Monday, July 27, 2015

Thai/Lao Smile

When I first decided to look for a wife in Thailand, back in the late 1990s, I learned that Thai women do not particularly care for facial hair. So, I cut my mustache off, one that I had been wearing in two or three different styles since the beginning of the ‘70s. It was a bit of a shock to see myself clean shaven, because it was then that I discovered my lips had developed a downward frown to them, at the edges; making me look unhappy or slightly mean.

Having somewhat of a grumpy look to me wasn’t a problem in the United States, but in Thailand, it is a liability. Thai and Lao people put great importance on smiling. So, as I’ve moved about in both countries, I have tried to adopt a Thai/Lao Smile. It is somewhat of a cross between a grin and a grimace, but it’s the best I can do without over-doing it. Everyday, I remind myself to smile so that people do not misinterpret my actions or demeanor. I do this whether I’m in my village or in another Southeast Asian country.

Again, while I was looking for my wife, I read a very insightful explanation of the “Thai Smile.” It is part of the Introduction to Niels Mulder’s Inside Thai Society (©2000):

Thailand is often called The Land of Smiles, a sobriquet which sounds at once pleasant and mysterious. At the same time that a smile may suggest good humour, it is one of the most enigmatic of expressions as well. A smile may be a sign of kindness, of forgiveness, or friendly inclinations; a smile may also be merely polite, a way to smooth interaction or a sign that one is willing to listen. A smile may indicate agreement, or self-confidence, but may also be a means to gently express one’s opposition or doubt. A person on the defensive may smile and one may smile when sad, or hurt, or even insulted. It has been said that the Thais have a smile for every emotion, and with so many nuances of smiling, the smile often hides more than it reveals.”

So, I guess you could say I’m just trying to fit in; with my grin/grimace and all.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Lao Trip 11.4 - Heuan Phair

While hanging out in PL2, I did my usual of visiting the market in Pak Lai, buying food off the street, and visiting the places I usually stop in and have a beer, like the Rimkhong restaurant and Heuan Phair. I even checked out that new karaoke place in Pak Lai, again.

My initial impressions about this new karaoke spot held true on second inspection. I guess it’s great for teenagers, but for anyone wanting to talk with each other and hang, this is just not the place. One thing it has over the other spots in Pak Lai and PL2 is that there is dancing at night. That can be exciting, of course, but if things are so dark and loud that you can’t meet anyone new, then you’re limited to who you came in with and who you might know upon arrival.

Seeing as Khoun Ten was currently under a rebuild, I hung at Heuan Phair more than usual. I’m actually best received here; not sure why, but I’ve always appreciated the music selection and over the past few years there were many an afternoon and early evening when I was the only customer, here. I guess that explains it, really.

(Mr. Tit being transported home)

Popular in Savannakhet when I visited, last March. Didn’t see it play much at PL2, possibly due to the subject:

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Lao Trip 11.3 - Tana Village

Thanks to a friend, I was able to visit and hang out in a typical Lao village as long as I paid for the beer. OK by me!

It was an exciting 20 minute motosai ride from PL2 to Tana Village. Great scenery and anticipation of what I might find.

Once we got there, this Falang was the object of immediate curiousity, first by the kids and then with the older men. My friend’s relatives walked in and out all day long, sometimes staying a while to see what a Westerner was really like. Apparently, I was off-limits to any of the young women or girls, as I saw very few.

 The structures in the village were similar to those in the Isaan, but less metal and concrete; more wood. Some houses still had woven bamboo walls, which is something you no longer see in the Isaan, except maybe at shacks out on people’s farms.

Weaving is still actively engaged upon. I was amazed at the dexterity of a neighbor’s weaver and how could she keep straight where she was going with the colored threads. It almost seemed magical, in a way. Were I to attempt to do it, it would be very slow going and I’d have to constantly refer to a diagram. With her, it was almost as if she didn’t give it a thought.

It was a hot day and I was surprised that not more people took showers – ab nam. This is what we do in the Isaan when it is very hot. Some days I take upwards to seven showers a day just to cool off and refresh myself.

People were very, very friendly, even some of the older guys who had fought in The War.

Food consisted of som tam (papaya salad), mangoes, rice and a little bit of pork bar-b-que. I rarely saw a truck, certainly no cars.

Lao men driving mechanical buffaloes with carts attached came in from working the rice fields at end of day and I saw that women preceded them coming from the river and bathing there.

That exciting motorcycle ride to the village turned into a bit of a terror ride on the way back, as we had been drinking beer – slowly, true – all day and we didn’t leave until night fall. Not smart, but I felt my driver was not drunk. The timing, I had no control over.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Lao Trip 11.2 - Hello, Seng Chalerm!

The highlight of this trip to Lao was a day’s homestay in a Lao village about the same size as mine back in the Isaan.

Before that, though, I was very pleased to find that fortunes had once again visited the Seng Chalerm. All the way coming from Ken Thao to Pak Lai, I debated: do I try the Seng Chalerm one more time in the hopes that service is a little better? Or, do I go over to the newer Sayadeth? Well, I’m glad I went to Seng Chalerm first – even if it was just for “old time’s sake.” The place had a complete new extrerior paint job and there was a new restaurant erected in the back, overlooking The Khong.

Room B15 is pretty much history for me, though, because they’ve turned it into a double bed room and all I need is a single; cheaper, too. I’m glad I took those final shots of the room the way it was, back last December. Fond memories while staying and sleeping in this room.

I got another, which was OK, but not nearly as good. That was fine by me, as I was just happy to be back on familiar ground, with people I’ve known for a couple of years. The addition of the restaurant was also a plus.

After laundry and a shower, I set off for the market, where I stopped in to say hello to Savat, the Beer Lao distributor for Pak Lai and also a hardware salesman. He was genuinely pleased to see me and called for his employee to fetch some beers. On top of that – since he knew my family members liked Lao Khao (rice whiskey) – he had his guy motorcycle over to the warehouse, draw some 40 proof out of the vats, and pout it into a plastic drinking water container – just like he had done that other time. I knew to offer to pay for it would have been impolite, so I filed this away for a return gesture on my part in the future.

I also met Savat’s mother who seemed to be quite the shrewd one.

I didn’t stay long in the market. I was anxious to hike over to PL2 and get down on the river. So, I headed for Khoun Ten, only to find that a storm had blown in and taken the bar/restaurant’s roof off.

I moved over to Heuan Phair Ta Plow where I was again warmly received. The owner family’s uncle or father even stopped in and had a few – actually, more than a few, drawing me over to his table, whether I wanted to or not. Mr. Tit is a skilled longtail boat captain and I think he was trying to tell me that when I took that longtail shot last winter, he was the pilot.

Well, he got kinda drunk, so I took leave. But, I was happy to meet him, as it is my desire to get out on the Mekong on a longtail boat and eventually learn to operate one, myself.

Popular in Lao, this trip and the past couple:

Same song, different artist and video:

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Lao Trip 11.1 - Ken Thao

My 11th trip to Lao, in early June 2015, began unusually poorly. On the bus from Nong Bua Lamphu to Muang Loei, the bus attendant insisted I hadn’t paid the first time, so I paid him twice. I’m sure it was a rip-off. At first I thought it might be that he was just too hung-over from the night before, cuz he looked the part. But, throughout the trip, I saw that he kept on looking back at me, so I think if he was thinking about it that much, he would have remembered the first time I gave him the fare. Way around this, in the future, of course, is just to buy a ticket, but sometimes you’re on the run and don’t have the time.

In cases like this, you just have to let it go. However, through most of the ride, I felt resentful and taken advantage of. At one point I thought I might report him, but then I settled down. The fare only amounted to about three bucks, so it just wasn’t worth it. Even so, mentally I had to challenge myself not to dwell on it. Instead, I forced myself to think of the roads ahead.

So, I’ve complained before about how much I have to pay for private transport to Pak Lai once I’m at Ken Thao, in Lao. This time, I decided to deal with this problem. So, once in Ken Thao, I got a room at a guesthouse close to the market and bus station, deciding to take the regularly scheduled sawngthaew to Pak Lai the next morning.

This approach cost me time, but I got to see a little of Ken Thao and the lifestyle of the Ken Thao drivers, plus do a little shopping and have a good dinner. Most importantly, it saved me a little bit of money. The private transport from Ken Thao to Pak Lay can cost as much as $46 USD (same price as a month’s visa!). Totalling all my expenses staying a night in Ken Thao, I only spent $20 USD and had a new pair of sandals, too.

(Ken Thao market)

I spent about an two hours in the market, due to a rainstorm that came in and locked us all down, then spent another two hours over at the “bus station,” hanging out with the drivers that charge so much (not just private sawngthaew transport, but local tuk-tuk fares, as well), watching them play petanque while I drank Beer Lao with ice. As I might have mentioned before, I am sure I know where a good portion of those high price transit fees go: bets on the petanque court!

(Ken Thao transit center)

A dinner at the guesthouse with another Beer Lao ended the day.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Lao Trip 11.0 - Trip Preparations

Like it used to be when I hiked and camped in the Los Padres National Forest, in the Ojai and Santa Barbara areas in the United States, I find myself preparing for my trips to Lao in similar ways.

For instance, I clip my nails on my feet and hands. The clipping on the hands is pretty much pro forma, with the objective being more cosmetic than anything else – gotta look my best! The feet nails are absolutely necessary to trim. The last thing you want to happen on a hike or a trip to a foreign country is for your feet to be in discomfort and not having the tools (i.e. clippers) along to deal with it. Of course, you could always bring these along, but at my age, my nail clipping tools have grown in number, sizes and weight and, well, I try to keep the weight down; everything adds up.

Other similarities include clearing queues and checking-off checklists. Newly added to these are making sure my cellphone minutes are topped off, I have my Lao simcard, and have left enough household money behind so my wife doesn’t come up short while I’m gone.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Hot Season Celebrations

While the wall support and outside walls were being worked on at Bann Nah, three main celebrations took place, as they do each year during Thailand’s “hot season” (springtime in the USA):

I wrote about Boon Pak Whet (aka “Boon Pakwet”) in the early months of my first year retired in the Thai countryside, in 2012, and also shot some video. This village-specific celebration has Buddhist undertones, but is largely secular and is considered by many a village male as warm-up to Songkrahn.

In 2014, I wrote a little about Songkrahn (aka “Songkran”), the beginning of the Thai New Year. It also is not a Buddhist celebration but contains Buddhist ceremonies mostly specific to family.

I haven’t written about Boon Buak Bahn before, although I may have mentioned it in passing. It also is not strictly a Buddhist celebration but contains Buddhist undertones and I believe it comes from a time somewhere between the introduction of Buddhism to Thailand and the invention of string – I’m not kidding.

String is strung through the main road in the village and the two roads leading into it. People tie their own string to the main string and bring their string – elevated, not touching the ground – into their homes and wrap it around their homes’ Budda statues. The main string is terminated at the village’s community center and tied up around the village’s Buddha statues. So, all important Buddha castings in the village are tied together. For three days, villagers pray and chant here, with the assistance of local monks. The main purpose of this celebration appears to be to safeguard the village from evil or malignant forces that may try to strike it during the year.

Unlike the other two celebrations, the drinking of alcohol does not play a role in Boon Buak Bahn.