Wan Ken

I was stuck at home for a few days while Mai tended to her Mother who was suffering from a cold we all had.  To make up for it, Mai declared that Wednesday this week was Wan Ken, (Ken’s Day) where we go anywhere I want to go and do whatever I wanted.  That was easy; let’s go take pictures and then meet my friend Simon for pizza lunch in Bueng Kan!  What a great day to get out.  It was sunny and warm and when we got out of town we found everybody was out planting rice.  I learned a lot about growing rice that day, though I think I’ve only scratched the surface.

To start with, there appear to be two basic ways of getting the stuff in the ground.  The simple, cheaper and less labour intensive way is to spread the seeds onto the field you want to plant.  The timing is rather critical here.  It has to happen before you get too far into the rainy season, which usually begins in April and runs to September.  You have to spread the seeds on wet, muddy ground so that they will germinate quickly and send roots into the soil.  You need some rain to accomplish this, but not too much.  If it rains a lot before the seeds have germinated then the rain will simply wash them away and you’re left with nothing.  Too little rain and they won’t germinate.  The plan is that the rice grows enough before the heavy rains start.  The fields flood and you have a healthy crop.

The second method is to start the rice growing earlier in a separate field, then pick the seedlings and bundle them up for transplanting into a new field.  Then begins the backbreaking work of hand planting small bundles of seedling into neat rows.  The planting can also be done by machine, but nobody here has the money to buy one or contract someone to come in and do it for them. It’s 100 percent manual labour.  This is the method you see them using in National Geographic.  My photos show this method of planting as well (not that I’m trying to make any comparisons between my photos and what you see in Nat Geo!)

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What isn’t rice, is rubber plantation.
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Heading for home at the end of a long day
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Rice in nice neat rows
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Bundling up the seedlings for planting
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One worker bundles while the other transfers the seedlings to the planting area
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Bundling seedlings, another view
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Up to your shoulders in your work!
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Now comes the planting
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Finished fields

Bonus Photos

We’ve made several trips back to Bueng Kan along the same road, which has given me the opportunity to shoot a few things that weren’t finished or there before and to shoot a few things from different angles.  The result is a handful of new photos that belong with the ones you have already seen.  Hope you enjoy!

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Workers bundling rice plants for transplanting. They were happy to smile and pose.
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Smile for the camera!
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Coming up for air.
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Giving her back a break
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Rice, bundled and ready for transplanting
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After transplanting
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Mud everywhere

Random Thoughts II

Random, disorganized thoughts seem to be what I am best at generating, so I present the following collection for your enjoyment!

We Bought Some Land!

That’s right!  Mai and I are now landowners!  We’ve been dreaming a lot lately about building our own house, and as luck would have it, a close friend of Mai’s family offered to sell us a piece of land she owns that is currently used for growing rice.  She offered us an excellent price and then said she wouldn’t sell any of the remaining land because she wants to continue to farm it and she wants to leave it to her two sons.  We couldn’t believe our luck!  We bought two rai, which is the Thai measure of land area.  One rai is 1,600 square metres, or 40m x 40m.  Our property measures 40m across by 80m deep.

Click on the thumbnails below to view larger images

We both want a small house on a large property; two bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen, living room and maybe a small office for future ventures, and in a style that would be a mix of traditional Thai and modern architecture.  It would be built up on stilts in the traditional style, but not too high.  So far, we’re just making sketches of what we would like.

The photo at left above shows the approximate size of the property and the surroundings.  The dump truck you see in the photo at right is bringing in fill to raise the level of our property to match that of the road.  The fields will be under several inches of water during the rice growing season.  We have a rubber plantation in the background, and when the rice is growing the fields surrounding the house will be beautiful and green!

This will be a multi-year project.  We acquired the land and will raise the level to where it needs to be.  This summer or fall we will plant the trees we want (coconut, mango, papaya, tamarind, durian and others) and then let everything sit while we pay off the car loan, get Mai’s older son through university and start up a small business or two.  We’ll start on the house in a few years when finances permit.

Getting Around

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The contraption you see above is a tuk tuk, a three-wheeled death trap vehicle that serves many purposes in rural Thailand.  The main function is that of a taxi.  So Phisai has about a dozen of them and they’ll take you anywhere in town for about 30 to 50 Baht (about $2.50 Canadian).  The passengers sit on two inward facing bench seats in the back.  Ideally, it would hold four adults, but I’ve seen many more than four packed in there!

Tuk tuks also make dandy pickup trucks, capable of carrying more than you think would be wise to cram in, including grass cut on the side of the road to feed the family water buffaloes, firewood, bamboo poles, bananas and coconuts.  You name it and you’ll soon find a driver willing to transport it for you!

Click on the thumbnails below to view larger images

Scooters are everywhere in Thailand.  There are probably more scooters here than cars.  Their numbers are followed closely by scooters with aftermarket sidecars, as seen in the photo above at right.  These sidecars vastly increase the scooter’s carrying capacity, both in terms of cargo and people.  It’s not unusual to see three, four or more people sitting on one scooter.  That’s because, given the average income in rural Thailand, scooters are often the “family car”.  In fact, you will see them referred to as such on the Honda and Yamaha scooter sales websites.

The way people and materials are transported here is fascinating and over the next month or so I’m going to make it a point to create a photo essay of the various machines people use over here.  I think you’ll find it interesting, entertaining…and a little horrifying at times!  Stay tuned!

I Miss…

As a transplanted Canadian, there are a few things that I have come to miss about home.  Number one are my family and friends.  Even though most of our communication when I was living in Canada was via e-mail and text messaging I really miss the chance to get together for a meal or a meal plus a movie.  Other things I miss, in no particular order:

  • Beef, in any form.  I really miss a good burger or a steak.  Mai doesn’t eat beef and that’s all the reason I need not to insist on buying some, but there are other reasons.  The domestic beef industry in Thailand is microscopic, if there even is one.  Beef is imported from Australia and New Zealand but it’s expensive.  It also just isn’t available out here in the country.  Our local grocery store carries fresh fish and seafood, chicken and pork.  That’s it.  Burger King and McDonald’s can be found in Udon Thani, but that’s 2 hours away and Burger King is only at Udon Thani Airport.  I’m adapting.
  • Efficient services.  A trip to the bank, post office or any government office means taking a number when you arrive and sitting and waiting a long time to be served.  To me, there appear to be a few reasons, the offices are understaffed, there’s little computerization and all government offices close for at least an hour at noon for lunch.  Mai was expecting something important in the mail recently.  A few days after it should have arrived she called the post office to see if they had seen it.  They said they had, it was waiting for her in the post office.  When asked why they hadn’t delivered it they told her “Well, it’s been really hot outside”.  I’m trying to adapt, but it’s not always easy.
  • Winter and cold weather.  Call me crazy, but I miss snow and freezing cold weather.  I’m adapting to the hot temperatures and enjoy not shoveling snow, scraping off my car and slipping and falling on ice sidewalks, but next to my wife a snowfall is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen!
  • Amateur Radio.  It’s complicated, but being from Canada means I’m not eligible to get an amateur radio license in Thailand.  I read the rules and was sure I would be able to simply write their amateur radio exams and get a license, but I read wrong.  There’s no way for me to get on the air here, and I really miss it because it was one of the things I was looking forward to doing most.  Nowadays, it’s now possible to set up a transceiver anywhere in the world and operate it remotely via the internet.  It’s just like sitting in front of the actual radio, only you can do it from anywhere.  I’m looking into this.  I have most of the equipment sitting in storage back in Toronto.  What I need is to find some nice person who will act as a host and let me set up my gear in a corner of their basement and put a small antenna outside.  Anyone?  🙂

Nongkhai

Nongkhai is a lovely city located on the banks of the Mekong River, about an hour’s drive from here.  With a population of about 500,000 it’s about the same size as Hamilton, ON.  Our routine is to drive to Phon Phisai (halfway) and stop at Café Amazon to pick up an Amazon Extra (large iced coffee) and then continue on to Nongkhai.

We go there to shop for things we can’t get in So Phisai, to buy my prescription meds at deep discount prices (insulin at 25 to 30 percent of Canadian prices), take Max to see a movie, and to eat pizza!

Nongkhai has a compact, old style downtown section filled with lots of tiny shops.  There’s also a beautiful concrete “boardwalk” that runs for almost 2 kilometres along the shore of the river.  It’s lined with shops, restaurants and bars with a perfect view of Laos just across the river.

So, what’s so interesting about Nongkhai?  It’s the traffic.  You come into town on the highway from Phon Phisai or Udon Thani and there are traffic lights every several hundred metres so people can make turns onto and off of the divided highway.  No problem.  But drive into the downtown area with its busy, narrow streets and there’s not a traffic light to be found!

There’s the occasional stop sign but those are generally ignored because stopping isn’t going…stopping slows you down!  A recipe for multiple fender-benders, right?  Nope!  Well, everyone must regard intersections as four-way stops, right?  Nope, see my comment about stop signs.  Imagine two rivers that meet at right angles.  The water from one river flows into the intersection and out again as if nothing had happened.  Ditto with the second river.

It’s fascinating to watch; people approaching the intersection will slow down as little as possible and maybe divert a few feet to the left or right to avoid a collision, but everybody keeps moving as if the intersection wasn’t there!  And need I say you can forget your silly notions about Right of Way.  There’s no honking of horns, no road rage.  People just get along!

(Sorry, no photos of Nongkhai.  I’ll remedy that in the next few months and have something for you in the summer)

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Making More Merit

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Prat-jow! (Thai/Buddhist equivalent of Oh My God!) It’s hot!

Not long after my last blog post I had the opportunity to attend another ceremony in Baan Nong Do, my wife’s home town. I asked what the purpose of the ceremony was, and from what I was able to gather the ceremony takes place in temples across Thailand. Notice that I still don’t know what the ceremony is about, except that it raises funds for the maintenance of the three temples in town and is an excuse for the villagers to get together, eat, drink and have a good time together.

If you are getting the impression that village life in Thailand revolves around the temples you would be right.  Mai’s Mother is up at the crack of dawn every day to make food as do many other villagers, to give to the monks who rely on the villagers for their daily sustenance.  The monks are very well fed and make the excess food available to poor and elderly villagers who can’t provide for themselves.  Among other activities, Mai joins a few dozen folks a few times a year to stay at the temple overnight to meditate and generally “recharge” their spiritual batteries.

This latest ceremony began in a forest outside of town.  In fact, it was a rubber plantation, which made for a beautiful setting.  Monks from the three local temples were there to pray and provide blessings to those in attendance.

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The village monks

The hundred or so people in attendance were shuttled to the site in pickup trucks. I arrived in a truck with Mai’s Mother and several of her sisters and other relatives. We had to walk the last hundred or so metres to the site on a dirt road with deep ruts. I’m not that steady on my feet and a few steps into the walk my Mother-in-Law called out a few words and within seconds I was surrounded by Aunties, one of whom took my arm to keep me steady as we walked.  I looked back and Yai gave me a smile.  I was grateful for the help!

The ceremony was brief, some prayers and blessings and a few people collecting donations.

Following the ceremonies everyone walked back to the main temple in town, about 2 kilometers.  It looked like a lot of fun, but I caught a ride with Mai so I could be there to take photographs when everyone arrived.  Everybody was in a cheerful mood despite the heat.  People were handing out drinks and there was plenty of music and dancing.

DSCF1443_DxO-1024Blessing by the monks before entering the temple grounds

Below are some photos of the parade back to the temple.  I feel strange not having more to tell you about this.  It was fun, and an interesting look into village life and I’m relying heavily on the picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words rule.  In this way I have saved myself a lot of writing and you get to see some interesting photos!

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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!

 

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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.

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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!

 

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