Tradition is strong in Thailand. Even Bangkok, which might be expected to look more to the future than the past, leans heavily on following tradition, but when you get into the countryside and its villages, keeping up traditions plays an important part in remembering the past as well as bringing the community together.
As we live outside the village I guess most people around us rarely see us. Especially me, the foreigner. Some areas of Thailand are heavily populated with foreigners, but in Kalasin, where we live, there really aren’t many foreigners at all. That might change in a couple of years when a rumoured domestic airport may open, but that’s another story.
But people here are friendly and they want to talk and get to know you. This means I get a few people stopping me to say hello while I’m walking the dogs, but their English is often limited to no more than a few words, and this does give me a chance to practice my Isaan.
Isaan is the name of the region – the northeast of Thailand – and its distinctive enough to have its own language. It’s not Thai, although there are a lot of common words, and it’s not exactly Lao, which is the general assumption. Its somewhere in between.
Tradition plays a bit part in Isaan life, and whatever is bring respected or remembered its always done in a unique Isaan style. Almost always this means doing things in a way that may be alien to a ‘westerner’.
Take this weekend. For the last two weeks my brother-in-law and his wife (and her sisters and their families) have been preparing Ngarn Buat – or monk ordination ceremony. But its complicated as it’s also a time to pay respects to the spirits of family members – it could be mother, father, brother, sister or child.
In short, it becomes a time to bring families together, invite family friends, the whole village, and people known from around the area, and sit down and talk, have food, go on a parade, have a few drinks and a bit of a dance, and just have a good time.
Mother-in-law enjoys food prepared for guests and a chat with old friends.
This weekend’s goings-on also doubled as a Kathin ceremony, which marks the end Buddhist lent and the end of the rainy season. Fireworks, temple donations and some singing and dancing usually happen at Kathin – you may be able to see a pattern developing here.
Isaan people like to have fun!
Even though this weekend’s parade around the village was to pay respects to deceased family members, this was not a sombre occasion! For some, it was also not a sober occasion.
Weeks of preparation take place as between 300-400 people were invited to the event, and the whole village gets involved. From kids to barely mobile pensioners, everyone takes part.
Catering, gifts, games, cars, drinks – everything is led by the host family, but anyone who can help does.
The food preparation is particularly impressive. No-one is a ‘trained’ event host or organiser, yet everything generally moves smoothly. People are given a job and they do it, either by themselves or they enlist help.
The same happened during our just finished rice harvest where about 10-12 people descended on our land to help cut, dry, separate and bag rice. It’s brilliantly efficient.
Our day yesterday began with food from about 9am. Invitations envelopes are returned with a small donation included – it could be 20 baht or 2,000, whatever you feel able to give. Food is served while a local tells story and ‘sings’ the donations – ‘Elder Somying donated today to remember her long lost husband, he was a great farmer and a good dad and he’s come back to take his merit’. Hopefully you get the idea. Sometimes this can be just a list of donations being name checked, but if someone can ‘sing’ them, why not?
After lunch there is a parade. The host family lines up to lead the parade with photos of their passed family and offerings – the back of the parade hosts the party, with a mobile speaker pick-up truck blasting songs for the villages around to hear. A company of brightly clad dancers and drinkers follow the pick-up.
The crowd builds ready for the parade.
The parade makes its way around the village picking up people on the way. Kids appear from nowhere, all with plastic bags, all huddled behind the lead group.
As we move off a rain of brightly coloured ‘bombs’ fly high in the air before the kids hit the ground. It’s not dangerous, but each bomb is a coin tied up in garishly coloured material. As the kids hit the ground they grasp and grab for the coins, and then the need for plastic bags become clear. Every minute or so 10 – 15 coin bombs rain down as half a dozen throwers take turns to hurtle their coins in different directions to make sure everyone gets a share. Before long, adults have joined the kids in the scramble. As I said, it’s not sombre.
Kids scramble for their valuable 'bombs'
The rewards are abundant
By the time the lead group is 100 metres along the road the dancing party are about 90 metres behind. It would take the leaders about 45 minutes to walk very slowly walk around the village and by the time it had finished the dancers were about a quarter of the way around. That parade would go long into the night.
At this time of year the boom of a speaker pick-up van can regularly be heard. Tradition is often celebrated in Isaan.
Isaan is often regarded as being the poorest part of Thailand, and in terms of economic wealth that’s probably true. But in terms of its enjoyment of traditions, and the people’s ability to get the maximum enjoyment out of them, it’s very wealthy indeed.
Note: how things are celebrated and their traditions can vary from province to province, district to district and even village to village. They can also be confusing. This is a representation of what happened in our local village this weekend.
Who says money doesn't grow on trees
Young and old join
Brother -in-law host