Saturday, December 3, 2016

New Gallery is available - "Thailand Tobacco"

A new gallery of 17 photographs, "Thailand Tobacco" is now available for viewing on my photography website.

Most of these photographs were taken around 2:00 AM along the bank of the Mekong River separating Thailand from Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR).

Friday, December 2, 2016

Korb Siarn Khru Ritual Gallery Is Available

Khone Mask
A new gallery has been added to my photography website:

The gallery contains 26 black & white photographs of a special occult ritual conducted in some parts of Thailand associated with Thai Saiyasart.

An earlier entry of my blog provides some insight into this unique ritual and practise.

It is a glimpse into a world not viewed by most tourists to the "Land of Smiles"

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thanksgiving 2016 (2559 BE)

Today was Thursday November 24th here in Thailand; a day like every other day here.

Thailand does not celebrate or recognize Thanksgiving.

However, people do not need any government sanctioning of any specific day to reflect upon, give thanks, and to rejoice for all that is good in their life.

Yes, today was a day like any other day for me here in Isaan.  Every day I contemplate, appreciate, and take comfort for all that is good in my life.

Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays.

Thanksgiving is a time for families to gather together to feast and celebrate the blessings of the past year.

Some years are not as bountiful as others.

Some years are more challenging than others

Some years are not as happy as others.

However Thanksgiving Day is a day to be thankful for what we have and not to focus on what we wish that we had, or to focus on what we do not have. If for no other reason, being alive is reason enough to give thanks on Thanksgiving. With life there is hope; hope for a better tomorrow or some other day after.

This Thanksgiving I am once again thankful for the things and experiences that I have or have had. As much as I am thankful for my current situation, I am also thankful for the many blessings that I have had and some that I no longer can enjoy.  If it were not for the trials, tribulations, and challenges that we have endured, I believe that we would not be who we are today.

As much as what we have today brings us joy and contentment, it was yesterday and our past that have brought us to today. It is our past that has prepared us for today and for all the days to come.

Today, as well as for all other days, I am thankful for the love, experiences, and guidance that I have received from family and friends. They affected my life in ways that are impossible to quantify or for me to fully express in words. Shared experiences with them taught me and assisted me in developing my personal values. The memories of shared holidays, vacations, celebrations, and ordinary days with them remain both a comfort as well as inspiration. The gifts of family, companionship and friendship are reason enough to give thanks today as well as every day.

There is abundant reason to be thankful for having been raised in a country and during a time where excellent quality free public education was available to everyone. Even today in many parts of the world, children do not have access to a free quality education.

I am thankful for having been raised in a country where I was free to fail and much more importantly free to succeed to the extent that I, myself, determined. My position and goals in life were not restricted by anyone or any institution. My parent's education, occupation, economic, or social status did not limit my prospects. Today, this is not true for many people even in some Western countries.

Another reason to be thankful is for our families and friends that are part of our daily life.
More and better possessions will not necessarily make anyone happy, more happy or even provide contentment.

Happiness and contentment are a state of mind.
It is the longing and preoccupation with what they do not have that prevents so many people from being happy.
My wish for everyone this Thanksgiving is that you can realize, and appreciate the happiness a well as contentment that the opportunity of life provides.

A Wedding Pig

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 Thasang, her home village, for the preparations for her nephew's wedding the following day. The preparations involed family and friends gathering at Duang's sister's farm to eat and drink after making contributions to help pay for the wedding. Nephew's wedding?  Pay for the wedding?  As Duang so often says and I am so fond of quoting ... "Thailand not same as Amireeka"

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).

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.

The start of the day at Duang's sister's farm was straight forward.  I sat at a table under a rented canopy.  I was immediately offered food and drink.  Shortly, Duang's son and his family arrived.  Our two year old grandson, Pope, immediately saw me and ran to join me at the table.

We spent our time "talking" about cement trucks, cranes, and backhoes - his favorite subjects and toys.  Pope also entertained himself and me by picking up thin clods of dried compacted dirt.  He reveled in breaking them apart in his hands or pounding them into pieces against the plastic chairs.  When he was not able to break them apart, he handed them to me to finish the job.

As we were playing a small group of men, one of them carrying a hatchet, walked by with a small narrow cage made out of 1-1/2 inch tubing.

A short time later a heard screaming or more correctly - squealing coming from the nearby shore.  I knew what was going on.  I told Pope to stay, grabbed my camera gear and headed down to where the men were located - the men and a pig restrained inside of the killing cage.

Sticking the pig!

The pig was dying when I arrived. After about one or two minutes after I arrived, one of the men stuck a long knife two more times deeply into an existing wound to ensure that the pig had died

Washing off the pig

The pig was carried by four men, each grabbing on and holding a limb, to a spot under neath the shade and close to a wood fire heating a large pot of boiling water.  I walked over to where the pig was laying on its side upon a rough heavy table fashioned from recycled timber as is the custom here.

Shaving 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, the men, often engulfed in the smoke from the nearby fire, 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 washed completely and carefully.

The pig gets a complete and close shave

After the pig had been completely shaved and washed clean, four men rolled the pig on its back and each holding a leg, spread the legs away from the carcass. Two other men commenced making a long longitudinal cut along the center-line of the body. As the cut went through the abdominal wall, internal organs such as intestines and stomach came cascading out of the body cavity.

The air around the butchering table was filled with the acrid smoke of the wood fire along with the stench of pig feces - of which a little bit goes a long, very long ways.  The ground around the table was also challenging - dotted with patches of mud, pig feces, and small puddles of blood.  I definitely had to be careful where I stepped and even more so - where I knelt to get the perspectives that I wanted of the butchering process.

The men worked quickly, efficiently and relatively quietly.  It was obvious to me that this was not their first pig butchering.  I don't believe that it was the first pig butchering for Duang's young second cousins even at their tender ages of 6 and 7.  They watched and wandered around the area with about as much emotional attachment as watching people building a house. Children are exposed to death at an early age and accept it as a part of life.

The butchering of the pig did not proceed as I once had expected it to.  When I first came to Isaan, 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.

Awful offal? Not to the Lao Loum!
Here in Isaan the pig was placed on its legs in a prone position.  After the body cavity had all the organs removed, the carcass was rolled over to expose the back.  A strip of hide and underlying fat were cut from each side of the spine exposing the loins.  The loins were removed and taken toand placed in a large plastic tub along with all the other parts to be further processed up in the farmhouse kitchen.


Work continued step by step to remove the outer cuts of meat from the pig. The intestines were processed a short distance away where two men were occupied cleaning them out for either cooking "as is" or for use as sausage casings.  Very little. if any at all, of the pig was wasted.  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.

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 sights, sounds, and especially smells.

It is here in Isaan, that I saw the answer to the question of "Where do pork chops come from?"

A plastic tub of pork

As two young men pulled the two wheel cart upon which a large plastic tub of  pig parts up the gentle slope to the farmhouse, I gathered up my camera along with my lighting gear to return to my old seat with Grandson Pope.  Upon my arrival, Pope greeted me and in our way of communicating letting me know that he wanted to see my photos.  I knew which photographs I did not want him to see.  When I showed him the photograph above with all the pig parts in the plastic tub, he looked at me and said "Moo? Moo?"  No; he wasn't referring to a cow but he was actually asking me in Lao -"Pig? Pig?"

Even at two years old, Pope, had a pretty good idea where the pork in his meals comes from.  I suspect he is also well on his way to understanding anatomy.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Fishing the big muddy - Ditch

Trench cut into Nong Hon Kumphawapi

In this region of Thailand there are several stories about two mythological characters: Nang Ai and Pha Daeng.  The plots vary but they all agree in that Nang Ai was a very beautiful woman and Pha Daeng was a handsome stranger from far away, the ruler of a land called Phaphong.

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

When Nang Ai and Pha Daeng see the white squirrel, they order a royal hunter to trap it.  The squirrel, son of the King of the Nagas, ends up dying.  The meat is fed to the people of the town.  It miraculously keeps increasing until 8,000 cartloads of meat is fed to the people of the city and surrounding villages.  (Hmmm - reminds me of another story that I know but it is with fish instead of squirrel meat.).  Phaya Nak, King of the Nagas, vows to kill everyone who has eaten his son's flesh.

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

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

It is said that the Nong Hon Kumphawapi Lake is a remnant from the flood and the trench that can be seen today in Tambon Pho Chai was created by Bak Sam's erection as he ran to escape the flood.

Ban Thasang (Thasang Village) is located on the edge of the floodplain of the Lam Pao River that crosses Nong Hon Kumphawapi (Kumphawapi Swamp) flows into Nong Hon Kumphawapi Lake.

Duang's sister's farm is bordered by a trench cut into Nong Hon Kumphawapi, however this trench was not gouged out of the floodplain by Bak Sam's erect penis.  The wide trench is actually man-made, ecavated a few years ago my backhoes and excavators.  The trench was made to store water later into the dry season and to concentrate fish for fishing at the end of the monsoon season.

Isaan Fisherman

Last Sunday, just after I stopped photographing the village furniture maker, a pickup truck carrying 6 men crossed my sister-in-law's property and parked alongside the trench bordering the farm. I followed their truck along the top of the dike along the trench to where they parked.

The men got out, undressed, and put on their fishing clothes - old clothing that could be immersed in muddy water for hours.  Once dressed for fishing, the men gathered up their fishing gear; a roll of netting about one meter tall and roughly 10 meters long, fine mesh throwing fish nets weighed along their perimeters, floating creels - hand woven reed or bamboo baskets with recycled soda bottles or scraps of Styrofoam attached to their sides to enable them to float, and a plastic wash tub.

Fish net hoists and platforms along the trench

The men did not speak English but understood that I was going to take photographs of them - much to their amusement.  I followed along, behind them along the top of the earthen berm past several bamboo fishing net hoists and platforms built along the berm. In several locations, weirs constructed of nylon netting and sticks driven by hand into the muddy bottom reached from the shoreline into the receding waters of the ditch.

We walked along the main trench until we came to first branch trench and walked a very short distance along it. At the "proper location", the men walked down the berm and entered the shallow opaque still muddy water of the trench.  The proper location had easy access to the water but more importantly it was near an existing fishing net installed across the ditch marking the end of someone else's fishing zone.

The fisherman worked together to place their unrolled fish net across the ditch.  When they needed longer or more sticks to fasten their net, they climbed the far side bank of the ditch and cut brush to meet their needs.

With a section of the ditch cordoned off between the existing net and their newly placed net, the men proceed to fish the area with five men throwing their hand nets at one end of the containment area working their way down to the other en where one man threw his hand net.  Their technique was to cover the ditch in a systematic process driving any escaping fish down towards the man at the other end in an ever decreasing area for the fish.

Casting net upon the waters

Prior to starting their fishing operations, the men offered me to join them.  I told them that I was afraid and pantomimed the motion of an inchworm (leech) crawling on me and attaching itself to my leg.  The men understood and as they were laughing, one of the men told me that leeches were "ping".  I then told the men that I was afraid that ping would eat me. They all had a hardy laugh and one of them told me not to be afraid that there were no leeches.  Yeah right ... and "the check is in the mail" and we have all heard that similar saying "I won't ___ in your mouth "  I asked the man "Really, no leeches?"  We all enjoyed another hardy laugh ... together as they all went into the water as I remained on the berm - high and dry.

The men threw their hand nets so as to cover the water from shore to shore in an overlapping pattern created by several throws.  There was no bait or any inducements to attract the fish.  It was all based upon luck and trying to ensure that any fish had no where to swim off to.  The net was thrown and allowed to sink to the bottom - about one meter below the surface.  Once the net had settled to the bottom, the fisherman retrieved it by pulling on a small diameter rope attached to it. 

When the net was retrieved, he inspected it to see what if anything he had caught.  These were not sports-fisherman.  They were not going after game fish or any record catches.  They were fishing for food for themselves and their families that evening.

In over 7 years here, the largest fish that I have seen caught either with these hand nets or the large rectangular nets suspended from bamboo hoists, was no more than 1/2 pound (225 grams).  The overwhelming majority of the fish caught would not even have been used for bait fishing back in the USA.  The fish are small, often tiny, minnows.  However, they are protein and no doubt a welcomed flavor to compliment a meal of rice.  The fish are also free.

When a fish was captured the fisherman would remove it from the net and place it in the creel floating next to him in order to keep it alive and fresh.  More often then not, there were no fish. More frequently than not, the net would dredge up snails, sometimes two or even three.  When that occured the fisherman would gather them up and place them in the plastic tub placed on the shore at water's edge.  The snails are about the size of a small tangerine and are a stable in the Isaan diet.  However they are also dangerous.

Liver cancer is the No. 7 cause of death in Thailand.  There are 23,000 new cases of liver cancer a year in Thailand. Udon Thani is the the epicenter of liver cancer in Thailand.

Liver cancer in this area is due to a parasitic infection, Opisthorchiasis - liver flukes.  Due to cultural dietary practice and preference people are part of the liver fluke's life cycle.  Here people are accustomed to and like to eat two dishes that involve raw fish - "koi pla" - finely chopped raw fish mixed with chilies, herbs, lime juice and live red ants: "pla ra" - the ubiquitous Lao condiment - fermented (six months or longer) raw fish sauce - Lao people's answer to our ketchup.

People can become infected with liver flukes by consuming the larvae attached to raw fish flesh.  Inside of the human liver the larvae mature, become flukes, and reproduce creating eggs.  People pass the eggs into the waterways through rural sanitation practices.  Back into the waterways, the eggs are eaten by the snails which are then eaten by fish where the larvae develop and the cycle begins once again.  Tradition has been to use  raw fish for koi pla and to use raw fish to make the fish sauce.  Cooking and pasteurizing destroys the larvae and prevents the development of cancer over the years of consuming koi pla and pla ra.  There are education programs in schools and hospitals to educate people to not eat raw fish but as they say ... old habits are hard to break.  Duang's father and her ex-husband both died of liver cancer - no doubt as a result of their eating raw fish.

After observing and photographing the fishermen for about an hour, I thanked the men and said goodbye to return to our home 65 Km to the north.  To be honest, I looked but did not see any leeches on them but I did not do a full body scan or close up inspection.  I still believe that there are leeches in those murky still waters. I will still not enter any water that looks like this. But I will gladly return to take more photos of others in those waters.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Village Furniture Maker

Furniture Maker Surfacing Recycled Wood
We got a call from the family on Saturday informing us of some big doings going on Sunday out at Duang's sister's farm outside of Thasang Village.  Duang's mother and some of the women from the village were going to commence harvesting the rice crop and her sister's brother-in-law was going to be making furniture.  They had called to let us know so that I could go out and photograph the activities.

Unfortunately Duang was occupied making pahn sii khwan centerpieces for a Monk that we know.  Since she was getting paid to make it for delivery on Monday, she could not go out to the village.  However that would not stop me ...

I arrived out at the farm around 8:45AM.  The four elderly women were already out in the paddy stooped over with sickles in had cutting the rice.  Although there was still a heavy dew upon the thick vegetation on top of the berms that serve the dual purpose of dividing the land up into paddies and function as walkways to access the paddies, the harvesting was underway.  The bright sun and 31C (91F) temperature would quickly and soon dry out the crop.

As is typical of all rice harvesters here in Isaan, the women were covered up from head to toe.  Large straw hats protected their head and face from the strong Sun.  Either a strip of homespun cotton cloth, called a "pakama" or a cotton tee shirt worn as a pseudo balaclava shielded their face and offered some filtering from dust and detritus from the harvesting.
After an hour, the women were still going strong cutting and laying the rice in neat flat rows to dry but the heat had gotten to me.  I carefully made my way back to the house along the tops of the berms covered with long vegetation - straining my eyes to stay on top of the berm and to avoid breaking an ankle or leg in the periodic drainage slits cut into the berms hidden by the vegetation.

Once at the house, I sat at an outside picnic bench on a covered porch to cool off and to set up my camera gear to photograph the furniture maker.

The Furniture Shop

Across from the house was a rough structure - part carport, part elevated rice storage shed and a lean to work space used for making furniture.

The furniture shop was open sided with a corrugated metal roof.  Beneath mounds of sawdust was a compacted earth floor.  Electrical power for the wood working equipment was supplied by two long extension cords connected to a box mounted on a nearby column.  Fortunately I was using battery powered speedlights so I was not going to add to the electrical load and tangle of wires  about the work space.

I was struck by several things not to mention almost tripping over many things.  I was first struck by the lack of "professional" equipment. I have been in woodworking shops and I am familiar with the various specialized pieces of  equipment associated, if not "required" for making furniture.  There were no pieces of heavy shinny pieces of equipment.  The work benches were heavy but they were made from wood - recycled wood at that.  There was a table saw but it was not a heavy metal table with metal guides and rails.  The table saw at this woodworking shop was another heavy rustic wood table that had a large hand electric saw mounted underneath it with strips of lumber along with industrial grade C-clamps used as guides for cutting.

The furniture maker was busy planing a large and thick slab of recycled teak. To smooth and flatten the surface of the slab, he used an electric hand planer rather than a separate table planer that I had seen in other woodworking shops.  Although he had draped the electric power cord over his shoulder to keep it from interfering with the motion of the device, it was apparent that there had been some previous mishaps.  There were several locations along the length of the cord that were covered with wrappings of electrical tape, frayed electrical tape in many of the locations.

The woodworker worked barefooted and wore shorts.  He did wear glasses but they were more to see his work than to protect his eyes from the sawdust and wood shavings that shot out from the hand planer.  The non-grounded, non weatherproof, non GFI protected interior rated extension cord electrical box lay on the ground.

The woodworker was not completely oblivious to safety concerns.  There came a time when he had to re-position the heavy slab on his work bench in order to better access some portions of it. I saw that he was struggling with it, so I put down my camera and started to grab an end of the slab to help move it.  He motioned to me that it was OK and that he did not need or want me to help.  He then continued and completed moving the slab by himself.  I believe that he did this out concern for safety but I don't honestly know if it was concern for my safety or his safety!

Another thing that struck me was the use of recycled wood to make furniture.  I have seen this practice before in Southeast Asia.  In Lao People's Democratic Republic (Laos), I have seen several houses that had been dismantled and reassembled at a different location.  On a trip here in Isaan earlier this year along the Mekong River, I had seen several companies, sawmills, where old timbers from houses were recycled and converted into doors, windows, and milled wood.

The use of recycled wood is dictated by several factors.  The first obvious factor is economics - recycled wood is cheaper.  Another factor is supply.  Most of the recycled wood is Teak.  Teak harvesting and timber production is greatly restricted now in Southeast Asia.  The last factor is quality.  Recycled wood is dry wood and aged.  I have yet to see a kiln for drying new wood or new timber being aged.  I have seen plenty of cracked wood due to improper drying and aging.

These were the things that struck me visiting the woodworker.  As for the many things that I almost tripped over - the work place was definitely cluttered and disorganized.  Several times I stumbled and almost tripped on mounds of sawdust, scrap pieces of wood, semi-finished pieces of wood, electrical cords strewn about the ground, or bumped my head on low beams, and all types of things hanging down from the roof - a great experience that I survived unharmed.

After a short time, the furniture maker was interrupted by an elderly man.  The elderly man had come up to the house to get a drink of water and get the furniture maker to go with him down towards the water bordering the farm where a small structure was being built.  The elderly man needed help to commence attaching the recycled wood beams to the concrete piles driven into the ground.

That was the end, the end of that day. for photographing the village woodworker.  However I did get to photograph some of his finished work inside of the house.  My photography for the day was also not completed for the day - a truckload of men drove across the property towards the water and stopped a very short distance away.  It was very apparent that they were going fishing.  I followed them to the old fishing hole, actually "fishing ditch" and took several photos- but that is for a blog another day.

Home  made table and chairs

Inside of my sister-in-law's house, I photographed a table and chair set that the wood worker had made.  Like furniture in Vietnam, the furniture was heavy, very heavy.  There is no need to worry about some drunk getting angry and throwing the furniture around!  The furniture was well made and reminded me of the "craftsman" style of the 1930's in America.

In an adjoining room, I photographed a chair that reflected an even greater level of skill.

I am definitely motivated to witness and document more of the village woodworker's work.  Sunday's experience was just an appetizer to whet my appetite to experience and share unique aspects of Allen's World.

Many times here in Isaan I have marveled at the self-reliance and adaptability of the people.  Watching the village woodworker was another one of those opportunities for me to appreciate that there are more than one way to live or to get things done.

Duang often reminds me "Thailand not like Amireeka".  I have also learned that "Lao is not like America" and "Cambodia is not like America"  These are not judgemental statements or evaluative comparisons.  They are observations of the fact - the fact that people do not live alike or do things all the same way.

I admire the resourcefulness of the people.  Observing and experiencing their lives has reinforced for me the need and value of "fit for purpose" as well as "making do with what is available"

There are many ways to live, just like making furniture, and not all the ways are the same or one is not necessarily superior to another.  The key is that one's needs are met by using what is available.

Just as I have learned that the most modern and opulent facilities are not necessary to receive adequate health care, I now realize that excellent functional furniture can be created without expensive modern equipment.

I hae asked Duang to let me know when the village furniture maker will be working 1/2 or one full day at his craft - my camera is always packed and ready with my batteries charged.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

It's that time of year, once again - Tonle Sap

Late Afternoon on Tonle Sap - Kampong Khleang, Cambodia

November has arrived here in Isaan.  The Monsoon Season appears to be over - we are getting more and more days without rain and more days with bright Sun and blue sky.  Our temperatures are also much more comfortable - highs in the mid 80s to low 90s with lows in the mid to low 70s.

The rice harvest will commence in a couple weeks.  It is time to travel or at least to think about travel.

Two years ago, Duang and I made a 6 day trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia.  It was our second trip to the ruins of Angkor Wat.

Our trip in November 2014 also included a return tour of Tonle Sap "The Great Lake".

Tonle Sap is the largest fresh water lake in Southeast Asia - not that this fact justifies a visit.  Tonle Sap is referred to by the Lonely Planet guide book as the "Heartbeat of Cambodia".  Personally to me, Tonle Sap is the lungs of Cambodia.  The lake provides food and irrigation water for one-half of the people in Cambodia.  Tonle Sap is connected to the mighty Mekong River - one of the greatest rivers of the world.  Tonle Sap's water level fluctuates greatly in accordance to the seasons.  In the rainy season from May to October when the Mekong is at its fullest, water flows from the Mekong into the lake.  In the dry season as the Mekong's flow diminishes, water flows from the lake into the Mekong.  Water levels in Tonle Sap range from a maximum of 2 meters (6 feet) in the dry season and to a maximum of 10 meters (32 feet) in the rainy season.  The flooding of surrounding land during the rainy season provides a great deal of food and shelter for aquatic life thereby making Tonle Sap one of the richest sources of freshwater protein in the world.  Tonle Sap is a nursery for many of the fish of the Mekong River. During the dry season fisherman average a take of 220 to 440 pounds of fish a day.

Tonle Sap grows from approximately 965 square miles in the dry season to just over 5,020 square miles in the rainy season.  The increase in area as well as increased depth presents challenges in terms of housing for the inhabitants in the area.  Man has met the challenges of Tonle Sap by building floating homes or building home atop stilts roughly 20 to 30 feet high.  It was the opportunity to witness this unique lifestyle that first attracted me to visit Tonle Sap.  Both Duang and I are interested in seeing how people live in environments and situations different from what we are accustomed to.

Our Homestay Accommodation - the house on the right

Based upon our experience during our first trip to Tonle Sap in 2007, we incorporated a home stay in the village of Kampong Khleang to better learn and understand Cambodian life on Tonle Sap.

Preparing Our Lunch In Kampong Khleang
 I had planned our last trip to Tonle Sap to coincide with the full moon and Bon Om Touk (Cambodian Water Festival).  Bon Om Touk is an annual festival held in November to celebrate the reversal of Tonle Sap water flow.  With the start of the dry season water commences to flow out of Tonle Sap into the Mekong River making up to 50% of the Mekong River flow.  During the rain season water flows from the Mekong into Tonle Sap.  The reversal of flow into the Mekong River also marks the start of commercial fishing season on Tonle Sap - the fish hatched during the rainy season, and nourished on the nutrient rich waters of the floodplains of Tonle Sap migrate into the shrinking lake and out into the Mekong River.

Tonle Sap Harvest - Selling fish to a Middleman

We spent the night with a family in Kampong Khleang.  The mother and father were teachers at a local elementary school and have three children, to girls and one boy.  Their home is built on stilts over the lake but fronts a raised dirt road about 2 feet below the house.

Kampong Khleang Neighborhood
It was quite interesting to spend a day and night with the family.  Although they did not speak English, we could see that they were nice people and concerned that we enjoyed our stay.  We appreciated their efforts to ensure that we were comfortable and found their children to be quite entertaining.

Our host's family

We slept in the large front room of the house, the room closest to the street.  Our bed was one of the hardest beds that I have ever slept on.  A mosquito net protected us throughout the night and we were not bothered by buzzing in our ears.  We were not even bothered or awoken by the three children sharing the room with us - sleeping on mats placed on the floor and protected by their own mosquito net.  The two motorbikes kept inside the large room did not make any noise but the odor of fuel permeated the air.  What kept me awake were the sounds - the sounds of dogs foraging beneath the house and along the street, the sound of cats foraging beneath the house and along the streets, the sounds of dogs and cats encountering each other, the sounds of new born babies in the houses next to our room - 15 feet away and separated from us by two layers of woven bamboo.  There was also the occasional sound of a motorbike tearing up the dirt road. Who said that rooster crow at dawn?  Sure they crow at dawn but they also crow much earlier, too!

Sunrise Over Tonle Sap From Kitchen Area of Our Home-stay
Yes, it was not a very good night of sleep but oh what an experience it was!  As the Sun rose over the floodplain the ever increasing sound of awakening life built up.  Insects, birds, motorboats, and the sounds of people awakening to encounter a new day of life on the lake created a unique symphony not available to tourists in the city.  The symphony of sound was supplemented by the smells of a the new day - charcoal fires to cook the first meal of the day, the odors of pork, chicken, garlic, onions, fish, and the smell of motorboats setting out to check the fish traps at dawn.  The new day was announcing its arrival along with the acknowledgement of the potential that each reawakening brings.

The view outside the front door of our home-stay

Yes, it was not a good night of sleep but oh what an experience it was!  I have always embraced the value and prestige of my life not in the comfort that I have enjoyed or the material wealth that I have been able to acquire but rather in the experiences that I have encountered.

Tonle Sap Boatchild

For Plains Indian warriors, prestige and honor were acquired by "counting coup" - For the Cheyenne counting coupe involved touching an enemy with a stick, bow, whip, or open hand.  For me it is counting experiences - counting experiences involves the act of touching lives or being touched by the lives of others as well personal interactions with the world about me.  I am fortunate to have a wife who is willing and able to participate in my quests to count experiences.

One of the main streets of Kampong Khleang

Last year I considered returning to Tonle Sap including experiencing another home-stay.  After doing soe preliminary research for a return trip, I discovered that the water levels in the lake were very low.  Since one of my goals was to document more of the life on the flood plain, I decided not to return to Tonle Sap.

Kampong Khleang Intersection

On our last trip, we were taken by our home-stay hosts in the early morning to check the family's fish traps set out on the floodplains outside of Kampong Khleang.

Tonle Sap Backwater Early Morning Encounter

Checking fish trap early morning on floodplain

This year I am considering returning to Siem Reap and especially Tonle Sap with either a one or two night home-stay.  Based upon our last trip, I am considering going in December or January - for the full moon.  I believe that going a month or two later will improve the opportunities for documenting the commercial fishing activities on the lake as the flow out of the lake into the Mekong Rier will be more established.

I also want and know that I can take better photographs of moonlight over the floodplain - partially submerged trees, flat water, and a full moon low on the horizon and climbing high in the sky.

Sunset Over Tonle Sap

Research indicates that December 13 is a full moon and January 12 is another full moon.  On December 13, the moon will rise at 4:09 PM and set the following morning at 4:12 AM.  On January 12 the moon will rise 4:51  PM and set at 4:58 AM the next morning.  These times are convenient for the photographs that I intend to take.

I have not checked to determine if the stars are aligned for a trip but the moon certainly is.  Yesterday I sent an email to my contact in Siem Reap to determine the current water levels.  This year, in Udon Thani we have have had much more rainfall than last year so I am optimistic that Siem Reap and the Mekong River have received much more rain too so that a return trip is warranted.

If the water levels are sufficient, I will have to discuss with Duang before making detailed plans and arrangements.


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