Last night, Steve, Justin, Rachel, Lauren and I were walking around Malleswaram, and encountered an intersection filled with people. There were two portable shrines lit by small spotlights, live percussion music, and what I can roughly describe as an Indian mosh-pit in the middle.
In this part of town, a group of five white people clearly stand out. So when we stopped to check out the action, Steve was approached by a few locals and invited to dance. Later he quipped that his “many years of dancing at Phish shows prepared him for this moment.” Ultimately we were all sucked into the action, to the delight of all. I noticed numerous camera flashes going off, and we were surrounded by cheers and laughter. When we were finished dancing, a crowd peeled off with us and everyone wanted to shake our hands. Chandu, the owner of a restaurant overlooking the dancing, offered us a place to stay (we were covered), and cold Fantas (we couldn’t refuse).
The only news that came out of Burma during the Water Festival that wasn’t completely sugar-coated centered on a bombing in Rangoon. In true SPDC form, they blamed “ethnic minority insurgents,” and three civilians were promptly arrested simply for taking photos of the event.
Today is when I really “got” Songkran. The Water Festival occurs right smack in the middle of the hot season, and I’ve got to say that there really is no better way to deal with > 42°C weather than getting doused with water every few minutes.
We spent most of the day at Lauren’s NGO, where the activities consisted of cooking, hanging out, and lots of sneak-attach splashing. There were no super-soakers to be had; instead everyone used either a bucket or a bowl as their weapon of choice in our water fights. Everyone took a little mid-afternoon break from splashing, and Lauren’s co-workers showed us some videos of the celebrations in Burma, where they go absolutely nuts in the bigger cities.
It was great fun, and the level of intensity was just right for me here in our quite mountain town.
Today marks the first official day of Songkran here in Thailand, though kids started pulling out the buckets of water and super soakers yesterday morning. Burma celebrates a very similar festival this week, called Thingyan. Traditionally Thingyan is supposed to be as rambunctious and carefree as Songkran, but the military government has decided to take control of how the populace should “have fun” this week. The SPDC has imposed a number of rules and restrictions on the festivities (though the top generals and their families are of course exempt):
According to YCDC restrictions, pavilions must be given Burmese names, pavilion decorations must be designed to showcase Burmese art and culture, pavilion workers and guests must wear traditional Burmese clothing, pavilions must only serve traditional Burmese food and pavilion workers and guests must dance in a manner that reflects Burmese culture.
In Bangkok, we’ll see if Songkran helps cool the fervor of the ongoing protests, which we are following from afar hear in the north. The protests certainly illustrate a difference between the Thai and Burmese governments use of force. While Prime Minister Abhisit has been emphatic about the use of non-violent methods for breaking up the protests, history has shown that any similar political display in Burma would have been awash in a sea of blood after the army busted out their machine guns.
We’re about to head out to Lauren’s office for a day of splashing, snacks, and swimming. Then tomorrow morning we are off to Pai to meet up with a few other AJWS volunteers for the remainder of the three-day holiday. We’ll be back here on Friday to meet up with Lauren’s family, who have escaped the red-shirt madness of Bangkok and are currently splashing around on Ko Tao.
We’ve been warned that the Water Festival is a crazy – and sometimes even dangerous – time to be in Thailand. Locals are not shy about pelting innocent passersby with huge pails of water, and have been known to cause traffic accidents and even deaths. When we were in Chiang Mai, Tim from Bon Kitchen told us that many locals choose to hide out in their houses all week to avoid the madness. Supposedly the moat in Chiang Mai is a particularly crazy place to hang out.
Of course, in our tiny town, things will probably be tamer. My office will be “closed” Tuesday-Thursday, but course since the staff lives at the office this probably just means that we won’t get any work done. Kenny and I have been invited over to help make and consume holiday snacks, and participate in water fights and other silliness. I expect we’ll also play in the river, and we may join for visits to a local monastery or two.
My dad, Shawn, and Jessica are arriving in Bangkok tomorrow (hopefully they’ll remember not to wear red!), and will be spending most of Songkran on Ko Tao. Then they’ll be joining us up here in the north! We’ve already written a list of restaurants and sights we can’t wait to show them. We’ll probably do our best to entertain them here for a few days, and then join them for the weekend in Chiang Mai before they head home.
Today, a few people from my office took us to a local village to celebrate Poi Sang Long, a festival in which Shan boys are initiated into the monkhood at the local monastery. The holiday is celebrated in many villages in Burma and in a few Shan communities here in Thailand. Young Buddhist boys are all required to become monks at some point, but only for 9 days; many will remain monks for about a month, and then they will go back to their homes in time for the new school year.
We showed up around 8am, and the parade was in full swing. Women and men were both dressed in colorful Shan clothes, and everyone carried gifts for the monks. The novice monks were being carried on people’s shoulders, owing to a dearth of horses here in Thailand. By 9am or so, the procession ended at the monastery, where we were assailed with free snacks, juices, and coins wrapped in gold and silver foil for good luck.
This parade marcher’s clothing and makeup reminded me of Mardi Gras in New Orleans
Playing cymbals in the parade
A pensive soon-to-be novice monk
Kenny made a new friend who offered him this placard to carry and deliver to the Buddha at the wat
My NGO co-worker invited Lauren and me to come to his village this weekend to celebrate Kay Htoe Bo, the most important Kayah festival of the year. Kay Htoe Bo celebrates the goddess of creation and the ceremonies revolve around a special pole. In the Kayah religion:
The universe (the earth, the stars and the moon) are linked together by a web. At creation earth still lacked density and the land and the water were liquid so the God planted a small post in the ground. As the post grew the earth also grew into seven outer and inner layers and it became firm. The post was named: “The means of formation of earth” – the Kay Htoe Boe in Kayan.
The festival was three days long and started on Saturday. On the first day, the villagers carved and prepared a new pole to commemorate God’s Kay Htoe Boe from the Eugenia tree, which they believe to be the first tree ever created. They also started making their rice wine, another key component of Kay Htoe Bo; each household has their own recipe. My co-worker told us to come out Sunday afternoon for some preliminary festivities, then spend the night and witness the main event on Monday morning.
Our trip to the Kayan village involved a 9K bike ride out of town, followed by a 20 minute longboat ride down the river. We arrived around 4PM, and the village was still pretty quiet. My co-worker brought us some of his family’s rice wine, and we taught him the Nepalese card gamewhile his sisters Mu Wai and Mu Do (all Kayan women’s names begin with “Mu”) prepared dinner.
After dinner, we were taken to our guesthouse on the top of “flower mountain.” In the rainy season it is supposedly blanketed with flowers, but now they just call it “dry mountain.” It was a cute little bamboo bungalow with a mattress and mosquito net inside, similar to our Khmu village digs on our Tiger Trek in Laos.
Our boat ride to the Kayan village
Our hillside bungalow. Look closely and you can see solar panels on a few village roofs.
Next to the hilltop where the poles live, there was a stage and lots of plastic seating. A new pole is put up every year, so you can tell how long a Kayan village has been around by counting the poles (and then add one since they don’t raise a pole the first year). The evening activities alternated between dancing around the old poles, and Kayan karaoke/live music jamming by the villagers.
Monday we arose at 6:15AM to the songs of the village roosters. Lauren had to take off at 7AM to conduct a training for her NGO, and I joined Mu Re and Mu Do for breakfast. I got to help them prepare dinner, mashing lemongrass in a mortar and pestle, and chopping up kaffir lime leaves using the techniques I learned in Chiang Mai. They were then mixed with shallots and chilies into a stuffing for the evening’s chicken that was to be boiled in a pot. I told Mu Re about our alternative poultry cooking technique, trash can turkey from Tennessee, and she liked the idea a lot.
At 8:15AM it was time for the main event – the raising of the pole. The villagers dress up in ceremonial garb, carry the pole around, then use large crossed bamboo staffs to lift up the pole. Tied to the pole is a smaller piece of bamboo that has 3 ropes attached to the top, used to steady the pole. They secure the base, then untie the supporting bamboo. Attached to the pole is a white sheet representing the stairway to heaven. Finally, a chicken is sacrificed, one of its tail feathers is put into the pole, and they read a fortune for the village from its bones. With the future of the village secured (multiple chickens are sacrificed if necessary to get a good fortune), the villagers celebrate by dancing around the pole for an hour or so.
I captured the raising of the pole on video, though I forgot that when I turn my camera in video mode, the video itself doesn’t correct the orientation.
Carrying the pole up the hill
Steadying the new pole
Dancing around the poles
After the local villagers finished their dancing, representatives from two nearby villages and one village from just inside the Burmese border took their turns marching up the hill and dancing around the poles. Since only men were allowed to participate in the ceremony on the hill, the women (those who weren’t cooking) waited at the entrance to the ceremony with buckets of water to splash the men as they exited.
To conclude the ceremony, all four villages joined together in one large procession around the village. Afterwards, I was invited into just about every house on the block for lunch and rice wine. I ate and drank my fill, and then did a little shopping. I avoided the run-of-the-mill, made in China trinkets, and acquired a few scarves that were handspun by the villagers. Finally it was time to be on my way along the river. It was a great experience, and doubly fun to be one of only four farang in attendance.
Tonight, after our Yom Kippur break-fast, Meera took us to the neighborhood celebration of Dussehra, where the locals celebrate the victory of good over evil on the final day of Navaratri.
We settled into a nice vantage point behind the large crowds, where we could observe the festivities and still make a quick escape at the end. Over the next hour, a parade of characters arrived to act out the story of Rama destroying Ravana and saving his bride.
The whole evening is a build up to the burning of effigies of Ravana and his two brothers.
Rama symbolically shoots an arrow into the effigies to light them on fire. First the brothers go down.
Then the evening culminates with Ravana going down in flames.