Friday, April 12, 2013

Busy Times Here In Isaan - Songkran and More


Tambon Nongwha Official Pours Cool Water On Back of  Elderly  man In Tahsang Village

It has been exactly one week since we returned to our home in Udonthani from our visit to Maehongson.  It has been a very busy week for personal, family, and cultural matters; many of them presenting some interesting photographic opportunities.

On Tuesday, I reported to the Immigration Police in Udonthani for my "90 Day Report".  As a condition of receiving a Long Stay Visa, foreigners have to report their address to the Immigration Police every 90 days that they remain uninterrupted in the country. If a person with a Long Stay Visa leaves Thailand and then returns to the country, they start their 90 day period start over from "0" upon arrival.  Reporting involves filling out a one-half page document and presenting the form as well as your passport to the Immigration Police.  The procedure can be accomplished through the mail, but I prefer to handle it in person rather then trust the reliability of the mail.  Normally the process takes no more than 15 to 30 minutes.  This week however was an exception.   Monday was a national holiday. Wednesday was also the last day this week that the office would be open due to the upcoming Songkran holiday.

Songkran is a very special holiday in Southeast Asia and in particularly in Thailand.  It is New Year based upon the solar calendar of the sun moving into Aires which falls on either the 13th or 14th of April.  It is now fixed as 15th of April.  It is a time when Thais return to their homes to celebrate with their family - sort of like family expectations of Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.  In the days leading up to and following Songkran, the roads, planes, trains and buses are filled with travelers.

Songkran occurs during the hottest time of the year here.  Our high temperatures for each day have been hovering around 100F (38C) with several days 104F and even one day 107F.  Fortunately because of low humidity, typically around the 35%, the heat is somewhat manageable.  It is said that there are two seasons in Thailand - "Hot and Dry" and "Hot and Wet".  We are currently at the tail end of the :"Hot and Dry" season with the return of the rains anticipated in May.  Traditionally Songkran was a festival where people sprinkled water on elders as a show of respect and an effort to help them cope with the heat of this time of the year. They also paid homage and clean Buddhist statues. Thai people also clean their homes - inside and out at Songkran.

On Wednesday, 10 April, Duang and I drove out to Tahsang Village for the start of the Songkran celebration.  10th of April?  Start of Songkran?  Didn't I just write that Songkran was fixed as 15th April?  Well life here in Isaan is like life elsewhere - there is the way things are supposed to be and the way that they are.  Although Songkran is fixed as April 15th, it is affected by weekends and by local customs.  In Pattaya it is actually celebrated on 19th and 20th of April.

Tambon Nongwha Government Officials Addressing Tahsang Villagers
In Tambon (Sub-District) Nongwha, which Tahsang Village is part of, the start of the celebration started on April 10th.  On April 10 and April 11, Tambon Nongwha government officials visited each of the villages in the sub-district.  The officials wore colorful flowered cotton shirts traditional worn at Songkran.  They arrived with their own truck mounted sound system to play Lao music and a fire truck to brink water to the village.  Here in Isaan there are very few, if any, municipal hydrant systems.  Fire trucks carry their own water and have a monitor on top of the truck to spray the water.

The arrival of the Tambon officials in Tahsang Village coincided with the monthly payment of public funds to the elderly people.  There is no Social Security system in Thailand.  The elderly are expected to be taken care of by their families.  However there are monthly payments to the elderly depending upon their physical condition.  People in good shape receive 700 Baht a month ($23 USD) and people with disabilities get 1000 Baht ($33 USD).

All the elderly villagers were assembled in the Tahsan Village Center - a small structure where village meetings, government classes, and voting take place.  It is a small structure with a concrete floor and cinder block 3 foot high walls with no doors or windows - just a corrugated metal roof.  It is sparse but suits the purpose.  It makes a nice place for the younger village children to play, too.

After numbered slips for the appropriate stipend were distributed to the person called out from a master list, the highest echelon of government officials arrived.  They addressed the elderly people and wished them a happy Songkran, good luck for the future, and apologized for sometimes talking bad to the people.  How unique!  How refreshing to witness a politician to humble himself before the people!  One aspect of Songkran is the commitment of some people to do better in the upcoming new year.  The sub-district headman was definitely taking that to heart if not extreme.

The head official and many lower ranked officials then entered the village center and using water from the fire truck to which they had added flower petals they squatted before each of the seated elders gentility poured water over their hands and down their back paying their respects.  The last official in the entourage gave each of the seniors a new umbrella.

Apparently I am also considered to be a senior too.  The headman came over and poured water on me too. later some young women came over and poured some more water on me and rubbed scented powder on my face.  Everyone was careful and considerate to not get either water or powder on my camera gear.

At the start of this ritual I had been joking with the villagers about being afraid.  I was acting concerned and afraid of the fire truck spraying water on all the seated people.  Little did I realize how close I was to the truth!  After they had received their new umbrellas, the villagers assembled outside in the narrow street.  To the pounding and throbbing beat of ethnic music, the people opened their new umbrellas and commenced to dance.  While this was happening, a young man from the sub-district climbed atop the fire truck and commenced to spray water over the assembled elderly people.

Government Official Commences to Shoot Water Over the Villagers
The villagers reveled in the water that was cascading over them, quickly getting them wet and wetting down the dust covered street.  The people in a sing song demeanor cried out about the rains were coming, the rains were coming soon.

Villagers Enjoying A Cooling and Refreshing Shower

The government officials then left the village and moved on to the next village.  Tahsang Village was left to continue on with their extended Songkran celebration.  The children of the village quickly set up along farm road 2125 to throw water at passing motor-bikes, cars and trucks.  With this year's drought conditions, the Tahsang Village water system has been dry for about three weeks.  Two homes have wells that have water in them and the slough at the edge of the village still has some water.  People use wheel barrow type carts to fill jerry cans with water from these sources and bring water to where they need it.

Bringing a New Load of Water to the Edge of Highway 2125
Naturally I got myself positioned where the action was to photograph it.  My little friends either out of respect or fear did not toss water at me.  I made sure to share to share my photos with the children.  They enjoy having their photos taken. I was also able to use some of my training as an engineer to help the children with regards to their water jugs and cart.  They would empty the water cans into a small plastic waste container from which they filled their small hand pails to throw the water.  Since the jugs were very heavy for them they would start emptying the jugs closest to the waste container and placing the empties in their original position.  Very quickly the cart would tip forward spilling some of the hard earned water as well as causing a panic.  After the second incident I intervened and redistributed the jugs and pointed out the need to keep the weight towards the back of the cart to keep it from tipping.  I didn't give the explanation about levers, fulcrums or moments but the children seemed to understand the principle quickly.

Road Hazards and Menaces Along the Road Outside of Tahsang Vilage
The children spent the entire afternoon tossing water on just about anything that came along the road - especially motorbikes.

"No Country for Motorbikes"
Public Transport Passengers Are A Target of Opportunity
We returned home in the early afternoon but not without having water thrown on our truck several times.  We passed at least five roadblocks along the roads back home - although they were not in operation yet they were a big reminder that one should not drink and drive during Songkran ... or any other time.

We were to return to Tahsang Village the next day for another unique Isaan cultural event and family obligation - "Tamboon Roi Wan", "Tamboon Jaak Khao"

Back With More Ammunition

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