Saturday, February 23, 2013

Saht Time of the Year Again - Saht Weaving

Another year has passed and the cycle of  time measured by village activities has come full circle.  It is once again that time of year - time for weaving sahts.

As you drive through the small villages that are scattered along the back roads of Isaan, you will find bunches of reeds laid out along side of the village streets drying in the sun. These are the marsh reeds, called "Ly" (?) that are used to weave the ubiquitous Lao Loum textile called "Saht".

The Khene musical instrument is said to define the essence of Lao culture. My opinion is that if the khene defines the essence of Lao culture then the saht must reaffirm the essence of Lao Loum culture. The saht is a scatter rug, a substitute for carpeting, an offering to Monks, a place to eat your meals, a place to drink, a substitute for a mattress, and a gift that is appropriate for all occasions  Villagers in Isaan  place sahts upon the floor of their home to eat their meals. Sahts are placed inside of hammocks to create beds for babies and toddlers. Some people sleep atop sahts placed upon the floors of their home. Sahts are placed upon the floor of Buddhist temples for the worshipers to kneel and sit on. People place sahts on the ground for sitting on at outside shows as well as outdoors concerts. The corpse is placed upon a saht inside of the coffin prior to cremation.

Sahts are multi-functional woven reed mats that are typically around 39 inches wide and around 57 inches long. The width of the saht is restricted by the height of the Ly plant at harvest time. The Ly plant is cultivated very much like rice is here in Isaan however it does require more and a more reliable source of water than rice. It is harvested every four months - roughly Mid-March, Early-August, and December.

When the plant is about four feet high, it is cut using sickles that are also used to harvest the rice crop. The light heads are cut off the reeds and the reeds are laid out flat along the side of the street or in people's compacted dirt yards to dry out in the sun. Isaan villagers do not have lawns. Their yards are compacted dirt that they often sweep with long handcrafted brooms to remove leaves that fall from surrounding trees. Roving groups of chickens also assist in maintaining the yards.

During hot and sunny weather like we experience in February, March and April, the reeds are dry in three to four days. Later when the weather is not so sunny or dry, it takes one to two weeks for the reeds to dry out. After drying out flat, some villagers hang the sheaves of dried reeds over the top of their bamboo fences to protect the reeds from wandering water buffalo, cattle, dogs, as well as chickens. The local children seem to be well trained and avoid damaging or soiling the reeds along the street.

Most people dye the dry reeds before weaving them. I guess it is like any personal endeavor and enterprise, the villagers want to add some personal touch and style to their product. I have seen some plain dull brown sahts but not very many of them. Most of the finished sahts are very colorful. They typically are a mixture of orange, red, yellow, and blue. Just as with the local cotton and silk weavers, the saht weavers have the designs and patterns of their textile memorized. I have watched cotton and silk weavers here in Isaan as well as in Laos, and I am continuously amazed at how they can create such colorful as well as intricate patterns from only their memory. Saht weaving is a great deal easier for me to try to comprehend. The design and patterns are created using single reed of one color whereas in certain silk weaving some of the individual threads are multi-colored. Most sahts have no more than 4 distinct colors. I have seen some silk weaving involving 8 different colors.

Dying the Ly reeds is accomplished in the yards of homes throughout the Isaan villages. As so often is the case here in Isaan as well as in neighboring Laos, the Lao Loum people make do with what they have or with what is readily available. They were using a commercial water based dye that requires hot water. To heat the water they had built a small wood fire. In Thailand, as well as the rest of Southeast Asia, people are free to perform outdoor burning. Most people in the villages cook their meals outside over small wood or charcoal fires. The wood fire that the village women build for dying the reeds is comprised of several logs each about 4 to 6 inches in diameter. As the wood underneath their pot of boiling by the small fire, the women maintain the fire simply by pushing the remainder of the logs to the center of the flames.

For a container to boil the water and dye mixture in and to contain the reeds, the villagers use a large metal container that had been used to store cookies. The container was about 4 to 5 gallons capacity. For stirring the mixture and removing the hot dyed reeds, the villagers use two pieces of readily available local bamboo. A sheave of dried Ly reed is gathered and twisted it together as it is placed it into the pot of boiling dye mixture. A bamboo stick is utilized to ensure all and every part of the reed bundle was submerged into the red liquid. After about two minutes in the pot, the reed sheave, now a shiny brilliant red or some other vibrant color, is removed from the pot using the two pieces bamboo as a pair of long chopsticks. Carefully using the pieces of bamboo, the steaming mass of stringy red reeds is carried over to another location. There the reeds are untangled and laid out in the sun to dry once again. It is important that the reeds not be bent or twisted for weaving. After cooling the reeds will be hung to complete drying out.

Weaving of the Ly reeds into sahts is performed at people's homes and in covered areas at some village Wats. The weaving is a two person operation typically older women although the craft is still passed on to daughters and you will sometimes find young girls weaving. They weave the reed upon a home made loom made from rough lumber and pieces of bamboo. The looms are set up on the ground. Plastic string is strung through a wide piece of wood with a series of holes drilled in it from one end to the other end of the frame. One person takes a colored reed to be woven into the saht. The selected reed is attached to a thin bamboo stick and pushed along the width of the textile between the two layers of the plastic string. The second woman manipulates the wide board to push the new reed up against the previously woven reeds. They talk and gossip all the while that they are working. Neighbors and family members often stop by to socialize with the weavers as they toil.

After the sahts are completed they are removed from the loom and placed over fences and bushes to further dry out in the sun.  Last week Tahsang Village had many sahts drying in the sun.

The following are some photographs of the various sahts that I found drying out in Tahsang Village recently.

Friday, February 22, 2013

New Photographs Posted - Isaan Go-Go Girls

Dancers Putting On Their Dancing Boots Backstage
Nineteen recent photographs have been added to my gallery of Go-Go Dancers on my photography website. Click on the link below to view the entire gallery.


Sunday, February 17, 2013

Ban Chiang Weekend

Two Villagers Showing How Metalworking Was Done
Last weekend we drove over to Ban Chiang about one hour east of our home to attend the Ban Chiang World Heritage Festival.  Our original intention was to just attend the first day of the festival on Friday.

Ban Chiang is a village in the Nong Han district of Udonthani where a Bronze Age village has been excavated.  Information on the Internet will tell you that the archaeological site was "discovered" in 1966 by a young student from Harvard.  Well he no more discovered the archaeological site than Christopher Columbus discovered the "New World".  In both cases native people were already there and aware of the "discoveries" long before the arrival of the "discoverers".

The popular story regarding Steve Young, the Harvard student and not the former NFL quarterback, is that he was walking down a dirt road and tripped over the roots of a tree.  As he lay in the dirt he noticed shards of pottery.  He realized that they were primitive and had unusual designs on them that were unique as well as beautiful.  The truth, which I learned from my neighbor who grew up in Ban Chiang, is that for many years prior to the arrival of Mr. Young, young village boys would take bones along with pottery shards that were revealed through erosion and scare the girls with them.  Animist beliefs and fears are strong even today so very old and strange objects often carry the stigma of "phii" (spirits, ghosts).  What I believe Mr Young rightfully deserves credit for is publicizing the site which brought about formal and organized research.

The first formal scientific excavation was conducted in 1967.  Another formal excavation was conducted in 1974 -1975 which produced sufficient materials to perform carbon dating which indicated that the initial settlement was around 1500 BC with the the Bronze Age starting around 1000 BC.

In 1992, Ban Chiang was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  There is a museum that was set up with the help of the King to display pottery relics and skeletons from the excavations.  Part of the excavation remains for visitors to view sheltered by the roof of the museum.

We had been invited to attend the opening day of the festival by our next door neighbor.  He had mentioned about coming in the afternoon since he had to be there early in the morning for merit making rituals with the Monks.  There was some confusion and we never did get to sort out the specific details for meeting in Ban Chiang.  It sounded interesting enough so we went on our own and arrived around 4:00 PM.

A Student in Vietnamese Costume
The area was set up for the eminent start of a parade.  While Duang waited, I made some inquiries about our neighbor to no avail.  There was a large area off to the side of the museum that was set up for khantoke dinner and a stage show.  Our neighbor had mentioned that to me previously.  I checked into the price for the dinner and was told that the event was all sold out. There was no problem with that, for there are always plenty of food vendors along the streets at these events to ensure that you neither go thirsty or hungry.

The parade was a very nice procession of university students dressed in traditional Lao, Cambodian  and Vietnamese clothing. Lao?  No Thai? Yes, Ban Chiang was actually settled by Lao refugees in the late 1700's.  For many years the Isaan region of Thailand was the frontier and largely ignored.  It was only in the 1920s that efforts were made for Thai-ification of the region.  The Lao Phuan people of Ban Chiang have maintained their culture much as their cousins, the Lao Loum, have.

Policemen lined both sides of the parade route spaced about 25 meters apart.  They seemed to be enjoying the event as much as the other spectators.  When the various groups of students arrived at the reviewing stand, they performed about a 3 minute traditional dance routine of the country for the costume they were wearing.  Other groups included tributes to the King of Thailand and there were a couple of floats depicting life in the very old days of Ban Chiang.  There were no horses in the parade but there were two carts being pulled by ox.  The ox carts and people marching with them commemorated the migration of the lao Phuan into the region.

It was a nice little parade which ended shortly before sunset.  Duang and I walked around a little bit and found some carnival games and a stage where later in the night you could pay 20 Baht ($0.60 USD) and dance to live music.  We headed back to where we had watched the parade with pretty much the attitude of "OK, that was nice but what else is going on?"  We arrived to a grand stand across from the main review stand and Duang talks to some people.  She then tells me that they are going to do the parade again and something about the Governor of Udonthani.  I ask her when and she tells me "15 minutes".  Now that is interesting!  Apparently the Governor of Udonthani Province was coming to watch the parade.

It was now dusk and after trying to photograph the previous parade under setting sun conditions, there were some lessons that I had learned.  I went across the street to a narrow area between the two reviewing stands for a better location to photograph the event.  Sure enough 10 minutes later the political dignitaries showed up.  I was waiting for the parade to recommence when I heard someone calling my name - it was our neighbor.  He was a member of the local delegation seated in one of the reviewing areas.  We called out to  Duang to cross the street and join him while I photographed the parade.

Dancers In Vietnamese Costume
The night parade was "same same, but different".  The biggest difference was there were no Police lining the route!  Despite the presence of some rather high ranking government officials and their wives, there were no Police.  I guess the daylight parade was a rehearsal for the participants and for the crowd.  Once the Police were assured that we knew how to and would behave, they left.  The dignitaries did have some guys that I suspect were security but you could not tell by the way they were dressed or did they show that they were armed.  I only suspected by their age and size.  It did not matter because the crowd did behave very well.

Traditional Cambodian Dancing
Another difference for the night parade was each group performed a 10 minute dance routine in front of the main reviewing area.

Traditional Lao Dancing

Another difference in the night parade was the use of live fish.  During the parade there were some men who enacted traditional ways of life in the Ban Chiang area - one activity being catching fish with a hand thrown net.  During the daylight rehearsal, the men threw water on the street and then cast a net over the wet pavement.  During the night parade, they did the same but when there was a good sized live fish underneath the net.  The fisherman pulled the fish out from underneath the net and placed it down the back of his pahtoom (sort of a combination of shorts and skirt) much to the delight of the crowd.

Miss Ban Chiang?
After the parade Duang and I joined our neighbor across the street for the Khantoke dinner and show.  We were guests of the Ban Chiang Foundation where he volunteers.  We had a great dinner and wonderful company with the President of the Foundation and two other women.  Once again the friendliness and generosity of the people of Isaan made another day for us so special.

Throughout dinner, bang poo (very large paper bags filled with hot air from a burning candle suspended below them) rose silently and floated high across the sky glowing with a soft golden light.  It was absolutely stunning.

The night's stage show was also very beautiful and extremely professional.   The first part was a moving tribute to the King of Thailand with everyone standing and holding a lit yellow candle while special music played and special songs were sung.

The rest of the show was a history of the Ban Chiang area from prehistoric times to the day that the King came to dedicate the Ban Chiang Museum.  When the relics were first formally excavated in the area, they were sent to be displayed in Kohn Kaen and Bangkok.  The King believed that the people of the area should be able to see their heritage so he was instrumental in having a museum built at the site.

Phii Dancing 
The show included fireworks displays.  Some of the fireworks were unlike any others that I have seen in my life - after the initial boost and air burst, there was several secondary bursts where shimmering "snowflakes" lit up the sky.  It was very impressive as well as beautiful.

Dignitaries With Winners of the Art Contest
After the show concluded, we walked around the lake with our neighbor to where Muay Thai boxing was being held.  The venue was very rustic - a raised ring set up on a flat gravel area.  There were four rows of plastic chairs surrounding the ring with a dense crowd perhaps 20 person deep radiating out in all directions followed by several motorcycle carts selling drinks and food.  Two temporary wood poles were on opposite sides of the ring with three bare high watt light bulbs, sort of warehouse type light bulbs, suspended over the ring between the two poles.  The snake charmer type music so unique to Muay Thai matches punctuated the heavy nighttime air.  In the middle of the ring, two seventeen year old local athletes were beating the crap out of each other.  This was nothing like the matches that we had seen in Pattaya and Bangkok.  Perhaps they were for tourists and this was for local honor as well as glory.  After one match we returned home.

Duang had been very impressed with the local clothing and wanted to make some outfits.  I had not gotten to visit the museum during our day in Ban Chiang.  Duang learned that on Sunday there would be shows during the day.  We decided to return on Sunday.

We returned on Sunday and the free entertainment was great.  For the third time I watched and listened to Monks singing.  This time they were singing about how important it was for people to take care of Monks now rather than waiting until they are dead for their relatives to take care of the Monks for them.  This was followed by a show performed by university students from Kohn Kaen.  The group was managed by their former teacher who is now a Monk.  A Monk in business?  A Monk associating with young women?

University Students Performing
Like so many things in life.  There is the way things are supposed to be and there is the way that things are.  Perhaps they are only an exception but they are the way they are.  I know because my wife ended up with his business card.

We met some nice people during the day and thoroughly enjoyed our second day in Ban Chiang.  Duang found the fabric that she wanted to make her outfits out of.  The cost for the cloth was 2,500 Baht ($85 USD) but she will have 8 new outfits.  As for me, I never did get to go inside of the museum.  But that is fine with me, for it makes for a very good reason to return to Ban Chiang a third time; a third time ... soon.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Same Old Thing, The Joy Is Seeing It Differently

Khene Player Performing During Morlam Lao Show

Last week we attended one of my brother-in-law's Morlam Lao shows in the village of Si That here in Isaan.  The show was part of a festival at a Wat in the area.  The festival was raising funds for the local Wat.  Although the show was free, the performance attracted people to the Wat grounds where they could purchase  handicrafts, food, drinks, play carnival type games such as "Pop the Balloons with darts", or just plain out make a donation to the Wat while they were there.  The key was to get the people through the gates.  A Morlam Lao show here in Isaan is always good to attract a crowd.

I have lived in Thailand for five years now and I don't know how many of these shows that I have attended other than it has been quite a few.  These shows are performed for all kinds of reasons such as weddings, house warming, Monk ordination celebrations, anniversary of deaths, running for political office, giving thanks for winning an election, local festivals, certain holidays, fundraisers for Wats, and I guess for no other reason than they are fun.

I am fortunate that my brother-in-law earns his living as an entertainer.  I am made aware of many of these shows.  Most of these shows are small village events without any advertising other than word of mouth.  With his involvement in may of the shows and with Duang's large extended family, there seems to be ample mouths to get the word to me.  I enjoy these shows very much - the music, the pretty girls who perform, and interacting with the people.  I also enjoy getting out with the local people and dancing "fawn Lao" style.

Dancer Applying Make-up Backstage
I always bring my camera gear to photograph the shows.  I enjoy taking photographs at these venues.  After so many of these shows, you would thing that I would run out of enthusiasm for the photographic opportunities a show presents.  yes there are the ubiquitous shots of performers applying make-up backstage, putting on their platform go-go boots, and the dancers performing.  I am fortunate in that I can go back stage at will and photograph the performers. But perhaps I am most fortunate in that I am able to see each show as a unique event with its own individualized photographic opportunities.

A Dancer Ready To Go Up On Stage
My photographic style is constantly evolving so with each show I am striving to experiment with different techniques or perhaps different angles for the photographs.  Often the dancers and performers are different who will also often inspire me.  Best of all, it seems that someone will always capture my focus for the duration of the show.  The center of my attention can be a dancer, a singer, someone in the crowd, a musician or even some aspect of that particular show.  No matter the case, it makes each show that I photograph "different and special" for me - my personal spin on a well used phrase over here of "same same, but different"

"Same same, but different" can be an aggravating phrase to many, but for me it captures some of the allure of living here in Isaan.  Thai food is renown for the varied textures and flavors of each individual dish. The simplest of dishes is actual quite sophisticated for the palate.  Well life is also quite remarkable when you allow yourself to fully explore it and delve deeper beneath its surface. "Same same, but different" exemplifies the possibilities for us.  What may seem banal and common place, can be stimulating and rewarding if we just allow ourselves to recognize and appreciate its subtleties.

Khene Player In Si That
For the show in Si That, the khene player became the focus of my photography efforts that night.  We had given him a ride from Udonthani to Si That along with my brother-in-law and his manager.  The khene player was very quiet and reserved on the hour drive out to the show venue.  He was very reserved as he sat upon a saht behind the stage applying his make-up. Unlike my brother-in-law who uses a more traditional flat white pancake make-up for his performances - thing along the lines of Dracula, the khene player used darker tones of make-up to accentuate the contours of his face.  This made for better portraits in that it created greater contrasts and implied shadows on his face.

Once the khene player had changed into his "work clothes" and completed his make-up he looked completely different than the person who sat behind me in the truck.

Once he grabbed his khene and went up on stage he was a different person than the person who sat behind me in the pick up truck.  He had been completely transformed.

So what is the khene and what significance does it have to Morlam Lao music?  The khene is a reed instrument.  It is the ubiquitous instrument of Lao music and in many aspects it helps to define Lao culture.  The khene is to Lao music what the lead electrical guitar is to rock and roll music.  Besides playing the melody, the khene player, like the lead guitarists, also creates the environment in which the singer performs.  The khene player dances, struts, and jumps about the stage as he plays.  His pelvic thrusts accentuate parts of the melody. He or she are entertainers as well as musicians.  This guy was very good so I had plenty of good opportunities to photograph him.

Facial Expressions Are Essential Too
So it was a Morlam Lao show the same as so many others that I had attended.  It was the same but different at least for me because of the khene player.  Focusing upon him during that show had revealed to me an aspect of the shows that I had not fully experienced before. It was an experience that I am pleased to share with others.

When I was working, I essentially had the same duties and responsibilities on my assignments for the last fifteen years of my career.  I never grew tired or bored with the assignments, "same same' as they were because although they were "same, same" they were also different.  Although the duties and responsibilities were the same, the magnitude of the projects were greater but more importantly the environments were very different.  For last ten years of my career those same duties and responsibilities were being performed overseas in the midst of different cultures.  The satisfaction and stimulation that I sought came not from achieving what I was accustomed to but from achieving it with all the challenges presented by unique cultures and situations.

So what does "same same but different" have to do with photography, my former career, this blog and perhaps you?

Well, they are all connected.

It is about enjoying life by exploring it deeper.  It is about not taking things for granted and willing assuming that it is all the same.  It is also about learning, continually learning.  It is about learning to appreciate and value the differences and subtleties that surround us

The joy is not in the comfort of the "same same" but in exploring and discovering the "but different"

One of my reasons for writing and maintaining this blog is to share the "but different" that I have found in "Allen's World"

Monday, February 11, 2013

For Love of King and Country

For Love of King and Country ... how many countries in today's world does this statement carry any significance?  I don't know other than it is not a large number.  However the statement is very relevant here in Thailand.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej is highly respected and revered here in Thailand.  He is considered to be the father to the Thai people.  His photograph is widely displayed along the highways and roads of Thailand.  I am tempted to say based upon my personal observations that a photograph of the King is displayed in every Thai home and business.  Our home is no exception to that statement.

Two weeks ago, we were invited to attend a "big show" being held at the mall in the center of Udonthani.  Our invitation came from Duang's brother who performs in Morlam Lao shows throughout the area.  He was not performing in this show but he was going to pick up a khene from a woman who is considered to be one of the grand dames of Morlam in this area.  Duang's father was also a performer and remains respected and remembered by many of today's older performers - many of them former students of his.  Respect and tradition run very deep in Isaan culture.

The mall in the center of Udonthani has a large theater for stage shows and expositions.  It is a very impressive venue.

Duang and I arrived for the show before Duang's brother.  Fortunately, Duang knew the woman who had arranged for our seats.  We were shocked at the location of our seats - second row seats just to the right of where the dignitaries were to be seated.  We were seated in amongst many of the performers. Our benefactor was aware of my penchant for photographing unique aspects of life here in Isaan and upon our arrival took great efforts to let me know that I was free to get up and take any photographs that I wished to.

Our Benefactor Performing Tradition Morlam Lao With Her Daughter Playing the Khene
I was at first somewhat reluctant because as it turned out the event was sponsored by the Police.  Many high Police officials were in attendance and the event was also being televised.  Eventually the magnitude and beauty of the event overcame my initial reluctance to leave my seat to take photographs.

We discovered that the event was a demonstration of love of King and country by the music departments of each of the universities and colleges in Udonthani.  Each university and college performed a very professional stage show of three songs.  Adult performers also performed.

The audience was mostly university students all wearing their distinctive school uniforms. Paper Thai and Royal flags had been taped to the backs of the chairs so at the appropriate times the audience was a washed in a sea of waving colors.

Some of the performances were accentuated with still photos and film clips of the King on a large video screen behind the performers and on screens located at each side at the front of the stage.  An orchestra on stage played many types of music during the show using some traditional Asian musical instruments as well as typical Western instruments.

University Students Performing Traditional Dance
 In addition to stills and movie clips of the King, some of the performances were accentuated with clips of Thai military personnel and military exercises which seemed to be a sort of recruitment production. All the performances were first rate productions.  The audience's emotional and enthusiastic responses were genuine.

A Student Sings

Close-Up of One of Many Beautiful Student Dancers
Despite moving around to get better positions to photograph the performers, I was able to meet with some of the officials at the show.  One man was the teacher who was responsible for one of the performing groups.  He viewed some of the photos on my camera's monitor and requested that I send him some photos of his group's production.  I declined his offer to pay me and sent him some of the photos as email attachments.  I will now send him a CD with larger files for printing.

I was amazed at how professional the productions were.  I don't know why I keep being surprised at the beauty, grace, and allure of Thai culture.  After four years here, I should be accustomed to it by now.  Perhaps my surprise is more over the magnitude of the beauty, grace, and allure rather than its mere existence.

The show ended with a massive and lengthy pep rally for Thailand.  Police and government officials joined all the performers on stage to sing patriotic songs and wave the flags.

It had been quite an afternoon and a special afternoon.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Yet Another Lao Loum Funeral

Monk Pours Coconut Water On the Corpse
In early January of this year, we attended the funeral for another family member, one of Duang's uncles from Tahsang Village.

Poopaw Veeboonkul was 60 years old.  He died three days after slipping in the shower and hitting his head.  He was unable to speak his entire life which made communications difficult for him. He did not let his nephew know about the accident until his internal bleeding due to injuries was too great and too late for the hospital to save him.  A life long bachelor he tended to and raised water buffalo.

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Gambling, other than the National Lottery, is illegal in Thailand.  But just as so many things are not always what they seem to be or even what they are supposed to be, gambling does exist and sometimes you do not have to look very hard to find it.  Typically in the small villages that dot the countryside in Isaan, you will find gambling going on where there is a funeral.  I thought that this might be due to a belief that "It is an ill wind that blows no good" in other words ... someone's misfortune in dying is counteracted by someone else's good fortune in a game of chance.  You know - the eastern philosophy of the ying and yang or achieving some balance in the Universe.  Well the reasoning for gambling at a funeral is not so altruistic.  According to my Lao Loum wife who has been to a great deal more of these funerals than me and speaks both Thai and Lao much better than me, the reason for gambling is to ensure that more people come to the funeral ritual.

Apparently the more people that participate or at least attend the funeral, the greater merit that is earned for the deceased person's spirit.  Wether people participate in the ritual or just gamble, they make an offering to the family of money or rice.  The offerings are than made to the Monks in the name of the donor as well as the deceased person.  In an Isaan take on the theme of the film  "Field of Dreams", rather than "Build it and they will come" the belief is "Have gambling, and even more of them will come". In deference to the Lao Loum mores, the police tolerate this gambling to a point.  Once the body starts to be cremated, it is sort of "all bets are off" and the police will stop any gambling and arrest all participants.

For this funeral, the gambling was across the village street at relatives' homes.  Yes, there was so many people wanting to gamble that there were actually two games of chance going on.  The people were playing a dice game called "Hai Low".  The game uses a vinyl cloth that resembles the betting table for a roulette wheel in a casino.  The people place their cash bets on the numbers, combinations, and permutations indicated on the cloth - just like playing roulette.  Three dice are placed on a plate, covered with the cover of a fartip (woven container for storing cooked sticky rice), shook or stirred, and the cover removed to reveal the dice.

While I was off taking photographs, Duang played for a while.  She ended up winning 1,000 Baht, about $30 USD and was smart as well as disciplined enough to quit.  Her aunt who usually runs a game at funerals, ended up losing 50,000 Baht, approximately $1,666 USD for the day.  At the end of the day I went looking for her.  When I found her I told her that I had heard that she was giving away money and I was wondering where my money was. We all enjoyed a good laugh - winning or losing everyone always seems to be able to laugh.

Procession Walking Through the Streets of Tahsang Village
Around 1:00 P.M., which is typical time, a procession lead by Monks traveled from the man's home to the Wat located inside of Tahsang Village. The procession circled the crematorium three times before the coffin was removed from the refrigerated coffin and placed on steel sawhorses in front of the door to the furnace.

Puffed Rice Is Spread On the Ground to Feed the Spirits
It was a very quiet day in the village up until midway through the funeral ritual.  The funeral was on a school day but it ended up being a half-day of classes.  One of the teachers attended the funeral along with her classes.  Her classes are made up of all my little friends from the village.  They immediately saw that I was taking photographs and wanted to get in on the action.  Of course I was all too willing to accommodate them much to the amusement of the other adults.  These are all children from poor families and I like to share with them some of the outside world as well as introducing them to some of the today's technology.  They get such enjoyment out of seeing themselves in a digital photograph that I can not say no to them or dissuade them.

Some of My Tahsang Village Friends
Wat Crematorium In Tahsang Village
It may seem strange to many readers that elementary classes would attend a funeral but here in Isaan children are not shielded from death.  They are taught from a very early age, as in in one year old, to show respect to older people.  Around the village, I am referred to as "Tahallen" (Grandfather Allen).  By having the class attend the funeral the children show their respect for one of their neighbors and also it reinforces the realization that life is temporary.

The Monk Whom I Nicknamed "Rocketman"  Supervising the Ritual
The ritual was supervised by the head Monk of the Wat inside of the village.  I have nicknamed him "Rocketman".  The first time that I saw him back in 2008, he was supervising the construction of homemade rockets at the Wat.

He definitely knew a thing or two about building the gunpowder packed PVC pipe rockets and more importantly you could easily see that he really enjoyed it. Later in the day he was at the competition in another village far from Tahsang where the rockets were being fired off into the sky.

A Relative Pours Coconut Water Over the Corpse
Cleansing and Refreshing the Spirit

After people had poured coconut water and ordinary water on the remains of the man, the strings that had bound his hands and legs together were cut using a cane knife.

Cutting the Ties That Bind
A unique aspect of this funeral ritual involved coconuts.  All the funerals that I have attended here in Isaan utilized green coconuts.  The green coconuts do not have a husk and are cut at their top to allow their watery contents to be poured out on the corpse.  However at this funeral, the coconut shells of mature coconuts were also used.  These are the hard half shells of the coconuts that are typically sold in supermarkets in Europe, Canada, and the USA.  One of the man's relatives used a coconut half shell to touch various parts of the corpse.  When he was completed, the corpse was rolled over and the half shell as well as two others were placed beneath the buttocks and legs of the body.

Pouring Hydrocarbon On Charcoal Bed
The saht and comfortor that were in the disposable coffin were removed and placed in a pile off to the side of the crematorium.  The heavy cane knife that was used to cut the bindings on the hand and feet was used to cut drain holes in the disposable coffin.  While this was going on, a man poured hydrocarbon, I suspect naphtha on the charcoal bed of a heavy rolling metal carriage that had been pulled out of the crematorium furnace.  The disposable coffin was then filled with the good luck pieces that mourners had placed on top of the coffin.  The lid was placed on top of the coffin and it was placed on the rolling carriage.  The carriage was then pushed into the furnace.  The heavy door to the furnace was closed and a Monk ignited the charcoal bed using some burning good luck totems.

As the first wisps of smoke exited the chimney of the crematorium, three large fireworks were fired in succession into the air to scare away any bad spirits that might be in the area intending to interfere with the release of the man's spirit for its journey.  Off to the side of the crematorium, a man reverently buried the food and drink that had been placed upon the coffin as an offering to the man's spirit while the man's belonging burned.

After consulting with a person who knew about such matters, we walked directly to Duang's mother's home. Duang was concerned that if we did not first go back to the man's former home, the newly released spirit would follow us to her parent's house.  The man told her that it was OK to go directly to her parents.

Another day in the cycle of life in Isaan came to a close.