Saturday, December 21, 2013

Busy Tahsang Village Morning



Dying Reeds Prior to Weaving Them Into Sahts

I drove Duang out to her village this morning so that she could finish her preparations for our visit to family southeast of Bangkok tomorrow. Out of habit, I brought my camera gear along with me.  I did not have any particular thing in my mind to photograph.  However when I get out and about in the countryside I usually come upon something interesting to photograph and eventually share.  Today was no exception.

The roads out to Tahsang Village were filled with vehicles of all sorts and sizes headed to the Kumphawapi Sugar Company.  No matter the type or size of the vehicle, they shared on thing in common - they were extremely loaded with fresh cut sugar cane.  The growers are paid by the weight of the sugar cane that is delivered to the refinery. For that reason alone they are eager to get the harvested cane delivered as quickly as possible after it is cut.  Drivers are typically paid by the weight of the cane that they haul for the day.  With the interests and needs of both the growers and truckers aligned, the trucks are heavily loaded - sometimes too heavily loaded.  Last year we lost electrical power for a couple of hours.  There was a large explosion and then the lights went out.  Lightening strike?  No, not that time.  Sabotage?  No.  A too heavily loaded sugar cane truck, as in too much height, had cause to main power lines to short out as it passed under or rather attempted to go under the wires.

Dried Reeds Are Placed Into A Home Made Pot of Dye

As we entered into the village, I was pleased that I had brought my camera gear with me.  One of Duang's aunts was occupied with dying reeds in preparation to weave them into a colorful mat called "saht".

Bundles or reeds that had been dried and bleached by the sun, were immersed in hot water to which a commercial dye had been added.  A recycled tin can which had previously been filled with either cookies or crackers served as the dye pot.  The dye pot was set on top of a crude stand made from reinforcing steel (rebar).  A fire or four burning good sized logs heated the dye mixture.  As the logs were consumed, the elderly woman pushed each log forward to keep the active flame and coals beneath the dye pot.

She used two roughly fashioned wood paddles to stir the mixture, immerse the reed completely into the dye mixture and after about 3 minutes remove the dyed reeds from the pot.  After three minutes, the mousy brown reeds exited the dye pot a brilliant indigo.

Removing Dyed Reeds From the Dye Pot
When all the reeds had been dyed, the woman gathered them up and placed them along the village street to dry out in the sun.

The woman was not the only person busy at that location.  A younger woman was occupied cooking food over a charcoal fire.  When I write about charcoal fires here in Isaan or in Lao, I am not describing the sawdust, wood char, Limestone, Starch, Borax, Sodium Nitrate compressed briquettes sold as charcoal in America.  Charcoal here and in Lao is lump charcoal, 100% organic and natural - hardwood that has been heated (baked) in an oxygen deficient furnace or more accurately covered pit or earthen mound.

Making A New Khong Kao

Duang's uncle is a skilled weaver, was seated near by working on a new khong kao -apparently khong kao is the name of the woven basket that you steam sticky rice in as well as the name for the woven covered baskets that people store cooked sticky rice in.


Duang's uncle is quite clever.  He makes khong kao for steaming rice, khong kao for storing cooked rice, fishing creels, fish traps, and fish nets.  He uses all locally available materials except for the nylon string, scissors, and needles.  He uses knives just like we watched being made in Laos for shaving, chopping and cutting his raw materials.  He even rolls is own cigarettes.


On my way from his house to Duang's aunt's house across the farm road that bisects the village, I passed several homes where people were busy processing cassava for planting.  The sugar cane harvest is well underway now.  As part of crop rotation some fields of sugar cane are replanted with cassava after harvest.  The cassava harvest is also underway.  Sharing the Isaan back roads with sugar cane vehicles are vehicles filled with cassava tubers similar in diameter to sweet potatoes.  The stalks of the cassava plant are stripped of leaves and chopped into 10 inch (25 cm) pieces.  The woody stalks are soaked in water for three days and then placed in recycled fertilizer bags to be hauled out to the fields for planting.  Planting involves sticking the 10 inch pieces about half way into  newly tilled field.

Processing Cassava Stalks in Tahsang Village
I eventually made it across the road to Duang's aunt's house.  Four women, bundled up in heavy clothing, were busy weaving cotton cloth just as they were doing on my last visit twelve days ago.  Outside weaving is a cottage industry here during the cool months.  A little further north from our home is an area known for its silk weaving,  Duang and I will go visit the area in either January or February.  I suspect that we will also end up purchasing some home spun silk for Duang to make clothes for herself.  Besides supporting local culture and handicrafts, buying directly from the producers is also more economical for us.  There is also a certain degree of pleasure of having items that you know the producers and have watched them make the item.

Tying A Thread On the Loom

Adjusting the Threads On the Loom

I watched the woman weaving for a while and took some photographs.  As many times as I have watching weaving, I am still clueless as to how they are able to make such beautiful designs let alone beautiful designs from their head.  Today I got a little bit more of a perspective as to how they doing.  On the loom where the dark traditional design fabricate for skirts was being woven, the weaver spent a large amount of time counting and separating threads,  I also noticed that the thread that was inside the shuttle was two toned - indigo and white which made sense because the fabric was indigo with a white design.

Sharpening A Saw 
Around the corner of the house, Duang's uncle was busy sharpening a bow saw using his buttocks and foot to secure it as he used a hand file to sharpen the teeth.

As so often happens on these journeys out into the countryside, there was plenty of activity to witness, learn about and to appreciate.

The people may not have formal jobs but they are always busy.  That is the way life is here in Isaan ... there are always plenty of people doing something interesting.  It only takes some time and little effort to discover more of their culture and lives.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Children Being ...



A Laughing Lao


One of the simple pleasures that Duang and I enjoy here in Isaan is observing the many small children that we encounter in the villages.

As soon as they are born, babies spend a great deal of time outside.  If they are not being held by their mother, grandmother or even great grandmother, babies are being rocked in hammocks suspended from the log columns of the thatched roofed elevated platforms that just about every home has in their front yard close to the narrow street.

Just about every passerby stops by to spend some time gossiping, eating, drinking and of course paying attention to the babies.  School children hustling along the village streets on their way home from school, stop by to play with the babies.  Babies develop surrounded by people of all ages.  Babies develop surrounded by the sights and sounds of an extended  family as well as community.

Once the babies are able to walk, their social circle widens greatly.  The toddlers are left to their own devices and although watched over by elders and perhaps older siblings, they are free to roam about the yard.  It is at this time that they start spending their time outdoors making friends and learning to play with cousins and neighbors.  If other children of their age are not available, there are always village dogs and chickens to occupy their attention.

By the time a child is two to three years old they are fairly well independent.  The entire village is their play yard.  They spend the daylight hours outside playing in the dirt, playing with bicycles, playing with rocks and sticks.  Puddles and mud are especially attractive to these toddlers.  You will come upon small groups of these children throughout the village - groups of focused, determined, confident, and vocal little people.

Khmu Children Interrupt Their Play to Watch the Visiting Foreigners

Our visits to Lao Peoples Democratic Republic are no exception - throughout Laos we find many groups of children playing and starting out on their life journeys.  On our last trip to the villages outside of Luang Prabang, Duang remarked at least twice that there were "many students (children) in the village, not have good, TV too much boom boom"  I suspect that the lack of quality television as well as the long and cold nights in the dry season does contribute to the large number of children.  Another factor is the demographics of the populations.  Thailand and Laos, as well as all of the other ASEAN countries are much younger populations than the USA.

Lao Children Huddle Over A Charcoal Fire at the Village Store
In the Lao Loum village of Xiang Muak or Ban Xiang Muark or Ban Xiang -Nouak (just as in Thailand the spelling of the native language villages and streets can vary and is subject to a great deal of interpretations), we encountered a small mixed group of heavily dressed children huddled around a small charcoal fire on the porch of the local market.  The children were bundled up and huddled around to escape the cold of the highland morning.  The children were as interested in us as we were in them.  We engaged in small talk with them for quite a while. The nine year old girl, the most outwardly member of the group, pulled a tuber out of the ashes of their fire, peeled it and gave it to me to eat.  It was a taro root and tasted similar to a sweet potato.  It is always rewarding for us to be able to bring some of the outside world to people especially children.  It does not escape us that as much as we are learning about the lives of the local people we are also teaching them about our life - a situation that we take very seriously.

Big Brother Watches Over His Little Brother
In another village we encountered two young brothers waiting as their young mother prepared food on the thatched roofed porch of their woven bamboo home.

AYoung Mother Prepares Food For Her Family
The home was a very humble abode - woven bamboo walls which allowed plenty of drafts in the home, a corrugated metal roof with an attached covered platform for preparing food and taking care of babies. As their mother cooked food over a charcoal stove, a gallon sized cement lined vessel, the baby played in his hand made crib suspended from the beams of the patio while his older brother divided his attention between his younger brother and his nearby mother.  I approached the home to speak with the children and to take some photographs.  Rather than being suspicious and perhaps apprehensive over a stranger approaching her home, the young mother was very welcoming.  This is a typical reaction here in southeast Asia, the people are extremely friendly and hospitable.  There are some hill tribes that are shy about being photographed so it is best, and always polite to ask permission first.

The children and their mother were dressed in heavy clothing to ward off the chill of the highland morning.  I suspect that the temperature was around 18C (65F) and the morning fog had just burned off.  Sixty-five degrees may seem a heat wave for early December in may Northern climes but hypothermia can be caused in elderly and babies overnight in a 60F house.  Drafts and moisture increase the risk of hypothermia.  In Thailand the government donates thousands of blankets every year that are distributed by the Royal Thai Army in the highlands to assist the people to survive the cold season.

Visiting and talking with the young mother brought back memories for Duang when she was a young child living in a woven bamboo house without much food.  Upon leaving the family, Duang gave some money to the mother.  I have always been impressed with Duang's compassion and her generosity continues.

Young Boy "Helps" His Father Make A Knife
In another part of the village we spent quite a bit of time with some knife makers.  The situation developed that one of the knife makers ended up making a knife specifically for Duang.  It was a great opportunity for me to photograph the entire process of producing a knife from recycled leaf springs of motor vehicles.  I had photographed knife making in the Luang Prabang area three years earlier and in the Luang Namtha area.  However just as in visiting the same location more than once, photographing the process a third time allowed me to recognize the nuances and different details missed previously.  At this stop, I was entertained by the knife maker's son who hovered over his father and even interfered a couple times with his father's work.

The boy seemed to be torn between the curiosity about a strange man visiting his family's business and a naturally reservation about something completely foreign to him.  Standing by and over his father seemed to meet his needs - to learn and observe the foreigner up close but still be within the safety zone afforded by his father.

Khmu Boys
In a Khmu village we found a man busy making bird snares.  We saw children at play throughout the village.  Our presence in the village interrupted the play of some of the children.  Shortly after we arrived and set up taking photographs several little boys joined us.


Although they interrupted their play, one boy continued to chew on a piece of freshly cut sugar cane.  One of his friends was completely oblivious to the fact that he was completely naked from the waist down.  When I asked him where his pants were, he just smiled and laughed with no sign of embarrassment or care - just happy and content with his situation.

Two of the boys had been playing by rolling a motorcycle tire around the village much like I had read about children playing with hoops in the earlier days of America,  The tire that the boys were playing with did not have a rim or wheel.  No problem.  The villagers had bamboo.  You can do just about anything with bamboo - eat it, build scaffolding with it, make a raft with it, build furniture out of it, cook in it, build shelter with it, create lacquer ware with it, support bean plants with it, make ladders out of it, make bird snares out of it, make rat snares out of it and now I saw how it can be used to make a wheel.  The wheel could never be used on a bicycle, motorcycle, car , tuk-tuk or truck but the wheel was fit for the purpose of allowing a tire to be rolled around using a short piece of bamboo.

Pieces of bamboo had been cut to fit inside of the rubber tire and woven together to keep the tire round or at least round enough to roll along the dirt paths and dirt roads of the village.  Once again fit for purpose and the ingenuity of local peoples made the most of what was available to them.  I suspect that these children have never been and will never will be bored.  Imagination and practicality go far in meeting any one's needs.

Khmu Village Boys Playing Petanque
Village children in Southeast Asia are free.  They are, by and large, free to play amongst themselves without adult interference.  There are no organized and adult supervised youth soccer teams, no Little League Baseball Teams, no cheer leading teams, no CYO basketball leagues, no swim clubs, or even youth bowling leagues.  The children are free to pick their sports, their teams, officiate their own competitions.  There are no adults imposing their will and choices upon the children.  Most importantly there no adults interfering with the disputes that arise from competition as well as all the childhood issues that cause disputes.  The children have the freedom to resolve their own disputes.  They have the opportunities to learn the arts of negotiation and skills of compromise on their own and at their own pace.  They are empowered rather than coddled. At an early age they learn to solve their own problems.

What Some Children Have to Do To Go Outside to Play

I was first introduced to the French game of petanque when I lived in Algeria.  Just as Algeria, Lao Peoples Democratic Republic (LPDR) was a French colony.  The French, besides bringing French cooking and French pastry to their colonies, they also introduced petanque.  Thailand, previously known as Siam, was never colonized by European powers.  However here in Isaan, people do play petanque undoubtedly another cultural connection to their Lao Loum cousins across the Mekong River in the LPDR.


Petanque is a team competition were a small ball is tossed down a a rectangular court usually compacted earth or sand but sometimes, especially in the case with children, a strip of ground as it exists.  Teams then take turns tossing heavy metal balls towards the small ball at the other end of the court.  The object is to get closest to the small ball.  You have a choice to make when you toss your ball down the court. You can flat out try to get your ball closest to the small ball or you can attempt to knock your opponent's ball away from the small ball so that one of your team's balls becomes closest. One point is earned for each completed round.  The match ends after 10 minutes with the winning team being the one with the most points.  In the case of children without watches they just play until they get bored.

In the adjacent village, a Hmong village, we discovered some children, boys and girls, playing what appeared to be a game of war.  A game with picking up logs, throwing them, running to them to throw them again all the while yelling.

Hmong Boys Playing Spinning Tops

Further into the village we found our third group of the day playing with spinning tops. Tujlub is a game where a heavy wood top is set to spinning people then take turns tossing their spinning tops trying to knock out the original top and cease its spinning.  Often children play a variation where they just toss their spinning top at the center of a circle and watch the collisions.



The top are home made carved solid pieces of heavy wood.  The free end of plastic strapping is wrapped around the top.  The other end of the plastic strapping is tied to the end of a stick.  The top is tossed out and as it flies through the air the stick is jerked in the opposite direction to impart a spin to the top.  I tried it once an failed miserably much to the amusement of the onlooking children.

Letting the top fly and spin
As we sat in the back of our hired tuk-tuk bouncing along the dirt road on our way back to Lunag Prabang, we were both very pleased to have witnessed so many children ... so many children being children.  These were confident and independent children preparing for their adult lives.

The greatest gift that parents can give their children can not be purchased.  The gift is not shielding them from the challenges of life or the realities of life. The gift is to empower their children to be confident, to allow them to make mistakes, to allow them to solve their own problems ... to let them be children.


Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Coffin Makers of Luang Prabang



A Lao Coffin Maker

On our journies throughout Southeast Asia, Duang and I in addition to seeing the tourist highlights, we like to break out and break away from the crowds in order to meet local people on their terms.  We both particularly enjoy talking to the people about their life and observe them gong about their life.

On our first day in Luang Prabang on our trip two weeks ago, we spotted an interesting sight on our trip from our hotel out to the sight of the Hmong New Years Festival.  Along side of the road we saw a workshop where men were working on a very elaborate coffin.  The coffin was a tapered pale yellow box unlike the simple rectangular box of the consummable coffins used here in Isaan.  The coffin was also resting on top of a stepped pedestal that ran the length of the coffin.

In addition to the coffin, there were several special spirit houses, "Baan Pii" or "Basahts".  Baan Pii or basahts are special houses constructed for Buddhist funeral rituals typically the "Tamboon Roy Wan" ("Bone Party" or "One Hundred Day Ritual").  As part of the "Bone Party" after the cremation of a Theravada Buddhist, small houses are built and filled with items that are necessary to habitate a small home - woven reed mats (sahts), candles, toiletries, towels, pots, plates, spoons, rice, and pillows (mons).  People offer these items to the spirit of the deceased person.  A ritual is then conducted where the basaht and associated items are offered in the name of the deceased to the Monks.

The next morning on our way to the Hmong New Years Festival, we asked our driver to stop at the workshop.  When we arrived, the ornate coffin was no where to be seen.  Although "just in time delvery" of materials is touted as a modern and efficient manufacturing technique, it has long been practiced out of economic necessity by many cultures.


A Coffin Under Construction

Although we were unable to view a completed coffin at the shop. there was a coffin that was under construction.

Worker Moves A Partially Completed Basaht

The workers were busy working on making basahts.  The basahts are simple structures framed with approximately 2 inch square lumber and sheathed with roughly one-eighth inch plywood.  The two outermost beams of the basaht are extended to serve as handles for transporting the small house.

Cutting Lumber For Basahts

While men were working outside in front of the work shop, measuring, marking, and cutting the plywood - five sheets at a time into components to assemble the basahts, a young man was busy cutting the lumber to be used for the basaht framing.

Installing the Basaht's floor


From the owner of the shop, we learned that it was a family business.  They typically make four coffins and 5 basahts a day.  A coffin typically costs 4,000,000 to 6,000,000 Kip ($500 to $750 USD).  I was surprised at the high cost of the coffin.  I was expecting it to cost more around $50 to $100.

Do you know the easiest and quickest way to become a millionaire?  Go to Lao Peoples Democratic Republic, Laos, and exchange roughly $130 into Lao currency, Kip.  However if you exchange roughly $300 US dollars be prepared to walk around with a bulge in your pants.  I carry my wallet in my front pocket so my fat wallet made quite a bulge in the front of my pants - I don't know if it made any impression on people but I did feel like a multimillionaire.

The owner took some time to show the coffin to me.  I marveled at small the coffin was - built to hold someone around 5'2" and roughly 125 pounds.  I joked with the owner if he could build a coffin for me.  As a good businessman, he said that he could build a bigger for me.  I told him, through Duang, that I was glad to hear that because I would not want to be split in half to fit in the standard coffin.  He laughed.

Acessories to Decorate Coffins
The platform upon which the coffin rests is actually a sort of optical illusion.  Viewed straight on, the coffin appears to be resting on a solid base of a four step platform.  However upon closer inspection from above reveals that the steps are just a facade - hollow frames.

The owner pulled me aside, bent down, lifted up, and showed me a rectangle of soft rubber.  The rubber had several pins in it and had been intricately cut in the shape of reflective decoration on the side of the coffin support structure.  The owner then proceeded to show me how many folded reflective foil was placed on the rubber template and cut to create long chains of reflective intricate shapes to place on the coffin and its support structure.

Next to the coffin was a pile of plastic decorative items.  They were the same items used to decorate coffins in Isaan - thepanom (thep phanom) "angels" and garuda, mythological creatures of the Himmapan Forest.  The plastic sculptures will be spray painted gold before being nailed to the sides of the coffin.

Closer to the center of town, on our way back to the hotel, we passed quite a sight.  In front of a home there were 10 basahts lined along the sidewalk along with the ubiqutous awnings sheltering tables and chairs associated with a funeral ritual.  This was obviously a very important person who had died.  I have seen two basahts before but never ten.

From our visit at the coffin workshop, we went on the the Hmong New Years festival a little further up the road.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Build a better ...



Khmu man making bird snares


There is a popular saying in the USA that states "Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door"

The saying is actually a misquote of Ralph Waldo Emerson's words "If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods."

On our recent trip to Luang Prabang, Lao People's Democratic Republic (Laos), we traveled broad hard beaten and dusty dirt roads not through the woods but rather the jungles of highlands to visit some less visited villages.  What we found was unexpected.  What we found was extremely interesting.  What we found was not a better mousetrap but apparently some pretty darn good rat and bird snares.

Since this trip was our third to the region, we had several places that we wanted to revisit.  However by the third day we had visited most of those places.  I knew that our guide had developed a good sense of what interested us.  On the morning of the third day, he asked us where we wanted to go.  I replied that we would rely upon his judgement as to where we would go.  He said that he knew of some villages, Lao, Khmu, and Hmong that not many tourists visited.  Sounded good to us!

We set off and were soon bouncing along a dirt road that climbed up through the cool highland morning mists.  We drove higher and higher surrounded by verdant peaks.  After a lengthy visit to a traditional Lao village we visited two Khmu villages.

Traditional Khmu Houses

There was a great deal of activity in the villages.  Rice was drying out in the sun along with beans, each on their separate tarps.  An old blacksmith was busy making a large cane knife in his foundry attached to the back of his thatched roofed woven bamboo house.  The sharp metallic staccato of his striking the hot metal with a heavy hammer on his improvised anvil echoed throughout the village.

Children skited about rolling bicycle and motorcycle tires much like children did many years ago in America.  Other children congregated to check out the strangers that had just appeared in their village interrupting the the monotony of a simple life.

Village dogs acknowledged our presence more out curiosity than any sense of duty or sense to intimidate.

Khmu Man Constructing A Rat Snare

Shortly after commencing to explore the village, we encountered a man working.  He was making homemade snares to capture rats.  The snares were to be placed on trails frequented by rats in the nearby jungle.  The snared rats would then be brought back to the village to be eaten,

It was very interesting to watch the man craft the intricate snare out of natural locally available materials other than the braided nylon string.  Tubes, rods, straps, loops, and peg components for the snares were fashioned from the readily available and free of cost bamboo.

Khmu Man Making Bird Snares
Further into the village, we came upon another man building snares.  The snares that this man was constructing were more intricate and, in my opinion, bordered on being works of art - sort of like kinetic sculpture.  Through our driver we learned that these snares were for catching birds.



Just as in the case of the rat snares, other than the nylon braided line, all components of the bird snare were fashioned from local bamboo.  To produce the various components of snare from the bamboo, the craftsman used a handmade large knife and for a vise to secure the raw material to be worked, he used his bare feet.



 
 

The craftsman was very friendly as he continued to fashion his snares next to a smoldering fire that gave some warmth against the early morning chill of the Lao Highlands.  For added warmth he was wearing a large, several sizes too large, jacket.  In addition to us he was soon joined by other people - curious children.  Two young boys interrupted their play to join the snare maker while chewing on a freshly cut sugar cane.

Sugar Cane Chewing Boys Join the Snare Maker

 


With gnarled and weathered fingers bearing testament to a long life of subsistence living, the snare maker expertly fashioned the components into working snares.  One reason that I enjoy visiting the peoples of outlying villages is to see how they live and to photograph how they are able to survive by exploiting local resources and relying upon themselves.  I, with my engineering degree and over 40 years of work experience, could not help but contemplate how long I could survive in similar circumstances.  I am continually amazed at the talents and skills of people that I encounter, people who lack the formal education and experience of living in technically as well as self-perceived "advanced" societies.  Whereas I would expect to survive 3 to 5 days in their situation, the peoples manage to survive, thrive and in many cases remain happy into advanced age.


Our Guide Purchases Some Bird Snares

 "Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door" or rather the proper quote "If a man has good corn or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods." was confirmed during our visit to the Khmu village.  The craftsman was not producing a better mousetrap but was making bird snares.  I don't know if they were better snares than what other people produce.  They looked fine to me and seemed very fit for purpose.  However our guide was someone who knew of these matters and had experience with those things.  He spoke with the craftsman and closely inspected the bird snares.  After a while he ended up buying five snares from the man.

Our guide said that often his family go off and have picnics.  He said that the snares would be very helpful for those family outings to catch some birds to eat.

Having completed our visit to the village we returned to that broad hard-beaten road through the jungle to go on to the next village and what encounters along with any amazement that could be awaiting us there.

Wonders and amazement along the back roads of Laos were awaiting us.

Wonders and amazement await all of us along the journey of this life.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Another Ethnic Lao Cremation



Preparing Offerings for Spirit and Monks

Duang's father was cremated on Friday, 22 November, three days after he had died.  I arrived at the family home in Tahsang Village around 9:00 A.M. to find organized mayhem.

Just as it had been commencing with the death watch on Tuesday, several elderly women were seated on sahts placed on the ceramic tiled floor of the home off to one side of the large room sharing the space with the refrigerated coffin containing the body.  Each woman had a small bamboo woven basket that was filled with several white plastic containers of various sizes each with screw on lids.  The baskets also contained several plastic bags crinkled and somewhat soiled from being used and recycled several times.  The containers and bags contained tobacco, chemical lime, slices of dry areca nut, slices of tender areca nut, betel leaves, "galap nuat" ( Thai or Lao version of Vaseline), often a knife that shows it has been used greatly as well often, and sometimes small mortar/pestle combinations typically made from brass.

The betel-nut chewers spend their time in heavy and often loud animated conversations undoubtedly gossip.  I have often noted that there are no secrets here in Isaan and the extended funeral ritual is optimum for sharing information or extracting information to share later with others.

The elderly women besides chewing betel-nut and gossiping provide an important service for the funeral ritual.  They make many of the offerings that are offered to the Monks, the spirits. and articles to be used in the various parts of the ritual.  Every time that the Monks come to the home to participate in the merit making, each Monk is offered a small plate, dessert plate sized, with offerings of four cigarettes, two plant leaves and /or sprigs of flower blossoms, one birthday cake sized yellow candle, and two rolled up betel leaves, some tender areca nut slices and some dry areca nut pieces.

One night the women prepared lotus blossoms for the ritual,  folding the exterior leaves in towards the center to form a quasi-flower.



On the morning of the cremation, the women were busy preparing the sections of  what I call and best describe as "cotton butcher's string" sii sein that will be used to connect the coffin placed on a pickup truck bed to the contingent of Monks leading the cortege in the procession to the local Wat for cremation.  They busied themselves straightening out the loops of many hunks of string and connecting them together without knots by looping the loops together.

That morning they were also occupied making offerings of an incense (joss sticks), a yellow, a little larger than birthday cake sized, candle, and a sprig of flower buds; all bound together with threads of the sii sein rope wrapped three times around and knotted.

Young Girls Manning the Dish Washing Station

Outside all the activities associated with the feeding and providing refreshments continued for the fourth day.  Once again everyone seem to intuitively know their duties and responsibilities.  Trays of food were carried from the outdoor kitchen to the front yard, more accurately - the two canopies that had been erected in the street in front of the family home.  Guests were quickly seated by a member of the family, given food, provided with drinking water, soft drinks, beer and ice cubes.  Care was taken to ensure that there was always plenty of ice in the buckets at each table.  The tables were just as quickly cleaned after the people had finished eating.  The tables were wiped and prepared for another set of guests who were arriving continually.

The first part of the cremation ritual commenced around 9:30 A.M.  Duang's two brothers and two cousins had their heads and eyebrows shaved in preparation to become Monks for cremation ritual.  I had discussed it previously with Duang about doing the same but she said that I did not need to do it.  She wanted me to take photographs instead.

Duang Uses Electric Clippers On Her Oldest Brother as His Wife Watches

The shaving of the heads and eyebrows is an involved process with several steps.  Just as preparing a male to be ordained as Monk, the person sits in a chair shirtless either holding a large banana leaf or next to someone holding the leaf.  One by one people come forward to cut a piece of hair from his head using scissors and the place the shorn lock into the banana leaf.  The hierarchy for cutting the locks is headed up by the parents, spouse, grand-parents, siblings, esteemed guests followed by all others.  The locks are bundled up in the banana leaf and then buried in the yard.

Electric clippers are then used to cut the hair down to the scalp. For this part of the process a cape is placed on the male.  Use of the clippers is limited to those who actually know how to use them,  Duang had attended beauty school and has a certificate, so she was kept busy that morning.

The last part of the ritual is to actually shave the head and eyebrows.  This was accomplished using disposable straight razors - single edged razor blade with an attached handle - sort of like a long scalpel.  This task is left to a trust and experienced male relative or friend.  The head is rinsed and powdered.  The newly shaved men and boy then walked over to the "inside" Wat to be interviewed by the Abbot to ensure that they are of this world and not nagas.  They then make some vows and are given Monk robes to wear for the day.  They return to the family home with the other Monks from the Wat for the food offering ritual at 11:00 A.M.

Duang, Under the Watch of her Mother, Counts the Money from Tambon Nongwha

The Official Presentation of Tambon Funds to Duang's Mother

After the head shaving a new aspect of the funeral ritual takes place.  In Isaan when some one dies, 100 baht ($3 USD) is collected from every household in the sub district that they live in.  Duang's parents live in Tambon Nongwha which has 11 villages.  At every funeral, several representatives from the Tambon arrive at the home on the day of cremation.  After paying their respects to the deceased person, they sit off to the side of the coffin with members of the family to present the money collected from the households, count the money, recount the money, and count the money once again.  The designated representative from the family signs a ledger that I refer to as "The Book of the Dead" signifying the amount and acknowledging the receipt of the funds.  Just as with weddings and ordinations, monetary offerings are a great display - and a very public display.  At every funeral that I have attended people wanted photographs of the transaction.

Duang Signs "The Book of the Dead"
A short while later, representatives of the life insurance company showed up to payout the proceeds of the policy on Duang's father's life.  The amount of proceeds varies with the policy, Duang's father had a 6,320 Baht pay out ($216 USD) whereas his sister-in-law had a 96,000 baht ($3,200 USD) pay out.  Again there was a big and public display of counting and accepting the proceeds.

Duang Ties One of Three Shroud Covered Offerings for the Monks
The betel-nut chewing ladies also created three bundles of offerings for the Monks.  These offerings of toiletries and other sundries were wrapped up in shrouds like the material used to cover the corpse.  The tops of the bundles were secured with a great deal of attention and effort with sii sein cords.  Duang as the representative of the family was responsible to finish the bundling.  These bundles remained on the floor next to the coffin and when the coffin was removed from the home, they were placed on top.  They remained on top of the consumable coffin at the entrance to the crematorium until they were removed and presented to the Monks as part of the ritual.

Duang Preparing Popped Rice for the Funeral Cortege
Every Theravada Buddhist funeral that I have attended here in Isaan, has had a man walking ahead but off to the side of the vehicle bearing the body.  The man carries either a woven basket or plastic bucket containing popped rice.  Periodically the man spreads handfuls of the popped rice along the funeral cortege route to the Wat as well along the circumambulations of the crematorium.  The sprinkled rice is offered as nourishment to the spirit of the deceased person as well as the spirits along the route.  As part of the preparations for the cremation of her father, Duang as well as her sister, mother, and sister-in-laws had to cook rice grain over a charcoal fire to produce the popped rice.

Even a seemingly mundane task as cooking rice has significant ritual significance when associated with a funeral.  To cook the rice Duang used a freshly cut and prepared banana stalk to stir the grain while steadying herself with a siem, a narrow metal shovel-like tool used in working the rice paddies.  The symbolism is to show the deceased person that the family can take care of themselves and to offer up the work to the spirit.

Duang's Two Brothers
At 10:30 A.M. the local Brahman priest lead the lay people in a ritual to make offerings to the spirit of Duang's father.

The Monks arrived at the home around 1:00 P.M.  Another merit making ritual was performed that lasted about 15 minutes.  Upon completion of the ritual, Duang's father's personal belongings were gathered up and placed in the back of a pick up truck along with the funeral memorials.  The refrigerated coffin was then wheeled out of the house and lifted on to the back of another pick up truck.  As the coffin exited the home, three bursts of firecrackers were set off to scare away any bad spirits that were in the area,

Duang Waits for the Monks to Form Up In Front of Her

The funeral cortege formed up in front of the home lead by the Monks holding on to the sii sein that connected them back to the coffin.  Duang folded off to side carrying a framed photograph of her father.  Behind the Monks, but also holding on to the sii sein as they slowly walked through the village to the "inside" Wat were family members and dignitaries.  More family member, neighbors, and friends walked along both sides of the vehicle transporting the body.

The cortege enter the Wat grounds and circled the crematorium three times counter clockwise.  The body in a consumable coffin was removed from the refrigerated coffin and placed upon steel sawhorses at the door to the furnace.  The laypeople went to one of three places - the covered area in front of the crematorium, the steps of the Bot or in the Sala where the funeral ritual would actually take place.

Duang's Oldest Brother Inside of Sala
Things went rather smoothly but not without some laughter.  A big part of the Theravada Buddhist funeral ritual here in Isaan is calling out people's names to participate directly in the ritual.  When your name is called, you walk over the the steps of the crematorium where you are given an envelope containing a cash offering.  You then walk up the steps to the entrance of the furnace where the coffin is located.  You reverently pay your respects to the deceased person and place the envelope on a metal tray on top of the coffin.  I was up at the coffin taking photographs of the people making the offerings when I heard "Duangchan Veeboonkul", my wife's maiden name.  I thought that it was a little odd using her maiden name.  I waited.  We all waited.  I waited some more.  We all waited some more.  Nothing was happening.  It seemed like an eternity when some of the old ladies started cackling at Duang.  People all started laughing.  Realizing that this was a humorous event, I yelled out in Thai that it was "Duangchan Hale, not Duangchan Veeboonkul" and shook my fist.  Duang hurried to the steps to get her envelope - laughing and embarrassed at the same time - much to every one's amusement.  We have been officially married for five years so she is not accustomed to being called "Veeboonkul".

When the cover of the consumable coffin was removed for the pouring of water and placing of "daugchan", good luck charms, on the body, I was somewhat relieved to see Duang's father in the same position and expression as when I had declared him dead.  I was sure that he was dead but it was the first time that I had done that.  I did notice that there was quite a bit of condensation on his skin when the coffin was opened.  I had not seen that before.  Later, this week, I found out that the family had left the refrigerated coffin on for too long. That will be the subject of a future blog.

The Monks Are the First To Pour Coconut Water On the Body
The Monks were the first to pour coconut water on the body after supervising the cutting of the bindings on the body and the opening up of the shroud.  After they returned to the Sala, family members climbed the steps to pay their respects and pour the coconut water on the corpse.

Duang's Mother Says Good Bye and Wishes Her Husband Good Luck

Duang Pours Water On Her Father As Her Son Collects Daugchan
After everyone had paid their respects and placed a good luck charm, daugchan, the cushion, saht, and shroud were removed from the coffin and placed in the pile with Duang's father's personal items to be burned  on the ground next to the crematorium.  The corpse was rolled on its side so that split coconuts could be placed underneath the body.  I suspect that elevating the corpse above the base of the coffin facilitates the cremation process.  Using heavy cane knives, men made slits in the bottom of the coffin to drain it.

The consumable coffin was lifted by several men as the heavy metal charcoal filled carriage was pulled out from inside of the furnace.  As the consumable coffin was being lowered on to the charcoal bed, a man emptied two Lao Lao (375 ml) glass bottles containing hydrocarbon on the charcoal bed.  Once set in the proper place, the body inside of the consumable coffin was doused with another bottle of flammable fluid.  The carriage was rolled back into the furnace, the heavy metal doors closed and dogged off.  The senior Monk, "Rocketman", then placed a lit daugchan through the ignition portal to set the corpse ablaze.

As the charcoal was ignited, three large fireworks were launched into the air causing large bangs.  Again the fireworks are intended to scare away any bad spirits in the area as Duang's father's spirit commences its journey.


The Last Food Offered to Duang's Father's Spirit Is Buried By a Nephew
One of Duang's cousins took the tray of food that had been offered as nourishment to her father's spirit and buried it on the wat grounds using a siem.

Other family members set the pile of her father's possessions on fire but not before one of Duang's aunts first intervened and removed some articles of clothing as well as his portable radio.


The cremation ritual was over around 3:00 P.M.  I prepared to return to our home in Udonthani.  Duang would remain in the village with her family.  The cremation was over but as hucksters so often scream on late night television "But wait, there's more!"

After a person is cremated in Isaan, there is another ritual held called "Tamboon Roi Wan" or "Bone Party.  This ritual theoretically is held 100 days after the cremation.  In reality it is often held when the family has the financial resources to afford the event - an all day and all night eating, drinking, merit making and entertainment ritual.  When I say that some of the best parties that I have attended here have been funerals I am referring to these "Bone Party"

When he knew that he would be dead soon, Duang's father asked her to take care of him now rather than waiting 100 days or even longer for his Bone Party.  To comply with her father's wish, Duang planned his Bone Party for Sunday, two days after his cremation.

Looking Back At the "Inside" Wat

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