Making Merit

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Making merit is one of the cornerstones of Buddhist life.  It means paying forward, a term everyone should be familiar with.  Doing good, so good things will happen to you.  Wikipedia says:

It is a beneficial and protective force which accumulates as a result of good deeds, acts, or thoughts. Merit-making is important to Buddhist practice: merit brings good and agreeable results, determines the quality of the next life and contributes to a person’s growth towards enlightenment.

Mai’s family held a large merit making ceremony this past weekend to honour her father, who passed away 8 years ago, and a younger brother who passed away 4 years ago.  The ceremony is a big deal for the family, and it took Mai, her sister and two remaining brothers eight years to save up for the event, which lasted two full days.

Preparations

The logistics of putting this together were massive.  The family was expecting 300 family members and friends.  Since Mai is the only sibling still living close to home, the job of organizing the event fell to her.  She spent the weeks before the event visiting other villages to rent and borrow tables, chairs, tents and awnings, cooking pots, woks, stoves and dishes.  Other days were spent obtaining food; things like pickup truckloads of bananas and coconuts, banana leaves, sugar cane, large and small fish, rice and a pig.

An outdoor kitchen was set up at the back of her mother’s house and was staffed by neighbours and relatives who volunteered to do food prep and cooking.  They were there from 6:00 AM until after dark!

The day before the event Mai was told the crowd would be closer to 400 people.  No need to worry; they had plenty of food.  They just needed more dishwashers!

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The Event

Saturday started at 6:00 AM with breakfast for about 200 early arrivals.  I was not an early arrival.  Mai came and brought me over around 10:30, when things had calmed down a little.  I have only met a few of her relatives and conversations were challenging but enjoyable.  They were very curious about me.  The men wanted to know where I was from and what I did and the women marveled at my lovely white skin, which they said looked like a baby’s!  Between my limited Thai and their limited English we managed to get along well.

After a while though, I went and sat quietly in a shady spot and watched things happen.  Eventually, a pack of little kids found me, led by Mai’s 8 year old son Max.  I turned on my camera and that’s when the clowning around started!

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Sunday started a little later.  Seven monks presided over the official ceremonies at the house.  The monks pray and chant a blessing for the people in attendance.  This lasts about 30 minutes and is followed by a presentation of trays of food for each monk.  They aren’t permitted to eat after 1:00 PM so the food is plentiful and delicious!

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Following the ceremonies at the house the family moved to the crematorium on the local temple grounds where another short service took place.  Mai’s brother’s cremated remains were never officially laid to rest because the family couldn’t afford the ceremony.  Instead, they were kept in a metal pot at the crematorium.  They were brought out following the prayers and placed in some plastic mesh where the monks and everyone in attendance took turns pouring water over them to wash away the ash, leaving only fragments of bone.  After washing, bamboo tongs were used to remove pieces of bone and place them in a small urn, which would be properly laid to rest the next day.

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You can see from the photos that the facilities are very simple.  The area where the prayers took place is nothing more than a concrete floor with a raised platform for the monks, and a metal roof.  However, the peaceful setting out in the woods next to a pond is beautiful.

The monks go back to their duties at the temple and we moved back to the house to eat, drink and socialize for the rest of the day.  I was worn out by the heat and Mai took me back to our house after a few more hours, and advised that she would be back to pick me up again at 6:00 AM Sunday morning.  The party continued on until late into the night.

Sunday began with the monks visiting the house for more prayers and blessings, and breakfast.  We then moved to the site of the temple proper, which has a small cemetery.  In a brief ceremony on the cemetery lawn, the urn containing Mai’s brothers remains were blessed and sealed inside a thatu (the “u” is silent).  You can see several thatus against the far wall of the cemetery in the photo at the beginning of this post.

You may also notice in the lead photo a length of string that runs through the hands of the first monk, and on to the others and finally across the cemetery to the thatu.  This is called senday saysiycn, or holy thread as Mai describes it.  It symbolically connects the people holding it and is used to send merit to the soul of the dead.

Once again, the monks go back to their duties and we go back to the house.  It’s just after noon on Sunday by this time.  Time for a little food (OK, a lot actually) and then the festivities wind down and tents and awnings are knocked down, chair are stack, tables are folded and dirty dishes are collected.

Mai organized and ran this major family event like a pro.  She worked 18 hour days and only came to our home an hour or two a day to make sure I was fed.  She and her siblings had saved 180,000 baht (about Cdn $7,500) to pay for everything, and when all the bills were paid the event came in under budget and she was able to refund a few thousand Baht to each brother and sister!

Mai offered modest payments to the friends and family who contributed literally days of their time to set up, take down and work in the kitchen.  Nobody accepted a penny.  This is family unity and community spirit at its very best.  I’m extremely proud of my wife and happy to have been a small part of it!

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Random Photos

Many times I grab a one-off photo of something during our travels.  A nice photo, but not enough to wrap a blog post around.  Tonight I’ll post some recent photos with a little description just to get them out there for you!

 

 

Things Change

Mai is used to me calling out “Stop!  Stop!  Stop!” when we’re out driving and I see something interesting I want to photograph.  She actually encourages it!  Unfortunately, she’ll have to get used to it.  Part of the process of getting a driver’s license as a foreigner in Thailand is to have a medical checkup and obtain a certificate of good health from the doctor.  The exam consists of taking your pulse, blood pressure and listening to your heart and lungs.  I did fine on all of that, but I now wear braces on my legs to control a condition called foot drop.  When the doctor saw the braces she refused to sign the certificate.  So, no driver’s license for me.  I’ll never be able to drive our shiny new Honda!

Mai negotiated with the doctor, however, and she did agree to sign off so that I could get a motorcycle license since I still have my motorcycle rating on my Ontario driver’s license.  The conditions are it has to have an automatic transmission so that I don’t need to use my feet for driving.  This is fine with me because I had my eye on a scooter and many of them have automatic transmissions.

When I finally get my license and my helmet arrives from the U.S. (Helmets here are far too small and don’t have to comply with any safety ratings.  I might as well wear a lampshade on my head!) then we head to the local Honda shop to buy an all-too-cute Honda Scoopy!

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2019 Honda Scoopy [red, of course!]
Mai has her own rules on how I will conduct myself:

  1. Drive within the So Phisai town limits only!  No driving on the highways.
  2. No driving at night.
  3. No driving during Songkran (Thai New Year celebrations, when alcohol related accidents spike about 400%).
  4. 60 km/h maximum speed.
  5. No wheelies or burnouts.  🙂

I’ve spent enough on time on Thai roads to know that these rules will keep me out of trouble.  A scooter allows me to regain some of the freedom I’ve lost with the loss of my car drivers license.  I can pick up groceries, take Max to and from school, putt around and take pictures and go visit friends.  Plus it’s available for Man (Mai’s older son) when he’s home from university.

A Walk in The Neighbourhood (part 1)

Our house is located on a semi-rural street just outside of So Phisai.  Look for the yellow star on the photo below.  It’s peaceful here.  During the day you’ll get people putting by on scooters of all descriptions and farm equipment, in particular the “Farmer Tuk-Tuk” as Mai calls them.  I can’t describe it; I’ll have to get a photo for you!  We also have pickup trucks creeping by with loudspeakers on racks on the roof playing recorded advertisements for one great deal or another.

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Satellite view of So Phisai. The yellow star at the top is us!

The folks next door to us are our landlords.  They’re nice people.  They have a small food stand at the front of their house and prepare all kinds of meals.  We buy from them from time to time for those times when there’s nothing in the fridge.  I’m not sure what the people on the other side of us do.  They seem to be related to our landlords.

There’s a small operation across the road that makes things like fence posts, hydro poles and some pipes and other vessels out of concrete.  Despite the industrial nature of the work the only sound we hear from them is when the start up their cement mixer to make another batch.  Otherwise, very quiet!

I took a walk down our street to the east of the house and took a handful of photos so you can see what the neighbourhood looks like.  I hope you enjoy them.  I’ll walk in the other direction and grab some more shots soon!

The Sukhumvit Shuffle

Sukhumvit Road (pronounced Sookoomvit) is one of Bangkok’s main arteries, running generally east-west before turning south to connect to towns southeast of the capitol.  Sidestreets running of Sukhumvit Road are called Sois and are numbered, although the road signs also show their old, seldom used proper names.  Odd numbered sois run north off Sukhumvit and even numbered sois run south.  I lived on Sukhumvit Soi 11 when I worked in Bangkok and always return to that area because of the concentration of good hotels, restaurants and shopping.

Traffic on Sukhumvit Road is awful except from about 2:00 to 5:00 AM.  Of course it’s bad everywhere else in Bangkok too.  Bad enough that if you flag down a cab and ask the driver to take you across town at the wrong time of day they will turn you down and drive off.  It doesn’t pay for them to sit in traffic.  Another time, a taxi driver picked Mai and I up, then changed his mind part way, dropped us off at the next Skytrain station and drove off!

Getting From Point A to Point B

Many times, even driving a short distance on Sukhumvit Road can be a challenge.  For example, I like to stay at the Boulevard Hotel on Soi 5, which is a very narrow 1-way street running north from Sukhumvit Road (see photo below, a Google Streetview shot).

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Looking north on Soi 5 from Sukhumvit Road

My hotel (Point A on the map below) is less than 50 metres from Sukhumvit Road.  I had to make several taxi trips that required getting on one of the main highways (Point B on the map).  The trick is that Sukhumvit road is 3 lanes in each direction, and because they drive on the other side of the road from us, going straight onto Sukhumvit gets you going in the wrong direction.

There are places to make U-turns, but you don’t want to do that because Sukhumvit has a median that divides the two directions and you can’t make a right turn from the westbound lanes onto the highway entrance ramp.  What do people do?

Two of the eastbound lanes have been designated as westbound lanes!  However, this only occurs for a few hundred metres, and you can only get onto those special lanes by making a right hand turn from Soi 3.  I haven’t mentioned what a nightmare Soi 3 is.  It’s 3 or 4 lanes, I’m not sure.  If the shoulder lanes aren’t being used for parking then it’s 5 or 6 lanes wide, and that situation changes constantly.

So, with all those complications, how does one get from Point A to Point B.  Easy, you do The Sukhumvit Shuffle!  Follow along on the map.  You start by driving north on Soi 5 from the hotel.  Follow the road as it curves and meets Soi 7, which is 1-way southbound (it’s the only [legal] way people living on Soi 5 can get back to Sukhumvit Road), then drive south on Soi 7 to Sukhumvit.  Remember, you can’t turn right on Sukhumvit here.  You’re forced to turn left, which takes you to Soi 11, the only way to get over to Soi 3.  Follow Soi 11 north and then make a left, a right and another left through the network of alleys until you meet Soi 3.

You now have 400 metres to cross however many lanes of traffic there are on Soi 3 at the time in preparation for the right turn onto Sukhumvit Road.  During rush hour, The Sukhumvit shuffle alone can take 30 to 40 minutes, assuming you can find a cab who will want to do that for you!

You’re wondering about the short roads that connect Soi 5 directly to Soi 3.  Those roads are extremely narrow and are basically used only for foot traffic.  One more knowledgeable driver I had said that for 30 baht (Cdn $1.20) the guy who operates a parking lot that blocks the road I have indicated with a red arrow, will let you drive through his lot and straight onto Soi 3.  I’ve only had one driver who knew of the shortcut and I haven’t been able to spot the entrance amid all the clutter on the street to show other drivers the shortcut.  So, I just sit back and enjoy doing The Sukhumvit Shuffle!

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The Sukhumvit Shuffle; getting from Point A to Point B by taxi, and the 30 baht shortcut (red arrow).

Buddha Day

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The fireworks have been going fast and furious yesterday and today.  Mai calls it a special “Buddha Day”.  What it is is the end of Vassa, or Buddhist Lent.  Wikipedia says:

Vassa (Pali: vassa-, Sanskrit: varṣa-, both “rain”) is the three-month annual retreat observed by Theravada practitioners. Taking place during the wet season, Vassa lasts for three lunar months, usually from July (the Burmese month of Waso) to October (the Burmese month of Thadingyut).

In English, Vassa is often glossed as Rains Retreat or Buddhist Lent, the latter by analogy to the Christian Lent, which Vassa predates by at least five centuries.

Vassa is followed by Kathina, a festival in which the laity expresses gratitude to monks.  Lay Buddhists bring donations to temples, especially new robes for the monks.

The Vassa tradition predates the time of Gautama Buddha.  It was a long-standing custom for mendicant ascetics in India not to travel during the rainy season as they may unintentionally harm crops, insects or even themselves during their travels.

Read more about this interesting event here:

Buddhist Lent Day

A Glimpse of Buddhist Lent

Mai has brought in some tiny flowers which will be placed at our own little shrine mounted on the wall in a corner of our living room (next to our portrait of the King).  After that she prays for a minute and meditates for a while, then it’s time for bed.

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Whithered Offering

Creepy Crawlies

The end of Vassa corresponds with the end of the rainy season in Thailand.  I noticed a dramatic difference when I returned from my trip to Canada on October 2nd.  Mai told me it hadn’t rained for the past 4 or 5 days, and the rain-free streak continued for another 2 to 3 weeks.   Quite a change from before I left, when it rained almost every day.

I mentioned before that our kitchen is open to the outdoors, and as a result we have geckos climbing the walls looking for bugs, tree frogs also looking for a meal and even the occasional sparrow!

Almost all Thai washrooms are equipped with a handheld shower head, installed next to the toilet to, umm…help with the cleanup!  Simple and fantastically effective.  Yesterday, I went to our washroom to perform a function that didn’t require the use of the shower head.  Good thing!  Parked right on the shower head was the centipede in the photo below!

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This “little” guy is a good 6 inches long and I heard they have an extremely nasty, venomous (but non-fatal) bite.  Mai said she was bitten by one years ago.  Her hand swelled to the size of a hardball, was very painful and stayed that way for a week!   Yikes!

It turns out it’s also snake season!  I’ve seen 3 or 4, always on the road when we are safely inside a vehicle.  The ones I have seen were all pale grey-blue and about 1.5 metres long.  I don’t know what kind they are, or whether they are dangerous or not, but I’ve never been a big fan of snakes and give all of them a wide berth!

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The Random Thoughts Edition

It Was Great To Go Back And It’s Great To Be Back!

I spent most of the month of September back in Canada and had a good time visiting with friends and family.  I got my visa situation straightened out and now have a visa that allows me to stay here permanently with minimal hassles.

The highlight of the trip was watching my nephew Kevin marry Megan, the love of his life on September 29th.  It was a beautiful wedding and the reception afterward was tons of fun, not only because it was a great party with super food but it was a chance to catch up with all of the Peace and Hoover family cousins!

Good times for sure, but I was anxious to get back to my wife of only two months who was waiting for me back in Thailand.  We had a little celebration dinner with my Thai family when we returned from the airport and have settled back into our life in the country!  It’s good to be home again!

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Boy’s Weekend!

Mai’s older son (nickname Man) turns 21 at the end of October.  We’ve been talking about doing some things together to get to know each other better and strengthen our friendship.  With that in mind, we’re having our first Boy’s Weekend!  I’m going to Khon Kaen, where he goes to university, tomorrow morning and staying for a few days.  We’re planning to go see some movies, do some shopping, eat lots and maybe drink a little and sit around and chat a lot.  Man’s English is very good so the conversations ought to flow easily!

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The Thai Diet

One of the hoops I had to jump through while in Canada was to have my family doctor sign off that I was not afflicted with a short list of infectious diseases.  This required a visit to the doctor’s office where I was weighted as part of the check-in routine.  I noted the reading on the scale and asked my doctor about it.  It turns out I’d lost 7 kilograms since I was last weighed when I visited her last spring!

I have to note that this is through no effort on my part except to eat what I’m served, which consists of fish almost every day, platefuls of fruit and veggies and lots of sticky rice…and minimal snacks.  Mai does allow me to buy the odd small bag of potato chips, and I couldn’t help but to buy a tube of Lay’s Spicy Lobster chips.  They have such interesting flavours here; who could resist?

I’d probably do even better without the sticky rice, but it tastes so much better than plain white rice that I can’t resist it.

More soon!

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