As in most countries, tradition seems to play a larger part of daily life in the country than it does in the city.
In Isaan these traditions seem to revolve around two things: the land and the temple. As a result of largely non-mechanised farming old practices retain a prominent place when planting or harvesting crops, and the elders play an important part in guiding younger generations on what processes they need to follow. Does this slow modernisation? Possibly, but that’s a story for another day.
The temple is less susceptible to modernisation, but it plays an important part of village life as it’s the place where the community comes together most regularly.
I think just about every village in Thailand has a temple, and the wealth of a town or village is often demonstrated by how the temple looks. But whether its grandiose and decked in gold, or just a simple room in a small building, it has the same purpose.
Since moving here it’s fair to say we’ve been quite discreet. We’ve not played a big part in village life as we’ve settled into the area. We live about 2km from our village, and off the main road, so while we’re not isolated, we’re not part of daily village life.
As you can imagine, there’s a lot of curiosity about us among locals as there aren’t many foreigners in the area. It’s time to get to know our neighbours a little better and satisfy that curiosity.
Last week the village was having a ceremony where the villagers present monks with new yellow robes and make merit, marking the end of Buddhist Lent which takes place over the rainy season. As well as seeing people give up anything from meat to smoking and alcohol for three months, it is also a retreat for monks.
Tod Krathin takes place in the month after the end of lent to mark the end of the retreat and sees a colourful and lively parade move through the village taking offerings to the temple.
New saffron robes are presented to the monks, as well as basic daily essentials like toiletries, food and drink, and even writing materials. Perhaps the most striking offering is the money tree – who said there’s no magic money tree?
Using donations of money from villagers an elaborate tree using banknotes as foliage is put together. Our village money trees were put together about 150m from the temple, ready to lead the parade of people to the temple.
The money tree
Although I said temple traditions were less likely to be modernised, there are some exceptions. The procession needs loud music, and in the past this would have been provided by villagers playing drums and local instruments, but in our village a louder, more mobile source of music was available. A pick-up with a bigger sound system than a nightclub.
Mobile sound system
The procession finally started at 11am, but we’d first gone to the temple at 7am to drop off people, home-made banana cake, and our donation. In Isaan, and often in Thailand, nothing seems to happen for hours, then it all happens very quickly, and that was the case for our Krathin. Some had started celebrations early, and even at 7am a few of the older guys had already had a shot or two of Lao Khao – Thai rice wine.
There were numerous attempts to rewire the auto-sound system in front of us and almost every guy in the village came forward professing their audio expertise, giving often contradictory instructions. After much rewiring and testing we finally had sound.
The parade begins
Quickly people appeared from nowhere and joined the line, trays of gifts and food thrust into their hands as they stood in line.
Then, after waiting for hours, we were off.
Music, dancing, whooping and hollering. Smiles were everywhere as we began our walk to the temple.
Unknown to us, the parade has some amazing healing properties. Yai Ma, my mother-in-law who often complains of bad hips and sore legs, suddenly found the power of dance as we made our way to the temple entrance.
Music is a miraculous cure
We saw a few faces we know and wais were exchanged, smiles flashed, and new bonds made. The biggest smile was from Kuan, the village head, who has played a big part in our first year here. He arranged for our ponds to be dug, found a tractor driver to work the land when others said they were too busy, and has frequently helped us solve small problems at a minute’s notice.
Kuan, the village head and our savior on many occasions
Once we arrive at the temple, permission is asked to come into the temple, then coins wrapped in colourful paper are thrown into the crowd. Each coin collected was given a small scream of delight.
As is tradition, we walked around the temple three times, but what about our mobile stereo? There is no road around the temple so no room for a car. But isaan people are resourceful and inventive, and in the blink of an eye the shoulder-speaker was put into action. It’s a bit like an old ghetto-blaster, but it just uses a speaker.
Spot the 7am Lao Khao drinker.
Virtually everyone in the village joins, from the youngest to the oldest, and it’s safe to say we made a few new friends and got to know a few people we often see around.
Not everyone is content with singing and dancing
Far from being treated with suspicion or fear or even jealousy, we’ve found everyone we have met to be friendly, helpful and welcoming. I think you should expect to find that in all areas around the country.
The day continued with food, drink and chit-chat. We left Yai Ma there as we headed home, and it was some time after 5pm before she returned.
In the week since Krathin I seem to have met more people during our daily morning walk around the area, and where before there was a glance and a hurried passing, there is now a look, a smile and in some cases a conversation.
Having a local community that provides support to each other is important in areas around Isaan. It feels like we’ve just become a part of our community. And it feels good.