Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Dry Upcountry Interlude

Green surrounding
Love abounding
You won't find a manhole there
"House in the Country," Blood, Sweat & Tears

Because of widespread flooding around the capital, most Bangkok residents were in no mood to celebrate Loi Krathong, the annual festival of lights on the water. But in northern Thailand, where Nan and I were staying while waiting for the water around our condo to subside, it was a big deal.  There were parades and festivals and contests to see who could launch the most spectacular khom loi (sky lantern).  Even though there are no big rivers in Phayao, the mountainous province where our home in the country is located, villagers launched small krathong (boat), made of palm stalks, folded leaves and covered with flowers and candles, into local irrigation streams in the rice fields.

During my first year in Bangkok, I joined a vast crowd of people (some said over a million) under the Rama VIII bridge on both sides of the Chao Phraya River where they put their krathongs into the water and the candle-lit craft floated downstream, creating an enormous mess for the clean-up crews the following morning. Many used styrofoam as the base rather than the biodegradable palm stalks or bread.  In subsequent years, I preferred to participate under the Pinklao bridge where kids collected 20 baht per boat to float them away from shore.  Colorful krathongs were on sale everywhere in the city and cheap, so there was no incentive to make my own.  Thais, however, learn from a young age how to fold and sew the palm leaves to make intricate patterns, and Nan and her friend Tum made a dozen for their families.

Some believe the celebration is related to Diwali, the Indian festival of lights which takes place at the same time.  It has nothing to do with Buddhism although it occurs on the full moon Wan Phra (monk's day) in the 12th lunar month.  In Nan's village, it began with tamboon at the local temple where Nan's mother brought a basket full of goodies, including slices of banana and sticky rice wrapped in palm leaves, and dedicated them to family members who had died.  The elderly monk read each note accompanying the gifts and was corrected if he skipped or repeated someone's intended blessing.

Festivities had begun a few days earlier, not long after we arrived on the bus from Si Racha after a 14-hour journey that required taking detours around flooded areas.  We made the decision to go north after a week south of Bangkok when it looked like the disaster would continue for some time.  Nan's mother and cousin Edward picked us up at the station in Phayao, the sleepy provincial capital, and gave me a brief tour of the waterfront guest houses and restaurants that look out on an impressively large lake.  The four days of Loi Krathong began with a carnival and beauty contest one evening in a large field in Pong, the county seat.  A dozen villages offered candidates and built colorful illuminated floats for them to ride on.  Here Edward grabs a ride on the float for the princess from Baan Thung Tae, his village.  There were booths selling everything from food (northern sausages) to toys, and I was persuaded to buy Edward a toy AK47 like ones the other kids had.  One stage featured traditional music and dancers and another close by was surrounded mostly by men listening to Thai rock and ogling scantily clad coyote or "itchy ear" (sexually suggestive) dancers.  Something for everyone.

Loi Krathong coincides with the Lanna (northern civilization) festival called Yi Peng.  This tradition includes the launching of khom loi, cloth lanterns set aloft like hot air balloons.  Dozens of lanterns were launched at the evening kick-off festival and villagers, in addition to setting off firecrackers, practiced daily with their homemade khom loi (one crashed flaming into a tree near our house and had to be quickly doused).  In the afternoon of Loi Krathong, everyone returned to the temple for the khom loi contest.  Similar events were taking place in nearby villages and we could see their lanterns floating high in the sky.  Here the emphasis was a size rather than illumination, and each khom loi was the creation of men from different sections of the village. Every launch was spectacular with much cheering from the large crowd.  These giant lanterns featured fireworks that ignited after takeoff and dropped a tail when finished.  Our neighbors across the street won the contest with a giant white lantern that failed to launch two times before achieving success. All afternoon they paraded through the village, playing music from loud speakers atop a truck, drinking whisky and congratulating themselves, while inside the houses people constructed their krathongs.

In the evening we visited several houses where the partying was continuing and collected a number of children with their krathongs.  One thing that struck me repeatedly during our two week's upcountry was the number of children, from newborns to Edward's age of 9 (teenagers seemed absent).  Many of the men in the village are gone, off to work in southern factories or in places overseas like Taiwan.  The children are being raised by mothers and grandmothers.  Sa, the sister of Nan's deceased grandmother, is helping to raise her great-grandson, a 3-year-old named Back whose mother, Ben, works in the bars down south.  I was also fascinated by the children's nicknames which included Big (Back's young uncle), Cham(p), Via and Vue, and Rung's stepson who is named Thaksin. The irrigation ditch where we set our krathongs adrift is behind the temple and fortunately the full moon illuminated our trek through the jungle to get there.  

After the high point came the doldrums.  There is not a lot to do in a rural Thai village and most people, who work hard in the rice and corn fields all day, go to bed not long after sunset.  We decided not to hook our stove up to gas and Nan's mother was quite happy cooking for us with her daughter's help.  She uses gas in the inside kitchen and wood fires outside.  Her cuisine was delicious, the ingredients of fish, pork and chicken along with fresh vegetables purchased locally.  They ate with their hands, combining balls of sticky rice with each serving, but cooked white rice for me and gave me a spoon and knife.  Nan's sister's boyfriend had told them sticky rice gave him gas and they worried about my sensitive digestive system which was unable to handle spicy food.  After trying to correct them, I allowed myself to be pampered.

Aside from a shopping trip to Chiang Kham, the nearest town with a Tesco Lotus, we stayed home.  Nan was content, cooking and visiting old friends, and playing with Edward, the son of her late aunt who is almost our child (he slept with us at night).  I'd brought both my MacBook Pro and iPad but the mobile signal was too weak to provide a reliable internet connection.  So I read novels ("Matterhorn," "M is for Malice," "Great House") and books about linguistics stored in my iPad and took both morning and afternoon naps.  And I watched episodes of "Enlightenment" and the older film "The Wanderers" (recommended by Pandit Bhikku), an eastern version of what I experienced in California in the early 1960s.  We visited Edward's school, which Nan attended as a child, to vote in an election for, I think, governor of Phayao.  Nan checked the box for "none of the above" despite my appeal for her to vote for the Pheu Thai red shirt candidate.  Aside from 15 minutes of English commentary in the morning, all the TV news was in Thai (except for RT -- Russian Today -- which kept me up to date in international news with a Rusky slant, i.e., the Asad regime in Syria is good, the protesters are manipulated by outsiders).

From SMS messages, I learned the start of the undergraduate term at my school had been postponed to Dec. 13, but that the street outside our condo was now dry and Central Pinklao had reopened.  My linguistic students asked me to return and resume our Saturday classes. So we bought tickets on a fancy new VIP bus traveling south.  But before we left, Nan's mom held a going-away ceremony for us, including Nan's brother Nok who had come from school in Chiang Rai for the weekend. It was conducted by a mor kwam, a specialist in the spirits whom I think would be more aptly called a shaman (he'd once been a monk).  The object in the middle which looks like a giant krathong had been constructed by several women in the villages and it included items of clothing from Nan, Nok and I.  We were connected to it, each other and the shaman by string while he chanted.  When he finished, participants tied string around both wrists of the three of us.  All this to say: "Good luck and bon voyage!"

Aside from one morning shower, the weather in Baan Thung Tae was lovely, cool enough to do without a fan or air conditioning.  Much of the time I rejoiced at being in paradise, while occasionally I was bored to tears.  I was too shy to strike out on my own, feeling more like an odd object of curiosity than a new neighbor.  I visited a rice mill but did not see it in operation.  The rice is just turning brown and harvesting has begun in some fields closer to the hills.  Men in the village are cutting thin strips of bamboo to wrap around the bundles of cut rice before they're fed into a machine to remove the brown seeds.  Jerry has learned to stay only 10 days on visits to his Surin farm.  Two weeks is a bit much.  Before I can stay longer I'll need a fast internet connection, a motorbike, and projects (offer English lessons to kids?).

When we got back to Bangkok there were boats outside our condo but no water.  The taxi from Mo Chit bus station only had to make one detour because the way was flooded and let us out within walking distance to our destination.  We saw water marks on buildings and huge piles of uncollected garbage.  The air smelled damp and a bit foul.   Traffic has not yet resumed its manic pace and although the area malls are open there are few shoppers.  The next day I saw people dragging destroyed possessions onto the sidewalk for the time when garbage trucks return.  Nine students out of 21 made it to my Saturday class, and I learned that the temple where the classrooms are located had been flooded for three days before the water retreated.  Looking into the library I could see that all the books had been stacked on upper shelves and remained dry. Nan's university is scheduled to open a week from tomorrow, but I do not know where my undergraduate classes will be held next month.  The flood water remains in Ayutthaya and now raised wooden walkways connect the different buildings at my campus in Wang Noi.  The main classroom building is occupied by refugees.  These people did not have our ability to leave town for an upcountry interlude.

This picture show the entrance to the valley where Baan Thung Tae is located.  In the distance, on the other side of the hills, is Laos and China.


Janet Brown said...

Thank you for this glimpse of a part of Thailand that I've yet to see--but hope to someday. Maybe when you're settled in, speaking Thai, teaching children, you will show me around your village???

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your blog as I always enjoy reading it.

Do you think you could live in the village full time?

Or is it too slow given your past/upbringing etc.

Thank You