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.

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