Thursday, October 31, 2013

"Making Pla thu" Photo Gallery Now Available

I have had a little more time to edit and post process recent photographs.  Our house is being repainted, the fence is being repainted, and major modifications to our landscaping.  Since we have workers on the property we stay at home.

A new photography gallery documenting the process of making the very popular "Pla thu" (Short mackerel) is now available for viewing as well as ordering prints.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Banana Roses

Lay Worker Making A Rose From A Banana Leaf

On our visit to Sakon Nakhon to attend the Wax Castle Festival we ended up hiring the same car and driver that we had hired last year.  Upon our arrival at our hotel on October 17th we informed the very helpful people at the registration desk that we would like to hire the same car/driver that we had the previous year.  We gave a description of the man and they immediately recognized who we wanted.  We told them we wanted the car driver for the next day starting at 8:00 A.M.  While I filled out the registration forms and gave them my passport, they called the man.  They spoke with the man and gave me his charges for the day.  The charges were the same as they were last year so we readily agreed.

Gave my passport to the hotel staff?  Yes.  As Duang sometimes explains to me. "Thailand not same as America"  In Thailand as well as other countries in Southeast Asia, you have to establish your identity when renting a hotel room.  Thai nationals in Thailand show their national identity card.  Foreigners have to submit their passport to the reception staff who xerox the relevant pages.  By law the hotels have to have a record of who has stayed in their establishment and confirm that the foreigners are legally in the country - proper unexpired visa.  Private citizens are also supposed to report to local police any foreign guests that are staying in their home but I suspect that this is not fully complied with.

We were a little taken aback the next morning at 8:00 A.M. when a young man showed up rather than the elderly man that we were expecting.   The young man had a nice 4 door pick up truck and he seemed like he had a "good heart"  "Good Heart" is very important here in Isaan.  It means roughly a good and nice person. The young man quickly demonstrated that he was a good as well as safe driver.  After a while in a conversation through Duang, we determined that he was actually the son of our driver from last year.  Now I understood what was going on and everything was fine.

Our first stop of the day was at Wat Suwaneen Gindalam.  We had spent quite a bit of time at the Wat last year - even stopping by on our way back home.  The Monks as well as lay people had been extremely nice and friendly during our visit.  A major component of the wax castle floats are hundreds of small solid wax figurines of mythological creatures of the Himmapan Forest.  Last year the kind people of Wat Suwaneen Gindalam gave us two of the extra figures to bring home.

We were quickly recognized upon our return to the Wat this year.  We found out that the Wat took third place last year and they were striving to win first place this year,  While we were able to watch the completion of the large floats this year, we arrived this year after the two main floats had already been transported into town to a staging area for the night's procession.  Although the main floats were not at the Wat, there was still some work going on.  The tractor trailer truck that would pull one of the main floats still had to be decorated.  A bamboo structure had been erected around the truck but only about 50% of the decorative panels had been attached to the bamboo substructure.

This year the Wat had created a grand wax castle float and a more organic float sort of like a float you see in the Rose Bowl Parade.  It seemed to me that this year there was a different theme for the floats.  Rather than being wax some of the floats were created with fibers and banana leaf materials.

Twisting and Turning A Banana Leaf Into a Green Rose

During our stay at the Wat, one of  the men showed and tried to teach Duang how to make the roses in the float out of banana leaves.

Teacher and Student
Here in Isaan, banana trees are used for many purposes.  I have seen banana stalks used to create a "money tree".  Banana leaves are used to cook food in.  Banana leaves are used as plates.  Banana stalks are used as a substitute for wood to create small houses associated with funeral rites.  Banana leaves are skillfully manipulated to create centerpieces for baii sii rituals.  However this was the first time that I have seen a banana leaf used to create a rose albeit a green rose.

The man quickly created a nice green roses which he presented to Duang as a souvenir of our visit.

Shortly after we arrived, many of the workers left to go into town to freshen up the floats.  We followed them into town to watch them freshen up and repair their floats.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Wax Castles of Sakon Nakhon

Wax Castle Float At Ming Muang Ground

The Nakon Sakhon Wax Castle Festival celebrates the end of Vassa, the 90 day long Buddhist Rain Retreat.  The end of Vassa is determined by the lunar cycle.  Vassa ends on the Full Moon of the 11th Lunar Month.  This year it was October 19.

Last year when we attended the Sakon Nakhon Wax Castle Festival we were able to witness the construction of three large wax castle floats at their Wats.  Unfortunately we were not able to witness any of the other events associated with the festival.

This year I was determined to see a little more of the festival.  I was unable to find a schedule of events for the festival but Duang called our hotel and learned that the evening procession for the wax castle floats was to occur on 18th October.  I surmised that there wold be some kind of show the night before the procession so we traveled to Sakon Nakhon on Thursday the 17th.

Upon arrival at the hotel we learned that there was no big show that night but many of the floats were going to be arriving to the staging area at Ming Muang Grounds.  The floats were scheduled to start arriving at the grounds at 6:00 P.M. and offered to take us there and to pick us up to return to the hotel when we were ready.  The grounds are not that far from the hotel but do to the congestion it took a while to arrive at the grounds.  The narrow streets were made even more so by double parked vehicles, 3 to 4 lanes of motorbikes in addition to the theoretical two lanes of traffic, as well as many vendor carts alongside the road. I enjoyed being able to relax in a nice cool vehicle with no worries about hitting someone or something.

Workers Re-Installing Spires On Wax Castle Float
We arrived at the field while there was still some light in the sky. Many of the floats had fluorescent lights incorporated into them powered by portable generators.  Once they floats were placed into their assigned location and position, the lights were turned on.  The combination of natural lighting and artificial lighting presented some interesting photography opportunities; interesting and quickly evolving opportunities. As the natural lighting diminished, more and more artificial lights came on.  High lighting towers surrounded the grounds and as time moved on were joined by more and more portable lights set up by the float builders.

Many of the floats had traveled along public roads to get from where they had been under construction for the past two to three months to the staging grounds. The stresses of the journey had caused some minor damage to the floats.  The float builders would spend the night and the next day repairing as well as refreshing their floats. The wax castles also have tall delicate wax spires that had been removed to protect them from damage and to provide clearance underneath utility wires along the route.

Detail of Large Float

Besides the confusion of large floats arriving and being backed into position, the grounds were filled with vendors selling foods, drinks, balloons, and souvenirs as well as thousands of people like Duang and me, all enjoying the sights.  Many of the people would pose and have their photograph taken in front, in back, and along the sides of the floats.  Sharks are known to have feeding frenzies.  That night, there was a photography frenzy!  Yes, I took photos of Duang in front, in back, and even on the side of the floats - the things a man will do to please his wife, not that she doesn't deserve it - besides it was her birthday!

Duang Celebrating Her 50th Birthday
I typically do not indulge in photographs of people posing in front of vistas, landmarks, or some other object.  I prefer to take "environmental portraits" - photographs of people in their natural environment usually doing some typical task that reflects their life or culture.  I have already admitted to making some exceptions to please my wife.  I also sometimes make an exception - to please myself.  I made an exception at the grounds to photograph some young girls who were posing for their family.  The little girls, especially the one in the middle, were just to adorable to not photograph - even with with their cheesy posing.

I am also amazed as to how photogenic the people are.  The children have a confidence, determination, and independence that I find most interesting.

I was taking photos of some of the women dressed in ethnic clothing when THEY decided that I should photograph all of them followed by their idea for me to photograph all of them with Duang.  It often is that way here in Isaan - interacting with the people, learning something about them, sharing a little bit of your story with them and getting better photographs.

This festival is a big deal and gets some patronage from the Royal Family.  Each year the King makes funds available for a float.

Float Sponsored by HRH Rama XI
This visit to the festival gave us an opportunity to view some other types of floats that we had not seen last year.  One section of the grounds was reserved for small cart type floats. The two wheeled ox carts or carts pulled by people are not related to the end of Vassa or any religious connotation.  The carts have a very strong cultural connection and symbolism.  The people of Northeast Thailand are descendants of immigrants. Their forefathers and foremothers, for the most part, originated in China.  From southern China starting in the eight century, the peoples immigrated to Laos and eventually to Northeast Thailand.

This migration story is a strong theme even today.  Every festival that we have attended these small carts have participated in the processions.  The show that we attended for the World Cultural Festival in Ban Chiang also dedicated a part of its pageant to the migrants coming to Isaan with their carts.

Ornate Carts for Wax Castle Festival

The carts for the Sakon Nakhon Wax Castle Festival were topped with ornate structures constructed of wax, banana stalks, fresh flowers, and natural fibers.

Close Up Detail of Cart

Although the sky was overcast, by being patient - very patient I was able to take some photographing the nearly full moon in the composition.

After we had become too tired and sweaty to continue any longer, we called the hotel to come get us.  The traffic and confusion in the street was even worse than earlier.  I was even more appreciative to be able to sit, relax, and enjoy a soft drink in the maddening traffic all the confusing way back to the hotel.  Our tip to the driver reflected our appreciation and gratitude.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Naga Fireballs

Wax Naga On Float for Sakon Nakhon Wax Castle Festival
This year the Boong Fai Phaya Nak Festival was 18 - 19 October.  This festival celebrates the end of Vassa, the Buddhist Rain Retreat also sometimes referred to as Buddhist Lent, and is also the time of the year when there is a natural or perhaps supernatural phenomenon in Northeast Thailand along the Mekong River.

The Lao Loum people of Lao People's Democratic Republic and their cousins, the ethnic Lao of Isaan, revere a mythological creature, the Naga.  It is believed by many people that the Naga is a giant serpent that lives and rules in the water underworld.  The King of the Nagas had once fought on behalf of Buddha in a war with the King of the Sky.

The Naga was rewarded for his service to Buddha by being made guardians.  In Northeast Thailand and in Laos you will often find Nagas guarding the entrances to Buddhist temples.  The Naga are also often depicted as a seven headed King Cobra spread out over the head of a seated Buddha.  This recognizes the legend that once when the Buddha was meditating, a severe storm occurred.  The Naga rose up and fanned out over the meditating Buddha to protect and shelter him from the storm.

The Naga was devoted to Buddha and had the ability to shape shift - change its appearance.  In perhaps an early case of stalking, the Naga shifted into a human being so that he could follow Buddha and listen to his teachings.  At one point, the Naga, as a man, entered into the process to become a Bhikkhus (ordained Monk).  Unfortunately for him, one night while sleeping, he shape shifted back into a Naga.  Even more unfortunately another Monk witnessed the transformation and informed the Buddha.  The Buddha told the Naga that he could not be a Monk because he was not of this world (human). To prevent a recurrence of the problem, all men as part of their ordination ritual are asked if they are a human.

Even though he could not be a Monk, the Naga continued in his devotion to Buddha and his image is often used in local Wats of both Isaan and Laos.

Naga Fountain at Wat Phra That Choeng Chum
Sakon Nakhon, Thailand

Naga Statue At Wat Suwaneen Gindalam
Sakon Nakhon, Thailand
One time when Buddha was returning to this world at the end of Vassa after having been teaching in Buddhist Heaven, all creatures were happy and celebrated the Buddha's return.  The Nagas showed their happiness by releasing fire balls.

Near Nong Khai, more specifically Phon Phisai, the release of fireballs from the Mekong River and lesser bodies of water commemorates that long ago time when the Buddha returned at the end of Vassa.

This year I had every intention of attending the Boong Fai Phaya Nak Festival.  During our first visit to the festival we had not seen any fireballs.  I wanted to give it another shot.  However we did not have time to attend.  After our visit to the Sakhon Nakhon Wax Castle Festival we returned home on 18 October for Duang to attend her third (remember how significant "3" is in Buddhism) and last women's retreat at Wat Ban Mat.  After spending most of the night chanting, worshiping, and listening to sermons, Duang was too tired to battle the crowds or to stay up late another night.  That was no problem - there is always next year or even the year after that.

However I did see some Naga fireballs this year ... sort of.  On our first night in Sakon Nakhon we went down to Ming Muang Ground where many the wax castle floats were being staged.

One of the smaller carts had a Naga motif.  Photographing the wax castles was very difficult.  There were many tall spotlights illuminating the area.  Many portable lights were also set up by participants to illuminate their floats so that necessary repairs or adjustments could be made.  In addition to the light pollution, there were thousands of people milling  about often posing in front of the floats.

The conditions, while challenging, offered some opportunities ... some unique opportunities if you were patient and a bit creative.  I recognized such a situation with the Naga motif float.  By walking, squatting, and twisting in a proper combination, the background lights could be aligned to appear to be fireballs being emitted by the Naga.

The late 20th century philosopher and song writer, Mick Jagger, wrote and sang "You can't always get what you want. But if you just try sometime you find You get what you need".  This is sound advice for life as well as for photography.

Happiness and contentment are often given to you.  But if you are able to adapt and make use of what is available, you can often be happy and content.

Whining, complaining, and bemoaning your situation will often only make yourself and those about you miserable.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Morning Market - Sakon Nakhon

The Scallion Vendor At 6:30 A.M., Saw Her Again At 5:00 P.M. Leaving the market

This weekend, Duangchan and I drove two hours east of our home to a town called Sakon Nakhon to once again witness the Sakon Nakhon Wax Castle Festival which marks the end of Buddhist Lent which is also referred to as the Buddhist Rain Retreat or Vassa.

We had attended the festival last year, , but did not stay for the night procession of the completed floats or attend any of the formal events prior to the procession.  I wanted to return this year view the procession and perhaps some cultural events associated with the festival.

Using the Internet I was able to determine the dates of the festival quite easily.  However I had no luck in determining exactly what was the schedule of events for the festival.  I sent an email to the Tourism Authority of Thailand requesting specific information regarding the schedule of events.  I received a prompt confirmation of receipt of my email and was informed that my request had been sent to local chapter for reply.  Three weeks later and two days after conclusion of the festival, I have not received a reply.  Just about every Internet site that had some information on the festival provided a phone number to obtain information on the event.  I had Duang call that number four times - there was never an answer.  I then had her call the hotel where we had stayed last year and where I intended to stay this year.  From the hotel, we learned that the night procession was on 18 October, so I decided that we would arrive on the 17th and leave on the 19th.  We had time constraints this year - the 17th was Duang's 50th birthday and she wanted to make special merit in the morning with the forest Monk.  On the 19th she wanted to make her third and last night of women's retreat at Wat Ban Mat.

We arrived in the afternoon of the 17th.  That night we watched many of the wax castle floats being set up in one of the large assembly areas.  The floats were transported on roads from outlying Wats to Ming Muang Ground.

For whatever reason, I woke up the next morning at 5:30 A.M.. Our hotel was located two blocks from the morning markets in central Sakon Nakhon.  I had mentioned earlier to Duang that if I woke up early enough on the 18th or 19th. I wanted to go to the markets to take some photographs.  Having woken up early, I headed down to the markets - alone.

My first stop was at the Municipal Daily Fresh Market on Yuwapatana Road.  I immediately realized that although it was around 6:00 A.M. the market was not really up and running like so many of the other Talad Saos (Morning Markets) that I am familiar with in Thailand and Lao.  Some meat vendors were just setting up their booths and stalls in the market.

Pork Vendor setting Up for the Morning
I commenced to photograph the vendors and their activities.  From the vendors I learned that the market did not really get going until 7:00 A.M. From one vendor I learned that there was much more going on at the next door market, Tor Kam Kar Daily Fresh Market.

All Parts of Animals Are For Sale At the Market

Making Fresh Ground Pork
I have enjoyed and utilized the local markets in Thailand, Malaysia, Lao People's Democratic Republic, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

I have always been fascinated with the markets be they morning, wet, fresh or evening since first coming to Southeast Asia in 1999.  The markets here are very much different than the supermarkets in western countries.

First of all the markets here, where most locals shop, typically do not have walls.  The roofs, under which the goods are offered for sale, are often a combination of corrugated metal of various degrees of corrosion and other materials such as clear plastic sheeting, tarps, recycled political or advertising plasticized fabric signs and sometimes thatched panels.  The floors of the markets are usually concrete which is often wet from the marketing activities.

Secondly the markets are not creations of large corporations but are rather amalgamations of individual vendors.  Each vendor rents their space from the market owner.  In Kumphawapi, a small space costs $1 a day.

Goods are displayed on raised counters constructed of wood, metal. or tiled concrete.  Quite often the vendor sits on the same platform surrounded by their goods.  Outside of the markets, you will often find vendors sitting on woven reed mats placed on the ground.

Patrons of the markets do not have grocery carriages or carts.  Some people will go to the market carrying a woven bamboo basket to carry their purchases home.  Most people leave the market carrying several small plastic bags in each hand.

Refrigeration is sparse in the markets.  In the case of fish, there are two methods of keeping it fresh.  The first method is to keep it alive.  In the fish section of the markets, the floor is often covered with large plastic tubs of water and fish.  Some of the tubs have air injected into the water through small stone aerators attached to aquarium pumps.  The second method of keeping the fish fresh is to display it on tiled, marble or tiled topped platforms or stainless steel tables and periodically pour water over them.  For me there is a paradox in marketing perishables in this manner.  At first this practice may be disturbing to people who are accustomed to shopping in brightly lit, cool, antiseptic plastic wrapped merchandising temples of the western world.  OMG. Oh My God - how can they shop and eat food in those Asian markets? most likely are in thoughts of many people.  But here, for me is the paradox, in the more primitive conditions people are exposed to fresher food. How?  If the food is not fresh you sure can tell by the way it looks and smells. Having discovered too late horrible spoiled fish from a well known grocery store in California, I am well aware that modern sanitary conditions, specialized lighting, foam and plastic packaging, and utilizing nitrogen gas are no guaranty of freshness.

Pork For Sale
The pork that was being hung from large meat hooks in the Municipal Daily Fresh Market was definitely fresh.  I know because I went up to the meat and smelled it - no one objected because that is how you shop - looking, smelling, and sometimes even touching.  The Asian shopper takes responsibility for what they purchase and bring into their home.

Butchermen of Sakon Nakhon
Since I was pressed for time, our hired driver was picking us up at 8:00 A.M., I did not spend much time at the first market.  I moved down to the next market which was a bee hive of activity.  It was everything that you will come to find in a Southeast Asia market.  It was crowded.  It was noisy.  It was, in certain areas, smelly.  It was interesting.

Outdoor Charcoal Grill - Fish On One Side, Fish On the Other Side

As much as it was a market, it was also a huge restaurant.  Charcoal grills were cooking fish and chickens.  Propane burners were fueling the local versions of deep fryers.  Smaller table top sized grills were used to cook small kebabs of pork or chicken parts. The pungent odors of charcoal, fermented fish sauce, and spices permeated the atmosphere.  Although it was "breakfast" time, patrons were very likely purchasing grilled fish or even chicken for their first meal of the day. Here food is food without distinction of when it should be eaten.

Sidewalk Grilled Chicken Vendors
Inside the covered market, vendors were selling all kinds of goods.  Selling goods was not their only activity.  Vendors were heavily engaged in socializing with other vendors as well as their customers.  Markets are wonderful places to catch up on all matters, great and small.

Chilies, Tomatoes, Limes - All For Sale

The Cabbage Lady

It Would Not Be A Market If There Were No Rice For Sale
Since it was around 7:00 A.M., there was an opportunity to photograph a local Monk on his morning alms walk.

People Make Offerings of Food to Monk

I have often written about the ways things are supposed to be and the way they actually are.  I have read about Buddhism and how the Monks are to receive alms.  From what I have read and understand the giving of alms is not a quid pro quo exchange.  The laypeople offer the food for the mere act of kindness.  They should not expect anything in return for their act although the pure act itself earns them merit.  The Monk is supposed to accept the food as it is offered without judgement and without reward to the donors.

I have seen many Monks just very slowly walk by the people so that they could drop food in his bowl.  They would not stop.  I have also seen Monks in Thailand stop in front of donors and recite a chant upon accepting food - I presume that it was a sort of blessing.  In Lao People's Democratic Republic, I have witnessed Monks accepting food, walking past the donors, stopping in front of the people's home or business and then chanting as if blessing the structures.

Monk Chanting After Accepting Food Offerings
In Sakon Nakhon the Monk, after accepting food offerings from a group of people, stood before them and chanted before continuing along on his alms walk. I point this out to demonstrate that things often are not what they appear to be or should be.  Examples such as this, for me, are reasons to be more open minded and tolerant in trying to understand things.  Things are often more complicated than is conveyed or communicated.  Often it doesn't really make a difference.  It is often a matter of personal experience and perspective.

The Egg Lady
One of the vendors that I photographed several times was the "Egg Lady".  Eggs are handled very differently here than back in the USA.  Eggs are not refrigerated here.  Our weather here is either hot and dry or hot and wet.  How hot is hot?  Typically our highs are 90 to 95F.  During our really hot months the highs are 95 to 105F.  During our cool month the highs are 85 to 90F.  No matter the month, you will see pick up trucks stacked high, high as in 6 to 7 feet high, with compress cellulose flats of eggs.  Once they arrive at their destinations, the eggs are offloaded and displayed in the open air for sale. We shop at an English multinational grocery chain and even their eggs for sale are not refrigerated.  Customers keep the eggs that they purchased on a counter in their kitchen or outside area where they cook.

The Egg Lady at the Sakon Nakhon market was no exception to the normal practice. Her eggs were stored at her side in the open air.  Many of the eggs were flats that had earlier been on one of those pickup trucks speeding along the roads and highways.  Part of the vendor's tasks was to take eggs from the flats and place them in small cellophane bags for sale.  The eggs were carefully placed in the bag so that they formed a small pyramid - I don't know if that was for cosmic energy or for style but it is stylish in my opinion.

Chicken is also not given the special attention that it gets or is supposed to get back in the USA.  When Duang and I were in the USA, I read the warning labels on the chicken that we purchased in the supermarket and along with all the news stories of people getting sick from contaminated poultry, I wondered why we or any one else would buy let alone eat chicken.

Here in Isaan, especially during holiday periods, you will find steel half barrel charcoal grills along the roadside where grilled chicken is offered for sale.  The chicken is grilled in three different methods.  In the first method, a chicken half is flattened as if by having been rolled over by a car and skewered on one or two bamboo sticks sort of like chicken satay.  The chicken is not flattened by a car but rather by a heavy wood club.  The second method is similar but involves a whole chicken and two bamboo skewers.  The chicken is butterflied and flattened  with the club so that it resembles a desiccated bat or sting ray.  It is placed on two skewers and typically grilled in a somewhat vertical position.  The last method is where a whole chicken is skewered by a long bamboo pole about 5 to 6 inches in diameter.  Several chickens are placed high above a charcoal grill in staggered arrangements.

These roadside kitchens have neither water, let alone potable water, or refrigeration.  Once the chickens are cooked, they remain exposed to the air off to the side on a cooler part of the grill.  I have written before that I often write what I have observed and do not necessarily understand or necessarily believe.

The handling and storage of poultry and eggs here in Isaan is another example.  I don't understand why we are not all dead yet or at least hospitalized every month due to our practices.  Perhaps the lesson is that there are alternatives, alternatives that are vastly different than western standards, that do not necessarily condemn one to sickness or misery.

In a dark and narrow corridor, chicken is processed

Prepared Foods For Sale

Market Girl

Tuesday, October 15, 2013


This blog, "Winning", has nothing to do with Charlie Sheen or any of his ill conceived and poorly executed rants regarding winning or what he considered to be winning.

Today was the forest Monk's birthday.

Tomorrow is Lottery Day here in Thailand.

So what does this all have to do with winning.  It has everything to do with it all.

The forest Monk has a reputation for helping people win the lottery.  He gave a number to Duang earlier this month and she won 10,000 Baht ($330 USD).  That's pretty darn good for her and me.  But like they scream during late night television ads in America "BUT WAIT, THERE IS MORE!"  There was a woman who has bought the floral offerings every time that we have visited the forest Monk.  She played the numbers that he divined for her and she won 30,000,000 Baht ($1,000,000 USD)  "BUT WAIT THERE IS EVEN MORE!" We met a man that the forest Monk had given numbers to and he won 9,000,000 Baht or $300,000 US Dollars. And "THERE IS STILL MORE ..." Another man had used the Monk's numbers and won 6,000,000 Baht ($200,000 USD).

So it would seem that the Forest Monk has a well deserved reputation.

On the day before the lottery drawing many people would visit the Monk and offer him food as well as make merit. After eating his one meal of the day, the Monk is always available for consultation.  However on the day before the lottery, he has more consulting to do than typical.

Here in Thailand and especially in Isaan playing the lottery is a big event and even a sort of ritual.  Many hope to significantly change their life by hitting it big.

The ancient Greeks used to make a pilgrimage to consult with the Oracle of Delphi.  In Europe and America people sometimes consult with Gypsy fortunetellers regarding lottery numbers.  In other cultures the entrails of freshly killed animals, typically chickens, are interpreted to determine what the future holds.  I have heard of the future being ascertained through interpreting the pattern of bone randomly tossed on the ground.  Tea leaves are also believed to for tell the future.  As a old friend of mine commented on one of my photographs this evening "It's a sign".

Yes, there are a great number of signs - you just have to look and listen for them.

Here in Thailand there are many signs associated with picking lottery numbers - your house number, your telephone number, your birth date, your wife's birth date, your children's birth dates along with your vehicle registration number or perhaps the registration number of the motorbike that cut you off today or the car that almost collided with you.  These are all signs - good signs for picking lottery numbers.

Our grandson. Peelawat, when he was first beginning to talk kept babbling a number one afternoon - it turned out to be the winning number in the next day's lottery.  People really started to listen to his babbling.  Sure enough he started repeating a number or what seemed to be a number just before the next lottery.  Many people played his number.  They were then upset with him when the number didn't win!  This is not an isolated incident either.

Well today, I found out that it is not necessary to travel to Greece to consult with the Oracle of Delphi regarding the lottery.  You only need to have a frog cross your path.

Massaging A Frog's Belly
After the merit making, when people were socializing and awaiting their turn to consult with the forest Monk. a frog was discovered near the shrine to the right of where the Monk was seated.  This was another good sign - "right" has a great deal of significance in Buddhism - the right shoulder of Monks is left exposed when they wear two of their three layers of clothing, when a funeral procession circumambulates the Wat crematorium they travel clockwise so that their right shoulders are closest to the crematorium, in the seated position Buddha's right foot and his right hand are on top - this was apparently no ordinary frog.  It seems that the frog knew the right way to appear.

One of the men grabbed the frog and placed the frog on it's back in his hand. The man was quickly surrounded by other people - excited people.  He gently started to massage the frog's belly.

Examining Frog's Belly For Signs of Numbers
The people were gentle with the frog but just as people have reported being examined by extraterrestial aliens, I am sure the experience was not all that pleasant for the frog.  Just like I would most likely do during an examination by aliens, the frog urinated on the examiners.  No one seemed upset or taken aback by the frog relieving itself - perhaps the peeing was another sign?

I did not see any numbers on the frog's belly.  According to my wife some people can see the numbers but not all people,  Apparently according to Duang different people can see different numbers on the same frog.  I did not see any numbers but I heard numbers.  I swear that the frog was croaking "hok hok" ("66").  I told Duang and she told the people. They all laughed like crazy.

After about five minutes the frog was gently released to go about his business for the day. Duang did not participate in the examination of the frog.  She had her own numbers already.  During her special merit making last week the forest Monk had given her a sealed envelope and told her not to open it until 8:22 P.M. tonight - 15 October.  She has opened it now and has the two numbers - and even I understand the sign of the two numbers.

Tomorrow morning she will play those two numbers for the afternoon lottery drawing.

So, many of us have a plan for winning and often will rely upon signs to help us to execute that plan.  Unlike all the plans that I executed during my engineering/construction career, the plans I am familiar with now are much more entertaining and interesting - to say the least.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Alms - Not A Simple Matter

A Woman Drops Sticky Rice Into Monk's Bowl

Many things in life are not as simple as they first appear and there are times when things are not exactly as we originally perceived them to be.

Our perceptions of reality are heavily influenced by our personal experiences and our cultural bias.  As long as we remain within our familiar boundaries and culture, there is usually not a big problem or an issue.  However when we are exposed to different cultures, misinterpretations and misconceptions can create problems or even conflict.  Seeing two men holding hands as they walked after perhaps kissing each other on the cheek in Groton, Connecticut would most be perceived as two homosexuals making a scene however in many other cultures such behavior would be merely interpreted as two friends walking and greeting each other like every one does without any sexual connotations.  It is simply a matter of personal experience and cultural bias heavily influencing one's processing of an observation.  The facts are the same but our sense of reality can vary greatly.

Hopefully as we gain more education, more experience, and are exposed to more cultures, we become more aware of how reality can not necessarily be what we first were tempted to believe. This will provide greater opportunities for understanding and reduce conflicts by allowing us to question and further investigate what we perceive.

Living here in Isaan, there are plenty of situations that easily lend themselves to misinterpretation.

One of the rituals that is often is misinterpreted by Westerners is the morning alms walk by Buddhist Monks and the giving of food to Monks.

People may believe that the Monks are begging for food.

People may think that the Monks are rude by not thanking people for the food.

People may thinking that the people have pity on the Monks.

Buddha said that there were four things necessary in life.  They were clothing, food, shelter, and medicine.

Buddha suggested that the Monks receive their food for their single meal of the day from the morning alms walk.  Depending upon daily alms reminds the Monks as well as the lay people of their dependence upon each other.  It also prevents the Monks from becoming too isolated  from the lay community.

During the alms walk or making themselves available for alms, as in the case of forest Monks, the Monks are not begging for food.  They are not seeking anything.  They are making themselves available to receive  whatever alms the lay people want to give.

Bhikkhus (ordained male Monks) have many rules that they must follow.  One set of the rules, 75 related to daily conduct are contained in the Sekhiya Training Guidelines.  Some of the Sekhiya rules regarding alms food are:

     "I will receive alms food appreciatively"  The alms bowl is to be held on the arm and in front with a  respectful and appreciative attitude.  Food can not be accepted with a look of disgust.

     "When receiving alms food, I will focus my attention on the bowl"  This is why the Monk does not look at the person offering the food when accepting the food.  He is concentrating on properly receiving the offering.

     "I will not receive more than one ration of curry for every three rations of rice" This rule helps to prevent bhikkhus from becoming too fond of fancy foods and reminds them of their simple life.

     "I will eat a ration of one part of curry to three parts of rice"  A Monk (bhikkhu) has to prepare  each mouthful by mixing curry and rice in the proper proportions.

    "I will accept food in proportion to the bowl, without exceeding its inner rim"  This rule prevents food from falling on the ground and being wasted.

     "Eat alms food attentively"  When eating the Monk is to keep his attention on the bowl or plate.  He  must not look around but keep his gaze attentively on the contents of his bowl or plate

     "Not eat by placing large morsels in the mouth"  A mouthful can not be larger than a peacock's egg.

     "Eat the food one after the other, without rejecting any."  A Monk must eat or serve himself just the way the food portions present themselves.  He can not start in the middle.  He starts from the side closest to him and continues taking food from that side without starting a new side.

There are a few other rules related to Monks eating which I have not included in this blog.  The rules that I have shared give a good indication that the matter of eating is no simple matter for Monks.

There are also rules for offering food to bhikkhus by lay people.

There are two main considerations when offering food to Monks.

The first major consideration is that a Monk can not eat anything that is not offered to them.  They are only allowed to take water and tooth cleaning sticks that are not given to them.

The rules for properly offering alms, food or medicine, to bhikkhus are:

     It must be given by means of the body (offered by the hand) or by something attached to the    body (examples - a spoon, a tray, a plate) or by throwing ( example - dropping a lump of sticky        rice into the Monk's bowl)

     It must be given so that the donor and the Monk are within arms reach (approximately 1.25 meters, 4 feet) of each other.

     It must be received by means of the body (received in the Monk's hand) or by something attached to the Monk's body (examples - Monk's alms bowl, Monk's receiving cloth).

     The offered food can not be so heavy that an average man can not lift it.  Here in Isaan it is acceptable to slid the food along the floor to the Monk's hands.

     The donor has to actually first move the food or food tray towards the Monk before the Monk can accept it.  It is very important that the fact that the food is being offered rather than asked for be clearly established.

Although it is not a rule, here in Isaan it is traditional that the donor make a gesture of respect when making the offering.

Another tradition here, is that the donor must be barefoot to properly make offerings to the Monks.  This is not a consideration when making the offerings inside of a building since you remove your shoes before entering.  However if you go outside along a road or sidewalk where Monks pass by on their morning alms walk, you need to remember to first remove your shoes or, more likely, your flip flops.

Man Makes Gesture of respect Before Offering Sticky Rice to Monk
The donors of the alms earn merit by offering without thinking of the benefits to themselves or by having pity on the Monks.  Merit is earned through the goodness of the act rather than the expected consequences or motivations of the act.

Woman Tosses Lump of Sticky Rice Into Monk's Bowl
The second major consideration for offering food to a Monk, actually a major consideration for anything involving a Monk, is that a Monk can not touch or be touched by a female.  Great care must be taken to eliminate the possibility of a monk touching a woman.  Often men will act as an intermediary in the transfer of objects between a woman and a Monk.  Another prevention is the use of a cloth.  The Monk will place a cloth on the floor.  The woman will place the object on the cloth and the Monk will pull the cloth to him to remove the object.  The process is reversed when the Monk gives something to a woman.  The last solution is to drop things into the hand or container held by the Monk or more likely into the hand of the woman.

Bhikkhus can only eat from dawn to noon. The conservative school of Theravada Buddhism in Thailand, Dhammayuttika Nikaya requires Bhikkhus to have only one meal a day between dawn and noon whereas the more liberal school, Maha Nikaya, allows its bhikkhus to have two meals between dawn and noon.

Monks are not allowed to store foods for another day.  This rule reinforces the concept of the dependence of the bhikkhus and lay people upon each other, supports the mendicant ideal of monastic living, and prevents Monks from becoming attached to their favorite tastes.

Not being able to store food creates a situation.  Monks can not deny people the opportunity to make merit so quite often, actually every time that I have been in attendance, there is a surplus of food, food that Monks can not keep for another day be it rainy or sunny.  There are two solutions to this situation.

Monks Giving Young Boy Surplus Rice
The first solution is for the Monks to give away extra food that they are offered on their morning alms walk.  In Luang Prabang, Lao People's Democratic Republic, tourists participate in the Tak Bart ritual, each of them placing a hand full of cooked sticky rice in the bowl of each Monk as they walk along one of the main streets in the city.  Since the street is lined with tourists positioned shoulder to shoulder, the Monk's bowl is quickly filled.  To allow other tourists and residents, further along the route, to participate and make merit. periodically the Monks will remove some of the rice from their bowl and give it to poor children along the route or the poor children who follow along with them.

The second solution takes place in the Wats of villages and cities where people bring food offerings to the Monks. Plates of fruits, fish, curries, and other items along with the ubiquitous cooked sticky rice are offered to the Monks.  The Monks take portions and either place them in their bowl or on their plates.  What is not taken by the Monks is removed from the raised area, where they are seated on the floor, and placed on the floor where the lay people are sitting on the floor.

Lay People, Women, Having Community Morning Meal
Once the Monks have started to eat, the lay people have a community meal of the surplus food.  It is a very friendly event where everyone is invited and encouraged to participate whether they are Buddhists or not.  Typically the men and women sit in separate groups if not areas to eat - just as they do during merit making rituals.  If I am not walking or crawling around taking photos, I sit with Duang along with the other women.  Either because I am a foreigner or the Lao Loum people are so tolerant no one has ever made and issue of it.  I do it because Duang is able to explain things to me as well as to translate for me.  I have always been made to feel welcomed and comfortable at these gatherings.

Lay People, Men, Having Community Morning Meal

The lay people do more than eat at these morning gatherings.  They are also gossiping about all kinds of subjects and people.  There is a great deal of noise and considerable laughing as well as joking.  It is obvious that the community and family bonds are being strengthened during these Buddhist pot luck meals.  here in Isaan, family and community bonds are quite often one and the same.  The villages are often very small and comprised of a single extended family.  I estimate that 80% of Tahsang Village is comprised of Duang's relatives.

Besides the strengthening of community and family bonds, the sharing of surplus food with the Monks provides a vital service - it feeds the poor.  You do not have to offer food or make any offerings to the Monks to participate in the community meal.  When she was a young mother, Duangchan was very poor. She and her two young children depended upon these communal meals for nourishment.

After the lay people have completed eating, any food that is left over is placed in plastic bags for people to take home with them.

What I have written about in this blog is true.  It is the way that things are supposed to be.  It may not necessarily be the way that things always are.  There is a popular acronym here in Thailand "TIT" - This Is Thailand.  It is used to explain what often is not easily explained or what may be difficult to accept.  It is our version of "It is what it is".  Well there probably should be a similar acronym "TIB" - This Is Buddhism.

Due to the tolerance of Buddhism and the melding of Buddhism into previous existing religions in a particular area or culture, there are often variations and diversity in specific practices of what is referred to as "Buddhism".  I am certain that some readers will have different specific experiences with alms giving as well as alms food.  That is not to say that they are wrong or that I am wrong.  It is just a different experience in a very diverse world.

What I have written is what I have experienced, researched and found to agree with what I have observed, and have confirmed with my ethnic Lao wife. This is one perspective on a culture with many perspectives - which, to me, makes it all that more interesting, fascinating, and stimulating.


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