Sunday, October 26, 2014

Squeal Like A Stuck Pig, Bleed Like A Stuck Pig

"Squeal Like A Stuck Pig, Bleed Like A Stuck Pig" - This blog has nothing to do with one of the most cinematic memorable scenes from the 1972 film "Deliverance"

This blog has to do with the question that parents may be asked along with the classic queries of "Why is the sky blue?" and "Where do babies come from?".  In this case the question is "Where do pork chops come from?"

WARNING:  The following narrative and photographs contain elements that some people may find disturbing

Living in Northeast Thailand, I am often witness to many unique cultural events, celebrations, and activities that are far different than my experiences of growing up and being educated back in New England.  I always strive to share these different the unique culture here in Isaan accurately and hopefully non-judgmentally.

Earlier this month, my wife and I drove out to Ban Maet to participate in the preparations for the celebration of Ok Phansa, the end of Vassa (Buddhist Rains Retreat), the following day. The start of the day was the typical offering of food to the Monks at the forest Wat of Luang Por Pohm Likit.  Later I was to photograph the local men making a basaht for the making of offerings to the spirits the next day.

As often happens here, which makes life so interesting and rewarding, things were not exactly as originally described or scheduled.  Shortly after completion of the morning merit making at the Wat, Luang Por Pohm Likit received a phone call. One of the local men wanted Luang Por Pohm Likit to let me know that they were going to be butchering a pig.  He thought  that I might be interested in photographing the process.  Duang translated to me and I was quickly off to the nearby location which was also where men were going to construct the basaht.

I arrived at the local policeman's small country farm just in time for the start of the big butchering process.

In addition to growing rice, papaya, coconuts, and various vegetables as well as herbs for personal use, the policeman also raised pigs.  Off in the corner of his property, he has a cinder block enclosure with corrugated metal roof where he raises approximately 30 pigs.  Inside the enclosure are cinder block pens where the pigs are segregated for various purposes.

I followed two of the men across the rice paddy to the pig pens.  I was surprised to find a clean facility.  There were several hose stations for rinsing the facility with water.  The effluent flowed by gravity from the facility down to the lower land on three sides of the compound.  Although the facility was clean and the pigs were clean, there was no doubt that I was in a pig pen.  On our trips to Tahsang Village down Highway 2, we pass by a commercial pig farm.  Just about every trip past the facility either Duang or I will say to the other "Why, why you not shower today?"  There is no mistaking the smell of a pig farm for anything other than what it is.

Ask not for whom the rope is for, it is for thee
There was one pig all by himself in one of the pens.  When we arrived at the compound, all the pigs were curious about our presence.  Many of the pigs rose up on their hind legs to peer over the low block walls to have a better look at us and more likely what we were up too.  The pigs were quite animated and vocal.

I stayed outside of the pens, observing and photographing the process.  One of the men slowly and cautiously entered the pen with the single pig.  His caution was more out of not wanting to disturb the pig than for concern for his safety. He carried two ropes.  One rope had a running bowline to form a noose.  The man rotated the grain feeder to distribute some food to occupy the pig.  After a few attempts, he managed to secure the noose around the pig's neck.  The pig was definitely not happy.  The pig squealed very loudly and desperately tried to break free from the control of the noose.

Getting hog tied

With the help of two other men, the pig was cornered and wrestled to the ground.  With considerable effort the pig was hog tied thereby immobilizing it. All the other pigs realized that something was going on and became highly agitated.  The air was filled with loud squeals and grunts.  Even more pigs rose up to view over the top of the separation walls between the pens.  Panic was rampant in the pens.

Pig Getting A Shower to Cool Off
The trussed up pig was lifted and placed on a two wheeled cart to be transported to the killing site.  The pig was highly agitated from its ordeal.  One of the men poured a few pans of water over the pig to calm and cool it down.  This is necessary to protect the quality of the meat. The men tried to keep the pig calm and cool - difficult to achieve when the pig is tied up, man handled and unable to move.

Pig Being Transported to Butchering Site
The pig was carted to a spot alongside the narrow country road just to the side of the gate to the farm.  I walked over to where the pig was laying on its side.  The pig was conscious.  The men positioned themselves around the pig.  One man placed a metal bowl near the exposed throat area of the pig.  One man stepped on the bound front legs and another man pulled the pigs head back to better expose the pig's throat.  Having seen the recent beheading of a man by ISIS on the Internet, I fully expected that a man would draw a knife across the throat of the pig to quickly kill it. I was wrong - very wrong.  A man took a rather small knife and stuck it into the neck of the pig.  He thrust the knife deeper and deeper into the neck with a twisting motion looking to sever the pig's jugular vein.

Sticking the pig
Blood flowed from the wound into the metal bowl.  The phrase "squeal like a stuck pig" immediately and unforgettably took on an entirely new meaning and significance for me. Once the jugular was severed, the blood squirted with each beat of the heart into the bowl.

Pig Bleeding Itself Out
The pig slowly died - bleeding to death as each heart beat pumped more blood into the metal bowls placed at the wound in its neck.  The squealing continued but slowly declined in volume and pitch, becoming overwhelmed by the sounds of labored breathing.

As death approached, one of the men held the pig's mouth shut while another man pumped the pig's side with his foot to help force more blood out of the dying animal.

It had taken 7 minutes for the pig to die.  I thought that this was not the proper or even best way to dispatch an animal.  However in researching to write this blog (Mother Earth News) I learned that sticking a pig without first shooting or stunning it is considered to be the most humane method of killing.

The dead pig was then transported to an area inside of the property next to a very large vat of scalding water over a wood fire. The carcass was placed on the ground near a section of recycled corrugated metal roofing that had been washed down with hot water and rinsed with cold water.

Not far from the butchering section, a polyethylene tarp was placed on the ground and freshly cut banana leaves were placed on the tarp along with a wood cutting block and a small spring scale often found in local food booths.

Scalding the pig

Pans of scalding hot water were poured over the carcass to facilitate the removal of hair.  After the scalding water was poured over a section, two men used knives to scrape the hair and epidermis off of the carcass.  The combination of hair and skin easily came off the carcass.  Once the entire pig had been scraped and cleaned, it was placed the recycled roof panel and washed completely and carefully.

Scraping the hide to remove hair and skin
Washing off the scraped pig
The ears were the first item cut and removed from the pig.  The ears were promptly placed in the big vat of scalding water were many other various parts of the pig were destined to be placed. After a while the ears were removed from the water, placed on bamboo skewers and positioned to grill along side of the wood fire.  After grilling, the ears were removed, cut up into bite sized pieces to be enjoyed by all people involved in the process.
The butchering of the pig did not proceed as I expected it to.  I thought that the carcass would be rigged from an overhanging tree limb, hoisted head down, and the first cut would carefully made from the anus to the chest to allow the abdominal bag, containing the internal organs, to spill out and be removed.  Thailand not like America - once again.  Here in Isaan the pig was placed on its legs in a prone position.  A strip of hide and underlying fat were cut from each side of the spine exposing the loins.  The fat was removed from the strips of hide at the near by banana leaf station.  The fat was then cut into six sections.  The hide was taken away for processing.  The loins were removed and taken to the cutting block on the banana leaf covered tarp where they were weighed and cut into six equal weight portions.
Work continued step by step to remove the outer cuts of meat from the pig.  Most of the cuttings were taken to the banana leaf area for weighing, trimming, and placing in the six piles.  Some cuttings were immediately placed in the vat of scalding water.
The last major portion of the pig to be removed from the carcass was the entrails.  The gall bladder was removed and hung from a branch of a nearby shrub - I later learned that the man would make "medicine - good for old people" out of it.  The intestines were hauled a short distance away to the banks of a ditch where two men occupied cleaning them out for either cooking as is or for use as sausage casings.  Many of the other offal were placed in the scalding water to join the head and brains.  Very little if any at all of the pig was wasted although I do not specifically know what was the disposition of the penis, testicles or tail.  All other parts were identified and accounted for. I assume the missing parts ended up in the "stew pot".
Processing pig intestines
The processing of the pig was completed at the banana leaf tarp station.  Each of the various cuts and organs was weighed an cut to create 6 equal weight piles on the tarp.
The piles were then placed in individual plastic bags.  Duang and I decided to buy one of the bags - roughly 10 kilograms of meat for 500 Baht (22 pounds for $16.66 USD).  We kept a couple of the cuts and gave the remainder to Duang's mother out in Tahsang Village.  That night I sat down for dinner to enjoy my fresh, extremely fresh, pork chops knowing fully well, perhaps too well, where my pork chops had come from.
I am often impressed at the ability of the local peoples to make do with their limited resources be it weaving their own fishing nets, fish traps, cultivating rice, weaving their cloth, and so many other activities that demonstrate their independence as well as self reliance.  Raising pigs for sale and consumption is another one of those activities.  It was a experience that I had not had before except for the butchering of a rabbit in Rhode Island almost 40 years ago.
Like so many of other people from my old world, I was not knowledgeable, experienced or even cognizant of the activities that created so much of what I took for granted in my life.  Here in Isaan, in Allen's World, so much more is up close and personal.
It is here in Isaan, that I saw the answer to the question of "Where do pork chops come from?"
The phrases of "Squeal like a stuck pig" and "Bleed like a stuck pig" also have a deeper and greater significance to me than before. 

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Basahts - Houses for Offerings to the Spirits.

Ban Maet Villagers Constructing a Basaht

As part of the Lao Loum, ethnic Lao, Theravada Buddhist funeral ritual and subsequent Tamboon Nung Roy Wan (100 days after cremation) ritual, offerings are made to the spirits - both the recently deceased as well as others.

In addition to making offerings to the spirits, offerings are also made to the local Monks.  The making of offerings is a merit making ritual by the family, friends, and neighbors of the deceased.  Merit is earned in many ways and is a determining factor in a person's reincarnation.  People earn merit for themselves as well as for their ancestors.

For death rituals and 100 Day Anniversary, the offerings to the spirits are made in small spirit houses.  The spirit houses are hand made out of local materials such as bamboo, banana leaves, banana stalks, colored paper, Styrofoam, wax, and foam board.

The spirit houses are constructed by men even including the elaborate cutting of colored paper to create lantern type decorations.

Inside the spirit houses, small furniture type items, household goods such as plates and cups, clothing items, food stuff, and money are placed - all items necessary for the ghosts to have on their journey to the other world.  Other offerings, offerings to the Monks, such as money, clocks, fans, pots, pans, brooms, buckets of toiletries, towels, etc. accompany the procession of the spirit house from the home of the deceased person to the local Wat.

Basahts are also used to make offerings to the Monks on special religious days, such as the end of Vassa, also known as the End of Buddhist Lent and End of the Buddhist Rain Retreat - Ok Phansa

Earlier this month, on the day before Ok Phansa, I went out with my wife to the small village of Ban Maet, east of our home.  Luang Por Pohm Likit, thinking or rather knowing that I would be interested,  had called to let us know about the local men would be constructing a basaht.

At a home not very far from the forest Wat, the local men had assembled at the home of a local policeman to build a basaht.

Unlike previous basahts that I had seen, this one was being constructed out of all natural materials - no plastic chairs as a foundation, no Styrofoam, no foam boards or even colored paper.

The base of the basaht was a stretcher type structure of bamboo.  The center of the basaht was a freshly peeled banana stalk. Two men worked on setting and securing the stalk to the bamboo base.

Another two men sat at a table and were occupied creating very small pegs almost pin like from bamboo.  As they finished a peg, they pushed it into a waste piece of banana stalk saving the pegs for future use.

Once the men had properly secured the center banana stalk, the men focused on installing stalks of what appeared to be very young sugar cane to the central column.  To provide some dimension and decorative element to the structure, the young green stalks were partially cut and bent so as to form triangles protruding from the surface of the column.  Ensuring that there was uniformity and symmetry, the cuts were carefully measured.  Lacking a tape measure or ruler, the master builder used precut pieces of bamboo to layout his cuts. The stalks were then attached to the column with the homemade pegs and wrapped with small diameter wire.

Other commitments prevented us from seeing the completed basaht or to participate in the next day's ritual.  However when we returned to the forest Wat for Duang's birthday, I discovered the completed basaht - being returned to the earth from which came.

The Spent Basaht Left to Biodegrade

I am often awed by the resourcefulness of the local people.  They have the ability to make the most out of whatever is available to them.  Often they demonstrate style as well as grace in their creations using locally available materials. Witnessing their skill is often an inspiration for me.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Forest Foundry, Not To Be Confused With Forest Gump

Recently Cast Buddha Statues Outside of Kohn Kaen

I have lived six of the past eight years here in Thailand, mostly in the Northeast area known as Isaan.  Having spent this amount of time in the area, I have had the opportunity to experience many unique aspects of Thai and ethnic Lao culture.

My wife is from a large family, six years ago it amounted to 23 aunts and uncles along with 96 cousins.  During the past six years there have been some deaths as well as some births so the size of the family has actually increased.

Duang's father who died a year ago was a well known entertainer in the area - singing in traditional Lao music events.  He went on to be a teacher to many of today's entertainers.  Several of his former students performed during the rituals for his death.  Duang's youngest brother maintains the family entertainment tradition by performing in local Malham Lao and Malham Sing shows.

My wife is a devout Buddhist with ties and connections with many members of the Sanga, Buddhist religious community.

Between the family ties, entertainment ties and Buddhist ties, I am kept rather well informed of unique cultural events and location in the area.

One of these opportunities was yesterday, which involved a drive south to Wat Pa Khao Suan Kwang Tat Fah outside of Kohn Kaen.  Last week, Duang had gone off to participate in a special merit making event at Wat Pa Khao Suan Kwang Tat Fah.  Her mother had told her of the event.  Duang returned with a very nice cast bronze statue of "Meditation Buddha" - Buddha in the meditation pose which is the Thai Buddha pose associated with Thursday.  Duang and I were both born on a Thursday albeit different months and some years apart. Being each born on a Thursday we share the Buddhist color of the week, orange, and the Buddha pose of "Meditation Buddha"

The statue is about 17 inches high and roughly 9 inches wide, weighing roughly 15 pounds. It is a unique statue in the aspect that Buddha has a disk above each shoulder with a down turned horn or tusk supporting the disk.  I asked Duang if the disks were lotus seed pods but she does not know what they and the horns are about.  I counted 8 raised dots on the disks, so perhaps there is some symbolism of the 8 spoked wheel of Buddhism.  Duang did tell me that this type of Buddha is only done by this Monk apparently inspired by a vision he had in a dream.

Duang's participation in the special merit making at a small Wat in the middle of no where was not by chance - it was tied to family, entertainment, and religious affiliations.  Duang's youngest brother had been a monk for two and one half years when he was a young boy.  When he was 12, he spent six months at the Wat in Tahsang Village.  When his mentor went to Wat Pa Khao Suan Kwang Tat Fah outside of Khon Kaen, Duang's brother went with him and spent two years with him there.

That special Monk was also a friend of Duang's father and enjoyed his music.  The Monk has since moved on and now stays at a Wat in Ratchaburi, southwest of Bangkok.  Some Monks are well known for various skills, abilities, powers, and accomplishments.  Some Monks are renowned for creating powerful magical tattoos.  Others are well known for the powers of the amulets that they make.  Other Monks are revered for their healing abilities. Some Monks are sought for their ability to foretell the future through numbers.  As it turns out this Monk is now known for his bronze castings.

The Monk had returned to Wat Pa Khao Suan Kwang Tat Fah to make 200 of the Buddha statues.  Apparently he travels around Thailand making these statues when there is a sufficient demand for the pieces.  He does not actually make the statues himself but has family members and devotees who travel with him to do the work.  He supervises the work, blesses the statues and empowers them.

The statues sell for 5,000 Baht each - roughly $166 USD. The Monk gave Duang one for free out of friendship.

During her first visit with the Monk, Duang saw the statues being cast.  She told the Monk about my passion for photographing things here.  Yesterday morning the Monk called Duang to tell her that he wanted me to come over and take pictures.  He and his crew were finishing up their order and were returning to their homes today.

For such an opportunity, I do not have to be invited twice.  Well we made it a family event, we brought along Duang's mother, her youngest brother, his manager, and our 5 year old grandson, Peelawat.

As the family had their reunion with the Monk I quickly immersed myself in all the activity going on outside under the shade of the trees.

Buddha Statues Awaiting Installation of Disks and Horns
Outside of the sala, underneath many large trees, several people were busy in the many steps of producing the statues.  A quick view of the area indicated that I would not be able to witness the actual casting of any statues.  I did see where Duang had seen the big fires for making the molten metal to produce the statues.  However there was plenty of other activities to witness and photograph.

From my experience working part of one summer during my college days at ITT Grinnell foundry in Cranston, Rhode Island, I recognized that the workers were using the "lost wax" or "investment casting" process to produce the bronze statues.

Items produced by the lost wax process have been dated back to over 5,700 years ago.

The first step of the lost wax process is to make a model made from rubber, clay, or some other suitable material of the desired object.  On my visit yesterday, I did not see the model for the statues that were being produced.  It is not necessary to have the model in order to produce a lost wax casting.  What is necessary is the mold for the item that you want to cast. This brings us to the second step.

The second step of the process is to produce a mold of the model or even of the original sculpture to be reproduced.  The mold is the exact negative of the model or original sculpture.  What ever is to protrude on the casting is a recess on the mold and visa versa for indentations.  There are various techniques and configurations for producing a mold.  The Monk's crew used a method that embraces modern times as well as retaining historical links.

I did not see the molds for the large Buddha statue during my visit, but I was able to witness and photograph much of the process for a smaller statue of a revered Monk of more modern times.

Nowadays, molds are typically consist of a softer inner mold and a rigid outer mold which supports the inner mold.  Inner molds are typically made out of rubber, latex, or silicone.  The outer mold is made from fiberglass, plaster or some other appropriate material.  The purpose of this mold is to create a hollow wax reproduction of the model or original sculpture.  The Monks crew had a split silicone model for their statue.  There were protrusions on one half of the mold which matched up to recesses on the other half of the mold to ensure alignment and orientation.

Worker Applies Molten Wax To Inside of Split Silicone Mold
The next step is create a wax replica of the item to be cast.  The wax replica included protrusions from the surface that would later assist in the flow of metal and escape of gasses during the casting process. The monk's crew created the wax replica without the use of an outer mold.  Instead of pouring wax into a mold to create a replica, they brushed molten wax on to the interior of their silicon molds.  The wax was melted and kept at the proper temperature in a large recycled rectangular metal container, similar to the ones used for selling crackers or cookies, set over a small charcoal fire.  As a layer of wax cooled on the silicone mold, another layer was quickly added to build up to the desired metal thickness of the statue.

Once the two halves of the replica were completed and cooled, they were carefully aligned and joined using hot wax.  The workers then carefully and painstakingly detailed the wax replica - ensuring that the seam where they were joined did not show, and all surface irregularities were removed through the skillful use of a knife or a brush filled with hot wax.

Adding Hot Wax With A Brush

Detailing A Hollow Wax Replica

Looks Just About Right!
Once the hollow wax replicas are acceptable, they are read for the next step.  The replicas outer surface is quickly and carefully coated by hand with a layer of plaster.

Making A Batch of Plaster

Wax Replicas Being Coated With Plaster
After the wax molds covered in plaster dry sufficiently they are carried the very short distance where two men added rolled cylinders to the wax pins protruding from the mold.  These cylinders will create avenues for the molten metal to properly access all points of the wax mold and for air and gases to escape thereby eliminating pockets in the cast metal. 

The wax molds with protruding wax cylinders are then covered in a fairly thick mud that appeared to be a mixture of clay and grout.

After the clay and grout based mud is a certain thickness, additional wax structures and cylinders were added to create a tree like structure - this process is called spruing.  The wax branches of the tree like structure tie into a large plug of wax at the top of the mold.  This plug is the cup where the molten metal will eventually be poured.

Encasing the Sprued Mold With Additional Mud
The sprued mold was then encased with additional layers of the clay-grout mud.  When the mud dried, two of the workers worked to encase the mold in a lattice work of small diameter steel wire.  The workers trussed up the molds using pre-measured coiled lengths of the picture hanging type wire.  They took particular care to ensure that the loops around the mold were tight and embedded into the still not completely set mud.  I suspect that this wire reinforcement survived two purposes just like rebar in reinforced concrete construction.  The first purpose is to bear tensile forces developed in the casting process similar to the hoops of a barrel and the second purpose is to distribute the heat of hydration as the mud cures. Distributing the heat equally helps to prevent cracking of the mud.

This was the last step of the casting process that I was able to witness during our visit.  However there was plenty of work going on with previously cast statues.  Many cast statues were set on the ground awaiting the installation of the unique disks and downturned horns.

Brazing Station

The disk and downturned horn assemblies, two to a statue, are too delicate to be cast as part of the main statue.  They are cast separately and brazed to the main statue using oxy-acetylene torch and bronze rods .  One worker wearing common sunglasses sat amongst several industrial gas bottles of oxygen and acetylene.  He would take a disk-horn assembly from a common metal food serving tray, place it in the proper location on the back of the statue, heats the statue and disk assembly at the connection point along with the bronze rod to complete the connection.

Brazing Disk Assembly to Statues

Grinding and Buffing Statue
The statues then go to a nearby station for grinding, buffing, and polishing.  Sitting on extremely low stools, workers used electric grinders with various wheels to eliminate all surface defects.  Cast statues had been inspected and marked up with a blue magic marker to identify areas that require remedial work as well as the obvious disk to statue brazed connections.

After the surfaces of the statues are made acceptable they are carried up the steps of the sala and set on wood tables to be painted.

Statues Getting A First of Four Coats of Paint

The statues receive four coats of paint to transform the dull bronze surface into a shiny brilliant "gold" surface.  On our visit I was only able to witness the application of the first coat.

I rejoined the family inside the sala where they were visiting their friend the Monk.  As they continued their visit, Peelawat and I went around taking photographs.  Since it was around 4:00 PM, the light inside the sala needed some supplementation.  I decided to use an off camera flash attached to my camera with a coiled cord.  Peelawat is five years old now and for a long time has been interested in my photography efforts.  I decided to give him some responsibility and gave him the flash to hold.  I was able to position him and orientate the flash with very little effort.  It was quite a thrill for me to see his face when I showed him the photos that he had assisted to make.  Soon he was pointing at things for me to photograph with his assistance.  Peelawat did a very good job and I will have him assist again. He would be even more help if he were taller, but I doubt he will get to be anywhere close to 9 or 10 feet tall like stationary light stands.  No matter the case he is much more entertaining.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Isaan Boat Racing - October 17-19

The end of the Rainy Season marks the time for long boat racing in Isaan and across the Mekong River in Lao People's Democratic Republic.  Not to be outdone, there is long boat racing in Cambodia this year during the Water Festival from November 5 to 7 in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.

We will be attending the water festival during our visit to Angkor Wat next month.

We do not have to travel far to watch long boat racing.  Every year there is racing competition in near by Kumphawapi.  This year the Kumphawapi festival will be held from October 17-18.

The races are held on Hon Kumphawapi just north of where Highway 2023 crosses over the water.

On the 18th, on the west side of the Hwy 2023 bridge, my brother-in-law once again will be performing with his band and go-go girls at the local Honda motorcycle dealership.

Duang will not be attending since she will be participating in an all day and night religious retreat in Tahsang Village so I will be on my own at the regatta.

This time before the start of this year's rice harvest is a very busy time - busy for shows, boat racing, festivals, and having fun.  It will also be a very busy time for us ... experiencing and enjoying as much as we can.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Sarapan Competition

Young Woman Singing In Sarapan Competition

The end of Vassa is coming soon.  Vassa, also known as "Buddhist Rain Retreat" and "Buddhist Lent" is a three lunar month period during the rainy season when monks are supposed to stay in their monasteries and temple grounds.  This practice predates Christianity by over five hundred years.  The intent of the retreat was to prevent Monks from trampling crops, injuring themselves, or perhaps harming creatures beneath the flooded fields.

The last day of Vassa this year, Wan Ok Phansa, is 8 October.  Wan Ok Phansa is a day of great celebration.  Great celebration includes fireworks.  Yesterday at one of the markets that we shop at there was quite a run on fireworks.  The roped off section inside the building near the cash registers was filled with adults and just as many children of all ages scurrying about selecting fireworks.  There were sparklers, and pre-packaged ordnance of all sizes.  In three separate wire boxes there were round fireworks of three different sizes - the largest being the size of a medium coconut.

During the past two weeks, as the end of Vassa approached, twice we have attended a special religious observance - a sort of singing competition called Sarapan. Sarapan is the singing of the three gems of Buddhism - Buddha, the  Dhamma (teachings of Buddha), and the Sanga (Buddhist religious community)

Duang told me it was "salapon" or what sounded like "s-a-l-a-p-on" to me.  I searched on Google for salapon, salapan, salaporn, sarapon, saraporn, and not until I tried "sarapan" did I get some information - little as it was.  The lesson that was reinforced upon today was - don't always trust your ears - try and try again when researching a word from one language to another language.

The information from the Internet confirmed what Duang had told me and provided a little, very little, more background.

Sarapan Ensemble Performing In Ban Dum Nam Muang
My first encounter with Sarapan singing was on 20 September during our visit to Ban Dum Nam with Luang Por Pohm Likit to the home of a beautiful young victim of a senseless shooting.-

Upon entering the small village, we saw some type of event in progress at the local Wat.  Several pavilions had been set up on the Wat grounds along with a stage.  Many women were dressed in matching traditional Isaan clothing.

After taking my photos at the injured woman's home, Duang was fully engaged with the other visitors and occupants of the home. I knew that the visit was going to last a while and that I would understand very little of what was being or would be said.  I made my farewell to the residents and  I told Duang that I was going to check out what was going on down at the Wat as I took off.

As I entered the grounds with my camera and camera bag, I was immediately met by a security man.  No, he did not want to check my backpack.  No, he did not want to see any identification - photo ID included.  He wanted to bring me to where he thought that I would get the best photos.  He had no concern for the dignitaries that he walked me in front of.  He wanted to be sure that I was at the foot of the stage - center stage!  I acknowledged the seated dignitaries and Monks seated under a large canopy about ten meters to my right.  I took a few quick shots and retreated to a less obtrusive location at the end of the stage.

This is a common experience for me here in Thailand.  People, even security people, are very friendly and accommodating when I go to take photographs.  I show them some of the photos that I am taking which is a small way of thanking them for their help.

Another Sarapan Ensemble Performing In Ban Dum Nam Muang
Apparently Sarapan singing is a unique aspect of Isaan culture - mostly likely specifically the Lao Loum ethnic culture.  Sarapan singing originated from Theravada Buddhist Monks prayers.  Monks taught the laypeople how to sing the Sarapan.

The singing of Sarapan often during Vassa became popular and there are many competitions.  Here in Isaan there are many competitions between the local villages of sub districts.  At the end of each year there is an athletic competition between the various village elementary schools.  These competitions are a rich blend of sports, music, ethnic foods, dance, crafts and socializing for people of all ages.  In early May, at the start of the Rainy Season, there is a competition between the villages of a sub district.  The competition, traditional dancing, associated with Bun Bang Fai (rocket festival) has each village entering a dance team wearing traditional Lao Loum costumes.  It is great to watch and very interesting to photograph.  Weeks prior to the competition, the villagers practice their routine - called to practice and dancing to music blared over the village sound system.

These competitions as well many religious festivals and events foster a sense of community and reinforce the cultural identity of the Isaan people.  Sarapan competitions serve the same purpose as well as being merit making rituals for the performers.

Awards Table
Ensembles in Sarapan competitions are evaluated on their singing, appearance in addition to how they sing.  There is a formal and stylized way in which the singing is to be done.

For the Sarapan competition in Ban Dum Nam Muang cash prizes were awarded.  First place was 8,000 Baht.  Second place was 5,000 Baht.  Third place prize was 3,000 Baht ($100 USD approx.). All other participating ensembles received 2,000 Baht to help pay for the costs of competing.

The local government helps to finance the competition as well as donations from local politicians, patrons, and local businesses - again the community contributing to building a sense of community and supporting the celebration of local culture.

Our second encounter with Sarapan Competition was on September 28th.  For two weeks our friend, Luang Por Pohm Likit, had read an invitation to the people of his forest Wat to attend a Sarapan competition in a small village.  We ended up driving him in our truck as part of a four vehicle convoy over to Ban Nong Na Kham.  Ban Nong Na Kham is very close to the Wat that we witnessed the first Sarapan competition.

Sarapan Ensemble In Ban Nong Na Kham
Buddhism is the life of the middle path.  Luang Por Pohm Likit is a Buddhist Monk, but apparently when it comes to navigation, he prefers and chooses the narrow and curvy path.  I followed his directions - a combination of Thai, English and hand gestures over one and one-half lane country roads that snaked around rice paddies, and through tiny villages for what seemed to me to be a very long time made all the much longer by frequent encounters with on coming vehicles as well as death wish motorbike drivers.  Eventually we arrived at a point where I recognized a familiar landmark - an abandoned brick chimney near Ban Dum Nam Muang!  Looking further past the chimney I saw the main highway, Highway 22 from Udonthani to Sakon Nakhon!  I knew where we were and planned to take the much quicker and safer Highway 22 back to Udon and then back to Wat Ban Mat for our return.  After a few more twists and turns we arrived at the site of the competition.

Duang stayed with the other people of Ban Mat and I wandered off to take photographs.

Novice Monks Finishing Their One Meal of the Day
The Wat had many interesting venues to take photographs in.  There were many Monks enjoying the entertainment of the competition.  Many people and plenty of children were there to enjoy the singing, food, as well as the company of residents from several villages in attendance.

I was enjoying myself listening to the singing, taking photographs, and interfacing with the people when after a short while, or so it seemed to me, I ran into Luang Por Pohm Likit in a wooded grove on the Wat grounds.  He said that my wife was looking for me.  We went off together and quickly found Duang who informed me that she had been looking for me for an hour.  I guess time does fly by when you are having fun.  I was not the only one having fun that day.

Enjoying Ice Cream At the Helium Balloon Booth
It turned out that it was time for Luang Por Pohm Likit and the rest of the Ban Mat convoy to return to the Wat in the forest.  We got in the truck and arrived soon at an intersection,  I spoke with the Monk about wanting to take Highway 22 back.  He once again chose the narrow and winding path to go.  I don't know why he wanted to go back the same way - perhaps he was enjoying the ride and wanted it to last longer or if he liked the more scenic route.  No matter the case, we went along the path that he chose.  Similar to the Muslim religion where devotees do not ask for things from Allah for to do so would be to question his will to begin with and "Who are we to question the will of Allah?"  Who was I to question, let alone argue with, the will of a Buddhist Monk especially when Duang is such a devoted Buddhist.  As they say - some things are best not argued and best left alone.