Sunday, April 28, 2013

Death 3

Before I leave the subject of “Death in a Thai-Lao Village” altogether, please let me share some additional thoughts and emphasis; an addendum to the previous two posts, if you will.

Our front yard Mak Mee (Jackfruit) tree. 

First, what I have described is certainly surface observations. I just don’t know enough, yet, to tell much about what’s underneath. If you’d like more detail on the deeper aspects of Thai funerals, please follow the several separate links in the second post about death, the links marked “cremation.”

Secondly, what I have described pertains to our village and I would hazard to say they are pretty much similar to other Isaan villages. However, the rites, ceremonials and formal observances in the countryside are quite different – more rudimentary, I guess you could say – than those in the cities or even the larger towns. Sometimes it’s just a matter of finances, but the cultures are slightly different, too. Again, you can get a good idea of the contrasts between country and city by visiting “cremation” links in “Death 2,” my previous post.

Third and lastly, what has struck me the most about all this is that death in this part of the world strikes all ages almost equally. As a retired American expat, I am getting used to people my age and older “dying on me.” It is a sad but fully natural part of the aging process. However, the deaths that have touched me in 2012/2555 have also ranged from a young calf getting accidentally kicked by its mother and never recovering; to the shooting death and subsequent burning of the body ostensibly to erase evidence of a guy 25 years my junior, who I was becoming friends with; to an even younger guy in his twenties, just down the road from our home, who died from Weil’s Disease (Leptospirosis), which is basically a bacterial infection.

The expression “Life is Cheap” here, comes to mind, but it’s not really that, I think. Given any sampling of 400-500 people in any given “non-dangerous” area, probably death’s impact is pretty much the same. It’s just that living in a small community, you know more about the deaths around you because you are more interconnected with each other.

It’s like “We’re all in this together.” And as I wrote previously, the death of one is treated like a death in the family, whether that person is a blood relative or not.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Death 2

Next day, if you were tired enough to sleep through the party that lasted most of the night – I’m thinking “rager”, here, but without blasting music – next day, the loudspeakers are engaged with sad Thai songs and periodic messages from the village headman. Also, more people arrive to help the family get ready for the major ceremonies leading up to cremation. This may involve further cleanup of the property, neighbors clearing their land to be used for overflow parking, installation of large blue tents to shelter people from the sun and any possible rain, and rental of both blue and red plastic chairs.

Cremation takes place only after the proper Buddhist ceremonies have been made and upon the decree of the head monk the family holds highest. Usually, the length of time is about three days, but can be seven. In our family, when Lungta Wah passed away in 2011, because he was a monk, his brother Sakhon (also a monk and very high up) decreed a state of stasis for one month before cremation.

(The Lord Buddha's cremation at Kusinara)

I’ve only been to two Isaan cremations, so my knowledge is a bit limited. The first one involved a well-respected family in the community where over 500 people and provincial government officials attended. The second one involved a relatively poor family whose house is within sight of ours. At least one hundred people attended that one. In both family cases – as with the ceremonies and gatherings leading to cremation – the format of the actual cremation ceremony was basically the same: Buddhist chanting lead by monks from the temple the family belonged to, followed by people walking up to the crematorium deck and throwing decorated sticks into the casket where the body was on view.

Both times, people left before the actual fires were lit and presumably, only close family members remained.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Death 1

Living in a Thai-Lao village, one is continually reminded of our mortality as human animals.

As my long-time friend Jackie Bales is fond of saying: “None of us get out of here alive.”

In the West, you can go a long time between funerals. Living in a somewhat small village of about 400 people in the Northeast of Thailand, those four hundreds are treated a bit like family when it comes to death.

I don’t profess to know the beginning and end-all’s of Thai funerals, but the following are my surface observations:

Whenever a villager dies, representatives from most all families show up to pay their respects, help out in the preparation for the mourning period and – like what I imagine a subdued version of an Irish Wake must be a bit like. Some villagers just pay their respects, have a bite to eat and talk. Others treat the occasion as social events; still others party even more heartily.

Here’s how it goes, from death to cremation. This is not meant to be all-inclusive, as I still have lots to learn about how it goes:

You look down the road at a neighbor’s house and notice their friends and relatives who normally drop by and soon leave – well, they stay and more and more start arriving. Then, you notice the Village Headman and village elders start showing up. The arrival of all coincides with a clean-up effort of the property, the installation of a sound system with large speakers big enough for all the village to hear.

… ah – something is going down, you say?

A suitable group of village elders and major family members arrive with the body – usually straight from the hospital 8 kilometers away. The body is then placed in a casket which is lined and air-conditioned. Thip calls it a “cave.”

That first night, Buddhist monks arrive and chant while people pray for the departed and the departed’s family. If the family is poor, they will need everything they can get.

After the monks leave, the party resumes and this usually involves some alcohol, maybe some gambling and definitely food and other drinks. In fact, the largest expense is food as the family may end up feeding several hundred people more than once. Even very modest Thai funerals run into thousands of U.S. dollars.

And, in case you missed all this, the person who collects the “life insurance” comes by your house, usually on motorsai, to collect your contribution, which amounts to 100 baht ($3.25).

Friday, April 12, 2013

Learning A New Way

The thing that I have grown to love the most in my retirement in The Isaan and travelling in Lao – even though at times it is frustrating – is having to learn not only new things, but new ways of responding, new ways of doing, as -- yes, even unlearning some old ways.

It’s like not just some new countries, but a whole new world!

At my age, “It Don’t Come Easy.” Yeah, when you’re young, learning new stuff comes easily, but when you’re hok sip see (64), it’s not only harder to learn new ways of being, but your response time is slower. What is hardest of all is sometimes you have to unlearn something that’s been part of you for decades.

You learn things “On The Road.” Travelling forces you to learn new ways of doing. How successful you are at travelling or just being in a foreign environment is not only how well you adapt, but how well you adopt your own ways of dealing with the New Reality.

The thing about not declining an invitation; yeah, that’s one. Another is never declining offered food. Another is to make sure to bring or buy your own to share. If you don’t get out of the Western mode of aloofness, then you will never know what you missed; never make it possible for something larger and more meaningful to happen; never ever have that same moment’s opportunity to make someone feel good because they opened themselves up to you. It’s just a space in time. You have to grab it quickly.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Lao Trip 3.4 - Karaoke & Nout

[My third trip to Lao, November 2012, continued...]

Karaoke is big in Lao, at least amongst the ages of 14 and 40. Most restaurants in the country have karaoke set-ups, whether they are actively used or not. The fancier setups include a TV monitor showing the original artists singing the song, linked to external speakers, controlled by a computerized menu operated behind the bar. More simple approaches are basically just a speaker hooked up to a computer that just has the music and words to the song on it. Most all the songs are Lao Luktung and Lao pop, but not an insignificant amount are Thai Luktung, Thai pop and Thai rock. Even an occasional song in English sometimes makes its way into someone’s collection.

I was especially excited to see that Thai singers and musicians Pongsit and Carabao are both held in high esteem by many Lao. Loso is also heard often.

There’s nothing like watching and listening to beautiful teenage girls get into singing; or girls in their 20s; or even older! Guys get into it, too. Everyone’s having fun, otherwise they’d stay home.

What I found myself doing was ordering two Beer Lao’s (639 milliliter bottles) – they didn’t give you just one. It was considered poor form, I think. And, they wouldn't take your order at your table, either. You had to order at the bar. After getting the beer and ice in a bucket delivered, I’d wait to see what happened cuz sooner or later something would. Usually, I would be invited to someone’s table and end up moving over.

In fact, this is when I decided that I would never turn down an invite, as long as it was practical. The possibilities, should I accept, were not only unknown, but seemingly endless.

Let me step back a bit, to clarify: if a table of two couples invited me over, I would probably decline, as the numbers would not be right with me being the odd man out. But, if there was an odd number of people and/or an imbalance in the male/female ratio, then I definitely would.

Of course, there are always exceptions. There was one time I did not follow this formula and I’m so glad I did not and that I had the guts to see it through… But, that brings me to another thing… Having To Unlearn and then Learn a New Way