Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving

Today is Thanksgiving here in Thailand; a day like every other day here.

Thailand does not celebrate or recognize the holiday.

However we do not need government sanctioning of the day to contemplate, give thanks, and to rejoice for all that is good in our life.

Yes today is a day like any other day here in Isaan - for me.  Everyday I contemplate, give thanks, and rejoice for all that is good in my life.  But it is on American Thanksgiving that I celebrate, share, and publicize it with people other than my wife.

Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays even more so than Christmas and definitely more so than New Years - specifically New Year's Eve.

Christmas carries too much emotional baggage to truly be appreciated.  After perhaps spending more money than you should have on gifts for your family, if you are fortunate you only get to witness their suppressed disappointment at the results of your efforts.  If you are less fortunate, you are told what they really wanted or asked when along with where they can exchange the gift.  You are also often put into the same situation of having to express gratitude and appreciation for receiving things that you neither wanted or needed all the while feeling guilty in recognition of the donor's efforts and generosity.

However, Thanksgiving is a time for families to gather together to feast and celebrate the blessings of the past year.  I believe that I am an optimist so a day of rejoicing and celebrating the good in life is not difficult.  Some years are not as bountiful as others.  Some years are more challenging than others.  However Thanksgiving day is a day to be thankful for what we have and not what we wished that we had or to focus on what we do not have.  If for no other reason, being alive is reason to give thanks on Thanksgiving.  With life there is hope; hope for a better tomorrow or some day after.

This Thanksgiving I am am thankful for so many things that I have.  As much as I am thankful for what I have, I am thankful for the many blessings that I had and some that I no longer can enjoy.

As much as what we have today brings us joy and contentment, it was yesterday and our past that have brought us to today.  It our past that prepared us for today and for the days to come.

Today, as for all days, I am thankful for the love, experiences, and guidance that I have received from family and friends who are no longer in this world.  They have passed on and I can no longer enjoy their presence. They affected my life in ways that are impossible to quantify or for me to express into words.  Shared experiences with them taught me and assisted me in developing my personal values.  The memories of shared holidays, vacations, celebrations, and ordinary days with them remain both a comfort as well as inspiration to me.  The gift of family, companionship and friendship is reason enough to give thanks today as well as every day.

I am thankful for having been raised in a country and time where excellent quality free public education was available to everyone.  Going to school in Groton, Connecticut in the 1950s and into the late 1960s was a blessing.  I often think back to those school years and believe that there was a unique group of teachers back then.  As students we were challenged by our teachers to do more than our best.  A quality free education is a blessing to be thankful for.  Even today in many parts of the world, children do not have access to free quality education.

I am thankful for having been raised in a country where I was free to fail and much more importantly free to succeed to the extent that I, myself, determined.  My position and goals in life were not restricted by anyone or any institution.  My parent's education, occupation, economic, or social status did not limit my prospects.  Today this is not true even in some Western countries.

I am most thankful for the way that my parents raised me.  Too often today, people blame their problems on their parents.  They blame their current behavior on their parents.  Blaming their parents, to them. absolves them of their individual responsibility and accountability for their own actions.  I know that my parents did their very best in raising their family based upon what they knew and could at the time.  Should we expect any less or demand anything more? I suspect that most parents do the same.

I was taught manners. Manners and etiquette allow individuals to function, interact and thrive in a society with minimal conflict.  Manners and etiquette help to define our value and standing as an individual and to society.  The manners and etiquette that I learned as a child have allowed me to integrate into different cultures easily where I have worked and lived.  While these may not be a blessing, they are things that I am thankful for.

I was taught that I was not special.  I am not certain how well I learned that lesson.  I suspect that most people have not completely learned that lesson well.  However I learned to not expect or demand special privileges or preferential treatment.  I expect to treated the same as any other person.  An off shoot of this lesson that I was taught throughout my youth was the realization that as an individual I had certain responsibilities to the group.  I have the responsibility to not demand that the group conform solely to appease my wishes, practices, or beliefs.  I do not necessarily have to conform but that choice is mine to make and I should be prepared for and accept the consequences.

I was taught that I could have anything that I wanted; as long as I first had the money to pay for it. I was taught and more importantly demonstrated each day.  I was taught that anything worth having was worth working for.  I was also taught that I wanted something bad enough I would work for it.  If I was not willing to work for something, I did not need it.

Today I am also thankful for my families and friends that are part of my daily life.

Thank You - all of you.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Comprehensive Immigration Reform - Part 5; Our Reason for Giving Thanks


Duang Worshiping At Her Upstairs Alcove Shrine - I know some of what she has been praying for.
 As I prepare for Thanksgiving tomorrow, here in Thailand, we have another reason to be thankful.  Yesterday we received an email notification of Duang's scheduled appointment at the US Embassy in Bangkok for her application for a Immigrant Visa to the USA.  Teaching Duang more about the meaning of Thanksgiving tomorrow will be that much easier with this shared blessing.

I am still bewildered by the status or definition of "Comprehensive Immigration Reform" in the United States.  With the conclusion of the mid-term elections in America, this news story appears to have disappeared from the media.  I suspect that the problems and issues remain as they were before.  The situation now that the elections are over with is that there is no impetus or perceived need for politicians to identify with the issue, be specific in their definition of the terms, or to imply that they have proposals let alone solutions for immigration related issues.

Back on September 29th, we had mailed a 3/4 inch thick packet of documents to the US Embassy in Bangkok as part of the current process for immigrating to the United States.  Submittal of the documents completed our portion of Packet #3 of the established procedure.  After the US Embassy had reviewed, investigated , and approved our submittal, we would be notified to proceed with Packet #4 along with notification for an interview appointment in Bangkok.  My research had indicated that it takes about 10 weeks after submitting Packet #3 to the Embassy to obtain an interview appointment provided there were no complications or rejection.  I figured that we were going to be notified soon, but I was still very pleased that my faith and belief were justified with the notification 8 weeks after transmitting the packet.

It has been a while since we sent the documents.  During this entire process, I have yet to obtain or have the name of any person working on this process given to me.  I suppose that the need for anonymity is for security reasons however it does make the process very impersonal.  There is no person that you can call with your questions or to determine the status of your case.  It sets up, in my opinion a rather adversarial atmosphere.  I do not prefer that type of atmosphere and after experiencing many interactions with government authorities here in Thailand, I am not accustomed to that sort of an attitude.  Here in Thailand, government employees that I have encountered, all wore a name tag.  If the process of applying for Immigrant Visa is to be impersonal, I can deal with it.  If the process is not as clear, I will have to deal with that also.

Duang's scheduled appointment is roughly a month from now.  At the time of her appointment, Duang will need to submit a sealed envelope containing 6 pages of documents related to her health examination as well as a chest x-ray.  As part of the Immigration Visa process, each applicant has to undergo a medical examination.  The medical examination can only be performed at specific locations and performed by specific doctors.  For applicants in Thailand, people can only be examined in either Bangkok or Chiang Mai.  In Chang Mai, there is a choice of two hospitals and three doctors.  In Bangkok, there is a selection of a hospital and a nursing home.  There are six approved examiners in Bangkok.

Chiang Mai is an 8 hour drive from our home in Udonthani.  Bangkok is a one-hour flight, 8-1/2 hour bus trip, or 6 hour drive from our home.  I considered going to Chiang Mai for the examination and combine the trip with a mini-vacation to photograph the local Hill Tribes.  I decided against it.  Given my previous experiences dealing with the bureaucracy, I believe that it would be best to go to a location in Bangkok - the US Embassy's neighborhood.  I do not want to give cause for any questioning, concerns, or confusion to delay the processing.  One of the selections in Bangkok is Bumrungrad Hospital; an international hospital which is recognized as the best hospital in Thailand.  Bumrungrad Hospital is the destination for many people who come to Thailand for Medical Tourism.  In keeping with my desire to keep our application simple and familiar to the US Embassy staff in Bangkok. I selected Bumrungrad since it is extremely close to the US Embassy.

The fee for the examination at Bumrungrad is 2,450 Baht ($81.66 USD) as opposed to 2,910 Baht ($97 USD) at the nursing home location in Bangkok and 2,000 Baht ($66.67 USD) at the Chaing Mai locations.

In addition to the medical examination, the applicant for an Immigrant Visa must provide confirmation from the medical examiner that the applicant have met US vaccination requirements.  In reviewing the listed required vaccinations, I realized that new immigrants are better protected than most Americans.  Some of the required vaccinations that surprised me were:  Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B, Human Papillomavirus (HPV), Influenza, Influenza Type b (Hib), Rotovirus, and Zoster (Chicken Pox).  Duang may not have to have all these vaccinations; it is up to the determination of the medical examiner.  I suspect that she will not need a Rotovirus vaccination which is given to infants to protect them from some of the causes of diarrhea.  I am also of the opinion that she does not need a HPV vaccine.  At the hospital here they approached Duang about getting the HPV vaccine but after researching it on the Internet I decided it was not justified.  The HPV vaccine it more suitable for young girls.  The vaccine provides protection from possible cancers possibly caused by the HPV.  However for older women or young women who have already been exposed to HPV, the vaccine has no benefit. The cost of any required vaccinations is in addition to the 2,450 Baht examination fee.

Duang At The Long Boat Races
Having decided to have Duang's medical examination done in Bangkok, I decided rather than try to accomplish the examination and interview in a single trip to Bangkok, we would make a separate trip to Bangkok just for the medical examination.  Although it is theoretically possible to accomplish both the exam and interview in two business days, I have learned over the years that it is best to plan on difficulties and then be surprised when things turn out smoothly.  I would hate to experience complications for an important as well as emotional process by not having all the documents that Duang needs for her interview due to some unanticipated complication with the medical exam.  "Complication"?  I suspect that she will need a vaccine or two.  It is possible that the vaccine might not be available at the time of her exam.  This would prevent her doctor from giving her an "All Clear" determination prior to her interview if it were the next day or two after her hospital visit.  My preference is for her to arrive at her interview with an "All Clear" determination by the Doctor.

We called Bumrungard Hospital yesterday and made an appointment without any difficulty for next week.  I asked about how long they anticipated the medical examination would take because I wanted to determine if an additional overnight stay would be required.  In the course of the conversation, the hospital representative stated that the examination would take a couple of hours in the morning and the doctor would complete the forms when the test results were available in the afternoon.  I asked if the documents could be mailed to us at our home in Udonthani.  I was not prepared for her response.  She informed me that due to "Personal Privacy" concerns in Thailand, the medical records have to be picked up in person by Duang.  Interesting and I guess it does provide a certain higher level of privacy than I am accustomed to.  Taking this into my calculations, we will spend an additional night in Bangkok to ensure that she will be able to pick up her records even if there is any "hiccup" on the day of her examination.  Since so many people spend a great deal of money to get to and stay in Bangkok for a vacation, we can't complain.  I know that we will find something to keep us amused and entertained if we do mange to have a day to burn in the city.

Duang's scheduled interview next month commences at 7:00 A.M. so we will fly down the day before.  If the decision is made to grant her an Immigrant Visa, the "visa will normally be available for pick up at the Consular Section waiting room in two business days"  Based upon this information we will fly down but will return by bus someday.  Since our return will be during the day, I don't mind traveling by bus.

Although politicians and public figures in America have not clarified or defined what they mean when they state that there is a need for comprehensive immigration reform or that they support comprehensive immigration reform, Duang and I have our path forward.  The current process is complicated, challenging, and requires patience as well as money to follow but it appears that the end for us is in sight.


One of the things that we will be thankful for tomorrow will be the approval of Duang's application up to this point as well as the opportunity for her to immigrate to America legally.

Monday, November 22, 2010

90 Day Reporting - Staying Legal


Form TM. 47
 Today, Monday 22 November, was an important day for me and my ability to remain in Thailand legally.  Today was exactly 90 days from the date of my last report to the Thailand Immigration Police.

I am often asked if I live in Thailand to which I often will smile add respond "I do not live in Thailand.  I stay in Thailand. I can stay in Thailand for a year and must reapply to stay for another year every year."

I and many other foreigners in Thailand are granted Non-Immigrant Visas based upon one of two reasons.  One reason for being granted a Non-Immigration "O" Visa is for "Retirement".  To qualify for the Non-Immigrant Visa based upon retirement, a person needs to be 50 years old, have 800,000 Baht ($26,666 USD) in a Thai bank account for three months prior applying for the visa, or have a certified income of 65,000 Baht ($2,167 USD) a month. A police report from your local police department where you live outside of Thailand is required along with a Doctor's statement.  Application is then made to a Thai Embassy or Thai Consulate.  I went back to California in May 2008 to collect the required documents and submit them to the Thai Consulate in Los Angeles, California. Two days later I walked out of the Thai Consulate with the requested visa pasted into my passport.

Each year before my current visa expires, I fill out the required form, obtain the necessary documents, get the required photocopies, and get the required photographs to visit the Thailand Immigration Police.  At the same time that I apply for an extension of my Non-Immigrant Visa, I also apply for a "Re-Entry Permit" which allows me to return to Thailand without having to get a new "Non-Immigrant Visa" after each trip outside of Thailand.  The process takes about one hour at the local Immigration Police Office in Udonthani.

Another way to stay in Thailand for up to a year is to get a Non-Immigration Visa on the basis of "Marriage".  The main differences or rather benefits between staying in Thailand due to "Marriage" rather than due to "Retirement"is that the financial requirement is 400,000 Baht in a Thai bank account or 32,500 Baht a month and you do not have to be 50 years old or older.  Those are the benefits.  But the benefits are not worth the effort if you are in a financial situation which qualifies you for the retirement justification.  Yearly extensions of your Non-Immigrant Visa are processed completely at the local level - reviewed, determined, approved, and stamped on the same day at your local Immigration Police Office.  "Marriage" Non-Immigrant Visa extensions are initially reviewed, determined, and approved at the local level.  However once the local Immigration Police have determined that you qualify for the visa, they have to send their findings to Bangkok for concurrence and final approval.  This requires extra work, time, and perhaps more importantly creates the opportunity for the local Immigration Police to lose face if Bangkok were to disagree with their initial finding.  For me the risks and effort required for a Marriage based visa greatly out weigh the benefits.  I am sticking what has worked in the past - "Retirement".

In applying for an extension of a Non-Immigrant Visa due to Marriage, you need to provide just as much evidence as you did for the initial application or the previous year's request for an extension.  The evidence includes photographs of the ceremony as well as photographs of you and your spouse together in various rooms of your home.  Sometimes witness are required to sign statements or appear in person to attest to your marriage.  This is a more complicated process and definitely more risky than maintaining a "Retirement" basis - which I do.

No matter if you qualify due to "Retirement" or "Marriage" you must report to the Immigration Police for each 90 day period that you remain in Thailand.  Reporting to the Immigration Police can be done through the mail or in person.  Since processing requires that you submit your passport to the Immigration Police, I chose to not handle the reporting by mail.  I prefer to handle the reporting in person.  I also bring my wife, Duang, with me to reinforce that we, together, are committed to fully complying with the rules and regulations for my stay.

To report to the Immigration Police, you are required to fill out Form TM. 47 "Form For Alien to Notify of Staying Longer than 90 Days".  It is a straight forward and simple document to complete.  The completed form and your passport are submitted to the Immigration Police who review it, and complete the section that is stapled into your passport which notifies you of your next reporting date.  Today we were in and out of the Immigration Police Office in 5 minutes.

My next reporting date is 22 Feb 2011 if I do not leave and reenter Thailand before then.  If I do, my next reporting date will be 90 days from the date that I reenter the Kingdom of Thailand.

Having fulfilled my obligation to report, we drove into downtown Udonthani to Duang's Ear. Nose and Throat Doctor.  Duang had two ear drums repaired over year ago.  She recently started experiencing some swishing sounds in one ear. We suspected that she may have an ear infection.  We went to the doctor to have it checked out.  As I have come to realize now - there is no need to schedule an appointment at the Doctor's office let alone a specialist's clinic.  His office opened at 8:30 A.M. so we  arrived at that time and ended up being his first patient.  DuangIsaan - a Doctor helping out a patient without charging.

Upon returning home, Duang's friend from our neighborhood stopped by to take us shopping.  She shops at a store that I had never shopped at.  Duang went with her last week and was impressed.  This week was my opportunity to check it for myself.  Makro is a warehouse type facility very similar to Sam's Club or Costco back in the USA.

As the women shopped, I wandered around the store and checked out the items that were available.  I was impressed.  The most impressive thing was that for about 95% of the items, there were signs in English as well as in Thai.  At the French chain, Carrefour, where we do our weekly shopping I would estimate that only 40 % of the items have English tags.

As I wandered along a long open floor freezer, I could not help smiling to myself.  I was thinking about the scene in the film, "Forrest Gump", where "Bubba" Blue starts reciting all the ways that shrimp can be prepared - a very funny scene.  Well lying in front of me in a variety of plastic bags and paper boxes were all kinds and types of frozen shrimp or prepared shrimp.  I honestly suspect that "Bubba" may have missed a few variants that were for sale at Makro in his narrative during the movie.

After finishing my inspection of the shrimp products, I checked out the freezers of frozen seafood which were quite impressive - mussels, clams, crab, crab products, squids, trout, grouper, grunt fish, dory, cod, sea bass, mackerel. talipia, cat fish, tuna, Pacific Salmon, Norwegian Salmon, Atlantic Salmon, eels, and some fish that I was not familiar with - but the scientific name was on the label.

There were also boxes as well as bags of shark fins which did not please me all that much after having watched a Nat Geo program on the subject a couple of night's ago. I am not against eating sharks but I am against wasting an entire shark just to get the fin which has no flavor and only adds texture to a soup.

From the seafood freezers I went on to the chicken freezers.  There may have been just as varieties of chicken products as there were previous shrimp products.  There were definitely more chicken pieces and parts than shrimp parts.  There bags which contained a whole boiled chicken in a special sauce.  There was a whole chicken as in whole complete chicken including head, neck, but I am not sure about feet though I suspect the feet were included.  Seeing the chicken with head attached reminded me of a dinner party in Vietnam.  The guy seated next to me, at a wedding reception, ate 14 chicken heads - including mine.  It is always so interesting to learn if not experience the different culinary choices around the world.

At Makro there was a freezer containing beef.  The selection of beef was the best that I have found here in Isaan.

The last freezer that I looked at was the most interesting that I had checked out.  The last freezer had some items that I am certain that Americans would not find in their local market.  There were bags of frozen partridges.  There bags of frozen frog legs.  For people who maybe hankering more than a frog leg, there were bags of frozen whole frogs.  There were frozen black chickens.  At the end of the chest there were small bags of ostrich meat. There was wild boar meat along with deer meat.  I found packages of rabbit meat.  For people who might not want to eat a mammal, there was reptilian meat - CROCODILE - "Product of Thailand".   OK, maybe your Kroger, Safeway, Big Y, Stop & Shop, Piggly Wiggly or some other market may have the aforementioned products BUT ... do they have 3 pound boxes of frozen "Bamboo CATERPILLARS"?  I think that they do not!

I was impressed with the the store - its selections, varieties, and prices.  We will being some of our shopping at this interesting store.  I can foresee us trying some different dishes using ostrich, rabbit, wild boar, deer, and even the crocodile.  However it will be a very hungry day here in Isaan before we, or more specifically I, will eat the bamboo caterpillars.  I will eat fermented fish sauce and red ants before I would even consider eating the bamboo caterpillars.

So all in all, today which could have been a rather mundane day managed to evolve into another exciting as well as educational experience here in Isaan.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Race Is Done, The Races Are Done

Duang Wears Her Funeral Clothes to the Races

Prior to going to the final long boat races in Kumphawapi on Sunday, we attended a funeral in Tahsang Village for one of Duang's relatives.  The woman was 82 years old and had been ill for a long period of time.  She had not left her home in 10 years.  Her race is done. The big difference for this funeral was that it was a Christian funeral.  Duang had never been to a Christian funeral before and I could tell that she was a little apprehensive about attending.

Unlike the typical Lao Loum Buddhist funerals that we have attended there was a noticeable effort made by people to wear black clothing.  Buddhist funerals based upon my experience are a pretty much come as you are ceremony.  At Buddhist funeral rituals, I have not seen people dressed for mourning.  At the Sunday Christian funeral the women were dressed in black and the men if they were not in black wore dark more formal clothing.  Soccer shirts were not the fashion of the day for the funeral.  Duang had made a black lined lace long length skirt and blouse some time ago so she was dressed appropriately.

We first stopped at Duang's mother's house in the village and picked up Peelawat to attend the funeral with us.  When we arrived at the home of the deceased relative there were many similarities and many differences with a Buddhist funeral.  OK - the obvious one - there were no Monks.  This may seem a facetious remark, but after awhile of living here in Isaan you become accustomed to and expect to see Buddhist Monks at all events.  To not see Monks at an event is a revelation.

The body was inside one of the refrigerated rental coffins that are used for Buddhist funerals.  There was a large framed photograph of the deceased person supported by an easel next to the coffin - just as for a Buddhist ritual.  There were many floral bouquets surrounding the coffin.  The floral arrangements were a Western style and would be not out of place at any funeral home in the USA.  At Buddhist funerals the floral arrangements or tributes appear more Eastern style and plastic. In addition to floral arrangements there were some some black signs with silver writing - I assume to the effect of "Rest In Peace"  Unlike a Buddhist funeral, there were no offerings of robes, blankets, rice, food or whiskey placed on top of the coffin.  There were several lit candles on the floor in front of the coffin but no Joss sticks.  People knelt on sahts in front of the coffin and candles to say their prayers.

Outside of the home the scene was very much like a Buddhist funeral.  Women were busy preparing the traditional foods that are served to guests at special celebrations or ceremonies - sticky rice, cucumbers and salad greens, pork larb, raw beef with chilies, and meat soup.  The cooking was performed over a combination of charcoal and propane fires.

Tables and chairs were set up underneath the canopies for guests to eat and wait.  On each of the tables there were 1.25 liter bottles of Coke and Sprite as well as bottled water.  There was also a small metal bucket of ice cubes for the soft drinks.  This was just like a Buddhist funeral.  However, unlike a Buddhist funeral there were no bottles of beer of whiskey available for the guests.  In addition, unlike the Buddhist funerals that I have attended, there were no card games or other forms of gambling going on.  There is, as they used to say in the Old West or at least in the Old West movies, a new sheriff in town.  Gambling is illegal in Thailand except for the National Lottery.  It is just like in America with drugs and prostitution being illegal.  If you are looking for it you will find it and often quite easily.  Here in Isaan "arrangements" or "accommodations" can be made to ensure that your card games, dice games, or numbers game will not be interrupted or more importantly - you will not be interfered with.  The former arrangements are no longer valid or available.  There is a new head police official in the area and he is cracking down.  Even with the Police crackdown, I believe that there would not have been any gambling at the Christian funeral - Duang's Christian relatives are rather conservative and fundamentalists.

The funeral ritual commenced with ... well the best way that I can describe it as was a pep rally cheer.  Duang's cousin who appeared to be like a Deacon got up and said something like , according to Duang, "Christian good" to which the congregation punched their fists in the air and shouted "Amen" and "Hallelujah"  This was repeated three times.  The people then sang a song to the accompaniment of a guitar and keyboard.  I was not familiar with the song but it sounded nice and seemed appropriate for the occasion.  Duang asked me if the same thing would happen when we attend a funeral in America.  I attempted to explain to her the differences between the various Christian denominations and how their rituals are different.  I think that she understood but then again I have explained Christmas to her but when I deviated from the religious aspects of it and brought in Santa Claus - "the wheels fell off the vehicle". 

When divine intervention is sought for our family back in America she prays to Santa Claus as well as Buddha in her nightly ritual.  When conditions improve, she points out to me "Good. You see Buddha and Santa Claus take care, take care good"  I now realize that all this confusion could have been avoided if I had not put money in her sock that was hung with care in front of the hotel television set of our room in Bangkok on Christmas Eve two years ago. Since she is so comfortable in her believes, I don't make a good thing worse by trying to explain even more.

After explaining some of the differences between a Roman Catholic funeral ritual and Protestant funeral ritual, Peelawat decided he had had enough and he wanted to go back home.  I drove him back to his home so I missed the remainder of the funeral.  After awhile Duang walked back to her Mom's house and we were ready to leave.  We did not leave for the races quite yet.  We had to visit another cousin's house in the village.  We had attended their Christian wedding a while ago and now they had a one month old daughter.  The baby was having a Bai Sii ceremony (Animist Ritual) later that day to, depending upon your religious persuasion; welcome the baby into the community and family or to bind the necessary 32 spirits inside of her so that she would be healthy, and have good luck.  No matter the reason for the ritual, everyone could agree that it was cause for a party.  There would be live music, food, beer and whiskey after the ritual.  We paid our respects to the family and especially the sleeping baby before heading out to the races.  Although we were invited to the party, we were not going to attend. It had already been a busy weekend and we were getting tired.

Just as the previous day, finding parking was no problem at the races.  It was a warm afternoon and Duang was not dressed comfortablely for a full day at the races.  She was wearing her funeral outfit as well as short high heels - not very appropriate for walking on the rough bank of the levee.  I realized that we would make only a short stay at the races.  Other factors were to play in the decision to stay only a short time.

We walked up a dirt road to the top of the levee and headed to the starting line.  There was definitely more people watching the races than the previous day.  Everyone appeared to be in good spirits - literally and figuratively.  The beer and whiskey was flowing easily.

We found Duang's brother where we found him the previous day.  We bought a Lemon Ice Tea to enjoy and to cool off a little.  He was in a shaded area so I told Duang to stay with him while I took some photos.

One Way of Traveling In Isaan
I used to take photographs mainly of landscapes and animals.  However my overseas experiences have allowed me to evolve into mainly photographs of people.  Here in Southeast Asia, photographing people is not difficult.  Besides the many interesting subjects that are available, the people in general like to be photographed.  Right after leaving Duang with her brother, I saw a young father arriving with several children.  He was on a motorcycle with his two or three year old daughter in front of him.  The remaining children were in a sidecar.  Besides the beauty of the little girl, I found the children in the sidecar to be an attractive and unique subject for a photograph.  Although I was some distance away, I had a telephoto lens to capture the scene.  The young father noticed me and posed the family for me to photograph.  He was not suspicious or paranoid.  He was friendly and no doubt proud.


Oops I have been spotted - still an interesting photo
I took advantage of the situation and walked over to say hello and show the photographs to him and the children.  They appreciated the photos - well everyone except for his young daughter, she was afraid of the falang.  It is always interesting to realize how different we are and to young children frightening because of our appearance.  I don't take it personally.  I take it as an opportunity to demonstrate to a small child that falang (foreigners) despite our looks can be "Khun jai dai" (people with a good heart).  Yesterday the little girl was not buying anything that I was selling.  She remained suspicious and apprehensive much to her father and her uncle's amusement.  They asked me to photograph them so i was pleased to accommodate them.



After spending some time with the family taking their photos, showing their photos to them and trying to communicate I was a marked man.  Duang had joined me on my walk along the top of the levee.  People would try to talk in English and then would be amused when I answered back in Isaan.  I came upon a large group of young been who had been celebrating.  They wanted their photo taken so I obliged.

ATeam that Told Me that they were #1- one of several teams to do so that day
A little further along the levee another team stopped and wanted their photo taken.  I asked them if they were "Number 1" and they said that they were.  I told them in my limited Thai that I did not understand because the other team had told me that they were #1 and they had different uniforms.  They caught on to my joke and we had a big laugh.

Another Team Claiming to be #1 - I guess that they are all winners
I had Duang stay in the shade while I went off to take a few photographs prior to leaving.  I told her it would be around 15 minutes.


Most Races Are Won or Lost At the Start

A Close Race at the Midpoint
Someone is going to win, the other is going to lose - so it is in long boat racing
As I was wandering along the levee I was called over to a small bar or restaurant - a collection of plastic chairs, plastic tables, an ice chest, a charcoal fire, and a canopy.  A group of middle aged men were partying it up.  They offered me a glass of whiskey.  I declined and tried to communicate that I had to drive my truck and that the Police like falang too much for me to be stopped after drinking - an allusion to the practice where foreigners sometimes get stopped and "fined" 200 baht  ($6 USD) for Fill In The Blank  I sure didn't want to get stopped and have the Police discover I had been drinking.  The guys were very friendly and insisted that I share a drink.  Not to be unfriendly I drank the whiskey.  To be polite I stayed a little longer to talk.  They offered more drink which I declined and informed them that I had to get going because my wife would be angry.  They then wanted me to sell some whiskey.  I believe they wanted me to buy a bottle of whiskey.  I acted dumb and said that I did not understand.  Not much upsets me over here but there is one thing that really BOTHERS me and that is people assuming that because I am a foreigner I must be rich and therefore obligated to buy drinks for anyone and everyone. I don't support redistribution of wealth in America and I will not support or participate in it any where else.  Where I come from a free drink is no strings attached especially after it was politely refused to begin with let alone one free drink obligating the recipient to buy a bottle.  Just then Duang appeared.  I reminded the guys my wife would be angry and I had to go.  After introducing Duang we said good bye and left.  I told Duang it was time to go home, the people were getting too friendly for me.  She was tired and glad to hear that our days at the races had ended.

The Blue Team Approaches the Starting Area

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Day At the Races

The Race Has Been Run, The White Boat Has Won!
Saturday, 13 November, was the first day of long boat racing in Kumphawapi.  It was a great day for the races - blue sky, bright sun, mild (for here) temperatures, and only a slight breeze.  Keeping our word to Peelawat, we drove out to Tahsang Village to bring our Grandson to the races.

We arrived at the races at 10:00 A.M.  It was upon arrival that the surprises of the day commenced.  The first surprise was that there was not any traffic jams in Kumphawapi.  The second surprise was that finding convenient parking was not difficult what's so ever.  We ended up parking at the Amphur (County) Offices a mere two blocks from the main viewing pavilion.  A greater surprise was that all parking was free.  There were no paid parking lots or people charging for parking in front of their home.  My wife could not believe that people in the USA are charged $5, $10, and sometimes $20 for parking to attend a public event.  I did not dare tell her about the parking fees associated with attending an NFL game.

The Kumphawapi races were a free event like so many other events here in Thailand.  We have attended many Mahlam Lao shows, two Phuket Vegetarian Festivals, Poi Sang Long Festival, Phi Ta Khon Festival, Ubon Candle Festival, New Years Festivals, Ban That Rocket Festival, Mango Fair, Naga Fireball Festival, School Field Day, and OTOP Expositions without being charged for admission.  It seems that getting together to celebrate and to enjoy a sense of community are higher priorities here than having an opportunity to make money.

We knew that the Princess was coming to the event so I wanted to avoid the confusion and security issues of the main viewing area.  As it turned out she attended at 7:00 P.M.  We walked north along the flood plain levee to find a suitable location to view the races.  The top of the levee is a single lane dirt road.  The water side of the road was lined with pavilions, some which had wood benches, offering spectators shelter from the sun.  The other side of the levee road was lined with food and beverage booths as well as carts.  Beverages ranged from Lao Kao whiskey, beer, soft drinks, lemon ice tea, to bottled water.  Food was the typical Isaan selections of BBQ chicken, chicken feet, warmed dried and very salty squid, papaya salad (Pauk-Pauk), Isaan sausages, and prepared ethnic dishes.  No one would go thirsty or hungry - for sure.  Another surprise, at least to me, was that the food and beverage prices were the same everyday prices that are charged.  The vendors had not taken advantage of the event or location to inflate their prices.

Cheerleaders, Isaan Style, Encouraging the Boats
Across the water there appeared to be a similar set up with one exception.  Across the way there was a large tiered stage set up just about even with the finish flag - the stage was for CHEERLEADERS.  For several of the races throughout the day the stage was filled with cheerleaders waving poms poms.  The cheerleaders were dressed in typical Lao Loum clothing reserved for special occasions rather than the skimpy outfits customary to US cheerleaders.  The Isaan cheerleaders also wore large straw hats that people wear while working in the fields.  This was another surprise of the day - cheerleaders in Isaan.  I do have to admit though that their efforts contributed to the festive nature of the event.


Spectators dancing, Singing, and Providing Non-Stop Banter Next to Large Speakers



Young Boy Singing or Perhaps Howling to the Music
 The water side of the levees had been cleared of brush to provide areas for people to sit or squat to watch the competition.  We selected an area underneath a large tree which provided us with shade for the entire day.  Duang had told me that there would be 30 boats starting the competition.  Surprisingly there were actually 60 boats on Saturday.  With that many boats competing, there was always something going on the water all day long. Boats were going up the water to prepare for their race. Boats were racing down the water. Boats were paddling up from the finish line to return to their club or organization's location. Some boats were off to the side practicing their starts. It became very apparent how important the start was for the boats. I would say that around 90 to 95% of the boats that led at the start ended up winning the race. Getting a long boat moving with approximately 40 people on board from a dead start requires some coordination, strength as well as technique. It was also obvious that the practice starts as well as full sprints in front of and full view of their competition was also sending some not so subtle messages.



Two Long Boats Headed To the Starting Line

Getting Started!
I did see one of the Kumphawapi paddlers point directly at the lead paddler of another boat as they passed by and made a cutting motion across his throat with his thumb and then emphasizing his point directly to the other paddler. With this being Isaan, this gesture may have had nothing to do with the paddling competition for the day. Sometimes there are village feuds between nearby villages. I am aware of feuds between Tahsang Village and nearby villages. Unlike the Hatfield and McCoy feud, feuds in Isaan tend to be dynamic. One village near Tahsang Village who were the "bad" guys are now the "good" guys. The "good" guys are now the "bad" guys. To add to the confusion, for and to me , the names of the villages sound just about the same. Being a foreigner keeps me above the fray so not knowing the "score" or "scoop" has not been a hindrance or liability.

With 60 boats there were approximately 20 clubs or organizations competing.  Each club or organization set up a compound on the levee where the crews rested and their supporters celebrated, practiced celebrating, and absolutely enjoyed themselves.  Each team had their own sound system and selection of Mahlam Lao music to blast out over the water.  Some spectators had driven their boom box pickup trucks up on top of the levee.  A boom box pickup truck is a small truck that has its pickup bed filled with high end speakers as well as amplifiers.  Young men like to have competitions amongst themselves for volume and looks of their machines.  They also tend to be "babe magnets".  The competing music added to the festive atmosphere.

Team Kumphawapi Awaiting Their Race - I am not sure that smoking constitutes proper preparation
Duang, Peelawat, a young cousin from Tahsang, and I found a good viewing location at the water's edge but still shaded by a large tree.  We were close to the Kumphawapi team members and below the massive speakers which helped to reduce their volume at our location.  After about an hour, Peelawat was calling for his Mom and definitely missing his morning nap.  Duang drove the gang back to Tahsang and I remained to enjoy the festival.  I am quite comfortable here and do not mind being left alone in the middle of a crowd and environment that I don't completely understand.


A Paddler Smoking While Awaiting His Race


Watching the Races From the Best Seat In the House

The competitors in the long boat races are not professionals and I suspect that they do not even formally train.  In all our trips to and through Kumphawapi, we have yet to see a long boat on the water other than during the regatta or seen  a group of adults running along the roads.  Each team had to have two distinct uniforms for the regatta.  The uniforms consisted of knock off professional professional soccer team jerseys.  There are many shops in the area which manufacture soccer uniform replicas and sell them cheaply. Competitors wore two jerseys of different colored jerseys.  The irony of the current political state here in Isaan was not lost to me.  The colors for Kumphawapi were red and yellow.  Red is the sellected colors for the Pro Thaksin group, the "Red Shirts" who are very popular here in Isaan.  The "Red Shirts" are opposed by the "Yellow Shirts" in Thailand.  For just one day, here in Kumphawapi the red shirts were also the yellow shirts depending upon the race they were in.  Depending upon the team's color for a particular race, they peeled off the second jersey and wrapped the second jersey around their waist, or tied it around their head if they decided not to wear it underneath the required color.  The paddlers wore a variety of pants to complete their uniforms - cotton shorts, soccer shorts, running pants - whatever they had and didn't mind getting wet.


Team Kumphawapi Member Relaxing - His face is powder for protection from the Sun and he wears a Buddhist Prayer Cloth for protection from everything else.

The boats were long as well as narrow.  They were actually rather flimsy and apparently leaky as well.  Each boat that I saw up close had a couple of plastic bailers recycled from plastic jugs and several large sponges.  Later in the competition. one of the Kumphawapi boats needed some adjustments if not necessary repairs.  I had been watching one of the older paddlers for awhile as he appeared to be playing with some of the water vines that he had pulled out of the water.  At first I thought he was just whiling away some time prior to the start of his next race - akin to whittling a stick.  After another man joined him I realized that there a purpose to his activity.  He was preparing the vines to lash the long boat together.  At regular intervals along both sides of the boat, just behind a seat, there was a metal loop attached to the hull.  Vines were strung between the metal loops and held the boat gunwales in tension.  The two men worked together to replace a couple of the vine tension lashings prior to their next race.  With about 6 loops of vine and several knots the lashing upon drying out was deemed "good to go".  This is indicative of the Lao Loum way of life - making do with what is readily available.

Lashing the Long Boat Together Using Water Vines
Upon first getting on board, the crew concentrated on bailing out their racing shell as well as getting the right people in the right location in the boat.  There was a very long bow on each of the boats.  The long bow was decorated with ribbon, bows, garlands and flowers as offerings to the spirits.  On top of of the bow just before the first paddler there was a small shrine with statues, small spirit houses, more offerings which now included burning joss (incense) sticks.

Spirituality plays a very large part in day to day life in Isaan and for the Lao Loum people.  I have witnessed offerings to the spirits behind stage prior to the start of Mahlam Lao shows.  Many Go-Go dancers will make an offering prior to starting to dance or at least make a "Wai" in deference to the spirits prior to going on stage to perform. Most bars have a shrine to the spirits. The practice of having a prominent shrine to the spirits is not limited to bars or entertainment establishments.  Auto dealers, restaurants, insurance companies, grocery stores, gas stations to name just a few of the types of business that have shrines.   Companies will perform a ceremony prior to starting a project.  Duang makes offerings to the spirits prior to us leaving on a trip.  When people are sick, Baii Sii ceremonies are held to assist them to get better.

Spirituality also pervades into long boat racing.  In addition to the bow offerings, each of the paddlers prior to stepping on board a boat, gave the "Wai" gesture of respect prior to putting their foot in the boat.  When the person had to step out of their boat and cross over two other boats prior to getting to the shore, they gave a Wai to each of the boats prior to entering and a Wai to the last boat that they exited.

Duang returned with the tuna fish grinder that I had prepared for my lunch.  She also had a bottle of cola for me to drink.  This was great but I was in no danger of going thirsty or hungry.  I was hesitant to leave my "good" vantage point close to the boats, close to the water, under a shade tree, with a relatively flat piece of ground to sit on.  I was also reticent to climb up and then back down the rough as well as steep levee bank with all my camera gear on my back.  I just sat there and waited for the food and drinks to come to me.  Just like at a baseball game back in the USA, peddlers were wandering along the levee selling cups of soft drinks and snacks.  I grabbed two cups of Thailand's answer to Kool Aid - 10 Baht each ($0.30 USD) - definitely not USA ball park prices.  A woman walked the levee selling small dried and very salty squid.  In my cynicism, I wonder if she was the soft drink vendor's wife - a great way to increase soft drink sales is to get people to eat very salty squid!  There was also another woman selling snacks out of two aluminum pots - but I was not buying anything that she was selling.  One pot was filled with deep fried or perhaps they were sauteed crickets.  They were small but still not appetizing to me.  The other pot was filled with larger bugs either deep fried or sauteed.  The fact that they resembled cockroaches made they only more unappealing to me.  They were unappealing to me but not to the people around me.  The young father behind me bought a small bag of the crickets and seemed to enjoy them along with his 3 and 5 year old children.  I sat there and enjoyed my grinder and soda.

A resident in Tahsang Village had died two days earlier, so there had been a heavy run on both the Lao Kao whiskey and beer at my mother-in-law's market.  She asked Duang to go into town and buy more stock for the market.  After giving me my lunch, Duang left to buy the items and return them to Tahsang Village.  However prior to leaving she lectured me much like I would expect her to lecture Peelawat about staying where he was and to not wander off.  I mentioned it to her and we both laughed.  This time I listened to her - this time and stayed put.

I enjoyed the next two hours watching the races and taking photographs.  I kept an eye out for Duang and finally saw her coming down towards me through the large crowd that was now settled on the levee bank.  She was in a slight panic.  She had been looking for me and could not find me.  I told her that I had not moved.  With the arrival of more people and more vendors on top of the levee, she had forgotten where she had left me - thankfully it was not Peelawat that she had left behind!  At 61 years old I can take care of myself much better than Peelawat can take care of himself at 21 months.  She started laughing and told me that she went up to one of the men singing and providing a stream of concious commentary on what ever came into his mind on one of the many sound systems along the levee.  He announced 3 times "Mister Allen.  Your wife can not find you. Go where she see you before"  One problem though - no it wasn't the other 15 to 20 competing sounds systems with blaring music and alcohol fueled commentaries.  The problem was that he did not speak English so the announcements were in Isaan (a dialect of Lao) which as Duang says "Me, no understand".  I do remember hearing what sounded like Peelawat saying "Tahlen!!" (Grandfather Allen!) a couple of times and looked but it didn't make sense to me. Fortunately there were not many falang, foreigners, in attendance so the people were able to give her a clue where I was.   Duang and I still laugh about the incident.  Situations like that happen often around here and keep us smiling if not laughing.


The Starting Line - Long Boats Get Into Position for the Start
We wandered up the levee towards the starting line for the races and I mentioned to Duang that her brother should be there since he sells soft drinks from his specialized motorcycle cart. He especially makes a killer glass of "Cha Menouw - (Lemon Ice Tea) from scratch - even brewing the tea fresh for drink. When we arrived at the point on the levee parallel with the starting line there was her brother or "Number 3" as he is referred to. "Number 4" is her youngest brother who is the Mahlam Lao performer. We each enjoyed a great glass of iced tea - 20 baht ($0.60 USD) a glass for friends, family, and everyone else!


At 4:00 P.M. we left - happy, satisfied, and done in by the heat, Sun, and excitement of it all.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Going to the Regatta


Long Boat Racing Teams Practicing the Day Before Competing In Kumphawapi
For the past two or three weeks there have been banners across the streets of Kumphawapi and large billboards outside of the town announcing a great festival from 12 November 2553 to 14 November 2553.  I have lived in Thailand long enough to understand that the year 2553 of the Buddhist era corresponds to the Western year of 2010.

Last year we had passed through town during the last day of the festival but I had not brought my camera gear with me.  I missed out on documenting the long boat regatta.  As we crossed the bridge over the flood plain I could see boats competing.  I vowed to not miss out this year.

Water Festivals and more specifically long boat racing is very popular in Southeast Asia.  Last month there was a large event, "Boun Naam" or "Vientiane Boat Racing Festival" north of Udonthani in the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR) or what is commonly referred to as "Laos" in the West.  Long boat racing in LPDR is not limited to the capital city of Vientiane.  There is a boat racing festival in the former royal capital of Luang Prabang in September.  Long Boat racing also is held during the "Wat Phou Festival" in Champassak during February.

Not to outdone by her neighbors, Cambodia has a very large Water Festival during November 20 to 22 this year, in Phnom Penh.  Up to a million people people will be lining the banks of the Mekong River to witness the boat races there.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, has boat racing.

Here in Thailand there are long boat races throughout the Kingdom in April, September, October and November.


The Royal Flag for HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindorn

This weekend's races in Kumphawapi will be a grand event.  Besides many Thai National Flags decorating the town and venue, there were many flags for HRH Princess Maha Chakri Siridorn.  Apparently she will be presiding over the opening ceremonies tomorrow 13 November.  I learned this the hard way today.

We drove to Kumphawapi early this morning despite Duang's and her daughter's statements that the rqacing was not until Saturday.  I was under the impression that if the banner said 12 November 2553 to 14 November 2553 it meant racing on all three days.  It really didn't matter all that much because we have to go to Kumphawapi to get to Tahsang Village to visit the family.  I told Duang that if there was nothing going on we would drive out to Tahsang Village and visit the family.


Two Boats Practicing For Saturday's and Sunday's Competition
 Well there was plenty going on in Kumphawapi - everyone was busy setting up bleachers, pavilions, temporary restrooms, viewing stands, refreshment stands, and vendor booths - but no real racing.  I suspect that there will be a concert tonight so that could be why "12 November" was on the banners.

Our visit to the venue was not a waste of time.  I was able to scout out locations and determine the sun's location for morning shots.  Having visited the site, we also developed a strategy for the best route to take into town, where we hope to park and how far we think we will have to walk.  In light of our knowledge tonight that the Royal Princess will be in attendance - we are way ahead of the game.

After Their Practice Run A Team Turns At the Bridge
There will be 30 boats competing for a 30,000 Baht prize ($1,000 USD).  There are male teams as well as female teams from around Thailand.  I heard of boats coming from Ubon Ratchathani which is 6 hours away by road.  I was unable to find out if the winning male team gets the 30,000 baht prize and the winning female team also receives 30,000 Baht.  I guess that is why you show up - to find these things out.  It makes life more interesting at times when you don't know the answers, realize that you don't know, and accept that it really doesn't matter all that much.  What is important is to make the most of your opportunities, and enjoy yourself.

We enjoyed our visit to the sight.  There were three boats practicing on the water.  I am hesitant to call it a river.  It looks like a river but a month ago I had my doubts as to how there could be boat races.  The area is actually a flood plain with a narrow stream running through it.  A month ago the stream was filled and clogged with green vines similar to kudzu in Florida.  Today there was a broad expanse of water and hardly a sign of vegetation in the water.  I asked Duang if people had cut and removed the vegetation.  She said no that it all been covered by the water.  This time I listened and believed her.

At these events there are always many booths and stalls that sell potted plants and flowers.  When we arrived in town this morning the vendors were busy setting up their stalls along the street bordering the park where we take Peelawat to see the monkeys.  The stalls are constructed out of metal scaffolding with corrugated metal sheeting for roofs and plastic mesh fabric for walls.  Duang and I were happy but the monkeys were not.  The resident monkeys were definitely upset with the incursion as well as disruption to their territory.  There were several monkeys on top of the sheet metal roofs bouncing up and down as well as hitting the metal with their fists; making a heck of a noise in obvious signs of displeasure - sort of like Peelawat was doing the other day with his plastic tractor when he saw his 3 year old cousin sitting on my knee.  He glared at me and banged the toy up and down on the floor in a highly animated manner as he yelled "Ahlhen Ahlhen, May Ow! " (Allen Allen, No!)  Funny how 21 month olds are so much like monkeys - and just as cute.  I yelled at the monkeys in Thai to calm down which caused the vendors to laugh and the monkeys to run away.

After scouting out the area we drove out to Tahsang Village and had a nice visit.  Peelawat and Kwan were busy playing in the dirt with three very young puppies to keep them distracted. Toddlers and puppies - does it get much cuter?

Tomorrow we will go back to the regatta.  With Royalty being present there may be some challenges but we are up to them.  If worse comes to worse there is always Tahsang Village to visit and the next day of racing with such a highly honored guest.  No matter what i expect it to be interesting - another day here in Isaan.

Long Boat with Rooster Tail Flying

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Learning Faith In Isaan - Starting Out Young

Tey, 4 years old and Peelawat, 21 months, Worshiping
Last Saturday, we drove out to Tahsang Village early to participate in a merit making ritual that is related to Duang's decision to make special merit.  For the close of Buddhist Lent on October 23rd, Thot Kathin Day, Duang dressed all in white and sat with the other women who had decided to participate in a religious retreat at the Wat that night.  As Duang described it to me it greatly reminded me of Religious Retreats performed in the Catholic Church.

Duang and Other Women Preparing to Attend A Religious Retreat
Once we arrived at the Wat located amongst the sugar cane fields outside of Tahsang Village, Duang could no longer communicate or touch me - it was not personal it was just that I was a man.  Just as Monks can not touch a female, Duang and the other female retreat attendees could not touch a man.  There was one bright side to this requirement for me, Duang could not care for Peelawat, our 21 month old grandson, until the next morning.  I had the responsibility to care for him until after the morning alms giving ritual when I would return him back to his mother back in Tahsang Village.

Peelawat and I sat on the left hand side of the Wat while Duang sat with the other women on the right hand side.  Peelawat lasted 45 minutes when he decided that he had had enough of that "old time" religion.  I brought him back to the village and returned to the Wat to await my mother-in-law to complete her worship.  Well, part of the time was spent in ritual but a great deal of time was spent waiting for her to finish eating.  People earn merit by offering food to Monks for the Monk's single meal of the day.  Monks are not allowed to save food after they consume their morning meal so once they have taken their portions of food that they have been offered, people are invited to eat the remaining portions.  With this being Isaan, eating the remaining food becomes a great opportunity to socialize.  Everyone had a grand time eating, drinking water, and most of all chatting.

From the commencement of the morning ritual the women studied Buddhist dharma and meditated .  They also fasted for the entire day.  Breakfast on Thot Kathin Day was their only food until the following morning.

Motivated from their retreat experience Duang and Tey's Grandmother decided to follow up on earning additional merit.  They could earn additional merit by performing a special ritual for seven Wednesdays in a row by fasting, dressing in white, practising abstinence, chanting and meditating.  From their retreat they had a book with teachings and chants written down for the Wednesday rituals.  On each of the seven Wednesdays, they can not touch or even talk to a man no matter how old the male is.  They can eat only a meal of rice in the morning and liquid intake is restricted to just water.

Wednesday 10 October - Duangchan Worshiping At Her Shrine In Our Upstairs Alcove
On Wednesday night they sleep in front of the shrine located in their homes.  On Thursday morning they able to resume their normal life.

Four days ago, Saturday, we went to Tahsang Village for another special ritual.  In addition to the typical morning offering of food to the Monks, Duang and Tey's Grandmother were going to get a shower from the Monk.  This was something new to me.  This was something that I had to see because I had no idea what it was like.  Duang told me that she would wear all white clothing to go to the Wat and wear a change of dry clothing to come back home.  We left our home at 6:00 A.M. in 75F weather to pick up Tey's Grandmother before going out into the fields to get to the Wat.  At least that was our original plan.  When we got to Tahsang Village, we discovered that Tey, 4 years old, wanted to go with his Grandmother.  Since Tey was going, his sister, Mai, 5 years old wanted to go too.  When Peelawat, 21 months old, realized that his friend Tey was going, he wanted to go.  As we were finally loaded up in the truck, Kwan, 3 years old, wanted to go with her cousin Peelawat and friends Tey and Mai.  With the four children all under six years old loaded into the truck we headed off to the Wat.


Tey, Mai, Kwan and Peelawat Prepare to Worship Under the Supervision of Tey's Grandmother



Sometimes Lighting Joss Stick Offerings Can Be Difficult - Especially When You Are 2 or 3 Years Old
 The children are always well behaved and I welcomed their accompanying us out to the Wat.  I was not expecting to witness what was to be a very special morning.  Fortunately I had brought my camera gear to document the morning's activities.

I have written several times about the daily role of spirituality and religion in the life of the Lao Loum people here in Isaan.  The people's faith provides them with answers to daily concerns, a sense of direction for their life and comfort in the face of the hardships of life as well as confidence in the future.  I had noted that even at his early age Peelawat can recognize and demonstrate respect for Monks and religious objects.  Children participate or at least witness all the rituals related to Buddhism as well as Animist rituals that are performed here in Isaan.  There is no sense that the children are "too young" in regards to attending ceremonies or events.  However it was not until Saturday that I saw how much the young children knew about worshiping or witnessed their training.  For me it was a special treat.  Knowing the children personally made the experience even more special.

Kwan Performing One of Three Supplications Before A Statue of Buddha
Tey's Grandmother supervised the children at the various shrines located on the Wat's grounds.  There are different statues of Buddha representing days of the week.  Some of the staues are located in different buildings or pavilions on the grounds.  The children worshiped at two of the three places that we stopped at.


Flanked by Mai and Kwan, Peelawat Makes His Offering

Peelawat and Kwan Finish their Ritual By Placing Their Burning Joss Sticks in the Receptacle In Front of Buddha statue
Tey's Grandmother left to participate in the offering of food to the Monks while I finished with the children - mainly ensuring that they did not set themselves or anything else on fire.  It was so very nice to see the children learning of a power and entity greater than themselves. Peelawat, the youngest, was particular enamored in the burning Joss (incense) Sticks.  After awhile, after giving me sticks and a lighter for me to make an offering, he finally completed his worship.


Peelawat Contemplating His Burning Joss Sticks
 Peelawat and I walked to the large outdoor shrine just in time for the offering of food to the Monks. There were three Monks receiving food; the Abbott around 50 years old, a Monk around 25 or 30 years old and a Novice Monk about 12 years old.  The Novice Monk was excited to see me.  He had reminded Duang that last year I had given him 20 Baht.  I remembered him too.


The Wat's Young Novice Participates In Morning Ritual
Last year, at a village celebration where Duang's brother was performing a Mahlam Lao Show the boy was also attending.  Many of the children were snacking on ice cream, soft drinks, or other goodies.  This boy was not and appeared to be alone.  I gave him some money so that he could buy some treats to enjoy like the other children were able to.  His face was disfigured and I asked Duang about him.  The boy had been mauled by a dog and blinded in one eye from the incident.  He was also an orphan being cared for by an uncle.  He is not the first child that I have seen disfigured by a dog in Isaan.  Dogs are very common in the villages and Wats of Isaan.  The dogs are not kept in the manner and style of pet dogs in the United States.  They are definitely not pampered.  The dogs in Isaan are not neutered either.  The dogs are tolerated and there are no wide spread attempts to control the dog population.  The village dogs coexist, most of the time, with the villagers.  I guess they offer some protection against snakes.  Some dogs help with herding the cattle.  Except for selling them to the travelling dog meat agents, the villagers would never consider destroying a village dog. 

In Isaan the Wats are more than places of worship.  Wats also retain their traditional role of providing education, shelter and sustenance for those in need.  The young boy has been taken into the Wat and seems to be happy with his new set of circumstances.  Duang and I once met and spoke with a 38 year old Monk who had entered into his Wat when he was 9 years old.  The tradition of caring for others continues today. Seeing that the young boy is now in better circumstances made me feel good inside as well as reassured that the Lao Loum people can and do take care of each other without involving the government.

Duang About to be Blessed
At the completion of the morning food offering, we walked to another building.  Duang prayed at the shrine inside the building and then set a saht (woven reed mat) on the ground outside of the building's porch railing.  Inside the building the 25 year old Monk was praying as he dropped burning candle wax into a plastic bucket of water.  Duang knelt ouside on the saht.  The Monk came out on to the porch and sprinkled Duang using a brush made out of coarse reeds or rushes. This was apparently her "shower".  I had seen this type of blessing before as well as been on the receiving end of many of these blessings.  Later I found out that Duang had opted out of the shower because it was "too cold" (23C, 73F).  Tey's Grandmother, perhaps because she has more body insulation, went for the full shower.  She sat on the saht wearing a long skirt pulled up to her under arms and had the same type of water poured on her head and shoulders by the Monk.  After she changed into dry clothing we gathered up the children and returned to Tahsang Village.


Tey's Grandmother Being Showered With Holy Water

A Chicken Relaxes In Buddha's Lap
Once again I went home "smiling inside" thinking about all that I had seen and experienced that morning.

Gadget

This content is not yet available over encrypted connections.