Author Archives: Bill Grimson

Bodies Made Out Of Rice

rice figure

I’ve always been a poor correspondent and an even lousier diary or note taker. Due to that I quite often find that the best memory prompts are photographs. In the new era of digital photography, photo storage is simple and my computer hard drive is now cluttered with thousands of images.

Somehow though, opening and closing images on a PC doesn’t have the memory pull of actually turning the pages of an old-fashioned Photo Album. The other day I was having a tidy up and I picked up an old album full of photos that I had taken in Thailand back in 1996. Scrolling through the album I came across a handful of photos that I took in a Village temple situated in the foothills of Khao Yai National Park.

Mali and I had in a moment of insanity bought some farming land here as an investment in 1990. Every couple of years we would return to check the land, which we had rented at give away rates to a local farmer. On previous visits I had found the village to be typical Isaan – quiet, sleepy and traditional. When we arrived on this particular visit in November 1996 in a Ute (Pickup Truck) full of family and friends from the village of Ban Phutsa we came across a place in transition.

The village and for that matter the rest of the district was enjoying the economic boom times that were to come to an abrupt halt a mere six months away in the 1997 meltdown that occurred from Seoul right down to Djakarta. There were new houses in the village and cars on the road but the biggest change was at the village Wat. Previously, the village temple had been just a number of small modest buildings.

When we arrived this time we were soon in the midst of a large construction zone with a new ordination hall near completion and a fully renovated Sala up and running. We entered the Sala to pay our respects to the new Achaan of the Wat. Village temples tend to have a lot of human movement, which reflects Buddhist culture in Thailand, but this temple seemed to be busier than most with a constant stream of villagers passing through the Sala.

I soon put this down to the new Achaan who would have only been in his early forties and had an aura about him that could only reflect charisma. In between chewing the fat with some local villagers, and offering lucky lottery numbers to a caller on the newly installed telephone, he even offered us coffee. After about fifteen minutes, a male villager who turned out to be an important layman entered the Sala.

rice figure1

The Achaan then asked whether we would like to take place in a body/soul cleansing ceremony. We said yes and the layman walked over to the corner of the room and picked up two large sacks. Onto a small tarpaulin that he laid on the floor he emptied the two sacks, which contained rice into two separate piles. Quickly he then spread the rice out and then hand carved the piles into two human shaped bodies or rather I should say – silhouettes. Absent-mindedly, they initially reminded me of the chalked outlines of homicide victims.

The “ Bodies” were then lined with yellow candles, which were then lit, by all of us. Mali, myself and all the family and friends who had come with us that day, donned the white robes of the novice and then sat and prayed in front of the rice piles as the Achaan and a senior Monk chanted. When the ceremony was finished, I reflected once again on the seamless nature of Buddhist practice in Thailand.

rice figure2

That’s me in the photograph above looking totally embarrassed or confused (possibly both).

On occasion, over the years through shyness or feeling a bit gormless (similar to that clumsy twit in Britain a few months back who wiped out two priceless Ming vases after he tripped over his shoelace) I have pulled back from being a part of ceremonies like the one described above and became an onlooker instead. Always a bad mistake because participation is so important if you want to be able to fully understand and enjoy Thai culture.

Final Sermon for today – “when in Thailand never forget the “P” word”.


Reading The Original Yellow Bible


Last December out and about doing my Christmas shopping I purchased a copy of the Lonely Planet Guide to Turkey for my daughter Natalie as she was planning a trip there in 2006. Together with the Turkey Guide, as part of a promotion for Lonely Planet publications, I was also given a free copy of the original Lonely Planet – “Across ASIA On The Cheap”. Lonely Planet’s founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler of course wrote this and as described in many of its publications was “designed, laid out, hand-collated, stapled and trimmed in a basement flat in Sydney.”.

In 1975, the Wheelers wrote “South East Asia On A Shoestring” and with its emphasis on budget and independent travel, soon gained or possibly was self-endowed with the nickname “The Yellow Bible” due to its yolk coloured cover. From there of course the rest is history, or “from a small acorn a mighty oak is grown”

Reading “Across Asia On The Cheap” your first impression is size– only 94 pages. As such much of the information on the various countries are fairly scanty but considering that it was produced from hand written notes and diary entries, it wasn’t a bad effort. It covers countries in Asia such as Turkey, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and in South East Asia – Burma, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. It even offered advice to travelers about journeying to the then war torn Vietnam and Laos.

Thailand is covered in a mere four pages with the opening paragraph stating:

“ A calm and friendly country with friendly people – we certainly found them so. Due to its fertility and relative freedom from population pressures Thailand is also a well fed country. Very much one big city and a lot of primitive country- Chiang Mai the second city is a village in comparison to Bangkok”

From today’s perspective, reading this book gives you a feel of what it must have been like to travel the “Hippy Trail” of the sixties/seventies fame – when in those pre-Taliban days, countries like Afghanistan were wild, primitive and eye opening but totally accessible. There are constant references throughout the book to availability of weed, Ganga, and mushrooms in places such as Afghanistan, Nepal and Bali which I suppose today sets the feeling of the time when the book was written.

Winding the clock forward to today and Lonely Planet is amongst its travel peers a publishing behemoth. The public view of Lonely Planet tends to range from reverence at one extreme to scorn at the other. Most people, I find see the books as well laid out, informative and providing essential support for independent travel. Critics tend to see a travel world of “ independent travelers” flocking together all clutching a Lonely Planet guide book. In the end I suppose people will make up their own minds (I’m actually a strong fan of the publication).

Lonely Planet’s success reflects the enormous Brand that international travel has become. Technology and affluence today delivers travel and foreign events to the consumer in an ever increasing torrent. The other night I pondered over what I had watched on TV that night. In just a few hours I had watched an electic number of programs such as Sky News showing Lebanon being castrated by the Israeli Airforce, a nature program on Discovery set in Africa and a Cooking Journey to Thailand on the travel and living channel – I basically took it all in unthinkingly.

This information overload reflects the some what bland and alternatively aggressive way that Travel is promoted and sold in the modern marketplace. Many of the travel programs that you see today on TV tend in my view to be travel brochures with moving pictures. Many of the presenters also tend to be marketers rather than travelers or Journalists. Of course there are exceptions, such as the marvelous productions from presenters such as Michael Palin and Ian Wright and Megan Mc Cormick from the Globetekker series ( A lonely Planet Production)

What keeps everything in balance of course is the basic desire of so many people around the world to travel. Although modern times and the almighty pursuit of the dollar has turned travel into a commodity, the innate desire of so many people is simply to go past their countries borders and experience the joy of travel.

The intrinsic value of “Across Asia on the cheap” unlike the modern over-hyped travel industry is that it promoted foreign travel as a right of passage. Its an attitude that will keep this first publication ever young.


How To Roll A Good Smoke

sampling some tobacco

To a confirmed non-smoker like myself, one of life’s mysteries is how anybody can insert a burning ember in their mouth, drag back its fetid smoke and then say, “God, I enjoyed that”. The Tobacco industry in the west at least has been under attack this past quarter century by health groups, community action and government regulation restricting advertising and gradually compacting the areas where smoking is allowed.

Even with all these restrictions, the Tobacco companies still appear to make a “squillion” dollars profit annually and of course Governments gain massive revenue from all the taxes on the industry. As Arthur Daley would say. “a nice little earner”

In Thailand it appears that the Government is slowly turning on the Tobacco industry with health warnings and anti-litter crackdowns in the cities. Of course the Thai Government like its counterparts around the world speaks with forked tongue and still laps up the tax revenue. As for Thai people in general, I have always found them to be fairly easy going about smoking – there appears to be more non-smokers than dedicated puffers.

The main exception is that very few Thai women smoke. I have always been told that Thais associate female smoking with Bar Girls and prostitutes.

Although packets of “tailor made” cigarettes including international brands such as Marlboro can be purchased anywhere in the Kingdom, hand rolled cigarettes are still commonplace in rural Thailand. The reason for this is tradition and the fact that local tobacco costs a fraction of what you would pay for a packet of cigarettes. The other reason to is taste.

Most hardened rural smokers would argue that the locally grown product is cleaner and has more of a kick. Back in 1985 on my third trip back to Thailand I bought my Father-in-Law a carton of Marlboro cigarettes at duty free. When he lit one up, he said nothing but the expression on his face sort of said “what sort of girls smoke this insipid crap”. A couple of days later we invited the village Monks to the house so that they could bless our daughter Natalie’s second birthday. On a plate in front of each of the invited Monks a packet of Marlboro cigarettes had been mysteriously placed.

Buying tobacco in rural Thailand is drop dead easy. Walk into many morning village markets and you will find somebody selling tobacco. Not like your fancy Tobacconist in the city but basically laid out in mounds or bags with the different colours indicating taste and blends. Of course what immediately grabs your attention is the quantity and the give-away prices. For a western smoker paying through the nose for a few ounces of ready rubbed or a packet of “Gaspers” the sight of all this village tobacco largesse would bring tears to their eyes.

On top of the tobacco mountain at the market usually resides a packet of cigarette papers and a box of matches. Smokers will roll a free sample to see what blend they want to buy. Smokers tend to buy the product not in piddly ounces but in small sacks – at those prices why wouldn’t you.

The rolling of a cigarette is in itself an art form. As a young kid I was always fascinated by one of my uncles who would methodically rub a small portion of tobacco in his palms and could still laugh and have an animated conversation with a cigarette paper hanging out of the corner of his mouth and the paper would flatter as he talked. Due to the high cost of tobacco, the smokes that he rolled were matchstick thin.

tasting the product

In contrast the rural Thai smoker rolling a smoke will reach into his tin or sack and pull out a large quantity of weed. This is then laid out on a small piece of butchers paper and then loosely rolled, sealed with one tongue swipe and then plonked in the mouth. The smoker then lights up the cigar sized smoke. Due to it normally being loose rolled together with the quantity of tobacco, half the cigarette goes up in flames and sparks together with a cloud of smoke. Once the smoke is finished the process starts again.

I opened this Blog with a firm statement of my attitude to smoking. The rest of the Blog could be seen to be favourable to smoking, but I have always had the possibly selfish attitude that its not my lungs that are being ruined.


The Making Of An Isaan Tragic

vendors at village market

One term that has entered into today’s language is that of the modern tragic. Not tragic in the sense of calamity or back luck but rather descriptive of borderline or even complete obsession or absorption by an issue/ topic. This can range from anything from cricket, golf or even the belief that vinyl long play records have a superior sound to compact disc, etc. etc.

“Non-Believers” tend to look at Tragics not so much with pity, but rather wonderment that somebody could be so caught up in something (Mind you I suspect most “non-believers” have a “tragic” obsession locked in their closets).

One common trademark of the modern tragic is the obsessive pursuit of foreign travel together with their soul taking on board as much cultural experience as possible. The travel tragic soon latches onto a particular country/culture as the object of their affection. Thailand is a case in point not only myself but for an international army of “true believers” who can’t get enough of the kingdom. Not surprising when you consider how likeable Thailand is.

mekong calm

Of course like a wheel within a wheel the Thai tragic will latch onto a region or place in the Kingdom which becomes a firm favourite. This can be anywhere from the mountains in the north, the big mango (Bangkok), southern beaches or the ongoing pursuit of the ultimate taste experience in street hawker Somtam. For this tragic my focus over the years has been the North-East region of Thailand more commonly known as Isaan.

Unlike the languid North with its mountains and the pugnacious culture of the south with its tropical foliage and beaches, which are always pleasing to the soul Isaan is more of an acquired taste. Whilst most of us develop a life long taste for chocolate when we are young, the flavour for other things can take a bit longer. In that sense learning to appreciate Isaan is a bit like appreciating the experience of eating durian. At first you are repelled by the pungent smell and taste and then “bang” one day you discover the beauty. Sometimes you never find it.

As described above, in many parts of the kingdom the beauty of Thailand is right in your face. Isaan in contrast is a bit like my durian analogy – an acquired taste. Covering a third of the nations land mass, it can be a bit of a chore just moving around it. Matching that with the flat terrain of the Khorat plateau which covers most of Isaan, the first time visitor quite often will encounter monotony. Pre-conception also plays its part and although it might be Khmer monuments and the Mekong that they are coming for, they will have read that Isaan has another monotonous reputation – poverty.

farm vehicle

However, repeat the visit to Isaan (sometimes it happens straight away) and its hidden gems slowly come to view. One of the first is finding yourself as an outsider , seemingly smack in the middle of no where – a single Farang not having to compete with other foreign visitors in tourist traps such as Kho Samui or Pattaya is a liberation in itself. Gradually the growing Isaan tragic will find themselves drawn to food that’s a tad more fiery, music that is not only traditional but even better – fun!! and a human culture that tends to be more beguiling than the rest of the country.

new generation

The destination of becoming an Isaan tragic comes when it finally becomes part of your soul. That realization quite often comes when you are traveling outside of Isaan. You may be in another part of beautiful Thailand, enjoying brilliant sunsets, vibrant nightlife, spiritual experiences but after a few days find yourself pining for the dust of the country, the sound of a pre dawn temple bell echoing across the Mekong or just simply for an Isaan smile. You soon find yourself boarding a bus bound for Isaan, and once you get off at a bus terminal at your Isaan destination you feel at home again.

Of course many would argue against my choice of obsession, but one of the advantages of being a tragic is that you don’t have to justify anything – you know you are right.

My 23 year old daughter, Natalie arrived home yesterday from a trip to Turkey, a place she was apparently totally enamoured with. She just made me a glass of Turkish apple tea which I have been sipping as I wrote this blog. As I listen to Natalie rave about her trip, I can’t help but think – Ahh!!! Another tragic in the making.


Many Hands Make Light Work

Temple Marquee

For the Farang visitor to Thailand one of the big draw cards to the Kingdom is the sociability of the Thai people. Definitely not a nation of loners, Thais tend to do everything in groups – work, play, and study –a country where friendships more often than not are made for life. In fact if you are a person fond of your own space, well in Thailand you will find many intruders.

What makes it all seem to work is that wonderful Thai expression –“Sanuk” which literally means fun but is so much deeper than that. Anything that is seemingly important needs to have a fun element. Never more so than in important cultural events such as Monks ordinations, Kathin, Weddings, House Blessings – even Funerals which tend to be dreaded like the plague in the West.

The colour and the spiritual values of the above mentioned events are what make them significant. What makes them work in a practical sense is the sweat and enthusiasm of ordinary people. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the grassroots level in Thai villages.

When a villager plans a wedding, housewarming etc – they accept that several days of frenetic pace and hard work will be involved – but immediately help is at hand. As soon as word is spread Family, friends and neighbours instinctively offer their help. The two most important tasks to be completed are setting up the physical environment of the celebration and of course the food.

cooking rice

First stop then is the Village Temple. Many village Temples through donations over the years acquire a large inventory of equipment such as Marquees, tables, chairs, pots/pans, plates and cutlery. These items are seen to be a Community resource and loaned out to villagers for important functions with the obvious caveat that they be returned.

No ceremony could be considered important without the presence of Village Monks. As such food is very important at these ceremonies so that a meal can be offered to the Monks and for all the other guests to be fed afterwards. The acquiring of all this food is one of the immediate tasks. This normally involves taking a vehicle to the morning market of the nearby town to buy the meat, fruit and vegetables that will be needed for the vast array of Thai dishes that will be offered at the celebration.

By the time the truckload of food arrives the Marquees are being erected, tables and chairs being set up and tasks in general dealt with the efficiency of the “roadies’ at a Rolling Stones Concert. The opening photograph in this Blog shows the arrival of the Marquee. The Marquee had been in use at a Village wedding and was simply picked up by a bunch of the boys in the village and taken to a new location in the village for a House blessing that was being planned.

preparing food

The next task is the chopping, dicing and cooking of the mountain of food that was purchased at the market. These tasks are dealt with efficiently but in a very Thai way. No sweatshop here.

The hard work is interspersed with laughter, beer and whisky drinking with a lot of impromptu horseplay. Somebody will wake up the sound system with its large mounds of speakers (Also borrowed from the Temple) and soon there is music to work by.

enjoying a meal

Once all the work is done, everything magically comes together and the ceremony/celebration is a success. Sitting down and eating and enjoying the beautiful food makes all the hard work seem worthwhile.

Watching Thai people contribute both their labour and a sense of fun speaks volumes about their culture. It also shows the seamless spread of Sanuk and proves that work and play are not mutually exclusive.