Nawt and his brother Maai rode up to Ranong Canyon over the weekend. They did what most young boys do, they goofed off and they goofed around. In the course of their time up at the small lake at the canyon both boys drowned, neither could swim. Nawt was in the 8th grade, Maai was in the 7th. I didn’t know either boy even though they lived in my little village; they went to a different school, down the mountain in Ranong.
My co-teacher, Kruu Wamin, and I had just finished our hour with grade 6 and were walking across the small school campus to grade 7. As we passed the little pink building where the principal and vice principal spend their days, I noticed the half dozen or so boys from the 7th grade helping the school’s maintenance man mix and screed concrete. They were adding a short section of ramp that would connect the new covered walkway to the sidewalk in front of the administration building.
Apparently the boys wouldn’t be joining the English class, they would be learning a life skill instead. I thought it was a good lesson for the boys to learn; I smiled and reflected upon helping my father when he was pouring the driveway at our house when I was their age. The girls were back in the classroom sitting, talking, doing not much of anything. The girls knew Maai and were sad about his death. Kruu Wamin wanted to start in on a lesson, but the girls weren’t really interested and without the boys there our efforts would have been wasted.
From what I’ve learned, the girls in grade 7 liked Maai and watched out for him. Maai was autistic. The girls were his protectors and his playmates. The boys made fun of him and didn’t want him around. I asked Kruu Wamin to translate for me while I asked the girls about Maai and why they liked him. They told me he was kind, he was happy. Kruu Wamin didn’t know what to do with the girls so I suggested that they write cards or letters to Maai’s family telling them how much they liked him and would miss him. Kruu Wamin was afraid the girls would cry and I told him that that was okay if they did. It wouldn’t be right, he said. Thais don’t cry in public, crying is only done in one’s room, alone. That’s the Thai way.
Both Nawt and Maai were laid out together at the funeral hall on the back side of the mountain from the wat, a few hundred feet from my house. Thai funerals typically are held over three nights, sometimes five nights, sometimes seven, sometimes more. They are community affairs. The length of time for a funeral is determined by the person’s wealth or age or status in the community. The first night involves family and friends washing the body, pouring water over the hands to symbolically wash away sins and transgressions, preparing the body for the next life. Each day the family stays at the funeral hall and provides the community, those coming to pay their respect, with food and talk. Each evening the Buddhist monks come to chant and pray. I can hear all this from my house up the street. Maai was being cremated Wednesday morning and his brother was being cremated on Thursday. Cremation is another ceremony in and of itself.
The caskets were bedecked in sprays of flowers much like they are back home. Additional presents of comforters and fans are displayed which would be donated back to the monks and distributed to those in need around the community. Family and friends talk and eat and play cards. They help cook food and serve visitors. This is part of the tradition of giving alms and seeking merit. Tables and plastic chairs are scattered around and small groups of men, small groups of women, sit to the side to talk and gossip and stare at this foreigner who walks by on his way to and from school.
Kruu Wamin tells me that the bodies of the dead are not to be left alone, that family members stay around the funeral hall during the days and throughout the nights. They play cards and gamble and often times drink beer and cheap Thai whiskey. Children play and dogs wander around looking for handouts or to root through the trash when no one is looking. When I pass family and friends motion for me to join them, to share a meal and to help them make merit, but I don’t because I don’t know what to say.
As it is back home, black is the preferred color of mourning here, but the mourning itself is not as black. Overall the mood is reserved and respectful, neither dour nor joyous but tipping the scales toward the more celebratory end of the spectrum. Death is viewed differently here in Thailand, through Buddhist eyes. Death is more accepted, more wonted—even untimely deaths such as these two young boys. Death is but one step in this life, a step leading to another life; a better life–reincarnated. puuak-kao ja bpai nai tii dii. “They will be in a better place,” is what I should have said.