Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Morning In Isaan

Rice Drying Out In The Morning Sun
 Monday morning Duang asked me to take her back out to her home village for the second day in a row.  She is working with her cousin to make new slip covers for our patio furniture and the task is taking longer than she expected.  I suspected that she knew that I would be less than enthusiastic to make the trip because she told me to bring my camera because we could visit our grandson at his school in Kumphawapi.  Her strategy was very effective - we left early in the morning, I carried my cameras and wore a smile on my face.

Pre-Schoolers (3 and 4 year olds)  Line Up for Start of the Morning Classes
We arrived at Peelawat's school just in time for the start of the day at 8:30 A.M.  The school is a large public school in Kumphawapi.  There are 1,400 students ranging in age from 3 (pre-school) to 15 (ninth grade).  Since it was a clear day, all students congregated and eventually assembled in the central courtyard.

The central courtyard was a concrete paved area dotted with trees, concrete benches, with several sections that had flowers and ornamental plants.  Portions of the paved area were set up with posts where badminton, volleyball, and takraw could be played.  There were also several stalls where students could buy food, drinks, and ice cream.  Our grandson, Peelawat, always asks for 5 Baht ($0.15 USD) to take to school to buy food.  The school provides milk free of charge to the pre-schoolers.

The school has a band comprised of bass drum, snare drums, xylophones, along with mouth organs (small plastic keyboards powered by blowing air into them through a plastic tube).  At the appointed time the band marched into place and there was a flag raising ceremony.  All the students sang the Thai National Anthem.  Afterwards there was a Buddhist prayer.  Thailand is 97% Buddhist and Buddhism is actually the state religion.  However the country is tolerant of other religions.  I have visited mosques in Bangkok, and attended Christian ceremonies here in Isaan.  I have also seen Mormon Missionaries here in Udonthani.

Pre-School Students and Classroom, Kumphawapi - No Furniture to Get Hurt On

Pre-Schooler's Bookbags

At the conclusion of the prayer the little children walked off to class with their teachers.  The older children seated on the concrete by individual classes, did some warm up type exercises for arms, hands, fingers and shoulders.  The school Principal; then addressed the student body.  He started slowly and gently about having the older students look out for and after the young students. he then built up to saying that too many students were not brushing their teeth and not washing their hands after lunch.  he built up to a crescendo about four "Naughty" boys had to go see him after the assembly along with their teachers as well as parents - apparently. according to Duang, the boys had been caught with video games at school.  The Principal was definitely not happy.

On our way back to the truck, I saw one of the teachers inspecting his students one by one.  Most students passed inspection and were given a nod as they passed.  Some students were subjected to a closer inspection, some passed and some others were told  something and received a swat across their backside.  Each teacher carried a one meter long and about 12mm diameter bamboo rod - something like the pointers that some teachers used for the blackboard when I went to school.  However here in Isaan the "pointer" was more versatile.  For the pre-schoolers it was used to help position the students where they needed to be.  For the older students it was used to strike them when they misbehaved or to humiliate them for infractions.  Yes, there is still striking of students, corporal punishment, in schools - at least here in Isaan.  The striking that I saw would no way near come close to causing injury or even pain but was humiliating for sure.  Personally I find that a little humiliation is a small price, especially a cost that be easily avoided, to learn that there are consequences to our actions or lack of action.

We stopped by Peelawat's classroom to see what it was like.  It was very clean and well organized.  It did not have any furniture for the students.  The students sat on the floor to learn their lessons.  This is just like most of their their homes - no tables, chairs of desks.  Outside of the classroom there was a rack where all the students had placed their shoes before entering the classroom.  On one wall of the classroom student's book bags were neatly hung.  The bags are used to transport their homework assignments to and from school.  Homework?  Yes, even at 3 years old, students have homework.

We spoke with Peelawat's teacher to determine how he is doing in class.  We knew that he was a good boy and behaved well.  However he is also very shy so there was some concern that he might not be learning as much as he could by not fully participating.  His teacher assured us that he was doing fine.  She informed this as she was multi-tasking.  Three and four year olds at the pre-school are toilet trained but for some boys, zippers and buttons remain a challenge.  A little boy had gone to the bathroom but was returning to the classroom with his shorts unzipped, unbuttoned and on the verge of falling to his knees.  With some help, actually she did it all, he was squared away at the classroom doorway and happily rejoined his classmates.

I Can Get By  - With A Little Help from My Teacher
From the school we drove out to Tahsang Village.  A relative wanted me to take a photograph of her second grand-daughter.  I had taken a photograph of her first grand-daughter, Kwan, and given her an 8 x 10 print, so she wanted one of her other grandchild.  No problem - I don't mind keeping my models happy.

The relatives, who live across the street, more aptly "wide sidewalk" from the "Inside" Wat were busy.  I pulled in to the Wat to park and was greeted by smiling, laughing, and exuberant relatives.  Were they happy to see their falang relative?  Perhaps.  Were they happy because although it was 10:00 A.M. they had been drinking "Lao Lao" (whiskey - a sort of moonshine)?  More likely!

Rice Drying In the Morning Sun at the "Inside" Wat, Tahsang Village
The men and some of the women were busy with the rice harvest. They had spread the ubiquitous blue netting on the ground at the Wat across the street to dry in the sun.  Much of the rice had already been collected and bagged prior to our arrival.  The men were loading the filled bags on to a wagon that would be pulled by a lowt thai lek across the street to their home.

Gentleman, Start Your Engine!
The guys started to tease me about taking photographs and not helping them to load up the wagon with the 50 kg bags.  I told them that I was a foreigner and that I could not work; the police would take me to jail.  As a condition of my Visa to stay in Thailand, I am not allowed to work in Thailand. Although true, everyone in the family also knows that it is my favorite excuse for not performing manual labor under the hot glaring sun.  the men were all in a great mood and kept up teasing until I finally gave in.  Just prior to giving in I saw a partially filled bag amongst the stack.  It was about 10 kg.  I went over and picked it up with one hand in such a fashion as to convey "So what is the big deal about loading up the wagon?"   The guys immediately caught on and pointed out that I needed to do a full bag.  I obliged and hoisted a 50kg bag on to my shoulder, walked over to the wagon, and placed it on top of the stack.  After overcoming the initial shock that I did, or perhaps that I could do it, the men all decided that it was time to go across the street for another drink - including me.  Since I was driving and you can not count on other people to follow the driving laws let alone staying out of your way when you may be driving impaired, I declined the Lao Lao and settled for a glass of Pepsi.

Filling the Family Granary

We crossed the street followed shortly by the filled wagon of rice sacks.  As happens in every family, there was one man who was not fully, if at all, to the physical labor.  Everyone was r
teasing him about it.  Strangely enough, when I started taking photographs of the other men working, he decided to help.  Well in all the activity that was going on, I did not get a shot of the one bag that he off loaded.  I told everyone that my camera was not fast enough to catch him working and that I needed my movie camera which was at home. Duang translated and every one roared with laughter.  I guess that it was a pretty good joke because I was offered whiskey once again which I declined.  The man subject to all our joking was sitting down and complaining ( I suspect jokingly) about hurting his shoulder.  I asked where and he pointed it out.  I drew closer to him and blew on it three times like I do when our grandson shows me his injuries.  This is similar to what some Monks do in a healing ritual.  I also gave him a little massage and told him that he was OK now to go back to work.  There was more laughter, and offers to drink whiskey.  He did do another bag and I did get his photograph.

With His Pakama Wrapped Around His Waist, A Villager Hauls A Sack of Rice
The sacks were carried from the wagon to the family granary - an elevated composite structure of wood and corrugated metal.  In the countryside of Isaan, you will see these structures at almost every Lao Loum home.  The year long supply of rice for the family and the seeds for next year's rice crop are stored in them.  I noticed some holes in this one and asked if they were going to fatten up some rats for Duang's mother to cook.  Last week she cooked a rat and offered Duang to eat some.  Duang refused.  I double checked to ensure that I understood correctly.  According to Duang people do not eat "small rats" (I am assuming she means mice) but they eat "big rat like chicken, big rat eat sugar cane" which sounds like your typical rats running around rice paddies, cane fields, and granaries.  Every one had another good laugh.

Another Sack, All In A Morning's Work

Milling Rice In the Morning At Tahsang Village
The morning was getting on but I wanted to show Duang the miller that I had visited earlier in the morning.  While Duang was paying her respects to her mother an father, I had wandered around the village to see what was going on.  It was so quiet because all the children 3 years and older were off at school, that I could hear the sound of some  machines.  I had a good idea what it was and followed the sounds to the backyard of the villager who mills rice.  This will be the subject of an upcoming blog, "Miller Time ...  In Isaan".  I had photographed a couple of years ago and earlier in the morning.  I had left to get more of my gear but had been delayed getting back to him because of the family next to the Wat.  The miller had finished his work, but I got to take more shots of the equipment while Duang talked to him - there is always something to talk about with just about anyone or everyone here in Isaan.

Scavenging For Scrap Metal
Duang was concerned about me getting too tired from the past two days of photography in the hot weather and admonished me to not stop on the way home.  I told her that I would listen - "a little bit".
Although I did not plan on stopping along the way, circumstances did not cooperate.  Once again opportunity presented itself to my curiosity.

Just outside of Kumphawapi is a sugar refinery.  Across the road from the refinery is a large vacant piece of land where the solid waste from the sugar refining process is dumped.  The waste is a very black sandy type organic soil that farmers use to fertilize their fields.  The waste is very smelly - an almost sickening sweet pungent odor; so smelly that Duang and I refer to it as "kee oi" (sugar shit).  Several times as we have passed the area, there have been many people going over the piles of waste.  I asked Duang why as well what they were doing.  She told me that they were looking for mushrooms.  Well this time there must have been 4 times the number of people that I have ever seen on the piles.  The sugar harvest is just barely getting started so the piles were not all that big.  By the end of the season the pile will be about 8 meters high and at least 200 meters by 200 meters.

I pulled over to the side of the dirt road perimeter of the area and parked amongst the somlaws, motorbikes, and pick up trucks.  I quickly determined that the people were not looking for mushrooms but were picking scrap metal out of the piles.  The piles this day were not just sugar refining waste but included concrete debris, industrial debris, rubber machine belts, bamboo, plastic sheeting and garbage - s if an industrial plant was being demolished and dumped on the field.  Despite the sugar shit odor there was also the smells of cow dung and palaa (at least 6 month old fermented fish) - not all that pleasant an environment to photograph in but it was new and different to me.  The people were friendly and I asked if they had found any gold and communicated to them with pantomime and my limited vocabulary that I wanted to find some gold.  We all shared a laugh, most likely at my expense, but it is such a small price to be able to photograph a part of other people's lives.

In the USA, there are special days when people are encouraged to bring their children to work.  I always smile at that concept for here in Southeast Asia everyday is bring your child to work day if not have your child work with you.  Small children are brought out to the cane fields, rice paddies, and on this morning out to the dump.  There was one little boy who was neither amused or pleased with my presence.  He was around a year and one-half.  He at first cried when he saw me but after being consoled by his mother just kept a weary stare at me for the entire time that i was there.  Luckily I had a longer lens on one of my cameras so as they say here it was "Good for me, good for him".  I was able to get my photographs without getting closer to him.

A Nice Drink of Water In the Morning

As Their Son Keeps His Eyes On Me. A Family Looks For Scrap Metal
It had been quite an interesting morning here in Isaan and as I drove back to our home listening to the ethnic Lao music I could not help but reflect upon what I had seen as well as experienced.  For Americans, tomorrow is Thanksgiving a day when people gather to give thanks for their blessings.  It has always been one of my favorite holidays, not necessarily for all the wonderful food and drink, but the realization of the things that matter in your life.  Although we do not celebrate it in our home here in Isaan, I am thankful on Thanksgiving and every other day for the blessings that I have received past, present, and anticipated in the future.  One of the blessings being "A Morning In Isaan" and another - still being excited by as well as interested in the life around me.


  1. I love this story, great reporting Allen.

    By fascinating coincidence, I visited last Sunday a rice cooperative in Maliana, Timor Leste. I recorded the threshing of the rice, the bringing it back home by big sacks on a truck and the milling in the coop's mill room. Then had lunch with them before undertaking our arduous trip back home. Pictures following on MY website in a few days.
    Today I photographed a workshop introducing new rice planting techniques. Coming soon on my site..

  2. Thanks Kees.

    I look forward to reading and viewing your website.

    We are both fortunate to have such great opportunities to share with others. I also believe that we are blessed to still find life so exciting and stimulating.



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