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).

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