10 Years Ago, Part 7: First Songkran

This is the sixth of a series of photographic blogs highlighting my last days in the U.S.A. and my first full year as an expat in southern Thailand.

My girlfriend-soon to be fiancé-later to be ex-wife at the time was from the north of Thailand and shared her birthday with one of the grandest of the nation’s holidays, that of the Thai New Year or Songkran

Rot Nam Dam Hua, a traditional way to celebrate with elders. Most Thai people go back to their hometowns to meet their elders.  Photo taken at Wat Khung Taphao Ban Khung Taphao, Khung Taphao subdistrict, Mueang Uttaradit, Uttaradit Province, Thailand.  Courtesy of WIKIPEDIA

Traditionally, this was a sprinkling of water over one’s wrists from a small bowl during the hottest time of the year as a sign of good luck.  In the past decade or so, it has become an all-out water fight fueled mainly by sweaty foreigners bringing their SuperSoaker water guns on holiday and fully embraced by Thais who love a bit of fun.  Now, it’s one outlet for Thai youths to peacefully take their revenge on foreigners (farang) by dunking them with water filled with ice cubes and smearing powder on their faces.  It can be a lot of fun but can also wear one’s patience to the bone, particularly in the north where it can go for as long as five days and more.  At least in Phuket, the water festivities are limited to a single day – 13 April – and many businesses are closed in order to keep out the damp.

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As Dtim’s birthday occurs on Songkran Day, we originally planned a birthday party but eventually pushed it back to a later date so we could celebrate the Thai New Year together in full-on water fight mode.  She felt for me to truly experience all that Songkran has to offer, Patong Beach was the only place worth going.  As with many things, the first time was the best. 

We set out on a tiny Honda 100cc motorbike fairly early in the day.  As we lived in Chalong, it was quite a long ride to Patong.  The narrow road west was soon clogged with motorbikes and pickup trucks.  The beds of the trucks invariably were packed with people and huge barrels of icy water.  My girlfriend delighted in slowing down whenever their were groups of kids alongside the road armed with buckets and water guns so they could get a good shot at the farang (me!).  I was soon drenched and shivering.  At least I had thought to wrap my camera in a plastic bag but the shots I made while it was inside left a lot to be desired.  Each year, I make the vow to buy a waterproof camera but I never seem to get around to it.  Once we finally arrived at Patong, we spent some time just walking up and down the beach road and the main bar street of Bangla Road just watching the water battles.  Even the local fire truck got into the act with it’s high-powered hoses!

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The following two years, we spent Songkran in Patong as Dtim set up drink stands and made a little money selling water and soda.  We separated in 2008 and I spent the next couple of Thai New Years with friends in Chalong rather than brave Patong.  Twice, I tried to escape the holiday by leaving Thailand altogether – first, I went to Laos where I found that Luang Prabang had a similar water fight and another year I traveled to Cambodia where they don’t throw water but I got stuck in the mayhem when I took the train back into Bangkok.  It was so bad that it was impossible to get a taxi to take me from the main train station to the Southern Bus Terminal.  Last year, I returned to Patong for my first Songkran there since 2008.  My bus broke down on the hill going into that coastal town and we had to talk a few kilometers, walking targets the entire way.

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I’m not sure how I’ll celebrate the Thai New Year this year.  I don’t want to stay home nor do I want to deal with the crowds in Patong.  The government is urging it’s citizens to practice traditional Songkran celebrations due to the dire water shortage but I’ve seen the giant water cannons on sale at numerous locations around town.  We’ll see…


10 Years Ago, Part 6: First Thai House

This is the sixth of a series of photographic blogs highlighting my last days in the U.S.A. and my first full year as an expat in southern Thailand.

Now that I was a full-time expat in the Land of Smiles, the time came to find a home to live in rather than the dingy but cheap Thai motel in the center of the island.  It was important that we have someplace by the Thai New Year (Songkran) holiday on 13 April as this also happened to be my girlfriend’s birthday and she was planning a huge party. 

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Happy Loy Krathong

20091102-151743Today is the full moon of the 12th month in the traditional Thai lunar calendar.  As such, the evening is being celebrated as Loy Krathong here in Thailand. Held throughout Thailand and Laos as well as a couple of small areas in Myanmar, Malaysia, and the extreme southern portion of Yunnan in China Loy Krathong is perhaps my favorite one-day holiday. It is at the very least the most colorful.

The Thai word loy (or, “loi”) is translated as “to float”) while a krathong means a “floating boat” or “floating decoration”.  The krathong are traditionally made from a thick slice from the trunk of a banana tree or a spider lily plant.  Some modern versions are made from bread but increasingly, Styrofoam krathong are sold which pollute the rivers and take years to decompose.  They are decorated with elaborately folded banana leaves, incense sticks, colorful flowers, and a candle.  A small coin is sometimes added as an offering to the river spirits.  Fingernails or hair clippings are also occasionally added to the krathong as a symbol of letting go of past transgressions and negative thoughts.  The primary purpose of floating krathong in rivers, canals or ponds on the full moon night is to thank the Goddess of Water, known as Phra Mae Khongkha in Thailand.

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Most large organizations, corporations and government offices in the region create larger, elaborate krathong and their are many local competitions to determine the best of these.  Most communities will hold at least one “Noppamas Queen” beauty contest. This is to honor a consort of the 13th century Sukhothai king Sri Indraditya, who, according to Thai mythology, was the first to float a decorated raft. These pageants attract young girls, adults, and katoeys alike.

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According to an 1863 account written by His Majesty Mongkut (Rama IV, best known in the West via Anna Leonewens’ novel Anna and the King of Siam and the musical The King And I), Loy Krathong was adapted by Siamese Buddhists from a Brahmanical festival to honor the Buddha. The candle venerates the Buddha with light while the krathong’s floating symbolizes letting go of all one’s hatred, anger and defilements.

In many Thai communities, people also enjoy launching khom loi, or Lanna-style sky lanterns, into the sky. These are made from a thin fabric such as rice paper, stretched over a bamboo or wire frame, to which a candle or disc of paraffin wax is attached. When this is lit, the resulting hot air is trapped inside the lantern and provides enough lift for the khom loi to float up into the sky.

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For the first few years that I lived in Thailand, I loved to watch the streams of lit lanterns rising into the dark sky while sitting on my balcony. However, this aspect of the celebration is now being increasingly banned as the sky lanterns are a hazard to passing aircraft and can cause damage if they land on buildings or vehicles. Bangkok passed a particularly severe ordnance in 2014 following the military coup which states that “violators may face execution or a life sentence or serve a lighter sentence of 5 to 10 years in prison…” Fireworks displays have replaced the khom loi in a number of places.

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On 10 November 2011, Thailand Post issued a set of four stamps and a souvenir sheet honoring “Traditional Festivals”.  Two of the stamps specifically depict Loy Krathong as celebrated in Sukhothai (along with the Candle Festival) and Tak while a third shows the northern Thai (Lanna) festival known as Yi Peng which coincides with Loy Krathong. This is the origin of the khom loi lanterns sky lanterns and locals decorate their houses and gardens with khom fai, intricately shaped paper lanterns which take on different forms including those carried hanging from a stick (khom thue) and those placed at temples which revolve due to the heat of the candle inside (khom pariwat). The most elaborate Yi Peng celebrations are in Chiang Mai, the ancient capital of the Lanna kingdom, where they are held concurrently with Loy Krathong. The final stamp depicts the Illuminated Boat Procession in Nakhon Phanom.

The following is a selection of photos that I have taken during Loy Krathong over the past nine years…


Monthly Meanderings: August 2015

SAM_7003August saw my return to high school and I’m still trying to adjust.  My leisure time went from “perfect” to “will I ever have free-time again”?  September will be even busier but I should be able to take a lengthy holiday starting the second week of October.  At least the weather has largely cooperated; the mornings and evenings have been relatively cool with only the rare thunderstorm.

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Back to School!

SAM_6907We are actually nearing the end of Term 1 for the 2015-16 school year but this past week saw me putting in a full schedule once again at a government-run school, something I will continue until the term break seven weeks from now.  This is due to yet another teacher skipping out on his contract – lately, I seem to specialize in these finish-the-term substitutions.  Luckily, this time I only had to give up two of my in-house lessons (meaning those I do during the day at the language school) in order to fill in at the high school.  I still have my Saturday morning bank staff lessons and Sunday English camps so it will be quite some time until I have another day off!

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A Bit of Tinglish at Central, Phuket

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All over Southeast Asia, there are examples of signs badly translated into English.  In my experience, Thailand seems to have a higher percentage of “crazy English” signs than anywhere else in the region.  There’s even a word for it:  Tinglish, which is a combination of “English” and the Thai word, ting tong, meaning “odd” (equivalent to the English “ding dong”).  The reason that the Thais making these signs rarely enlist the aid of the plethora of native English speakers lurking about is that they don’t want to “lose face” by asking a farang (foreigner) for help in any way.

Thus, we get gems such as the above example along a loading dock driveway at Central Festival, Phuket’s oldest Western-style shopping mall (opened in December 2004).  I believe they are trying to restrict motorbikes from parking along a fence that divides the two lanes of the driveway (although there are at least half-a-dozen bikes there at any given time).  “No Parking” would have been better.  The bottom part warns that violators will have a lock fastened on the front wheel of their motorbike, the removal of which will necessitate their paying a fine of 500 baht.  My guess is that this is the result of entering the Thai into Google Translate.

The one below is much, much better.  However, I believe they mean that security will check the trunk (or, “boot” if you prefer).  The only other mistakes are the capital S in “search”, no spacing between the first full stop and “We”, and the misuse of the pronoun “you” with the possessive pronoun “your” is required.  This is about as good as Thai-made signs come.

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