Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Times They Are Changing, Allen's World Too

Duang With A Pakama Wrapped Around Her Head
 A great motivation for pursuing an Immigration Visa for my wife was to be prepared for the time when I would have to return to America to care for my parents.  That time has arrived.

In one week Duang and I will be in America, staying in Connecticut, caring for my parents.

Life does not always, or perhaps it never plays out the way we planned or would have hoped.  However changes present opportunities as well as challenges.  It really is all up to us and how well we allow ourselves to adapt, recognize the opportunities, take advantage of the opportunities, and overcome the challenges.

I had looked into visiting Malaysia to visit Batu Caves during Thaipusam.  Thaipusam is a Tamil Hindu festival where people pierce their bodies to carry ornate structures up to the cave as demonstrations of their faith.  Over a million people attend the event.  It has a tremendous photography potential as well being another unique Southeast Asia experience.  Not attending this year will just have to be greater motivation and justification to attend a future celebration.

We had planned on returning to Maehongson to attend the Poi Sang Long Festival where young Shan boys are ordained as Novice Monks.  It is a very colorful and inspiring event - an event that we will attend once again in the future.

My blogs have largely dealt with my experiences in living here in Isaan as well as our travels and experiences in Southeast Asia.  Now with my return and Duang's immigration to America, I suspect that the focus of this blog will change.  Although I will continue to write blogs and share some of the photographs of far away places, many of the blogs will be related to Duang's experiences in adapting to America and American culture.  I also expect that some of the blogs will also deal with my observations and experiences re-adapting to life in America.

I have lived outside of America for all but 2-1/2 years of the past 11 years.  When I did live in America it was in California - a long way physically and culturally from New England.  It should be interesting for sure.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Gone to the Races

A School Girl Running Just For Fun
We have been very busy the past month with the final processing of Duang's Immigration Visa to the USA, Duang's son's wedding, Christmas, Hmong New Years in Laos, New Year's Eve and now making arrangements to return to the USA shortly.  One of the surprises that we had was attending a School Field Day.

Last year, at the end of December, we attended a School Field Day involving 6 elementary schools in the vicinity of Tahsang Village. It was a colorful and entertaining day of pageantry, ceremony, and athletic competition.  This year at the end of December we were in Bangkok for Duang's immigration interview at the American Consulate and to celebrate New Year's Eve.  With our business in Bangkok I believed that we were going to miss out on this year's event.

On January 6th we drove out to Tahsang Village in the morning to participate in a merit making ritual for Duang's youngest brother.  Duang was going to have water poured over her by the local Monk as part of the ritual - sort of a super blessing reminiscent of being sprinkled with Holy Water by a Priest in a Catholic Church.  A couple of month's ago Duang planned on the "shower" blessing but because of the cold weather (73F, 23C) she opted out and instead had a more common blessing of water sprinkled on her by the Monk using a brush constructed of very coarse reeds.

Tahsang Village Monk Participates in Merit Making Ritual
I reminded Duang about the cold weather but she told me that she was bringing warm clothes to change into after her big blessing.  I was still not convinced or confident - she wears a sweat suit outfit to bed and covers up with a sheet and heavy comforter now that it has gotten cold (68F and 20C) in our bedroom.  Well once we got out of the truck and walked to wear the ritual would be performed, Duang changed her mind and once again opted out and went for the customary sprinkle blessing rather than the shower blessing.

Competitors Turning the Corner During A Relay Race
After the ritual we found out that there was a School Field day going on in a nearby village.  We gathered up the usual suspects, I mean family members, in Tahsang Village and headed out to the site of the School Field Day.  After driving along narrow roads, dirt roads, past sugar cane harvesting and fallow rice paddies, and even through a couple small villages, we arrived at the elementary school that was hosting the school competition.

We were arriving in the late morning so we had missed the parade of the competitors and their classmates as well as the opening ceremonies.  Several of the young school girls were still coiffed and wearing their heavy make up from the parade but had changed from their fancy traditional clothing into their athletic clothing - shorts and soccer style jerseys.

Schoolchildren Enjoying Themselves and Cheering their Classmates
Just as was the arrangements last year, there were six elementary schools participating in the field day.  Each school had a decorated bleacher set up for the athletes, and their classmates.  Several parents, relatives, younger siblings, as well as neighbors accompanied each of the schools contingents.  It was a very festive atmosphere albeit somewhat chaotic.  Each of the schools, all six of them, had their own public address system along with huge speakers.  Mahlam Lao or more specifically Mahlam Sing music blasted from each of the systems.  The children in the bleachers danced, waved pom-poms, and performed cheering routines.  It was very obvious that they were thoroughly enjoying themselves.  Off to the side of the bleachers, there were stalls, booths, and motorcycle sidecars selling food and soft drinks.  Besides being filled with the hubbub of competing music, the air was filled with the smells from Isaan ethnic food and smoke from small charcoal fires.

"Runner, Get Ready!"

We arrived in time to watch the relay races amongst the schools.  There was no cinder track for the competitors.  There was no artificial track for the competitors.  The relay races were conducted on a grass field that served as the ordinary play field for the school's students.

Her Hair and Makeup Intact From Earlier Procession, A Girl Sets Off In Her Race
The runners did not wear spiked track shoes.  The runners did not wear any type of sport shoes.  They wore no shoes.  They ran barefoot.  For children that wear flip flops or go barefoot in their villages, running barefoot is only natural and not unexpected.  This was running boiled down to its essence and uncomplicated by outside technology or any perceived competitive advantages.  It was competition for sport and glory.

Tahsang Village did not do very well in the races except for one of the girl relay teams.  Just as they did last year the girls won.  One of the girls, Behm, is related to Duang and often drops by to watch me edit photographs when I bring my computer to the village.  Often when I sit in Momma's Market, I will be joined by several of the young village children.  I enjoy showing them pictures of things that I know that they have not had the opportunity to see for themselves.  I try to explain to them about the people, places, animals, and things that I have photographed.  Their enthusiasm and interest encourages me.

Behm (left) and Her Tahsang Village Girl's Relay Teammates
I noticed that Behm was a very fast runner.  That night I mentioned to my wife, Duang, that I thought that one reason that Behm was such a fast runner was the fact that her feet were so long and wide - just like Duang's.  I have often joked with Duang about how large her feet are.  Duange reason that Behm was such a fast runner was the fact that her feet were so long and wide - just like Duang's.  I have often joked with Duang about how large her feet are.  Duang is 5 feet tall and weighs less than 100 pounds but her feet are about twice as wide as mine and not all that much shorter than mine considering our differences in height and weight.  Duang laughed when I told her my theory as to why Behm was so fast.  Duang confided that she too was a very good runner when she was a young girl; always coming in first or second at worst.  We laughed how the "Veeboonkul" large feet made for fast runners.

Race Official Signals he Start of the Race - Banging A Recycled Artillery Shell
I sat out in the infield of the "track" and kept busy photographing the races and the activities around the field while Duang and our grandson, Peelawat, remained on the sidelines with the other Tahsang Villagers.
Girls Driving Through the Curve
After two hours, Duang came out to tell me that our grandson, Peelawat, was tired and needed to return Tahsang Village.  I looked at my watch in disbelief and realized that it had in deed been two hours.  The races were mostly not very competitive but they were very entertaining.  It was a pleasure to watch students racing for the joy of it.  Although the athletes did not have much in terms of equipment, they were making the most out of what was readily available to them.  More than that, they were enjoying themselves.

A Boy Leads His Classmates in a Very Sophisticated Dance Routine
It appeared that everyone was enjoying themselves at the Field Day.  The students exhibited excellent sportsmanship and were well supported by their families.  The children in addition to either competing or cheering also took advantage of the opportunity to eat and drink with friends outside on a sunny day in Isaan; not all that bad of a way to spend a day outside of the classroom.

Once again I was witness to the manifestation that it is not what you have that brings happiness but appreciating and making do with what you have that can bring some happiness.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Games That Some People Play ...

A Hmong Young Man Plays Pov Pob
The games that some people play ... is not about deception, cheating, or the manipulation of human emotions or social intercourse.

The games that some people play ... is not about politics or even politicians.

The games that some people play ... is not about international affairs involving Iran, North Korea, the USA, or any other country.

This blog is literally about some of the games that we saw the Hmong people playing during our trip to Laos in early December 2010.

A Hmong Beauty Prepares to Catch A Ball
We had gone up to Luang Prabang to once again witness the Hmong New Years Celebration.  The Hmong people in Laos celebrate New Year after the harvest and in accordance to the stage of the moon in accordance with their lunar calendarr.  It is a time for the people from various clans to get together and socialize when there is a lull in the field work.  During the Hmong New Years celebration there are spiritual rituals and observances that are rather private and mostly limited to family members. During the public aspects of the celebration there is traditional music, traditional dancing, traditional clothing, eating drinking, gambling, and socializing.  The public activities are very interesting events for at least four of the five senses - propriety limits the opportunities for the sense of touch.  Socializing besides involving sharing gossip includes playing games.

Hmong Girls Playing Pov Pob
The most widely known Hmong game is most likely "Pov Pob".  Pov Pob is a ball tossing game.  It is played throughout the year in Laos but it is special during the New Years festival.  Especially in the older times it was difficult for young Hmong men and young Hmong women to find potential mates.  Hmong people are forbidden to marry within their clan.  Since the villages are often made up exclusively of a single clan and the burdens of farming leave little time to go off in search of a potential mate.  It was at the meeting of various clans at the New Year Festival that the young people had an opportunity to meet potential husbands and wives.  This tradition continues today for the Hmong people in the Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR).

Pov Pob In Progress at the New Years Festival
Pov Pob is described as an activity for adolescents and akin to a courtship ritual.  That is true just as it is true to describe dancing as a fertility ritual in the United States.  Although it is true in both situations, the description is incomplete and also not completely accurate.  Just as you will see very elderly people in the USA dancing to the tunes of their youth and thoroughly enjoying themselves, you will observe older Hmong people playing Pov Pob.  The older Hmong people participating in Pov Pob like the adolescents are looking for a mate.  They are either divorced or widowed however there are some who are looking for an additional mate.  Polygamy is illegal in Laos but some old cultural practices still remain albeit not commonly.  During our visit last month we found a middle aged man who with the assistance of his middle aged wife was courting an 18 year old girl to be his wife.

Young Boy Holding a Traditional Hmong Ball for Pov Pob

Willing, if not yet capable of playing "Pov Pob"
Along with the adolescents and older  people playing the match game, there are plenty of young children who also participate in their own way in pov pob - sort of like young children dancing back in America - they imitate their older siblings and just because it is FUN.

Hmong Teenaged Men Participating in Pov Pob

Because of the match making possibilities of Pov Pob during the New Year Festival, girls wear the best traditional Hmong clothing.  Their garments are colorful, emblazoned with intricate embroidered designs.  The girls and women also wear their traditional Hmong silver jewelry.  Their ensemble is often topped off with a traditional and colorful hat.  To a lesser extent boys and young men will wear elaborate if not traditional clothing. 

Sometimes a person has to generalize in order to describe or to approach any semblance of effective communication.  The mere fact that it is a generalization means that the description is not 100% accurate for all cases and circumstances.  As is the case for most things in life there are exceptions.  In order to describe Pov Pob I will be generalizing.

A Girl Sings As She Prepares to Catch A Ball
In general girls and boys form two lines facing each other.  A small soft cloth ball, or a tennis ball, or sometimes an orange is lobbed back and forth between the lines.  Girls can throw to girls but boys are not allowed to toss to another boy.  In addition you are not allowed to lob the ball to a member of your own clan.  The person on the receiving end of the toss catches the ball with one hand.  If you are "interested" in someone you toss the ball to them.  If a boy makes a good throw to a girl and she doesn't try to catch it, she is letting him know not too subtly that she is not interested him.

If you make a good lob to someone and they drop the ball or miss catching the ball, the person is supposed to take a piece of their costume, a piece of silver, or  a bell from their costume to the person across from them.  To get the ornament or trinket back, the person has to sing to the person opposite them.  The singing and ball tossing are ice breakers for the people.   For those who are playing the game to find a match, 15 years and older, if they make a love connection they and the person who is also interested in them will leave the game.  The pair go off to get to know each other better.  If they determine that they are right for each other they will publicly announce their intentions three days later and will be married about three weeks later when the moon is right - a new moon.

A Private and Personal Pov Pob - Perhaps a Prelude to Much More

A Spinning Top Is Hurled Down Field
During this trip to the Hmong people in Laos, Duang and I watched another Hmong game called "Tujlub" (Spinning Tops) which is played by men and boys.  We watched a spinning top match on our first day in the field that served as a parking lot at one of the two festival sites that we visited throughout our stay in Luang Prabang.

The tops are carved out of very dense hardwood.  They reminded me a great deal of  turnips that were cooked for Thanksgiving dinners back in Connecticut.  A heavy cotton string about 3 or 4 meters (9 to 12 feet) long is wrapped very tightly around the wood top.  The other end of the heavy string is attached to a stick about 4 to 5 cm in diameter (1-1/2 in. to 2 in.) and 60 to 90 cm (2 - 3 feet) long.  The top is held in one hand the stick in the other hand.  The top is thrown down field while at the same time the stick is jerked downwards in a whip like or slashing motion.

The rules for playing Tujlub differ from location to location.  For the match that we watch, this appeared to be how the game was played.  There were two teams of three players each.  The first team went down the hardened dirt pitch about 10 meters (30 feet) and set their tops spinning in a somewhat tight grouping in a slightly recessed area which reminded me of a greatly worn horseshoe pit.  Once the tops were set about spinning the other team members one by one heaved their tops at the spinning stationary tops to strike them; driving them out of the area and stopping their spinning.  Apparently points were awarded for every top that was stopped by the second team.

One of the Target Tops Is Set to Spinning While One Is Already Spinning
The process was repeated again about 20 meters from the starting line and once again about 30 meters from the starting line.  After completing the three distances, the teams swapped positions with the second team setting up their tops spinning at the predetermined distances and the first team attempting to hit the spinning tops by hurling their tops down field.

A Spinning Top About To Escape From Its Line

It was amazing how often a spinning top was hit by a hurled top.  The sound of the colliding wood tops was like the sharp crack of a well hit baseball with a hickory bat.  From my position down field I had a clear and impressive view of how fast and powerful the tops were hurled towards their targets.  I was also impressed and extremely grateful as to how accurate the players were.

A Player Puts All That He Has Into His Hurl

At the other end of the festival site, men - older and appearing to be of a higher social status, were playing petanque.  Petanque is similar to bocce.  It is a French game whose current form was developed in 1907.  It is played with metal balls on a hard compacted dirt or gravel rectangular area.

A Petanque Player In Vientiane, LPDR

A small wood ball is thrown and points are earned by throwing or rolling the larger metal balls closer to it than the other team's attempts similar to bocce and not that much different than horse shoes.  Perhaps the saying of "Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades" should be modified to "Close only counts in horseshoes, bocce, petanque and hand grenades as well as nuclear weapons".

Part of the game strategy in addition to getting your balls closet to the wood ball called "cochonnet" is also to knock your opponent's ball away from the wood ball so that yours are closer or his are eliminated from the pitch.

Petanque Players Figuring Out Who Is Closest
The penchant for playing petanque is a legacy of French colonialism here in Southeast Asia.  There is a factory that produces petanque balls (boule) in Vientiane, Laos.  Although the French never colonized Thailand, petanque is played here in Isaan.  I suspect the interaction of Thailand's Lao Loum population with their cousins across the Mekong River in Lao People's democratic Republic goes a long ways towards explaining its popularity here.  I have played some with my brother-in-law and the Tahsang Village officials.  It is a nice game to play when the weather is hot and the beer is ice cold.

Playing Petanque Along the Bank of the Mekong River In Laos
It was interesting to see how people in a different culture entertain and amuse themselves.  A common denominator for all three of the games was the fact that people were making do with what was readily and perhaps more importantly what was cheaply available to them.  Their games did not involve a great deal of investment of time, equipment, space, or energy.  The Hmong games were also very social events with participants socializing as much as they were competing.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Another Isaan Wedding - Perk and Puii

Perk and Puii -Bai Sii Ritual, Their Wedding Ceremony
 During my stay here in Thailand over the past five years I have had the privilege and honor of attending several weddings.  Most of the weddings have been in Isaan and almost all of them have been Animist rituals.  Yesterday was a special wedding - Duang's son and my stepson, Perk, and his girlfriend, Puii, were married.

Shamans Prepare for Perk's Bai Sii

The afternoon before yesterday's wedding in Puii's home village, there was a gathering, party, and Bai Sii ritual in Duang's home village for her son.  It was an opportunity for the Groom's family, neighbors and friends to gather to wish him the best in his upcoming marriage.  It was also an opportunity to raise some money to help with the expenses associated in getting married here in Isaan.  As part of the Bai Sii ritual in Tahsang Village for Perk, people made monetary offerings.  Small plastic bags of raw beef were given to the people who made offerings.  As I sat inside of my mother-in-law's  market editing photographs from the past month and tending to our grandson, Peelawat, I witnessed a steady stream of people leaving the property with a small bag of beef or beef products.  Here in Isaan, very little of a cow is wasted.  Large bones were stacked on a plastic tarp most likely to be used for soup at a later date.  A section of small ribs completely stripped of meat was being eaten off to the side by two of the village dogs.  They were eating the ribs but not necessarily sharing the ribs.  There were several growls and bearing of canines as they devoured their "share" of the ribs.

As is typical for these celebrations, Duang's family had blocked off the street in front of their house with pavilions, tables, and chairs.  In the backyard, many men were busy cutting up beef and preparing meat for cooking.  The men had started drinking early in the morning as they started preparing the beef. Many Aunts were busy cooking over an assortment of charcoal and gas fired burners.  Duang, as Mother of the Groom had to be at the village early and supervise the preparations for the afternoon Bai Sii and proceeding party.  I brought my computer along to keep me occupied while Peelawat slept.  I do not drink when I am driving.  When I am offered drinks I tell the people that I have to drive and that the "Police like falang (foreigner) too much".  They know exactly what I mean, laugh, and do not take my refusal as a social slight or affront.  I have been stopped several times by Police at roadblocks when I was driving alone but I have always been waved through the roadblocks when Duang has been with me.  One time I gave the Police every piece of documentation that I had in the truck and on me but there still seemed to be some sort of a problem.  I called Duang and gave the cellphone to the Policeman.  When I got back on the cellphone, Duang was laughing, the Policeman was asking or was it "wondering?" if I could "give" him some money to buy a drink (I assume it was for a soft drink!).  She said to give him 100 baht ($3) and we were all happy.  A "speeding ticket" is 200 Baht so I hoped that I had purchased some good will on my way back home.  Once I was stopped at a roadblock for speeding which I was certain that I was not.  I protested but after coming to my senses I realized that paying the 200 Baht ($6 USD) fine was a great deal cheaper than any trouble I could be buying in fighting the charges especially with my limited Thai communication skills.  However I would not want to be stopped for any "reason" and have alcohol my breadth - especially alone.

Three Year Old Kwan Seems to Know What to Do

Kwan Checks With Her Grandfather For Reassurance During the Ritual

Perk's Bai Sii Ritual

An Aunt Wishes Perk Good Luck and Fortune
 I left around 5:00 P.M. after the conclusion of the Bai Sii ritual and returned home.  Duang stayed until midnight before returning to our home.  I did not stay for her youngest brother's "Mahlam Lao" show but Duang had family responsibilities to take care of.  The show actually ended around 3:00 A.M.  These are very social events and often when I am not drinking along with the crowd, the noise and commotion get to me.  I don't believe that it is because I am getting old because I detect the same traits in our two year old grandson!  I think that it because we both don't understand what all the noise and commotion are about and there are too many people wanting to be "nice" to us which makes us uncomfortable.  At those times we seek each other's company and go off into as quiet a corner as we can find.
In Isaan weddings take place on the morning of a predetermined day and specified time after consultation with a Monk who has the reputation for if not the ability to determine the future through study of numbers and other things.  He can determine the most advantageous times for undertaking significant events or tasks.

Perk Assisted By His Cousin Walking to Puii's Home
The groom walks to the bride's home as part of a procession of his relatives and local villagers. Mahlam Lao (local Lao music with a driving beat and heavy guitar component) is played either from the community loudspeaker or from a pickup truck mounted sound system. Puii's family had music blaring from large loudspeakers at the home of her sister where the Bai Sii was held.  Members of the wedding groom's procession amuse themselves with copious drinking of local beer and a potent whiskey called "Lao". The groom is shielded from the sun by an umbrella that is carried by one of the procession participants, in Perk's situation - his cousin who was a sort of "best man" for the wedding ritual. The umbrella also is the traditional status symbol and an honor for the person walking under it. There is a great deal of energy and joy associated with the walk to the bride's house with everyone dancing as well as cheering.  The female relatives of the groom sang a nice lilting song as they lead the way to the wedding site.

Perk and Part of His Extended Family On Their Way to the Bai Sii Ritual
Upon arrival at the bride's house, the groom hands over the dowry (Sin Sod) to his future Mother-in-Law. The size of the dowry (sin sod) is negotiated prior to the wedding and is dependent upon the age of the bride, her education, previous marriage(s), if she has any children and also the social status of the groom - if he or his family can afford more he is expected to pay more. A Thai farmer to a Thai young woman will typically have a dowry of 50,000 baht ($1,500 USD).  Since this is Puii's first marriage, she has no children, she is a college graduate, and she is an only child the sin sod was higher.  I once attended a wedding of a college educated young woman to a falang (foreigner) where the sin sod was 3,000,000 baht ($90,900 USD!).

In many cases the dowry is used to finance the wedding reception with the remainder being returned to the bride by her parents. The payment of the dowry is a sign of respect and prestige as well as a financial aid to the bride's family. Saving face is a very important aspect of Thai culture.  Another consideration of the sin sod is the fact that the groom goes to live with the bride's family either in their home or on their property in the parent's village.  The new son-in-law will be responsible for taking care of the bride's parents and participating in the family's farming or other business.  If his bride is the only daughter or the youngest daughter the groom through his wife will inherit the house and larger part of the lands.
Upon receipt of the Sin Sod, the bride's mother disappears to count the money.  The Sin Sod is later publicly recounted with great fan fare as part of the wedding ritual.

Before the groom enters the bride's home he must cross two bridges or rather barriers. Each bridge is usually a  gold chain held across the doorway, or as much of the doorway as it will stretch across, usually by younger relatives.  If gold chain is not available any flexible barrier will serve the purpose.  Each bridge is removed by paying a price - 200 baht in plain envelopes.

Puii Washes Perk's Feet 
 Having paid to gain access to the door the groom removes his shoes. His wife - to - be awaits him in her wedding outfit wearing some of the gold that she has been given by her husband - to - be. The amount of gold, a component of the dowry, has been negotiated and agreed to prior to the ceremony. Again this is a symbol of respect and security for the Thai people. Often Thai brides will use their gold to pay off debts and then buy back the same gold shortly after obtaining the necessary cash to get their gold out of hock.

The bride greets her husband to be at the doorway and washes his feet. Washing his feet is a public demonstration of her allegiance, and commitment to her future husband.

Pahn Sii Khwan
 After washing the groom's feet, the couple enters the room where the ceremony will take place. Upon the tile floor, sahts, woven reed mats, have been placed. A low table or several rectangular brightly multi colored pillows are used as the focus of the ceremony. An elaborate banana leaf and jasmine floral centerpiece with cotton strings hanging from it called a "Pahn Sii Khwan" is an integral part of the ceremony called "Bai Sii".  The Pahn Sii Khwan are handcrafted by elder female relatives or neighbors.  They are a handicraft that is unique to the Lao Loum culture.  Small bananas, globs of sticky rice (kao knieow), and boiled egg are placed within the Pahn Sii Khwan.  These objects which are consumed during the wedding ritual are representative of good luck, wealth, good health, and prosperity.

The Buddhist religion does not have a sacrament of matrimony or a wedding ritual. The commitment of a man and a woman to each other is a pact between themselves with their community and sometimes as well as Monks wishing them happiness as well as good luck. Upon completion of their public commitment to each other and receiving the blessings of the community, the couple register their marriage at the local town hall to formalize their union.  Monks did not participate in Perk and Puii's  wedding ritual which is not all that unusual for a wedding ceremony here in Isaan.

The Shaman Ties Cotton String to Perk and Puii's Wrists to Bind the Spirits
The "Bai Sii" ceremony, lead by a Shaman, is performed to obtain health, wealth and best wishes for the bride and groom. The Bai Sii ceremony is not reserved exclusively for weddings. It is also used for welcoming guests, conducted prior to or after long voyages, as thanksgiving for recovery from an illness or to help cure someone, and a part of the ceremony where children are named.  The Bai Sii is an Animist ritual common in Isaan as well as in Laos.

Cotton Strings Are Tied Around Wrist of Bride and Groom As They each Hold a Banana and Lump of Sticky Rice
The origins of Bai Sii are in the Animist beliefs of the Lao people. They believe that 32 spirits (Khwan) live within us and protect us. The purpose of the Bai Sii ceremony is to bind the spirits within us to prevent them from escaping and thereby causing problems.

As part of the wedding Bai Sii ceremony well wishers crawl up to the Bride and Groom with a money offering.  The offering is placed in their hand as the well wisher ties a cotton string around the wrist of each of them.  When the well wishers have tied the strings, they go outside to enjoy the food and drink (soft drinks, beer, and whiskey) that have been set up.  After the last well wisher has wished the newlyweds well, the Bride and groom give presents to their parents, grandparents, and selected relatives.

During the ceremony an elder of the village or shaman leads the people through the ritual. The bride and groom kneel before the low table or pillows with the left hand resting on the improvised altar. Their right hands hold a glass of alcohol - either beer or whiskey. In his right hand the groom also holds a boiled egg while his bride holds a ball of sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf in her right hand.

The elder recites and chants from a book of prayers. Witnesses to the ceremony also recite some of the prayers. The prayers call all the spirits back into the body. The bride and groom light candles that are part of the ritual. A long string runs around the circle of the Bai Sii participants in the case of a wedding - the bride, the groom, and their immediate families - linking them together and with the spirit world.

Towards the end of the ceremony, the groom eats the egg and the bride eats the rice. The egg and rice are washed down with the alcohol to help nourish the 32 spirits.

The ceremony concludes with the shaman taking one of the cotton threads from the centerpiece and tying it around the right wrist of the groom and around the bride's left wrist. The new wife's family are next to tie strings around the wrist of the newlyweds. Everyone participates in removing a string from the centerpiece and binding the wrists of the groom and bride. The act of binding the wrists is also marked with personal wishes of good health and good luck for the couple.

After binding of the wrists, eventually the couple retire to the bride's bedroom where they sit together to receive blessings from their parents. They are now considered by the community to be man and wife now.

The couple then return to their guests and get down to some serious partying. Besides beer and whiskey, the guests are treated to special foods such as raw chopped up beef with chilies, cow's stomach, cow's veins, sticky rice, cooked pork, cooked liver, boiled pig skin, seafood dishes, fermented fish and vegetables.  It is a time of great celebration.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

New Photographs Added to Gallery On My Website

Young Hmong Girls In Traditional Costumes

Twenty nine new photographs from our recent trip to Luang Prabang, Lao People's Democratic Republic have been added to my gallery, "Runny Noses and Dirty Faces - Children" at the link below

Young Hmong Girl In Traditional Clothing Takes A Drink

Young Hmong Boy In Traditional Clothing

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Where Flowers Come From - At Least In Bangkok

Colorful Orchids For Sale From A Retailer - Roughly $1.00 a large bunch
Our trip to Bangkok at the end of last month, gave us an opportunity to see and do some different things.  One of the things that we had not done before was to go to the Bangkok Flower Market, Pak Khlong Talat, - at night.
Marigolds For Sale At Pak Khlong Talat Entrance
I had seen some of the periphery of flower market on a visit to Bangkok's Chinatown back in 2006 however it was in the late morning when the flowers had been distributed to retailers and set up at the various stalls.  According to my research the best time to visit the flower market is at night after 10:00 P.M..  The market is open 24 hours a day but it is especially busy at night when new flowers arrive into the city and the wholesalers are occupied receiving shipments and distributing them to retailers.

Pak Khlong Talat Flower Market, Bangkok
Flowers play a very important role in the day to day life of Thai people.  In the larger towns and cities at major road intersections you will find vendors, or more correctly vendors will find you, selling floral garlands that are hung as offerings from rear view mirrors of vehicles in the hopes of having good luck for one's journey. The garlands are created by the vendors from jasmine blossoms, orchids, roses and marigolds and are beautiful.

Bunches of Flowers For Sale, Bangkok
Our home in Udonthani is very close to the intersection of Thai Highway #2 the road from the Lao border to eventually Bangkok.  Every morning the same group of vendors of "Phuang Malai" can be found at the intersection. I have lived here in Udonthani for three years now and have seen enough accidents and near misses that I support Duang in her belief of hanging a Phuang Malai from our truck rear view mirror - anything that possibly could protect us on these roads is worth doing!  It has gotten to the point where we know one of the vendors.  He gets a kick out of me speaking either Thai or Lao to him just as much as I enjoy his attempts to speak English.  Each Phuang Malai costs 20 Baht ($0.60 USD) and in addition to the bit of beauty that it adds to the truck, it quickly adds wonderful fragrances of jasmine or other flowers to the truck.  I can't complain about it - beauty, scent, and protection - all for $0.60 USD - besides it keeps my wife happy.  It has gotten to the point now that our favorite vendor will occasionally give us two Phuang Malai for the price of one - another example of the civility and kindness of the people here in Isaan.

Besides the garland vendors along the roadways, there are several stalls selling Phuang Malai as well as other floral arrangements along with loose flowers at Wats located in towns and cities.  Their products are sold to worshippers to use as offerings during merit making rituals.  In large metropolitan areas such as Bangkok, I suspect there are vendors at every Wat; making up a huge demand for flowers.

Just as in the West flowers and floral arrangements are used in Buddhist funeral rituals.  The floral arrangements used at funerals are made by florists in the towns and cities.  The floral stock comes from flower stalls at the local markets in the larger towns or nearby cities.

I have been amazed during my travels along the back roads of Isaan to see the Lao Loum people's affection for flowers.  In small poor rural farming villages, most of the homes will have flowers growing in front of the homes.  Typically the flowers are growing out of "pots" created out of painted recycled tires.  Yes this is Isaan and the people are very adept at making do with what is available to them.  Interestingly enough many of their adaptions enhance the quality of life to a level that is experienced by only people who are much more monetary richer in other cultures. Some of the homes even have orchids growing from containers attached to trees in their front yard.

The appreciation and utilization of flowers in everyday life creates a great demand for flowers throughout Thailand.  In Bangkok the Pak Khlong Talat is the largest floral market in the city.  Besides the flower market there is also a vegetable market at the "Market at the Mouth of the Canal".  We caught a glimpse at the vegetable market during our night visit but we were tired and focused on returning to our hotel rather then exploring further.  I guess this will be another reason to return to Bangkok someday - visit the vegetable market at night.

Flowers Wrapped in Moist Newspaper To Maintain Freshness

Colorful Flowers Available at Pak Khlong Talat
Flowers are delivered to Pak Khlong Talat from the nearby provinces of  Samut Sakon, Nakon Pathom, and Samut Songkran which are located southwest of Bangkok in the delta, and bottom lands of the Chao Phraya River.  Some flowers such as roses (50 long stem retail for less than $2.00 USD) are trucked in from northern areas around Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.  In the late 1960's as part of Thailand's efforts to eradicate opium production by the Hill Tribes, the King of Thailand initiated programs to teach and encourage the people to cultivate flowers and vegetables instead.  We have seen huge fields of marigolds as well as other flowers during our visits to the area.  In February there is a huge flower festival in Chiang

Edge of the Market - Taxis being filled with flowers, hand trucks, carts

A Tuk Tuk Being Loaded Up With Flowers
Unlike our adventure to arrive at the Royal Barge National Museum, our taxi driver had no problem getting us to the flower market.  He stopped outside of the market area due to the streets being clogged with just about every kind of conveyance either delivering or shipping flowers.

Orchids At A Stall
Most of the flowers arrive at the market in pickup trucks of the local growers.  Like their neighbors, the Vietnamese for motorbikes, the Thais have made an art out of loading pickup trucks.  It is very impressive how much produce, flowers, firewood, eggs, pigs, or people that a Thai can transport in their pickup truck.  It adds a whole new meaning to the term "working truck" for someone who had lived in California for many years.  Some of flowers arrive by small boats on the Chao Phraya River direct from the farms down river near the Gulf of Thailand.

A Porter Prepares to Transport A Load of Flowers to a Local Shop

The trucks are parked along the streets in the market area and offloaded by men and some women using large woven bamboo baskets and either carts or hand trucks.  The market area is made up of a few narrow streets but mostly narrow alleys where it would not be possible to drive a pickup truck even when they were not encroached upon by stalls, food stands, pedestrians, and offloaded merchandise.  Part of the market is in old warehouses - open sided tin roofed structures carved up into small stall and booths as well as old Chinese traditional shop houses; shop at ground level with living quarters above with ornate exterior decoration.  The streets and alleys are lit from a combination of dim street lights, light spilling out of established shops, and strings of temporary lighting. It can be quite confusing and perhaps for some people intimidating but that is what makes it so interesting for other people.

Family Members Making "Phonem Baii Sii" at the Flower Market

The market was a beehive of activity, besides the movement of flowers, some people were busy making products out of the fresh flowers for sale in the morning.  As was typical for the market, the businesses making floral arrangements, garlands, and Pahn Sii Khwan were family run small businesses.  Often you could observe three generations working closely together for the family's benefit.

Porter Delivers Fresh Flowers to a Retailer
With this being Thailand, there was no worry as to anyone going hungry or thirsty at the market.  There were several shops that sold cold drinks either in the can, bottle, or in a plastic bag filled with ice.  Beer was also readily available.  The same shops also sold prepared snack foods.  There were several "sidewalk restaurants", a few plastic chairs, a couple of folding tables, a portable charcoal fire, a pot of soup, and a hose hooked up to a nearby spigot for washing dishes.  A man was grilling fish along with meat on a BBQ made from one-half of a steel barrel and doing a thriving business.  A few of the more established side walk restaurants even had a small television playing Thai shows along the lines of "Hee Haw" or "The Gong Show".  I watched several porters relaxing at one of the "restaurants" - drinking beer and watching TV while their hand trucks and baskets lay close by in the street.  They noticed me taking some pictures and started to pose.  I went over and told them that I liked taking pictures of people working but that they were not working.  We all had a good laugh.  That is how it was at the flower market - people relaxed, enjoying themselves and others while working to make their city a little more special. If you have to work, I guess that it is a good way to be.

A Porter Delivers Another Load of Flowers

A Female Porter With Two Handtrucks of Flowers and Lotus Leaves
Eventually Duang and I decided to return to our hotel.  We had no where near explored the entire flower market along Chak Phet Road and its side streets and alleys but we were tired.  We needed to get some sleep for the next day we had places to visit and things to do - once again.

Small Arrangements For Sale - CHEAP


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