Neung’s mother died on March 28 and in Buddhist tradition it is time to make merit, or tambuun after 100 days. The 100 days falls on July 4. Coincidentally it’s American Independence Day and, curiously, it is the anniversary of my own father’s death almost 40 years ago. This is the last in a four part story of life and death in Thailand.
Delivery by pick-up truck: July 4
7.30am and I am waiting outside my building with my car and driver. No Neung and no Khun Ying, her sister. Oh well, it’s Thailand so I guess I just have to wait. I get an sms and it seems the taxi they called could not find their place so they are going to be very late. Mai pen rai.
8.15am Neung and Ying arrive carrying 6 large bags of cat food. Hmmm, this is looking interesting. Not quite sure how this one gets explained. We set out for Rangsit. Neung explains about the cat food. Her mother had four cats. The neighbor has been feeding them but ran out of food 4 days ago, so the cats have not eaten. Ok, that explains the cat food well enough!
9.15am we arrive at the house in Rangsit and go see the neighbors. Cats arrive, fast! We give them some food and then they are joined by the neighbor’s dog, who seems to eat cat food as willingly as she eats dog food. Well, it’s Thailand!
We are going to do tambuun at the house. Neung explains that sometimes people do it at the temple but it is considered “luckier” to do it at the person’s house. Something to do with releasing the spirit. I don’t pretend to understand but no problem. I ask when the monks will arrive. Around 11am I am told which, obviously, means 11.30am. everyone is always late here. All the monk’s gifts have been prepared. Money in envelopes, flowers and the usual bucket of goodies – washing powder, toothpaste and so on.
10.30am and the monks arrive. What’s going on here? No one in Thailand is ever early. We’ll get back to this shortly, but it turns out to be about food. The monks arrived, all nine of them, in the back of a pickup truck. Dressed in their orange robes it is a somewhat surreal scene. The strangest pickup delivery I have ever seen! We now have nine monks seated on the floor of the house, with about 25 guests seated all over the place. The rituals begin with an offering of water to the monks. The candles are lit, the string is unwound, we all settle down and the chanting begins.
I can’t be sure but it seemed to me that the chanting was much the same as at the funeral ceremonies. It’s quite interesting to watch and listen. It is melodic without being musical and mildly hypnotic. Hypnosis would have been useful because I was in agony from sitting with crossed legs. My knees are shot from too much running at the gym and I find these very basic sitting postures almost impossible to manage. So, for me, the chanting is an exercise in pain and the constant thought running through my mind of “how much longer”?
A couple of dogs wander in and out as we sit and a little 2 year old girls comes to join us, holding her hands up in the praying position. It’s a very cute scene. She gets bored quickly, as 2 year olds do, and decides to examine and take apart the padlock to the garden gate. Then she decides to try everyone else’s shoes, flip flops, high heels, they are all of equal interest. I find my eyes wandering much more to her than the business at hand.
The chanting ceases and now I learn why the monks arrived early. We are their lunch. I am told that the monks eat twice a day, breakfast and lunch and that they may not eat after midday. They turned up early to be sure that they could get lunch. Well that makes perfect sense to me. After all, this country more than most, marches on its stomach. Lunch is a feast. A mass of different foods. They eat, we wait. Everyone seems happy and there is a lot of laughing from everyone.
I am, of course, the only farang and the object of some attention. Many are asking Neung if I am her boyfriend. She says no, just a friend and that I am gay. Hmmm, ok. Now where did that come from? Neung explains. If I say u are my friend (puan) they will wonder why u are here so I called u my gay friend. Hmm, ok. Why not say I am ur ex boyfriend. No way she says. If I say that I lose face. So the price of not losing face is that I am now gay. Life could be worse!
Chanting resumes but this time it is very brief, no more than five minutes. The monks collect their goodies, climb into the pickup truck and off they go. Formalities are over with. Neung’s mother is now at peace.
Lunch begins for all the guests. We split into two groups. I sit with Neung, Khun Ying and seven other ladies. Most are in their 50s and 60s and I am an object of fascination. They see me struggling with the sitting postures and so, to a lot of laughing, a stool appears and I am told to sit. My cheeks are red but the pain is gone so it’s a good tradeoff. Then the real challenge begins. Am I going to eat the food? Luckily I like Thai food at least as much as kon Thai so the food is no problem for me. They even begin to realise that I speak quite decent Thai.
Everything is going well until we come to the durian mixed with sticky rice and coconut milk. Durian is actually ok to eat but this one is not ripe enough. Sticky rice is not something I enjoy. The mixture all together? Well I manage not to throw up but only just and, of course, the whole group finds this very entertaining, myself just about included. These are all good people. They are having fun. They are being very welcoming to me. It has been a good day so far.
The food is cleared away and we all start to clear up. Neung pays for the food which means, necessarily that I pay for the food. There’s a lot of celebrating and five minutes later what seems like a million bottles of beer arrive. Seems I gave a good tip too! So now everyone really loves us.
It’s time to go, time to perform many wais, to say goodbye and to drive home. Neung is leaving for Amsterdam tonight to spend 10 days with her gay Thai friend and his Dutch boyfriend. She tries to insist that she won’t be spending the entire 10 days finding a new boyfriend but doesn’t sound too credible. Mai pen rai, this is not my problem anymore. If she is happy then I am happy too. She may be my ex but she is still my friend and she has had a tough few months.
The first Thai funeral I attended was for Neung’s mother and it is for her also that I have made my first tambuun. It has been another fascinating experience. The Thai people manage death with a lot of grace, humor, tact and respect. That’s an odd mix of words perhaps but it’s an appropriate mix. I like the way they do this and I like to think that Neung’s mother would have been pleased with what she saw today. I don’t pretend to understand Buddhism or Thai culture, but what I do see I like very much.
As for Neung it has been a difficult time. Her mother was her only family. Her father did not turn up today and has apparently been asking her for money. Her stepfather, aged 75, has been trying to transfer his affections for her mother to Neung herself.
She has been unhappy and she has cried alone a lot. I have not been able to spend much time with her. Today she seems happier than I have seen her in a long time. In part it’s because she is going to Amsterdam but I think it is more than that. She has finally learned to say goodbye to her mother.
Thailand is sometimes truly a crazy place. Crazy but wonderful and so very much alive, even in death. I am privileged to be here.