Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Can Sounds Be Worth 1000 Words?

I have really come to appreciate how sounds can really give each place its unique character. Many people go to the desert for its eerie silence while others enjoy the rolling rumbles of the waves in the ocean. It is often when completely surrounded by nature that one truly enjoys the subtle inspiration that sound can have. Although submersion in nature often yields a unique experience the sounds of a rural Thai village, enveloped by the surrounding forests and alive with myriad sounds, has come to be one of the most memorable parts of my Peace Corps experience.

Luckily, my village has yet to be truly engulfed by sounds of modern day life that seems to sap the spirit out of most communities. You hear more roosters than you do motorized vehicles. My hammock overlooking the village has proved to be a perfect vehicle for my enjoyment of the cacophony of sounds that emanate from all around. At any given moment countless sounds are begging attention from your ear.

There is the clank of the Karen bells tied around the cows that meander down the road and disappear into the forest. A rain storm that is visible in the distance slowly beats it way to the village where it endlessly patters away. The background noise provided by the crickets is punctuated by the songs of the birds and the occasional croak of a frog. The call of a rooster in the early morning from an adjacent village slowly escalates into a chorus that resounds from every village. As the village speakers sound the call for announcements or church attendance with a monotonous gong the dogs provide their own interpretation with howls of every tone. The quite chatter of kids playing in the forest is interrupted by the low sputter of a passing motorbike. In the late evening the buzz of the cicadas and the groans of the frogs drown out all other noises. Even the bees buzzing in the small purple flowers in front of my house contribute to this oh so unique environment.

I have sometimes thought about recording the sounds so that in the future I wouldn’t forget. Unfortunately not even the most sophisticated recording device could capture the vibrancy in each on of those individual sounds while contributing to the composition as a whole. To truly experience and understand it effect one must truly be present. The only recording that I will retain is the one ever so delicately etched in my brain. It will undoubtedly be with me forever.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Song Kran Chiang Mai

I have been pretty delinquent in keeping my blog up to date in the last couple months. I guess that stems from several different factors. One, and probably most telling, I have just been too lazy. Two, it seemed to me that for all the effort I was putting into writing these blog entries it seemed that very few people were actually reading it. Well, I have had several requests to continue writing so I feel obliged to fulfill those requests. If you are actually reading the blog send me a comment and let me know what you think and suggests topics that you might want to hear about. The third and final reason is that I have now been here over a year and there seems to be little novelty in my everyday life. I actually think that there are many interesting things to be related to my friends and family back home, but then we’re right back to that original excuse...laziness is difficult to overcome!

In the middle of April I was once again fortunate enough to partake in yet another Song Kran festival (Thai New Year, but really just a big drunken water fight). The only difference was that instead of spending it on the district capital (amphur) I got to partake in this party of all parties in Chiang Mai, purported to have the best Song Kran festival in Thailand. My first year in Thailand I was inundated with not only water but also the Buddhist ceremonies that go with the festival. I was taken to wats (Buddhist temples) to “tamboon” where we would place sand, collected earlier in the river, on to temporary chedis. I was also Thai napped and taken on all day drinking binges that were characterized by hundreds of people, not one of which was sober, following a pickup truck with six foot speakers mounted in the bed and blasting Thai music around the town. The party would enter each wat and proceed to dance, drink, and throw water in this place that I once consider the epitome of serene and austere. Well this year I, along with about 15 of my fellow Peace Corps volunteer friends, decided that our Thai experience just wouldn’t be complete unless we got the commercialized farang friendly version of this Thai holiday.

I arrived in Chiang Mai on a Friday afternoon and the party began. We decided to go out on the town to celebrate our escape from our isolation in our small Thai villages. That was our first glimpse into the craziness that the next few days would bring. We decided to go to Thai clubs and found out that Song Kran really was a Thai holiday and it was virtually impossible to find a club that wasn’t overflowing with Thais from every region of the country. Three of my friends and I enjoyed an absurdly large bottle of Thai whiskey that turned out to be enough alcohol to kill an elephant. Even being the four weathered veterans of rural Thailand whiskey drinking festivals that we were, that bottle was still half full the next day. We went from one Thai club to the next and eventually called it an early night so we could get up early the next day to “len naam” or “play water” if you prefer English.

I woke up early, but not in any rush, and headed out with a few friends to “play water.” I suppose before I start this commentary I need to provide a physical description of the city of Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is a bustling Thai city in the northern region of Thailand. The center of the city is surrounded by a rectangular moat with remnants of the ancient walls that once protected it. The city has long since chaotically spilled out in all directions from that original center and now fills the entire valley. Despite this fact, the area within, and near, the enclosed area of the moat is the tourist and nightlife area of Chiang Mai. The moat water is a pea green color and can be described as anything but clean, but it somewhat ascetically appealing. No one goes near the water 51 weeks out of the year. During Song Kran it is the epicenter of the epic water fight.

We approached the moat and immediately understood what “Song Kran Chiang Mai” was all about. Thousands of people lined each side of the street next to the moat and traffic was at a standstill on the road. The traffic consisted of hundreds of pickup trucks overflowing with Thais that were rambunctiously engaged in the water fight dipping water from 50 gallon drums placed in the back. The people who lined the streets were dipping buckets attached with strings into the moat in order thoroughly soak everyone who passed. Water guns of all shapes and sizes adorned the backs and hands of many people and many people found it fit to just take a lazy dip in the moat. The sides of the streets were packed not only with the partygoers but also with entrepreneurial Thais selling water guns, buckets, and of course ice. Ice was the x-factor. Everyone is wet so throwing warm murky moat water on someone who has had warm murky moat water thrown on them for the past hour just really loses its appeal. Now standing in the tropical Thai heat and blasting someone with ice cold water is a different story. That never gets old!

It being an outrageous festival and the group of us feeling a bit outrageous ourselves, we decided to stop in front of a pub that was blasting Western music and had a sizable group of both farangs (foreigners) and Thais dancing and “playing water.” We soon found out that not only were there Thais and farangs but also the always outrageous “gatueys” or “lady boys.” They were the most enthusiastic people “playing water” and basked in the spotlight. They would stop traffic in order to do their signature cat-walk down the middle of the street, all to the boisterous jubilation of the crowd. We “played water” there for hours all the while drinking delicious Thai beers that by the end of the can was surely three quarters of that ever so appealing moat water. I was sure I was going to die of a mysterious water-borne disease, but here I am still kicking.

In other parts of the city there were huge stages in set up where bands were playing and of course copious amounts of water were thrown. Even in the out reaches of the city it was impossible not to get soaked by the young Thai children enjoying this festival, which has to rank as one of the top festivals for children in the whole world. At night the Thais settled down and stopped playing water, but that didn’t exclude you from getting soaked by the over-eager farang.

With a little variance this is how the next four days continued to pass. The nights grew increasingly crazier and meeting another male volunteer the following morning with a full face of makeup and no idea how he got it elicited little more than a few snickers. To be honest, a story just does not do Song Kran justice. It really needs to be experience first hand. For any of you who think you are intrepid enough to take it on, is only a short 10 months away!