Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Monsoon Season, 2017

With the end of the Southeast Asian Monsoon season, I reflected back on some of the storms that had rolled in over the past 7 months.

The rains came early this year. They afforded us the opportunity to plant a little earlier than we normally do. So, that was a good thing. On the downside, it was a good half year before I could get any serious brush cutting in, other than to do the lawns. And, then there were the nyoong (mosquitoes).

Temple chedi under construction and pool 
between our 9 rai farm and the government road.

The biggest storm came fairly early on, when we were wrapping up construction of the bungalow at our 9 rai rice farm. Although I’m constantly monitoring the government meteorological hourly radar shots, the storm caught me by surprise -- not so much that it arrived as it was so strong. Both Thip and I had opted to sleep that night in our village house because of it. When the storm subsided and I got back to the farm the next day, I found the refrigerator blown nearly over and making noise. Everything we had was soaked and strewn about the pad. We had been totally unprepared for the strength of the storm and, as the bungalow was not quite finished, all our stuff had been out in the open, under Bann Nah. It took us a full two weeks to clean up.

There were other storms, but not as bad and I got better at reading the radar images via my cellphone.

I watched a couple of the storms roll into our farm house complex. Others, I advised my wife that we should sleep at the village house -- mostly due to our dirt road leading to the farm from the government road. If it gets soaked repeatedly over the course of a couple of days, it’s just a real hassle to pass through. But, we got good at that, too.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Day Thailand Stopped

Thailand’s King Bumibol Adulyadej died, last year. Although long expected, Khon Thai still felt a sense of profound loss.

During the one-year mourning period, the departed King’s body stayed in state in the Grand Palace and the Palace stayed open for people throughout the country and the world to come to pay their last respects. My wife made the two-day round-trip journey to do so and I think whoever felt close to the King and thought they could afford it, made the trek no matter what the distance was.

While the Grand Palace received twelve million visitors during the year mourning, an ornate cremation structure was constructed.

On the day of the funeral, 14 October 2017, most all Thais stopped their daily routines to participate in some way. Many were on-site near the Grand Palace and at replica cremation structures that had been built in each and every province in the country. TV’s and smart phones were glued to the day’s proceedings as they went on.

That night, the night of the actual cremation, it was like Thailand stopped completely.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Ant Battles

This is a follow-up to my Home Alive! series, parts 1, 2 and 3.

It used to be that, here in the Thai Countryside, my major problems with living things were with mosquitoes, rats, termites, scorpions, and dogs.

Although I've seen more snakes this year than at any single time in my life, my main battles are now with ants.

The most common ants in the Isaan are:

The Pharaoh Ant (Monomorium pharaonis)
These are the smallest ant species measuring only 1.5–2.0 mm in size and yellowish/light brown in color. The mother colony starts outside buildings and workers ants spread out inside your home to set up sub colonies inside.

They live within cracks within walls, electric sockets and in between tiles – anywhere where they can set up a new colony with multiple queens in any nest. They feed on anything with a preference towards sweet foods. They can eat dead insects, blood, meat and sweet left-over food. They breed all year round and after the queen has mated, she will split up and move on to a new nest to set up a new colony. These ants can bite and will produce an irritation, but no pain.

Indicum Ants (Monomorium indicum)
These ants are small, but a bit bigger than the Paraohs, measuring 2.5 mm to 3.5 mm in size and dark brown in color. They generally make their nests outside, but as they forage for food, they will certainly invade your home in that pursuit. They are sweet feeders and also like protein food. They bite, but it’s no more than irritating.

Fire Ants (Solenopsis geminate)
Just like the ones I was introduced to in South Texas so many years ago. These are nasty little ants with a worldwide reputation to bite. They are 2 mm in length. Workers have powerful stings. If you mistakenly stand on a nest, workers will slowly cover your feet and lower legs and then seemingly sting all at once. You usually don’t know they’re on you until your feet start to feel like they’re on fire -- hence the name. I always try to watch where I’m walking and definitely where I am standing.

Odourous Ants (Tapinoma melanocephalum)
These ants are 1 mm in length, with head and chest black in color. They make their nests on top of the ground and within the root zone of trees. They particularly like bamboo trees and any tree where there is moisture. These ants also bite, but they’re only irritating.

Crazy Ants (Paratrechina longicomis)
Crazy Ants are between 2-3 mm in length with yellow and brown hair on their black and brown bodies. They live outside the house and workers scatter to forage for food. As they forage, they leave a pheromone everywhere. This causes other workers to try and pick up the strongest scent that creates their “crazy and erratic” behavior.

They like to make their nests in cracks of wood and where there is a damp surrounding. You can sometimes see these ants move their eggs to new nests. These ants do not bite but just tickle with their movement on your body.

Weaver Ants (Oecophylia smaragdina)
These are a red rustic color and are 7-11 mm in length. These are the ants whose eggs are somewhat of a delicacy to Thai/Lao people – Kai mut dang. They make their nests on the tree leaves, like mango trees. They make the leaves roll up and stick together by a sticky substance the ants secrete from their body.

These are very aggressive ants and will defend themselves effectively by biting and spraying an acid on any living thing that attacks them or thinks is attacking them. They can leave the skin feeling itchy and local swelling can occur. I never climb trees because of these guys. When I’m brush cutting, I’m also careful not to have my head brush up against any lower tree limbs.

Ants at our village house are not a problem for the most part. They’re all around, but they haven’t tried to take over.

The ant battlegrounds are out at our larger farm; specifically at Bann Nah, our farm house complex.

You can't blame the ants, really. Our dirt pad is raised and solid in the middle of the rice fields. We are surrounded on all sides by a quarter of a mile of rice patties -- wet for almost half the year.

It has long been a tradition of my family to leave ants alone.

There is this famous family story about my first son Das and his defense of ants in an altercation with another kid at school who was squashing some.

The story is funny now to look back on but I was brought up somewhat in the Buddhist way along with Christian and I passed the guidance on to my sons: no need to kill anything unless it’s for food or defense.

Now that Thip I are living out at the farm half of the time during the rainy season and most of the time the rest of the year, ants have become a real problem.

They get into everything. The real tiny Pharaoh ants really drive Thip nuts. They make homes even in-between fabric. So, you can’t have folded clothes or bedding around un-moved for any length of time for fear those Pharaohs are gonna set-up shop.

I have joked often about how ants are always crawling on my body here in the Isaan. More hours out of the day than not, I have ants exploring what they can find on my skin. But these ants don't really cause any problems. They’re usually Pharaohs or Indicums and generally don’t bite unless provoked.

The ant battles I engage in are when I can see clearly ant trails going upstairs and/or into the bungalow. I do my best to keep them out by spraying their trails and destroying their homes when set up close to our living areas. Insecticide for the trails and detergent water for the mounds are enough for them to get the message sooner or later.

It's not so much a war as a bunch of pitched battles. Forget fights; you’ll lose every time. Each battle I learn how better to fight the next one. But, I don’t have any illusions of a win. I’m not interested in annihilation. My strategy is to wear them down and make it more of a hassle for them to bother us than just do something else and live somewhere else. It doesn’t have to be far away, just not where we sleep or hang.

Some Ant Facts

· Ants have a natural built-in barometer that can detect rain. So if you see ants carrying eggs, you can accurately guess it is going to rain.
· Ants can gnaw through paper and plastic bags.
· Ants have two stomachs – their own and a social stomach that feeds the young and the queen.
· Ants are the strongest living creature, with the ability to lift 10 times their own bodyweight.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Ohpensa 2017 / 2560

Wan Ok Phansa -- or what I refer to as Ohpensa here in Northeastern Thailand -- is the end of Vassa, the annual three months long “Rains Retreat” observed by Theraveda Buddists.

Ohpensa is celebrated in different ways at different temples, but all have their main ceremony at night. Part of the ceremony involves walking around the wat with lit candles, burning incense, and sometimes lotus blossoms. Fireworks are shot off and sometimes sky lanterns lit. I usually attend the morning ceremony and save the night time for myself out at the farm.

Just two weeks before, the morning sun looked close to Venus.

In 2014, due to the lunar eclipse that Ohpensa, I decided to forgo the night time temple ceremony and opt for the lunar show. I was not disappointed. That Ohpensa remains my most memorable to-date, not only because of the eclipse but also because of the many sky lanterns sent skywards all around me. Although we had lit some on the temple grounds and also were part of 2014’s Washiku Karen harvest ceremony where many where lifted aloft, I hadn’t realized until that night that most all temples and some communities also light sky lanterns. So, being out in the middle of the rice fields, you get this show of orange lights within a 360° field of vision.

The Isaan’s most well-known and popular celebration of Wan Ok Phansa takes place at Nong Khai, along the Mekong, on the other side of the river from the road to Vientiane, Lao. Naga Fireballs or Bung Fai Paya Nak (Mekong Lights) draw thousands of people to the riverside city in the hopes of catching a glimpse of them. Many Thai and Lao people consider these spiritual mysteries, others dismiss them as a hoax or, at best, subjects of skepticism. Either way, if the Naga Fireballs really do exist as a natural phenomenon, then they have not been scientifically proven.

Out at the farm, I could see periodic fireworks all around -- just as at our temple or if I were in Nong Khai. In fact, it seems that within the past three years, the popularity of fireworks has grown and the number of sky lanterns become less. For me, the sky lanterns are more interesting. They last longer and drift across the sky in unpredictable patterns. But, I'll take both!

Now that Bann Nah is a year old and complete with roof and porch, watching the light shows -- in addition to the full moon -- is even more enjoyable than before. With the added plus of a cellphone, I even watched the show while listening to music. Tom Petty had recently died and while I was not a big fan of his, he and his Heartbreakers did a number of songs I like. This night, although it had nothing thematically in common with what I was watching, I played my favorite song of his. Because it was somewhat chant-like, I played it a good number of times, over-and-over.

Monday, October 2, 2017


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.