Thursday, April 1, 2010

Song Poo Day - 2010 (2553)

Tuesday was Song Poo Day in Tahsang Village. I have had some difficulty over the past three years understanding exactly what Song Poo Day is about. At first I thought it was to commemorate one of Thailand's greatest poets. I then thought that it marked the official end of the Songkran (Thai New Years) holiday in April. Well this year, Duang threw me a curve ball when she informed me that Songpoo Day was Tuesday, 30 March. Since Songkran starts in the middle of April, my latest theory on the purpose of Song Poo Day was invalidated. I asked Duang what we would do for Song Poo Day. She told me that all people go to take care of Buddha and put water on Buddha. This is exactly what we have done for the past two years during Songkran or Thai New Years.

During Songkran, in April, people return to their homes to pay respect to the elderly people and people of recognized higher status by pouring cool or cold scented water over their hands to help them deal with the high temperatures at the end of our dry season. Sometimes a little bit of the water is sprinkled on the neck or back to help cool the person off. Typically some scented powder is also respectfully applied as a cooling aid. During Songkran the Buddha statues are also washed with water. These are the traditional rituals of Songkran. Just as with the rituals associated with Christmas, the rituals and intent of Songkran have been secular hijacked. The traditional rituals remain and are widely practiced but are overwhelmed by hordes of people throwing water at each other and any and all vehicles of conveyance that enters within their range. There are skirmishes tantamount to roving water wars along the streets of the cities. Even in out of the way places in the middle of nowhere throughout Thailand you will encounter groups of small children with a 55 gallon barrel of water patiently waiting for someone or something to pass so that can toss water at. There is one infamous story during one Songkran, a Bangkok fire truck was commandeered by civilians and used against the crowds. While in Maehongson during a Songkran, Duang and I witnessed a fire truck spraying people with water but it was being operated by the firemen!

My discussion with Duang did little to clarify my understanding of what Song Poo Day was all about. It had become time to seek outside help. Duang suggested that we call our good friend who has provided translation services in the past for us. We called her and Duang had to explain what Song Poo Day was all about in Lao so that I could be told in English. Apparently Song Poo Day is celebrated only in Isaan, an apparent Lao Loum practice. Perhaps the reason for Song Poo Day is to focus solely on the washing of the Buddha statues and the associated merit making rituals. Oh yea - it also is the opportunity for the local community to come together and have a big party! The actual date for Song Poo Day in Tahsang Village is set by the Abbot of the local Wat after consulting the moon and stars, wax droppings in water, and other measures employed to tell the future.

We returned to Tahsang Village early in the morning to participate in the merit making ritual of offering food to the Monks. Many of the villagers were already at the Wat when we arrived at 7:30 A.M. We participated in the typical morning merit making ritual.

After offering food to the Monks, the people busied themselves preparing for the day's celebration. Some children were busy filling small plastic bags with water from a large clay pot used to collect rain water during the rainy season. Yellow "dawkkhun"(?) blossoms were added to the individual bags as well as to the water in the clay pot. These flowers are now in full bloom. These flowers are referred to as "King's Flowers" because the King was born on a Saturday which in Buddhism has yellow as its color of the day. The flowers are large clusters hanging from trees throughout Thailand. The children's mother had large bunches of the flowers and was busy spreading them around the Buddha statues set upon the low wood shelf that I wrote about in my last blog. Other people were occupied setting up their little booths from which they passed out food and drinks that they had donated to the celebration. At the far end of the grounds, roadies from Duang's youngest brother's show were getting out of their hammocks where they had slept the night. They had to put the minor finishing touches on the stage for the day's Mahlam Lao show. One of the highlights of the celebration was his scheduled 6 hour show.

Soon the performers for the show arrived. I went back stage to photograph the girls putting on the make-up. After awhile I was joined by our 13 month old grandson, Peelawat. He was quite content to sit on my lap while I was photographing. To keep him entertained, or rather to stop him from staring at the girls, I taught him how to have fun with sticks, dirt, and hands. Duang came and relieved me of babysitting duties so I returned to the main area where people had started to pour water on the Buddha statues.

There was also a procession of the villagers around the outdoor statues. The people circled the area three times and were carrying a "money tree" created from a banana stalk. Split slivers of bamboo with paper money inserted between them are stuck into the banana stalk to create a "Money Tree" which is offered to the Monks in a merit making ritual. Three locally crafted gunpowder rockets were also carried around in the procession.

Around 10:00 A.M. the Mahlam Lao show started. After three songs, the show stopped as the first two of the three rockets were launched. All three were supposed to launched in succession but technical difficulties were encountered in launching the third rocket. After a wait of five minutes during which the ignitor was replaced, the last rocket was successfully launched. The number three has a great deal of religious significance in that it represents "Buddha", "Buddha's teachings", and the "Buddhist Religious Community". After the successful last rocket, a man behind me set off a "Whizzer" firework from one of the columns of the Bot that is under construction. "Whizzer" fireworks are a flat spinning fireworks that makes a squealing sound as it shoots high into the sky. At its apogee it explodes in a large bang. They are also utilized during Monk Ordination, Wedding, and Funeral Processions to keep the evil spirits away. Well this firework was fired off too late. The evil spirits had already gotten to it. The firework misfired and rather than shooting straight and high into the sky, it shot off low forcing me to duck and landed inside the back of the truck where some of the show equipment was located along with one of the roadies. The firework landed on a heavy blanket and started a smoldering fire. The roadie grabbed the firework just as it exploded. He covered his face and dropped to the bed of the truck. I didn't want to do it but since I had been not drinking like most of the villagers and since I know more about first aid than they do, I ran over to the truck to assist the roadie. He fortunately had only a small burn on his arm and soon was joking about the incident. With that excitement out of the way the party and show started back up.

Just like in America the show started without much audience participation. Despite the driving beat of the music, the gyrations of the dancers, and ribald antics of the performers, people just sat and politely watched. After about two hours the effects of all the alcohol from beer and whiskey drinking kicked in. The young bucks moved up to the area in front of the stage. Soon they were having their dance competition in sort of an informal mosh pit. Further back underneath the large shade trees women were standing up and dancing. After awhile they were joined in dancing by some of the men. Eventually they were joined by the only foreigner in attendance. Although he had not been drinking, one of his in-laws had the band play his favorite song - a song that can not be listened to without dancing - dancing Lao style. The song is about eating fresh water snails, one of the staples of the Lao Loum diet here in Isaan but the name for fresh water snails is also a double entendre for a part of the female anatomy. It is the number one party song around here and a sure way of getting people up and dancing.

I wandered around photographing the show from different angles. I came upon an empty whiskey bottle and from past experience I knew that I needed to give it to one of the policemen in the area. Empty bottles are removed as part of a disarmament program. Empty bottles end up getting thrown or used during fights. Later I came upon an empty beer bottle next to a group of guys but far from a policeman. I picked it up and placed it in a box along with the other empties. I pantomimed to the men that they were not to throw the bottle or break it over anyones's head. They thought that it was hilarious and offered me a drink. I declined - there are too many roadblocks around now with police checking for alcohol among other things.

We had a great time watching the show and sitting with friends and family. Around 2:30 the sun and heat got to be too much and I indicated to Duang that we should go home. On our drive back to Udonthani, I indicated to Duang how wonderful the day had been, how much fun everyone had, and mentioned that the Tahsang Villagers had been so well behaved. Duang said "Yes Tahsang Village and Non Mahka Village good. No pompain (No complain) Not like Nong Daeng Village - No good. People drink too much want boxing all the time."

We were home no more than 15 minutes when Duang got a phone call. Some Nong Daeng villagers had shown up at the show and there were some fights, fireworks thrown and Police had fired some shots in the air. Fifteen minutes later she got a call that the narrow road to Nong Daeng Village was blocked with people and Police. There were some reports of people with guns. Nothing developed further and we joked about it was good that Duang listened to her husband. In the past it has been Duang who told me when it was time to leave because of violence. She didn't cut me much slack though and reminded me that I had to listen to her too.

So of all the shows that we have been to during the past three years, the number of shows without a fistfight or more remains at one. I thought we had gotten to two on Tuesday but the law of averages or probability prevailed so the count remains at "one".

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