Thursday, November 13, 2008

To Isaan and Beyond

I have been quite horrible in keeping up with my blog. In reality, this has been quite an interesting time in my Peace Corps service and I am not doing myself justice or anyone who reads my blog. I will once again try to be diligent in my blogging, but I have certainly made that declaration before!

I recently returned from a trip to Northeast Thailand also known as Isaan. Many of my Peace Corps friends call this area home, but it has evaded my radar for quite some time. Since Song Kran I have been dating a Thai girl named Riem and her hometown is in Galasin Province in Isaan. October is the month when nearly every school in Thailand has a short break after their first term of the year is over. It is akin to winter break in the U.S. and in the same fashion, many college students return home for a few weeks of family time and relaxation. It also marks the end of the Buddhist Lenten season and the official end is marked by the holiday called “Awk Pansa.” Awk Pansa also signifies the ceremonial end of the rainy season, although the weather in my mountain village has made an adamant argument otherwise.

Riem invited me to visit her hometown during this period which was a very opportune time for me as my friend Kevin Johnson who is a RPCV (return Peace Corps volunteer) was getting married to his long time Thai girlfriend Goi in the province that borders Galasin called Sakorn Nakorn. We also planned to attend an event called Bang Fai Payanak in the province of Nong Kai. Bang Fai Payanak is a celebration of Awk Pansa but also has a quite unique attribute. Every year Awk Pansa falls on a different calendar date because it is a Buddhist holiday that follows the cycles of the moon rather than the Gregorian calendar. Nevertheless, every year on this holiday mysterious fire balls emerge from the Mekong River on a roughly five mile stretch of the river along the Thai-Cambodian border. Tradition says that the Payanak, a mythical serpent deity, releases the fireballs from its mouth, and modern science has yet to prove otherwise. Some say it is gases that are released from the bottom of the river while others have suggested it is the Lao army playing elaborate pranks on the eager Thais watching from the other shore. Whatever the explanation, in recent years they have become very well known throughout Thailand and thousands of Thais flock to see the spectacle.

We started our journey to Isaan in the early morning with a very long day of driving ahead of us. Riem and I were accompanied by two of her aunts and two of her nieces. Along with the log jam of people in the front of the pickup, a double cab pickup so as not to be confused, the bed of the pickup was overflowing with an unknown menagerie of things. It is obligatory for Thais to bring back something for people whenever they leave and come back to their original destination. This has proven to be a very interesting phenomenon. When I first got to my site, people would remind me not to forget what they fondly refer to as kong fak. Kong fak can really be anything but most often it is some sort of food item. Now a food item in Thailand included under the umbrella of kong fak does not include a bag of cookies, a bottle of wine, or a block of cheese. It consists of packages of dried squid, crispy fried fish chips, fermented fish chili paste among many others to numerous to mention. When I first went I wondered to myself why they wanted me to buy this stuff from Bangkok when I had seen many very similar products being sold in the local market. That is not the point; the point is that it is a kong fak. A whole industry has evolved around this concept. My other problem was, I was horrible at choosing the right kong fak. What to me look like the most edible of the kong faks turned out to be a big bust. I finally realized that I needed to choose the kong fak that look the least like something I would consider edible. Now those are the hits! Anyway, the truck was stuffed full of kong fak as well as humans.

The drive from Chiang Mai to Galasin passes through seemingly endless mountains. It is hundreds of kilometers of curves and hills. Don’t get me wrong, it is some stunning country, but 16 hours of driving through it can get to even the most weathered travelers. Along the way, another interesting Thai tradition came to bear. When I first got to Thailand I remember riding my bike down lonely stretches of highway all the while passing stands that consist of little more than an umbrella and a small table selling some random fruit or vegetable I had never before experienced. Now these stands were not strategically located at an intersection or in close vicinity to towns. Rather they were in the middle of nowhere only feet from the traffic speeding along to its distant destination. I wondered, “Who stops at these places?” Thais do! Riem is has somewhat of a shopping disease and she has turned out to be these stands’ number one customer. Riem is infatuated with the Thai open air markets that sell everything from handfuls of maggots to slimy live eels. This seems to be true with road side stalls as well. I don’t have enough fingers to count how many times we stopped to buy some of the most random produce. It is quite possible the trip wouldn’t have taken 16 hours if those ever so frustrating roadside stands didn’t exist.

Nevertheless, the Thai countryside passed by in a blur and soon we were entering Riem’s village. Riem’s village turned out to be quite similar to the descriptions of my other PCV friends’ villages in Isaan. There were old ladies, affectionately known as yais, chewing beetle nut which stains their teeth a deep red relaxing lazily on small covered bamboo platforms that adorn dirt yards in front of each house. There were the small children with dirty faces running around with no bottoms, chickens busily pecking away at whatever chickens peck away at, cows lumbering down the road unconcerned with the line of cars and rice trucks lined up behind them, unkempt houses on stilts surrounded by mud and dust, and of course an elaborately adorned wat (Buddhist temple). We exited the truck and I was greeted by Riem’s whole extended family. Soon they were busy chatting away in their local language which is more closely related to Lao than to Thai and leaving me with little idea of what to do next. After a few hours I was ushered off to the local wat where the whole community was celebrating Awk Pansa. As soon as I entered the wat grounds there was not one head that was not turned in my direction studying the strange white man that had made his unannounced appearance. They immediately ushered me to six boiling caldrons and instructed me to mix each one for a short time. While I was busily mixing away I was informed that the sticky liquid was made primarily of rice but a little bit of everything that gave them sustenance throughout the year was added. This included the pungent fermented fish known as blara and chili peppers. It is made as a snack but also as an offering to thank the Buddha for helping to assure a bountiful harvest. After I was finished stirring Riem’s 54 year old aunt Noam, who I have to say is quite a personality, went around introducing me to everyone as her new young farang boyfriend. I played along with the joke for a while and then started to play the game and began to ask everyone if they believed her. The funny thing is that I think many people did! For the rest of my time at Riem’s house Noam continuously told that story. Apparently she got quite a kick out of it. After much reverent wai’ing to each one of the community members we made our way back to Riem’s house.

During my stay we ate very good meals which were a mix of traditional Isaan food such as spicy papaya salad made with fermented fish (som dtam blara) and sticky rice and other less “fragrant” Thai dishes such as tom yam and sweet and sour stir fry that Riem made sure were offered so that I wasn’t left starving. Our days were spent sitting underneath the house chatting or at the small pond in the middle of the rice patties having a cold beer, playing cards, and trying our luck at fishing. I sat there as the sun went down, the air cooled, and the wind stopped, thinking that I really was not all that far from my home in Wyoming. Each day we ventured into the nearest city, 40 kilometers away, to stock up on goodies from the big market. One day we made a trip to a very nice reservoir while another we went to a surprisingly modern dinosaur museum strategically placed at the site of a dinosaur bone find but miles from any other civilization. It was then time to make the journey to the wedding in the province next door.

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