Friday, February 25, 2011

Up up and away

In tropical SE Asia May signals the approaching rains which are eagerly awaited by rice farmers and those wishing a break from the dry heat of March and April. To help encourage the coming of the rains villagers in rural Thailand and Laos stage festivals that have evolved from pre-Buddhist fertility rites. Known as Prapheni Bun Bang Fai in Thai or Bun Bang Fai in Lao or for English speakers a Rocket Festival. Usually stretching over two or three days these festivals are replete with music, dance, parades with floats and of course the firing of home made rockets.

Harking back to its fertility rite origins the festival parade ornaments and floats often are adorned with phallic symbols and imagery. The raucous activity also includes cross-dressing by both sexes and different ages all oiled by ample quantities of alcohol which results in lots of bawdy humor.

The large wonderfully decorated floats known as Bangfai Ko will be judged and awarded prizes. Accompanying dancers and musicians may also compete for prizes. Often wealthy sponsors will provide support both as a way of enhancing community prestige and as a method of attracting and redistributing wealth. Each float will usually be carrying a young couple known as Nang Ai Kham, queen of the pageant and her male champion Phadaeng the story behind which involves a legend well known to most Thais.
Typical Bangfai Ko

Nang Ai Kham entrant in parade

Each village has a dance group

What a well dressed Khene player wears!

From young to old everyone enjoys watching or participating

Interest and activity peaks on the final day of the festival with the firing of home made rockets which can vary
in size from relatively small ones (Bang Fai Noi) to the largest which pack 120 kg. of home brewed black powder Bang Fai Lan). These latter rockets are 9 meters long and both expensive and dangerous.The rockets themselves are made of bamboo bongs with more modern versions being enclosed in pvc pipes. Needless to say black powder and nozzle designs etc. can be a closely guarded secret in the competitive world of rural rocketry.The larger rockets can reach altitudes measured in kilometers and travel downrange up to several dozen kilometers. Rockets compete in each size class and are judged according to apparent height, distance and the beauty of their smoke trail.

Rockets vary from small to those requiring winches to prepare for launching

Passing on the knowledge

Raising a large rocket for firing

Up up and away

There are spectacular failures

Villagers firing duds are often consigned to a mud wallow
The largest and perhaps best known rocket festival is the annual three day event held in Yasothon in Northeastern Thailand (Esarn). However, rocket festivals of varying size are held all over Esarn and also in Northern Thailand. Lanna Thai Villa is located in Thoeng District, Chiang Rai Province and in the 1950's
several villages of Esarn migrants were established in the District and hence each Spring various of the villages combine to stage rocket festivals impressive for their size and overall good fun. We at the Villa look forward to guiding guests who come in May to observe and participate in this most fun and interesting cultural event.
Pictures appended to this post were all taken at festivals located no more than 10 km. from Lanna Thai Villa.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Water water everywhere - upcoming New Years festivities

Mid April in Southesat Asia and Yunann Province of China marks traditional Buddhist New Years festivities.
Known as Songkran in Thailand, Bun Pi Mai in Laos, Chol Chnam Thmey in Cambodia, Thingyan in Burma and for the Dai (Lue) people of Xipsongpanna The Water Splashing Festival. All of these events involve merit making, paying respect to elders and the use of water either via gentle spashing or industrial strength dousing. Some of the more exuberant places to watch and participate include: Chiang Mai in Thailand, Luang Prabang in Laos, Phnom Penh in Cambodia, Rangoon in Burma and Jinghong in Xipsongpanna. Many of these venues become overwhelmed with visitors and to the consternation of many the emphasis seems to have evolved away from more genteel activities to one of general revelry and heavy duty water heaving. In any case participants save for those who may be unprepared seem to have an overwhelmingly good time especially given the hot weather typical of the season.
Paying respects to ones elders

Returning sand "taken" from the temple

In fact a rather enjoyable time can be had in the smaller towns and villages where both traditional and more raucous activities take place. As is well known this is a time for families to gather and hence places like Bangkok empty out as people return to their home villages to make merit and visit family members and friends they perhaps have not seen since the previous New Year.Here in Ban Ngao the site of Lanna Thai Villa even though deep in rural Chiang Rai a wide variety of activities take place over the 3 main days of Songkran. and the additional days which seem to get tacked on to either end. Sand chedis are constructed in village temples,
Buddha images are washed with scented water and village elders honored with scented water poured over their hands accompanied by wishes for good health, a long life and prosperity. Often the village sponsors fun events such as boat races, pole boxing, greased pole climbs etc. These of course are augmented by trips to nearby district centers to enter circuits of vehicles from which pitched water battles take place. Even these centers will have parades of Buddha images drawn from local temples which in turn are washed by those standing along the parade route. All in all a fun time to visit Northern Thailand.

Water Water everywhere

Buddha images are washed

Beauty queens on parade (and wet)

Percussion and music everywhere

Impossible to stay dry

Smiles all around

Village boat races
Friendly pole boxing match

Monday, February 21, 2011

Road Trip to Xipsongpanna, China - The Last Bus Out.

Culture contact - what its all about
From February 2nd to the 9th we went on a road trip co-guiding three ethnic Thai Lue to visit rural areas of Xipsongpanna in China as well as tribal villages along Route 3 in Northwestern Laos. The highlight of our adventure was staying 6 nights in Bohae, Xipsongpanna the Southern most prefecture of Yunnan Province. Here we were able to closely observe and participate in daily village life and learn of the ongoing changes as China modernizes.

 We crossed the Thai Laotian border at Chiang Khong and headed out for an approximate 5 hour van ride to the Chinese border at Boten. The road was paved and much improved since last transiting the route in the mid 1990's which required our 4 wheel drive and the occasional help of local villagers to get us out of various predicaments. Route 3 is a part of the Chinese plan to have a direct link to Bangkok and its port facilities.
Lao side of border at Boten
Along this road are situated various villages most of which have been relocated from more remote areas in a government program not without controversy. Villages include those inhabited by Khmu, Lamet, Lanten and other groups. The area around the towns of Viengphukha and Luang Namtha witnessed heavy fighting during the Vietnam War era. We plan to further explore this area and attend Khmu wedding ceremonies of friends in the last week of March.
All dressed up, Yuan kids near Luang Namtha, Laos

Yuan weaving

Yuan elder

We were impressed at the border with the modernity, efficiency and politeness of the Chinese immigration and customs formalities. Modern scanning equipment obviated the need for lengthy form filling and the English speaking officials were polite and helpful. As we crossed the border late we were fortunate to catch the last bus heading for Mengla which was willing to stop at Bohae. The dual lane well signed road had only been recently completed and wound its way through mountainous terrain which was mostly covered with rubber plantations. Unfortunately it wasnt door to door bus service and we were dropped by the roadside to fend for ourselves. So in the end we entered the village in small tractor powered farm vehicles.
Chinese border crossing at Mohan

Our entry into the village

Village of Bohae, Xipsongpanna, Yunnan, China

Our hosts in the village were friends and relatives of Lue friends who had moved to Laos and who eventually with the collapse of the Royal Lao government fled to Thailand as refugees and who ultimately were resettled in America. The village for the most part consisted of traditional Lue style houses built on stilts. The houses were large, made of wood with small ceramic roof tiles. More modern versions had newer roofing materials, usually blue in color or occasionally they departed from traditional designs and materials and consisted of blockish cement structures. Houses were closely spaced with access by small walkways.
Sermsri with hosts Mr. and Mrs. Bo Xiang Dan and daughters

Typical large wooden Lue house

Roof lines in Bohae

Most houses had vehicles parked underneath, cars or pickups or at the least a farm tractor. Television was
near ubiquitous as were personal mobile phones and solar hot water heaters. Women tended to wear their hair in traditional style but the dress was more Western for the men and Chinese for the women. Some small scale weaving of traditional scarves and face cloths was done by women on small looms located under the houses. The under house areas were also used for storage and some livestock raising though pigs were generally kept in small cement structures somewhat removed from the house.
Typical Lue womens hairstyles and dress

Lue weaving loom

Lue weaving

Vegetable gardens and fish ponds were located around the periphery of the village. The usual economic and subsistence pursuit is wet rice farming, however, most of the village land had been leased out for contract banana farming. In the end the villagers are dissatisfied with this arrangement as the land rental fees are small and the wages for laboring in the plantations low. Hence it is doubtful if the village will renew this kind of arrangement. Other economic activities include the growing of rubber and tea in the distant mountains.
Sermsri in banana plantation

Multilayer protective covering over banans

Mountainside tea plantation

Spreading tea leaves to dry

The village which was relocated some years ago owing to a fire having destroyed the previous site did have a new temple which was built with local funds and monies donated from Lue in the USA. There were no monks in full time residence as was the case in many of the temples we visited. The cultural revolution of several decades ago outlawed religious activities and many temples and cultural treasures were destroyed. Hence, the reestablishment of traditional village religious activities is taking time to reestablish. Unfortunately many fine old wood temples are being removed and replaced with more modern concrete based structures.
Ancient wooden Lue temple
Modern temple at Bohae

Our stay in the village was marked by the overwhelming friendliness and generosity of the villagers and it was impossible to keep up with the many invitations to sleep and eat at various houses.From the village we hiked and drove to nearby Hmong, Lahu and Mien villages each distinct in their own way. The Hmong and Mien in particular were fond of being photographed in their best finery. It was interesting to learn about the inter country communication taking place via trade, visiting and migration often on foot.
Preparing vegetables for evening party

Enjoying dinner with new friends

Delicious fresh food at every meal

Dance performance put on for us by Bohae villagers

Even the men got in on the fun
Lahu house

Lahu woman with the right message

Young Hmong woman in her finery

Hmong villagers

Hmong baskets and backpacks

A pensive youngster

Met on trail near Bohae

A fun encounter

A  young Mien woman in her Sunday best

Mien womens pants with cross stitch designs

Mien elder

We enjoyed seeing large tracts of pristine jungle which is well known as the home of many species of plants and animals. Bears, tigers and wild pigs can still be spotted. Such animals have pretty well been hunted out in the forests of neighboring Laos and Burma as well as Thailand.

Our trip also included trips to Mengla and the capitol of Xipsongpanna - Jinghong. Both were modern in outlook and being overwhelmed with massive amounts of new construction which included government buildings, hotels and shopping centers. The larger supermarkets carry a wide range of goods including various foreign brands. KFC and McDonalds were present in Jinghong though we preferred the local eateries chosen by our local friends. Boutiques selling the latest fashions abounded. Womens fashion was marked by short skirts over leggings or pants and high heeled boots.
In the big cities everyone seemed to wear the latest styles

East meets West in Mengla

As it was Chinese New Year a steady stream of traffic was headed to the Laotian border town of Boten where the Chinese have leased a large area of land and established a large incongruous casino and hotel complex which has been the subject of much comment and concern.

The pictures above provide a visual sample of the sights we experienced. We at Lanna Thai Villa are happy to facilitate travel and guide guests to new and different destinations which emphasizes culturally sensitive interaction with the many interesting peoples which inhabit the region. Whether interested in weaving, photography, hiking  or just experiencing new and different peoples we are ready to help you realize your goals. We end this blog post with pictures of some of the many young smiling faces we encountered.