Thursday, November 24, 2016

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.

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