Monday, October 2, 2017

Ghosts

When I think of Thai ghosts, firstly, I am reminded of the people who plaster their faces with talcum powder during the New Year. Secondly, I think of the young girls usually in high school or college or older who religiously apply whitening cream to their skin -- not only ruining the natural sheen of their skin, but causing a distortion to their overall beauty.

You can't talk them out of it. The appeal of white skin to Southeast Asians has a long history. It goes back to the time when the white skinned Chinese dominated commerce in this part of the world. The Chinese themselves are hung up on white skin and this was passed down to the locals. In order to be beautiful (read: successful), one must be white. So, everyone wants to be successful like the Chinese. This is another reason why Westerners are looked up to: the color of their skin; as if it were confirmation of perceived Falang success.

Girls, especially, think they will look more beautiful with white skin. Unfortunately, due to the “wonders of modern science,” it is now chemically possible to achieve the color, if not the beauty.

But, the subject of ghosts in Southeast Asia is a serious matter. I’m not talking about Songkran partiers or young girls and whitening cream. I mean: the ghosts of living beings long dead. In this part of the world, mysticism is ever present and it is not a long jump between mysticism to superstitions. Everyone here believes ghosts exist and are active. When my wife touches on the subject, I am careful to be attentive. Should I dismiss the subject in an off handed way, I would just be showing my ignorance and my credibility would be diminished. So, I pay a certain kind of lip service to the subject of ghosts.

To be sure, ghosts are a problem. But, it is the fear of ghosts, really, that cause the problems. One case in point occurred recently. Thip was regularly riding our farm road back and forth to the temple for evening chanting. That was until her niece started talking about all the ghosts in this area (as if she knew). Thip hasn't been on our dirt road at night since.

Spirit houses used to be prevalent in our area of the Isaan, almost as much as home Buddha altars. A Thai spirit house is “the house of the guardian spirit.” They are found not only in Thailand, but also in Lao, Cambodia and Mynmar. They are placed in an auspicious spot, most often in a corner of a property. The house itself is in miniature in the form of a house but most often a temple. It’s mounted on a pillar or dais. It’s main intention is to provide a shelter for spirits who could cause problems for the people residing at that location, unless otherwise appeased (by food offerings, chanting, prayers, burning incense, etc.). The shrines often include human and animal figurines.


Kamattan Buddhist leaders have discouraged the installation and maintenance of spirit houses in recent years. As an example, when I first met my wife 18 years ago, her family house had a well-maintained spirit house and now they have none. My wife has never asked me if we can put up one, ourselves.

You still see many spirit houses throughout Thailand and Southeast Asia, however. They are especially popular with places of business who want to show they are appeasing the local spirits.

The main Buddhist ceremony connected with ghosts is Boon Khao Sah, where the dead are remembered and their spirits honored. During this time, as if they were living entities themselves, the spirits are allowed to move around and, in fact, encouraged to do so -- as if they’d been caged up for a year.

I can't say that ghosts don't exist. I also can't say they do. Although I've heard many stories of people who have claimed to see them, I never have.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Communication Technology

When I retired to the Thai countryside from California, in 2012, I was an active multi-player gamer. I had friends who I’d never met face-to-face scattered around the world. We would meet up at a set day/time and play together in a virtual environment in real time. First, the game was Call of Duty, then I moved to Battlefield.

I wasn’t sure if I could continue to play “video games” once I was in Thailand, due to the importance of not only download spped, but upload as well. It turns out that it never became a problem. We bought a plan to deliver a cellular signal to the provincial hub and it worked fine. A couple of year later, we upgraded to fiber optic. Can you imagine having a fiber optic connection in a Thai village of 500 people?

Having first the cellular and then the fiber optic connections enabled us to create a wifi hotspot that gives all our Internet-capable devices access. There’s my computer, the Playstation gaming console (also used for movie watching) and both Thip’s and my cellphones. It used to be that we’d get visits from family just so they could use our connection, but that doesn’t happen much, anymore, as more and more people are buying and daily using data plans for their cellphones.


Of course, Thip and I also have data plans for our cellphones, so that when we are not near the wifi, we can also access the Internet -- basically, from anywhere in Thailand. It comes in handy out at the farm. Thip likes to watch YouTube videos -- instructional videos, Buddhist teachings and Chinese historical drama. Me, I use the phone primarily to keep an eye on the weather radar, but at night sometimes I’ll watch a Netflix show or movie. Staying in contact with each other and our friends and family is also an important aspect. Both Thip and I can be on the go, but we’re easily reachable -- as long as we have our cellphones turned on!


The electronic technology has been there for a while, it just took me time to figure it out and how to use it to maximum benefit. Actually, I was a little resistant to heavy use of cellphones having noted how it has negatively affected inter-personal relationships. But, I had to remind myself of my longtime attitude toward television. It’s neither good nor bad. It just depends on how you use it.


(A favorite shot, Spring 2017... look closely and you'll see Thip watering plants and... viewing her cellphone screen!)


Thursday, September 14, 2017

A Bit Like Camping

When my wife and I are out at our 9 rai farm, it’s a bit like camping.


In my experience, there’s three basic ways to camp. One is what I consider pure: where you head out with a pack on your back and hike to a location where you set up a temporary camp. A second type is what my sons and I call “car camping,” where you park in an area or campgrounds and pitch your gear within sight of your transpo. You can even sleep inside it, if there’s room and you’re set-up for that. A third, I guess, is “RV camping,” where you have your own self-contained living unit that you take with you to a campground specially made to accommodate recreational vehicles.

Well, out at the farm, it’s a little like Car Camping. Our campground is the area around Bann Nah (the farm house), all outdoors. Of course, we sleep upstairs in a very nice teak walled bedroom, but otherwise, we’re outside.


Even though she likes being out at the farm, I know this camping aspect wears on Thip a bit -- especially rainy days, some of which if they are too heavy, cause us to retreat to our village house. I’m a lucky guy to have a wife with me on this adventure, who puts up with living so basically and without so many comforts.

The other day we were talking about the many problems people have with each other and the general turmoil that churns all over the world. Thip said we are fortunate to be able to live so simply, in the figurative shadow of our local temple.

As usual, she’s right.



Thursday, September 7, 2017

Lao Trip 16.4 - What Price?

When Mr. Loi dropped me off at Nongsoda -- after our trip to the bar girls bar -- we made arrangements for him to drive me to the border next morning, as soon as immigration opened up (8:00 a.m.) I would need the entire day to make it home late afternoon that day.

After he left, I showered up and then “made my rounds” for one last time, this trip.

I had a beer at the riverside vendors, but no food. I was still full from eating pah merk (squid) at the bar girls bar. I then walked up the riverside road and had another beer at the new “The View,” ending-up at Savan Khaim Khong.

During these three stops, I kept thinking back to that afternoon and the girls I had met. Now, as I watched Thai luktung and pop videos, my thoughts turned to a person’s price.

I wouldn’t go so far as to declare that “everyman has his price,” but I’m pretty sure most of us do. For the Lao sao I had met, they’re price is low probably due to their family situations. Most bar girls I have met sell themselves to make money for their families, their offspring and themselves lastly.

Now, there are bar girls who make a career of prostitution and, in Thailand, they’re pretty easy to spot because they’re very attractive, well made up, well dressed and -- increasingly these days -- sport tatoos. For these girls, they enjoy the lifestyle and the comparatively high income garnered by easy work.

In between professional bar girls and the ones who will be in the occupation for a much shorter time, are the college girls who attract “sponsors.” They show them a good time while they’re going to school but usually dump them once graduated.

  
But, back to the average bar girl: she’s just a regular attractive girl who lacks other skills that would earn her the same level of financial return. She’ll probably stay with the job until she meets a guy who has enough money to take her away and marry her, or until her attractiveness wains. Then, she’ll most likely go back to her village, often with children and a Lao husband.

Now, about price... what about me? What is my price? After all, I probably could have afforded to have any one of the girls I met today or had them all. But, I declined. Sure, I wrote about taking the High Road and that is admirable, but just how honest am I being?

While I drank Beer Lao, I mused about Nuey. What if she had been in the line-up? Or, another girl who was just so attractive to me that I couldn’t resist? I mean, could I have resisted?

Before I left my favorite Savan bar/restaurant/karaoke place, I asked my waitress if I could take a picture of her and she agreed. I forget her name, but I remember her well. Several years back, her family had her working in the kitchen and would not allow her on the floor. During her breaks, she would stand in the kitchen doorway, looking out on the scene of people eating, drinking, talking, laughing and having fun.

Well, she’s grown a little older -- I’d guess she’s around 17 now -- and the family lets her wait tables. It was my good fortune, this trip, that she waited on mine.


Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Lao Trip 16.3 - Bar Girls

The way they do visas at the Thai consulate in Savannakhet is they take the applications in the morning and then you go back with a number to pick yours up the following afternoon.

So, I basically laid around at Nongsoda in the morning of this third day of the trip, catching up on Internet communications and news. The day’s slow start would prove deceiving.


Mr. Loi picked me up at 1pm and dropped me off at the Thai consulate a bit early. I had to stand around and wait for the doors to open at 2pm. Luckily, I was in the shade. Usually talkative Westerners also in the line were kind of quiet today, possibly because of the heat.

After I received my one year, multiple entry Thai “O” (Other) Visa based on marriage, things started to liven up.

I mean, it was inevitable, really. Tuk-tuk drivers know where everything is. I remember Pak Lai samlor driver Lu offering to take me to “see beautiful girl.” Somehow I got out of that one, but this time, Mr. Loi didn’t bother to ask and even when we arrived and I lightly resisted, he was determined to show me a good time.

I learned several years back that it’s just best to “go with the flow” in Southeast Asia -- in most cases. You definitely do not want to dampen a friend’s good intentions. So, that’s how I found myself at my first-ever Lao bar girl bar on the outskirts of Savannakhet. Actually, we never made it into the physical structure. Pretty girls were hanging outside at a cement table, under the shade of a tree near the gate.

It was fun and I had a good time, but I had to learn quickly as time went on. The young guy who ran the place kept asking me “who?” I just sloughed it off each time, laughing. He knew I knew what he was talking about and, of course, the girls did, too. I just pretended that I didn’t quite know what he meant.

The four girls were attractive, ranging in age (I guess) from 16 to 26. The youngest one (I’m guessing again) was probably just “in training.”

The night I had spent with Jittzy, back in 2015, taught me that I no longer have my plumbing “up to code” nor the emotional wherewithal to deal with sleeping or having sex with another woman other than my wife. It’s an age thing, but it’s also a loyalty thing.

Irrespective of all this, I generously paid for lunch and beers for the seven of us and enjoyed myself a lot; this despite my friend and newfound friends knowing very, very little English. It was a challenge for me and I just wish that I had packed my translation gear (book and phrasebook). Although smart phones are the best way to go, I had not purchased a data plan after I crossed the border, so my cellphone was of little use in this setting -- at least for translation purposes.

In an attempt to keep things from getting out-of-control, I did use my phone to show the girls pictures of Bann Nah and my wife. Here was another plus for phones that have evolved into mini-computers. Nevertheless, the girls were undeterred and I could have had any one of them, including the girl I estimated at 16. Do the math. That’s about a quarter of my age. Can you imagine?


I kept to the High Road, not letting my eyes linger on any one girl too long. Eventually, Mr. Loi and I left. I let the girls know I’d be back -- gap ma -- but neglected to add that it probably wouldn’t be until next year.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Lao Trip 16.2 - Lao Derm Savan

I spent part of my visa fee barring, last night, so this morning I had to hassle a little bit to get the full 5k baht. The Thai consulate does not accept Lao kip, so I had to have the full amount in baht. My friend Mr. Loi helped me, providing transport. I got to see his daughter Jinta very briefly.

I submitted my paperwork and application without problems. Tomorrow afternoon, I will hopefully pick up my passport stamped with another lease on life in Thailand.


Back at the Riverside, I got caught up on my writing at Lao Derm Savan. The Nam Khong was rougher than usual, so I shot some video trying to capture it. I just couldn’t get it. Being on a floating restaurant off the banks of the Mekong after days of rain and flooding eluded my ability. Suffice it to say, I enjoyed it although the waitress clearly did not. It reminded me a little bit of that time in PL2 when the rain storm blew in as we were partying at Koun Ten.



Towards sundown, I ate some ping gai (bar-b-que chicken) at one of the Riverside vendor’s tables, stopped for a beer at both Savan Khaim Khong and the live music place which I think is called something “View,” then retired to Nongsoda, calling it somewhat of an early night -- at least not late.

Another popular video, currently: https://youtu.be/2dg9oc78Kv4


Monday, August 14, 2017

Lao Trip 16.1 - To Savan

It used to be that my wife would drop me off at the highway (210) and I would catch a sawngtheaw from the side of the two lane highway to the Nong Bua Lamphu bawkawsaw. Now that the highway’s gone to a divided four-laner, Thip takes the ring road to drop me off at the bus station on her motosai.

The bus leaves Nong Bua at 6am for Khon Kaen. From there, I switch to the 9:50am going to Mukdahan.

By the end of the afternoon, I’m at the Mukdahan bus station where I board the bus for the border. The border bus drops you off at the Mukdahan immigration complex on the Thai side of Friendship Bridge II. Here you purchase your bus ticket; seems a little off, but this is how they do it. To me, it makes more sense to buy the ticket when you first board the bus at the Mukdahan bawkawsaw.



Anyway, be sure to get your ticket before stamping out of Thailand. Once on the other side of the kiosks, you show your ticket to the bus driver who has advanced the bus up the driveway a bit. The bus then takes you across the bridge and drops you off at the Savannakhet immigration complex where you purchase your one-month Lao visa and stamp in to Lao. From here, you arrange local transpo into town. Be careful of taxi or tuk-tuk prices. If they sound a bit over, then they are. Feign disinterest and you can bring them down in price. It’s actually a game they love to play.

I was quoted 200 baht into town. I laughed and said “mak, mak” (too much), turned away and then let the drivers that had crowded around me know I was going to call a tuk-tuk friend of mine. It was all good fun, as they realized I spoke a little Isaan and they liked that. One guy came down to 100 baht and pointed out that my friend wouldn’t charge me any cheaper. I knew he was right and agreed. Turns out, he was going home for the day, so it worked out for him, too.

I had him drop me off at Nongsoda Guesthouse, in the Riverside section of town, not far from where the old Thai consulate used to be.

I’ve been up and down about Nongsoda ever since the day I really needed a decent room and got a very poor one. But, it is my preferred place of stay as it is right next to the Mekong and within an easy walk to bars, bar-restaurants and the “Riverside vendors.” Sometimes I stay at Intha Guesthouse which is more private and right on the Kong. If I had my wife or a girl with me, this is definitely where I would go. But, the price is better at Nongsoda, so if I can get one of their sunny rooms, I will take it.

After a shower, a visit to Savan Khaim Khong is always in order. I liked the old location better, but I had one of my standout nights at the new location, in 2015, when I met Jittzy and her friends.



This late afternoon/early evening was uneventful, but I had fun drinking Beer Lao (can’t easily get in Thailand, yet), eating squid (pah-merk), watching Thai luktung and pop videos... and reminiscing on the times I’ve been here (2014, 2015, 2016).

The relatively new Korean bar-b-que place was already out of business, but next door in the location of the old Savan Khaim Khong was a bar (View) featuring singers and musicians. So, of course, I stopped in for another beer.



I was happy to see the Riverside vendors back in operation. Something had happened with the planned riverside “improvements,” so the city let things revert back to the way they had been. Fine by me. This is a part of Lao I will enjoy until I no longer can.

Popular Thai video/song, currently: https://youtu.be/zCLZL-RV1tY