Saturday, September 21, 2013

Nang Ai and Pha Daeng - A Warning to Squirrel Eaters

Nang Ai and Pha Daeng, Tambon Nongwha May 2013
Earlier this year, in May, Duang was contacted by one of her 96 cousins, who works for the local government, in regards to our participation in a local festival. Bun Bang Fei Tambon Nongwha was taking place on 19 to 20 May.

Early May in Isaan and neighboring Lao People's Democratic Republic, is the time for local festivals where homemade gun powder rockets are launched into the sky.  The festivals are a combination of fertility and thanksgiving for the return of the essential monsoonal rains for the planting of the year's rice crop.

I wrote the following blog, which provides some of the background and details related to the Bun Bang Feis.

On behalf of the sub-district (Tambon), Nongwha, of which Tahsang Village is one of the eleven villages (Ban, Baan), we were invited to participate in the opening day's morning procession.  To participate, we would dress up in "fancy clothes like King long time ago".  I did not have a problem with that.  Then Duang dropped the bomb on me. I would have to ride a horse.  She asked me if I had ever ridden a horse.  "No", I had never ridden a horse before.  Duang seemed very honored and excited to be asked to be part of the procession.  I then thought that after almost 64 years perhaps it was time that I did.  After we accepted and reconfirmed that we would participate, Duang received a personal call from the Sub-District Headman to officially invite us and get our acceptance.  It was a sealed deal now.  It was also time to get the details regarding the horse.  Duang told me that I did not have to worry, the horse would go slow.  I expressed concern that the horse would be big enough for me.  She checked and informed me that the horse would be big enough for both us.  Since her cousin had met me, I felt somewhat reassured.

On the morning of the 19th, we woke up at 3:00 A.M. to have our make-up applied and to get dressed.   Two young men from the local university drama department came to our home with make-up kits and plastic containers of our elaborate costumes.

Duang was going to portray "Nang Ai" and I was to be "Pha Daeng".  In mythology there are several stories about Nang Ai and Pha Daeng.  The plots vary but they all agree in that Nang Ai was a very beautiful woman and Pha Daeng was a handsome stranger from far away, the ruler of Phaphong.

Duangchan Being Transformed into "Nang Ai"
For the Bun Bang Fai Festival, Nang Ai is the queen of the pageant and Pha Daeng is her champion.

Fortunately for this pageant I did not have to wear any makeup.  I did have to wear a costume ... fit for an ancient ruler.

Nang Ai

We left our home around 6:30 A.M. traveling down Highway 2 the main highway between the Lao/Thai border and the area around Bangkok.  Traffic was light that morning but I had a suspicion.  Here in Thailand, there are often Police check points.  The Police often will stop vehicles, and especially motorbikes, to check for drinking, drug use, license, registration, insurance, "speeding", lack of helmets, and sometimes because they are thirsty or hungry.  About one-half down our trip along Highway 2, I spotted a Thailand Highway Patrol checkpoint.  It is often confusing for me at these checkpoints to determine if I am to pull over or not. That morning there was no confusion, with authority, the policeman waved me to the side of the road.

I rolled down the window as he approached my side of the truck.  I greeted him in Lao and asked him how he was doing.  I pulled out my wallet and fumbled to show him my Thai drivers license.  He did not seem all that interested in that type of formality.  He was looking at Duang and me and was speaking to her.  He seemed to be in a good as well as jovial mood.  Shortly he waved me forward and wished us a good day.

I was confused as to what had just happened.  I asked Duang and she started laughing as she explained.  The policeman saw me driving down the road and wanted to see better what I looked like.  I guess there are not too many falang (foreigners) driving a four door pickup truck around Northeast Thailand dressed up like the ancient (mythological?) ruler of Phaphong.  This is another reason why I love Thailand - the surprises that happen so often!

When we arrived at the Sub-District office where the procession was forming up, I was relieved.  Our horse, a huge horse, was standing in the back of a pick-up truck.  It was not a real horse but a combination metal and fabric replica of a horse ... a very large and anatomically exaggerated horse!

Nang Ai and Pha Daeng Riding His Horse, Bak Sam
In this story of Nang Ai and Pha Daeng, Nang Ai's beauty and fame catches the attention of Phangki, son of the Naga King, Phaya Nak.  Phangki shape shifts himself into a very handsome man to court Nang Ai. Phangki is not successful in his efforts to win over Nang Ai from Pha Daeng. Frustrated he once again shape shifts into a white squirrel to better track and keep an eye on Nang Ai with the intent of finding an opportunity to kidnap her.

When Nang Ai and Pha Daeng see the white squirrel, they order a royal hunter to trap it.  The squirrel, son of the King of the Nagas, ends up dying.  The meat is fed to the people of the town.  It miraculously keeps increasing until 8,000 cartloads of meat is fed to the people of the city and surrounding villages.  (Hmmm - reminds me of another story that I know but it is with fish instead of squirrel meat.).  Phaya Nak, King of the Nagas, vows to kill everyone who has eaten his son's flesh. (on a historical note:  I have eaten squirrel meat but fortunately it was grey squirrel not white squirrel )

After eating, a very large thunderstorm suddenly hit the city.  Since that did not typically happen, Pha Daeng tried to escape quickly with Nang Ai on his horse, Bak Sam. from the rising flood.  All of Isaan is turned into a swamp. The escape was not successful. Nang Ai is swept off the horse by the tail of a naga.  The spirit of the white squirrel had become King of the Nagas and had taken Nang Ai into his underwater kingdom.

Pha Daeng is devastated by the loss of his true love, Nang Ai, and soon dies.  His spirit recruits and organizes an army of spirits from the air to wage a long war against the Naga kingdom.  The war eventually ends in a stalemate, both sides too tired to continue.

It is said that the Nong Hon Kumphawapi Lake is a remnant from the flood and the trench that can be seen today in Tambon Pho Chai was created by Bak Sim's erection as he ran to escape the flood.  For that reason and the ancient fertility rites associated with the festival, our horse that we rode sported a very exaggerated erection and testicles.

Duang and I sat on our horse out in the hot and bright sun for a long time.  After finishing the procession, we dismounted and sat under the protection of a canopy along with the dignitaries and government officials.

Dance troupes from each of the eleven tambon villages performed traditional dances in a competition to determine the three best village participation.  Tahsang Village won second place which was very welcomed.

Duang and I returned to our home to change clothing and returned that evening for the Muay Thai boxing matches.

It had been quite a day for us.  Everyone was very kind and gracious to us.  It was obvious that everyone also appreciated our participation in the cultural event.

There has been plenty of rain (thankfully) in the Sub-District which is welcomed and I have heard that some of the good fortune has been attributed to our participation.

If invited, we will participate again next year.  If we participate, I will be certain to apply sun screen.

I have heard of people being considered to be a "legend in their own time".  I am not that, but I am definitely pleased to have been a "legend from another time"

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