the internal sections had been installed and compacted, the rocket casing was carefully removed from the external frame. Care was taken to recapture for recycling the special sand for use on future rockets. The filled rocket casing was then placed in a jig where a small diameter hole was drilled along the casing's length through the centerline of the rocket using a customized long drill bit and small electric hand drill. As part of the drilling jig, water was gravity fed around the drill bit to cool it and to remove the shavings. The hole will serve as a pilot hole for the carving of the combustion chamber in the next process step. The mixture of water, gunpowder, and sand flowed off the property into the street drainage ditch outside of the property.

After the pilot hole was completed, the rocket casing was returned to another area of the fuel filling station. The casing was strapped nose down into a frame which allowed another family member to carve a larger hole along the centerline length of the rocket by twisting an approximately 1" wide curved chisel bit welded at the end of a long tee handled metal rod. Both the small diameter drill bit and the wider chisel bit had to be periodically sharpened using a hand held grinder and abrasive wheel with no safety equipment or devices such as gloves, face shields, or safety goggles. Normal safety practices and equipment is very often lacking in rural Isaan.

The final stage of the rocket production is to attach the completed rocket casing to the long bamboo pole which provides aerodynamic stability to the rocket during flight. In a expression of artistic verve that I had not seen before, the rocket casings were wrapped with colorful foil.

Completed rockets where stored horizontally on racks underneath the house. We ended up spending 2-1/2 hours at this fascinating place. Duang had bought some soft drinks and ice for everyone to share on a hot and sweltering morning. From the family we learned the rockets would be launched commencing at 8:00 A.M. until around 3:00 P.M. on May 1. Interestingly , the Festival ends on April 29th. Apparently the festival is mainly a music and cutural event rather than an actual launching of rockets. There are some rockets launched but the big launch is on May 1 according to the professionals, the ones in the know. We thanked them for their time, hospitality and vowed to return on May 1.

For a day that had started out without much promise, we had experienced a wonderful day. Once again things were not as they first appeared to be. Just as anywhere in the world there are opportunities for learning, and making new friends for anyone willing to make just a little effort. Often the effort is no more than leaving the main road or event to check out what make be on the periphery.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Profiling - I Have Been Subject To, I Am Not A Victim

Sitting over here in Thailand so many thousands miles away from America, I get and have developed a different perspective on many things. Away from the main stream media and being exposed to a completely different set of life experiences, you see things differently.

The past few days from the Internet, Facebook, and what English language news programs available here on television, I see that the United States is getting stirred up about the new law in Arizona related to illegal immigrants.

I have some thoughts on this from a set of circumstances that may not be familiar to many of you.

First of all, I stay in a foreign country by choice. Due to Thailand's immigration laws, I can not live in Thailand. Thailand has very restrictive immigration policies to the point that you can with certainty never be allowed to live in Thailand as an immigrant much less as a Thai citizen. However, Thai law allows you to stay in Thailand for up to one year if you meet certain requirements. In my case I actually meet the requirements for two eligibility categories to stay in Thailand. First of all I am over 50 years old, and I have a specified minimum amount of money in a Thai bank account. This allows me to apply and then request a one year extension each year to remain in Thailand as "Retired".

Secondly I am married to a Thai citizen. Being married means that I have to maintain only 1/2 half the amount of money in a Thai bank account that I have to maintain for "Retired" status. The complication of "Married to A Thai" status is that the marriage has to be reviewed and approved by Bangkok authorities after it is reviewed and approved by local authorities. With the possibility of losing face perhaps by Bangkok authorities, local officials are hesitant to assist in processing "Married to a Thai" applications whereas they have absolute authority and control over "Retired" extensions. Since both conditions, "Retired" and "Married to a Thai", are only able to be extended for one year each year, I continue to apply for extensions as "Retired".

That is the Thai law and policy. For me to stay in Thailand for a year each year, it is worth the effort as well as expense. It is the Thai law and policy. I will not criticize or defend the situation. I respect the Thai law and policy. I have determined that it is in my personal best interests to follow the law and policy. If at some future point in time, the law and policy run counter to what I believe is in my personal best interest, I will leave Thailand. The point is that I know and I accept that I have no right to live here. I am a guest and I am pleased that there are ways to stay here for a year each year as long as I follow and obey the laws.

Being a guest in a foreign land, I make certain that I am always on my best behavior especially regarding the laws and dealings with government officials. I don't want to give anyone any excuse or cause to throw me out of their country. It is just that plain and simple.

That is some personal background on where I am coming from. I am experiencing what it is like to be a foreigner in a country. I know what it is like to not speak the language. But to get to the subject of profiling.

I have been the subject of profiling. Yes it may be hard to believe but people other than Hispanics, Blacks, and Muslims are subject to profiling by the United States government. Middle aged white men are also subject to profiling.

In June 2007, upon arrival at San Francisco International Airport, I was selected for special questioning and search of my personal belongings. I had started working in Thailand in April of 2006, so there were several entry and exit stamps in my passport at the time for Thailand. The United States official asked me what I was doing in Thailand. When I told him that I was working, he wanted to know what company was I working for, where in Thailand was I working, what was my position, how long had I been in Thailand and so forth. He requested documentation to verify my responses - documentation such as a business card or a recent pay stub. I didn't have a business card on me so I gave him my Company Medical Insurance Card. I believe this intense and detailed line of questioning went on for about five minutes. This was in full view of other people clearing customs as well as immigration. The government official even asked why I was back in the USA, how long was I staying in the USA, where I was staying in the USA, and where I was going once I left the USA other than Thailand.

After the interrogation, he proceeded to search my luggage. He performed a very thorough search of every piece of my baggage. It was so thorough that he looked at every single photograph that I had in my bag and asked me where the photograph was taken and details about the scene. There were a couple photographs of children, unoffensive photos and fully clothed, he asked me who the children were as well as their names. When he came upon my small digital camera, he asked me permission to view the photographs and then requested that I show him how to view the photos on file in the camera. Again there were some photos of Thai friends and he asked who they were and what relationship that I had with them. After doing a thorough search of my baggage, he asked to look inside my wallet and asked me to turn my pockets inside out. Satisfied with finding nothing of interest to him and after 15 minutes, he welcomed me back to my homeland and allowed me to enter.

I have to admit that during this entire process I was treated with respect and courteously. The government official was very professional at all times.

What was it all about? Why me? What was he looking for?

Fortunately one of my friends, a white single male in his late 40s had received similar treatment on his previous return trips to the USA and had told me about it. His treatment was actually worse in that the US government seized his personal laptop computer. When his personal property was returned a month or two later, his hard drive which had been functioning without problems, no longer worked. What was it all about? Why him? What was the US government looking for?

My friend and I fit the profile of paedophiles. We were white educated somewhat affluent middle aged males who made frequent trips between Thailand and the USA.

We were aware of the issue that still exists today of men travelling to Southeast Asia to abuse children. It is a disgusting and revolting truth - sex crimes being committed by a certain type of person - not 80 year old grandmothers, not 30 year old Black females but crimes typically committed by middle aged white males. The fact that we had frequent trips to Thailand was another point of their interest. To paraphrase some phrases used in the media for other minorities subject to profiling - We were only guilty of "WITWBWAMA" - "Working In Thailand While Being White and Middle Aged".

I can not write about my friend's reaction or beliefs related to his experience but I will share mine. I did not enjoy my experience. My experience was embarrassing and bordered on being humiliating. I was treated fairly, professionally, and with courtesy.

Although I did not enjoy my experience, I was embarrassed and somewhat humiliated, I do not consider myself to have been a victim. I know the types of people who commit many of the sex crimes in Asia are people that I fit the profile of. I am ashamed that it is true. My personal discomfort does not change that fact. My belief is that my participation in the the special questioning and search that day constituted my contribution to the overall effort to stop these crimes. It was a small price in my opinion to pay in an effort to improve the common good.

I am a staunch individualist however I was taught and still believe that we as individuals, the smallest of minorities, have an obligation to the majority. Our obligation is to make and accept minor accommodations that benefit the greater good.

I believe that society has obligations to respect the rights and wishes of the minority but the minority also has obligation to reasonably accommodate the majority. It isn't always about me or you. Sometimes we have to give a little for the greater good. Giving a little does not necessarily mean losing.

It is how I stay here in Thailand.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Tahsang Village Wedding

I started this blog last night but a powerful thunderstorm took out our power very briefly but wiped out our Internet access until this morning. On our way out to the Ban That International Rocket Festival this morning, we saw numerous large trees felled by the high winds as well as many billboards destroyed. Northeast of Udonthani, many rice fields were covered with water. The rains have arrived.

Yesterday, Sunday 25 April, we attended a wedding in Tahsang Village. The daughter of one of Duang's 93 cousins got married at her home. This was about the sixth or seventh wedding that I have attended here in Isaan. Just as in the case of funerals here in Isaan, weddings are "same same but different". There are many common elements in all weddings but there are some large differences mainly attributable to the social and economic status of the bride.

In Isaan, there is a custom and accepted practise of "Sin Sod". Sin Sod is essentially a dowry provided by the Groom and/or his family to the Bride's family. The payment is a complex and multifaceted act by the Groom. First of all it demonstrates his ability to support his wife to be - sort of ironic in that many Grooms have to borrow in order to accumulate the required funds for the Sin Sod. Secondly, payment of the Sin Sod is a display of commitment and respect of the Groom for the Bride as well as for her family. Lastly the Sin Sod is a form of financial support for the Bride's family. A large Sin Sod is also a sign of prestige for the parties involved - sort of bragging rights for both families. In Thailand as well as other Asian cultures, "face" is very important. A large Sin Sod buys a great deal of "face"

In Lao Loum society, children and grandchildren are obligated to care for their parents and grandparents. They do not rely upon any government social or economic safety nets which is good since there are not any. Families take care of families. Neighbors take care of neighbors. Within this social context, the actual burden of caring for parents falls to the youngest daughter. Youngest daughters in turn are rewarded for their care of their parents by inheriting their family's home and land.

When a man and woman decide to get married, the man will have a close relative or trusted friend approach the woman's parents to determine the amount of the "Sin Sod" as well as the "Tong Mun". Tong Mun" is "gold engagement". In Thailand, baht besides being the name of the national currency, is also a measure for buying and selling gold. A "baht" of gold here, 15.244 grams currently sells for approximately 17,300 Baht ($534 USD). Since gold in Thailand is 96.5% pure, approximately 23.2 Karat, a baht contains 15.16 grams of pure gold (0.528 ounces). The "Tong Mun" is given directly to the Bride and remains her personal property. Here in Isaan there is a thriving business in selling as well as buying gold. Many women will sell their gold back for a short period of time to bridge over difficult financial times. The Gold Shops act as Pawn Shops to help people out financially - of course for a fee. I suspect that the gold business is rather lucrative. Shops are located in the malls, in the western style "superstores", and as small shops in the towns. Kumphawapi is a small town with approximately 26,000 people with at least 5 gold shops that I am aware of. Gold is mainly sold in the form of rings, necklaces, and bracelets. Necklaces run basically in whole numbers of bahts - 1, 2, 3, baht necklaces. The buyer pays for the gold content with a small premium for craftsmanship related to the ornate work of the piece. The Tong Mun provides security to the woman. Security, for the Bride and her family, is a very important aspect of Lao Loum marriages.

Sunday's wedding was a different experience for us in that it involved rather well off families. Most of the weddings that we have attended here with the exception of a foreigner to a Lao Loum woman, have involved poor families. The Bride is the only daughter of a local politician and bureaucrat. Her family owns three homes in Udonthani province so they are relatively economically well off. The bride's father was associated with deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawarta's government and party. Today, he is involved in what goes for Social Security here in Isaan - 500 Baht ($15 a month) for seniors. I also believe that he is involved with UDD ("Red Shirts")

Besides being the only daughter of an influential family, the Bride is a university graduate, has no children, and has not been previously married - all very desirable traits, all circumstances that warrant a higher Sin Sod and Tong Mun. The Sin Sod was 500,000 Baht ($15,151 USD). The Tong Mun was 10 baht ($5,242 USD - 5-1/4 ounces of gold). How do I know? Isn't it a secret? If you follow my blogs, you realize that there are no secrets here in Isaan. Actually in regards to weddings, the amount of the Sin Sod and Tong Mun is blatantly flaunted as part of the wedding ritual - more about that later in this blog.

We arrived in Tahsang Village around 9:00 A.M. to pick up our grandson to attend his first wedding. We left the truck at Duang's parent's home, and walked through the village to the Bride's home. Four canopies were set up around the home with decorated tables and chairs placed underneath them. Part of the home has a permanent covered terrace. For the wedding, the terrace was set up for the ceremony. There was a heart shaped gate way surrounded by balloons leading to the terrace. An elevated stage was set up on the left side of the covered terrace. The elevated stage had a computer monitor and a sound mixing board set up to support singing and dancing. Just outside of the terrace, four young women were busy putting on traditional costumes and make-up prior to their performance.

There was a desk where guests handed in their wedding invitation with their gift for the couple. In Isaan there is no danger of having two or three waffle irons as wedding gifts. In Isaan, guests provide gifts of money for the couple. This actually seems like a very practical custom. There is also a custom that takes some getting used to, a great deal of getting used to - the men at the desk open each envelop and announce the name of the donor as well as the amount of the gift over the loudspeaker for all in attendance as well as others living in the vicinity to hear. The announcement is not a matter of fact accounting of the gift but is very animated as if he were announcing the winner of a Muay Thai boxing match. I do have to admit though that he announced a 100 Baht donation with the same amount of enthusiasm and fervor as a 1,000 baht gift.

We sat at a table were were fed typical celebration food - raw chopped beef with chilies, sticky rice, cooked pork, raw liver, laab, raw cabbage, cucumbers, boiled pork internals, boiled beef internals, fried vegetable rolls - all very tasty and delicious.

In the center of the terrace, several sahts had been placed on the concrete floor. In the middle of the sahts was an ornate centerpiece called "Pahn Sii Khwan". "Pahn Sii Khwan" are made out of banana leaves and tiny flowers usually Jasmine Blossoms. Creating Pahn Sii Khwan is a handicraft emblematic of the Lao Loum culture here in Isaan as well as in Laos. The Pahn Sii Khwan serves as a sort of altar for Bai Sii ceremonies. There is no Buddhist marriage ritual in Isaan. The marriage ritual in Isaan has its origins in the Animist and Hindu rituals of pre-Buddhist times. In Isaan the marriage ritual is comprised of many separate rites.

The first rite is the arrival of the Groom and his family at the Bride's home. The Groom and his family and close friends walk to the Bride's home. Typically there is loud Mahlam Lao and Mahlam Sing music blasting from a sound truck following the Groom procession. On Sunday there was no music accompanying the Groom. However the people walking with him were singing and shouting. It was obvious that they were in good spirits - literally and figuratively. Weddings are a very joyous occasion in Isaan. One woman, the Groom's Aunt, in the procession carried a silver pressed metal bowl often used in Buddhist merit making rituals, upon which the Sin Sod (stacks of Thai currency)was prominently displayed. Another elderly woman, another Aunt, carried a gold pressed metal bowl upon which the gold Tong Mun was just as prominently displayed.

At the property line of the Brides home, two security men blocked the procession's entrance on to the land with a barrier made by holding a rolled up Pakama (cotton male clothing article) between them. This is typical. Usually younger sisters or female relatives will block the Grooms path with a "gate". They will tease him about why he is there and ask if is capable of taking care of a wife. When he pays the gate keepers some money, 500 baht ($15 USD), the barrier is removed. The groom then encountered a second gate - a string of gold chains. The married female relatives of the Bride offer their gold necklaces for use in creating the barrier. Duang had loaned her necklace for the cause on Sunday. The Groom was then questioned about being able to take care of a wife AND HER FAMILY. Still undeterred and not intimidated, the Groom paid another 500 baht and proceeded to the third gate.

After some more joking and a final 500 baht, the Groom had arrived at the heart shaped entrance to the covered terrace. At this point the Bride's cousin had him stand on banana leaves, remove his socks and shoes in order that she could wash his feet. This service cost him another 300 baht. This may cost him more in the future. traditionally as was the case for my wedding, the Bride greets her Groom and washes his feet as a demonstration of her respect for as well as her loyalty to her husband to be. On Sunday the Bride was not in sight at this point.

The Groom and his family removed their shoes as they positioned themselves on the sahts in front of the Pahn Si Khwan. A Brahman, a village elder who is familiar with spiritual matters and rituals, kneels facing the families. Duang's Uncle who normally handles these rituals is dying and was not in attendance. The Sin Sod and Tong Mun were given to the Bride's Mother. With a couple elderly women, I suspect that they were sisters, she went off to the side of the assembled families to count the offerings. Counting the Sin Sod and Tong Mun is more of a spectacle than a ritual. A cloth is placed on the saht and the stacks of money are placed on the cloth. The stacks are spread on the cloth and slid around sort of reminiscent of the Shell and Pea games that I witnessed once as a child in NYC's Times Square. Each of the women seems to have to handle each of the stacks of currency several times. The currency is then counted several times to ensure accuracy and to enhance the prestige of the ritual. The amount is then announced for everyone to hear. All the people smile in a demonstration of their acceptance and respect. The Bride's Mother then bundles up the Sin Sod in the cloth, places the bundle over her shoulder, and leaves the area to place the money in the home.

After the financial arrangements were verified, the Bride appeared and knelt before the Pahn Sii Khwan at the left hand side of her husband. At this point on Sunday, in a break from traditional ritual but most likely in deference to the prestige of the Bride's family, traditional Thai classical dances were performed in the Bride and Groom's honor by the women we saw earlier in the morning applying their makeup. I later found out that the dance performance had been a gift from the UDD (Red Shirts) political action group.

The Groom and Bride lit candles on each side of the Pahn Sii Khwan that remained burning for the duration of the ritual. To the left of the Pahn Sii Khwan several plates and bottles were placed on the sahts. There were offerings of green leaves, small yellow candles similar to birthday cake candles, bottles of Lao Kao (moonshine whiskey, "White Lightening"). These are offerings to the spirits. There were also boiled eggs, sticky rice, small bananas, and a sweet concoction of sticky rice with banana wrapped in banana leaves. These were offerings used by the Bride and Groom. There was a bowl of water that the Brahman would later use to sprinkle on the families using a green leaf in order to transfer the merit making of the ritual to the witnesses.

The Brahman lead the ritual which lasted about one hour. Female relatives placed the various pieces of gold jewelry from the Tong Mun on the Bride at the start of the Baii Sii Kwan ritual. A cotton string was held by the Bride and Groom which connected them to Pahm Sii Khwan. The string binds the spirits together to ensure good luck and prosperity for the couple. In another part of the ritual the Bride's Father and one of the Groom's Aunts, placed a floral garland on the head of the Groom and the head of the Bride further strengthening the binding symbolics.

At the end of the ceremony, all the people tied cotton strings around the wrist of the Bride and Groom to bind the 32 spirits inside of their bodies to ensure good luck and prosperity for a long as well as happy marriage. As the strings were tied around the wrist, each guest gave their blessing, best wishes, and encouragement to the young people.

It was now around 12:30 P.M. on a very hot day, so Duang and I returned to our home to rest and cool off before returning to the formal reception at a hotel in Kumphawapi starting at 6:00 P.M.

We arrived at the hotel for 6:00 P.M. and discovered that we were the first guests to arrive. This is Thailand and not America. I am constantly reminded of this by my wife but I still often forget especially when it comes to being punctual for scheduled events. No problem - we had spent a month at the hotel when we had left Vietnam two years ago so we wandered around renewing acquaintances with the staff.

Whereas the morning's celebration had been a Lao Loum event for family members, the evening celebration was more of a typical Western style reception with even a videographer. The Bride had changed from her Thai style gown into a traditional Western wedding dress. We had a wonderful evening - wonderful food, as well as plenty of whiskey. The guests were many of the local politicians, policemen, and government officials. I was the only foreigner but it doesn't bother me at all. The Lao Loum people are very friendly and sociable so I am never ill at ease.

One of the guests at our table remarked that the Groom was not smiling to which I quipped that he was thinking too much about the Sin Sod and Tong Mun that he had paid for. We all had a good laugh with the policeman at our table pouring me another drink. I was concerned about drinking and then driving back to Udonthani. Duang reassured me by saying that I did not have to worry - "Policeman not care. Night time Policeman go home not stop car. You drive fast or slow - up to you." I still made sure not to drink too much. We arrived home safely with many memories and photos of a fine day.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

A More Traditional Songkran - 14 April 2553

On Wednesday, 14 April, we got a late start to return to Tahsang Village. I spent much of the early morning finishing up my Federal and State Income Tax returns. Even with not working and not much dividend income, the task of preparing the returns was no simple manner. My accountant in the USA had completed the returns and sent them to me as electronic files. I had to print them, sign them and mail them. The Federal Return was 26 pages long, the State Return was 7 pages long but required that a copy of the Federal return be included. We went out to have copies made and to mail the returns. We got copies made but found out that the Post Office was closed for three days for the Songkran Holiday. We will mail the documents tomorrow. This is a lot of documents for having not to pay any taxes. It must be part of a jobs creation program - complicated rules, and many forms.

We had missed the ritual of pouring water on the hands of the elders in Tahsang Village due to our morning efforts. The picture above was from two years ago. Even without the US tax tasks, we would have missed the ceremony in the village. We could not leave Udonthani prior to 10:00 A.M. because we had to go to the Chinese wholesale market to buy more beer and whiskey, and cigarettes for the family market in the village. With the hot weather, the holidays, and gambling, "Momma" is selling a great deal of those items along with ice. Two days ago the ice distributor in Kumphawapi ran out of ice. Fortunately he was restocked the next day.

Although we had missed the Villagers pouring water on the elderly people, showing respect for the elderly and getting the elderly people's blessing for the New Year, we were obligated to "take care" of the elder members of Duang's family. Songkran is a very important family reunion holiday in Isaan. Leading up to the start of the holiday, the roads are filled with Lao Loum workers returning to their homes in Isaan from the big cities were they work. Our first visit was to the next village to pay respects to Duang's uncle who is in failing health. He is a very important member of the family as well as in the local community. He is a Brahman and performs many of the pre-Buddhist Hindu and Animist rituals. He conducts marriages, and the bai sii rituals. He often leads the people in the merit making rituals involving the Monks.

Duang's son and his girl friend took a small insulated jug and filled it with some cool fresh water along with a bottle of scented soap. They drove over to the village with a bunch of the Tahsang Village relatives. We loaded up our truck with the rest of the relatives, or rather the relatives that broke away from the ongoing three day village dice/roulette game. It didn't matter to me because I had Peelawat, 14 months old, sitting up front with me although he kept trying to shift gears as I drove. We got splashed with water four times by people along the way between the villages.

Duang's Uncle and the other elderly relatives that live in the village were seated upon a raised wood and bamboo platform outside of his home. Everyone gathered around the platform. Donations of money, small yellow candles (birthday cake type), and some garlands were placed on a medium sized metal plate to offer to Duang's uncle. Duang's older sister, who was actually raised by him and his wife, knelt on the platform and offered up the gifts to the assembled elders while the other people, the three younger generations. knelt on the ground before the elders. The younger people all offered "wais", Thai gesture of respect that is very similar to a praying gesture, to the old people. Peelawat was not interested in participating although at 14 months old he has been taught and many times does give wais. Peelawat wanted me to hold him while I photographed the ritual. He also took advantage of me holding him to reach up to strip leaves off of a tree branch to analyze them before tossing them to the wind. I believe that more will be expected of him next year when he will be two years old. Children in Isaan participate at a very early age in the rituals as well as events that define the Lao Loum culture.

After some chanting by the young people and then by the elderly, the young people took turns pouring the scented cool water on the hands of the elderly people with the elderly people giving their blessing and best wishes to each person as they poured the water. Sometimes the young people gently and lovingly poured a little water down the back of the old person. After the elderly had been cared for, some of them poured water gently and lovingly on the backs of the younger people. It was very moving to see the sense of community, dignity, respect and affection being reinforced by all the generations in this ritual.

We returned to Tahsang Village where Peelawat and I stayed in the market while the others went across the main farm road to repeat the ritual with a different group of elderly Aunts and Uncles. The temperature was 41C (105F) with 35% humidity so Peelawat and I minimized our time under the sun. Sitting inside with a fan blowing on us, and sharing ice cubes suited us just fine.

With the Aunts and Uncles taken care, the family focused on Duang's mother and father. All their children and grandchildren and some of their great grandchildren participated in the water pouring ritual along with the money offerings. Duang's father made everyone laugh because he insisted on removing his shirt before the start of the ritual. At the end one of the neighbors, perhaps "mau mau" (drunk) ensured that everyone got splashed with some ice water. It was a good time for all.

I have been asked on more than one occasion about how do they define "poor" people in the Lao Loum culture. It is true that the people do not have many material possessions. They are subsistence farmers with the elderly cared for by their extended families and neighbors. But these people do not measure a person's wealth strictly on their material possessions. To the Lao Loum people being happy, doing "good" and having a "good heart" are important factors in determining a person's wealth. Perhaps it is that we believe we have only one chance to grab the brass ring or to grab all the gusto that we can in this life while they know that if they don't make it this time around there will be another opportunity in another go around. Being content and focusing on their spiritual wealth this time around increases their possibility of success sooner than later.

They may not have much. But they have each other - far more than many other "rich" people.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Songkran Continues - 13 April 2553

Today, Tuesday 13 April 2553, here in Thailand is the official start of Songkran. But this is not true here in Isaan, we started last week and are now in the full swing of the celebration.

As we drove out to Tahsang Village, we encountered roving gangs in pick-up trucks sort of reminiscent of the "Technicals" (improvised combat vehicles from civilian pick up trucks) in Somalia. Rather than having a 50 caliber machine gun or a recoiless gun mounted in the back of the pick-up truck, the vehicles that we saw here in Isaan all had some sort of container, typically a 55 gallon steel drum, large clay pot, or large blue plastic barrel filled with water. Just as in the movie "Blackhawk Down", the backs of the pick-up trucks were also filled with a motley rag tag band of irregular troops. We are in the midst of Songkran, Thai New Years, and young children and especially young people pile into the back of trucks to toss water on other vehicles, motorbikes, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians along the main highways and rural byways of the region.

It is quite common to drive down the main road at 90 kilometers per hour, approximately 55 mph, and see a running water battle between the occupants of two pick-up trucks traveling parallel or traveling opposite each other. The "troops" in these vehicles are soaking wet. They are mostly dressed in tee shirts and blue jeans. The younger men often remove their tee shirts and wrap them around their head to create a fashion statement and impress any young girls traveling with them or whom they may encounter along the way. Quite often the young people are drinking beer or whiskey much of the day. It is amazing to see young people 4 or 5 sitting on the top of each side wall of the truck as they speed along the road. The pick-ups roam around to engage in throwing water. Some of the people have developed an expertise of tossing buckets of water backhanded for no look tosses to catch people off guard.

My favorite combatants are the little children apparently on their first or second Songkran forays. They wear cotton tee shirts with colorful cartoon character images on them and cotton shorts. The little warriors are always drenched and look like little water rats. Some of them are carrying super soaker type water guns and in some cases "water cannons". In no time at all the little guys have overcome their initial anxiety and are tossing water just as enthusiastically as their older brothers, sisters, and cousins fighting next to them in the pick-up bed. There is one exception to their enthusiasm, most of the younger children are hesitant to toss water on a vehicle driven by a falang (foreigner). For me, I don't mind having water thrown on the truck. When I see a small child who is hesitant I will honk the horn at them and make faces at them. I enjoy seeing the shock on their face. Duang just laughs at them and me whiling telling me that I am crazy. Hell - it's Songkran and it only last 3, 4, 5 or is it 7 days once a year!

On the road from Kumphawapi out to Tahsang Village, we passed many areas where children had set up along the road to throw water. A motorbike was behind us as we drove along the country road. In one of the small villages I spotted a group prepared to throw water. I slowed down and pantomimed to the combatants not to throw water on our truck but to work with me to get the motorbike behind us. It worked perfectly. I drove slower and slower until when I got just passed the people I stopped forcing the motorbike had to stop. The motorbike received the full brunt of the water attack. Everyone, except the motorbike people, laughed like crazy.

When we got to Tahsang Village the streets were abandoned to the small children with their buckets, barrels, hoses, and water guns. The adults were all at Duang's aunt's house gambling in the front yard. Gambling? Have I not written that gambling is illegal in Thailand? Well gambling is illegal in Thailand but according to Duang "It is OK. It is Songkran. Police no pompain" The villagers were taking full advantage of the dispensation for the Songkran holiday. They were playing a dice-roulette type game that I had seen played outside of Duang's uncle's funeral (another occasion when gambling is tolerated). It is this dichotomy and contrast that for me makes living in Isaan so interesting as well as entertaining.

We had gone to Tahsang Village to deliver new supplies to the family market. There has been a heavy run on beer, and whiskey so we were replenishing the stock.. We also had several different types of snacks to sell. I helped to stock the snack rack and made sure that it was all squared away. Remembering my last experience when Kwan and Peelawat had rearranged all the bags, I remarked that we were fortunate not to have Peelawat around to "help" us.

Duang was taking care of the market as a sort of gift to her mother. Her mother was free to gamble and spend time with her relatives and neighbors. I wandered around the village taking photographs of the people that I encountered. Duang was concerned about the children tossing water on me and perhaps more importantly my camera. I had confidence and trust. I am well known in the village but as a foreigner the children are still a little leery of me after all I am a "falang" ("boogie man" perhaps to some). I had a great time and got some nice photos of children having water fight.

My favorite model for the day was a young girl dressed in black. She apparently did not recognize me - she was the passenger on the motorbike that got drenched when I played the joke on them by stopping. With the 105F (40C) heat and 35% humidity, she had dried out quickly. I had found her and her three little girlfriends playing with paper dolls at a home near Duang's parents. They children were playing on a raised bamboo pavilion with a thatched roof. A naked baby boy about 16 months old and his mother kept the girls company. I took some photos of the group and shared the photographs with the people using the monitor on the back of the camera. The people loved seeing themselves in the camera - including the little boy. These are simple pleasures that I enjoy being able to share with the villagers. I will get some prints made to give them in appreciation for them being themselves.

After awhile the girls decided to have a water fight. They were prepared to toss water on people passing by but with just about everyone at Duang's Aunt's, there was not much traffic on the village street. They tried to get a man on a motorbike but had gotten so distracted with our photo session that they were too late to get him. They decided to get cool by fighting each other. We all had a great time. After awhile even the baby boy, now clothed, tried to join in the fun. He watched the girls fill their buckets and he went over and grabbed one of the large containers. He didn't get any water into the container but seemed to enjoy putting the container over his head to every one's amusement.

I had gotten quite hot so I returned to the family market to grab an ice cold Coke. With all the Police road blocks I was not going to gamble with drinking beer. Writing of gambling - by now so many people were gambling, that the game had been moved to the flat ground across the street. There were so many gamblers that they were in danger of collapsing the raised bamboo and wood pavilion. After awhile Peelawat came over for a visit. In no time at all he had gone over to the nice and orderly snack rack and pulled four different snack bags and brought them to me. I thanked him for each one and placed them atop the desk that I was sitting at. Peelawat came over to the desk reached up and grabbed one small bag pf chocolate cereal snacks and gave it to me as if to reinforce his desire that I eat it.

It was a great day and we will return tomorrow for the formal ceremony when respect is paid to the village elders at the Wat.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Songkran Has Started

Songkran, Thai New Years, is officially April 13 to April 16.

But this is Thailand and things are not always what they appear to be or are supposed to be. So it is with Songkran. Songkran here in Isaan started on Friday 9 April.

Friday was a busy day for us. It started with me getting a haircut - relatively easy task of moving my chair from the computer desk to outside underneath our carport for Duang to cut my hair. After showers, we drove out to the village where Peelawat, our 14 month old grandson, lives. Duang and I were going out to a small village where her "sister" lives. A celebration complete with a Mahlam Lao Show was being held to "take care" of Buddha. Buddha in this sense of the word meant the Monks. "Take care" meant to give the Monks offerings. For me, the details and nuances really didn't matter. There was going to be a show and an opportunity to document another aspect of village life in Isaan.

Duang has one biological sister - an older sister. We were going to visit a younger "sister". Like I have written before and will undoubtedly write again things are not always what they appear to be. I had met this "sister" at our wedding but I had the impression that Duang and she were very good friends - like sisters. It is only recently that I understood that their relationship is closer than being very good friends. When the woman was born, her mother was unable and unwilling to care for her baby. Duang's mother was still nursing so she took in and fed the baby. In Isaan, this type of arrangement is not all that uncommon. Lao Loum people have a very strong sense of community and the ravages of poverty often dictates alternative life styles especially for the welfare of babies.

After picking up Peelawat and Duang's daughter we drove out to Nong Boydan(?) Village to have lunch with Duang's "sister". Lunch was very good and there was plenty of food. There was a surprise. For some reason Peelawat decided to take care of me. His mother gave him a small piece of hot dog, he took a bite and then offered it to me by putting it up to my mouth for me to take a bite. This behaviour continued all day long. Peelawat ensured that his grandfather had food and drink. He was given a small bottle of yogurt milk to drink through a small straw. After each sip, he gave to me to take my sip. We also shared a bottle of soy milk together. I was given a plate of mango as part of lunch. Peelawat enjoys sitting in my lap so he had access to the mango. He took the fork from the plate, stabbed a piece of mango and put the fork up to my mouth. He ended up feeding me the entire plate of mango. Later when it was time to go to the festival, Duang put powder on his face, arms, legs and neck. People in Isaan use powder to keep cooler and ward off prickly heat. You will always see babies and children with white powder spread all over their bodies. During Songkran the practice is expanded to many more adults, cars, trucks, and motorbikes. Besides splashing water on people to cool them during Songkran, people douse others with scented powder. After Peelawat was all powdered up to go out to the festival, he took the container of powder and put some powder on his hand. Gently he rubbed his hand on my cheek and neck to get me ready to go out into the sun. We all laughed and joked about Peelawat's caring for me and only me that day. There is a very strong tradition of caring for and respecting elders here in Isaan but at 14 months old, Peelawat's behavior was unexpected. His behavior was also wonderful entertainment.

We went to the local Wat were a festival was being held to raise money for the Wat. There were booths selling food and refreshments. People had set their sahts on the ground in the scattered areas of shade throughout the Wat grounds. In one of the buildings where people had hung talisman to be blessed, women with very small children and babies sat inside to avoid the glaring sun as well as some of the 100F (38C) heat. We sat there for awhile before checking out the mouse game of chance that I wrote about yesterday.

The Mahlam Lao Show was going on and we recognized the khene player and lead female performer from some of the shows that Duang's brother puts on. This appears to be the season for shows. The performers live pretty much in the same neighborhood in central Udonthani and act as independent contractors to the leaders of shows. The same is true for the dancers.

Duang and Peelawat went off to seek some shade as I wandered around photographing the festival. The people were all very friendly and thoroughly enjoying themselves. A couple of the Kathoeys (Ladyboys) were eager to have their picture taken which I obliged their requests. They were getting a little bit annoying, as drunks can often be, until Duang showed up with a glass of Coke for me. Having marked her territory, so to speak, the Ladyboys were no longer a problem for the remainder of the afternoon. After awhile I looked down and saw Peelawat at my side. He looked up into my eyes and raised both his arms - his signal to pick him up. According to Duang it was his third attempt to be with me in front of the stage. I was busy the previous two occasions and had not noticed him. I traded the camera for Peelawat and we watched the singing and dancing up close. He loved the show and excitement. He provided some entertainment of his own by showing off some of his dance moves. He also did a great job of handing money to the performers as tokens of appreciation for their work.

A big part of the Mahlam Lao Show ritual is for members of the audience to walk up to the edge of the stage. The performer will go to the edge of the elevated stage, squat down, give the Thai gesture of respect (wai), and accept the audience members offering of money, flowers, garlands, and sometimes paper chains similar to what we used to make in elementary school for Christmas decorations. Some members of the audience will offer glasses of beer or whiskey. Later as the show continues and more and more beer along with whiskey are consumed, the audience will go up to the stage to just hold the hand of the performer and increasingly as time goes on - the dancers. The performers graciously accept the offerings with out missing a beat - high drama, and great entertainment.

Even in this rural location there were plenty of Ladyboys in attendance at the festival. There are supposedly many ways to determine whether or not a person is a real woman or a Ladyboy. Many of these ways are familiar - look for an Adam's apple, size of the hands, size of the feet and so on. In Thailand there is also another way - the size of the breasts. If the breasts are large and full, you can be fairly certain that it is a Ladyboy. I believe that there is also another method - observe the dance moves. The more energetic and enthusiastic the dancing the greater probability the person is a Ladyboy. Ladyboys in Isaan are tolerated quite well and their presence at Mahlam Lao shows adds to the entertainment value of the event. Despite the oppressive heat on Friday, the Ladyboys and others put on impressive dance displays.

Duang became concerned about Peelawat and my safety at the front of the stage so she came forward to have us return with her to the shade of a tree away from the "mosh pit". The high concentration of dancers directly in front of the stage is where the fist fights frequently or more accurately ALWAYS break out. There were no fights Friday while we were there but after we left, there were several fistfights. We have only been to two Mahlam Lao shows were there has not been at least one fight.

Peelawat and I spent the remainder of our time at the show sitting in the relative shade eating shaved ice. After I had drank a glass of Coke, Peelawat grabbed ice out of the glass and ate it. He would then grab a handful for me and place it in my mouth much to every one's amusement. Around 3 P.M. we left for Tahsang Village.

It was on our drive to and from Tahsang Village that the start of Songkran became apparent. At several locations small groups of young children had set up along side of the narrow country road. The children were all wet from their efforts to splash water passing vehicles. They were having a great time smiling, laughing, and dancing around either filling a barrel with a small hose or flinging water from small plastic buckets. Such joy needs to be shared in my opinion. As I approached the groups I would feign panic about the possibility of our truck getting wet. This only encouraged the children's efforts to throw their water. For some groups, I would stop the truck about 50 feet from the children. This confused them and often they would throw their water at a vehicle passing in the opposite direction. As we passed the children standing with their empty buckets I honked the horn several times and waved. Duang would just laugh and tell me that I was crazy just like the children. I repeated this stunt and stopped 50 feet from a group of children. They were completely confused until finally a little girl about 4 years old sweetly motioned to me to pass by and indicated that they would not throw water. I could not help but smile. She had spoiled my fun but given me a very nice memory for the start of Songkran 2553 (2010).

Saturday, April 10, 2010

You Can Bet On That ...

Gambling is illegal here in Thailand.

But as former US President, Bill Clinton, is quoted "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is", here in Thailand it depends on what the meaning of the word 'gambling' is. Just as it is most likely in the United States and else where in the world, it also depends on where and how the word is applied. Just as it makes a difference if the word is applied to conduct in the White House or in your house, there is a difference here in Thailand as to where and how the word 'gambling' is applied.

There are no casinos here in Thailand. There are casinos across the border in Laos, officially known as the Lao People's Democratic Republic. It seems rather ironic that a one party political system would refer to themselves as "Democratic" or a "Republic" but I guess to some extent we are all culpable for the names we selected or prefer to use to describe or to identify ourselves. It is almost as if selecting the proper word absolves us of all behaviors, omissions, and transgressions. It is also ironic that a Communist state would be home for gambling casinos though my understanding is that Lao citizens can not gamble at the casinos.

There are also casinos in Malaysia. Malaysia is a secular Muslim state so guards at the bottom of the mountain going up to the casino check the identity of the people traveling the road to ensure that no Muslims are going to go up and gamble. I have been to the casino in Malaysia - sort of. I can not describe what it is like to gamble there. My understand that you are not given free drinks while you gamble. The casino also said that I could not gamble without wearing a tie. They rented ties for people who arrive without one of their own for $7.00 USD. That was the last straw for me ... I rationalize the loss at the tables as the cost of a night's entertainment largely offset by the free alcohol and free shows. To charge rent for a tie in order to "take" my money and not getting me drunk or at least feeling better about losing was too much for me to accept. We ate dinner at the casino and spent the night in a naturally cool room in the Genting Highlands high above the hot and humid remaining regions of the rest of Malaysia. The highlight of the stay was to open the window and door of our room and watch the clouds pass through.

Back to Thailand and more specifically here in Isaan - gambling is illegal. "Games of Chance" conducted on Buddhist temple grounds are acceptable. We have attended numerous festivals at Wats over the past three years. The festivals were to celebrate religious holidays and sometimes were to raise funds to support the Wat. At every celebration there were "Games of Chance" where people paid money to have the opportunity to win a prize. The games of chance are very similar to games that you would encounter at county or state fairs back in the USA. People pay a small amount of money to throw thee darts at inflated balloons - three punctured balloons with three dart throws earns a "prize". People pay money to shoot air rifles at moving targets - so many hits out of so many shots earns a "prize". People pay money to pluck a small plastic floating duck out of a big pool of water with the number written on the bottom of the floating duck corresponding to a "prize" on the rack. For people who are not into the athleticism required for shooting, throwing, or netting, you can pay your money, select a short piece of plastic drinking straw. Inside the straw is a piece of rolled up paper with a number on it. The number corresponds to a prize on display.

I have seen backyard card games amongst neighbors. I have seen dice games outside of funeral rituals. I have seen money changing hands at gunpowder rocket launching competitions. I have seen rocket launches delayed until the "financial arrangements" were acceptable. Like I read in a tourist pamphlet from Laos where they proudly proclaimed themselves as " a democracy with one political party", I can report that gambling is illegal in Thailand. The dichotomy of the Laotian and Thai statements add to the rich fabric of life here in Southeast Asia. It is the nuances and juxtaposition of what is supposed to be and what is reality here that makes life interesting as well as entertaining.

I have seen many "games of chance" (remember gambling is illegal) and yesterday at the Wat in the middle of no where - here in Isaan, I saw a new "game of chance". This game involved a circular arena constructed out of recycled cardboard boxes and bamboo. There were 24 pieces of bamboo penetrating the base of the cardboard ring with a number written above each penetration. In the center of the approximately 12 foot diameter arena, there was an inverted translucent plastic Tupperware type container. A string was attached to the container and ran through a loop to a table outside of the ring where prizes were on display.

At the start of each game, a man went around the arena and sold a piece of paper with one of the numbers from 1 to 24 written on it. The price for each ticket was 5 baht - roughly $0.15 USD. He had no problem quickly selling the 24 tickets for each game. People of all ages were 3 to 4 deep around the cardboard walls of the arena eager to participate. Once the tickets were all sold, there was a announcement and some hype as another man pulled on the string to lift the inverted container revealing a mouse. Now unrestrained the mouse, ran around the arena looking for a way out. Eventually to the accompaniment of yells, shouts, and incantations in Isaan (a Lao dialect) plus some spirited slapping of hands against the cardboard walls, the mouse would run into one of the bamboo penetrations. The number above the selected penetration determined the "winner" of that game. The prize was a small plastic bucket filled with small household products such as soap, candles, talcum powder, small boxes of juice or soy milk. I later found out that the prize cost about 60 Baht so a profit of 60 baht (roughly $2.00 USD) was realized from each running of the game. All profits were going to be donated to the Wat.

The mice were not professionals or pure bred mice. They were typical field mice that are found in the rice and sugar cane fields here in Isaan. I am certain that they can also be found in many of the village homes. Most of the mice used in the game had long tails so that when they entered one of the bamboo tubes a portion of their tail remained outside to be used to extract the mouse from the tube. However one mouse did not have a very long tail. Just as in the Americans With Disabilities Act, this mouse was not excluded from participating in the game. Reasonable accommodation was provided which allowed this mouse to participate. A short piece of blue plastic string was tied to the mouse's hind leg which was used to extract the mouse from its selected tube.

After the running of each game, the mouse was placed into a covered 5 gallon plastic bucket and a new "fresh" mouse was placed under the inverted container in the middle of the arena.

I have heard stories and seen some movie scenes on some the odd things that people would bet on. This was the first time that I had seen mice involved in a game of chance.

You can bet on that ... even in Thailand but it is not gambling! It is a game of chance for a good cause.


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