Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A Recent Wedding Here In Isaan


A Home Wedding In Isaan

This month has really flown by.  May is just about over and only now am I getting around to writing about a wedding that we attended on 4 May.  This month has been filled with trips to attend a wedding, a housewarming, two multi-day rocket festivals, a Wai Khru ritual, a Mahlam Show, most importantly of all - renewing my Long Stay Visa for another year along with obtaining a Multiple Re-Entry Permit for a year.

I have also undertaken a new challenge.  I purchased and installed Lightroom 5 on my computer.  Lightroom 5 is a computer program that is used for organizing and to a certain extent post processing of digital photographs.  One aspect of Lightroom that I have been completely obsessed with this month is its ability to read GPS data for each photograph and to interface with Google Maps to show those coordinates on traditional road maps, satellite imagery for the location or a hybrid of the two.  My cameras have never had the capability to directly determine the GPS coordinates.  There are separate devices available now that will determine the coordinates and automatically write it to the metadata in the camera for each shot as it is taken.

Even without the GPS capability of my cameras or with a separate device, I still can determine the GPS location of my over 59,000 shots, digital and scanned slides, through the Google Maps interface.  I can look at a location anywhere in the world and in many locations zoom down to where 10 meters (30 feet) is about 1/2 inch long on the Google map image.  In the case of my wife's home village I can differentiate the different houses.

So for much of this month, I am been in a time machine to sort of speak.  I have been going through the electronic photo files and determining where they were taken and recording that data in Lightroom.  I have been transported in time and space over the course of the past 42 years.  Reviewing each photo and assigning a location ...

"I'm going back in time
And it's a sweet dream" - Best of My Love, Don Henley & Glenn Frey

I am amazed at how much I remember from each individual shot - where I was, what time it was, who I was with and in many cases what my emotional state was at the time.  They say that every picture tells a story.  I have written that every picture tells more than one story with each story shaped, defined, and influenced by the viewers perspective, experiences , and perception.  With being able to see the exact location of the shot and see how it relates to other shots in time or space allows even more stories to be told.

So it was for me in attending and shooting another ethnic Lao wedding in Isaan earlier this month.

Just as with funeral rituals - weddings are "same, same but different"  There is no Theravada Buddhist marriage ritual.  If Monks do get involved with a wedding it is a typical and ordinary merit making ritual of offering food and feeding the Monks in the home - just as you would for moving into a new home, the birth of a child, the death of a family member, or for the memory of a departed person.  There are many common elements in all weddings but there are some large differences mainly attributable to the social and economic status of the bride.

In Northeast Thailand, a region called "Isaan", there is a custom and accepted practice of "Sin Sod". Sin Sod is essentially a dowry provided by the Groom and/or his family to the Bride's family. The payment is a complex and multifaceted act by the Groom.

First of all it demonstrates his ability to support his wife to be - sort of ironic in that many Grooms have to borrow in order to accumulate the required funds for the Sin Sod.

Secondly, payment of the Sin Sod is a display of commitment and respect of the Groom for the Bride as well as for her family.

Lastly, the Sin Sod is a form of financial support for the Bride's family. A large Sin Sod is also a sign of prestige for the parties involved - sort of bragging rights for both families. In Thailand as well as other Asian cultures, "face" is very important. A large Sin Sod buys a great deal of "face"

When a man and woman decide to get married, the man will have a close relative or trusted friend approach the woman's parents to determine the amount of the "Sin Sod" as well as the "Tong Mun" to be paid in order to have the marriage take place.

Tong Mun" is "gold engagement". In Thailand, "baht" besides being the name of the national currency, is also a measure for buying and selling gold. A "baht" of gold here is 15.244 grams in weight. Since gold in Thailand is 96.5% pure, approximately 23.2 Karat, a baht contains 15.16 grams of pure gold (0.528 ounces).

Groom Places "Tong Mun", a 3 baht necklace, around his bride's neck.
(She also received 2 baht in gold rings)

The "Tong Mun" is given directly to the Bride and remains her personal property. Here in Isaan there is a thriving business in selling as well as buying gold. Many women will sell their gold back for a short period of time to bridge over difficult financial times. The gold shops act as pawn shops to help people out financially - of course for a fee - 1%.  Gold shops are located in the malls, in the western style grocery "superstores", and as small shops in the towns.

Kumphawapi is a small town with approximately 26,000 people with at least 5 gold shops that I am aware of. Gold is mainly sold in the form of rings, necklaces, and bracelets. Necklaces run basically in whole numbers of bahts - 1, 2, 3, baht necklaces. The buyer pays for the gold content with a small premium for craftsmanship related to the ornate work of the piece.

The Tong Mun provides security to the woman. Security, for the Bride and her family, is a very important aspect of Lao Loum marriages.

The size of the dowry (sin sod) as well as the "Tong Mun" is negotiated prior to the wedding and is dependent upon  many factors including the age of the bride, her education, any previous marriage(s), if she has any children and also the social status of the groom - if he or his family can afford more he is expected to pay more.

A young ethnic Lao man marrying a young ethnic Lao woman will typically have a sin sod of 150,000 baht ($5,000 USD) and a Tong Mun of 5 baht ( roughly $3,125 USD).  This is a significant financial commitment for the groom in a land where farm labor makes roughly $10 a day and a mechanic at an auto dealership makes $670 USD a month.

We once attended a wedding of a college educated young woman to a falang (foreigner) where the sin sod was 3,000,000 baht ($90,900 USD!) and the Tong Mun was 20 baht.

Procession of Groom, His Family, and Friends to his Bride's Home
In Isaan weddings take place on the morning of a predetermined day and at a specified time after consultation with a Monk who has the reputation for, if not the ability to, determine the future through study of numbers and other things.  He can determine the most advantageous times for undertaking significant events or tasks.

The groom walks to the bride's home as part of a procession of his relatives and local villagers. Mahlam Lao (local Lao music with a driving beat and heavy guitar component) is often played either from the community loudspeaker or from a pickup truck mounted sound system. For this wedding there was loud recorded music from the village loudspeakers. In addition, the groom's "posse" were whooping and hollering as they walked along the narrow concrete village street towards the bride's house.

Members of the wedding groom's procession amuse themselves with copious drinking of local beer and a potent whiskey called "Lao Lao". or "Lao Kao" The groom is shielded from the sun by an umbrella that is carried by one of the procession participants,  a sort of "best man" for the wedding ritual. The umbrella also is the traditional status symbol and an honor for the person walking under it. There is a great deal of energy and joy associated with the walk to the bride's house with everyone dancing as well as cheering.

Entrance to Bride's Home
Before the groom enters the bride's home he must cross two bridges or rather barriers. Each bridge is usually a gold chain held across the doorway, or as much of the doorway as it will stretch across, usually by younger relatives.  If gold chain is not available any flexible barrier will serve the purpose.  Each bridge or barrier is removed by paying a price - 200 baht currency in plain envelopes.

Having paid to gain access to the door the groom removes his shoes. His wife-to-be waits for him in her wedding outfit.  Next to her is a container of water and a small cup.  Typically the water is contained in a pressed metal decorative bowl, either silver or gold colored that is used in merit making rituals involving Monks.  Typically a small pressed metal decorated cup which is often used in the transference or merit ritual is used with the larger bowl.  For this wedding, the water was contained in a plastic insulated water cooler, more like a jug, that is used out in the fields.

In front of the groom is a slightly raised wood or plastic foot stool covered with fresh banana plant leaves. Usually the wife-to-be, as part of the wedding ritual, washes her husband-to-be feet.  At this wedding, the young woman to be married commenced the ritual by first washing the feet of her future grandfather-in-law, and then her future father-in-law before her future husband.  This demonstrated her commitment to the family and respect for the family that she was about to become a member of.
A Young Woman Washes the Feet of Her Future Granfather-in-law

Bride Washing the Groom's Feet
After washing the groom's feet, the couple enters the room where the ceremony will take place. Upon the tile floor, sahts, woven reed mats, have been placed. A low table or several rectangular brightly multi-colored pillows are used as the focus of the ceremony. An elaborate banana leaf and jasmine floral centerpiece with cotton strings hanging from it called a "Pahn Sii Khwan" is an integral part of the ceremony called "Bai Sii".  The Pahn Sii Khwan are handcrafted by elder female relatives or neighbors.  They are a handicraft that is unique to the Lao Loum culture.  Small bananas, globs of sticky rice (kao knieow), and boiled egg are placed within the Pahn Sii Khwan.  These objects which are consumed during the wedding ritual are representative of good luck, wealth, good health, and prosperity.

Pahn Sii Kwan Centerpiece
The Groom and his family positioned themselves on the sahts in front of the Pahn Si Khwan.  A Brahman, a village elder who is familiar with spiritual matters and rituals, kneels facing the families.

There was a pause - a definite pause for the cause.  No, it was not a bathroom break.  It was a pause for the bride's mother and her older sisters to count, verify and reconfirm the sin sod and tong mon.

The Sin Sod and Tong Mun were given to the Bride's Mother. With a couple elderly women, I suspect that they were sisters, she went off to the side of the assembled families to openly count the offerings.

Counting the Sin Sod and Tong Mun

Counting the Sin Sod and Tong Mun is more of a spectacle than a ritual. A cloth is placed on the saht and the stacks of money are placed on the cloth. The stacks are spread on the cloth and slid around sort of reminiscent of the Shell and Pea games.  Each of the women seems to have to handle each of the stacks of currency several times. The currency is then counted several times to ensure accuracy and to enhance the prestige of the ritual. The amount is then announced for everyone to hear. All the people smile in a demonstration of their acceptance and respect.

The Bride's Mother then bundles up the Sin Sod in the white cotton cloth, hoists the bundle above her head, places the bundle over her shoulder, and leaves the area to place the money  somewhere in the home.

The Sin Sod Is Correct. Let the Wedding Proceed!

After the financial arrangements were verified, the ritual could proceed.

The Groom and Bride lit candles on each side of the Pahn Sii Khwan that remained burning for the duration of the ritual. Around the Pahn Sii Khwan several plates and bottles were placed on the sahts. There were offerings of green leaves, small yellow candles similar to birthday cake candles, bottles of Lao Kao (moonshine whiskey, "White Lightening"). These are offerings to the spirits. There were also boiled eggs, sticky rice, small bananas, and a sweet concoction of sticky rice with banana wrapped in banana leaves. These were offerings used by the Bride and Groom. There was a bowl of water that the Brahman would later use to sprinkle on the families using a green leaf in order to transfer the merit making of the ritual to the witnesses.
Brahman Transferring Merit By Sprinkling Devotees With Water Using A Leaf
The wedding ritual is a sort of "supercharged" "Bai Sii" ceremony, lead by a Brahman, is performed to obtain health, wealth and best wishes for the bride and groom. The Bai Sii ceremony is not reserved exclusively for weddings. It is also used for welcoming guests, conducted prior to or after long voyages, as thanksgiving for recovery from an illness or to help cure someone, and a part of the ceremony where children are named.  The Bai Sii is an Animist ritual common in Isaan as well as in Laos.

The origins of Bai Sii are in the Animist beliefs of the Lao people. They believe that 32 spirits (Khwan) live within us and protect us. The purpose of the Bai Sii ceremony is to bind the spirits within us to prevent them from escaping and thereby causing problems.

As part of the wedding Bai Sii ceremony well wishers crawl up to the Bride and Groom with a money offering.  The offering is placed in their hand as the well wisher ties a cotton string around the wrist of each of them.  When the well wishers have tied the strings, they go outside to enjoy the food and drink (soft drinks, beer, and whiskey) that have been set up. 
The Groom's Proud Mother

During the ceremony the Brahman leads the people through the ritual. The bride and groom kneel before the low table or a stack of pillows with the left hand resting on the improvised altar. Their right hands hold a glass of alcohol - either beer or whiskey. In his right hand the groom also holds a boiled egg while his bride holds a ball of sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf in her right hand.

The Brahman recites and chants from a book of prayers. Witnesses to the ceremony also recite some of the prayers. The prayers call all the spirits back into the body. The bride and groom light candles that are part of the ritual. A long string runs around the circle of the Bai Sii participants in the case of a wedding - the bride, the groom, and their immediate families - linking them together and with the spirit world.

Towards the end of the ceremony, the groom eats the egg and the bride eats the rice. The egg and rice are washed down with the alcohol to help nourish the 32 spirits.

Bride and Groom Make Offerings to the Spirits

The ceremony concludes with the shaman taking one of the cotton threads from the centerpiece and tying it around the right wrist of the groom and around the bride's left wrist. The new wife's family are next to tie strings around the wrist of the newlyweds. Everyone participates in removing a string from the centerpiece and binding the wrists of the groom and bride. The act of binding the wrists is also marked with personal wishes of good health and good luck for the couple.  After the last well wisher has wished the newlyweds well, the Bride and groom give presents to their parents, grandparents, and selected relatives.

After binding of the wrists, eventually the couple retire to the bride's bedroom where they sit together to receive blessings from their parents. They are now considered by the community to be man and wife now.

The couple are now married and recognized as husband and wife by their families, friends and community.  If they choose to have their married recognized and accepted by the government, they will go the district office and have their marriage recorded.  Recording the marriage with the government formalizes their union, and provides some legal protections.

The recent bride and groom have started making their sweet dream together.  I made a CD of these photos and gave it to them so that they hopefully, many years from now, can ... go back in time and enjoy their sweet dream.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Isaan Rocket Launches

Today, my wife and I drove out to Ban That for the third time this week in conjunction with the Bun Bang Fai Festival.  The purpose of our visit today was to witness some of the 200 rocket launches today.

We arrived at 11:00 A.M. to find the rocket launches going on fully.  As we drove towards the village, the contrails of the rockets roaring skyward served as a beacon.

Just as during our previous trips to Ban That this week, it was hot - 38C (100F).  Fortunately we have witnessed rocket launches in Ban That two other times thus relieving any pressures to stay the entire day due to concerns of missing out on something.  Today there was quite a bit of sun as well as the heat to soak up the moisture and strength out of your body.

The launching area alongside of a body of water just outside of the village does not offer very much shelter from the sun.  There are a few trees scattered about the launch area and they were surrounded by spectators seeking some relief from the sun.  Some food and beverage vendors had set up some awnings along with plastic tables an chairs for their customers.  I spent most of my time wandering about in the sun taking photographs but Duang was able to buy lunch and sit in the shade of one of the food stalls.  Her location was also a good place for me to change lenses and to drink cool beverages.

Unlike previous years, there is a big anti-drinking campaign at the rocket festival.  Plastic signs are very prominent designating areas as "Non-Alcohol"  The campaign while not 100% effective has greatly reduced the consumption of alcohol at the event which makes it much more pleasurable.

Perhaps next year or some time in the near future, the people could designate the area as "Non Plaa Daek" (Non-Fermented Fish Sauce) Areas.  The odor of Plaa Daek, at least 6 month old  fermented fish sauce is often sufficient to cause me to vomit - much to the amusement of my ethnic Lao in-laws.  It is even worse in 38C (100F) weather and in piles of garbage from the night before.  Fortunately there was not very much wind so I could easily get away from the smell today.  I was able to take my photographs uninterrupted today.

Typically when I go off to take photographs, especially to a location or event that I have been to previously, I arrive with a preconceived notion of what I want to shoot.  Today was no different.  Of course I wanted some shots of rockets taking off but I really wanted more shots of the rocketeers.  Taking photos of people here in Southeast Asia is seldom an issue.  In reality, people will often call me over to take their photograph so I fully expected to get the shots that I was hoping for.

The Launch Crew Transporting One of the Larger Rockets
Launching of the rockets is a cultural as well as religious activity.  It is also a competition - rocketeers compete to see whose rocket goes up the highest.  Although gambling is illegal in Thailand - oops here I go again with the "the way things are supposed to be and the way they actually are" spiel - rocket competitions present opportunities for people to make some additional money.

Exchanges of cash, sometimes wads of cash, are often very observable at the smaller venues for rocket launches.  At Ban That today, the transfer of funds was very discrete although there was not a large Police presence at the event.

Crews Prepare Rockets As One Is Launched Next to Them

Rockets were erected on launch ramps and launched continually.  Crews would be erecting a rocket on a ramp and another rocket would be launch from the ramp next to them without any regard for the crew's safety.

The launch crews hand rigged the rockets into place.  For the smaller rockets this was not much of an effort - the ground crew members lifting the rocket by hand to members of the crew who had climbed up the launch ramp.  Except for one man who wore a motorcycle helmet, no one wore safety hats.  Just about everyone wore rubber flip flops rather than any type of work boot or safety shoes.

None of the crew that climbed the launch ramps wore safety harnesses or any other form of fall protection.  This was quite a contrast to my experiences in the construction industry during my working career.  As Duang so often reminds me "Thailand not like America"  She is definitely right on that.  However I share these observations to point out the differences and not to make judgments.  Here, people are responsible for taking care of themselves.  There are much fewer regulations and even fewer enforcement or compliance personnel.  It is a different way of living and doing things.

Hand Rigging A Large Rocket Into Position

For the heavier and larger rockets, a pulley at the top of the launch ramp was used in conjunction with two sets of people manning the ground lines to hoist the rocket into position.

Not all of the rocket launches were successful.  In the two hours that we were there, one rocket blew up on the launch ramp - I wasn't in position to photograph it, Duang, based upon my experience at a previous festival, was keeping me on a short leash.  The explosion on the launch ramp reminded me of the photos of a big launch failure of a secret satellite at Vandenberg AFB several years ago - star burst streamers of smoke, debris, and burning objects.  Another rocket failed shortly after launch.

One of the two large rockets that we watched being launched failed to ignite.  This was apparently not a big deal.  The crew disconnected the wires from the car battery located just off to the side of the rocket.  One of the crew gingerly climbed up the ramp carrying a new igniter on the tip of a slender bamboo rod to the base of the rocket.  He unwrapped several turns of packaging tape from the base of the rocket, removed the malfunctioning igniter, installed the new igniter, and replaced the tape wrapping.  Shortly afterwards the wires were attached to the battery and the rocket ignited.  The rocket remained on the ramp emitting a loud roar and large orange flame until it developed sufficient thrust to break the vines restraining it.  The rocket tore into the sky much to the delight of the crowd.

Spent Rocket Returning to Earth, more accurately - the launch area!
One of the smaller rockets created quite a stir.  It launched without a problem but due to a combination of factors returned to the launch area upon completion of its flight.  Fortunately observers keeps track of each rocket and we had plenty of warning.  People started getting excited and started moving out of the area.  The spent casing ended up hitting the ground about 30 meters from where I was located - in an area where people would be dancing later in the day.

Prior to starting our return home, I took a tour of the rocket preparation area - a series of pavilions where rockets were finished for launch.  Preparation activities were mostly finishing off the construction of the combustion chamber inside the rocket and installing the igniters.  The finishing off of the combustion chambers involved swabbing the rocket interior with water and large homemade Q-Tips.  The combination of gunpowder and water stained the ground as well as the clothing as well as the skin of the rocketeers.

Finishing Off the Combustion Chamber

Working On Another Rocker Combustion Chamber

At some of the work stations, igniters were being fabricated.  Igniters are long insulated wires that have their bare tips twisted together.  When connected to a 12 volt car battery, the wires at the tip short out creating a flame that ignites the gunpowder inside of the PVC tube.

Preparing Rocket Igniters

Rocketeers include people of all ages and sexes.  It is actually a family event with everyone contributing or learning from the process.  Launching rockets also attracts many Monks.  Some Monks a sought after for their technical knowledge as well a spiritual prowess related to launching rockets.

A Monk Provides Some Advice

Isaan Rocketeers - The Next Generation

Sometimes A Hammer Is Necessary For Fine Tuning

It turned out to be quite an enjoyable excursion today.  Duang and I were both ready and happy to leave after two hours - the sun, heat, noise and for me - the odors had taken their toll.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Sidewalk Cobbler

Sidewalk cobbler - no, this blog is not about some variant of fruit desserts. This blog is about the trade of repairing shoes.  Cobblers are people who earn their living by repairing shoes and other traditional leather goods.

After two years and many journeys not to mention always carrying at least 10 Kg (22 pounds) of gear, the strap on one of my camera bags was just about sheared through. I thought that Duang could fix it but she said her sewing machines were not powerful enough.  I then suggested that we take it to someone who fixes shoes.

On Wednesday on one of her forays into downtown Udonthani, Duang brought my bag with her in search of a shoe repair shop.  She returned home without the bag and said that it would be ready at 2:00 P.M.

Getting things done around here is always interesting and often a challenge.  There are no telephone books here or anything resembling the "Yellow Pages".  To the best of my knowledge, Udonthani does not have a newspaper - not that it would matter - even Bangkok newspapers do not have a classified section with info on available local services.

Here in Udon there are two ways of finding out about getting things done.  The first way is to check on the local expat website,, to see if some one has asked before and received a reply or to ask about the service you now need.  The second method is to ask people - family and friends if they know who, what and where or even do they know someone who knows who, what and where.  That is how it works here and it does work - especially if your spouse is trilingual!

Curbside Cobbler in Downtown Udonthani

We drove into the city in the afternoon and found the cobbler quite easily.  The cobbler was set upon the sidewalk of Udon Dutsadi Rd just before the entrance to the Prachum Wittaya School.  Just like many of the "restaurants" here, the cobbler operates on the sidewalk.  After hours, she packs up shop literally and figuratively into a well worn and abused wood box which she locks and chains to a fence.  I have many food carts utilized the same way - chained on location, and set up on the sidewalk when in operation.  With food carts, plastic tables and chairs are set up on the sidewalk around the food cart to provide the ultimate alfresco dining experience.

Hand Stitching My Back Pack
The sidewalk cobbler is a two or three person, maybe four person operation.  The man and women who were doing the most of the work were brother and sister. Another man showed up and did a little bit of work and Duang said that he was the "Big Boss".  Another man ran errands for the brother and sister team.  While we were waiting for my back pack to be completed and for a pair of Duang's shoes to be repaired, the third man ran across the street and brought back some epoxy glue.  I t turned out that this man is homeless and often sleeps at the ATM next to the "cobbler shop".  The people say that he is "ting tong" (crazy) but is good at helping with things such as going for food.  The cobblers feed him for his efforts helping out.  That is often what you find here in Isaan - an informal work structure, a sense of community, and people helping each other out.

When we arrived at the curbside cobbler, I knew that Duang had found a good one.  The woman had several school book bags that she was repairing in addition to several handbags.  The top of her work station had several pairs of combat boots.  We have a couple military bases in town and several types of police that wear combat boots.  Their selection of her to maintain their gear was a good recommendation.

It was interesting to watch the woman and her brother work.  Cord for sewing leather and ballistic cloth together was wrapped around a tin can.  Spare parts and accessories were stores in a large plastic jar.  Sheets of sole material and leather were kept in a plastic laundry basket.

Trimming the Soles
The woman's brother was putting new soles on a pair of woman's shoes.  I expected him to pull out a pair of properly sized precut manufactured soles.  As Duang often tells me - "Thailand not like America"  The man pulled out a sheet of sole material out of the laundry basket.  He quickly cut the material into two rough shapes for the shoes.  After attaching the rough soles to the shoes, he press the toe of each shoe into a pad made of several layers of leather on the side of their work station as he used a special very sharp knife to accurately trim the soles to a perfect shape.

His sister manually sewed the shoulder strap to my backpack.  The only electrical device that the cobblers had was a small electric hand drill that the brother had used to install a set of honor guard horseshoe heel taps and cheater bars on a policeman's shoes while he waited.  Besides curbside service, the cobblers also provided walkup and work while you wait service.  It was quite interesting to observe.

In a short time my backpack shoulder strap was reattached and the straps on Duang's shoes were reattached and the soles repaired.  Although it was not time to pay the piper, it was time to pay the cobblers.  The bill came to 80 Baht, roughly $2.80 USD.  I paid the woman and she placed the money in a well used plastic baggie which she kept in a small drawer of the work station.

I have always been interested in learning and seeing how things are made or done.  Here in Southeast Asia there are plenty of opportunities to observe and learn.  Many of the opportunities are well out in public view with the workers more than willing to explain and demonstrate their craft.

I was also brought up to not waste things.  There have been many times when I have had to throw out good items such as electronics because it was cheaper to replace them than to repair them.  That has always bothered me for I consider it to be wasteful as well as illogical.  Here in Southeast Asia, you can repair items and have them repaired quite economically.  Having things repaired appeals to my frugality and ... to my sense of humanity.  When items are repaired locally, you are directly helping the local economy and no doubt helping to support a local family.  More often than not, when you purchase new you are supporting an international manufacturer outside of your country.

One of my philosophies that I sometimes espouse in this blog is "local solutions for local situations".  Having items repaired is an action that supports the local solution philosophy.  Now, if it were only easier to find that solution here ...

Thursday, May 8, 2014

It's that time of the year ... again. Bun Bang Fei

The beginning of May marks the start of our rainy season here in Isaan.  It also logically coincides with the start of the "Rocket Season" here and across the Mekong River in Lao People's Democratic Republic.

A Multiple Launch In Ban That, Phen District - 2013 (2556BE)

Launching of homemade gunpowder filled PVC rockets is a unique aspect of Lao culture in the region.  The custom is tied to the legend of one of Buddha's many previous lives.

It is believed that these Buddhist festivals of launching rockets evolved from pre-Buddhist fertility rituals to bring the return of the Monsoon rains.  The festivals are held just before the start of the planting season.  It also is one last opportunity for the people to blow off some steam before the exhaustive rice planting season starts.  Some aspects of the fertility rites is retained in the current rocket festivals in that there typically are floats with animals with engorged genitals.  Some men match carrying a bow powered machination - it is wood figurines of a woman on her back and a man on top of her spread legs.  It is very realistic down to the details of pubic hair.  Well close to reality - other than the size of the man's "equipment" or "package".  As the man flexes the bow, the figurines perform the "horizontal mambo", "the nasty", "do it", "hump", "humpty dance", "slapping uglies" or whatever euphemism of your choice and preference.  All this is done to the delight of the crowd consisting of people of all ages.  Either to cool off the wood "action" figures or to assist in lubricating them, people walk up and pour whiskey or beer on the moving parts.

Once the Buddhist religion was established in the area, Buddhist beliefs supplemented and complimented the fertility rites but never replaced them.

A Long time ago, during one of Buddha's many reincarnations, this time as a toad, the rain god (King of the Sky), Phaya Tan  (Taen) was angry with the people and animals. Buddha's, Phaya Khang Khok, sermons were drawing people and creatures from earth and sky away from the King of the Sky.  He decided to punish them by withholding the necessary life giving and sustaining rains.  After seven years, seven months, and seven days of drought, the surviving people and animals got together and consulted with Buddha.  After much deliberations, they decided that Phaya Nak (Naga), the giant snake, would lead them in war against the rain god, Phaya Tan.  Phaya Tan defeated the giant snake and his troops.  Buddha and the survivors then sent Phaya Dtaw, the wasp along with Phaya Dtan, the hornet, to battle the rain god.  Phaya Tan was once again victorious and the surviving people and animals returned home to wait for their inevitable death from the lack of water.

Buddha, the toad, developed a plan to attack the rain god by using termites to build mounds up to the sky so that scorpions and centipedes could climb up to battle Phaya Tan and his forces.  Moths assisted the attack against the forces of the King of the Sky by eating away the handles of the enemy's weapons. Buddha accepted Phaya Tan's surrender on condition that the King of the Sky immediately provide the rains and in the future.  If the King of the Sky should forget, the people will remind him by launching rockets at which time he will start the rains.

The largest and best internationally known rocket festival is in Yasothon.  Our favorite location for Bun Bang Fai is in the village of Ban That in Phen District located northeast of our home in Udonthani.

This year we have already attended a small Bun Bang Fai in a small village outside of Kumphawapi.  Rather than a full fledged festival , the occasion outside of Kumphawapi was more of a local rocket competition - launching of smaller rockets for trophies and ... betting.  Gambling is not legal in Thailand however I have always seen money changing hands at these rocket launches.  Duang left the rocket competition with 900 baht more than she had arrived with.

Launch Row - Ban That
The Bun Bang Fai Festival in Ban That is our favorite location.  This year the festival is being held from 11 May to 17 May.  I was able to obtain a schedule of events that Duang translated for my benefit.  We will be attending the festival on Monday, May 12th - getting there at 7:00 A.M. for the procession along with a show that evening and Thursday, May 15th - for the start of launching 200 rockets for the day.  Throughout each day of the festival there is entertainment, launches and plenty of food and drink ... for many people there is too much to drink but then again that is what helps make it a festival.

Float for Afternoon Procession
We went two days last year and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.  The festival concluded early after our attendance for the second day when a rocket went stray after launch and went into the cab of a pickup truck that was entering the parking lot - instantly killing the female occupant with the male driver dying on his way to the hospital.  There is always a certain danger at these events with excessive drinking and launching of gunpowder packed PVC tubes into the sky.

Finishing Up One of the Larger Rockets
Monks are often involved in the rocket building process
We are both looking forward to this year's festival in Ban That.  After that festival there is a smaller festival at Tambon Nongwha on 22 May.

It is that time of year again - busy times of festivals, rocket launches, music, dancing, fighting (some organized but many not planned) and merriment prior to the planting season.


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