Peace Corps – Pakhomas

Sorry it has been so long since I have written an installment about my Peace Corps service back in the seventies. When I was in training in Thailand, we were told that we should each get and carry a pakhoma whenever we were out in the rural areas. For those who don’t know, a pakhoma is a piece of plaid cotton cloth about 75cm x 175 cm (30 in. x 70 in.), and during my Peace Corps time, they were widely used in Isaan, and for all I know, the rest of Thailand as well. It was used for many things, including a hat, a towel, a windbreak, etc., and more than once I saw one tied off at each end and used as a hammock for a baby. It worked very well, given that babies in the villages did not wear diapers, so when the inevitable happened, the pee just ran right through the cloth and onto the ground.
I usually wore mine as a hat, and would sometimes wear it around my waist when going to the communal bathroom down the hall to bathe, but on one occasion my pakhoma brought me to a real adventure. At the time I was living in a village while helping work on a spillway that I had designed, and after work the first day, the local construction supervisor suggested that we walk into the village and “take a shower.”
I was sufficiently hot and sweaty that this sounded like a great idea, so I wasn’t particularly on guard when he told me to make sure I brought my towel and my pakhoma. When we got to the village, it turned out that the “shower” was a bucket of water dipped from the pond and carried up to a grassy spot a few yards away. There the men would remove their shirt, and then wrap the pakhoma around their waist, strategically maintaining their modesty as they removed the remainder of their clothes. Men, women, and children were all using the area to bathe, but as I recall, the women would use an extra skirt and wrap it above their breasts but under their armpits, so that modesty was maintained by all.
As soon as the pakhoma was secured and all other garments removed, they would dip up water in a bowl, wet themselves down, use soap as necessary, and then dip more water to rinse off. Then they would use their towel to dry off, slide underwear and pants back on under the pakhoma, then remove it and finish dressing. Damp spots remained from the wet pakhoma, but that was not considered a problem.
However, I found myself to be the center of attention for a piece of performing art for which I was unprepared and unpracticed. I had learned how to tie a pakhoma to keep it around my waist, but to tie it around my waist and then remove my pants and underwear with 50+ people watching closely probably rates as one of the tensest moments of my life. However, to back out at that point would have lost me a lot of face, so I tried to maintain an outward air of confidence as I removed my shirt and tied my pakhoma around my waist. As I then removed my pants, I felt the knot starting to give, so I paused to retie it, allowing my pants to drop, but maintaining my modesty. There was a gasp and a few titters, so I knew that I still had my audience.
Anyhow, I managed to remove my remaining clothing, bathe, dry off, and get dressed again without embarrassing myself any further, and became good friends with many of the people in the village over the next three weeks. Every evening we would go to the pond and bathe, and I always had an audience, although it tapered off with time, as the people concluded that I probably wasn’t going to expose myself for their entertainment after all. I became quite proficient at undressing, bathing, and dressing again protected only by my pakhoma.
I’m sorry I don’t have any pictures of bathing a la pakhoma, but I had other priorities at the time, and I’m not sure how the people would have responded if I had shown up at “shower time” with my camera. However, I do have the two following pictures of people there wearing pakhomas as hats or sunbonnets.
On my two trips to Thailand and Isaan in recent years, pakhomas don’t seem to be nearly as widely used. Does anyone have any insight as to why? Or maybe I just wasn’t far enough out in the rural areas?

Working concrete with a pakhoma hat.

Two workers wearing pakhomas, others without.

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