“prung nii.” Speaking slowly in Thai, Dtarn approached me cautiously, hesitantly as always.
“chai. Yes,” I said. “Tomorrow.”
“In the morning.”
“Reservoir, chai. suea sii lueang.”
“Ok, yellow shirt.”
“Chai, chai. Long pants.”
“Ok, yes I understand.”
It was the afternoon of Christmas Day and I was being invited to attend, or rather instructed to attend, the weekend boat races up at the reservoir. In this staccato exchange I came to understand what was expected of me and I could deduce a bit of what I was to expect. The yellow shirt meant this was a government deal, yellow is the King’s color. The long pants meant this was official village business, I was to be there on a Saturday morning as a government representative and not as an anonymous spectator as I had hoped. I figured that there would be a ceremony of some sort, there’s always ceremony. Other than the utterance of the words ‘boat races’ a couple of times in the week leading up to this, this was the only information I had been given. And now it came down to, “Tomorrow.”
I came to my village in March and I was told that I’d be going to an Environmental Camp with some students at the end of April. This was right up my alley, it was something I could look forward to and I couldn’t wait to learn more about it.
Along with a few folks from the office I would be joining 30 kids for a two-day trip somewhere north of here. In the weeks leading up to this camp, I learned the name of the facility, the Princess Sirindhorn International Environmental Park. Two days before departure I was told that I needed to be at the municipal office at 5 AM and that I needed to wear a purple shirt. That was it. No word on sleeping arrangements, no mention of an itinerary or what activities were planned, and no indication of what to bring, other than a purple shirt.
A large colorful banner was hung up at the temple down the street in the beginning of November. It announced that something was going to be happening on the 22nd, but I didn’t know what and no one said anything to me. As the date approached, tents and canopies and tables and chairs sprung up in the desolate concrete plaza in front of the wat (temple) and I finally asked someone about it. Dtarn translated as best she could, but it was a verbatim translation of the banner I had taken a picture of. She gave me a very brief explanation that thawt kathin is a Buddhist tradition where the community gives new robes and offerings to the monks. It sounded pretty uneventful actually, offerings are made to the monks regularly. But on that Sunday morning, the 22nd, as the scooter and pedestrian traffic past my house reached a fever pitch, I locked my front door and sauntered down the hill along the back side of the temple complex to see what was going on.
The plaza was swarming with activity, with dozens and dozens of vendors offering free food and drink. The place was a beehive of activity and celebration. For hours the streets of the village were choked with pick up trucks, their beds loaded down with families, motorbikes weaving in and around everything and anything standing still. It smelled of a festival with fried foods, chili peppers and curry, pineapple, diesel exhaust, propane, coconut, sweat, heat and even pizza. It was hectic and confusing as familiar faces smiled and yelled out to me from beneath the canopies to sample their food. Not only was thawt kathin meant to give robes and alms to the monks, it was an event of gratitude for the entire community to experience and partake in. Thawt kathin turned out to be the biggest celebration in the village that I had witnessed and I almost missed it. If I hadn’t had that inquisitiveness, this joyous tradition, the excitement and the free food would have passed me by.
A few days after the thawt kathin festival, most of Thailand (those places settled by the ancient Tai cultures) celebrated loy kratong, a festival translated as “floating basket” or “floating decoration.” In the far north (Chiang Mai/Chiang Rai areas) where the Lanna tribes set down roots, they celebrate a similar event, Yi Peng.
For loy kratong, boats are set sail on the water; for yi peng, lanterns are set sail into the night sky. I’d heard about loy kratong from other volunteers and from travel brochures and was told that it was a festival not to be missed. I wasn’t going to be near Bangkok or Chiang Mai or any other big city. I figured the best I could do was to finagle a ride down to Ranong. But there were no offers coming in and when I asked my counterpart about it, she grimly told me that her car was broken. I would miss the spectacle of masses of people floating decorative candle-lit bamboo, banana leaf and floral arrangements down the river. I was stuck in my piddly little village.
So after dusk I reluctantly and resentfully walked down to the wat, to the same place where the thawt kathin festivities took place. The monks were chanting prayers under fluorescent lights in the cavernous temple and a small crowd was kneeling before them praying and receiving blessings for their decorative boats. Outside others were already along the edge of the little canal, the dammed up stream with the sacred fish and they were beginning to light the candles on their baskets, holding their banana leaf and flower arrangements to their foreheads, praying and offering gratitude.
I bought a small decoration so that I too could light a candle and participate in the evening’s traditions. When the monks and the worshippers ended their prayers, they left the bright temple and stepped into the dark clear night of late November and the full moon to join the others. They walked to the water’s edge, gave one last blessing to their boats and slipped them into the water. Their bad thoughts and past transgressions were set sail and floated into the darkness, under the bridge and over the small dam, where they tumbled, candles extinguished. They simply joined the other garbage that regularly gets tossed into the river among the rocks and eddies. As I walked among the revelers I spied many students from the school, those whose parents didn’t have the means to take them down to Ranong to the big celebration. My students all greeted me and wished me well, offering smiles of gratitude and acceptance. And as they did, I became happy and grateful as well.
It’s taken some time to understand the coding, to decipher the subtext and backstory behind the cryptic messages. Wear a purple shirt. Flexibility and openness are key for these last minute enjoinments even though most times it’s in short supply on my end. All I can say is that next year I’ll know better and I’ll know what to expect. Next year.