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.