Monday, September 27, 2010

Courtesy purchases and the dog catcher

As we live in a rural location we get visited by lots of mobile hawkers. It's mostly foodstuff but i've known entrepreneurs bring around goods ranging from plastic basins to furniture and electrical goods.     I didn't notice it at first but after a while i realized that Laong would nearly always buy something from these mobile traders. She would often buy food that she simply didn't want. It would sit untouched until it was crawling with ants and then be thrown away. After a while, i questioned Laong about what i saw as a wasteful practice. Her first explanation was a Little bit puzzling.She said something along the lines that we wouldn't get the money back for it whether we ate it or threw it away.  It took some  time for me to get across to her that what i was really wondering was why she bought it in the first place if she didn't want it. Her final explanation was only slightly less puzzling.     The reason that she bought things that she didn't really want was because the vendor had taken the time and trouble to bring their wares all the way out into the countryside for her to look at. So she felt obliged in some way to buy something. They were sort of "courtesy purchases".   It's slightly akin to Tupperware party syndrome back in England.
                                         Thankfully, she limits this philanthropic practice to food and other fairly cheap items. She has , however bought a display cabinet and a wooden bench seat in this manner. As you can imagine, we have more plastic buckets and basins than we will use in a lifetime.
                                           Another source of new plastic buckets is the dog catcher. But his buckets aren't for sale. Well, not in the traditional sense.  The dog catcher uses his buckets as currency to swap for unwanted dogs. He visits around once a month and when the dogs and buckets have been exchanged, the unfortunate canines are thrown unceremoniously into a cage on the back of his truck.They are destined to become part of the menu up on the Laos border.
A fair swap ?
                                              The dog man made one of his regular visits to our area just the other day. He had conducted some swift business with our nearest neighbor and was just pulling away when i saw Laong approaching from some distance away.  I just couldn't resist it. I ushered our dog, Ronaldo, into the kitchen at the back of the house and shut the door securely behind him. Then i took a new bucket  from the top of our ever growing stack and placed it in a position of prominence on our porch way. I dropped back into my chair and resumed reading my copy of the Bangkok Post as Laong brought her motorcycle to a halt beneath the shop awning. I had already noticed her throw a couple of worried glances over her shoulder in the direction of the disappearing dog catcher. I feigned disinterest in her presence and continued with my newspaper. Her eyes widened with her opening statement. "Ronaldo stay where"?   I said nothing in reply but instead allowed my gaze to fall upon the new bucket close by.
                                             Laongs eyes narrowed and her face began to tighten around clenched teeth. Volcano mode was imminent. I've seen it many times. So before Vesuvius erupted i strode hastily to the kitchen and released Ronaldo from his incarceration. He scampered through the house and prostrated himself at Laongs feet with his paws in the air and his tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth.
                                             I looked up in time to see, but not to avoid, the bucket as it bounced off the side of my head.
                                            In the best traditions of Buddhist karma, the very next day i was bitten by a friends dog. It was quite a savage bite and left me with some deep holes in my leg, just above the ankle. Of course, i got no sympathy from Laong. She really enjoyed pouring the alcohol based solution into the holes over the next couple of days to prevent infection.  On more than one occasion, as i winced in pain, she muttered "som nam nah". Roughly translated it means "serves you right". On reflection, i must admit that i had played a cruel and heartless prank so i guess it did serve me right.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Good luck, money come

Even if you don't know very much about Buddhism you will have undoubtedly heard about karma. Buddhists believe that we all deserve whatever happens to us whether it be good or bad. We create good karma for ourselves by doing good things and,of course, the converse is true for creating bad karma. I think that a religion that advocates everyone going around doing good things has got to be positive by it's practice. Unfortunately, if you start to dig deeper,then, like most religions, there are more questions than answers. OK, I accept that if we do bad things then bad karma is the result. But what i don't accept,digging a little deeper, is the tariff applied to bad karma........  A couple of weeks ago one of my students was involved in an accident. A drunk driver ploughed into her and her family leaving her mother and father both dead. She was taken to hospital with her life hanging in the balance. Just for good measure the family dog was also killed. She won her fight for life but sustained massive brain damage and multiple injuries.    This is where it all falls down.  What could a fun loving, mild mannered, 9 year old child possibly have done to deserve such horrific bad karma?       I'm sure you will all have your own interpretations of good and bad karma and i welcome your views in the form of comment.  

the lucky log

      There seems to be a definite pattern in Thailand.  Good karma = good luck = money. Nowhere does this take more definite form than in the national lottery. Although gambling is illegal in Thailand and goes against Buddhist precepts, the government run lottery plays a big part in Thai society. Some people go to extraordinary lengths to predict the lucky numbers for the next draw.
              We used to have a tabby cat and Laong would subject her to daily inspections. She would work her way around the unfortunate feline in the hope that irregular patterns in her fur would throw up something that looked like a number.   Indeed, there are lucky trees and lucky rocks in various places all over Thailand. People flock to these sites hoping to see a lucky number emerge from the patterns in the bark or the cracks and grains of the rocks. These sites are revered and have taken on a religious/spiritual guise. They are usually festooned with brightly coloured ribbon and garlands. Devotees light candles and burn incense. They leave offerings in the form of fresh fruit and soft drinks.
                                    Last Monday, in pursuit of the elusive lucky number, we made the journey to Wat Punoy in Nong Muang, Lopburi. This temple complex is given over, almost entirely, to the pursuit of the lucky number. On the run up to a lottery draw it is visited by literally thousands of people. The main attraction is the lucky log.
                                        This is a 30 foot long section of tree trunk laid on supporting trestles. It is suitably decked out in the usual ribbons and garlands. The method here is to part the ribbons, exposing a small section of the trunk. Then, talcum powder is lightly sprinkled on the wood. The powder is then worked into the grain with circular motions of an index finger. The hope is that the patterns in the grain will throw up a shape that can be interpreted as a number. As a testament to the popularity of this method the entire length of the trunk has been worn quite smooth by years of devoted rubbing.   Laong spent 20 minutes or so prospecting a few different sections of the trunk. The log was unwilling to give up any secrets so we moved on. However, before leaving i observed a woman of senior years working furiously at her own section of the log. She was obviously semi-professional in the method as she had brought with her a 750g container of talc and a bag of back up containers. She was still beavering away at the same spot when we passed her on the way out nearly 2 hours later.  
                  We spent the next couple of hours ringing bells, banging gongs, burning incense, and rubbing gold leaf onto every conceivable surface of Buddhist deities.  If gold leaf poisoning exists as an ailment then Laong gave herself every chance of contracting the condition. She was covered in flecks of gold. It was in her hair and all over her hands, arms and face.  I spent a short while staring at an enormous gold leaf covered ball from lots of different angles. I narrowed and widened my gaze and squinted with each eye shut in turn. Still , no numbers revealed themselves.         There was a lengthy Que at the lucky water. This was a large earthenware stone pot three quarters full with a mixture of stagnant water, gold leaf, congealed candle wax and a generous helping of dead insects. Laong sprinkled us both with a small amount amid a mumbled incantation. I noticed that some people were keen enough believers to dunk silver cups into the pot and actually drink the stuff.        
                                       After a tasty and inexpensive lunch we decided to call it a day. Laong thought she had seen a "5" on the log and maybe a "4"  in the pattern of the congealed wax in the lucky water but nothing really concrete. I was considering one last look at the golden ball when i noticed that Laong had fallen into conversation with a monk at the entrance to the car park. By the time i joined them she was scribbling furiously on the small notepad that she always keeps in her bag for just such an occasion. A few seconds later she was back in the central courtyard scouring the rows of tickets for sale by the dozens of vendors that had set up their trestles at every turn. After a detailed search, a ticket ending in the digits 782 could not be found. Undeterred, Laong spent the next 45 minutes on the phone in conversation with her various lottery contacts and managed to secure a ticket.   She hedged her bets with a few of her standard numbers ( birthdays, car reg, etc ) and after yesterdays draw came out 2,400 Baht in front.  It's hardly a life changing windfall but it's better than the proverbial poke in the eye and it might just cover the cost of the talcum powder and gold leaf !           

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Angkor Wat, Cambodia and the worst toilet

It may not be the sort of thing that comes up in everyday conversation but everyone has a toilet story and this is mine.
               A pre-dawn arrival at Angkor Wat is by no means essential but it would certainly enhance the experience. Myself and three friends had fully intended to rise early the previous day but we only arrived back at the guest house from the night out before as everyone was making preparations to leave. We were suitably admonished by staff and guests alike and trailed off to bed.
               The next day we were up early and made the short journey to the Angkor Wat site by pedal rickshaw. After paying $20 for a day pass our driver/guide took us to the main temple site. Having seen lots of temple ruins on my travels i must admit that i'm not usually that easily impressed. But Angkor Wat really was worth the pre-dawn departure. The main temple looked quite stunning as it took shape in the still light of another dawning day. It's mirrored reflection on the small lake in the foreground was quite breathtaking.
We spent the rest of the morning exploring the endless supply of temple ruins at the complex. There was so much to see but, to be honest, by midday, as impressed as i was, i was feeling pretty much "templed out". The early start and the rising temperature were beginning to take their toll on everyone. Our helpful driver suggested that we take a break in a small restaurant,where he was obviously on commission, as it turned out to be all the way back at the main temple.  However, we couldn't depart immediately as one of our party had a slight problem.  The poor lad had been "caught short" as they say. Our driver indicated a cluster of buildings about 200 yards away across some scrub land. We decided to escort our friend as he looked to be in real trouble. This also increased the chances of one of us stepping on a landmine but "when you've got to go"!     By the time we got to the buildings he was clutching his stomach and having difficulty standing upright. The place was deserted and worse still, the toilet block was locked up. After some time(an eternity for my friend) a monk appeared and demanded $1 to unlock the door. My friend hurriedly thrust a $5 bill into his hand and started to hop from one foot to another while the monk casually fumbled with a bunch of keys.   I remember laughing and feeling quite glad that it wasn't me. Well, just 45 minutes later, it was!
                            Our driver dropped us at a makeshift restaurant,constructed of bamboo and rusty tin. I wasn't really hungry but respite from the heat and a cold drink were most welcome.  I had just cracked the seal on my plastic water bottle when, from nowhere, i was hit by a searing pain across my lower abdomen. Sweat burst from my forehead in a torrent and i was filled with a feeling of dread. I knew i had only a matter of moments before the unthinkable would happen. I snatched the last remaining piece of tissue from the holder on the table and ran towards the kitchen. Not stopping to ask for directions i blundered through the bamboo cane curtain. My path to the rear was blocked by racks of vegetables and pots and pans which i sent crashing in my wake as i raced frantically against my body clock. Luckily, the back door opened outwards or i'm sure i would have demolished it. The area behind the kitchen was filthy but i hardly noticed as my attention was taken by the small tin shed that was obviously the toilet.
                          A loop of dirty frayed string served as the door handle. As i yanked on the string the door opened allowing daylight to penetrate the dark interior. The toilet itself was of the "squat" variety. It was located in the centre and set into a square concrete block. The block was tiled with cracked and broken ceramic and was at a height of about 8 inches above the ankle deep water that covered the rest of the floorspace.   The sudden shock of daylight sent frogs, at least 1 snake and various other creatures scuttling for the darker recesses. I removed my flip-flops and hung my shorts and shirt on the rusty nail that stuck out of the back of the door. As i began to wade towards the centre, the door swung slowly shut behind me plunging the shed back into darkness. I stood as motionless as my stomach spasms would allow and i didn't have to strain my ears too much to hear all the creatures venturing back out into the body of the room with darkness fuelled confidence. I reached behind me and eased the door ajar once more. Again, the shaft of daylight sent the toilets inhabitants scurrying for cover. I was drenched in sweat. The temperature inside the tin box was off the scale.  I looked down at the pathetic piece of sodden tissue in my hand. It was inadequate for the task before. It was now more than useless! I cursed the fact that i had taken so much amusement from my friends desperate plight just a short while ago.
                                                     I wedged the door open with a flip-flop so that just enough light came in to deter the critters inside and still preserve a little privacy.   I won't bother to describe the next few minutes in too much detail but you can be assured that they will live in my memory as one of the worst experiences of my life on the road.
                                  Angkor Wat and its surrounding temple ruins is a must see if you go into Cambodia. Over the next few weeks we travelled around the kingdom and saw some incredible things but my abiding memory of Cambodia will be my brief visit to the rusty tin toilet.