Weekend in Petchabun (Pet-cha’-boon)
Koh Samui 1999
(Quaker girl dances the Ramwong)
One Saturday morning we found ourselves (My husband, myself and our Thai driver ‘Sue’) driving towards ‘upcountry’ (defined as anywhere outside of Bangkok) to attend the Buddhist priest ordination of our driver’s cousin. We had not really made any coordinated plans, although the three of us had individual ideas of what we would do. The information we had wrested from the driver was sketchy and seemed to change from day to day.
Al was out late the previous evening and had arisen early to get in 18 holes of golf. As such he was tired and after downing some carry out from Burger King fell into a deep sleep. I could not go to sleep in the car as I watched in horror for two hours as our driver played ‘chicken’ with the oncoming traffic on a stretch of road that was under construction and therefor down to only one lane. Luckily, the road shoulder was generous and in not-too-bad condition. We could veer off onto the shoulder when the traffic going the opposite direction ‘won’ the game of chicken. Throughout the ordeal my husband slept peacefully.
Sue had removed the headrests so that we would have a better view from the back seat. I was not grateful for this at first but when the normally flat scenery became mountainous in the distance it did improve the view.
After a several hours, we arrived in a small suburb of ‘Petchabun’ (north and east of Bangkok) which I dubbed ‘Sueville’. The reason for this being that of the 15 houses in the village 11 of them were occupied by Sue’s various relatives. First we were led into his mother’s house. She was a short, heavy-set jolly woman as all mother’s should be. We sat on some unbelievable uncomfortable and beautiful Chinese couches and were given cola’s after turning down water, tea and whiskey. All the fans in the town must have been brought into the house and directed on us to keep us cool. It was hot and I think they were self conscious about not having air conditioning. I walked over to more closely inspect the three treadle sewing machines. Evidently one of Sue’s uncles was a tailor.
We had assumed that we would have time to change into more festive clothes and wash up before the evening celebration. But as it turned out we were to be given the best room in town and had to go to the dinner that night in our shorts and t-shirts like everybody else. The best room in the village turned out to belong to Sue’s aunt whose son was to be ordained as a priest. She was recently remarried to a German man whom she had met in Pattaya. Her first husband, a policeman, had died in the line of duty some years previously. Thus, she was allowed to add a small house onto the back of the Sueville police station. The house had a decided German influence. Allan reluctantly agreed to staying in the new air conditioned room after being told for the umpteenth time that Petchabun proper was too far away over the mountains. The setting of Petchabun was one of a fertile valley bordered by scenic mountains on three sides. As we waited for the festivities to get underway, Sue entertained us with the story of his 2 hour predawn bus trip to school along the road we were travelling.
We were moved outside where numerous tables of eight were set-up for the dinner that night. All the fans from inside were dragged outside and aimed at us again. We watched as someone took some wire cutters to the utility pole in front of us. As best we could figure they were trying to wire up the stereo. Each table had a bottle of pop, two bottles of still water, two of carbonated water and two bottles of Mekong whiskey.
We met Sue’s brother, son and his wife and her two sisters and their mother. And his 90 year old grandfather and the cousin who would be ordained the next day. This cousin was dressed in a robe of white lace and his head was shaved. He came over and spoke to us in English. Blaring music came from the stereo system. We noticed that different blaring music was coming from a separate set of speakers to the east of us. This turned out to be a mobile moving theater unrelated to our party. A whole outdoor theater was unloaded from a semi-trailer (except for the commercial projector) and people came from near and far to sit on their straw mats and watch Thai movies. The noise was deafening.
Since I was pregnant they brought food to us the same time that they fed the children. I felt embarrassed eating before the adults but finally decided it would be better not to embarrass my hosts by refusing their hospitality. I watched as a baby was passed around a table in front of us. I estimate that the baby made about two revolutions in five minutes. High chairs and baby buggies aren’t really popular in Thailand (or Asia I believe) as there is almost always a pair of extended-family arms to receive that baby while the parents want to eat.
Two policemen ambled across the street and sat down and helped themselves to food. We found out later that they were cousins.
After eating we took a walk down to a little bridge for a little relief from the noise. It can get terribly dark in the country. We had forgotten that after living in the suburbs of Bangkok. None of the stars were familiar.
The evening’s ceremony consisted of a few monks chanting in one of the houses. Parts of it were extremely beautiful and reminded us of some Irish mouth music we had once heard.
We turned in and even though our bedroom was in the back of the house it was still quite loud. The air conditioner hum was a welcome layer of white noise over the racket outside. Every time I woke up it seems the movie theater was still roaring away.
The next morning we were treated to a German frustuck (breakfast) complete with worst and bread hot from the bread machine. We donned our party clothes and started off at eight o’clock in the morning with the rest of the procession. The wat (temple) was a few miles away so we went in cars. The cousin priest-to-be rode in the back of a pick-up truck with a large parasol protecting him from the sun. We had to wait as a herd of cows was led from one pasture, across the road to another pasture.
Three monks were to be ordained as priests that day. The one before us appears to be the wealthiest and the one behind our group seemed to be the poorest. We made this deduction from the contrast in attire, musicians and offerings. I admired Sue’s females relative who had dressed up in Thai silks or cottons. Allan admired Sue’s 90 year old grandfather who was resting by the wall to the wat. He was squatted down sitting on his hauches heels to the ground. You try it.
The group began to move clockwise around the outside temple. A cool breeze from the nearby mountains was blowing in the glorious morning air. An offering package was given to me to carry to the temple and I noticed that the women in front of me were holding it high by their heads. I did the same not wanting to break with tradition when I realized that they were just using the gifts as sunshades. Thais admire light skin and therefore shun any attempt at a suntan. The offerings demonstrated that we really don’t need much. Monks own as little as possible, some robes, a bowl to accept food in and maybe a shoulder bag. Inside the gifts-wrapped in saffron saran wrap-was a bucket containing a travel size of laundry detergent, a can of condensed milk, a bar of soap, and a toothbrush and toothpaste. The richer groups presents was very similar but instead of a bucket there was a small cooler.
Our group danced round the temple three times. The traditional Thai dance is called the ‘Ramwong’. This is where you bend your fingers back until they hurt and then curl them around the other way as if you were going to make shadow birds on the wall. I had brought Al’s golf umbrella in case the sun became too much for me but it was appropriated for someone else (elderly and feeble – I assume).
I left my shoes outside before entering the wat. Sue’s wife, who speaks no English, motioned for me not to step on the temple threshold (VERY bad form) and then I sat on the floor inside making sure that my feet did not point at the Buddha statue or at one of the monk/priests performing the ceremony (a sign of disrespect). In Thailand feet are considered the dirtiest part of the body and therefor not something you want to point at a holy person. At the end of the service the three new priests exchanged their white clothes for saffron robes. Sue leaned over and told me that they even have to give up underwear! Simplify, simplify, simplify. I refused some incense sticks thinking the smell would not sit well with my pregnant belly.
During the lengthy ceremony when my legs started to go to sleep we got up and went outside. We wandered over to what must be a meditation pond complete with stocked fish. A little shelter house was built out over the water and the cool exquisite breeze continued into the late morning. We could have stayed forever. We got back to the ceremony just at the tail end of the chanting. The three new monks waited a little bit outside the temple and people put cash donations hidden in incense into their shoulder bags. Since I had refused the incense sticks Al just had to plunk the cash in undisguised. Pictures were being taken of the new monks with various family members. Sue’s new German uncle motioned for his wife to put her arm around her son. I guess he didn’t know that monks are not allowed to make eye contact with women much less touch them.