Monthly Archives: September 2005

Land of Nagas – part 3.

Nagas in Isaan

As the end of the rains retreat is approaching, I thought there is still enough time to organise a trip to Nong Khai district in Isaan if Naga fireballs happen to fire up your imagination and curiosity. When I was around two years ago, I opted for the festival in Luang Prabang on the same day – definitely no fireballs there, “just” thousands of krathongs and thirty-odd huge bamboo dragonboats, plus the best festival atmosphere I have ever witnessed, including the days of preparation in temple grounds and streets, meritmaking, chanting, and tens of thousands of candles everywhere. So I cannot give you an eyewitness’s account of the fireballs, just clippings from articles on websites….

According to Isaan legends, the underwater kingdoms of the Naga extend to all the world’s rivers, lakes, and seas. In addition to being the keeper of the force of life stored in the waters, the Naga is also guardian of corals, shells and pearls and thus carries one in its head. The early settlers of the Mekong River basin believed that the King of the Nagas is the God of an underwater kingdom called “Muang Badan” who watches over the people living in the Mekong basin. According to ancient folklore, the underwater city of Muang Badan stretches beyond the Mekong itself and covers the entire area beneath Nong Khai province, with its the capital city located near present-day Kaeng Aa-Hong, the deepest point in the Mekong River.

This ancient belief in the communities bordering the Mekong River is very much alive, and the eternal bond between Isaan people and the mythical Naga is present in the fabric of the local culture, traditions and way of life. The tradition of floating illuminated boats on the Mekong River is one such act of worshipping the King of Nagas.

Not just a legend….

On a more scientific note – on September 28, 1996, US military personnel captured a huge freshwater creature that was said to be a “Phaya Naga”. The creature was sent to the United States for research, but it died a month later. It was the longest freshwater fish ever found on earth – 23 feet long. Its natural habitat is believed to be deep below the surface of the Mekong River. The features of the Phaya Naga resemble the elements that have been depicted in the sculptures in front of the temples in both Thailand and Laos. According to various account, the creature had “7 skin colours and light green blood”.

I haven’t found a photo of this particular “naga”, but apparently American military has been very much into wildlife in the Mekong…. It’s been difficult to find reliable information on the species, but this photo is from the army archives.
(Click on this link for the photo – it is quite big, originally two separate files that had to be “stuck together”, it did not make sense sqeezing them into the space right here, so I uploaded the file into my personal blog. Worth checking out!)

“The elongated body of the Naga is symbolic of the rainbow that links the human and divine worlds.”

Well, that wasn’t quite my first thought on seeing it…. anyway….

Naga fireballs

Known as the “Bang Fai Phaya Naga”, the King of Naga fire-balls is a natural phenomenon that generally takes place on the full moon night of the 11th lunar month, the last night of the Buddhist Lent, which falls on October 17 this year.

The fireballs emerge from the water of the Mekong river. They are the size of goose eggs, and float up to 50-300 metres before they vanish. The total number of fireballs varies with each location. On some occasions, there are as few as 22, on other nights, hundreds or thousands. Some rise in straight lines at an angle, others are perpendicular to the surface of the Mekong River.

According to Isaan folk belief, caverns along the banks in this section of the Mekong River are in fact gateways leading from the underground Naga world to our world. It is also believed that prompted by the festivities of the illuminated boats and the fireworks launched in an act of worship to celebrate the end of the Buddhist Lent, the mythical Nagas emerge via these gateways to join in on the celebrations to commemorate the home-coming of Lord Buddha in his historical life. These beliefs are renewed by the fact that greenish fireballs have been spotted around Kaeng Aa-hong, the deepest point in the Mekong River, and by the existence of the deep underwater caves that line the shores.

Lord Buddha rose to the Heavens to offer sermons to his mother during the rains retreat. On the final day of the Buddhist Lent, he returned to Earth. For the descent, there are three stairways from heaven – made of crystal, silver and gold respectively. As the story goes, the King of Naga fireballs rise into the night sky to form the steps of the stairs by which the Lord Buddha descends from heaven.

A comprehensive article on the TAT site about the festival:

http://www.tatnews.org/events/events/oct/2367.asp

Different “Fates” of Malays

In Malaysia, the Malays are the largest ethnic group, accounting for over half the population. With the oldest indigenous peoples they form a group called bumiputera, which translates as sons or princes of the soil.

Though Malaysia is a multi-cultural and multi-racial society, the Malays, are shown official favour in education and government policy. This bias is an effort to strengthen Malay society to enable it to compete intellectually and economically with the, to-date, more successful minority ethnic Chinese and Indian populations. They enjoyed a lot of privileges like university entrance quota, discounted price for property purchase, bank loans and so on. In addition, mosques are built everywhere to cater for their prayer needs. All hotels have to provide halal foods.

Traditional Malay culture centers around the kampung, or village, but today one is likely to find Malays in the business and in pubic sectors. Their native language is Bahasa Malayu (Malay), which is also the national language of the country and all school children have to learn. The school children also learn from the text books about the different customs, cultural values and religious beliefs of different races, including those of Malays, like Hari Puasa, Hari Raya Aildilfitri, Songkok, their prayers and so on.

Crossing the border, the “fate” of Malays are very different….

Chatting in front of a mosque in Betong/The shy Kampung boys

Malay women/The happy Malay students

Most Thai muslims are of Malay descent. Though more than 80% of the population in Southern Thailand is Malays, they are still considered to be minority in Thailand, which accounts for 8% of the total population.

Most of the muslims in Southern Thailand are farmers and fishermen who are generally less well-off than their fellow Muslims elsewhere in the country. The economy in this region is struggling and poor in comparison to the rest of the country. As a result, the Pattani lead a subsistence type lifestyle. In Narathiwat Province, the per capita monthly income is 2,120 baht ($51), less than half the national average, which is always among the country’s poorest regions.

For centuries the Muslims of Thailand have to defend their identity as Malays with a culture and history of their own against successive Thai leaders who sought to transform them culturally into mainstream Thais…

Islamic organizations in Thailand have been lobbying Thai government to give them funding and build Islamic schools. The lately good news is that the 1600 “tadika” or Islamic religious schools predominantly in southern border region are likely to soon be under the care of the Education Ministry, instead of the Interior Ministry so that they can better serve the interests of Muslim villagers and help preserve their customs and cultures.

Few months ago, I had an opportunity to follow one of the royal representatives with the police and army officers to visit a Malay kampung in Yala provinve. The villagers were gathered to receive the gifts (daily consumables) and to voice their requests. Most of the attendants were elders. When I translated their request, I was a little shock that their main concern were as basic as water supply which had disturbed them for long time…

Part of a Malay Kampung

(Pictures only for better visual, not related to the kampung visited)

New To The Kingdom[1979]: Old Patong:Week 4

Our 4th week on Patong Beach saw us getting brown from the sun, sleepy-eyed from the Mekhong, barely knowing what day of the week it was.

Monsoon was going strong, we still bodysurfed daily, dodging the big logs & all in the warm, almost hot blue Andaman Sea.

Papaya, banana, pineapple, coconut, bbq’d fish, along with copious amounts of Milo, Mekhong, Greenspot and sometimes a Singha kept us over norished and content.

Samai chatted with us briefly one morning about a trip to Laos, as he gleefully said “we go in, we go out, nobody know”…he would guide us to the Golden Triangle where we could “have a good time”, all we had to do was rent a car and go there…nevermind that we had no Visas for Laos, Cambodia or Burma, Samai would show us clever ways to get around those things. We smiled as we declined his adventurous invitation, but we’d seen Midnight Express and just figured our luck in the Land Of Smiles would not hold out forever…

We later found out that Samai had actually talked a Brit into the venture, the last we heard, they were caught doing something that ended their freedom for about 40 years!

This last week we had met several travellers and expats with tales of easy wealth and visions of a life where they knew most everything and had “connections”. We drank with them all, listened to their stories of petty thievery to grand larceny, smuggling,etc. We suspected the worst and were most often glad we hadn’t fallen for Easy Street, every place on the Globe had these same villians and hustlers, but greed and small amounts of magic mushrooms can fool even the strong mind into thinking they know best. We were most fortunate and didn’t succumb. Others were’nt so lucky…

Later in the week we rented a really bad running and handling jeep and drove south to Kata and Kata Noi beach, driving over the many hills to Kathu, then the edge of Phuket town, past the big Wat at Chalong and over another steep hill to the vistas of Kata, a truly beautiful little bay south of the much longer beach at Karon.

We drove south from Kata to Kata Noi, the end of the road, atleast in those days, the most perfect horseshoe shaped bay on the face of the Earth!!! Kata Noi only had a few very small thatched huts on the side of the north hill/cliff and Lenas cafe at the foot of it.

Lena had the beauty of Thailand in her eyes, she’d once been married to a US Army soldier, but that was long ago, now she just fixed bbq’d fish and took things slowly by the bay.

We played in the water, had a good bbq lunch with Green Spot and headed back over the many steep hills trying to keep the lousy Jeep between the ditches back to the safety of Patong Beach. Our driver, Eric The Red, a wild Scotsman keep the Jeep going, but we had to get out a few times and push it up the steep hills.

Back in Patong, Eric quickly went to his bungalow and brought back a crock of whiskey from Old Scotland, his eyes had a bright sparkle as he mentioned that only 50 gallons of the stuff was bottled per year, he pours us all giant water glasses full of the golden dew from the Highlands and we succumbed to its influence quickly, Eric succumbed quicker than we, I sipped my grog, it must have been 100 proof, but Eric gulped his down and poured another big glass. After a short time, we left him ranting and raging about nothing and went over to the restaurant next door, we’d look over occassionally and see Eric and his girlfriend Michell screaming at each other, we had seen this comedy/drama over and over this last month by many of the visitors, we had some delicious crab curry and a few Greenspots, all was well in the world or atleast at Patong Beach, that is,,,until Mr Singh pulled the gun on Eric The Red and told him that he must leave the bungalow, he pulled the trigger, but fortunately for Eric The Red and the rest of us, Mr Singh had bought cheap ammo and it just made a small firecracker sound as the bullet barely crawled out of the pistol and fell on the ground.

This seemed to be about all that was needed to completely put Eric The Red over the deep end, his mad laughter seemed to go some place out behind the bungalows, towards the rice paddy and jungle as Eric The Red ran away. We saw him several days later, he had sweet talked his way into 7 Seas Bungalow just up the road, where they didn’t care much what happened as long as the 30baht per day was paid…

This was our last day on Patong Beach, we smartly had learned a great deal and refused to take the Baht bus or even the speedy Express Bus back to Krung Thep, we paid the extra $30 over the bus fee and FLEW on a very modern JET and landed in BKK, immeadiately checking into the Siam Intercontinental Hotel where we stayed for several days, shopped in town,etc until our flight to Kathmandu that weekend.

Leaving Thailand was sad for us even on our first visit and would be each time we left the Kingdom, but we were young, greatly in love and knew there were better adventures around the bend.

We soon found out that from that first trip evermore, we would compare EVERY places we visited to Patong Beach!

Our honeymoon lasted about a year, we visited many places in Asia, SE Asia, South Pacific, Aussie, NZ, and had a most wonderful time, but Patong Beach burned a place in our hearts that never could be replaced!

We’d tell our friends/family about this mysterious and beautiful Land Of Smiles, but you could see the look in their eyes, they didn’t really believe anything could be that good, they just knew we were lying….:-)

We stayed away from sunny Siam til the following March, where we returned, this time with a double entry 90 day Visa!

to be continued…

Learning Mai Bpen Rai

It all started with a salad. When you start seeing eyeball to eyeball with 40 plus years of living and eating you start putting on a few extra pounds, but in my case just a few mind you. Seriously!

Like most people I’ve reached a certain age where it’s easier to put the ounds on than take them off, so much so that I decided I really needed to watch more carefully what I eat. Hence I’ve started eating salads a lot which are actually pretty good even though they would by no means be mistaken for Thai food. That being said let’s keep my salad munching a secret ‘k? I’ve got my reputation as an all-things-Thai fanatic to think about!

I needed a few things from the store to make my salad so it was off to the Safeway. This was Saturday night so of course the place was packed and it’s a small store so there is not much room to move anyway. The lines at each register were very long. I took my time getting what I needed then browsed some more until the lines got shorter so I would not wait long to pay and get back home.

When I finally got in line a lady was in front of me with a shopping cart. We were in the ’15 items or less’ lane so I counted my selections twice to be sure I didn’t go over the limit. I’m kinda weird on the consideration thing that way. I didn’t notice how much the lady had but I did notice the cart. I remember another couple was in front of this lady but not 5 feet away in front of our register was the corral for putting your cart when your done with it.

Imagine my surprise when this lady finished emptying her cart then instead of holding onto it until the couple in front of us finished so she could return it she started backing it out of the check out lane, turned it around and pushed it over into one of the food isles! She actually went out of her way to push the cart FURTHER away into everyone elses way than if she just pushed the cart over to where it belonged! How rude and inconsiderate! She got back in line in front of me and I just stared at her for a minute.

I know it’s not a Thai way to start a confrontation but I couldn’t just let this go without saying something. I looked at her and said “You know that’s not where that goes don’t you” to which she just ignored me but looked like a kid busted her hand caught in the cookie jar. “Well?” I prodded but still she said nothing. She knew she was wrong but she blithely just paid for her stuff then left. I said something to the cashier about it and he replied ‘oh she’s a regular’ like that makes it ok!

Maybe I’m just a naive country boy living in the big city too long but things like this really bug the crap out of me. Where are peoples manners? What about being considerate of others? Am I being too uptight or have things really gone down the toilet here as far as we treat people? Someone get me to Thailand! I knew I needed to get a grip but I griped about that ladies rudeness all the way home with my groceries. I WAS being too uptight and I needed some stress relief. I needed Mai bpen rai!

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3 & 1/2 weeks

Well I am leaving in, can you guess? 3 and 1/2 weeks!!! I had to have surgery on my sinuses on Sept 9th and I am feeling quite well thank you but due to some meds I had to take before hand I have not been able to begin vaccinations. I am a little concerned, I wanted Typhoid, Hep A, Rabies, and tetanus at least. Most places recommend starting 4-6 weeks but due to mitigating circumstances I couldn’t.
Also getting concerned about visas. I can’t apply for a non-immigrant visa until I have a company to back me and I can’t find a company to back me till I have a work visa, makes sense right? Hopefully they won’t even ask and I will make a visa run when I have to. Still working on this conundrum, will let you know what happens.
SO far got the passport, tickets, booked a hotel for a week while I settle and look for work, have begun collecting amenities like adapters and light clothing, and got a great digital cam and laptop ready to go! Still have a bit to do but at least a few things are getting crossed off the list now.