Saturday, March 31, 2012

Tak Baht

Even before we moved back to The Village, Thip taught me the first thing to do upon waking and getting up is to brush my teeth. So, I do that and then attend to the various aspects of water management, including defecation [more on this, later, for the not faint-at-heart], shower, ice, drinking water, dog and bird bowls replenishing, and plants watering.

After teeth brushing and before showering, I’ll wet the various areas of my body that I will be soaping and shampooing. Usually only using shampoo for my hair and then the excess for under arms and crotch, I then rinse these areas and follow it all up with a plastic bucket of cold water over my head and body. This is ab-nam, the Thai countryside equivalent of a shower. I might throw water over myself like this up to five times a day, depending on how hot it is outside. Lately, it’s been 90-degrees Fahrenheit (around 30-degrees Celsius) in the shade and 100-105 degrees (around 38-degrees C) in the sun.

Thip fixes me coffee, which is a packet of “3-in-1” Nescafe instant. My oldest son Das will kill me when he reads this, after all the high quality cups of real coffee we’ve shared together in Santa Barbara, thinking I’ve really “hit the skids” and lowered my quality of life. But, the instant is easy and I like it; same could be said for my daily life in Thailand overall.

By now, Thip’s prepared sticky rice (khao nio) but more likely walked over to the family house and gotten some. The family house routine has been well established while ours are – what’s a nice way to say it? “Under development.” Anyway, we take the sticky rice with us in a cylindrical bamboo container to the temple, after tak baht, but not before Thip makes another little walk to the village market where they sell food wrapped up in small plastic bags of all sorts and tastes. Most of this is prepared locally in large amounts and then sold in smaller.

Around 7 a.m., the local temple monks come walking along the streets and roads of the village. We kneel or bend down (heads never higher than the monks’) to offer them khao nio out of our cylindrical bamboo containers. This is tak baht and is nowadays mostly symbolic, but demonstrates the village support of the local religious leaders. The monks will receive other food later on during jahn hahn [more on this later] and financial donations at other times.

Here’s a picture of Thip’s mother just before tak baht in 2011:

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Waking Up

I was reminded of the previous post (“Loso”) this morning when I re-met some of our family from the nearby city, Nong Bua Lamphu. Although I doubt if any one of them have spent much time in Bangkok, they are always quick to correct my Lao, giving me the Thai translation and reminding me that this is how it is spoken in Krung Thep (the original center of Bangkok).

Hatsadee and her daughter and their part of the family in Nong Bua always present themselves well, wearing white blouses and showing off some gold. I doubt if they even own any Isaan fabric (most always silk), an example of which looks like this:

Any way, not to get down on them, but it kind of makes me laugh that they consider themselves hi-so when they’re not that far removed from the village and at least an eight hour drive away from Bangkok. I hold them no ill will, but it’s like what I was saying about how even Isaan people buy into the thing about the Thai language being so much better over Lao. It is clearly a class thing.

Now to the subject of this post.

The question I am asked most often these days, from family and friends in the United States, is about my daily life. What do I do? How is it different from my life back in Santa Barbara?

It’s a bit difficult to answer because I am a detail man. It’s the little things that often reveal the reality to me. So, let me answer the question in installments because I just can’t rattle it all off in one chunk.

If the cocks crowing don’t wake me up (beginning about 5 a.m.), then I’m definitely awake right around 6 a.m. by my best village friend’s cows. When Pahwet or his wife take them out to pasture and bring them back at the end of the day, they go right by our house and the bells around the cows’s necks are distinctive. Not the cowbell that is typical to music making, but bells that sound more like metal chimes.

If this fails to rouse me, I definitely jump out of sleep when our neighbor, friend and assistant Headman takes to the microphone on the village loudspeaker system. Morlam music – indigenous to this area – begins the broadcast; usually two songs and then Pasan relays the important news of the day. This is always village specific information. Lately, he’s been talking about the village tamboon (merit making) at the village temple and special events associated with it. The weekend long event is called Tamboon Pakwet and I’ll write more about it later. Bottom line: all the approximately 80 houses in the village need to cough up 300 Thai baht (THB as opposed to USD [U.S. dollar]). This is a little over $12 USD per household.

Of course, I’m making a joke about “coughing up.” That’s not the proper attitude of a good Buddhist. You should always want to give. If you give reluctantly, it’s just about as bad as not giving at all, because to give freely improves your karma.

Anyway, I’m usually still under the mosquito net and on top the sleeping pads Khun Mae (Thip’s mother) made many years ago, upstairs in the wood and corrugated tin roof that is our home. Sometimes, Thip is with me, but with her mother failing, Thip’s been sleeping with her at the family house a lot; about five long stone throws from our house…

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


So, one of the most important things to realize about the people of the Isaan is that they are bilingual (Thai and Lao, preferring the later over the former).

(Our village is just to the left of "Nong Bua Lamphu" - area in brown is mostly Lao [Laos], extreme upper right corner is Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin)

Interestingly, the tendency for Northeastern Thais to speak Lao over Thai became somewhat of a classist issue that remains today. For instance, much in the same way that educated people in the United States refer to lower-educated country “hicks” – and look down on them – city Thais outside the Isaan consider “upcountry” people from the Isaan loso (low class), compared to themselves being supposedly hi-so (upper class). Country Thais usually buy into this inferred inferiority, considering the Lao language lower than the Thai language.

To some degree, this has been enforced. Thai is the official language of the country as a whole and all Thais are expected to be able to speak it and no one thinks twice about having to do so. Whenever Isaan people deal with the government, air-conditioned businesses, or the educational system, they always speak in Thai. Significantly, Lao is not even taught in the schools, although English is.

So, I would never go into a bank speaking Lao. But, then again, I wouldn’t go into a government building, bank or school speaking Thai either, because English is rated even higher than Thai in Thailand!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

(Mostly) Lao Spoken Here

I began visiting Northeastern Thailand (The Isaan) in 1999, when I first met my wife Thiphawan. In March 2012 (Buddhist year 2555), I retired here and I thought that I would write about the many things I’ve seen and experienced – and continue to – that I have not read about in any travelogue or guide book of the area.

After marrying Thip, I tried my hand at learning the Thai language somewhat. Like many countries of Southeast Asia, Thai script is completely different from the Roman, which is used by all Western countries and even beyond. So, I knew I had my work cut out for me.

It soon became apparent that I was hopelessly lost and couldn’t translate easily. Thip was far quicker picking up English than I was at Thai, so that helped, but many times whe she would say something and I tried looking it up in my Thai-English dictionary, I could not find it.

I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me quite some time before I realized that those many words Thip used were Lao – not Thai! This is because even though The Isaan has been officially part of Thailand since 1768 C.E., its people were originally part of the Lao (aka Laos) and Lan Xang before it.

In 1768, the new Kingdom of Thailand – formed out of the Kingdom of Ayuthaya the year before – claimed The Isaan for itself and fought the Lao Kingdom for it twice, in 1777 and 1827. The Isaan has been considered to be part of Thailand since 1768…