Stories, Questions, and Mysteries

Stories, Questions, and Mysteries

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Family Dinner

    Jack and I went to get some provisions for the evening meal with his father Samat's family. Jack spotted some children with sticks and a plastic drink bottle. He said something to them and rounded the Tuk Tuk to go back to them and talk. "If they are alive, I will buy them from them", he said. Sure enough the plastic drink bottle had four or five small squirming lizards in it. Jack bought the contents and bottle. He then told the kids not to catch wildlife, but just let them be. Then he reached into the bag of shopping and pulled out a bag of waffles he had bought at the market and gave the waffles to the kids. "They have nothing, so I give them a little something", he told me. He liberated the lizards in his garden.
     Oh just a couple of things about that market. On certain Saturdays  the people of Laos and Thailand are allowed to cross the river Mekong and visit or trade. Laos is ever poorer than this part of Thailand so that lowers some prices in the market. The most interesting things from the mountains and semi antiques. All kinds of cures for any part of the body are on sale and mostly consist of bundles of wood or plants, though there are lots of amulets also.
Faith Healing.

Cures and nostrums and dare I say Rhino horns.

A less edifying sale item were the coloured chickens, tragically mostly for children as toys. Oh well...

"I want that one the green one."

     We went to Jack's grandfather's house on the 10 year old Yamaha with bolts for footrests. The house is about 45 years old and a raised wooden building. Grandfather was watching Thai Boxing on the TV with his sons,while his daughters prepared the meal. Grandfather is a sprightly man of 92 years, swathed in old time cotton longi and scarf or Ma khow pa, the universal garment, hat, seat and towel. He has ten children, six sons and four daughters. The daughters are cast in the Isan mold said to be the most beautiful in Thailand. They laid the mat on the floor for the meal. Dishes were arranged on the green plastic mat like a picnic tablecloth. There were a few kinds of sticky rice, fried with egg, plain fried and one black rice job with a kind of sliced custard on the top. There were main dishes of duck, fish and sweet sour spicy cucumber and boiled rice. Water and the dishes I had brought from the market were placed behind me in a way which could have been interpreted, "You brought this we will put it near you". People checked that I had enough food from time to time and enjoyed their dishes, chatting the while.
     People helped themselves to various bits and pieces and chatted. Later Jack told me that they asked lots of questions about the Ferang, where did I come from, was I a world traveler, did I have a wife, children, what did I work at and what was I doing in Phonphisai? All of which I was quite oblivious.
     I was struck by the floor of polished wood. It was dark brown towards black without any tongue and grooving, the boards were about 300mm and about 25mm thick and you could see between them. A sensible floor for a very hot country. But the "finish" on the wood was as smooth as any finish I have ever seen. Jack explained that it is never sealed, never polished and cleaned only with a damp cloth.  How I would love to have a few of those recycled boards to play with.
Brothers and sisters
Youngest sister touching 50.

Grandfather, Jack and 2 proud aunts.


Saturday, 22 February 2014

One week in Isan, Thin Poo Village.

     Monday was my first meeting with students. The story was, is that there is to be a Women's Development group forming around here and they were to have some English lessons to help them. Two, sometimes three young people, turn up each day for 'lessons'. These kids are too poor to go to school and are needed at home to help their families.
     On Wednesday the big cheese from Nong Kai district turned up to just have a look around. More people attended the Adult Learning Center and immediately the boss guy and his entourage arrived things changed. He and his party were offered orange juice, a microphone was produced, the atmosphere changed from informal to formal.  And the speeches... If this guy had any idea of seeing what was going on, his image would be very different from the everyday. But he made his visit and his speech, though I noticed he read the newspaper while his deputy got on the mike. Reminds me of a politician who was rambling on  when a mate sent him a note and he sat down.
Someone retrieved the note, "Pull out Digger the dogs are pissing on your swag".

Official Visit.

My students are kneeling in the front one with a blue flash on his t shirt and the little fellow to his right. They are below the big guy in black. The women with check shirts are local teachers in their uniforms. The pink banner to the left announces that PM Yinluck has sponsored this local Women's Empowerment group.
To my left is Jack the coordinator of "Isan Survivor" and my boss.
So there you are.

That day we lunched on the roadside near the center. Mostly I have eaten what was put before me with some polite refusals. I find it is my imagination which makes many of the decisions. That and the images I have of from markets I have been to. Isan food is often the envy of other places in Thailand. And that is well justified. Local vegies abound. There is fish from the Mekong and from the sea, and plenty of chicken, pork and beef. Sticky rice is plentiful and though supposed to be hard for the foreigner (Ferang) to manage I find I deal with fairly well. Asian stomach have similarly difficulties with bread. Yesterday we lunched in town on Vietnamese dry noodles and last night we had a Korean bbq. Jack set up two charcoal burners with water boiling around a central upturned dish  on which we grilled chicken and pork around a moat of water for boiling vegies and noodles, managed by chop sticks. What I do find challenging is a watery soup with all kinds of floating bits and below the surface wonders. Take away means collecting from a  shop in plastic bags 'sealed' with ingeniously tied elastic bands.
     Some of the most exciting eating is when a local grabs something from a tree and offers it for eating. Tamerind is especially good that way and it is sealed in a brittle crust which cracks away leaving a brow sticky hard seed laden fruit. Yum. Then in the market there is jackfruit, pawpaw, limes and many others I could not identify.
     With these local markets which are so sustainable it is almost tragic to see  a Tesco Lotus supermarket  offering all kinds of labour saving bits and pieces so easy to buy and so different from the local traditional healthy gear.
Collecting Tamarind by hitting the branches with a stick and then picking up.

Wednesday Market. Fly swats are plastic bags on sticks.
Homemade rice noodles with hart packaging.






Yesterday and the Mekong.

After  one trip  to town in the ute we returned to get food for the bbq and it took some time so I decided to walk home and make a kind of walking meditation out of it. As I did so the sun was setting over the Mekong and there are various temples along the way which enriched my journey as the sun finally set. The first shot is of a long boat for competing on the river.

Along the river there  are little pavilions from which to watch the river or take the cool breeze which may offer itself.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Living Locally

     Strangely this morning there is a breeze. Strangely, you repeat questioningly. Well yes it is unusual in my limited experience in Thailand to have a breeze, but I am not lamenting. The trees with vivid orange flowers have announced summer, my host as given me a fan for my room and yesterday was, by my estimates, hot and sweaty. And this morning it is delightful to see the leaves of different trees dancing differently.
     Like Siddhartha this area lives by the river. Everything from irrigation, food, transport, commerce with Laos and a boundary with Laos and the spirits of the water. The area has been part of Laos and been invaded from forces further north, and influenced by the French, The Kemere, and Cambodia, so was known as Cenai. The area traditionally a poor area was fertile soil for Ho Chi Minh to proselytise. So if you crossed the Mekong, across the road from here, you would be in Laos and if you travelled another 120 ks you would be  in Vietnam.
     Just talking about this at breakfast my host Jack's father who is standing once again as a local "councillor" gave me the local traditional equivalent of a necktie. It  a Pa Kow Ma, a multipurpose piece of cotton used as a mat to sit on, a hat to protect from the sun and a towel for drying. I was honoured.
Isan Pa Kow Ma investiture. Chuffed.
The river as I say is central and in no less ways than as the home of the Naga, a kind of water dragon which has many forms. Mostly it lives in the river but when it comes on land it can take the form of a beautiful woman or young man. Sculptures of the Naga abound on the banks of the river. Many also are connected with the temples nearby and one temple has an impressive Naga cave which is highly decorated and airless, to walk through. Of course there is a box for donations.
It is said that under that temple and the local village of Porn Pishai, maybe about three times the size of Robertson, there is a whole city for the Nagas. In October, a month for ceremonies and celebrations fireballs are said to com up out of the river and mount the stairs with Naga sculptured rails to come on land or to a temple. These are of course mysterious, but one explanation is that the methane in the river catches fire under certain conditions.
    Yesterday mounted on the reconditioned 90cc Tuk Tuk called Survivor we went for a trip around the village and a visit to the local market. It is remarkable what the local people is that they can produce such a variety of stuff which sells for very reasonable prices, is fresh and tasty. As Patricia, Jack's Dutch wife said you need a strong stomach around the fish and meat stalls, but that is only part of the whole show.
Fresh Veg and Fruit.

We purchased various bits and pieces. The Spring rolls were popular, as were various vegies. They make a dish with boiled yellow sweet potatoes and ordinary potatoes add sugar and let it set, served with coconut. I enjoyed the sticky rice cooked in bamboo with tamarind. We stopped on a road through rice fields as the sun set and ate the sticky rice. As we did so a woman was scooping up young dragon flies to keep them out of the rice and to eat them.

Eucalypts, rice fields and sticky rice with tamarind.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Isan Surviver.

    A week ago I met Neville with his large camera in a perfect vantage point for the flower procession in Chaing Mai. He spoke enthusiastically and with heart about a scheme he had participated in in Isan. I looked online, corrosponded with Jack Panassri the coordinator and am now installed for two weeks.  
    This NGO teaches English to people in the village at various levels. It seems that on Monday I will be working with a new Women's development group. Ironically, The Prime Minister has set aside funds to help women and heir status in communities. Would that she were equally forthcoming in other social, economic and moral areas. None the less..... But then again is a man the right person to be teaching women english and how to develop their position in society.
     Last night I caught a bus from Chaing Mai bus station to Nonkhai here in Isan were Jack met me and drove me to the compound of his, his parents' house and neighbours in Thindung. One neighbour today installed a Spirit House and a monk turned up to conduct the rituals. Just another example of the fusion of animism and Buddhism in these parts of the world.
     The bus was called a VIP service, pity help the rest. The seats seem to have been designed to insure insomnia and the toilet was like a recycled refrigerator with special odour effects.
But the day dawned, Jack met me drove me from Nongkri and showed me to my room. It is simple and excellent. Tiled floor, neat 3/4 bed, wardrobe, clothes rack, chair and desk and wi fi. Oh and an essential mosquito net. So far I have had two rests to supply for a destroyed night.
    Jack is married to a lovely Dutch woman, Patricia and they have a 10 month little girl, Luna who is greeted by and greets everyone as we walked around the village this afternoon. We crossed the main road and meandered through the village where several houses have little industries, making rice noodles, making rice crackers, the ones we heat in oil to expand them. They grow all manner of vegetables, run sewing and laundry services and cultivating the bank of the Mekong with exquisite care. terracing and a vast variety of vegies, fruit and now potatoes.
     Just across the river, plied by long boats is Laos. Trade goes on in small ways so as not to offend the exise people. One chap we saw was bringing back rice wine in small quantities.
The Thindung village Hall where meetings taake place above the Mekong.
                                            River bank cultivated and sculpted
Our back garden with rice fields and shrub.
The sun was setting across the river as we talked to villagers and children playing shuttle cock and wandered around the temples. Even the mention of the name Mekong moves me still since Vietnam war days. But then I never thought I would be out for an afternoon/evening stroll along its fecund and austere banks.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Chaing Mai Revisited.

It is about a fortnight or a fraughtnite since I arrived in Chaing Mai. Even as I write I can hear someone nearby sneezing. There is a lot of URTIs about. Even with two trips to the Ram Hospital I have had a double dose. If you like to come away from a trip to the doctor with a handful of scripts you would not be diaappointed here. One of the conctions was a cough mixture laced with Camphorated tincture of opium. You beauty, I thought maybe I will be able to write like Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Rather the opposite was the result, a considerable blockage, Darmverstopfung as the Germans call it. My mate Gregan McMahon provided the literary link, he is so well read and wise. "Did you ever smoke opium?
Clifford Mortimer: Certainly not! Gives you constipation. Ever see a portrait of that rogue Coleridge? Green around the gills and a stranger to the lavatory!"   

Happy to report all  is better. I am sure you wanted that detail from the traveller's tails.
Change is a constant as we know, and change in Chaing Mai is both subtle and substantial. Several of the people I know have and major life changes. One died in a motor bike accident, one is married and a father, one has expanded a little business and one has started a little business. The ingenuity and persistance of the Lanna people or Thais generally never ceases to amaze me. Give them a  space the size of a doormat, a can of water and a few objects and they have a business.
The area I used stay, Wat Gate, opposite the Warrawat large market, across the river Ping has a number of closures of old original wooden buildings, most of which will never be restored. Their shadowy dark hulks are sad remenants of well designed and beautifully crafted merchants' homes and offices.
The foot bridge across the river which I have used many times it has been demolished. Most of it sits just above the water line like a  soggy cement sponge. As you might expect there are several supposed reasons for the demolition and as many suggestions for the future development. They are as numerous as I imagine they are fanciful.
Last week end was the Flower Festival. The city is bountifully decorated with all kinds of arrangements. There is a massive procession of floats of all kinds many followed by trucks with generators and big speakers. I'll try to attach some photos.  The city fills up with visitors for the week end and seems quiet when many of them depart.
One change I do notice is the large increase in the number of Chinese visitors. Some look Thais but many do not nor do they have the graciousness nor the voice modulation of the Thais. I understand from my mate Roger that these are the cashed up bogans from the Celestial KIngdom and they are as unpopular at home as abroad.
There are quite a few French tourists in this Chang Puak Gate (White Elephant Gate) area and a French cafe and travel agent. They have breakfasts of "Petti Baguette with 7 grains and strawberry jam". You could inject the sjam with a narrow needle and the coffee seems strangely like Nescafe. But this is not Paris.
I eat mostly at Jok Sompet, which eponomously serves Jok (conge) and other simple rice dishes.
But so often it is the people you meet... Last night I spoke to a young man walking in the same direction as myself. Edwardo is a Basque from Pamplona nown for the Running of the Bulls and the place where Ignatius Loyola was badly wounded and changed his life while recovering. This young 30 yr old had yesterday arrived 80 ks on bike from the Lao side of Chaing Mai. In Spain he could see that his job was coming to an end and before being fired he resigned. He bought a fare to Hanoi there he bought a cheap mountain bike and had so far gone into Laos, then to Thailand and intended to traverse the border with Myanmar. Much of his trip was on unformed roads with many many mountain climbs. HIs belief in his ability to find is way and ride hard was inspiring to say the least. He says he will come to Australia some day. You may meet him.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Bhaktapur Visit. Nepal

Since I atarted this I have had some difficulties with a heavy cold and sinus probs as well as wi fi connections etc, but here goes again.

Currently I am staying at Seven Fountains the Jesuit house in Chaing Mai. Coincidentally on Feb 1st it will be 60 years since I entered the Jesuit Novitiate at Watsonia in Melbourne. So it is appropriate to be here for some reflection and some rest. I am in the retreat house which is quiet, sparse and comfortable. It is a place of mostly silence and so a contrast with Kathmandu and the frenetic bustle of airports, Indian and others.
Though I had intended to stay for a few days in Delhi, after reading the application form of 8 pages with a section to pledge allegiance to the Indian government, and hearing various stories I decided to stay longer in Kathmandu and omit the Delhi visit. Just seeing the massive sprawl from the air is overwhelming.
Last Friday I visited Bhaktapur a 'medieval' city say 17th and 18th Centuries. It is a little way out of Kathmandu, but with all travel here it takes ages on made and semi made roads.  I engaged a guide, the first who offered and was not much use, then I got into conversation with a young chap studying Tourism and Hospitality, the magic ticket out, called Tej Ram Kumpakha. He was much more knowledgeable and committed to his city and its intricacies and good at answering my 1000 questions. Suffice it to say he took me to covered laneways where we had to stoop, the cremation place, the pottery square as well as the various temples and shrines. They say that the number of gods in Nepal is in the millions. So the number of shrines around the city, private and public is enormous. Doorways, street corners, shops, wells and people all have puja of some kind. As often happens Taj told me that the time to visit was in October or April when the big celebrations and ritual take place.  Famous for its brass works, mostly religious, artisans work from home and did not seem to mind this foreigner gawking, and admiring.
Taj took me to a typical Bhaktapur restaurant where I had the local Dahl meal and the wonderful Yoghurt made from buffalo milk, Yum.
Having been walking and looking from 8.00am till 2.30, so much so that my taxi man thought I was lost, I was glad to sit down and go to Changu Narayan. "According to legend while fighting with the demon king named Chand, killed a Brahman named Sumati. Guru Sukracharya the teacher of the dead Brahman was angry at Vishnu and cursed him that he will be beheaded in the future. After this incident, Vishnu lived in a tree of Champak (michelia) and had paid for the curse. In the same place, a temple standing as an ancient temple of Nepal."  Sic throughout.
Most if not all the images are behind grills which protect the image and make it impossible to see.
Hindu temples, as far as I can see, are for devotion or performing personal rituals, to me many of these seem like obsessive behaviour, much as the Catholic rosary. They seem like a way of warding off bad experiences. Buddhist temples, particularly in Thailand are more welcoming and you can get inside, so to speak rather than bowing and touching magic stones etc. But who am I to know. Considering the tricky road climb up and the rest of it Changu Naryan would not be on the top of my places to revisit.