I am now sitting in Geneva, watching the snow falling. It is a world away from Thailand. I am supposed to be working but my body clock is all over the place, so let’s write the next installment of the life and death drama. It is time for part 3 which covers the period March 29 – April 2.
A long funeral: March 29 – April 2
Like all the best dramas, let’s start by reviewing what has happened. My ex, Neung, has called me to let me know her mom is dying. Little do I realise that I am about to be exposed to Thai culture in ways I could never have imagined. When I closed the last chapter, the mother had died and I was heading off to the funeral.
I arrive at the temple in Saphan Kwai. It is an interesting place, very much a temple for the ordinary man, but beautiful nonetheless. Christian churches are often magnificent architectures but they always seem remote, perhaps forbidding, places for silence and contemplation. Buddhist temples, by contrast, are colorful, vibrant, so very much alive. A collection of monks in their orange robes, street sellers hawking everything imaginable, children playing, dogs barking, car horns tooting. It is a constantly moving stream of human traffic and it is fascinating to see and experience.
Neung had told me to get off at exit 4 of the SkyTrain, which I do. 30 minutes later I figure it is exit 3. No big deal. There are quite a lot of people and, as with many things Thai, it is kind of chaotic. I mean this in a nice way. I genuinely like the Thai way! So I don’t really understand what is happening. There is the coffin, a lot of flowers, a lot of Thai people, and me, the only farang.
4 monks arrive and the chanting starts. This goes on about 20 minutes and then we all break for food. It is rice soup and aroi maak (meaning very tasty). Back to chanting for another 20 minutes or so. I don’t get it but I am guessing they are preparing the soul for moving on. The monks collect their presents – soap powder, sugar cubes and so on. Yes I know it seems weird but it’s very normal. The monks own nothing and rely on the community to support them. It ends so I go up to Neung and ask what now.
Well, no one told me that Thai funerals take up to 5 days to complete. So I end up coming back the next 4 nights. Basically it is the same drill every time. the same drill. The more chanting you have the easier it becomes for the spirit to move on
Night 4 is a Saturday and it’s carnival time. No kidding. We are holding a funeral service in the middle of a funfair. The crematorium is beside the Thai Mobile bouncy castle. We are sited behind a big wheel. There seems to be some kind of bingo contest going on via loudspeaker, and the monks are chanting away amidst screams and loudspeakers and smells and god knows what. The word “surreal” comes to mind again.
This is sure as hell not England! There we would be somber, polite, wearing black, being brave, hushed, solemn, and probably raising our black umbrellas to protect from the inevitable rain. Here, well here anything goes. People arrive, people leave, phone calls are made and received. Dogs fight. Cat’s wander. People eat and drink and laugh and cry and wander and roam. We even have the funeral photos. This really is bizarre. All the family collect together in front of the coffin for the photos to be taken. I am kind of expecting someone to tell me I am at a wedding! You know, I kind of like it. It is all very informal, a bit messy, but it works. I’m thinking to myself that when I am dead I could find this quite a good way to go.
Each night there have been long discussions about money – who has given what, is it enough and so on. Saturday, Neung’s stepdad finally hands over his envelope and I am praying he has done the right thing. Well good for him, he has given 5,000 baht which is a hell of a lot for a taxi driver, and he has not been able to work at all the last week. Stepdad has turned out to be one of the heroes of the week. He has showed he cared, he has done most of the right things and he and I have started to get on pretty well.
Sunday is cremation day. I arrive a little late and find the coffin plus procession going round and round the crematorium about four or five times. So I join in and it is unbelievably hot. Everyone is suffering and sweat is pouring off me. My clothes are soaked in minutes. Eventually the coffin goes up to the crematorium (and yes, the bouncy castle is still there). I am expecting another service but no, the box is simply laid in the oven and then everyone steps up to wai Neung’s mom one last time. We place some paper flowers into the oven and then it is done. Each guest is given a small gift…looks like a posy of some kind, but then I find it is actually nail clippers! Another Thai characteristic.
Now it is all over and Neung is getting upset, which is normal enough. I talk to her a while and then it’s time to go. I go home, pack, go to the airport and fly home to Switzerland.
So what are my thoughts? Well it was an experience, and I am the better for it. I feel that I have seen parts of and things about Thailand that I would not otherwise have experienced. In many ways I feel that the Thais do things so much better than we from the west. Death is not the worst example. I remember the hospital, and the man looking after his grandmother. I remember the young boy looking at me with his wide eyes, saying “falang”. I remember the shock of finding Neung’s mom inside the coffin. I remember the girls from the shop trying to chat me up. I remember the dignity I have seen. I remember the chaos and the sadness. I will ALWAYS remember the funfair at the funeral. Who could not? No one likes death but this was not a bad death.
Someone asked me what was the point of this journal. Good question but there really is no point. It is a record rather than a point. A record of a week in everyone’s lives. A record of a week in my life…an unusual but rewarding week. An affirmation of life as well as death.
Part 4 follows.