The epitome of Issan life
The house being built is called a san Phra phum and is conducted by the phram Pa phum - Thai gets to be a mouthful of spoonerisms like that. The phram is 'the man who was doing all the talking when we got here' my missus explained and when I asked about the san Phra phum I was told it is not the same.
"Not the same as what" I foolishly asked. "Not the same as san Phra phum" she replied and is yet another example of contextual Thai. Although my mate Bleak, for whose Thai language skills I have the greatest respect, will also tell you Thai is a tonal language, I have a pet loathing of the statement. There is a difference between my acceptance of Bleak saying it and antipathy of the farang on the street. One of them is correct and the other has heard someone else say it and when the farang on the street says it to you; Leave. I say that because he is about to fill your ears with nonsense because whilst the tone changes the meaning, so does the context.
The fact is that the Thai word mai can be spelled ไม้ or ใหม่ or ไม่ and ไหม้. There are lots of other spellings of mai as well but these four are pronounced as ไม้ flat tone, ใหม่ middle to low tone, ไม่ low to mid tone and short, and ไหม้ high to mid tone long, and together they translate as 'Fresh wood doesn't burn'. And the truth is only occasions like this require correct tonal pronunciation because if you were in a furniture store and you said mai tare mai in the same tone any Thai would know you meant something wasn't made of real wood or flatly saying 'khun mee tare mai mai' would mean 'do you have this in real wood?' simply because of the order of words and the context in which you are using them. I have been told I am wrong and that beggars the question why is there Thai street slang and Low and High class accents if pronunciation is so critical?
It isn't critical and that's the end of it. It's like saying if foreigners do not pronounce "there, their, and they're" properly English people won't understand them. But I will concede Bleak told me, "If you are going to learn Thai, learn to say it properly" and he is absolutely right. As I understood san Phra phum is those little houses that farangs call spirit houses that can be found in gardens and outside work places. And so they are with the exception they are not spirit houses, they are a memorial to someone's mother or father. That parent's spirit does not reside in that little house and the offerings on it are not for the lost soul. They are not even offerings, they are a share of whatever bounty that person has at that time, or even a request for something they need in this life. Sometimes they are adorned with flowers and gifts and these are to pay tribute to Buddha and keep spirits away. Couldn't be more wrong could they? - Farangs that is..
But this san Phra phum is going to give Pa Jon somewhere to rest his weary soul on his way to his next step toward enlightenment and will be filled with gifts for the temple monks. Toilet rolls, cushions, pillows, rice pots, candles, Mama Noodles, bottled water, beans, orange robes, plastic raincoats. The walls and roof made from picnic mats and decorated with xmas tree lights and most importantly, two urns with Pa Jon's ashes and some bones. Each item is a request from the monks.
Little groups had formed to take on different tasks but each had been directed by the phram. Buddhists are not psychic nor does each know exactly what the other is going to do. The idea of Lama Monks in Himalayan mountain retreats chanting in harmony with nature is Hollywood story. Sorry to spoil the illusion for those who want to get back to nature and do some mentally self healing meditation in some backwater retreat yet undiscovered by National Geographic but the reality is much simpler. Images of Buddha are not idols, they are a reminder of what we are trying to achieve in life, and the life we have is something that should be revered. That means an image of Buddha should also be given the highest esteem and that means placing it as high as possible. Just as a lowly commoner would get on their knees or even lay flat on the floor in the presence of a king, so would the king bow his head before Buddha. The symbolic Wai of placing the flat palms together is done at waist level for meeting and below the chin to give thanks. When in the presence of a monk it is on the nose and for Buddha the thumbs are on the forehead. In the presence of the king the hands are above the head. It is a symbol of acknowledging status in life and is why touching a Thai on the top of the head is considered very rude. It is also why a statue of Buddha in a house is on the highest shelf and why temples are built on mountains. They are not retreats, nor are they inaccessible, but they are places for meditation.
One group of women were spinning the sai sin. The white string with a knot in that gets tied around your wrist by a temple monk while chanting 'su kwan sai sin phuh kang pi han ti phu kwan...' to ward off any danger. I suppose it's a bit like Holy water but its intent is more a charm bracelet. It is a Tai tradition found across China, Cambodia, and Thailand and not a Buddhist ritual even though the founder Siddhartha wore many of them and is probably where it came from.
More women were making snacks of banana rice and coconut rice with mango wrapped in banana leaves. I asked why so many snacks, were we expecting a lot of visitors that evening? But they were for the children and friends who would be staying up all night tonight. The children will play and have fun and bring happiness back into the house. There will be gambling and funny movies and it will go on all night long with no sleep so that Pa Jon will not be lonely. And Mae will not be filled with sadness.
Outside men were splitting banana tree trunk rings and cutting them into soffits and fascia boards for the san Phra phum. It carried the sound of a construction site with shouting and yelling of orders to the labourers fetching and carrying materials of all kinds and motorbikes and pick up trucks were coming and going bringing in building materials that could not be found in Mae's house. Materials like a cardboard box and a ball of string.
In another corner the phram had given himself the tough and tiring job of sitting on the floor and making decorations out of tissue paper. As director of operations it is his privilege and after four days of standing and talking about the importance of family and moving on to new lives and telling everyone what they need to do I was amazed at this old man's stamina and willingness. He and Pa Jon were good friends. He wanted to be here. He wanted to be phram Pa phum while outside the men were hurrying along to get the fascias on to the house and Waan was gluing the decorations on to the walls.
This scene epitomised Issan village life. All of them pulling together to one aim. It wasn't about friends of Jon, nor family, nor who is the boss. It was about making death bearable for one old lady. The day wore on and the house was fitted with finials and wax roses. Christmas tree lights, candles, and hanging decorations. Hand made miniature shrubs in pots with little white flowers and empty bottles of Lao Khao. Though I didn't know why because Pa Jon didn't drink alcohol.
As the sun went down other villagers who I didn't know began arriving with their children paying homage to Pa Jon's san Phra phum. Someone had put giant incense sticks into the Lao Khao bottles. Waan said it was to keep away spirits because they don't like nice smells. There is something quaintly superstitious about the notion and probably they don't really believe that any more than we do but it is their culture, a tradition that must be respected or you disrespect the ancestors who came up with these solutions to what was historically, real life problems. Centuries ago when people got sick with plague in cities they set about recording who got sick and died where. It seemed people were most vulnerable around rivers with high sewerage content or still water that smelled bad. Without science to explain it would have seemed bad spirits make bad smells.
In the early hours I replaced the dwindling candles and incense for Jon and watched with admiration of the children determined to stay awake and play games. There was ambient laughter of parents relating jokes and smiles were abound with half closed tired eyelids drooping over red, tired eyes from eight year olds to eighty and the television was plugged into a four socket extension lead that trailed through the rafters to outside so passers by could sit and be entertained.
When I turned from Jon's temporary resting place on the TV was Abhisit Vejjajiva telling everyone why calm is so important and that outsiders from other countries were trying to influence Thai politics by instigating illegal public disorder in Bangkok's streets. Or at least that was the gist of it. I can't follow dialogue on Thai telly. They use words that I don't know so I keep getting the wrong end of the stick. Luckily for me Abhisit is one dimensional so there is only one end. He is the right wing conservative threatening to cut high rate taxes and cancel the free hospital treatment in rural boroughs. He has already carried out the first threat to encourage investors. The second is causing riots. One thing you can expect with Thai politics is propaganda. And they're not afraid to fabricate it either. That's why every unwelcome event in Thailand is perpetrated by an illegal Cambodian immigrant and the rioting ringleader was the farang who smashed the windows of the Paragon shopping centre.
I listened carefully with little real understanding as the news broadcast ran what I knew to be stock footage of a street protest from 2006 with claims that it was in breach of the current temporary public order curfew. The irony was that it cut to an advert for an air freshener called Lamtan. From left to right there was the back end of an elephant, a Mahoot (that's an elephant trainer), and a desktop fan whirring away on a desk to keep the elephant cool. The Mahoot for reason not explained lifts the elephant's tail just as it farts and holds his nose while screwing his face up. The fan meanwhile also wilts and the blades droop. The remedy, obviously, is the Mahoot opens a new Lamtan air freshener and with a big smile on his face the fan also makes a full recovery and the protective wire mesh also has a smile in it.
Thais have two approaches to humour, one is infantile, the other is irony.
I have become convinced the TV stations run adverts to suit the program and Abhisit probably deserved this one. They do it because if they offered their opinion on a political topic it is going to end in tears. Successive Thai governments have shown little mercy for freedom of speech and have shut down TV stations under the law of defamation. Many journalists have gone to prison for suggesting the mildest of descent and some even for promoting opposition party policy. It is a conundrum that you are free to express your opinions but you must not do it publicly if it is a rebuke for any public person. It is Thai culture and not for us to test its legitimacy but unfortunately it is also a muzzle for the poor and because they outnumber the rich it invariably leads to public disorder.
It was 3.00 a.m. and I'd had it. I told the missus I need to rest a little while and went for a lie down.