Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Gathering of the Clans - Isaan Style

Today was another busy day here in Isaan. I spent the day making backup DVDs for many of my recent photographs - original files as well as edited files. All in all I made 9 DVDs of data files of course that does not include the 4 DVD disks that were found to be defective after I had spent 30 minutes each burning the files to each one of them. I had plenty of time for this task because I was alone for the day.

My wife, Duang, and my stepson had gone off to what I will refer to as a "gathering of the clans" Pugh and Puii, his girl friend have been going out with each other for the past 18 months. Now that she has graduated from university and he has a job, they have decided to get married. This was not a spur of the moment decision on their part and we have been expecting it for some time now.

However getting married here in Isaan is no simple matter. Although my stepson is 29 years old and Puii is 21 years old, getting married is not the simple matter of them coming to agreement amongst the two of them. As with everything else here in Isaan, the Lao Loum culture requires family involvement in such great matters and decisions.

A very big part of getting married is the negotiation and settling upon the "Sin Sod" and "Tong Mun". I had written about these in a previous blog regarding the marriage of one of Duang's female relatives ( )

Puii's mother had some preliminary talk regarding a possible marriage. Duang was saying that Puii's mother, at that time, was talking about a Sin Sod of 800,000 baht ($24,242) and a Tong Mun of 5 baht of gold ($2,900). This is extraordinary, if not unrealistic, for a young man who makes 6,000 baht ($182) a month as a mechanic at a local Mitsubishi dealership.

It was agreed that today, Sunday 27 June, would be the day that the actual amount of the Sin Sod and Tong Mun would be negotiated. I had originally indicated that I thought that it would be best if I did not attend the negotiation. It is always best for a falang (foreigner) to not be involved in any dealings related to money here in Isaan. Foreigners are viewed as being "rich" and able to afford to pay more than Thai people. With a Thai man making $182 a month working 6 days a week at a car dealership and farm labor making almost $5 a day, I am not going to rage against that commonly held perception. However I had told Duang that I did not and will not pay for my sons to get married so I would not be "paying" for my stepson to get married. Despite my reservations, she said that she wanted me to go with her as well as the rest of the "family" to negotiate.

Three days ago, Puii called and said that she thought that it would be better if I did not go. She felt that my presence would complicate the negotiations. It was not a problem for me and Duang did not really need me for morale support. Twenty-one family members were going with her to Puii's home.

Yesterday Duang reviewed with me her position on the upcoming negotiations. She identified her bottom line numbers and said that if Puii's mother wanted more than that, she was going to tell her son to go home. It would then be up to her son and Puii to decide to continue their relationship together outside of the best wishes as well as spiritual support of the families. I asked her if her son would actually leave and return home if she told him to. She said that he would. Somehow I can not imagine an American 29 year old son doing the same. As a negotiation point I suggested that Duang tell Puii's mother that we were going to do this wedding "American" style - where the man pays nothing and the women pays for everything. I also pointed out that if negotiations got stuck, Duang could tell Puii's mother that if she thought that she could find a man with a job, who treated Puii as well, loved Puii as much, and who Puii loved as much and could pay more money, she needed to start looking along the roads now for him. Duang and I had a good laugh but maybe there are other reasons that it is best that I did not go to the negotiations.

Duang and her son left this morning at 8:00 A.M. to go to Tahsang Village to pick up some of the clan going to the negotiations. Two pick up trucks left Tahsang at 9:00 A.M., the most advantageous as well as strategic time according to one of the old aunts who knows about numbers with the 22 family members ranging from Duang's mother to Peelawat (16 months old) and Kwan - 2.5 years old. Duang stopped at the market in Kumphawapi in order to provide the food for the negotiations. Puii's mother was supplying the beer, whiskey, and soft drinks. Based upon my experience here in Isaan, I would say that Duang won that round.

Duang and her clan arrived to find Puii's clan represented by her grandfather and 17 other family members including 4 babies. Puii's family asked where I was and Duang told them that I had stayed at home. She told them that if a falang had gone then the price would increase too much. She added that if there was a wedding I would be at the wedding and they could meet me then. They all had a good laugh - whether it was a jovial laugh or self-conscious laugh I don't know.

After an hour of socializing, the negotiations commenced. Puii's grandfather spoke for the family and wanted a Sin Sod of 550,000 baht and a Tong Mun of 5 baht of gold. Duang countered with an offer of 209,999 baht Sin Sod and 2 baht Tong Mun. The grandfather discussed this counter offer with Puii's mother and Puii. He then asked if she loved Pugh and if Pugh loved her. With two affirmations, the grandfather agreed. Everyone clapped and were happy with the conclusion. After the 30 minutes of negotiations, a down payment of 40,999 baht was presented to Puii's mother with a promise to pay the remainder next year around March. Puii's mother gave a gift of a "gong kao" - a woven bamboo basket for storing cooked sticky rice to each adult member of Duang's clan further binding the families.

With the tension of the negotiations and resolution of everyone' s angst, the food and drink was brought out so that everyone could enjoy themselves. Duang told the people about how in America men do not pay to get married but that women paid to get married. Two old Lao Loum men said that they were going to go to America and get some money for marrying American women. Everyone had a good laugh at their joke.

Duang returned home at 4:00 P.M. tired but satisfied with her efforts for the day.

The clans had gathered and financial considerations had been addressed. There will be a wedding in the new year - another occasion to celebrate here in Isaan.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

It Takes A Village to Heal A Child - At Least In Isaan

It has been a few days since my last blog. The lack of blogs has not been due to a lack of subjects but because we have been very busy. Much of our time has been spent at the hospital in Kumphawapi. Our grandson, Peelawat, has been hospitalized for three days.

Peelawat has been been living in Tahsang Village with his mother at his Great-Grandmother's home. In Tahsang Village, he spends a great deal of his time playing with his two and one half year old cousin, Kwan, and three year old neighbor, Tay. Like all other 16 month old children in Isaan, Peelawat's play involves walking around bare foot, playing in the dirt, running after chickens and puppies. All the toddlers carry evidence of their play on their ankles, legs and arms. Nicks, scrapes, and scabs bear testament to the fun that they have been having on these hot and humid days in Isaan.

Monday morning, we received a phone call from Duang's daughter saying that Peelawat was sick. He had a fever and had experienced a couple seizures. Previously when he had fevers, Peelawat had experienced seizures. At first this was extremely concerning to us but after researching I determined that these seizures are somewhat common in young children. Later I found out that Duang as well as her two children had the same experience with fevers when they were young. This made me somewhat more relaxed but I still had concerns about epilepsy or some other serious condition. Duang's daughter had a cousin take them to a clinic in Khumphawapi to see a doctor. Peelawat had a seizure at the clinic. He received treatment and returned to Tahsang Village.

Later that evening we received another, more stressful, call from Duang's daughter saying that Peelawat was running a fever, had additional seizures, and was being hospitalized. Peelawat and his parents had been taken to the hospital in Kumphawapi by one of the uncles in Tahsang Village who had a pickup truck. Most people in Isaan have motorbikes but out in the villages few people have trucks and even fewer have cars. People with vehicles are often called upon to help out in emergencies. With the emergency notification, Duang, her son, and I headed off to Kumphawapi.

We arrived at the hospital and found Peelawat in the Emergency Room. He seemed so small and defenseless laying on the gurney swathed in a blanket with an oxygen mask on. He was very feverish and in that quasi conscious state that a high fever induces. After a while, he was transported to the Pediatric Building of the hospital. Since the NICU is located on the second floor and there is no elevator, I had to carry him up the two flights of stairs to the NICU.

Although the sign above the entrance to the ward said "NICU" (Natal Intensive Care Unit), the room was more of a children's ward than what we expect to find as a Intensive Care Unit in the USA. The room was very similar to other hospital wards here in Isaan. It was a large room divided in two sections by a five foot high block wall. Each section contained 16 beds. A couple of ceiling fans provided ventilation for each of the sections. At the end of the room there was a large area that had several shower stalls and toilet stalls. Just to the left of the entrance to the bathroom area, there were a couple of large steel cabinets with hospital linens. There was a fairly large Nurse's Office, which was air conditioned, at the middle and front of the ward. Approximately 4 nurses were in and out of the office.

Here in Isaan, the Nurses handle taking vital signs, and giving medicine. They do not provide care for the patients such as bathing, dressing, changing bedding, feeding, or assisting in the personal hygiene of the patients. The family and friends of the patient provide patient care. Since there are such large families and such a strong sense of community here, the hospital wards are always filled with people. In addition there are many people congregated outside of the wards - eating, resting, and socializing while they await their turn to give care and comfort to the sick. While this may be reassuring during times of normal sickness, I fear the consequences of this behavior if the fears of a SARS, H1N51, or some other horrible epidemic become reality. Containment will not be possible.

The ward was filled with patients from two weeks old to about 12 years old. Each patient had two to four people attending to them. Surprisingly, many of the adults caring for the little patients were men. Lao Loum men are very involved in the raising of their children. Uncles are also involved in helping to care for their nephews and nieces. Peelawat had his grandfather, grandmother, mother, father, uncle, a couple of great aunts, a great uncle, and two cousins - a couple more attendants than typical that night. The ward was filled with the sounds of babies crying out of fear and from pain.

The young patients were placed in full sized hospital beds. The beds had been modified for young patients by the addition of smooth nylon string in a lattice pattern to reduce the spaces on the pop up rails on the side of the bed. Very young patients sleep with their mother in the hospital bed. Older patients mothers or fathers sleep under the hospital bed or on the balcony outside of the ward - if they get to sleep at all.

Duang and her daughter kept busy wiping Peelawat down with tepid water to break his fever. I occupied myself trying to comfort him. Peelawat was confused about the situation. One thing that he was sure of as well as adamant about - he wanted out of the hospital. He remembered the way into the ward and he was constantly pointing toward the entrance indicating that he wanted OUT and expected me to take him out.

Sadly just about every time that Peelawat calmed down a little bit and started to get some much needed sleep, a Nurse came by to check his temperature, collect blood, or give him a shot. After awhile, the Nurses decided to connect Peelawat to an IV. Just about every other patient on the ward was hooked up to an IV. One of the younger Nurses tried to put a needle into his foot. She tried and tried to no avail. Peelawat very quickly understood what was going to happen when the piece of surgical tubing was wrapped around his arm or leg. After about 5 minutes of stabbing and jabbing Peelawat to connect an IV, I said "Enough. No More, she doesn't know what she is doing. Get someone else to try". Thankfully, whether they understood me or not, another Nurse took over. Three nurses moved Peelawat's bed over to be in better light to assist in finding a vein. In the end it took a third nurse to finally connect the IV.

A Doctor was not available to examine Peelawat or any of the other patients until the next morning. I tried to determine what medicine Peelawat was getting - fighting against the language barrier as well as the cultural barrier. Medicine in Isaan is similar to the type of medicine practiced in the USA 50 years ago and longer ago in the USA - The Doctor is always right, the Doctor has no obligation to explain treatments, the patient is just to take the medicine given to them, and the Doctor is infallible. After some time I learned that Peelawat had been given an antibiotic. This seemed reasonable to me and reassuring. I was also satisfied that blood as well as urine samples had been collected. After four hours we left the hospital and returned home.

The next morning, we were back at the hospital at 8:00 A.M. I noticed that Peelawat's ankle was swollen, very hot, as well as surrounded by a black band. It was obvious that there were several red ant, weaver ant, bite marks on that leg - not an unusual sight on village children in Isaan. I pointed this out to Duang and she told me that some people in Tahsang Village had the same thing only higher on their body and they had died. This was not comforting news. Duang informed me that some of the old people in the village know what to do. She added that they make medicine and blow it onto the affected area. I asked what kind of medicine and she disturbed me once again - "same same Momma chew" Betel nut? I asked her to make sure that the Doctor took a good look at that area. I was suspicious that Peelwat had what is often commonly referred to, in accurately, as "Blood Poisoning". The actual condition is "Bacteremia", bacterial infection of the blood. The Doctor had not arrived at the ward by Noon when I left. The Doctor had been delayed because of so many adult patients in the other building. Duang called the Village to arrange for one of the older villagers to be brought to the hospital to treat Peelawat. When Duang returned home she informed me that the Doctor had not seen Peelawat but he had authorized more antibiotics for Peelawat. She also told me that a man from the village had visited and given Peelawat the first of his three "treatments"

Duang returned to the hospital the next morning to help her daughter to care for Peelawat. Her daughter and son-in-law had spent two mostly sleepless nights at the hospital. The good news was that Peelawat was feeling better. He had been chasing the same stray cat out the ward that I had chased the night before. The hospital has several stray cats that have run of most of the facilities. The cats eat the uneaten food off of the metal trays that are placed at the end of the corridor awaiting pick up at some time. I suspect that the cat's diet is also supplemented by rodents since I have not seen any around.

At 5:30 P.M. I returned to the hospital with Duang's son and his girl friend. As we pulled into the parking lot we saw a very good sight - Peelawat and Duang were sitting outside waiting for us. Peelawat had a shunt installed in his hand but other than that he looked excellent. His fever was gone and he had his energy back. He enjoyed having his photograph taken and had to see each picture on the camera's monitor after it was taken. He eagerly displayed his "Big Smile" more like a soundless lion's roar when asked.

We went back upstairs to the ward and let Peelawat play on the outside balcony. Peelawat still was pointing to the exit and now that he was mobile, he often took off for the stairway to leave the facilities. Peelawat amused himself by playing with the various shoes placed outside the doorway to the ward. Peelawat kept himself busy by trying on the various shoes. He wore mens as well as women's shoes irregardless of their size. He was very adapt at ensuring that he selected matching shoes. Later he started to play with a bed table that was stored on the balcony. He amused himself turning the crank on the table and pulling as well as pushing the table along the corridor. After awhile he indicated to me that he wanted to get on top of the table. Being a somewhat indulgent grandfather and somewhat bored, I placed him on the table. Peelawat lay on his stomach and had such a big smile as I pushed him down the corridor that I decided to share his pleasure with Duang. I wheeled him into the ward and quickly discovered that the nurses were not amused. Duang scolded me and Peelawat and I went back outside. We limited ourselves to the simple pleasure of sitting in a chair and kicking our feet back and forth while learning the English words for parts of our face.

After awhile, Duang's son returned from Tahsang Village with one of the village elders to give Peelawat his second treatment. The man had a small plastic bag with a green leaf, slices of Betel Nut, and some wood chips. He placed the items into a small brass mortar and ground them together with a small brass pestle. He sat next to Peelawat on a concrete bench on the outside balcony. Peelawat was not afraid at all and sat patiently next to the man. The man, a spiritual leader, chewed the ground up concoction and soon had a mouth full of red liquid. He examined Peelawat's infected leg, said some chants, and sprayed the red liquid on the infected portion of his leg three times. Peelawat observed the ritual with interest. The man also placed his hand on Peelawat's head and said some chants before blow air three times on the top of the head. Peelawat then pointed to a scab on his other leg to the shaman and said "Nee" (here). Somehow Peelawat inherently understood what the shaman was doing and he was pointing out to him another one of his injuries for special treatment. We all had a good laugh. Having been informed by Duang that Peelawat had received more intravenous antibotics at 6:00 P.M. and that the Doctor had scraped the skin on his leg while putting some medicine on it, I was not opposed to the traditional treatment.

After the man completed treating Peelawat, Peelawat thanked him by giving him a wai, the Thai gesture of respect which is similar to the Western prayer gesture. We left the hospital at 9:00 P.M. much relieved that Peelwat is well on his way to recovery. Peelawat will be released today from the hospital once the doctor has checked him.

Once again the differences between health care in Isaan and health care in the USA had been made very apparent. Here in Isaan health care is much more of a community effort. Family members as well as friends or neighbors are heavily involved in caring for the sick. The play on the old African proverb ("It takes a village to raise a child") - "It takes a village to cure a child" is not too far from the truth - at least here in Isaan.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

My Photographs

Yesterday one of my Facebook friends, a classmate from high school, enquired about what software did I use on my photographs or was what was in the photograph was actually what I saw. This was a very interesting coincidence because I had been contemplating writing about my work and my thoughts regarding photography in general.

I am not a studio photographer. I am not a commercial photographer. I am definitely not a fine art photographer.

I consider myself to be a photojournalist. I strive to capture and create images that tell a story or at least supplement the stories that I wish to share. Most recently, or rather over the past twelve years, these stories are mainly about people and their culture.

Looking back upon my earlier years this aspiration is entirely understandable. As a child, I was a voracious reader - mostly non-fiction. I revelled in reading of far away places and the exploits of actual adventurers. From my home in Groton, Connecticut the books transported me to Africa, South America, the Pacific islands,and the Orient. The wonderful books also transported me back in time to the time of explorers and adventurers. Supplementing the books from the school and local libraries were the family subscriptions to Life and Look magazines. Precious times were the occasions when I could get my hands on a National Geographic magazine usually at the barber shop. One benefits of living in a "Navy" town was the exposure to classmates who were from "far away" places such as Virginia, California, Hawaii, and the Philippines. hearing of their former homes and past travels, only inspired me more to travel and explore for myself.

My professional career provided me with extensive opportunities to travel. Many of these opportunities frequently involved foreign travel. I often used my work location as a jumping off point for travels further abroad. I made it a point to participate in local festivals as well as celebrations. Living abroad presented certain challenges such as adapting to cultures and customs that were different from what I was familiar with. One coping mechanism that I utilized was to "go native". Wherever I found myself I immersed myself into the local culture and sights. Of course these locations were not like America but that is, for me that made it so interesting. The more that I convinced myself and accepted that it was not America, the more interesting and fascinating it became. As I showed more interest and understanding of the local culture, the local people were more and more willing to share their life with me - greatly increasing my experience.

I started to take photographs when I was in the fourth grade, nine years old, using a rather large Kodak Brownie box camera. I saved money each week from my paper route to buy film and to pay for developing the black and white film. I bought My first 35mm camera while in college and used the former fraternity housemother's bathroom to develop film. Now that I am older, much older, my equipment is more sophisticated and embraces the newest technology. I now shoot digital exclusively which is good since professional slide processing is only available to me in Bangkok and they do not handle transactions through the mail.

Although I have the latest technology in terms of camera, lenses, as well as photo editing software, I have not deviated from my original philosophy regarding my photography. I strive to accurately and truthfully document people and their culture. As such I do not stage photographs. I do not direct my subjects to do anything specifically for the purpose of my photography. My desire is to capture the moment accurately as well as truthfully. I also minimize the use of Photoshop Elements to make only minor adjustments to my photographs such as to adjust exposure, white balance, and to crop. I do not add elements to a composition. Adding objects or elements to a photograph violates photojournalist ethics.

Quite often I will let subjects know that they should just go about their business and try to ignore me. I take time first to build some sort of repertoire with the people prior to starting to photograph them. I try to obtain their permission prior to photographing them. One of the best ways to build the repertoire is to just stand around and observe them trying to be as inconspicuous as possible - trying to blend into the background. I then share the first of the photographs with them.

On other occasions, especially in very public venues such as festivals and markets, I utilize what is sometimes referred to as "ambush" techniques. "Ambush" technique involves photographing people from a distance without their knowledge. With this technique photographs of people going about their day to day activities can easily be attained. I accept the responsibility of ensuring that the resulting photographs are not embarrassing to the subjects and truly reflect life.

My goal in photography is to show extraordinary people doing ordinary things. In so doing, I wish to show how different people appear, to provide a glimpse into other cultures, to celebrate the diversity of mankind, and to demonstrate that despite our appearances we are so much alike.

I would be more than pleased to learn that my photographs and blogs helped inspire or motivate others to go out and learn about their world.

Today I live in Isaan and have many opportunities to document the cultures of Southeast Asia through my photography, blog, and books. I believe that it is important for the diversity mankind as well as cultures to truthfully document and celebrate these diversities. We need to respect these differences and to tolerate them.

To the extent that I may be able to raise awareness and sensitivity towards these needs, my efforts will be justified. I am concerned about efforts to abolish or stop rituals and practices that more "civilized" or "advanced" societies judge to be "unjust" or "barbaric". However the subject of "cultural arrogance" is best left to be the subject of another blog at some future date.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Phi Ta Khon - Sunday 13 June 2010 - Day 2

Sunday, 13 June, was the second day of the Phi Ta Khon Festival and true to what we had been told earlier by local people it was the biggest day in terms of crowds. After breakfast and checking out of our hotel we drove down the hills into Dansai. Being somewhat a creature of habit (Heck - if you find a great restaurant for dining why search for another one when probability indicates you will find many more inferior restaurants) I parked the truck where we had parked it the previous day - across the street from Jao Por Guan's house.

We had been warned that the Police would be closing the road around 8:00 A.M. so we ensured that we had parked prior to 8:00 A.M.. Upon arrival we noticed a much greater Police presence than the day before as well as many more metal crowd control barriers. We walked to Wat Phon Chai which serves as the main center of festival activities. We climbed the stairway to the higher ground surrounding the Wat and took a seat in the shade. Sunday morning was a great deal sunnier than Saturday and just as hot. It was going to be another 100F day.

We sat and amused ourselves watching the activities around us. The upper area where we were located was overrun by the Canon Camera Club from Bangkok all wearing event tee shirts identifying them as Canon Club members and the Phi Ta Khon Festival. Approximately 120 members had arrived to photograph the day's events. A young boy dressed up as a spirit was set upon by several of the photographers. I took a couple photos of the scene because it appealed to my sense of the absurd - a small peasant boy surrounded by a horde of city people each with more than $5,000 of expensive camera gear around their neck and strapped to their back. Even more amusing at least to me, was the efforts of some of the photographers to stage and pose the young boy to achieve a "unique" photograph.

I looked over to the Dansai Folk Museum and saw at least 50 photographers each carrying a 5 to 6 foot long extended tripod scurrying up the stairs to the museum. They appeared to be another tour group of photographers. Even today, I am unable to figure out how so many people let alone people setting up tripods could manage to get into the small confines of the museum that two days earlier I had the premises totally to myself for photography. I have no idea how a photographer could control the exposure of their shots in a small space with 49 other photographers all using a flash.

Around 10:00 A.M. the procession of Jao Por Guan, Jao Mae Nangtiam, the Saen, the Nang Taeng, and Phi Ta Khon lek arrived and just as on the previous day the procession circled the Wat three times. Today the procession included an offering for the Monks - the ubiquitous banana stalk "Money tree".

Several young school girls attended by their mothers sought the shade outside beneath the overhang of the Wat's roof to dress and apply their make-up. The girls were getting dressed into traditional Thai clothing - what appears to be baggy pants with a bundle of fabric on the waistline at the back. This style of clothing is more reminiscent of times long past than reflective of current fashion. Today girls wear pants, often jeans, or the Lao long skirt called "phaa nung" - a wraparound skirt created from a tube of fabric. As I watched the girls prepare for their upcoming performance, I realized that the baggy trousers were not pants at all. A very long tube of fabric - perhaps two or three times the circumference of a typical "phaa nung" is stretched and folded once the girl has stepped into the tube. The flat folded portion of the fabric tube is then run between the girl's legs from front to back to create the illusion of pants legs. A belt and pieces of string are then utilized to secure the garment in place with a bundle of the excess fabric at the back. The girls applied make-up, often helping each other, to complete their preparations.

The girls performance involved playing a traditional game. On Sunday the games that we observed on Saturday were also being played. These girls played a sort of game of tag. They, all but one, formed a line, with their hands placed on the hips of the girl in front of them and started to chant some sort of song. The girl who was not in the line faced the line and at some point in time of her choosing took off after the last girl of the line. The girls in the line all started to giggle and laugh as they struggled to maintain their formation while running away from the girl. They were thoroughly enjoying themselves. It made for some innocent entertainment. It seemed ironic that they had spent so much time preparing for a simple game. But such efforts are not uncommon in Isaan.

In Isaan there is still a great deal of pride in personal appearance. For religious celebrations, people especially women wear their best clothing. Women, especially younger women, do their best to look attractive. For the vast majority of Lao Lom women, marriage presents the best and often the only opportunity for economic security or social advancement. A great emphasis on personal appearance and social skills enhances a woman's chances to improve her life.

At the lower level of the Wat's grounds, people were busy eating, drinking, and watching stage performances. Just as the previous night, there was a dance competition. Mahlam Lao music was provided by student musicians and added to the festive atmosphere of the morning. This was a true family event with people of all generations enjoying the festival. Many fathers were carrying their younger children around in the bright sun light and rapidly increasing heat of the day.

Dispersed amongst the festival goers were phi (ghosts). The younger ghosts carried wooden swords and kept busy posing for the many people taking photographs. Older ghosts, young men around 17 to 25 years old, were also "ghosts" carrying swords. However their wooden swords were actually a wooden phallus with a bright red "head". These older ghosts took great joy and perhaps even pleasure in teasing and taunting the spectators by waving their swords at them - especially younger women. This provided a great deal of laughter from the crowd. On occasion, the older ghosts would tease an elderly women. Perhaps because they had attended so many of these festivals before or due to life experience, the elderly women showed that they could not be intimidated. Often when confronted with a red tipped phallus, the elderly woman would grab the phallus and either give it a couple of good shakes or give it a couple of twists much to the raucous delight of the spectators. This blatant flaunting was the fertility aspect of the festival - part of the ritual involved in invoking the fertility of the land for the upcoming rice planting season once the rains return to the land.

Besides the stage show, refreshment booths, and ghost antics at the lower level, there was a couple tables where children were doing artwork to be judged later in the day. Pieces of A4 sized paper had a Phi Ta Khon mask and "DANSAI" drawn on it in black ink. I have no idea why Dansai was written in Roman script rather than Thai or even Lao script. Children were cutting or rather punching out very small dots from sticky backed pieces of colored paper to fill in the outlines on the paper. The results were extremely impressive. Some of the completed pieces were mounted, framed and displayed on tripods near the work tables.

At Noon, Duang and I looked at each other and simultaneously asked "Do you want to go now?". It was not that we were bored or that we were not enjoying ourselves. The sun was bright and the temperature had risen to 97F and we still had a 3 hour drive to return to our home. As we exited the Wat's grounds on to the local street, we found ourselves in the midst of a parade. This parade was much more ribald and raucous than the previous processions. There was a large wooden phallus mounted on wheels that was being pulled along the parade route. There were many more "ghosts" taunting the spectators with their phalli. There was a large black bull float made from chicken wire and fabric mounted on wheels that was pulled along by several Phi Ta Khon. It was very apparent that it was a bull and not a cow, steer, or even a heifer. The bull was anatomically correct and obviously fully functional. Further up ahead there was a cow float that was being mounted by another bull float.

A couple of trucks were in the parade. The trucks were are covered in black with several young men riding in and on the vehicles. It is possible that the young men may have just returned from the Gulf Coast of the United States. They were stripped to the waist and completely covered in crude oil. I don't know if they had been cleaning up the sludge or only swimming in the Gulf - no matter the truth - they were covered from head to toe in black heavy oil. I don't know why but they were having one Hell of a time. Everyone was having a great time. We had had our great time and reluctantly knew that it was our time to leave.

On our journey back to Udonthani, Duang talked about returning next year - testimony to the great weekend that we had enjoyed. I too would like to return next year to better understand and participate in the festival - to witness the launching of the rockets, the ridding of spirits by throwing the masks into the river, and attending the sermons on the third day of the festival. Perhaps I, if not we, will even attend the opening ceremonies commencing at 3:00 A.M.!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Phi Ta Khon Festival - 12 June 2010 Day 1

Saturday, 12 June, was the first day of this year's Phi Ta Khon festival in the Dansai District of Loei Province located in the Isaan region of Thailand. The start of the festival was scheduled to start at 3:00 A.M. The invocation of Phra Up-pa-kud commenced at 3:00 A.M. Phra Up-pa-kud was a monk with supernatural powers. After achieving eternal life, he was given the power to assume any form, physical or spiritual, that he wanted to be. He decided to transform himself into white marble and to live in the Mun River which flows through Dansai. The villagers believe that because of his powers, only Phra Up-pa-kud can protect them and their town from evil spirits. The villagers walk from Wat Pon Chai to a ceremonial location on the bank of the Mun River. A ritual is conducted by spiritual leader of the people, Jao Por Guan, to consecrate white pebbles that had been collected from the river bottom. They then have a procession back to Wat Phon Chai where the villagers circle around the temple three times. A special ritual is then performed at the Wat.

I had considered attending these commencement rituals and mentioned it to my wife. Duang was less than enthusiastic about witnessing these ceremonies at 3:00 A.M. Despite her lack of enthusiasm, I managed to wake up at 2:00 A.M. without the use of an alarm clock. I considered leaving to watch the ceremony but decided not to - I did not want to go alone and rationalized not attending by convincing myself that the lack of lighting would make photography impractical if not impossible. However when I re awoke at 6:00 A.M. I departed for town alone to witness the merit making of villagers - making offerings of food to the Monks. I informed Duang that I would be back to the hotel by 7:00 A.M. When I returned, she was ready for the start of our day at the festival.

We drove into town and parked out truck about 8:00 A.M. across Jao Por Guan's house. Jao Por Guan is the shaman, spiritual leader of the villagers as well as a spirit medium. Large loudspeakers were erected in scaffold towers built in the street in front of his home. Mahlam Lao music blasted from the speakers. Many people congregated outside of his home with many of the people sitting on concrete benches placed around the stairway leading up into his home. The elderly villagers were dressed in white with white cloths draped over their shoulders. Around 8:30 A.M. the people walked up the stairs and entered into Jao Por Guan's home. According to the schedule of events there was going to be a "Ceremony to give blessings to Jao Por Guan and Jao Mae Nangtiam. Jao Mae Nangtiam is Dansai's female spiritual leader as well as a spirit medium. I do not know if she is Jao Por Guan's wife.

Duang and I climbed up the stairs and found ourselves in a large room very similar to the Bot of a Buddhist temple. In the center of the room on the floor we saw a very familiar sight - Pahn Sii Khwan, a banana leaf and floral centerpiece used as a sort of altar for the Baii Sii ritual. A Braham conducted the Baii Sii ritual in front of the Jao Por Guan and Jao Mae Nangtiam. At the conclusion of the ritual people went up to the Jao Por Guan on their knees to tie cotton string around his wrists. A man on each side of the Jao Por Guan supported his arms parallel to the floor for the lengthy time required for everyone to tie a string around his wrist. Duang and I each tied a string around his wrist to wish him good luck and good fortune. I believe that our act also earned us good luck as well as fortune.

Once the string tying was completed, women brought out elevated serving trays, typical of Lao culture, upon which plates of food were placed. People broke up into small groups to eat. Since silence is not required during these rituals, and the friendly nature of the people in Isaan, by this time Duang and I had made acquaintances with several of the villagers. We were invited to join them in dining as well as drinking. A man went around and passed out what appeared to be plastic bottles of drinking water. The bottles did not contain water but were filled with "Lao Kao", rice whiskey. This was not the moonshine that I have written about which is called "Lao Kao" after the brand that is most widely sold and consumed in Isaan. This alcohol beverage was more akin to "Lao Hai" or rice wine that we have enjoyed in Laos as well as in a refugee camp on the Thailand/Burma border. However this brew was far superior - there were no pieces of rice or chaff to strain through your teeth as you drank. Several glasses were passed to us by various villagers to wish us luck and good fortune. One of the men that I had been communicating with had made the brew. I complimented him on his skill and craftsmanship. One of the women gave Duang a full bottle for our enjoyment. After dining and drinking was completed the villagers went outside to form up for the procession down the town's main road to the Wat.

Outside the home, the musical director of the local schools was organizing the ban of his students to provide the Mahlam Lao music for the procession. We had met him the previous afternoon at the Wat during our visit. The band was composed of students playing traditional Lao instruments and drums. Their music was amplified using a portable generator and amp mounted on a pushcart. The music which is very animated and infectious added to the festive atmosphere along with the Lao Kao. There was a very high degree of energy and merriment in the congregated people.

Only now that I have been back home and performed some additional research on the festival do I realize the significance and privilege of this start of the festival. I had noticed that the vast majority of the people were elderly. It turns out that they were. We had participated in the ritual along with the Jao Por Guan, male spiritual leader and medium, Jao Mae Nangtiam, female spiritual leader and medium, the Saen, a group of male mediums, and the Nang Taeng a group of four female servants.

Next door to the Jao Por Guan's home young men were getting dressed into their Phi Ta Khon lek costumes. Policemen were in position to stop traffic. The hypnotic beating of drums and clanging of cymbals permeated the air. After awhile the procession was organized and set forth to the Wat.

Once at the Wat the procession mounted the main stairway to the grounds where the temple is located. The procession circumambulated the Wat three times with the Jao Por Guan leading the way followed by the Saen, villagers, and Phi.

Alongside of the temple buildings, children were playing traditional games. One game involved boys spinning heavy wooden tops. About three tops were violently set spinning with a very forceful thrusting motion. The other boys than threw tops at the spinning tops to stop their spinning. It was amazing how accurate the boys were with their throws at the spinning tops.

Other children were walking around on stilts made out of bamboo. The announcer talked about me trying out my skill, or rather luck, on the thin bamboo stilts. I pantomimed that my weight would break the stilts and then showed him the much sturdier columns supporting the roof of the first aid station and indicated that I need stilts made out of them. We all had a good laugh and in the relaxed atmosphere I was able to get some good photographs of people enjoying themselves.

Well most people were enjoying themselves. One little boy around 14 months old, was very scared of the ghosts and spirits. He stood and cried when they came around. I also saw another boy who was shot in the groin by one of his friends shooting hard seeds out of pop guns made from bamboo. He looked like he had had better times before. It was very hot, 95-100 F, so the vendors selling ice cool drinks were doing a great business. Due to the oppressive heat and unrelenting sun, Duang and I returned to the comfort of our hotel room around 2:00 P.M. After a nice dinner, we returned to town for the evening show scheduled for 7:00 P.M.

We had learned of the evening show from the Musical Director. Five schools were putting on a show of music, singing, and dancing. The show was held on the stage at the lower level of the temple grounds. Without exaggerating in the least I believe that Duang and I were the only non-relatives or school staff watching the show. In total there were about 50 people watching the show. This was such a shame because the children put on a fantastic two hour show. Duang and I spent two hours continuously smiling over the children's efforts. My favorite moment of many memorable moments, was a group of school children dressed up as Phi (ghosts). Their costumes were made out of strips of thin plastic milk carton advertising. I believe that the children were about 5 or 6 years old. They danced to THE party song or perhaps it could be considered the Isaan anthem "Tee Hoy". "Tee Hoy" has a driving beat and double entendre lyrics that captures the spirit of the Lao Loum people - think in terms of "Dixie" for the South or "Joli Blond" for the Cajuns of Louisiana. It is a song that when it starts up you just want to start dancing. Of course you have to dance to it in the Isaan style - a sort of country stomp which the little tykes captured perfectly.

The show was over at 9:00 P.M. and we made sure that our appreciation as well as compliments for such an entertaining evening were conveyed to the Musical Director and school officials. The children had done a wonderful job and it was gratifying to us to see that they are learning about their culture. At all the events that we have attended in Isaan, be it shows, weddings, funerals, and festivals we witnessed the children developing an awareness as well as an appreciation for their heritage and culture.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Phi Ta Khon Festival - Friday 11 June 2010

While back in the USA, I had used the Internet and determined that the 2010 Phi Ta Khon Festival was going to be held June 11 to June 14 this year - despite some websites indicating that it is going to be held at the end of this month. When I found the actual schedule of events for the Festival along with the Mayor's message indicating that the celebration was 11 June to 14 June, I was confident as to when the event would start. I wanted to witness this unique Lao Loum cultural event. Upon my return to Thailand, I did additional research and completed arrangements for our visit to Dansai for this year's celebration.

Although the event started on Saturday morning - early Saturday morning as in 3:00 A.M., I wanted to arrive on Friday to reconnoiter the area for event locations, best photography locations, and become familiar with the area for parking, as well as dining opportunities before the start of the festival.

The Phi Ta Khon festival is a unique celebration of the Dansai district in Loei Province of northeast Thailand. The celebration is actually the combination of two different festivals. The first festival is the merit making holiday, "Bun Pha Ves", "Boon Phra Wate" and "Bun Phra Wet" - in Thailand Anglicized spelling is more or an art than a science. There are many English spellings as well as pronunciations for many Thai words - this can make travel with a road map extremely interesting if not confusing. This festival involves merit making by listening to 13 Buddhist sermons - the story, The Mahachet, of Buddha's last reincarnation prior to becoming Enlightened.

Associated with this merit making opportunity, there is a Buddhist folk legend that Prince Vessandara, Buddha's last reincarnation before becoming Enlightened, had been banished from his village. After many years in exile and a very long journey he returned to his village. The villagers were very happy that he had returned. They had a joyous celebration to welcome him home. The celebration was so great and loud that it awoke the spirits who joined in the welcome home party - a party that was akin to being so loud and wild that it woke the dead.

In Dansai they have a tradition of celebrating this legend, by preparing masks and clothing to become spirits during their festival which is held with the sixth or seventh lunar month. The exact timing of the festival in Dansai can only be determined by the consultation of the local male spiritual medium leader, Jao - Por Guan, a female medium, Jao - Mae Nang Tiam, and a group of male mediums, Saen, with the spirit that protects Dan Sai, Jao Saen - Muang. In a ceremony the actual date for the Phi Ta Khon is determined.

The second component of the Phi Ta Khon Festival is the Bun Bang Fei, Rocket Festival, which is also celebrated throughout Isaan at the end of the dry season and start of the rainy season. Homemade gunpowder rockets are fired up into the sky over northeast Thailand as offerings to the spirits for the return of the rains as well as fertility of the land.

Only in Dansai, the two festivals are combined into a ghost and fertility festival with merit Buddhist merit making ritual - a unique cultural event.

After a pleasant three hour drive on good roads with very little traffic, we arrived at our hotel just outside of Dansai around 10:30 A.M. After checking in and unpacking, we had a small lunch before driving down into the valley where Dansai. One logistic concern was resolved - Dansai is 15 minutes from the hotel. We found the local Wat, Wat Phon Chai, and parked inside. The Wat grounds were being prepared for the next day's start of the festival. To the right of the Wat there was a nice stage erected for entertainment. To to right of the stage was a set of bleachers with a cover to protect spectators from sun and rain.

The Wat is situated on a mound in the center of the Wat grounds. Staircases lead from the low level where we parked, and where the many various booths were being set up up to the higher ground where the religious buildings were located. On the high ground, the Dansai Folk Museum is also located. We entered the museum and were very pleasantly surprised. We were the only visitors. The museum had several straw mannequins on display wearing masks and clothing of the Phi Ta Khoen, spirits. I was able to spend about an hour photographing the displays unencumbered. I sat on the floor, lay on the floor and crouched to get different angles as well as perspectives of the colorful masks and costumes. During my shooting, Duang spoke with the museum employees to determine the locations for the various events over the next three days. This being Isaan, she was soon involved in animated conversation with them as if they were relatives reunited after a long absence. Once again the Lao Loum sense of community was very evident and apparent.

The Phi Ta Khon masks are created out of the base of coconut trees, huad, and wood. The huad along with the reed wind instrument, the khene, the pakama, and the long skirt for women are the ubiquitous symbols of Lao Loum, lowland Lao culture. The huad is a quasi conical shaped woven bamboo basket that is used to steam kao kniouw (sticky rice) that is the staple of the Lao Loum diet. After soaking in water overnight the sticky rice is placed in the huad which in turn is placed over an urn of boiling water over an open flame and steamed until cooked. The Phi Ta Khon of Dansai have hats made out of huad.

The Phi Ta Khon masks are beautiful folk art. They remind me a great deal of the artwork on goalie masks in the National Hockey League. The spirits or ghosts have very ornate designs as well as bright and bold colors. They typically have very large and sharp teeth to go along with a large hooked nose. The masks come in many different colors.

The Phi Ta Khon wear clothing, imitating burial shrouds, made from strips of cloth from sheets and blankets. The result is a very colorful and intricate costume. The costumes reflect a great deal of pride and skill of the villagers. It is impressive to see such local craftsmanship and artistry. Fortunately the impact of the global economy has not penetrated or poisoned the culture in Dansai. Massed produced cheap costumes and masks from China are not a reality yet and hopefully never will be.

After completing our visit to the museum, we returned to our hotel for dinner and an early bedtime. I went to sleep still considering the possibility of witnessing the start of the festival at 3:00 A.M.

This is the first of three blogs about this interesting and entertaining traditional cultural event in Isaan.


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