Friday, March 27, 2015

Mushroom Farming in Isaan

This blog was a long time in coming.  I started to write the blog eleven days ago, but I was not certain regarding the facts and details of the process for cultivating mushrooms here in Northeast Thailand.

Thanks to the wonders of the Internet and Google, I found some excellent information related to how mushrooms are supposed to be grown here. An excellent source was the "Mushroom Grower's Handbook" 2004 by MushWorld (if some one knows about how mushrooms are supposed to be grown is has got to be these guys!)

The sugar cane harvest is winding down now, but outside of the Kumphawapi Sugar Cane Company, there are huge mounds of waste - "bagasse" - a waste product that Duang and I refer to as "key oi" (sugar shit).  Bagasse smells sickening  - a combination of extremely smelly feet and overpowering sweetness.  Bagasse is composed of fiber, moisture, and soluble solids.  It is roughly one-half cellulose, one-third carbon, one percent nitrogen, with some potassium and phosphorous.

Often during our travels out to Duang's village we see people picking through the fresh moist mounds of bagasse seeking out mushrooms.  Local farmers also purchase truckloads of the waste to add to their  land as a soil conditioner.

My research indicated that sugar bagasse is used as a substrate for cultivating oyster mushrooms.  I became comfortable in my belief that Duang's relatives were growing oyster mushrooms.  Delving further into the handbook, Chapter 5, I started to have my doubts regarding the mushroom process in Isaan that I had observed previously. The handbook showed substrate being made and placed in small plastic bags that would then get inoculated with spawn. It outlined spawn preparation. The chapter also discussed incubation as well as pasteurization.

Duang's Aunt Preparing Mushrooms
I asked Duang what kind of mushrooms were the people growing.  She replied "Hed Fang"

With that information, I returned to my Internet research, this time- Chapter 2 of the handbook. Lo and behold, there was a table, Table 1, that was a list of commercially cultivated mushrooms in Thailand.  In addition to the common name, and Latin name the table provided the Thai name for the mushroom.  The last entry in the table was "Hed Fang" - Straw mushroom.  Things were starting to make more sense - I had seen rows of straw mounds where underneath I knew mushrooms were growing.

The remainder of the chapter provided details that confirmed some of my observations, straw mushrooms being grown from December to April  but a great detail of information no where near what I had seen on my trips out to the family mushroom plot.

It turns out that mushroom cultivation here in Isaan is another example of "The ways that things are supposed to be and the way that they really are."

I have written several times about the duality and dichotomy of life here in Isaan, I now realize that it also applies to matters other than religion, morality, ethics, and politics.

Aside from the way mushrooms are supposed to be cultivated, I will now share how they are cultivated by Duang's family along with several other villagers that I have observed.

Duang's Aunt Processing Straw Mushroom Spawn
One morning when we drove out to Tahsang Village, we saw Duang's aunt, Kwan's grandmother, sitting on the raised rustic platform located outside of her house busily working.  It turned out that she was preparing to grow some mushrooms.

Placed on the ground off to her right, were several large Kraft paper bags each packed solid with several clear plastic bags.  The plastic bags were stuffed with a moist organic mass and the ends were secured with PVC plastic collars.  The bags looked exactly like the bags used to grow mushrooms the way that they are supposed to according to the handbook - but not the Tahsang Village way.

Duang's aunt was busy removing the PVC collar from the bags and pulling the compressed organic cylinders from the polypropylene bags.  A large plastic tub, in front of her, rested on the platform. The tub had seen better days - about 50% of its rim had become detached from the thin walls of the container.  However the tub still was fit for many purposes, just not as many as previously.

A grating, perhaps a recycled oven rack or part of a display case covered part of the black tub.  After freeing the cylinders from their confines of the bags, Duang's aunt broke them up with her hands along with the action of running them back and forth across the grating.  Broken organic matter accumulated in the tub beneath the grating.

When the black tub was filled with broken organic matter, Duang's aunt added some handfuls of a prepared powder (special super secret powder?) using her hands to thoroughly mix and blend the contents of the tub. I suspect that the prepared powder contained nutrients and chemicals to assist the bloom and growth of the mushrooms. She then placed the loose mixture into the empty Kraft paper bags.  Later that day, at 4:00 P.M. the mixture would be used at the site of the family mushroom plot.

We dropped by the mushroom plot at 4:00 P.M.  The sun sets around 5:30 P.M. so the temperature was more bearable.

Kwan, Pare, and Their Grandfather Arrive to Work On Mushrooms
Duang's uncle arrived with his two granddaughters to work the mushrooms.  The plot consisted of several rows of plastic covered mounds.

The first task was to remove the polyethylene plastic sheet covering each row. Removing the sheeting carefully off to the side of each row revealed a line of compacted rectangles of what I assumed to be sugar bagasse for the substrate to grow the mushrooms.  Wrong!  I checked with Duang's uncle and it turned out that the blocks were actually formed out of cassava waste from the local mill.  I asked about what layers of other components did he use to make the rectangular blocks - the handbook had listed the layers and components to construct blocks.  Oh I forgot ... that is the way that they are supposed to be constructed.  The way that they are actually constructed, at least in Tahsang Village, is to put cassava processing waste in a wood form and compact it to form the free standing substrates.

Once the substrates in a row had been uncovered, Duang's uncle walked down the row sprinkling by hand the material that his wife had prepare earlier in the day.

Sprinkling Spawn on Substrates
Once the spawn material had been distributed along a row, the row was sprinkled with water from a watering can.  Once a row had been watered, the plastic sheet was then carefully placed over the substrates.  The free ends of the plastic sheet were held down with loose soil that bordered the rows.

Three days later the plastic sheet was removed from the rows and after hand made home made bamboo strips where installed to form hoops along the row, the sheeting was placed over the row of substrates.  A thick mat of rice straw was placed over the tent row formed by the hoops and plastic sheet.

Mushrooms Ready For Harvest
After three days, the straw was removed and the plastic sheeting was pulled to the side to expose the first harvest of Hed Fang.  Using ordinary kitchen knives, the women carefully cut the mushrooms ensuring that a portion of the stem remained on the substrate.  After harvesting of the crop, the sheeting was returned and then covered with straw.

Three separate crops of mushrooms are produced from a row - each crop about 3 days apart.

Preparing Harvested Mushrooms for Market.
The family receives roughly 70 baht a kilogram ($1.06 USD/pound) wholesale for their mushroom crops.  The family also enjoys the mushrooms in their cuisine.

I am continually impressed in the ability of the Lao Loum people here in Isaan to do what is necessary to care for themselves and family.  I have seen them grow rice, cultivate corn, sugar cane, peanuts and cassava.  They weave their own fishnets, and  baskets.

The people are very resourceful and self-reliant.  I consider myself very fortunate to be able to observe and document this way of life.  I consider it to be my responsibility to share this way of life with others if for no other reason than to educate others as to how others live.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Planting Cassava

Planting Cassava In NE Thailand
My last blog entry was about harvesting cassava (manioc, tapioca, Brazilian Arrowroot) on Duang's aunt's land eleven days ago, so it is logical that my next blog entry would be about replanting the cassava crop.  Replanting?  Yes.  As part of the harvesting process, the long slender stalks of the cassava plant were saved.  The stalks stripped of branches and leaves were gathered up from the field and transported back to the family home.

Back at the farmer's home or at a willing relative's home, the stalks are stacked like cord wood.  The stalks are then cut into 8 to 9 inch long pieces with a heavy cane knife - one stalk at a  time - a job performed by both men and women.  The short pieces of stalk are collected in woven baskets.  The pieces are then brought over to a tub of water where they are washed and wet down before placing them into recycled fertilizer or rice bags.  The stalk sections remain in the bags for three days, after which they are transported out to a prepared field and planted by hand.

After harvesting the field eleven days ago, Duang's family waited a few days before preparing the stalks from the harvest.  Yesterday they called to let us know that they would be replanting the field that had been previously harvested.  I grabbed my camera bag and we headed out to Tahsang Village - arriving at 10:00 A.M.

Although the cassava was being planted by hand, the actual preparation of the field is performed by a tractor.  Our weather has turned hot ... eleven days of heavily overcast grey skies with high temperatures around 38 degrees ... 38 degrees Celsius (centigrade) - 100F!  Upon our arrival, the temperature was already 34C  (94F).  Besides the heat, there was a great deal of dust.  The rains just before the harvest eleven days ago were just a tease.  The monsoon rains have not returned yet although the weather is more unsettled.  The ground is now very dry.

The heavy furrows created by the tractor plowing the ground were bone dry - fine particles of clay and slightly larger grains of sand without any organic matter or moisture to bind them together.  I placed the cover to a piece of my photo gear on a fertilizer bag laying flat on the ground.  When we packed to return to our home 30 minutes, I was stunned at the amount of dust on the cover.  I was glad that I had decided not to change lenses in that environment.

Loading Up Basket With Cassava Stems
Workers were kept busy loading up woven hand baskets with cassava stalks from the recycle fertilizer bags containing the processed stems from the house.  After loading up their baskets, the workers walked along the dusty furrows across the field.  At set intervals along the furrow, they tossed one of the 6-9 inch long stalks on top of the raised mounds bordered by the furrows.

Distributing Cassava Stalks Along the Furrows

While half of the crew distributed the stalks, the other half of the crew followed along, sticking the short stalks into the soft mounded earth.

Another Stalk In the Dirt
There was a rhythm to their labor - the work proceeded at a rather quick pace - a choreographed series of movements developed and fine tuned over many years of toil.

A Busy Morning In the Fields Outside Tahsang Village
The parked farm truck offered a little relief to the workers - a jug of cool drinking water with a common cup, a couple recycled fertilizer bags placed on the ground to sit upon, and just a tiny bit of some shade.  Things were so bad that the family dog spent all his time underneath the truck.

After one-half hour, I started gathering up my gear.  I walked over to my wife and asked her if she wanted to go home.  She quickly nodded "Yes" and actually got back to the truck before I did.

I could not imagine spending another 6 to 6-1/2 hours out there photographing let alone planting the cassava.  I could not imagine, but for the workers, it was their reality, their life.  I am impressed with people that I refer to as survivors, people who do what is necessary to support themselves as well as their family.  For many people surviving requires efforts and a life that many people can not imagine.

However, seeing and learning how people survive provides inspiration and admiration of what people are capable of.  It also demonstrates how much that we take for granted is not necessary to survive or to be happy.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Cassava Harvest In Isaan

Harvesting Cassava In Northeast Thailand

These are busy times once again in the fields of Northeast Thailand, a region known as Isaan (Isarn, Esarn, Isan).  The sugar cane harvest which started in December continues albeit winding down.  The weather is changing headed towards the rainy season.

The sugar cane harvest that commenced in December continues albeit tapering off and will be over in the middle of next month. In addition to the cutting of cane, workers are busy planting the next crop of cane.  Some of the cut canes are reserved and not sent to the local refineries.  The reserved canes are laid flat in narrow shallow trenches across the fields. After being sprinkled by hand with dry commercial fertilizer, the canes are covered with dirt.  In short time especially with the return of the rains new canes sprout up from the old buried canes.

In anticipation of the full return of the monsoon rains in the next one to two months, farmers are preparing their rice paddies.  Dikes are being built and maintained as necessary.  The land bounded by the dikes are being turned over to bury vegetation, aerate the ground, and prepare it to receive and hold the rainwater to come - water necessary for the wet cultivation method of rice cultivation.

Now is also the time for harvesting and selling sweet corn along the side of the road.  Unlike the USA, sweet corn is sold cooked and not raw at roadside stands.  Next to the stand you will typically find large pots or kettles filled with salted water and husked corn.  On the shelf of the primitive stand recycled plastic shopping bags of cooked corn are displayed for sale.

Two weeks ago we had some rain 6 out of 7 days.  The rain was not a great deal, roughly six millimeters each day, but it was significant in the sense that it allowed activities related to local agriculture to commence.

The recent rains have allowed the harvest of cassava to proceed.  Cassava, also known as Brazilian Arrowroot, Manioc, and Tapioca, is one of the important crops here in Northeast Thailand.  Cassava is drought resistant and can grow in poor soils - two conditions that Isaan has in over abundance.  The rains end in September and do not resume until April or May.  The soil of Isaan is a combination of sand and clay with very little, if any, organic components.

Cutting Cassava Stalks

Cassava is a woody shrub that has tubers that are a source of carbohydrates.  Thailand is the world's greatest exporter of dried cassava.

Here in Isaan, the cassava is harvested when the stalks are about two meters (six feet) tall.  The plants achieve two meters height about six months after being planted.  Besides being drought resistant and capable of growing in poor soil, cassava presents other advantages to the Lao Loum farmers of Isaan.

First of all, it is not always necessary to purchase seeds, or cuttings to plant a crop of cassava.  If you harvest a crop of cassava, the stalks are kept, processed, and replanted to produce a new crop.  If you do not have a crop to process for the next crop, you can purchase cuttings for 2,000 Baht (approx $66 USD) for one rai (0.39 acres) of land.

Secondly, it is not necessary to purchase fertilizer for the cultivation of cassava. There is also no need to purchase insecticides to apply to the crop.

Thirdly, once the crop is planted, no additional labor is required until the crop is ready to be harvested.

The market price for cassava today is 60,000 Baht (approx $2,000 USD) for 5 rai of crop delivered to the processor in nearby Kumphawapi.

Cassava is harvested by hand,  Duang's Aunt had called to let us know that they would be harvesting 5 rai of her cassava crop the following day.  The harvesting crew was comprised of 3 hired hands and 3 family members.  It would take 4 days to harvest the crop and an additional 2 days to process the stalks for replanting with one day to plant the stalks for the next crop.  The hired help receive 300 baht ($10 USD) and two meals for an 8 hour day.

Duangchan Cutting Cassava Stems

The harvest crew was split into two groups, each with distinct tasks to perform.  The women, whom Duang joined in working, used sugar cane knives to cut the tall slender stalks about 25 cm (10 inches) above the ground. They then skillfully used the knives to lop off the branches and leaves.  They walked along the rows of stalks continuing this process until their non-knife hand could no longer hold anymore stalks at which point the bar stalks were placed in a neat bundle on the ground to be collected later.

Duang Trimming A Cassava Stalk

In the meantime the men were occupied extracting the tubers from the ground.  The men used a special tool to pry the tubers from the ground in which they have grown deeper and bigger over the previous six months.  The tool was a simple tool based upon the engineering principle of the lever. The tool was a stout bamboo pole, about 2.5 meters long (8 foot) with a chisel point on one end.  About 76 cm (28 in) from the chisel tip there was a metal collar around the pole with a stepped metal plate extending from the collar.  The function of the metal plate is to grab and secure the stem stub sticking out of ground to convert it into a fulcrum necessary to create the mechanical advantage associated with a lever for pulling the tubers out of the ground.

Base of Cassava Tuber Extraction Tool
To extract the mass of tubers, often entangled together, the worker positions the pole so that the stub of the plant stem is grabbed and captured by the metal plate of the extraction tool.  Once the stem is secured, the worker lifts the free end of the pole as high as is necessary or as high as he can to pull the tuber roots out of the ground.  This is physically demanding work since the tubers are large, deep, entangled, and have not been disturbed since they were planted six months earlier.

Pulling Cassava Roots Out of the Ground
Once the majority of the plant's tubers are pulled above ground, the worker uses his hands to completely break them free from the Earth's grasp.  Many times the worker has to bend down or kneel on the ground so that he can remove any broken roots still embedded in the ground.

The masses from several plants are stacked together to await loading into a farm wagon or truck to then be transported to the local commercial processor in Kumphawapi.  Soon the field is dotted and lined with mounds of cassava roots and stacked  stems.

Stacking Cassava Tubers
Unfortunately with the anticipated return of the seasonal rains, the temperatures are increasing.  Our high temperature for the past week has been in the high 30's ... that is high 30's Celsius ... 38C - 100F.  Mid-April is our hottest time of the year with highs of 100 -105F and lows at night of 85-90F.  The high temps and rainy weather are part of the cycle of life here in Isaan.  They are necessary for life to continue.  They are necessary to nourish the people with their staple rice for the up coming year.

The cassava harvest is a milestone along the cycle of rural life here in Isaan for the Lao Loum people and those who choose to live amongst them.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Pouring of Coconut Water; Pouring of Water

Prepared Green Coconuts

After a relatively long spell, we attended three funerals in the past week.  To some it may seem that I may be chasing funerals for photographic opportunities.  That is not true, family obligations and community obligation to attend funerals gives me plenty of photography opportunities.

Funerals here in Isaan, Northeast Thailand, amongst the ethnic Lao people are milestone life events.  The Theravada Buddhist funeral ritual is  comprised of many rites, traditions, and offerings - all intended to free the spirit of the deceased person, prepare the spirit for the journey to a new world, and help the spirit to come back to a better life upon reincarnation.

The ritual is a combination and adaptation of rites from the Animist, Brahmin (pre-Hindu), and Buddhist belief systems.

Preparing Green Coconuts for Funeral Ritual
One of the last rites of the ethnic Lao Loum (Lowland Lao) funeral, just before rolling the consumable coffin containing the body into the cremation furnace, is to cleanse and purify the corpse by pouring fresh green coconut water over it.

Off to the side of the cremation furnace, while the Monks and laypeople are participating in merit making rituals in the sala, worship hall, a man or sometimes men prepare green coconuts to pour the water that they contain on the corpse.  Using heavy sugar cane knives, the people take three to four slices off of the bottom of the thick fibrous husk of the coconut.  This allows the coconuts to sit flat on the ground and ultimately on the concrete floor of the platform to the doors of the furnace.

After the bottom of the coconuts are flattened. several slices ate taken off the top of the coconut to expose the top of the actual nut buried beneath the husk.  The point of the knife is then used to open up a small hole from which the water will exit.  The prepared coconuts are carried up the side stairway to the furnace platform and placed off to the side of the head of the coffin.

The Abbott along with Ex-Husband of  the Deceased Woman About to Pour Coconut Water
At the conclusion of merit making ritual in the sala, the senior designated Monk leads the Monks up the front stairway to the head of the coffin.  Laypeople remove the tin light weight cover from the consumable coffin.  The senior Monk inspects and supervises the preparation of the corpse for cremation.  At his direction, the string bindings at the wrists, ankles, and waist are severed using either a sugar cane knife or sickle.  The cloth, typically either a wash cloth or hand towel is also removed fro the face of the corpse.

The senior Monk then pours coconut water over the body starting from the head down to the feet.  He is followed by other Monks from the local wat or wats.  The Monks who follow the senior Monk share coconuts between themselves to ensure that each is able to pour coconut water on the body.

Part of the contingent of Monks are male members of the immediate family.  On the day of cremation, sons, some nephews, grandsons, and some uncles will have their heads and eyebrows shaved to become Monks for the day.  The relatives, earlier in the day, had gone through a simplified ordination ritual to be able to participate as Monks to earn merit for themselves and more importantly for the deceased person.

Closely following the Monks are members of the immediate family - each pouring some coconut water on the body.  Some family members will gently and lovingly rub the water over face while wishing the spirit good luck on its journey and subsequent rebirth.

Cleansing the Spirit with Coconut Water

When there is no longer any coconut water available to pour over the corpse, ordinary water is scooped out of a nearby bucket using a bowl or a glass to pour over the body.

Pouring Ordinary Water Over the Body
The pouring of coconut water is a very important aspect of the Lao Loum funeral ritual.  It is believed that since the water is contained in a nut surrounded by a thick husk from high up in a tree, the water is considered pure - unlike the water from the ground. The coconut water is believed to cleanse and purify the spirit for its journey to another world.

From my 8 years of exposure to the ethnic Lao culture, I would say that the banana plant, bamboo, sticky rice, and the coconut are essential to Lao Loum society.  The pouring of coconut water over the corpse is symbolic of the hope that the spirit will be reborn in a place that is fertile and with sufficient water to grow rice.  Since coconut water is enjoyed by many of the Lao Loum people and is recognized for it thirst quenching ability, the pouring also is symbolic of nourishing and refreshing the spirit for its journey.

Pouring of ordinary water also symbolizes the wishes of the people for the spirit to be reborn in a fertile land suitable for rice cultivation.

For the Buddhists, there can be no life without first death.  The funeral ritual and the Theravada Buddhist attitude towards death reinforce and affirm the beliefs of  impermanence and the opportunity to help the departed in their journey to enlightenment.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Preparations for an Isaan Funeral

The day after we attended the funeral for the young man from the village next to Tahsang Village, one of Duang's best friends, a cousin, died.  She and Duang had worked together in the garment factory in Brunei about ten years ago.  The woman was also from Duang's home village of Tahsang Village.

The woman was 41 years old and died of breast cancer.  A double mastectomy and chemo had extended her life by just three years.  The woman was recently hospitalized and was fully aware that her death was imminent.  Duang was helping her to locate the father of her cousin's 8 year old daughter so that her cousin could ask him to be sure to take care of their daughter. There were some rumors that he had died but that did not deter my wife's detective efforts. Duang was able to track him down, spoke with him.  He said that he would come and visit but never did.  He did not attend the funeral either.  Fortunately the young girl has a 19 year old half-sister and an aunt in Tahsang Village who will take care of her.

The following day, Duang went out to the village to help with the preparations for the cremation ritual and to participate in the rituals leading up to the cremation.  I did not go the first day after the death because I had my second dental appointment here in town for my root canal.  I did go to Tahsang Village the second day of preparations - the day before the cremation ritual.

Since the woman had died of natural causes, her remains were located within the family home across the street from Tahsng Village's "Inside Wat" - the Wat inside of the village as opposed to the outside wat, Wat Pha That Nong Mat, located in the cane fields outside of the village.

The refrigerated coffin containing the consumable coffin and body was located in the center of the main downstairs room of the house.  The refrigerated coffin was covered and flanked with large floral arrangements of fresh flowers. The ubiquitous pualeets were above and to the side of the coffins.

Since the deceased person was a family member and good friend of Duang's, we donated a floor fan to be offered to the Monks in the name of the deceased as well as our names ... our a reasonable facsimile of our names.  Duang had gone into the nearby town of Kumphawapi to take care of some errands for the family as well as to buy our pualeet.

Lost In Translation?

This being Thailand, it was not a simple matter of hanging a custom printed manner on a fan and placing it in front of the coffin.  The floor fan was highly decorated with artificial flowers and crinoline fabric - sort of like a 1950's or early 1960's prom dress. The custom banner immediately caught my attention - "... ALLN..." .  I recognized the Thai spelling of "Hale" and I thought that the vendor had printed by name the way he heard it.  Later when I asked Duang about it, the truth came out.  The man did not know how to write my name in English and asked Duang to spell it for him.  She does not have much opportunity to practice her English writing skills and in the emotional stress of the day she forgot about the "E".  We enjoyed a good laugh together especially when I pointed out that I have no idea how to spell her name in Thai.

Tonight I asked Duang what the Thai writing above our names on the banner said.  She said "Good Luck to you.  We love you.  Now you will not be sick anymore. We will miss you. You go up now.  You will be born again -good for you,  Don't complain"  - apparently Thai is a very powerful language - not requiring too many words to express a great deal.  Perhaps I have missed something in that translation.

Off to the left of the coffin, men were sitting, eating and drinking - for some - a great deal of drinking.  Lao Lao is a very powerful whiskey - Lao answer to moonshine.  The woman's brother and an older cousin were in and out of consciousness - the effects of three days of drinking and not much sleep.  The family maintains a continuous vigil in front of the coffin until it is removed from the home to go to the local Wat for cremation.  Upon arrival, I was immediately called over to join the men.  I politely refused to join them in drinking Lao Lao but did start drinking strawberry soda.

Whenever the older cousin became an annoyance, family members, male and female, would grab his arm and lead him outside.  He would stumble outside only to return a short time later to start the process all over once again.

Processing Funeral Notices
On the other side of the room, several women, one young man along with the two daughters were occupied with processing funeral notices.  As part of preparations for cremation ritual, funeral notices are distributed to family, friends, and neighbors informing them of the details for ceremony along with a vehicle for making offerings.  The notices are pre-formatted and only the specific details are added when they are printed locally.

Cremation Ritual Notice
Once the notices are printed, they have to folded, inserted in their associated envelope and the name of the recipient added by ball point pen to the front of the envelope.  Duang took a bunch of completed notices and hand delivered them to the local villages.  It is always impressive to see the family, friends, and neighbors coming together to prepare for cremations.

Butchering and Preparing Meat
In the small side room, a typical Isaan kitchen (food prep area) off from the main room of the home, men and women were busy butchering pigs and cattle to feed the people.  For events such as funerals here in Isaan people purchase pigs and cattle to serve.

Purchasing a pig does not involve going to a western style grocery store or hypermarket and purchasing certain number of kilograms of pork chops, certain kilograms of ground pork, certain kilograms of ribs and so on.  Here in Isaan, when you buy a pig, you get it from a local farmer and you bring home a pig's head and the two sides associated with the pig and everything in between.  However when you buy beef you buy just a hind leg from a local farmer.

Once at either the food prep area of the home or the Wat, the meat is cut and prepared.  Much of the meat is chopped using heavy sugarcane knives to produce a paste.  Other pieces and parts are thrown into large kettles of boiling water with other ingredients to make soups.  Other pieces are cooked over wood coals to feed the people, which can be up to 50 or more, preparing food, maintaining the vigil, and participating in other preparations and activities.  A family and community truly comes together at this time.


There is no gambling in Thailand other than the National Lottery.  However prior to the latest military coup here, "arrangements" were possible with local law enforcement to have games of chance during the two to three days of the funeral ritual at the home of the deceased person.  When the military took over previous "arrangements" were not possible any more.  Well things seem to be going back to "normal" once again.

Outside of the home but still on the property, there were two games of "High-Low" going on the entire day and I am told all night.  Gambling is an incentive and a method for people to maintain the death vigil until the body is cremated.  People must remain awake for the vigil.  This is good for the spirit of the dead person.  The gamblers also believe that gambling as part of the funeral ritual is good luck for them.  I haven't figured out how that works - some of them must lose for others to win - but then again I do not believe in gambling.

I occupied myself observing the events, the interaction of the people, and taking photographs.  I was getting ready to pack up my gear to return to our home when some family members arrived - two babies - 9 months old.  I ended up spending over an hour more playing with the and taking their photographs.

Getting to Know Each Other
One of the babies did not crawl but she was far from immobile.  She would sit perfectly straight and forcibly thrust her abdomen forward to move to where she wanted to go.  She was quite efficient and proficient in getting around.  No matter how many times that I showed her how to crawl, she ignored me.

I eventually gave up and we worked on playing - sharing, - sharing an offering plate.  Neither baby would share but one would let me touch the plate in her hand.

Exploring their world
The irony of these two young beings embarking upon their lives associated with the ending of another life.  It was, for me, a manifestation of the Chinese philosophy of the Yin-Yang.  It was a reminder that life goes on and that there should always be hope along with the promise of tomorrow.

For Buddhists, there is the comfort that there is the opportunity to do better the next time until liberation is finally attained.

Life is full of lessons if we just look.


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