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.

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