Dealing with The System (an example) ...

Awakened by a gentle or sometime urgent call of nature, often around the hour of six in the morning.  One of us will walk to the kitchen to turn off the street lights, which are left on throughout the night for the benefit of our neighbors, who have no municipal street lighting.  The main beneficiaries are the immediate neighbors, including our housekeeper and our gardener.  I suppose it also eases the way for those who travel to the deeper, darker recesses of Soi 2.  Residents of another nearby lane requested that we put in a light for them.  Explaining that their location, not being on our land, was beyond our purview, we did offer to buy the light if they would install it and pay for the electricity.  We have heard nothing since, as I suppose it wasn’t important enough for them to invest their own time or money.

Returning to today’s story.  After the lights have been extinguished, we normally go back to bed for another hour or two.  Today, however, was different.  We needed to be on the road before eight thirty, so immediately launched into our morning routines, minus the lounging in bed ritual.  Roughly on schedule, we dawned our helmets and mounted our recently purchased scooter and headed off in pursuit of our motorcycle driving licenses.  On a previous occasion we had stopped by to inquire as to exactly what they required.  I have found over the years, that depending on third party or hearsay information, can lead to unnecessary difficulties.  Best to go to the source. 

In this instance, recent pictures were required, as well as a trip to a hospital and the boarder immigration office, to obtain the specified paperwork.  As is often the case, one must choose between the nearest or the easiest location.  Only occasionally, are they one in the same.  For example I prefer the longer trip to Mae Sai, over the nearer Chiang Kong immigration office.  The nearest hospital worked out fine, though it did take a rather long time.  We chose the closer location of Thoeng over the main licensing office in Chiang Rai.  I suppose if one didn’t speak Thai, the Chiang Rai office might be easier.

I was of course the only foreigner as nearly twenty of us prepared for our daylong ordeal.  First there was testing of reflexes, depth perception, peripheral vision, and color blindness.  Followed shortly thereafter by two hours of orientation videos and lectures, on driving regulations and traffic signage.  After a lunch break we all returned for our computerized written test.  This was the one and only thing that had the option of being in English.  Everything else was in Thai.  Even with a heavy Northern accent at times, it was still in Thai and not the local dialect, so I had no difficulty understanding.  If one passes the test with 23 out of 30 correct answers, the driving test is next. 

The test is not rocket science but is done at very slow speed.  Something I had not practiced.  One must first mount a narrow plank and traverse the entire length without falling off or touching your feet to the ground.  This, alas, was my downfall.  The remarkable balance that I once possessed as a youth, seems to have deserted me in my advancing years.  I found the explanation for this part of the test interesting, indeed.  It was asserted that one needs this skill, to squeeze between the sometimes very long lines of vehicles waiting at a stoplight, especially during rush-hour in a big city.  Back home that maneuver would get you a ticket, but we are in Thailand after all.

In short I failed my driving test and was told to return in three days for another try.  Oddly enough my wife was allowed to pass her test, even though her skills on the road leave something to be desired.  For the next two days I practiced my super slow driving skills.  It became clear that there was something about the anticipation of falling off that plank, that completely unnerved me.  Not feeling confident at all, we headed back for my retest.  Sure enough I fell off again and was told to go sit down and wait for what I guessed might be, one more try.  After an appropriate passage of time I was called over and my paperwork was returned with the words, “number three.”  Now, I interpreted that to mean, come back for “try number three” at a later date.  My wife realized, however, that he had actually meant to send me to “counter number three” for payment.  He simply didn’t wish to acknowledge, before the other applicants, that he was letting me pass.

You might ask why I am writing about this.  Or, perhaps why I put myself through all this to begin with.  Back in 1982 when I got my first private vehicle drivers license in Thailand, I did what was the common practice at the time.  I found a way around the rules.  That is a common convention and mindset for expats.  Visa runs, dummy corporations and various other techniques are used to circumvent restrictive bureaucratic regulations.  Foreigners often take on a defensive posture, assuming that the locals are “out to get them.”  I suppose this was written as an example, to show that with time, patients and a pleasant demeanor our host country will often, or at least sometimes, go out of its way to be accommodating.  Presentation is often more important than substance.  It is not what you do, but how you do it.  It is not what you know, but who you know.  As Thailand modernizes, some of this form over substance will diminish but old habits and customs die slowly, so will no doubt linger on for sometime to come.

I know a lot of foreigners, who never bother with this kind of thing and prefer to buy their way out of problems as they arise.  I find these new hard plastic licenses work well as a form of identification in the provinces, however.  Often people are not equipped to deal with a passport in a foreign language.  Any kind of a local ID is much preferred.  So in the end I guess I put myself through this short term inconvenience, for a long term benefit of not needing to look over my shoulder and a convenient local ID.  Then again, perhaps there was just a perverse desire, on my part, to see what normal people have to go through.  Either way what’s done is done and now, on to the next thing.

Phuket Vegetarian Festival Videos

Here goes - my final throw of the dice for this years vegetarian festival (2008). My camera has a basic video function. Not National Geographic quality, but I hope the little videos below will give some idea of the experience.

Face Piercing

A few clips of the piercing taking place at Kathu Shrine on 6th October, around 6 - 6:30am. It was going on all over the place, it was hard to know where to look!

A look around Kathu Shrine before starting the procession...

The Procession Leaving Kathu Shrine...various entranced people

Carrying the Gods through Kathu Village... LOTS of firecrackers

Ma Song Blessing a House

And a couple of vids of Ma Song doing things in Phuket Town.

Thai Culture (a different view) ...

Recently my wife has shown more interest in the computer and becoming more proficient using it.  She finds my computer a little intimidating so asked me to setup the laptop for her use, with internet access through a wifi link.  I believe her main concern, is somehow messing up the main computer and not a need for privacy.  After all, we have never had any secrets between us.  We use Apple Mail to compile all our various email addresses into one place.  From both computers we have access to all the same stuff and share the same internet connection.

I’m sure there are some who would be appalled by this openness and lack of privacy.  For us it is simply the way our world works.  So, why am I mentioning this?  I suppose it is to answer questions that will arise when you read the next sentence.

I was reading over an email my wife wrote to a dear friend yesterday.  Her insights and comments got me thinking about Farangs and the way we sometimes see Thai culture.  Being a Farang in Thailand is vastly different from being a Thai in Thailand.  Much has been written in other venues, of how some Farangs feel they are slighted or disadvantaged, by the Thai system.  My predilection is to explore the advantages of being a foreigner in this foreign land. 

My wife’s words reminded me that we (foreigners) take for granted our ability to discuss things openly and disagree on a wide variety of subjects and topics.  We need not be unnecessarily concerned with the other’s social class, title, age or seniority, unlike a Thai.  We don’t concern ourselves with what is “appropriate behavior”.  We are not paralyzed by our fear of what others will think of us or say about us.  We are not afraid to defend ourselves when we feel wronged.  Many things that we take for granted would be unimaginable for a Thai, at least within the confines of their own culture.  That is why some Thais, and in particular my wife, have a difficult time readjusting.  Being placed back into the Thai “box”, after having developed a taste for a more Western style of communication, can be quite distressing.

She finds it extremely difficult to find other Thai women who are interested in, or indeed capable, of interacting on a level that she now considers necessary for a close interpersonal relationship.  One is not lonely here in a classic sense, as one is always surrounded by others.  There is a nonstop flow of food and conversation that belies the overwhelming constraints imposed by the local culture.  Not feeling free to express yourself and having to wear a mask can leave one feeling quite lonely, however.  On the surface things appear much more civil than they sometimes do in the West, but much is repressed and there are limited outlets for what boils below the surface.

There is a temptation as a foreigner, to downplay or dismiss the importance of these social constraints.  We naively urge the Thais in our lives to disregard or pay no attention to the pressures they feel.  Even when transplanted to another culture, however, it can be very difficult, and sometimes impossible, for a Thai to disregard these deeply internalized restrictions. 

It appears to me, that one can make the argument that it is not Thai Culture, per say, that we find so enticing as foreigners.  It is the unique freedom we are granted within this society, to be free of and unfettered by what it means to be Thai.  We are free to do, say and act in ways that are not possible for Thais.  We hold a unique place in Thai society.  At once both reviled and revered.  We are granted an elevated status, while at the same time, much less is expected of us.  We are forgiven our indiscretions and bestowed with an image of wealth, status and sophistication that is often in error and unrelated to the facts.  We are allowed, and sometimes even induced, to a deluded vision of ourselves.  An elevated sense of superiority and self-worth, is not uncommon among the expat community. 

I am making no judgements as to the rightness or wrongness of all this.  Merely making observations of the world I know and live in, which may be quite different from what others “know.”  I think it is fair to say I have been exposed to more of Thailand than most, over the years.  Granted, it may lack relevance to those who find themselves confined to a limited subgroup of the expat community.  Others, I’m sure, will have similar views and observations.  One thing that is certain, is that there is no one single Thailand or Farang relationship with it.  When asked about Thailand most of my answers are necessarily prefaced by ... “it all depends.”

Vegetarian Festival 2008 Photos in Phuket Town

So, on Monday after getting up early and seeing the piercing at Kathu Shrine, and heading out of Kathu Village with the procession (see Vegetarian Festival Photos Part 1), I headed into Phuket Town to pick up the procession again in the old town. The narrow streets mean you get very close to the Ma Song, and very close to the firecrackers! I was taking photos on Thalang Road close to my favourite little street in town, Soi Rommani.

Phuket Vegetarian Festival - Swords

Ma Song (unpierced version, but certainly seems to be in a trance) Old Lady Ma Song with helpers

Tres Amigos

Vegetarian festival - Carrying the gods in Phuket Town

Allow me to introduce my favourite guy! I had a photo of him last year looking rather ghoulish with 2 big black rods through his cheeks. This year looks like he used even bigger rods! Some aspects of the festival are not for everyone. If you don't like scary things or blood or the idea of ramming 2 large rods through your face, look away now!

Phuket Vegetarian festival

Phuket Vegetarian festival

My favourite guy at the festival

This next guy is one of the entranced Ma Song who leap around the procession offering blessings to locals who have offering tables outside their houses. Some of these guys really are a bit spooky. The narrow streets meant that this guy almost bowled me over as he leapt around, thus the very close up photos!

Entranced Ma Song at the Phuket Vegetarian Festival

Ma Song at the Phuket Vegetarian Festival

And here's another Ma Song blessing a local Phuket town resident as the family look on and wai.

Ma Song bestowing blessings at the Phuket Vegetarian festival

Meanwhile the procession of the gods continued in amongst the Ma Song.

Carrying the gods in Phuket Town - Phuket Vegetarian Festival

Vegetarian festival - carrying statues of the gods

There seemed to be more female piercings this year.. no stats to back it up, but there were certainly quite a few.

Female Ma Song with pierced faces at the Phuket Vegetarian Festival

Last couple of extreme face assault photos for now... This year I had kind of intended to see more, but only witnessed one of the 7 street processions. Still, I think that's enough photos... next come the videos - will post in a few days - mostly some short snippets of the procession, the piercing in the early morning, Ma Song doing various things, and lots of firecrackers!

Vegetarian Festival 2008 in Phuket Town

Phuket Town - Vegetarian festival October 6th 2008

Phuket Vegetarian Festival - About the Festival
Vegetarian festival 2008 Part 1
2007 Photos

Phuket Vegetarian Festival 2008 Pictures

Well this year I wanted to see something different during the festival. I admit to being a lazy boy sometimes, but today I was awake before dawn and headed to Kathu Shrine before 6am to watch the start of the procession to Phuket Town, and hopefully see some face piercing close up. Actually, the word "piercing" does not describe what happens. Something like "skewering" or "mutilation" might be better! I am not squeamish, but... hint, if you are squeamish, I suggest heading to a different page on this blog!

It was hard to see inside the shrine, but the "Ma Song" were coming out in various stages of trance, and faces were duly threaded with knives, swords, guns, all manner of odd shaped metal pieces. You'd need 20 pairs of eyes to see all that was going on there. I was with a friend, Phil, who is director of the Helicam company in Phuket, so he's a "pro" photographer, but this was new to him too! Thanks for Phil for lending me a Canon G7 camera. Some photos were taken with the G7, some with my trusty Powershot. Some photos taken by Phil. By next year, I would like to upgrade to a bigger, better camera. These small lenses have trouble in low light. Enough tech talk.

All photos below were taken this morning in Kathu Shrine or as the procession started out of Kathu Village heading towards Phuket Town. I also have some video (the Powershot has a basic video function) - this will be added later along with some pics from Phuket Town. This is very real stuff, no excuse for lazing on the beach and missing it. Well worth planning a holiday to Phuket around it. The Phuket Vegetarian Festival rocks!

Kathu Shrine, 6th October 2008

Suits you, Madam

Sword in cheek, photo by Philip Clark

Multiple swords, very ouch baby.

The right to bear arms?

In a trance... photo by Philip Clark.

Steel wire in face. Tell me this doesn't hurt! Photo by Philip Clark.

Getting impaled by multiple needles. Photo by Philip Clark.

No pain, no gain.

Multiple piercing guy. Photo by Phil Clark.

Close up. Pierced and ready to go.

Sword face. Photo by Phil Clark.

The procession left Kathu Shrine little by little. When people were ready, off they went. Once all the Ma Song had left, the gods were carried out and on the road to Phuket Town. Next photos are in Kathu Village.

You'd think one sword would suffice?

This guy had a 4 meter metal rod in his face. Photo by Phil Clark.

Another gun in the face

Procession in Kathu Village

We'll finish with the gods being carried out of Kathu as the sun rises and a thousand firecrackers explode creating a fog of smoke. Walking along with the procession you get pounded by sound. I won't say it again. Sit on the beach or wake up late if you want. But this is something to experience.

Carrying the gods in Kathu Village

Vegetarian festival procession, carrying the gods in Kathu

More Photos : Phuket Vegetarian Festival 2008 - Part 2

Food for the Soul ...

Yesterdays romp on the wild side was all about enthusiasm, determination and a fall.

Exercising demons and having a goal. 

Perhaps a wiser man would have lounged pond side, dampening his audacity and gall.

While feeding both the spirit and the soul.

Today I sat back as Cookie drew swirling, hypnotic patterns on the mirky surface of our bog. 

Hopelessly pursuing tiny leaping fish completely unaware that she is not an otter, but a dog.

Alas today I’m wiser and not that other guy.
So here is to the mellower me and a look at my evening sky.

Village Farang “hits the road”...

Cocked and fully loaded.  Ready to hit the road.  Stopped by Mother Nature as she dumped her Mother-load.  Wind and rain came calling, blocking out the sky.  I still wanted to ride but should have asked myself why. 

I was topping up the tires when I felt a sudden gust.  I turned to see a curtain being drawn across the mountains as we rushed indoors to batten down the hatches.  Safely in the house we watched the drama unfolding.  As suddenly as it appeared, it was gone.  With calm restored there was an unseasonal chill in the air and low white clouds hung like snowdrifts on the mountains. 

A wise man would have called it a day and enjoyed the amazing views from the pond.  Feeling a bit full of myself, it struck me that by cleverly skirting the edges of the storm, with a slight course change, I might be able to avoid Mother Nature’s full wrath.  The cool air and sunless sky promised a speedy ride with less than normal effort.  I chose the right direction and my confidence grew with every kilometer that passed. 

Nearing the halfway point, or perhaps a little beyond, the earth suddenly rose up before me.  Topping the mound my head and heart dropped slightly, as a chasm opened up before me.  Feelings of déjà vu, and memories of my ride with Jubby.  Given a running start, no doubt I could have found purchase upon the other side.  What then of my bike?  I could not, or would not, throw it from one side to the other.  As the inevitability of the situation settled upon me, Mother Nature decided to mock me further.  The rain that I had been outrunning, caught me as I proceeded to retrace and retreat in defeat.  Easy dry trails on the way out, quickly turned slick and muddy on the way back.

Smarting slightly from the need to retrace my path, I was steadfast and defiant, determined that I would not be defeated on the day.  Getting dirtier with every turn of the wheel I still navigated all obstacles with ease.  I turned it into a race and sped toward the finish line.  With perhaps less than three kilometers to go and safely onto village lanes I felt the glow of victory.  Nearing the corner where the rubber wood nursery lay in disrepair, I glanced to my left to see a small herd of cows, heading home from a day of feeding in the fields. 

Suddenly there were strange sounds, and pain in my elbow, hip and knee.  I found myself on the ground viewing the world from an unfamiliar perspective.  Having navigated the hills, rocks, sand and slick wet clay, it was deflating to be defeated by a rain slicked, concrete village lane.  A quick check, and the bike seemed fine.  As happens, I was yet to feel the full effects of the fall.  Except for torn shirt and some blood, I seemed little worse for ware.  So bloodied but unbowed, I finish off my ride while preparing myself to weather my wife’s reaction.  She worries about me enough as it is and hardly needs more ammunition to worn me off my mostly solitary adventures. 

While the wounds heal I’ll gladly remain on a shorter leash but with time my memory and hers will fade.  The call of the wild will slowly increase in volume and the only way to silence it will be to “hit the road.”  Hopefully, next time it will not be with my body, however.

Jui Tui Shrine (Phuket Town)

Yesterday afternoon I took a walk around the streets near Jui Tui Shrine, one of the largest Chinese shrines in Phuket Town. It's just along Ranong Road road from the old market (which has now been demolished and a new building looks like it will be complete sometime soon - great! No more smelly old market!) - easy to find, and certainly worth a look if you are in Phuket Town. Ranong road near the market is busy enough at the best of times. The local buses leave from and arrive at Ranong road. From here you can get a bus to most parts of Phuket island.

During the vegetarian festival, much of the road is packed with food stalls and little restaurants selling Jae (vegetarian) food. I parked a couple of blocks away and wandered along Ranong road. Half close your eyes and ignore the mopeds squeezing through the people, and the road has a very old feel...

Ranong Road, Phuket

And if you look the other way ... a traffic jam. I mean, these people must know what's going on down here. There are plenty of other roads to drive on!

Traffic on Ranong Road

When the vege festival is over the road still has plenty of interest with all the market stalls and local buses, but it's not this crowded! A couple of food stalls...

Cooking up some vege food, Phuket Town Vegetarian Spring Rolls, Ranong Road, Phuket

Ah yes, the shrine. Jui Tui is somewhat hidden behind all the food stalls, but follow the smell of incense and you can find it! Yesterday was the day before Jui Tui's street procession, and there were many people heading to the shrine to pray. These shrines are fascinating, very colourful with amazing displays of Chinese gods, a very heady smell of incense in the air, combining to make something you just don't find back home!

Prayers at Jui Tui Shrine A prayer at Jui Tui shrine

More prayers in Jui Tui Shrine

And yet more prayers...

I have tried to take a couple of short videos too... Practice for tomorrow. I want to take some video tomorrow morning for the Kathu shrine procession to Phuket Town.

Kathu Shrine

Well Friday night was a bit disappointing! I guess I should have checked local sources (like the schedule posted on the wall of the shrine), but instead believed the festival schedule on the "official" vegetarian website that I copied on this blog.. but there was no bladed ladder climbing or oil bathing at Kathu shrine on Friday night. And there were lots of other similarly confused people there too! I met a big group of tourists who'd come over the hill from Patong. Well, hope you at least enjoyed the local atmosphere. I like Kathu village. I just posted about a walk in Kathu village, now a few more pictures of the shrine.

Compared to the big shrines in Phuket Town like Jui Tui and Bang Neow, Kathu is much quieter, yet it's an impressive building for such a small local community. You have to remember that Kathu was where the festival originated, and it seems the whole village takes part. Hardly anyone around not wearing white, young and old. Kathu village and shrine is worth a visit any evening during the festival...

Entrance to Kathu Shrine

Prayers in Kathu Shrine

Kathu Shrine

Kathu Shrine

And a little video of Kathu Shrine too...

Next entry... Jui Tui Shrine - I took a walk around that area yesterday evening. Oh, and the scary bloody face piercing photos will come later. I will drag myself out early tomorrow morning for the Kathu Shrine procession.

Thank You for the Feedback...

Without getting into who said what, and repeating the good stuff while leaving out the bad, I just want to say thank you to all those who wrote in.  I not only learned of why you read these pages and what relationship you have with Thailand, if any, I also became more aware of my own motivations and biases.  I am particularly impressed with those who return often but do it in spite of what I sometimes say, and not because of what I write or how I write it.  An open mind is a precious thing and not to be taken lightly.

This online persona has come upon me quite by chance.  There was no conscious decision to be this or that, or to write in any particular style.  While some prefer a written word that more closely resembles the spoken word, I most obviously do not.  Not only am I generally unimpressed with peoples verbal skills, mine included, I don’t believe such language translates well to the page.  Without all the additional nuances of voice like tone, cadences and a bounty of nonverbal signals, the written word relies entirely upon itself.  Without extraneous visual aids, the words must paint a picture full of meaning, color, texture and mood.  I found myself lacking the ability to do that with the limited vocabulary and phraseology of daily conversation.  That is not to say it cannot be done by one more skilled than I.

My choice of words are not meant to lift me above my readers or intimidate those for whom this is not their native tongue.  Quite the contrary.  I seek to lift up those around me.  To transport visitors to a world of sensory experience and mental imagery, and to stimulate thought, reflection and perhaps a little soul searching.  Realizing that I have spent most of my life as a minority, surrounded by those who do not speak my native tongue, there need be no fear or shyness about expressing yourself in a language that is not your own.  At least not in this space. 

I was pleased to find that not all who return regularly to these pages are western men with Thai wives living overseas.  There are more women than I expected and more Thai women than I dreamed.  Not all respondents have visited Thailand, but among those who haven’t, there seems a strong desire to explore this distant land.  Clearly absent are those seeking a how-to guide to cheap airfare, cheap hotels, cheap beer and accommodating females.  That is as it should be, for I seek not to cater to prurient interests.  More blatant self promotion or pandering to these needs might garner more hits upon my page.  I, however, would not welcome a daily viewing of that person in the mirror.

My lack of helpfulness comes not from malice or arrogance but from concern for those so easily victimized and led astray.  Living in a foreign land is richly rewarding for some, like myself, but fraught with hazards for many.  That is why I think it should not be made too easy to put ones self in harms way.  There should be hurdles and difficulties that must be overcome along the way.  If someone does it for you then nothing is learned.  If one cannot navigate the simple logistical hurdles without someone holding your hand, that should be seen as a sign of things to come.  Fear should never hold one back in life but one needs understanding, self-reliance and competence to succeed.

Once again, thank you for the feed back.