What do you say to a Buddhist at a time like this? All I could think to do was put my arms around her. Something I have never done before because it is not etiquette but I said quietly in her ear "Kwam siia jai mae. Mee sao jai maak." It probably isn't right but I'm sure she understood the sentiment of how sorry I was and my heart was filled with sadness. There were so many faces I recognised, I wondered if maybe I only knew people related to this family or if I have actually amassed more friends in Thailand than I have in Britain!
In the middle of the basement come lounge was a huge sarcophagus of shimmering night sea blue decorated with glistening mother of pearl pictures of Buddha and olde worlde Tai making offerings to the Teacher surrounded by Thai patterns that are still current in rug patterns and Mai Thai (Silk) dress. It is a stand alone fridge to keep the corpse fresh and through the glass viewer in the top Por Jon looked no different to the last time I saw him alive. The top was adorned with the simplest of flowers of poppies and daisies but they didn't look out of place. Waan knelt facing him and paid homage to Buddha before taking the photo of her papa from the easel at his head. She turned to face me holding it in her lap. Some of her family joined her within seconds and instinct told me to photograph this moment as the villagers chanted a verse that is captivating in its mystery. Papa is dead, but I am at peace with the soothing sound of the village women but in the background was the chattering and laughter of locals and in the scullery was the banging of pots and pans trying to stay pace with the relentless demand as the people celebrated what is to them a joyous event. But I could see no joy in the faces of my family.
As I studied the tributes of almost comical design, though the intent is no different to ours, of a fluorescent green wreath made of tissue paper with a centre boss of a cheap plastic clock that had stopped. I asked a monk if that was what time Por Jon died but the reply was "Not have battery". Meanwhile I was trying to make sense of the Thai script. I could read it. I just didn't understand it, so I asked Waan but she didn't understand it either. So I moved on to the next tribute from someone I had never heard of. It turned out to be Jon's brother but I never knew his real name. This is always a problem with Thai nicknames. They become so familiar you forget they are not the person's name, just an adjective or noun that they are called. I have tried so many times to explain the Thai nickname but unfortunately the Urban Legend commands priority and the reality is almost lost to Westerners who insist they got it from a friend who is Thai. In my head I can hear a Farang asking "is it because farang cannot pronounce Thai real names?" - The reality is the wrong person asking the wrong question. You see, in Parsar Thai there is no word for 'no'. Nor for anything else negative come to that with the exception of 'negative' and the protocol is one of agreement or compromise. This means that if you want to know the purpose of a Thai nickname the question you need to ask is "Why do Thai's have a nickname". The odds are you'll get a rather useless answer but my point is, if you set a proposal within your question, the answer you will get will be 'yes' regardless of that being the wrong answer in English.
So where, you might ask, is the word negative used?
Well, it isn't. It is a preposition. It is like our word 'anti'. Except that modern English anti can stand alone but what I mean is the rule should be 'anti-social' and 'mai' is the same. For instance, 'not have battery' is 'mai mee maaw' (word for word). Or 'no' is 'mai chai' (not yes). 'Not want' is 'mai ow' (again, word for word) and words like ugly, wrong, bad, hate are made up of descriptive nouns such as laos and khee. One being a neighbouring country of low class people the other, excrement, and this is where political correctness is indefinable in Thailand because of the mechanics of both culture, and language. Getting back to the nickname thing though, firstly ignore wikipedia that proclaims Thai nicknames are because we westerners cannot pronounce real Thai names. I despair at these myths. My step-daughter's real name is Kanda, it is a truly beautiful name taken from the Buddhist Skandhas and rolls off the tongue with a monotone simplicity. Her mother gave her the nickname Moht and out of habit that is what we call her, but I have heard her called Mutt, Mott, Most, Mute, and several other unbecoming monosyllabic mispronunciations announced by farang who mean no harm and posses not the definitions of canine, ladygarden, maximum, and dumb. Adjectives that would be better suited to the benefactor but it is mort, extended with a silent 'r' with the second half of the word rising from low to mid tone. Yep - Kanda is a lot easier to say.
But the truth of the matter is that Moht is not her nickname at all. Not in the way we mean nickname. That suggests it is her name. It is not. Her name is Kanda but when she was little she reminded her mum of an ant. It is not her name, rather it is what she is. Worse still that naming is often used outside of Thai community such as my partner who works in a factory in England with English people. Two of the women have names that are difficult for Thai to pronounce, so do I come to that, but Waan has named the two women Lazy and Selfish. I have suggested she doesn't call them that other than to me or in Thai and there is no intent of malice, she doesn't have a gram of cruelty in her, but this is the practicality of Thai language. I gave myself the nickname Anachak (or probably pronounced nearer to Anajak) because even though I already had the nickname Slik, Thai pronunciation is Salik, my real name is Rich but that ranges from Wish to Lish to Lick, and though Anachak is a Thai word it has subsequently been reduced to Anna; Mostly by my farang friends in Thailand. And I suppose as Thai names are unisexual there is no point haggering over it.
My partner is widowed, as I have probably mentioned numerous times so I apologise but, she was married to a farang who lived in Thailand for many years. When they met her nickname was Saan meaning happiness but he always called her sweetheart. An endearment natural to a chap from the Black Country, but when she asked what it meant he added that it suited her because she was sweet. He decided to change her nickname to Waan meaning sweet. Waan is what she is. Or if you refer to her in conversation she is Phee Waan meaning an older person. It is polite to refer to people over 25 as Phee though people older than you will not refer to you as Phee. I heard the other day in England that women's rights and equality movements want the words 'miss' and 'Mrs' removed from the English language because they define women but not men which is an inequality. Whilst the Thai language is continually evolving it would cause chaos if you got rid of Nai, Num, Phee, nong, or Khun because 'Where is Moht' (moht yoo tee nai) would mean 'have you seen any ants' and because nicknames are adjectives or descriptive nouns, they are not gender specific nor spelt differently for girls and boys. It does get confusing when talking about children because you don't know if the person you are talking about is a boy or a girl. But Thai's don't need to know, because children are not male or female, they are children.
Sometimes, though not often, the mould gets broken. Jon Ladsa-Ard was Por Jon's name. He was always amused to be called Jon. It means poor and every penny he earned in his 58 years of working life went into the family home. He had no bank account or savings and all the money he earned he gave to his wife. No one knows if Jon was his real name. No birth certificate, no signature, no mother or father to verify it. Just one brother who only ever knew him as Jon but what does it matter, it is the name we knew him by and so did the authorities, it was the name on his driving license and on the tha biian baan.
And on his death certificate.
The sound of the Saw U, a two stringed upright violin style instrument, began wailing outside and the men in the family came to start the procession. There isn't a more appropriate instrument than the Saw U for sad occassions. It makes a sound that empathises with heart and mood. Por Jon was to be loaded onto the back of a pickup and driven at walking pace to the temple. I put one hand under his feet as a gesture but I wanted to capture every moment of this parade on the camcorder. And I did. Including one of the 'in-laws' saying "to me" while a villager responded "to you". I kept a straight face which was a good job because they would never have understood the joke. Firecrackers started to go off outside to scare away Phee Lohk who would steal Jon's spirit given the chance while a Military Policeman from Aranyaprathet fired a pistol into the air to make sure of it and I went to stand out the front of the house so I could film the procession going by. Dam came and sat beside my leg and pressed his head into my knee. The firecrackers didn't scare him at all even though several women squealed with the surprise each time one went bang and behind the pick up chickens were scattering across to neighbours gardens and while I tried to be dignified in my movie making you can hear me in the background blurt out "Dam, where the bloody hell did you come from?" - I should have known better. Whoever took Dam couldn't have kept him. He is too tough and he knows where his home is.
Waan walked past me first. Maybe I should have been beside her but somehow it felt right to let her do this alone as she led the monks holding the Sai Sin, the white soft string that is spun out to make the wristlet that signifies your attention to purity to Buddha in your quest for enlightenment. OK that's a bit heavy but if you look at the wrist of any Buddhist they will likely have a piece of string tied round it. If it is a thin white string with a knot in it, it was likely put on by a temple monk. Instinct made me want to hold Waan and reassure her that it is ok to be emotional. But she is made of sterner stuff and I knew she wanted to do this. Her eldest sister Waen walked by me half way down the queue and was crying disastrously. There was no one there to make her feel safe as she dabbed away the tears with toilet tissue because the men, including her husband were all with the truck so I stepped out and held her hand as we walked up the road. She didn't try and stop me. Something that should have been instinctive. We had so little time I was still wearing a Paul Smith tee shirt. Then again I was so hot I didn't care much so just hoped no one would notice as we walked up the narrow concrete lane as the sad violin faded into the distance.
Waen asked me to film the half kilo' trail of people behind which meant walking backwards and holding the camcorder above head height but actually it came out ok and then she told me she was ok and I should go on ahead and film the arrival at the temple. I don't know everybody in the village because I have only been there a few times and only for a few days at a time but so many recognisable faces was telling me everybody was here with few exception and this is the face of community. This is what caring means. This is something we used to have in Britain and now belongs only to ethnic minorities. I don't blame immigration for the destruction of British communities because they are not the cause. In fact when immigrants come to Britain they invariably congregate in places like Birmingham, Leicester, Bradford, Brixton and whilst that brings issues with law and order and disquiet, those immigrants and migrant workers support each other, they are there for each other. They are a community. In rural Thailand the exact opposite is happening. Western immigrants are segregated out of choice. Three women in this procession are married to farang yet all of those westerners chose not to attend. They sent their wives on their own. Thai people just accept that the farang do not want to join in or do not understand and besides, attendance isn't compulsory, but what are those farang doing on hot lazy days in their retirement? More often than not they are sat on the porch drinking beer laos and hence my friend Bleak calls them Porch Monkeys. They will continue this practice until the pension money has run out and then dig a little into the bank balance and next time the retirement visa renewal is due they will complain that the immigration office are ripping them off because they had to pay for an interim seven day visa until their bank balance is back above the minimum 800,000 baht. Pointlessly clinging on by their fingernails in dreary autumn life instead of being part of the community.
A generalisation? Yes of course it is. Not everybody who emigrates to Thailand is like this but there is no doubt the community spirit of wartime Britain has been lost and our post baby boom new found isolative nature is being exported to Asia while Orientals still have that communalist natural to caring fortitude and bring it with them wherever they go. Because of my girlfriend and her daughter I have more Thai friends than I do white caucasian and when there is a problem they all pull together while it seems the British stiff upper lip of 'a friend in need is a bloody nuisance' strengthens in its resolve almost daily, and when I go to Thailand the same applies.
An ex-pat once told me I would never be part of the Thai community, I will always be an outsider, I will always be white and always the farang and they will discuss matters of importance without me. None of this is true. If you take the time to be part of the family your opinion will always be solicited. When papa wanted his new tiled floor my partner asked me if it was ok to give him the money. It isn't even my money, Waan works hard and saves carefully, she doesn't need to ask me. When the old man wanted to put in an electric shower I was asked what I thought. I am saddened that I suggested he wait till we visit next and we'll get it fitted while we are there. My stubbornness meant it never happened. Por Jon never liked showering with cold water but he didn't want it for himself. I don't think he ever wanted anything for himself, except for a tractor, and even that was a little tongue-in-cheek but one time there was a big falling out with another family who should pay compensation and Waan as usual asked me to join in the conversation and tell them why they should pay. I chose not to speak for two reasons, first I do not understand well enough the Thai tradition of Guu Naa and negotiation, and second I thought the transgressor would use me as an excuse to not pay. I wasn't wrong and had to go on a trip the next day so I gave my brother-in-law, with whom I have the greatest of trust, instructions to bring in a mediator if it cannot be resolved. That usually means go to the Police and make an official complaint but my opinion was sacrosanct. It mattered.
If I were honest I would admit I didn't feel like a participant in papa's funeral. More a spectator as I photographed the pageant march three times round the crematorium from the steps of the incinerator. But my insecurity was waylaid when Waan told me I had to follow her up the steps and wash papa's face as the menfolk took the coffin out of the Dtu Yen. That means fridge, well not literally, it actually means cold cupboard, and you'd kind of expect them to have some fancy name for the sarcophagus cool box but there goes the Thai language practicality again I guess. I know it is instinct to not want to get too close to a dead body but I don't have that problem. Though I was raised as a Christian and by several different faiths I always had a problem with the need to believe there is something superior to life. What could be greater than the gift of interaction between life? Whether you use it for good or bad is irrelevant but when visiting a creature that is dead, try moving it, and it comes apparent that it is still the same creature, but the life has left it. In scientific terms the bodily functions that provide oxygen and nitrogen, the two compounds that are the sustenance of life on Earth, have stopped working. They have stopped for a reason that can be explained so when a Minister repeatedly recites without ever giving it a thought that, 'God giveth and God taketh away', it is not that I do not believe there may be a deity, but how is it when there is logical explanation people still believe it is divine intervention?
I had this debate with an Islamic who asked me why I would believe in Buddhism when he replied, "But you call life a gift. A gift has to be given by someone."
I am not a Buddhist, my family are, I would describe myself as agnostic, and Buddhists are very definitely athiest. But the gift of life is from Gaya. Budh Gaya is where Siddha attained supreme enlightenment. He was sat in the place where understanding was revealed to him. It isn't a god or a spirit. It is the epicentre of life on Earth. It is the source of Nature and the natural cycle of life after life as we try again and again in our search for enlightenment. As we move from one life to another our spirit must make a pilgrimage. That's why Buddhists do not believe in God but they do believe there are ghosts.
Phee Lohk is not a character to mess with either. For centuries disappearances and sudden unexplained deaths were the work of Phee Lohk. Certainly in my village that is still believed. But when all your beliefs and everything you know about the world around you hinges on the existence of these spirits you are not going to believe westerners who tell you they do not exist. I have never tried to dissuade my partner or daughter but they similarly understand that I am not afraid of ghosts. But that doesn't detract from Nirvana and the life cycle of the consciousness. It is not the birth and death of the body but the death and rebirth of the conciousness. As the consciousness of Jon Ladsa-Ard moves on, so the new arrivals are the children. To celebrate this, as the door of the incinerator is closed, trays of sweets and money, trinkets, and even jewellery are thrown to crowds of children waiting anxiously around the podium. They scream with excitement and delight as they chase to get the best of what is thrown. The sight signalled the end of tears and sadness and brought back all that is good about Thailand. The land of smiles.
This giving to the children is signalled by several gunshots and the smoke that carries Jon Ladsa-Ard's consciousness streams from the four portholes at the top of the stack. Grown up's join in the excitement and Waan tries desperately to grab some of the 5 baht coins that represent the memory of her father. I handed her one of the empty 5.56 rifle shells. It was time to go back to Phee Mae Yai's house.
'Meanwhile at the bahn', which surely merits replacing 'at the ranch', women from the village were again cooking in bulk and they had prepared the lounge for the evenings meditation after sundown. This ritual had been going on for three days and wouldn't stop for another three. Waan told me her mum was spending one hundred thousand baht a day on food but fortunately her ability to count in English is as fraught as mine in Thai. What she meant was ten thousand but even so, two hundred quid a day in fresh produce in Thailand is an inordinate quantity. I asked the brother-in-law and very dear friend Lert who told me he was fetching two truck loads every day. And the women were cooking all this on two mooyangolees and a camping gas ring. Resourceful or what? Or as my step-daughter now says - innit..
I felt drained walking back though it is barely a ten minute walk. I wasn't looking forward to the evening either. I find when I visit the family I understand a little more language each time but it takes days to get attuned to speech. In Issan they speak quickly and with an entirely different dialect to the south and I knew from past experience I would be in an isolated little world of my own reliant on Waan or Kanda translating. Waan was going to be busy all evening and Kanda had already hinted her wish to go off with her friends. My bottle sparring partner and Waan's brother wouldn't be there either. As the youngest son he had already had his head shaved and re-dressed in orange robe. His job was to be a monk for 24 hours. And not that it would interest me, but so do the youngest boys, but for them it is for the three days that we must meditate to help Por Jon on his spiritual journey.
While at the ceremony I had sat with three guys I know from the army barracks in Aranyaprathet who all knew Por Jon and were friends of Jaa Buaroom, better known as Mr. Blue, Waan's brother-in-law, and so named because her deceased farang husband couldn't pronounce his name. Jaa means Sergeant and the other guys included a soldier and part-time Police armed response and tactics officer, a military police officer, and a 'drill pig'. I asked them about having a few beers that night but they all declined. Sadly for me they were all on duty the following day. The following day being seven hours drive away.
An hour or so later the crowd had dispersed until sundown and it was eerily quiet as I sat in the lone armchair with a beer and answered a few emails from Britain. Waan was sat on the foot of the steps that lead to the house and her mother was telling her all sorts of stuff that I could only understand bits of but then again so would anyone who didn't speak Thai. Words like 'Insuran' and 'ban' with a silent 'k'. I took probably one of the best photos I have ever taken as the sun was dropping and shone through the side gate but unfortunately it was on my Blackberry. Probably the only gadget that is useless at taking photos hence the resolution isn't up to much but at least my Blackberry on Vodafone actually does what it is supposed to do when it is in Thailand. When I'm in the UK and I click the answer button it cuts people off and in our house I can never get a signal.
I was so tired I went to bed for a nap but went out proper. I remember waking to the sound of the chanting but pretty much I slept through it. Then in the early hours the rain came with some deafening thunder. I love the storms in Thailand. The convection can be really impressive making huge towering cumulus with some serious levels of CAPE. But sadly the storms are weak because the winds tend to be straight-line and even if the upper level winds provide any shear, which is rare, the monsoon winds are gentle and warm breezes at all levels. Sorry if I have suddenly come over all geeky but all the ingredients are there to make a tornado but there is nothing to mix it up. As a result you get these placid rolling storms that grumble from the belly but produce the most fantastic light shows. I wish I could capture the lightning but there is two problems, one is the amount of kit you need to photograph lightning and second I am crap at taking photos.
Remember when you were little and your dad thought holidays in a caravan were a good idea but it always rained? For some enchanting reason that sound of rain rapping on the aluminium was soothing. It made you feel warm and safe. Thai houses have tin roofs - it's just the same but ten times louder so you can forget the sleep until it stops.