Daily Archives: March 22, 2006

Going to a Thai Funeral


The teachers from my school that went for the funeral

After attending the ordination ceremony for a new monk on Saturday, I quickly rushed back home to download the pictures, do a quick battery recharge and also to get changed for the funeral. It was then that I realized I didn’t really have anything suitable to wear. The only funeral I had been to before was at a local temple and I went straight after school. So, I wore my black trousers, white shirt and tie. At funerals, you don’t have to wear all black. A combination of white/black is fine. If you are not in the immediate family you can wear colours as long as they are muted. At first I thought about wearing the shirt and tie. But, it would be two long days and I decided (wisely as it turned out) I wouldn’t be comfortable. By this time it was 10.15 a.m. We had to be in Cha-am for the first ceremony by 3 p.m. We knew it would take at least three hours to reach there on a good day. But, mid-day traffic might delay us, especially as we would have to go through Bangkok first. I decided I would have time to go to Tesco Lotus quickly to buy two dark coloured trousers. I also bought a dark blue polo shirt and a white polo shirt. The black/white combo would be for the actual cremation ceremony on the second day.

I was back at the house by 10.45 a.m. A few minutes later one of the teachers from the school arrived and we set off straight away. As expected, the traffic was really bad. We crawled along at a snail’s pace. Slower than normal. I cannot wait until they get the new bridges finished at the end of this year. Once they are finished, I reckon we would be across the Chao Phraya river and already on the highway down south in only 10–15 minutes. But, with bad traffic, an hour had nearly passed and we still hadn’t reached the river! It was then that I realized that I had left my camera bag behind! In all the rush I had forgotten that the batteries were still charging. There was no way we could turn around and go back as we would be too late. But, it wasn’t worth going on without the cameras as I was expected to be the official photographer. I had no choice. I had to take a motorcycle taxi in rush hour!

Now, if you have ever been on a motorcycle in Thailand you would know how much of a hair-raising experience riding a motorcycle can be. It is also incredibly dangerous. About 35 people die on these things every day. That is all I thought about as we swerved from one lane to the next with only an inch of space between us and the cars and trucks on either side. I was hanging on for dear life. I kept thinking that after everyone had come back from this funeral that they could very well be going to my own funeral. It was that scary. So many times we just missed wing mirrors and buses that changed lanes suddenly without signaling. It was alright for the guy up front as it had a helmet on. Passengers on these motorcycle taxis had to go without. The only advantage is that we were back at the house in just ten minutes! I quickly ran in the house to pick up the bag and then we set off back to the car. Not much time had been wasted after all.

Cha-am, and nearby Hua Hin, became popular beach resorts for the rich elite ever since the royal family started to vacation down there. In fact, His Majesty the King spends much of his time in his palace in Hua Hin. Having such an important neighbour has done wonders for Hua Hin. Just take a look at its younger sister Pattaya on the opposite coastline. The beaches between Cha-am and Hua Hin are just as good, if not better than Pattaya, but because of the influence of the King, you will find relatively few nightclubs. Some people might find the place boring and too quiet. But, I find the place refreshingly different. It is not much to write home about, but it makes a nice change for people from Bangkok who don’t like the sleaziness of Pattaya.

The 200 kms drive to Cha-am took well over three hours in the end. We arrived just before 3 p.m. and only had five minutes to prepare ourselves for the first ceremony. This was the bringing of the body from the godown to the ceremony hall. This was when I found out that the person had been dead for over two years already! In Thai tradition, they don’t always cremate the body straight away. However, there is usually chanting at the local temple for the first seven days. Then there are special merit making ceremonies which take place on the seventh, 50th and 100th days after the death. The actual cremation would then take place a year or more after the death. But, really, it is up to the family.

In some ways I was glad that I had missed the first seven days of chanting. It is during this period that the body is laid out fully clothed for the bathing ceremony. A cloth is pulled over the body leaving only the head exposed. The right hand is stretched out with palm facing down. People then take turns to pour some scented water over the exposed hand. You can take this opportunity to make a blessing or to ask for forgiveness for past misdeeds. A sacred white string, called sai sin, is then tied around the ankles and wrists. The hands are held together in a prayer-like gesture holding a lotus flower and incense sticks. A coin is also put in the mouth. Chanting then goes on at the temple for seven days. The cremation could then take place straight away or wait for another time.

I was barely ready when a fast moving parade of people came marching towards the hall. The first person was holding a portrait of the deceased. Behind him was a monk and then came the white coffin borne on the shoulders of about six men. The coffin was then taken up onto the platform and placed behind a large floral display. And that was that! We were told that the next event would be some chanting at 7 p.m. followed by some entertainment! Nearly four hours to wait. Luckily this was Cha-am, so we decided we would go down to the beach. I will continue the story tomorrow.


As a side note, by the time you come to read this, I would have already set off on my trip to Chiang Mai. I will be on the road for over a week. I will try and blog as much as I can during this period.

Playful kids

Hi. I have been noticing, since my most recent return from Australia, that you see a lot of young kids in Thailand. Maybe some Thai readers may be surprised to hear that in Western countries it is unusual to see so many young people. They are not such a normal part of life as they are here in the Kingdom.

There are many reasons why Thailand is such a relaxed and happy place but perhaps this is one that is often overlooked. Having little kids running around being normal little kids is such a joy. The Dalai Lama suggests to the world leaders that they should hold their summits with their families, perhaps over a BBQ or picnic. Having children around reminds us of humanity and of the requirement for adults to be responsible. It also adds a sense of fun and innocent happiness.

In my Moo Ban there are lots of young kids freely playing around at the moment as it is school holidays. They are happy and a part of the community and everyone watches out for them and people drive a bit slower and stop and say hello to them. In Australia it is unusual to see so many young kids freely walking or riding their bikes around. Their parents live in fear of the strangers and so the kids are often kept inside out of harms way – but also out of the community and out of every day life.

When we go to lunch at the local restaurant here. There is a young toddler there. Her Mum works in the restaurant and her grandparents also (they own it). How wonderful is that?!? Three generations together every day. The young girl knows all the regular customers and comes and says hi and often collects our money. In such an environment it is very difficult for someone to be angry or depressed for long. Young kids take that opportunity away from people.

There is no great point to this blog, just to point out that it is great to have kids around and as a part of normal everyday life. I hope that doesn’t stop.

Thai culture is killing Thais

It’s rare that stuff related to my job makes news, but that’s what happened just now. If you follow Thai news, you may be aware of the recent botulism outbreak in the northern province of Nan.

What the news tell you is that about 150 people got down with botulism last week, and that health officials traced the outbreak of this deadly disease to canned bamboo shoots consumed at a temple fair. They also say that botulism is such a rare disease that vaccines have to be imported from other countries, including the US and Canada.

It’s actually not the microbe that’s the problem, but the toxin it produces. Botox is a favored bioterrorist weapon, next to anthrax. But terrorists are not the ones responsible for this outbreak. Not even the microbe. The real culprit is Thai culture. To see why, let’s go beyond the news.

I dug up a CDC report of a botulism outbreak in 1998. It happened in Nan, many people got sick from eating canned bamboo shoots, and vaccines had to be imported from other countries. That was eight years ago.