Metal water kettles are going the way of water buffalo here in Northern Thailand. A case in point is what my ancestors called a “tea kettle” although only the water for tea was ever heated in it, and so was our bath water. Here they are called กา (pronounced gah as in gosh). They have stood the test of time, bridging periods from wood fires to gas. They are now aluminum, although in upscale stores in the city you can find copper kettles or stainless steel ones. A long time ago they were cast iron.
This represents improvement (whereas the evolution from cast iron to aluminum skillets might not – just an opinion). For heating water, lighter weight is easier to handle and more energy efficient.
Nowadays it is neither the source of energy nor price that is the driving factor in how we heat water, and why. For most of us, the only water we want heated at home is for coffee and for baths. There are separate ways of doing that. In Thailand, a thoroughly urban household may not have a kitchen. Most apartments and condos have minimal food preparation facilities, heavy on utilities that plug in. Coffee is made, naturally enough, in a coffee maker. Expensive varieties make your coffee while you are still asleep so it is ready when you get up. I remember being struck the first time I heard a farmer back in Illinois say he thought his computerized coffee maker was a necessity, much like his John Deere tractor. Now coffee makers are available right here in Lotus and Big-C, unless you prefer to have your cappuccino or latte from a kiosk on your way into your day. Modern young adults want their coffee with a cute diagram in the cream foam on top, or in a container to go.
Here in our village if you want coffee, you make it yourself. Although coffee out here is a modern beverage, even newer than Ovaltine and Milo, tea is ancient. There was a time in living memory when the drink you were provided in a food shop was always tea.
What was used to heat water before metal kettles of any kind were found around here?
The answer arrived at my front gate a few weeks ago. A truck driver was hawking clay pots of all kinds. Before there was money to buy metal kettles there were clay ones. Indeed, there still are. They are used in our village, if at all, mostly as decorations to harken back to the old days. The hawker had to hunt among his wares to find the example I wanted for the picture at the top of this essay. Flower pots were his main product. But clay pots without spouts are still used to make soup and curry. They are part of the secret behind the great taste of certain recipes.
So, there are three eras of กา in Thailand, the era in the past when they were made of clay, the passing era of metal kettles, and the dawning present when water heating is specialized.
What do the clay, metal, and electrified water pots tell us about village culture?
Clay pots were village made. Artisans specialized in those things and certainly not every household had a kiln; but terracotta utensils were local products. The clay around here is abundant and good quality. At a market on a fixed day those with extra items could find customers to trade what they had for what they wanted. Clay cooking ware was a necessity. Village culture in the past sustained the skills and production capacity for necessities.
The second observation is that some villages rose above the level of simple adequacy in certain trades. It often had to do with the availability of raw materials, or access to supply lines for components. Not many villages here in Chiang Mai have salt, for example. There are large salt sources in Nan Province, not too far away. Not every village needed to manufacture umbrellas, but they all needed a meat processing capability. So some necessary things were made and some for obtained by trading.
If an item was absolutely necessary for subsistence living it was produced locally. If it was optional it was traded for other optional items. That was the marketing principle of the past.
Only after commerce developed, where money became the medium of exchange and transportation was feasible did the production of necessities leave the village. Clay pots were then made by those who could do it in some way better. Those craftsmen could afford to divert their attention to full-time pottery making from other labor intensive endeavors such as hunting for game and cloth weaving.
Now at the mid-twenty-fifth century (by Thai reckoning) we are entering the post-village era.
Necessities in one era are different in another era. In post-village culture a home is a residence. It is no longer a place to manufacture food to eat. The amount of time a person spends on food production may be reduced almost to zero. Conversely, people in post-village cultures spend considerably more time and concern than previous generations did on what clothing to wear, and an even higher percentage of their attention on diversions of all kinds. Any successful housing development markets its sports and recreation facilities as well as its accessibility to places of entertainment (shopping malls being probably the most important of these). Diversions fill in where community events used to take place.
In post-village culture hot water needs to be there when it is wanted or within seconds at most.
There are hundreds of college and university students from overseas in Thailand at any one time. Some are here for a semester or more and others are here for two weeks or less. What they have in common is an opportunity to expand their horizons and begin to gain a global perspective or at least a cross-cultural one. Those who design and coordinate these programs usually facilitate a partnership between institutions in Thailand with institutions overseas. The ways these are conducted are too diverse to describe, but in general, the programs focus on (1) language, (2) culture and history, (3) and/or service-learning.
Advocates say that the service-learning model has the greatest potential for transformation of participants. Skeptics insist that it depends wholly on how much the participants are open to transformation and attitudinal modification. Students who come to party tend only to have aged a little by the time they depart. At the other end of the scale are those who “never get over” having been immersed in Thai culture. They are never the same again.
Immersion does seem to be the aspect that matters. The more students (or tourists) insulate themselves in their comfort zones, the less they absorb that is challenging. Without challenge there is no change.
A great deal of the Thai tourism industry is geared toward a form of mobile entertainment. Travelers are moved from one show to the next. They see a series of animal acts featuring snakes in one place, elephants, tigers, crocodiles or monkeys in the next. Then there are costumed dancers in the evening and static wonders to admire the next morning in the form of temples or palaces. If it goes well it is all very comfortable. Even “adventure tourism” is never meant to be all that challenging except inside a narrow range of previous interest and fitness, and then the goal is thrills rather than edification. It is essentially irrelevant that the track or trek is in Thailand, just as a Formula One race could be in Dubai as well as Monte Carlo. All this, of course, is frequently interspersed with shopping. Well, that’s what tourism is. It is only coincidentally educational.
Nowadays, there is also “augmented tourism”, tours-plus. Sometimes a tour is tacked onto the end of a conference or meeting. Sometimes the tour is the main thing, but an afternoon of helping-out is tucked into the program. You can usually tell the difference between tourism and service by who pays the bills. It strains the definition to call bathing and feeding an elephant “service”, especially if you have paid a thousand baht or more for the opportunity and you have to be helped by someone who could do it faster without you.
What turns an immersion experience into an educational one is reflection. Some sort of reflection is essential. Guided reflection is more productive than chain of consciousness recall. Disciplined reflection is optimal. An amateur sees, but doesn’t know what she sees. A trained observer sees more and configures it more accurately.
There is passive as well as active immersion. When I took a TV production class we got to observe in control rooms. We were immersed in the high-energy environment but required to be absolutely still. Students for the first time at a Buddhist ceremony should try to be passive but alert. In an authentic active immersion experience there is no difference between the way students are living and conducting affairs and the way people all around them are doing it. Reflection follows the immersion, but to derive the most benefit, experiences should be preceded by training and preparation.
Effective service-learning in Thailand is active immersion that provides assistance to somebody. In service-learning, students become colleagues in a project with those who benefit from it. A work project in which students do something for others may not be service-learning if elements of immersion or joint-participation are missing.
Effective service-learning is comprised of:
· An element of travel or movement out of one’s home environment
· A period of training and orientation
· Immersion into the environment of those to be served
· Work that benefits those being served
· Co-participation with mutual involvement by those being served
· Reflection, de-briefing and accumulating records
If any of these elements are missing the service-learning is compromised.
There are ways in which service-learning by overseas students in Thailand differs from service-learning back home. Some of the ways are matters of degree. A service-learning program in Iowa, for example, might place students in a public housing community center only a few blocks from campus or in a migrant farm worker labor union hall a few miles away, but travel to Thailand is into a far country with a comprehensively different culture. There are two ways, however, in which service-learning is fundamentally different in Thailand. Although it may be expected in New York, it is unrealistic to demand that students have a determinative role in selecting, designing and conducting their service. Not long ago a group came to our village to conduct a day of English language activities at our high school. Some of the activities were chosen for the group to conduct and part were activities participants insisted on designing themselves. Being unfamiliar with the school and educational culture of village Thailand the activities brought from overseas tended to be less successful because supplies ran out, the activity was too complicated to be accomplished in the available time, or the school students interacted mostly with each other while the service-learning students cheered or coached from the sidelines, or the service-learning leaders performed with the school kids as an audience. Student involvement in planning service-learning programs across cultural divides needs to be a collaborative effort, and if that is impossible it needs to be done for the service-learning students.
A second expectation of service-learning that is unrealistic here in Thailand is that somehow it will result in community or social change, particularly through giving community members a voice. There are insurmountable language, social, cultural and political barriers to that. Empowerment (as well as religious evangelism) is an unrealistic and illegitimate goal for foreign service-learning programs. Success can only be simulated and reports of success are inevitably exaggerated or entirely bogus. On the other hand, providing technical and emotional support for Thai change agents can be done by persons from overseas.
As service-learning earns greater and greater respect as an educational methodology and as the ASEAN accords open the door to greater mobility it is important to sharpen our thinking about service-learning by overseas students in Thailand.
Wooden houses are disappearing from villages around here. They are being replaced by an entirely different kind of construction. The reason has nothing to do with style or size, but with availability of building materials and anticipated durability.
There were two basic periods of wooden houses. The more recent dates back to the 1950s. Here in the North those houses were built of milled lumber on poles set in the ground. The floors were tongue and groove boards of uniform width and typically less than half an inch thick. Outer walls were made of lapped wood siding without an interior wall. Houses were sub-divided into small rooms. A front porch was usually only large enough to provide protection from the rain while the front door was being unlocked. Windows and doors were double panels without glass. The back area was roofed over and the floor had gaps between the planks to allow drainage. The area under the house was used for storage, and later might be converted into a gathering place in the shade. These houses had at least a modicum of furniture, some of it in the form of built-in shelves and seating.
Before the Second World War wooden houses were made largely of hand-sawed boards and hewn posts with thick plank floors. Rafters held roofs made of tile or corrugated metal with wide overhangs. (See the picture above.) More modest village homes still used leaf or thatch shingles. Interiors were traditionally wide open with no walls, although small bedrooms came into style toward the end of the era. Storage cabinets served to designate living areas as did a more-finished central floor raised one step higher. Most village homes had almost no furniture. People sat on the floor to visit and eat, and slept on the floor. Wide covered and open areas in front and back for food preparation and for social gathering were equal in size to the central living space. Sleeping mats were reeds, blankets, or mattresses, the most luxurious being filled with kapok stuffed into tubes of cotton cloth sewed together in such a manner they could be folded and piled out of the way during the day.
Nowadays, when houses have to be replaced because of termites or family requirements, instead of wood the construction material is usually concrete and steel. Modern houses are built on foundations on the ground with square upright posts of concrete reinforced with steel rods. Floors are concrete, walls are concrete blocks covered with concrete stucco. Here in Chiang Mai walls are sometimes made of bricks, which will also be stucco covered. Rafters are steel brazed in place. Roofs are made of concrete tile or panels. Wood is used for some doors and window frames, and also for decoration. Doors made of plastic are typical for bathrooms, and steel or aluminum window frames are more likely in larger construction projects. Windows have glass.
Two factors brought about this change. Timber for construction is now scarce. Forests where wood could be gathered are gone. Lumber is expensive. Wood from old houses is sold at a premium to be converted into furniture, parquet and other purposes. A family with a large, old teak house can probably sell it for the cost of building a new concrete house. The second factor in the change is the development of the cement industry in Thailand. Thailand is rich with limestone. Some of the outcroppings are spectacular. This stone is not even below ground level and it belongs to the country. As postwar construction of highways and large buildings began, the scenic value of these hills, conveniently looming in the central plains area, was deemed of secondary importance to national development. Capital for building cement factories was raised through sales of stock in which the nation’s richest families invested and became much richer. Cement industry infrastructure came next. Cement became a cost efficient building material throughout the country. On top of that, the homes were convenient and banks provided loans. All of this came just in time for the metropolitan idea to boom.
I have asked people in their 80s what their grandparents’ housing was like. What came before wooden houses? Here in Northern villages the answer is usually that the houses were made of bamboo. Even the supporting poles were bamboo, but wooden posts were sometimes available. Houses had bamboo walls or flaps that could be lowered if need be. Floors were split bamboo woven into panels. Roofs were of leaves or thatch. Construction was a cooperative project. A house normally lasted 4 or 5 years with a new roof at least once. The house was held together by rope bindings. No nails were used. Metal was not readily available in those days. Before the rail link was finished from Lampang to Chiang Mai in 1922 commerce was by barges on the Ping River or by horse caravans.
Village culture can be divided into three eras: the past that is hard to find, the passing that is becoming obsolete and vanishing, and thepresent on the way to becoming a defining characteristic of village culture. The “past” is a time before money was commonly used, before roads were more important thoroughfares than waterways, and before metal was available. Toward the end of the “past” era of village culture, houses were a combination of wood, bamboo and leaf or thatch roofs (as in the picture accompanying this essay, provided by Songkiat Thungyen of Mae Sariang).
There are several things to notice about the earliest era of house construction. Houses were considered temporary. The land on which they were erected was not necessarily owned by anybody except the princes of the city-states. Land was not owned; it was used. Money was not a factor. Houses were built cooperatively using bamboo and jungle products. They were located along waterways. To this day villages and the roads connecting them follow rivers and streams. Houses were clustered for mutual protection against wild animals. The first and only permanent structure in the village was the temple. Houses could not be secured from bandits so at least one person was home at all times. That was enough security because everybody was recognized. Tools needed to build a bamboo house might consist of only a machete. In a village like this there was no strict separation of domains. Domestic animals resided with the people, including water buffalo and chickens. Rice was likely the only crop cultivated. Vegetables were grown when conditions were right. A large proportion of greens for soups were gathered rather than grown. Meat was not a staple, but a luxury. Each day was a self-contained unit in the sense that there was hardly any long-term plan except to secure the necessities to get through the day as happily as possible.
The era of wooden houses came to people of higher status first, but as tools and machines became available nearly all people switched to wooden construction held together by nails and bolts, because those houses lasted longer and were more spacious and comfortable. By that time land ownership was possible. Having a secure right to a parcel of land made the investment of money and effort to build a wooden house feasible. In fact, owning a tract of land was probably the first thing of significant value that a village family could claim. It marked the end of peasantry.
Fires are all around us in nearly every direction and the air is so thick the sun is only a red glow long after dawn. I have found out why, and it’s not what I have long heard.
From where we live we can see hillsides on clear days and dim silhouettes of them on days like this. At night we can often see fires creating orange jagged lines on the horizon. With binoculars we can sometimes see them flare as they get to clumps of fuel.
First some facts.
No one lives on these hillsides. The fires happen every year. The hillsides are wooded. There has been no lightning. The fields below are mostly planted now or are being left for better irrigation.
These facts mean that around here “routine blame” does not apply. The semi-official explanation for hill fires is that ethnic minorities are engaging in slash-and-burn agriculture. Blaming the hill tribes doesn’t work here in our kink in the valley, nor does blaming the lowland rice farmers – right now.
Everybody here says that these fires are set deliberately to clear away the ground clutter so that the mushrooms can be seen when the first rains come again. The fires help mushroom hunters. Mushroom hunting is the last serious hunter-gatherer product in our forest area, along with bamboo shoots. The big wildlife are gone that used to be driven ahead of the fires so they could be shot. There are no more wild hogs or deer, no matter what they tell you about their meat at the “jungle produce” markets on the Lampoon-Lampang highway.
Farmers do burn off their fields. It is almost universal hereabouts. “Why?” I asked. It kills the insects, I was told. It is not about returning nutrients to the soil. It is not even very much about making plowing easier, although that is a marginal benefit for those who plow with animals … which not one farmer does in our valley. Burning reduces the need to apply insecticides. But I drove around the valley. No field was being burned. It’s not the season. Field fires are not the cause of Chiang Mai’s haze.
Chiang Mai is in a finger-shaped valley. Drive from Chiang Mai in any direction and you have to cross steep hills. The valley fills up with air-borne particulates. This season the chief cause is burning. Everybody who has space burns dried vegetation. If the trees were not trimmed and weeds not cut the jungle would reclaim the valley as it is relentlessly trying to do. There is no public program for disposing of this waste. When municipalities do run one of their rare projects for gathering branches they burn them. In effect burning is public policy. But that burning is minimal and spread throughout the year. It does not explain this level of haze.
Only deliberate forest fires explain the air pollution in Chiang Mai in March and April. Mushrooms are the reason.
Some families depend on the annual mushroom harvest to provide cash for the year. Certain kinds of mushrooms sell for more than prime beef, pound for pound. One type can go for $10 a liter. The demand for those little nuggets always exceeds the supply. I know some people who drive up from Bangkok just to have a dish of them. They are much easier to spot if the ground is black with fine ash. In fact, if leaves and clutter are allowed to accumulate for more than a couple of seasons the mushrooms can’t be found at all, and the fires, when they come would be much more destructive. Healthy trees are not killed by annual burning.
It is not hard to find the reason forestry officials are frustratingly passive about these forests aflame. Usually, the only damage is to air quality. Unfortunately that is a lethal danger to those with respiratory diseases. For the rest of us it is aggravating.
“Laugh, I thought I’d die!”
Lady Boy Friends the Series is available around the world now. You can get an idea what it is all about from this short trailer or this long trailer. As the trailer cut lines put it: ซีรีย์ที่จะพาคุณเข้าไปสู่โลกของนักเรียนมัธยมชายล้วน ที่เต็มไปด้วยเรื่องราวต่างๆ สะท้อนความเป็นจริงในสังคมปัจจุบัน รวมถึงเรื่องราวบางอย่างของมัธยมชายล้วน ตั้งแต่อดีตจนถึงปัจจุบัน ที่คุณอาจจะเคยสัมผัส หรืออาจจะยังไม่เคยรู้มาก่อน “The series takes you into the world of school boys unrestrictedly, reflecting current reality including some kinds of stories from the past to the present that you may or may not have touched.” Now that’s discreet. The title in Thai is เพื่อนกัน มันส์ดี which might mean “Exciting Friends” but could also mean “Provocative Friends” or “Stimulating Friends”. The English title tries to rip off the subtlety by labeling the friends “lady boys”.
A friend in San Francisco texted messages about this series to which I responded, “This is one of the ways we exaggerate, exploit and marginalize ‘kathoeys’ here. You know it is going to be from the very moment the term ‘Lady Boy’ is used because the term is demeaning and has no equivalent in Thai.” The term “lady boy” is widely used to refer to younger males in Thailand who deliberately display effeminate types of expression. The term “lady boy” has no positive connotation; it is always derogatory in one way or another. It is a linguistic invention to try to communicate to English language users that the male in question is not authentic, is cross-dressing, may be devious or even dangerous, and could be mistaken for a female prostitute by the unwary. The only meritorious application of the term is when it is used to indicate a transsexual beauty contestant, and even then it is reluctant praise inferring “imagine that!”
Perhaps I owe my friend in San Francisco an explanation about what I mean by the judgments that the series is “exaggerated, exploitative, and marginalizing” of kathoeys.
One of my friend’s friends commented that the clip was “too gay”. There were only two acceptable representations of gay life in the media in Thailand. Either we were serious and we die, or we were ridiculous and we were not serious. One of the predictable clown types in Thai movies and soap operas is a kathoey, or better yet, two of them. But there is a kathoey sub-culture in Thailand, as elsewhere where persons of minority sexual orientations are relegated to a sub-status and migrate into a survival tribe complete with totems and slang. One night this week a group of gay and kathoey friends gathered at our house. They were a challenge to my evaluation of the lady-boy stereotype as an exaggeration. Among themselves they were as campy as possible, outdoing one another with slurs and brags (just as some of the guys in the movie trailer were doing). Some of the group had invested small fortunes in silicone transplants which they emphasized by proportionally reduced amounts of clothing. But the spectrum extended all the way to the guys who had spent similar fortunes on steroids and/or body building. Was that their “reality”? The movie makers want us to think so. Underneath the social veneer of an upper-class high school there is this alternative reality, and if we peek into it we will see how funny and pathetic and ultimately tragic it is. The other reality for our party goers is that the next day they went back to being a hotel manager, a physician, a couple of actors, two florists, five college students, a banker, 10 diverse others, and me. Is there a reality behind the film series? Yes, but it is misrepresented.
That brings us to exploitation. I call it exploitation when the survival tactics of a threatened sub-culture are used to entertain those who are living so safely they cannot even imagine how these kids are dancing to get by. Exploitation movies are potential gold mines. Hollywood knows that better than anybody. Here in Thailand we can exploit kids and get away with it. In the first place, teen-age movies are targeting their largest customer base, of course. If you made a movie about aging kathoeys, and we do age, no teenagers would go to see it, and neither would we because our reality is not as มันส์ดี, not as exciting or provocative. It is more fun to think about what the kids are up to. But in the second place teen-age provocateurs are less challenging to the culture-police, those guardians of the social image. The same stories told about older people are simply seamy and sick, beyond what is tolerable. In fact, we dare not put older people into those story-lines except as antagonists or foils.
However, maintaining cultural norms is part of what those movies are about. It would never do to have the “third sex” gain respectability. What would they want next? Full human rights? It is far better, the culture-monitors (and I use that in the monitor lizard sense) believe, to keep kathoeys somewhat detestable. What better way than by constantly representing them as a-typical, conflicted but basically happy in their little world getting along just fine with each other, and vaguely pathetic. Vilify them or zooify them … put them into an acceptably remote box where we can laugh at them.
Y’all come! Our village temple community is having a Poy Luang festival March 4 and 5, and you are invited. A Poy Luang festival is a cross between a village-wide open house and a community home-coming. It is a big party and a fund-raising event for the temple. If you want to be in on this come around dusk either day (the weather is getting punishingly hot in the afternoon) and we will be glad to see you and give you something to eat and drink.
“Poy Luang” is not found in the Thai-English dictionaries I have. It is a Northern Thai (Lanna) tradition with similar but not identical events in other parts of the country called different things. Here’s what I think it is and what I expect to happen. I’ll be back to you afterward with more specifics.
The other day the whole thing was kicked off by a ceremony to mark the placement of the Poy Luang Banners. These banners, called tung, are long colorful woven pieces of cloth hung in such a way as to catch every breeze and remind people that there are ancestral spirits around. They are light weight and meant to move and sway. But a long line of them in bright colors along a roadway is a sure sign they lead to a temple planning a Poy Luang festival. Each of the colors is meaningful, especially those standing for the days of the week.
Before that kick-off event, there was a major renovation in and around our temple. A dilapidated old building was removed, a wall was extended, and things were painted. Even the pavement of the road next to the temple was improved. The major income from the Poy Luang was to do these things. Another campaign raised funds for a gong collection. The old-timers have been practicing, although they don’t sound like they need much practice.
There is no set way to conduct the festival. Our community is having a lower-key celebration, but there will be a music ensemble and performances on the night of the fourth. Throughout the day and evening of the fifth of March abbots from other temples will come with delegations. The laity will visit homes first.
We have been laying in supplies. We will feed however many people come to our open house during the day and night of March 4 and 5. Artty, a neighbor, (whose supplies are pictured above) expects college friends to come and has planned accordingly. At our house emphasis will be on light food and beverage with a lot of ice. Some families are hiring music making equipment, especially karaoke music, which gives volunteers a chance to sing for the whole village, depending on the volume. To be honest, the volume will be high. Pramote and I have decided to forego that formidable aspect of the open house.
Sometime late on the second day we will carry a money tree to the temple. Every household participating in the Poy Luang will go to the temple, dancing and cavorting as they go. Almost every house in the village is beyond our house. We expect them all to pass by here.
The last time our temple had a Poy Luang was eight years ago, so they don’t happen that often. But when they do it is a community event that involves everybody who can get out of bed. I maintain that these festivals are the glue that holds Thai society as well as Buddhism together here in the valleys of the North.
Funny things happen in Thailand connected to “The Day of Love”, also known as Valentine’s Day. If you consider these things over time, trends become apparent. I have been pondering 3 reports from the past week:
Pong and Noey got engaged.
Three guys got married to each other creating a news sensation for their 15 minutes of fame.
Thailand got listed as the world leader in adultery, several points ahead of Denmark.
Once upon a time, before the Internet and Facebook, you could count on two things about an engagement in Thailand: first, it would not even be hinted at until it was formally announced; second, it would involve at least the tacit consent of both families because a marriage was the beginning of a merger of two clans. Before that an engagement involved the exchange of assurances and the Thai form of dowry, the groom presenting the bride’s family gifts to compensate them for the contributions they had made in raising her. Those negotiations could be somewhat tedious in the old days, but they assured social stability no matter what might happen to complicate things afterward. Today the romantic form of love has triumphed. A couple will decide for themselves to get married and let the families know, maybe on Facebook. So Pong and Noey made their formal announcement of engagement on Valentine’s Day, and showed us their matching engagement rings.
Assuming the three fellows are serious rather than playing a social network joke (one of the guys is nicknamed “Joke” so there is some suspicion about their announcement) in what sense are they possibly married? They are certainly not married in the legal sense. Thai law does not recognize same-sex marriages or three-party marriages. So they cannot have their marriage registered as hundreds of couples did on “The Day of Love”. Bang Rak district in Bangkok is the unofficial capitol of Valentine’s Day, since bang rak literally means “a place of love” (bang also means a waterway, referring to a canal that used to go through the district). Couples line up in the dead of night to be sure of getting their marriages registered on that auspicious day and place. The 3 guys might still be married in the social sense, which includes at least tacit agreement from families. They will solidify their place in their many overlapping social circles by how they stay connected and contribute to the needs and projects their social groups undertake. In Thailand Buddhism exercises no authority over marriages per se. There is no dogma to be considered nor even any necessary religious ceremony. They said they poured water. Water pouring is a sacred (but not necessarily a Buddhist) ceremony to ratify a covenant and seal it. So they are married if they say so, but we’ll see.
We were less than startled to learn that Thailand leads the world in percentages of adultery. The statistics say that 56% of the married people surveyed admitted to having had an adulterous affair. Thailand, in fact, was the only Asian nation in the top-ten. I would like to offer some short-hand observations about that. Based on life here in the village, far fewer than 50% of the marriages here have ever ended. There is considerable family stability and the welfare of children is almost never jeopardized by family affairs. Since the marriage survey would probably be heavily slanted toward urban respondents, and since the nation is still heavily village and small town dwellers it could be that the statistics are a bit off. Nevertheless, I would submit that:
Monogamy was mandated at least in part to counter the charge that polygamous cultures were uncivilized and would be better off if they were subjected to social improvement by colonial powers. That rationale has never had a very strong hold on Thai thinking and behavior. Nor has polygamy ever seriously undermined the social structure or the central authority of the family-clan.
In the past, before “modernization” under the influence and sometimes considerable pressure from Europeans, marriages of young people in the upper social strata were arranged in order to strengthen social and political alliances. They were not necessarily limited to one wife or husband. Meanwhile, individuals caught in arranged marriages felt free to seek solace and satisfaction outside those official marriages as long as they did not endanger the social structure or the ranking inside the families and clans. They were married to the first spouse for status and the next one for love. Even though those extra marriages were not always official (although they often were), there was social pressure for patrons to accept responsibility for everybody involved. In other words, “adultery” and “bigamy” are legal terms in these modern times, but as pejorative terms they do not have a great deal of social support. Simultaneous multiple spouses, of course, are expensive and so this form of polygamy is more common among those who can afford it. It is less apt to happen in villages like ours.
So is LOVE undergoing change? If you are a romantic, you would say, “Love is being accorded its true place in the hierarchy of values.” If you are a traditionalist, you would say, “Love is an emotional experience that appears in direct proportion to hormone secretion. It is not a sound basis for building relationships.”
As a long-term observer, I have to say that the 3 guys are pushing the frontier in trying to establish a 3-way gay relationship if they are hoping to avoid social consequences. I will also say that Pong is a modern young man getting engaged and telling the world about it before consulting his parents. Nevertheless, we will support him and hope to meet Noey very soon.
“A” is 21. He was born in Nan and grew up there. He came to Chiang Mai this year to go to a technical college to study computer business. He works as a masseur in a “for men only” spa and gets big tips from the sexual favors he provides. He really enjoys himself and his customers, but he’s planning on marrying a woman in a few years.
“B” is 31. She was born and raised as a boy, transitioning into a young woman when she quit school. She is the “minor wife” of her older sister’s husband. She also has a hunky boyfriend of her own.
“C” is a florist. He uses feminine pronouns and gestures but dresses as the male he has always been. He has women as friends and no boyfriends of consequence.
“D” is a chauffeur. He is just 30 but has the liver of an 80 year-old because of his alcoholism. He is passionate about sex with males of any age when he is sober, which is more of the time since he got this job as a driver for a man of very substantial influence.
“E” likes to dress up as a woman. Otherwise he presents himself and considers himself to be a man with a preference for older men as lovers. He can afford to pick and choose. He is not looking for Santa.
“F” waited for his mother to die before coming out as gay, not that it mattered. Everyone knew he had two lovers as well as a coterie of happy party goers.
“G” was the first gay Thai guy to die of AIDS that we knew personally. He was a talented nightclub performer and managed a very successful Thai restaurant in Los Angeles. In his funeral memorial folder his family pointedly printed his death certificate, saying he died from pneumonia.
“H” is 17 but likes to claim to be older. He is trying to decide how to tell his parents he has no interest in marrying a girl and continuing the family line. He has experimented and knows what he likes.
“I” has two families, one includes a wife and three children and the other consists of him and Goi. The two families overlap in many ways. It works because they don’t talk about it.
“J” does not call himself gay. He does not think he is anything. He finds solo-sex best, but he can be really turned on by watching a guy “do it”.
Being gay in Thailand is not any easier than it is elsewhere in the world. It is a juggling act between being authentic and being acceptable. What sets Thailand apart from other lands is that the predominant religion does not usually launch a homophobic campaign, local communities take their signals from clans about whether a family member is OK or not, families measure their sons’ characters first of all by how they treat their mothers, and strict gender identification is a recent cultural gloss that shows signs of fading again.
Being ambiguous about ones sexual or gender orientation is not a matter of being sly or in denial. The fact that few gay guys in Thailand are clear about their identity tells more about the inadequacy of labels and diagnoses than about Thai self-awareness.
We can say that this is a convenient fog. Since being queer can lead to controversy (loss of face being one form of loss) or conflict (which is to be avoided in Thai society whenever possible), it is better to be ambiguous most of the time. Just be yourself. But be unclear about who you are. The only thing we should allow to show is our individual story, and only as much of that as may be inevitable.
That is convenient social obfuscation. It does not help the “cause” of gender equality or gay rights or greater understanding. Observers and activists object that this gay grayness hurts the cause. What would help would be coming out and being honest.
It is the nature of these narratives to be individual and not to conform to categories. The smaller the pigeon-hole the less pigeons will fit into it. Clear sharp definitions are analytical and comparative tools, but not helpful in promoting individuality. “Causes” need masses. Individuals need to self-identify with the mass whose cause they decide to espouse. So far the convenient fog feels fine.
February 4 was a historic day in our thousand year-old village. On that day trash collection began. Those of us who signed up for the service were provided 18-gallon trash cans identified with a code number. We are entitled to fill the can once a week. There is a collection fee equivalent to $1 a month.
Everybody in the city that I’ve told about this has had the same reaction, “What? You’ve not had trash collection before? What did you do?”
Well, in the days before trash collection, which were all the days before this week, there was a lack of system. First, everything of value was sold, and that included aluminum cans and glass bottles. Some plastic bottles and cardboard boxes could be sold as well as large heavy plastic sacks. Light weight paper and plastic wrap, along with leaves, weeds and plant trimmings were kept for burning once in a while. Table scraps became fertilizer. Neighbors without a space for burning found a place to toss their trash. One by one those places were posted with 500 baht warning signs, but ours is a big farming area with lots of “places”.
We are delighted to have the trash collection remove the temptation to create unsightly nuisance sites. This trash collection is, so far, the one benefit of our sub-district of villages becoming a municipality. I understand another more limited and more immediate advantage is that the sub-district officials’ incomes have gone up in various ways they are hesitant to talk about.
I have thought about this health and safety innovation as an aspect of vanishing village culture. The question I ask when we see anything new affecting village life is, “What was it like before this?” Was there a time, “before trash?” It might amaze young people, even those born and raised in our village, to know that there was a time when there was almost no trash. There were forces of nature working on everything, of course, but trash? No.
To get a handle on that we have to look at our trash item by item.
What happened to bottles in the “olden days”? There were bottles and they were used over and over. There were bottles because there were no cans. Before there were even bottles there were few liquids that needed to be transported in small amounts. Larger amounts came in pottery jars. Dippers were important. Before glass there was clay, lots of clay around here. Those jars never wore out. If they broke, which was inevitable, they became used for something else in some way depending on how broken they were.
What about plastic bags in former times, what was used in place of them? Plastic bags are used to transport retail purchases from one place to another, right? Using our three-era system of considering village culture, we can remember that before plastic bags there were paper bags and before that, baskets; but retail shopping did not happen very far from home. Baskets were important. One of the rural icons (now vanishing) is of older women with two baskets suspended from a shoulder pole made of bamboo, trotting along to the rhythm of the bouncing baskets. Lunches were carried in little baskets. Great loads of rice where carried in great whopping baskets on ox carts. Some baskets were coated in lacquer to hold ground and powdered material, or water for a short time. Smaller portions of foodstuffs were wrapped in leaves secured by bamboo pins that looked like large toothpicks. All those things made of leaves and bamboo were exquisitely bio-degradable, helped by a great multitude of tiny bugs and worms, ants and mold.
What about garbage? Amazingly, even today in a village there is little garbage. What people don’t eat village dogs and cats are happy to have, and what little is left might attract birds. Peelings and fruit scraps unceremoniously become fertilizer. Only a large community meal is likely to produce enough residue to require united effort. In the olden days meat was not a daily food item, and vegetable parts of recipes were generally gathered as needed. In other words, food production for a family did not create waste products that no one knew what to do with.
If we sort out the contents of our black garbage bags, most of it is containers for products that have been used up, or wrapping material that products came in. Modern packaging has two purposes as far as I can see, from my perspective as a village consumer: the packaging is designed to get the product from the point of manufacture to the consumer in good condition, and it is designed to display the product attractively in retail markets where decisions about what to buy are made on impulse rather than from lists and order blanks. Some food products come in packages 3 and 4 layers thick as do my individually wrapped cheese slices and my chocolate coated wafers.
Almost all of this sort of waste has been developed within my own lifetime. Now we have junk yards with acres of cars waiting to be stripped for parts, mountains of rubber tires waiting to mysteriously catch fire and burn for months, and vast plastic lined and unlined trenches being filled with municipal waste that will be dangerous until the end of time. What do we do with all the toilets in a large hotel when it is torn down or the concrete from a highway that is being replaced? The human race never has had to confront this before.
Trash has meaning. In terms of village life, the increase of trash and the need to get rid of it systematically are indications of change. There will no longer be basket weavers in every village, and nearly every household. Even now the basket weavers in our village are growing too old to do it and they have no one to teach. Terracotta pottery objects have become cultural artifacts and are used for decoration rather than as necessities. The sound of chopping no longer means someone is fashioning a wooden utensil or implement.
The range of our dependency has expanded. We now “need” products that come from distances unimaginable by our ancestors just a century ago. And soon we will think we need them more quickly than even steamships, railroads or highways can provide. We will want pipelines, electronic product transfers, and delivery sub-stations nearby. We will think we have to have them. We will not be able to do without them.
Our little trash cans will look pathetically inadequate.
“The Hong is a bird of infinite grace…the head and neck of a Hong can be seen on the prow of the magnificent royal barge the Suphannahong. The Hong is also an auspicious animal, portending miracles. Nothing can match the grace of the Hong, for the great swan-like bird has a poise and delicacy beyond compare and its name is used in a modern Thai expression denoting unsurpassed beauty and grace.” That’s how one website describes the Hong, a mythological bird that is a popular figure in Thai architecture.
McFarland, whose Thai English dictionary of 1944 is still the standard work for biological references, defines hong(s) and hangs as “a goose; a swan”. He includes hong(s)-tong as “the golden mallard; hongsakati “resembling swans in actions”; hongsabat, a literary reference meaning “resembling the color of a swan’s foot”, i.e. pink; reddish yellow; hongsarot, a literary term meaning “having a swan as a means of transportation,” i.e. the god Brahma; and hongsaraj as king of the swans; the imperial swan.
Another website transliterates the Thai word as Hongsa, whereas the final S in Thai is marked as silent [I put the s in parenthesis for this reason when transcribing McFarland’s reference]. The website says, “Hongsa is the vehicle bird of Brahma. In Buddhist mythology Lord Buddha himself was once born as a Hongsa. At the time the Buddha Hongsa governed 96,000 hongsas.”
That brings me to last Sunday when a crowd of us gathered in the village of Huay Yao in the hills of Mae Wang District, Chiang Mai Province, to witness and participate in a ceremony to initiate a Buddhist temple building. The building was described by the Buddhist abbot who coordinated the construction and the dedication, as a vihara (pronounced: wee-han, rhymes with neon), an assembly hall. With the inclusion of a vihara and a small chedi (stupa) immediately behind it, that Buddhist hillside now constitutes a temple in all but name. The name, no doubt, will follow after the site is officially approved for the designation. The culmination of the ceremony involved installing a symbolic umbrella on the back of a Hong standing on the middle of the roof-peak.
In Thailand there are umbrellas of a large variety, some functional and others symbolic. The most symbolic of all is the chatr (which rhymes with dot). In royal circles the many-layered umbrella signifies the rank of the royal person entitled to repose beneath it. Only the reigning King has a 9-step umbrella. The Queen and Crown Prince have 7-step umbrellas, and other princesses of the inner circle have 5 step umbrellas. In Buddhist symbolism the many-layered umbrella represents the many levels of heaven, namely 6. However, all Thai Buddhist art represents the Lord Buddha under a 5-layer umbrella. I was told long ago that refers to the fact that Gautama was a prince before he renounced his royal status to seek enlightenment.
The umbrella at Huay Yao had 5 layers. It was suspended on ropes with pulleys to be raised up to the rooftop. First, it was decorated by major donors who helped tie symbolic cloths and garlands to it, and then it was anointed by the presiding monk. As conches (or instruments representing conches) and drums sounded, the chatr was raised into the grasp of a couple of men who lifted it onto a tall spike sticking out of the back of the golden Hong.
What can we observe from this ceremony? What was being symbolized?
There is an unbroken link between Vedic Hinduism, Brahmanism and Buddhism. In ways some other religions do not, Buddhism respects its roots. On the other hand, Buddhist teaching moves an adherent toward severing that reverence along with other religious and supernatural fascinations. In the end, the Lord Buddha was able to identify the links in the chain of causation and to realize that all things are non-entities; they have no fixed reality but are constantly in flux. Temples are tools for those who aspire to the insight that all is an illusion.
Above the top of the world mountain (the axial mountain, represented both by the pinnacle of the chedi and (as in Huay Yao) also the peak of the temple roof) are heavens. Insofar, as the vast majority of us are not going to be able to achieve full enlightenment in this life, our hope is that our demise and cremation will liberate our spirits to fly to one of the levels of heaven from which we will be re-incarnated to try again, less encumbered by the terrible drag of karma. The umbrella, higher than everything terrestrial, draws us upward.
The best way to make merit to offset the gravity of our misconduct and failures is to contribute toward the dissemination of Dharma, which is work best done by monks, who are best supported in their doing it by the accommodating environment of a temple/monastery which is conducive to meditation and equipped with points of focus. The effort constantly being expended in temple construction can be understood in this light. It is a “godsend” to be fortunate enough to have the rare opportunity and means to participate in such an undertaking.