Friday, October 26, 2012

A New Photo Gallery Is Available

My latest photo gallery, "October 2012 Lao Loum Funerals", is now available for viewing.  The gallery contains 39 new photographs documenting the ritual and culture of Lao Loum funerals here in Isaan.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Busy Times In Thailand

We have attended three funerals so far this month.  The remainder of this month and the start of November offer little time to rest and relax.  Although there will be little time for resting and relaxing, the next three weeks offer plenty of opportunities for enjoyment and fun.  They will also present some unique opportunities to take some more photographs to share and experiences to write about of some unique cultural and events here in Thailand.

This week, 26-30 October is the Sakon Nakhon Wax Festival.  The festival celebrates the end of Buddhist Lent. During the festival large and intricate bees wax sculptures are created.  The highlight of the festival is a procession of the sculptures through the downtown area.  Two years ago, Duang and I attended a similar festival for the start of Buddhist Lent in Ubon Ratchatani.  We witnessed the beauty and grandeur of the Ubon Ratchathani nighttime procession.

For the Sakon Nakhon Wax Festival, we are going to observe the construction of the wax sculptures.  Since we can not attend the procession, we will focus on the activities and efforts leading up to the grand parade.

Sakon Nakhon is two hours east of our home.  It should be very interesting including staying in a $21.64 a night hotel.

Villagers Make Merit In Sala that is Under Construction In Tahsang Village
The reason that we can not witness the procession in Sakon Nakhon is that we will be attending a very special merit making ritual in Tahsang Village.  I have written before that there are two Wats in Tahsang Village - one inside the village, "Inside" where "Rocketman" stays and another outside, "Outside" in the middle of the sugar cane fields and on the edge of the flood plain.  My wife and her family prefer the "Outside" Wat.  two years ago the worship hall, "Sala" was torn down.  Since then a new Sala has been periodically constructed.  Periodically constructed?  Yes.  As the people have enough money, the turnkey contractor performs the next phase of construction.

When we were in America, Duang and I each purchased a column in the Sala.  When I was there on the 15th I noticed that no names were placed on the columns.  I was wondering which one was mine.  Duang told me that when construction was completed, names would then be placed.  Since "my" column had not been identified yet, I told the Monks through Duang that I wanted the column on the left hand side of the door to be mine.  Why?  It is the column that I always lean against to put my shoes on.  I am the only person that I have seen that wears laced up shoes.  People remove their shoes before entering the sala.  Since I don't wear flip-flops, putting on my shoes is a little more complicated than the other people.  I lean against the column to maintain my balance to put on and lace up my shoes.  Everyone had a good laugh at my request.

The Sala has been roughed in - the roof is on, the bare concrete slab has been poured, and the some of the short side walls have been erected.  Workman have just started installing the decoration, Shan or Thai Yai style filigree on the edges of the roof.

During Buddhist Lent, Monks can not travel about the countryside.  They are restricted to sleeping in their home Wat.  October 30th is OK Panhsa day, the end of the Buddhist Lent or Retreat Season.  To help gather donations to complete or continue construction of the Tahsang Village Sala, 100 Monks will be visiting and spending the night.  This will make for a grand merit making opportunity for the local people.  Duang and I are donating the drinking water for the Monks.  I have also been asked to take some photographs of the ritual.

Long Boat Racing In Kumphawapi
The next week, 3rd and 4th of November is the Long Boat racing Festival in nearby Kumphawapi.  We had attended the event two years ago and found it very entertaining.

Royal Barges On Display at Royal Barge Museum
November 9th is a very perhaps an extremely important event.  On Friday, November 9, in Bangkok, there will  be a Royal Barge Procession on the Chao Phraya River.  This will be the 16th time during the King's 66 year reign that there has been such a procession.  The purpose of the procession is to transport the Crown Prince to Wat Arun where he will present robes to the Monks to commemorate the end of Buddhist Lent and his father's birthday on December 5th.

We will be staying at a hotel right at the water's edge.  I will be taking still photographs and Duang will be using our movie camera to document the procession of 52 barges and 2,200 costumed sailors rowing the barges.

In one of our trips to Bangkok as part of the process to obtain a via for Duang to go the USA, we had spent a couple of hours at the Royal Barge Museum where some of the barges are kept on display.  During our visit one of the barges was being restored.  It will be exciting to see that barge completed, manned and underway.  Of course my greatest anticipation is to see the splendid barge, Suphannahong (Golden Swan) pass by.  Suphannahong is the King's personal personal barge.  HRH Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn will be on the Suphannahong representing the King and Royal family.

About the time that I have finished editing all the photographs and writing about the above events, it will be time for the rice harvest,  holiday of Loi Krathong, Hmong New Years in Lao, Christmas, and New Years and who know what else to witness - always something to do and something to learn.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Death Be Not Private - A Lao Loum Experience

A Lao Loum Woman Mourns Her Brother's Death

John Donne in his poem, "Death Be Not Proud", wrote:

          "Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
           Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so; ..."

Here in Northeast Thailand in the region called "Isaan" a similar attitude prevails and from my personal experiences I would add "Death Be Not Private"  In the Lao Loum culture most often a person will die surrounded by family and friends.  One certainty is that their funeral will be a large public event.

On Thursday I attended the third funeral ritual of this month.  One of Duang's uncles, her father's oldest brother, died at the age of 77. He was a special man. Paujon Veeboonkul (Wirboonkun - Thai names can have several English spellings) had performed our "wedding" and also officiated at the blessing of our home  and

Kuhn Paujon Conducting Our Wedding Ritual
When he became ill two years ago, it was determined by another Brahman that the problem was due to Kuhn Paujon not being fully sanctioned to perform the spirit house installation, The spirits were upset with him.   At the time the Brahman priest stated that Duang's uncle would die within 2 weeks if the spirit houses were not relocated and properly dedicated.  Duang had the ritual performed and her uncle lived almost 2 years more to the day.  Again, as I have written several times before, I do not judge or proselytize; I merely share what I have observed and experienced.

Kuhn Paujon was a school teacher, a very respected profession amongst the Lao Loum people.  Teachers and Policemen are professions that are held in high regard by the people of Isaan.  These are uniformed positions that although not commonly attained can be attained by the children of the subsistence farmers of Isaan.  Duang's uncle's only son is a policeman and so are two of his grandsons - a source of pride for the family.

Kuhn Paujon besides teaching 14 year old students, was a Brahman priest.  He was familiar with the various religious rituals of the Buddhist, Hindu, and Animist faiths.  His knowledge and services were in constant use for weddings, births, sickness, house blessings, deaths, and all occasions where it was deemed necessary to placate the spirit world.  He had been a Monk for five years before he got married.  After ten years of marriage he had a son.

Duang's uncle was special in another way - he had two daughters.  One daughter was the child of villagers who were not financially able to raise the baby.  At birth, the parents signed papers for Kuhn Paujon and his wife to adopt the baby.  His other daughter is Duang's older sister.  When Duang was born, her family was too poor to raise two children.  Duang's uncle and his wife took in Duang's older sister and raised her as their own child.  Such is the way it is in Isaan, then and even today.

For this and many other reasons, Kuhn Paujon was highly respected and revered in the local community.  He spent the past two months in the hospital ding of what I suspect was colorectal cancer.  His bill for the hospital stay was 140,000 Baht ($4,666  USD).  In Thailand there is no national health coverage and her uncle did not have health insurance.  Family members, friends, and neighbors have contributed to help pay the bill.

While in the hospital, Kuhn Paujon was not alone.  Daily his personal needs were met by attentive family members. Part of the Lao Loum tradition is to have a death watch hopefully that at the time of passing the dying person will hear words of encouragement according to my wife along the lines of " OK, you go now.  Good luck to you.  You not go down down you go up.  Buddha take care of you  You not think too much.  You poor now.  Maybe you come back soon better maybe come back as King. Good Luck to you".  When he died, his body was transported back to his home in Nongdaeng Village to lie in state for three days.  Since Duang was so close to her uncle, she stayed at the village for the entire ritual.  I remained at home but attended the cremation ritual on Thursday.

So why am I writing once again about a Lao Loum funeral?  I am writing once again about a funeral here in Isaan because the ritual and experience here is neither private or an event to be dreaded.  This is very foreign to me and my American experience.  I am fond of quoting the Buddhist attitude towards death as is best expressed by Wade Davis, a renowned Canadian Anthropologist and contributor to National Geographic documentaries. In his documentary series "Light At the End of the World"  he states "The Buddhists spend all their lives getting ready for a moment that we spend most of our lives pretending does not exist, which is the moment of our death"

In Isaan death is a milestone of life which is familiar to and accepted by all from a very early age. The conclusion of this life, which for many has been very difficult, presents the hope as well as opportunity for a better and easier life in the future - another step towards enlightenment.

I share these funeral ritual experiences to provide a perspective on the matter that is most likely not available to many of this blog's readers.  It is not a morbid curiosity or obsession that motivates me.  The blogs on the Lao Loum funeral ritual are documentation on the inevitability of death for all of us, how common and often that it occurs, and how other cultures deal with the event.

On the morning of the cremation, people arrived at the family home in Nongdaeng Village.  One of the first things that they do after giving wais (prayer type gestures of respect and greeting) to the tables of guests who are seated, drinking and eating is to go to a table next to the public address system.  Seated at the table next to a man that is performing a running commentary over the top of recorded ethnic music is a man with a ledger and pen.  Cash donations are given to the man who dutifully records the name of the contributor as well as the amount of cash donated.  The commentator uses the ledger to announce the arrival of the mourner as well as their cash donation.  The cash will be donated to the local Monks in the name of the deceased, the selected person who presents the donation, as well as the donor. Some people who do not have cash to donate will contribute sacks of sticky rice, the stable food for the Lao Loum people. These contributions are also recorded in the ledger and dutifully announced to the public.  The rice donations are made and kept in front and to the side of the coffin inside of the home.  Periodically the smaller sacks are consolidated  into a large 55 kg bag.  The rice is given to the local Wat in the name of the deceased and donor for the Monks to distribute as needed to very poor people. Costs for the food, drink, and other funeral expenses are paid from family savings, bank loans, family donations, friend donations, neighbor donations and insurance payments.
A Villager Places A Donation of Sticky Rice In Front of the Coffin
Funerals are grand social events in the Lao Loum culture.  It is an opportunity for people to get together and to be seen.  For most it seems to be also an opportunity to be heard. There is a great deal of social pressure to participate in the ritual.  One of the reasons that the cremation takes place three days after the death is to allow family and friends to arrive from distant locales.  The funerals, at times, are not silent and somber events.  There is a great deal of talk, at times even during the religious chanting.  There is typically a great deal of drinking - beer and Lao Lao (Lao version of moonshine whiskey).  Sometimes, but not at this funeral, there is also gambling. However the funerals are always dignified.

Mourners Inside of Kuhn Paujon's Home
Mourners typically wear black or dark clothing at a funeral with the exception of teachers who wear their khaki colored uniforms.  At this funeral there were some woman dressed in white.  We are approaching the end of Buddhist Lent.  During Buddhist Lent some females make special merit by wearing white while making merit and attending religious retreats at the Wat.  My wife did not attend a retreat but she wore white clothing each night while praying before bed.

The Abbott, Paujon's Brother, Recites Buddhist Scripture from a Buddhist Scripture Book
Approximately 350 people including government officials attended the cremation ritual. Children of all ages also attended and participated in the event. Funerals are not life events that children are sheltered from. Lao Loum funerals are rituals just as important and public as weddings, Monk ordinations, and celebrations of birth are for the individual as well as the community.  Funerals are reminders of the fate that awaits all of us.  Funerals are reminders to the Lao Loum of the circle of life and the quest for enlightenment.

Duang's Aunt Pours Water As Part of Merit Making Ritual for her Husband
Part of the standard Buddhist Merit Making ritual involves pouring of water while the Monks chant.  The pouring of the water is a method of transferring merit to the spirits of those who can not participate in the ritual.  After the ritual is completed the water is reverently poured slowly at the base of trees and plants that are around the Wat.  I usually can tell what tree to select because they are often marked with decorations indicating that a spirit dwells within the tree.

Led by Monks Holding Disaisin, Procession Departs the Home For the Wat
After a merit making ritual in the family home, the coffin was loaded upon a pickup truck and transported in a procession to the local Wat led by the Monks holding on to a cotton cord that was attached to the coffin.  A man walked at the head of the procession with the Monks sprinkling the ground with puffed rice carried in a woven basket.  He also stopped at times along the route to mark the journey with small flags.  The puffed rice is offered as nourishment to the local spirits - apparently a well fed ghost is a happy ghost and less likely to cause problems.  The flags are also an offering to the phii (ghosts) and I suspect denotes a demarcation between their territory and the space being used by the funeral procession.

Puffed Rice Is Offered to the Spirits As the Procession Circles the Crematorium
A cotton cord, called "disaisin" is carried by the Monks and is attached at the other end to the coffin. In the Animist world there are many spirits.  In each human there are 32 spirits that are necessary to keep a person healthy and happy.  An Animist ritual which is ubiquitous in the Lao Loum culture is the Baicii or Baisii.  In the Baisii ritual, pieces of cotton string are tied around a person's wrist to bind the 32 good spirits in their body thereby ensuring good luck, fortune, and good health.  For a large congregation of people the disaisin apparently serves a similar purpose - to connect this world with the spirit world.

Disaisin Connects Coffin to Nearby Sala for Part of Funeral
The procession circled the crematorium three times - symbolic for Buddha, The teachings of Buddha, and the Sanga (Buddhist religious community).  At the conclusion of the circumambulation, the inner coffin containing the corpse was removed from the refrigerated coffin, carried up the concrete stairs and placed upon metal sawhorses located in front of the door to the oven

Paujon's Nephew Escorts His Uncle's Coffin Around the Crematorium
The Sala is a covered open sided building where the Monks gather for merit making rituals.  They as always are seated above the congregation of people.  This is symbolic of the respect the people have for them and a demonstration of the higher status in this life that Monks have attained.

Some people are selected to present offerings such as Monk's robes.  These too are placed atop the closed coffin

Seated In the Sala, Monks Pass Daisaisin That Links Them to the Coffin
Off to the side of the Sala there is a commentator and public address system. Part of the ritual involves reciting a eulogy for the deceased. Another part of the ritual is to announce and call up esteemed guests, family members, and close friends. The selected people are each given a sealed envelope containing cash to be offered in their name and in the name of the deceased. The selected people, one by one climb the crematorium stairs, pay their respects and place the offering on the coffin.

Following Her Sister, Duang Makes An Offering to Her Uncle
After the selected people had gone up the crematorium stairs to present and place cash offerings on the coffin the tray of envelopes were removed and people were called out to take an envelope and place it in front of a Monk seated in the Sala as an offering in the name of the presenter as well as the deceased.

After the ritual of offering and accepting, all people picked up a totem called a "daugjen" from a table at the foot of the crematorium stairs.  Daugjens are small handicraft items that are constructed of bamboo and/or paper that symbolize good luck tokens for the spirit about to be released by the flames on its journey.

A Young Girl Prepares To Place A Daugjen On the Coffin

After Knocking Three Times, Some Final Words
In a poignant and respectful gesture, one of the mourners after placing a daugjen in a common metal tray atop the coffin, bent down at the side of the coffin, rapped three times on the coffin's side and quietly uttered some last words of farewell.

Daungchan Places A Daugjen On Her Uncle's Coffin
Headman of Tambon Siaw Places A Monk's Robe On the Coffin

Monks Accepting Robe Offerings
After the offering portion of the ritual was completed, the top of the coffin was removed to expose the corpse.  Starting with the Monks, followed by family members and then selected guests, coconut water was poured over the corpse.  The pouring of coconut water is the final cleansing of the body prior to cremation and to nourish the spirit for its upcoming release and journey.

A Novice Monk Prepares To Pour Coconut Water On the Corpse of His Grandfather
After pouring of the coconut water is completed, the saht (a woven reed mat) and or comforter that the body was laying on is removed and taken off to an area at the base of the crematorium to be burned with other personal possessions.  Holes are punched into the bottom of the coffin to drain the coconut water.  The coffin is then lifted and placed on to a wheeled metal carriage containing charcoal. doused with a hydrocarbon accelerant and wheeled into the crematorium oven.  As the flame starts to ignite the body, fireworks are launched into the air to scare off any bad spirits that may be hanging around the area.  The intent is to clear the way for the deceased person's spirit as it starts its journey.

At the same time that the funeral fire is starting and the fireworks are exploding, in an act of renouncing this world and its worldly possessions, family members throw wrapped hard candy and colorfully wrapped coins to the awaiting crowd consisting mainly of children.

Children Scramble to Gather Candy and Coins Tossed As a Demonstration for the Renunciation of Worldly Goods and Possessions

This was yet another funeral that I have witnessed.  But during this funeral I found myself internally celebrating and taking comfort in the ritual.  The familiarity of a ritual that has been practiced over 2,000 years seemed to provide a link to the past all the while of serving as a map to a future destination. Death seems to be more familiar and less frightening; something that I have just begun to experience but is taught from an early age in Isaan.  Like so many situations in life, fear and the lack of knowledge impart greater power than is justified by facts.

                   "Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
                    Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so; ..."

As I have at every funeral here in Isaan, I walked away impressed with the dignity, respect, and compassion that the community had demonstrated  for one of their own.

Young Boy Watches the Smoke Ascending From Crematorium

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Another Lao Loum Funeral Here In Isaan

Hands Pressed Together, A Young Child Participates In the Funeral Ritual
Sunday we attended another funeral ritual, the cremation of my wife's former mother-in-law.  Although Duang has been divorced for many years, attending the ritual was expected because family ties, even former ties, are strong here in Isaan.  Duang's children also attended the cremation ritual for their paternal grandmother.  Duang's son drove six hours from Rayong to participate in his grandmother's funeral.  He did not shave his head and shave his eyebrows like some of his cousins due to his work considerations.  Our grandson, Peelawat, also attended his great grandmother's funeral.

Duang Makes Prayer Offering For Her Former Mother-in-Law

Every funeral that I have attended here in Isaan has been similar but different enough to make each ritual unique.  For this funeral, there was no procession from the home to the local Wat.  When we arrived before the scheduled start of the ritual at 11:30 A.M., the coffin had been placed in front of the Wat crematorium.  There were some people milling about the home of the deceased person but the outdoor kitchen, hustle and bustle of preparing food, tables filled with food and drink were absent.  There was no gambling anywhere to be seen for this funeral.

Food and non-alcoholic beverages were served to attendees in the Wat's sala (meeting hall) next to the crematorium.  Like all the other funerals that I have attended here in northeast Thailand, the "Old Mamas" were organized into several small clusters; busy gossiping and chewing betelnut.  Funerals here are large social events with family and friends travelling great distances to attend. There is a great deal of noise from people greeting each other and getting caught up on the latest news as well as gossip.

"Old Mamas" Socializing and Chewing Betelnut in the Wat's Sala
Just over a week ago I posted a comment on one of my photographs of an old woman's hands preparing betelnut, "Experienced hands, just like faces reflect the trials, struggles, and triumphs of a long life".  I did not have that comment in mind when I set about to photograph this funeral, but afterwards when I was editing the days worth of photographs, I was struck by the number of shots that involved hands.

A Young Child Bows During The Merit Making Ritual
Although I have photographed several Lao Loum funeral rituals, I am still very interested in them and still find different aspects to photograph.  Apparently for this funeral ritual, my focus although subconscious was on "hands".

Hands Pack the Ingredients for Betelnut Chewing Into A Tube to Create a Plug

Experienced Hands Prepare the Chewing Plug

Helping Hands Are Always Welcomed

The Compacted Chewing Plug Is Forced Out of the Tube

At Last - Time to Enjoy the Fruits of Labor
Duang's former mother-in-law had eight children. With such a large family there were many sons and grandsons to participate in the ritual as Monks.  There were 17 Monks for the funeral ritual - the most that I have seen at a Lao Loum funeral.

As is integral to the merit making ritual, the offering of gifts; cash, robes, and electric fans on behalf of the donors and the deceased was a prominent display.  Apparently because she was once married to one of the woman's sons, Duang's name was announced for her to walk up and take one of the envelopes containing some of the donated cash.  As part of the merit making ritual at Lao Loum funerals relatives, close friends, dignitaries, and esteemed guests are called up to take an offering of money which they place in front of the Monks who are always seated above the other participants of the ritual.  For this funeral there was also a different treatment of the offerings made to the Monks.  A white cotton string that is always used in the ritual to connect the Monks and the coffin, was placed over the offertory envelopes with the Monks placing their index finger on the envelope as they chanted.

Monks Accepting Offerings of Cash As part of Merit Making Ritual
The connection of the Sanga (religious community) and the deceased person with the cotton string is very strong visual symbolism.  Once again the interaction of hands and physical as well as metaphorical objects came to be strong elements of my photographs for the day.

The cotton string that connects the deceased person to the Sanga passes through the hand of a grandson who has become a Monk for the funeral ritual

Grandsons Participating In Their Grandmother's Funeral

Duang Pours Green Coconut Water Over the Corpse
At this funeral the ritual of pouring green coconut water over the corpse to prepare the spirit for its upcoming journey was a more public display than the funeral that we attended earlier in the month.  Besides the Monks, family members either poured coconut water or sprinkled water on the body using white chrysanthemum type flowers.

Experienced hands, just like faces reflect the trials, struggles, and triumphs of a long life
I photographed the hands of the corpse because, to me, they were reminders of the suffering as well as triumphs that this old woman had endured during her life time.  These were hands that had worked countless seasons of planting rice seedlings - pulling sprouts from ankle deep mud in flooded paddies, repetitiously setting transplanted seedlings into flooded paddies under the heat and glare of the Isaan skies.  These same hands gathered and cut innumerable sheaves of rice over countless harvests. It is quite possible especially in the earlier years that these hands threshed the rice to separate the grains from the stalks - yet another task of survival to feed the family. During the other times of the year, her hands were used to cultivate sugar cane, peanuts, corn, and cassava.  These were the hands that had nurtured and cared for eight children. Hands that cooked thousands of meals over open fires or charcoal fires.  With these hands the woman had made merit and prayed many times in her quest during this life for enlightenment.  With these hands the woman had sewed, repaired and laundered the clothing of her family during her lifetime.  The hands reflected a long and hard lifetime here in Isaan.  Now these hands were freed from their toil and released from suffering.

An assistant hands a container of fuel to the deceased's brother to prepare the cremation fire
When we returned home that night from the funeral, we received word that Duang's uncle had died.  His cremation will be tomorrow.  Personal reminders of the cycle of life and of death continue here.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Maaking or Marking Time In Isaan

An "Old Mama" Prepares to Chew Some Betel Nut In Isaan
In response to a recent post on Facebook, an old fraternity brother of mine, not that he is old, it is just that we last saw each other in 1971) asked me about betel nut chewing.  I was prepared to admonish him for either not reading all my blog posts or for not remembering the one that I wrote regarding the specifics of betel nut chewing.  I have written and posted over 380 blog entries over the past four years, and I was fairly certain that I had written one about the prevalence of betel nut chewing amongst the older generation women here in northeast Thailand.  I even remembered researching the practice and getting the Latin names for the components of betel nut chewing.  Since it was late here in Udonthani, I performed a quick search of my files and could not located either the blog entry or the research documents.  The next day I did a more extensive search both electronically and hard copy.  Well, as my late grandmother used to say about herself until she was 92 years old, "I am not crazy, yet".  Later the ravages of Alzheimer's made a mockery of that belief but mercifully, for her, she did not realize it.  I did not find the blog entry but I did find the hard copy of my research.

Betel nut chewing is popular in Southeast Asia and Pacific. The practise has been going on for thousands of years.  In Thailand there is evidence of it going back four thousand years. It is very complicated in that it is not what it would seem to be.  Most of the confusion stems from improper translation from native languages to western languages during the colonial era.

First of all the practise referred to in English as "betelnut chewing" or "betel nut chewing" does not even involve a nut.  There is no such thing as a "betelnut"  The "nut" used in the practise is actually a drupe of the Areca palm (Areca catechu).  A drupe is a fruit, often referred to as "stone fruit" that has a fleshy outside with a pit containing a seed.  Mango, plum, nectarines, peach, and cherry are examples of drupes.

An Elderly Lao Loum Grandmother Enjoying A Chew
Betelnut chewing referred to in Lao language as "Mark" or "Maak" involves chewing slices of the Areca palm "nut" wrapped up in Betel (Piper betle) vine leaves with some caustic lime added.  Sometimes shredded tobacco is added to the mix inside of the leaves.  Unlike the ads for Skoal which espouse "A pinch between the cheek and gum", betelnut chewing involves packing your mouth rather full.

A Lao Women In the Luang Namtha Area of LPDR Chewing Betel Nut
Sliced or shredded Areca "nuts" are readily available in the local markets throughout Isaan,  Situated next to the burlap bags of the "nuts" are trays filled with bunches of fresh Betel vine leaves.  Not all of the Betel leaves are chewed, some are used as offerings in religious rituals.

An "Old Mama" Holding Some Betel Vine Leaves
Why?  Why would people chew betelnut?  Apparently the practice provides mild stimulation to the user.  To me it sounds akin to chewing coca leaves in the high Andes.  The effects are said to be similar to drinking a cup of coffee.  I am not a coffee drinker but there is no doubt in my mind that if I were looking for stimulation, I would have a cup of coffee or more rather than to chew betelnut.

Elderly Lao Loum Women In Isaan Chewing Betel Nut
I also believe that the practise is also a social and cultural practice.  My mother-in-law who is 72 years old regularly chews betelnut.  I have seen some men and I have seen some people around 35 years old chew but the vast majority of the practitioners have been elderly rural women over 50 years old.  Just as some cultures have worry beads, chew tobacco, smoke to occupy their thoughts and to mark time, it seems to me that betelnut chewing serves a similar function.  The "Old Mamas" seem to like nothing more than to haul out their woven baskets containing the accouterments for betelnut chewing and while away the afternoon gossiping and chewing with their friends

Betel Nut Chewers At a Lao Loum Funeral in Isaan
Chewing betel nut produces copious amounts of red saliva that can either be spit out or swallowed.  Typically the women spit it into a small plastic pail that they have lined with a plastic bag.  You can tell a betel nut chewer by the stains on their gums and teeth.

A Betelnut Chewer Flashing the Ubiquitous Red Smile

Passing An Afternoon and Entertaining Visitors In Isaan
  The European colonial powers were neither appreciative or supportive of the practise.  People who chewed betel nut were looked down upon and were considered to be members of the lowest class.  Today there are not many young people who chew.  The practise is mostly limited to people in rural areas over 50 years old.

What Goes In, Eventually Comes Out - Elderly Woman Spits out Betlejuice


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