Family Time

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Getting there is Half the Fun

Trains in Thailand are not especially known for their punctuality or reliability. One advantage of taking a train from a terminus is that the train generally leaves on time. Any station after that it can, and usually is, a bit behind schedule. Or a lot behind schedule depending on the reliability of the train. If you are up for an adventure, take the train. Otherwise, take the bus.

The Special Express train costs a little more with the advantage of not stopping at every little station along the tracks. The first impression of the inside of the train is that they have been in service since some time in the 60’s, or about the same time commercial air travel became possible. Vinyl seats and linoleum floors adorn the interior and fans on the ceiling aid the circulation of gently air conditioned air. Even the stewardess was dressed like she had been transported in time. Complete with metal drink and food carts offering a limited supply of drinks and food that smelled terrible and tasted worse.

Taking the train, despite the punctuality and reliability issues, is actually quite pleasant. The gentle sound off the train rolling through the countryside is soothing. The bright green rice fields giving way to the mountains surrounding the valley in which Chiang Mai is situated the further south we went.

7 Hours into my 6 hour trip to Pichit there was a sudden horrible sound and the train came to a screeching halt. Or as screeching of a halt that a train can come to. Many of the crossings are not controlled with barriers and rely on drivers to check for oncoming trains. Unfortunately, one car was not so lucky. We stayed stopped for awhile while things were sorted out and the train was checked for damage. The front end of the car was totaled and the train had a large piece of metal torn off the front carriage. We ended up returning to the previous station for repairs.

Celebrating Family Love

The second day of Songkran is Family Day. Family Day celebrates family love and togetherness. Value of family is one of the three major values in the Thai way of life. Songkran is the time when family members come together to show appreciation, love and respect as well as making merit and paying homage to their ancestors. This celebration was my main purpose for making the trip to Pichit.

The religious part of the celebration was a merit making ceremony in dedication to the late ancestors. This year was especially important as Nat’s grandmother had passed away last July. The ceremony was hosted at Lung (uncle) Bhum and Paa (aunt) Song’s house, where as much of the family as possible gathered.

Before the monks arrive at the house, food is prepared, a list of relatives that have passed away is written, offering envelopes are filled with money and wishes, the Buddha image is set up and the chedi (memorial statue where ashes are kept) is cleaned. White string is wrapped around the Buddha image and strung over to the chedi and back. The idea of the string is to pass on the blessings to all that are connected to it, either human or Buddha image or other inanimate object. All the accoutrements of the ceremony are set in place. Then Lung Buhm was given the microphone…

While waiting for the monks to arrive, Lung Buhm provided a jovial and entertaining monologue. Without understanding more than two words of his monologue, I surmised that he was talking about family and the happiness of having the family there. The two words that I understood were “MJ” and “Colorado”. His words were genuine and heartfelt.

The ceremony began with six monks from the temple arriving and taking their place on the platform that had been set up in the courtyard of the house. The beginning of the ceremony focused on honoring the late ancestors and the gathering of family. A series of blessings and prayers were said, candles were lit to honor all of our late ancestors, and water was blessed. During the middle of the ceremony, the monks took their meal. At the same time, meal offerings were placed in front of the Buddha image and the chedi. The remainder of the ceremony involved merit making and blessing the family members. The offering envelopes were given to the monks and a special offering was given to the head monk for performing the ceremony. The ceremony ended with a symbolic purification of pouring water while a blessing is being said and being sprinkled with water by the head monk.

After our meal, the bingo began. Ante was 5 baht per card for each round. We spent most of the afternoon playing. At one point I think it became important to them that I won at least one round. In the end I managed to win enough rounds that I think I actually finished ahead 100 baht. Which I lost at least 50 baht of in the evening games.

Playing bingo was an excellent way for me to practice my Thai numbers. Most the time I was able to quickly recognize the number and see if I had it on my card. The rest off the time Mea, Paa Salee or Nat would say “MJ” after the number if I had it on my card. Eventually I know I will clearly be able to distinguish yi-sip (20) from see-sip (40). For a couple of the rounds they patiently even let me call the numbers.

Songkran – Part Two

While in Pichit, my experience of the festival part of Songkran continued. This time I was part of the group standing by the road throwing buckets of water on passing cars and the occasional motorbike. This experience was much more fun than being the one in the back of the truck on the receiving end of buckets of cold water. The real fun was when trucks would pull over and an all out water fight ensued.

As the sun began to set behind a bank of clouds, we all piled into the back of a truck and made a lap of town. As we would slow for another group, Nat would say “MJ, MJ…this is you.” By the end of the lap, I was soaked and happy.

Pichit doesn’t see many farang (foreigners) visitors. Accordingly, I became a source of interest to any group that stopped or that we met in town. I was offered beers and was on the receiving end of many extra buckets of water. Several people told me they loved me and shook or kissed my hand. Many asked where I was from and welcomed me to Thailand.

Khab Lob Di Moung (We are the Same Family)

Belonging to a Thai family is an enduring connection, especially with the emphasis placed on family within the culture. Nat has a truly warm and welcoming family. Many of his extended family remembered me from his monk ceremony, and instantly made me feel at home. Even Nat says I am now his oldest sister.

While many families have communication issues, ours was more of a communication challenge given the language barrier. In all my trips, I think this is the most I used my Thai phrase book. At first, just as I was hesitant to speak the little Thai that I know, they were equally hesitant to speak the English that they know. Most of the time Nat or his cousin Neung translated for me or helped me learn the words so I could almost communicate on some level. By the end of the three days, most people figured out that if they talked to me slowly and used simple words, much like you would talk to a small child, we could manage some basic conversation.

One lesson I learned is: never worry your Thai mom by feeling sick in the middle of the night. Especially when your Thai dad works at the hospital and you live in the hospital housing. This only results in a trip to the hospital at 1 AM. The words to convince her that if I just could vomit (and even after I finally did) I would be fine and that no, I didn’t need to go to the hospital were lost in translation. Diagnosis: food poisoning. Treatment: anti-nausea pills and electrolytes should I continue to be sick.

Taking me to the bus station in Pitsanulok was even a family affair. I rode with Mea (mom) and Poe (dad). Along the way, dad wanted to make sure I saw the highlights of Pichit. Mainly this meant a drive-by of the temple of the white elephant, a stop at the large crocodile for a photo opportunity, and a visit to the crocodile museum. Using simple words, accompanied by mom’s basic English and my phrase book with it’s limited dictionary, we were able to carry on a short dialogue. Mostly I think dad wanted to make sure I was happy and that I enjoyed my time there. Toward the end of the trip, he said that he believes we are the same family. Kahb lob di moung.

Hills and Valleys

Situated in the Mae Ping river valley, the city of Chiang Mai is pretty much flat. Immediately west of the city, the Doi Inthanon range of mountains rise almost 1400 meters (4500 feet) out of the river valley. On a clear day the mountains provide a lovely backdrop to the buildings of Chiang Mai. The nearby mountains also make for a nice escape from the heat of the city.

Only when getting out of the city am I reminded of just how big Chiang Mai is. At each intersection, I weave my way to the front of the traffic as is the custom in Thailand. Just before the light turns green, a revving of motorbike engines grows. As the light changes, all the bikes are off in a collective roar. The sound and knowing that I am a part of it makes me smile.

The destination for this motorbike adventure was the Mae Sae – Samoeng loop. The 90 kilometer (56 mile) route heads north from Chiang Mai, west through the Mae Sae valley, south to Samoeng, and back east to Chiang Mai. After getting out of the city and past the plethora of tourist attractions such as the Monkey Centre and snake show along the first part of the highway leading to the Mae Sae valley, the traffic was almost nonexistent.

The loop was definitely a test of my motorbike skills as I went up and down the mountains and around curves. Driving in the mountains of Thailand, three types of signs designate the types of curves coming up. The s-curve sign with its gently waving lines indicates casual turns. The angle curve sign, with the arrow containing two 90 degree angles, indicates tighter turns ahead. The Sharp Curve sign isn’t kidding. Some of the curves following this sign had the road practically doubling back on itself.

The cool mountain air was in a constant battle with the heat from the sun and pavement. Occasionally, nearer the top of a mountain, a cool bit of breeze would win. Descending down into the valley, the heat generally had the upper hand. Especially the last descent back into Chiang Mai.

The distant mountains looked picturesque, softened by a gentle haze. While a postcard would have you believe it is a mist that gives the mountains their mystical quality, the reality is that it is smoke from forest fires. Most of these fires are intentionally set to clear the land for farming. Looking at the nearer hillsides and seeing the terraced farms is a testament to this practice that is slowly destroying the forests and the habitats for the animals that dwell in them. To think that once the hills had lush jungles and were home to elephants and monkeys made my heart ache a bit.

Along the way I came across four cattle grazing on the side of the road, a small girl that smiled and waved, and the obligatory random dogs that generally believe they have the right of way on roads. The highway was lined with quaint little villages, many having only a few buildings. (I am assuming the villages had more than what was along the roadside.) I knew I was close to Chiang Mai when the villages became larger and the houses were mud brick instead of bamboo.

Time Out

Chiang Mai truly is my home away from home. With each trip I feel less compelled to rush around seeing and doing as much as possible. Several days this week I found myself doing the types of things that I would do at home. Granted, making ribbon flowers for a friend’s upcoming monk ceremony isn’t something I typically do at home. I will say that I’m getting better at making the coin offerings, although many of them still have a special farang quality to them that make them special.

On Saturday, swimming sounded like a great way to escape the 102 F (39 C) degree heat and to change up my exercise regime. Municipal swimming pools are rare in Chiang Mai. Many of the guest houses and hotels open their pools to the public with fees ranging from 100 to 200 baht ($3.5 to $6.5). The lesser known Chiang Mai Land Pool was one of the few that I found not attached to a hotel and only charged a 60 baht ($2) entrance fee. Not terribly crowded, I was able to swim several short laps and only heard one or two farang comments, mostly from kids splashing in the water near me.

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New Year Festivities

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Home Sweet Home

Surin in the southeast of Thailand to Chiang Mai in the north covers a great expanse of the country. After an hour drive to Buriram through a countryside of dry, brown rice fields, I boarded the overnight bus headed for Chiang Mai. Generally, I filled the 12 hour journey with a movie and writing on my tablet until my battery went low and an attempt to sleep. Despite the comfort of the bus seats, I struggled to sleep. The cold blast of air from the air conditioning didn’t help either. At least as dawn broke I was able to look out the window at the lush green scenery in the hills outside of Chiang Mai. Weary, yet happy to be in Chiang Mai, I was greeted at CM Blue House with a warm and jovial greeting.

Being in Chiang Mai is truly like being home. After a few awkward moments where my motorbike and I were getting to know each other, I was off and running. Just in case you were wondering, black motorbike seats tend to heat up quickly which tends to feel like you are searing a little more skin off each time you sit on the bike. Chiang Mai traffic was worse than I have ever seen it, with everyone arriving for Songkran. For once it seemed like cars outnumbered the motorbikes. Even with the increased traffic, motorbikes still enjoy their high standing in the traffic pecking order.

My first few days were mostly spent seeing my friends, which mostly involved eating food. The first night was a hot pot meal with Chet and Mix. Chet and Mix were in charge of ordering since everything was in Thai. Two types of broth to cook meat and vegetables in as well as a hot plate to grill food. The funniest item was the Angry Bird sausage. The one that got stuck to the side of the pot, halfway in the broth, really looked angry! An incredible amount of food combined with wonderful conversation made for a terrific evening. The next day was lunch with Yaweav at a hip place that is popular with the college students. After lunch we went to a wonderful ice cream place that had some fun art. The next day was dinner with Lek followed by a trip to her favorite place for dessert, dao tuung. Dao tuung is an interesting mix of jellies, fruit, beans and corn, covered with a scoop of ice with longan juice played on top. It was really quite yummy!

The rest of my time has been filled with typical day-to-day events. Shopping for necessities, getting bit by some type of bug, trip to the pharmacy for ointment for said bite, working out and some massage training. Despite a lack of a true itinerary, my days have seemed to pass quickly and I somehow have reached the end of another week according to the calendar.

Stopping to Smell the Flowers

Ratchaphruek park, also known as the Royal Flora garden, was established to host the 2006 Chiang Mai floral exhibition. The exhibition featured 30 international gardens and several corporate sponsored gardens displaying flora specific to the countries. Granted, dry season on the hottest day my entire week in Chiang Mai might have not been the ideal day to go to a flower garden. But still I went since I had never been and I needed something to do. Plus it gave me a chance to get out and ride around.

The orchid display was beautiful. So many different colors and shapes of orchids, plus shade and cool. The international gardens were interesting. Despite the lack of actual flowers, each garden contained statuary representative of that country that made it worth walking around. I’m sure it would even be better in cool season.

Finding relief from the hot sun during my 3 hour visit posed a bit of a challenge. Some respite from the heat was found in the mist from the sprinklers watering the landscape. Bug World and the Lanna style house also offered some shade. The greatest relief from the heat was found in the appropriately named Shaded Paradise. Filled with plants and flowers found under the canopy of the rainforests mixed with interesting statuary made it easy to spend a great deal of time walking around.

As one of the few, if not the only, caucasian farang (foreigner) in the park, I ended up being the subject of a couple of photo opportunities. As I was looking at the Buddha images, including one for Songkran, a hospitality employee encouraged me to pour water on the image for good luck. He took a picture of me pouring the water. Then I ran onto him again along with the group of performers dressed in traditional Thai outfits looking utterly gorgeous with their red dresses, matching umbrellas, and beautiful hair and makeup. He insisted that I have my picture taken with the group, which involved about 3 people taking pictures with an assortment of cameras.

Let the Water Festival (Fight) Begin

Songkran is the traditional Thai New Year, also known as the Water Festival. The name Songkran comes from the Sanskrit word “sangkranata” which means to move or change. At the root, Songkran is a religious holiday although today the religious origins are largely overlooked. Water is poured on Buddha images for cleansing and good luck. Sand is brought to the temples, as a way to return all the sand that is taken on your shoes from each visit throughout the year. The sand is made into giant chedi shaped sand castles and decorated with colorful flags. And many Thai use this time to clean their homes and make resolutions to do good deeds during the coming year. Water is poured on friends and family to represent cleansing and baby powder is smeared on faces to represent the fresh and good smell after a cleansing.

Chiang Mai has become one of the prominent locations to celebrate Songkran for Thai and tourists. If you don’t want to be completely drenched by buckets of water and super soaker squirt guns, do not leave your guest house or hotel! Monks are pretty much the only people exempt from soaking. While there are some “rules” followed by Thais, these rules are unfortunately widely disregarded by tourists. Some of the rules include not hitting people in the eyes with water, motorbikes are generally exempt or only the lower body or passenger are targeted, young babies or small children should only have watered sprinkled on them, and after sundown is understood to be a general ceasefire. Songkran lasts several days, and according to locals it seems to last longer each year. This year Songkran started on the 12th.

The 13th was my main day for experiencing Songkran. Navigating the city by motorbike took some special skills and was a solid test of my knowledge of Chiang Mai streets. My friend Alison and I ventured out to some temples in the morning before the craziness really started. Even on back roads it was impossible to not get drenched. On one street, a mischievous official walked out into the road and signaled us to slow down so he could pour water down our backs. Kids with their large buckets of water or hoses meant a lot of splashing. And every time we got splashed or sprayed, Alison would giggle. Trying to get back to our guest house took some serious motorbike skills to negotiate the near standstill traffic and also completed our drenching.

Armed with squirt guns, we dove into the full festivities by walking around the south and west sides of the moat where there were significantly less tourists. Watching water fly everywhere and kids swimming in the moat (either willingly or having been pushed), listening to the booming music being played by cars and on stages that had been constructed overnight, enjoying the brightly colored shirts, and shrieking every time ice water was used made it a truly wonderful afternoon.

Truly I enjoyed being part of such a crazy and wonderful all out celebration. All around the moat people were filled with happiness and carefree frivolity. Young children giggling as they squirted you with their squirt guns that were occasionally bigger than them. Teens pouring water on your shoulder or down your back. Adults encouraging children to spray people or helping with the drenching. Trucks full of families and large buckets of water circulating through the traffic finding as many people as possible to drench. The warm water was fine, the ice water was always a shock.

In the same way it is hard to not be drawn to the images of a natural disaster, we decided to head toward Thae Pae gate to see the carnage there. Thae Pae gate is where the main concentration of foreigners celebrate. We never made it there (thankfully).

One of the key events of Songkran is the parade of the Buddha images from each of the temples. On our way toward Thae Pae gate, we found the parade. Hundreds of people lining the street armed with water infused with tamarind, other spices and flower pedals or bags of pedals to throw. Each image was preceded by a procession of women and men dressed in traditional Thai outfits carrying offerings and flags, and a band. Everyone in the parade was drenched with water. As each image came by, water would fly from every direction. Despite the religious nature of the parade, it was not without festivity in any way. One woman came up and poured us each a shot of Hong Thong, a blended spirits drink. Another woman grabbed my hand and danced me away for a bit.

From Hot to Cold

One of the ways to escape the craziness of Songkran, is to go have a picnic and go bamboo rafting in the hills outside of the city. Lek invited Alison and I to go with her and some friends to Mae Wang, a small river about 40 km from town. Driving up, each little town had at least one or two groups armed with buckets. Alison and I were happy to be inside the truck, as all the people in the people in the back were drenched by the time we reached Mae Wang and our picnic site.

All along the river are bamboo salas, open bamboo platforms with a roof to block the sun, right over the river. The river is shallow (or as the Thai would say, not deep), coming up to maybe my thighs. After eating, most of the younger folks (Lek, App, Alison, Nee and I) got in the river for some fun splashing and playing. Not sure how long we played in the river, apparently it was long enough for me to start getting hypothermia, or at least for my skin to start turning pale even though I only felt a little chilled.

Bamboo rafting was fun. The bamboo rafts are constructed of 8 – 20 foot long, 4 inch diameter stalks of bamboo, lashed together with a length of rubber (a piece of an old tire) and a thin bamboo cross bar. Two people steer (or attempt to steer) the raft down the river using bamboo poles. Traffic jams of other rafts and rocks posed the greatest obstacles. Some of the collisions were quite jarring.

Most the “rapids” we went through were class 1, more just a spot of extra stones and a faster current. Calling these areas rapids is like calling a speed bump a hill. One of the more challenging spots was a narrow rapid that required precise navigation to get through. Felt like being in a large truck negotiating a narrow alley. App and Lek did great getting us through. And then we collided with another raft at the end of it.

The most fun was all the splashing between rafts and greetings of happy new year. As we approached, you would hear “farang, farang”, which usually elicited extra splashing. Not sure if there is some significance of splashing a foreigner for Songkran or if it was just a fun way to welcome us to Thailand.

Not wanting to get the seats all wet inside the truck, Alison and I joined the group in the back of the truck for the ride back. I was already cold and the wind and being drenched with more water didn’t help. By the time we got back to Lek’s friends place, I am pretty sure I was close to having full on hypothermia. Never was I so grateful for the heat of the city, a warm shower and a hot bowl of noodle soup.