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Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Ayutthaya

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Most of the Buddhas in Ayutthaya are missing a head and at least one hand, so I thought I’d lead with one that escaped the Burmese invasion (apparently the Burmese invaders believed the Buddha’s power was held in the head and right hand, so they chopped these off of most of the statutes in the ancient capital).

My first thought upon entering the ruins district of Ayutthaya, which is conveniently located about two blocks from the backpacker strip, was to wonder why any society at any point in time would need so many temples so close together. In a radius of no more than three city blocks are the ruins of about a dozen ancient temples. Which means that at some point in Thai history, presumably when Ayutthaya was the capital of Thailand, there were a dozen functioning temples within a few minute’s walk.

I, of course, can’t answer this question except to say that Buddhism is taken quite seriously here. The most common excuse for missing my class is an activity at the temple. Three or four times this semester I’ve had up to half my class missing for activities at the temple, and two weeks ago half of my students spent three days at the temple for what they called, “Buddhism Camp.”

In any event, Ayutthaya is one of the best places in Thailand to take ridiculous amounts of pictures, which is what I did during my afternoon there before taking a really good boat trip on the river and a really lousy night tour of the temples.

If you’re ever in Ayutthaya, skip the night tours. The guide books rave about them because you miss the crowds and the afternoon heat, but you’ll also miss actually getting to walk around the temples taking ridiculous amounts of pictures. The temples are lit up at night, providing enough light to see that there is a temple there but not enough for your picture to come out. And though they are lit for the night tours, the temples are closed before dark, which means you can’t get inside and walk around without jumping a fence (which our guide advised us to do at one of the temples to get a better photo).

So the night tours essentially amount to sitting in the back of a songtheaw and being driven to 6-7 temples, where you are given 4-5 minutes to snap a photo from the sidewalk and show your fellow tourers what the inside of the temple looks like on the screen of your digital camera (almost everyone had pictures of the temples from the afternoon, when a 30 baht entrance fee provides unlimited access to the temple grounds for as long as you feel like walking around). The crowds, by the way, were pretty small when I was there, so there wasn’t much need to avoid them.

Anyway, here are a few of the 300-plus photos I took in my one afternoon in Ayutthaya:

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The ruins are right in the center of town. Those buildings in the background are modern apartments. They are right across the street from the main ruins district.

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This is one of the best photo ops in Ayutthaya. It’s a stone head of the Buddha (presumably one of the many that were chopped off by invaders) sitting in the roots of a tree. The tree apparently grew around the statue’s severed head, and many years later we are left with something that belongs in an art museum.

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A closer look.

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Here’s the whole tree.

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This is how some of the tourists ride. There was a procession of about 10 of these walking down the sidewalk in the center of the ruins district.

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I just like this one.

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There are strange animal figurines in front of many of the temples in Thailand, but this is my favorite so far. There’s really nothing like five-foot plastic roosters and elephant topiary. If you look closely, you’ll see that there is an army of tiny, plastic roosters standing behind the big, plastic roosters in the foreground.

Don’t ask.

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Make that 100 days

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In my last post, I mentioned that music has been banned throughout Thailand since the death of the King’s sister on Jan. 1.

I mentioned this because I truly could not imagine something like this happening in the States or in any other Western nation. If our president was assassinated, you could play any song you like at the bar the next night. And if his sister died of cancer, many Americans would not even hear about it.

Can you imagine what would have to happen before every bar in a major American city agreed to stop playing music for more than two weeks?

How about three months?

Here in Chaiyaphum, the city appears to have decided that 15 days was not sufficient to pay its respect to the late Princess. The city has extended its period of mourning to the full 100 days that will be observed by the royal family. The initial mourning period ended on the 16th, but the full mourning period will last more than three months.

That means us teachers are expected to wear black to work for the full 100 days (teachers are considered government employees, since we work for public schools). It also means there may be no music played at the city’s annual festival, which was already pushed back to the 17th so it would not take place during the initial period of mourning.

At the time of the Princess’s death, the government declared a national mourning period would be in effect for 15 days, during which time all government officials and state employees will wear black clothing and flags will fly at half-mast.

Apparently, the interior ministry also asked businesses to “refrain from entertainment activities” during the national mourning period. I’m not sure what else falls under the mourning ban, but live music was among the “entertainment activities” that businesses have dutifully refrained from for the past two-plus weeks, at least here in Chaiyaphum.

There is an annual festival here that was scheduled to begin shortly after the mourning period began. It was pushed back to the 17th, the day after the 15-day mourning period ended. The festival has been on for four days now, and it will continue until the 25th. But it now appears it will do so without music.

Traditionally, music is played each night at the nine-day festival, often with a big-name act playing on the final day (I’ve heard Body Slam, one of the top pop bands in Thailand, was supposed to play this year). But so far, the live music has been called off out of respect for the late Princess.

I’m not sure whether the ban will be lifted for the final night of the festival (I’ve heard from some people that it will be, and from others that it won’t), but I’ll keep you posted.

The music ban is not being enforced in tourist areas (I was in Ayuthaya this weekend and one of the bars there had a guy singing terrible American oldies songs and playing an acoustic guitar; I’d imagine the same sort of thing is happening in Bangkok and some of the islands in the South), but at least in the northeastern provinces it’s being taken quite seriously.

Incidentally, this is not the first time the government has banned “entertainment activities” nationwide since I’ve been here. There was an alcohol ban in effect for the weekend before the national elections, presumably to ensure the nation would be sober when votes were cast.

Here in Chaiyaphum, that was extended to include the weekend two weeks prior to the election as well. Bars and restaurants strictly observed the ban, refusing to serve drinks during both weekends. As foreigners, we were able to convince someone to sell us alcohol at a convenience store, but only after we agreed to conceal the bottle in a handbag before leaving the store.

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On Wednesday, we had the day off to celebrate the king’s 80th birthday. I thought about heading down to Bangkok for the festivities at the palace, but I ended up staying in Chaiyaphum to take part in the celebration here.

The town erected a large stage (above) with an impressive collage of photographs marking different points in the king’s time on the throne. A few dozen students on xylophones provided the musical accompaniment as a few dozen people paraded onto the stage in groups of three to present decorative egg-shaped somethings in front of the king’s picture. A few dozen more stood in front of the stage holding flags (some yellow with the royal insignia, some with the colors of the Thai flag).

This went on for what must have been two and a half hours before the farang left for a bar down the street. We missed what was probably a fairly dramatic moment when the few thousand citizens in attendance lit candles to honor the king, but Jerry was thoughtful enough to light his on the table at the bar.

We did catch a modest display of fireworks (nothing like the display for Loi Krathong at the lake), and we saw a bit of the traditional dragon dance on our way to dinner. At some point after the seemingly endless egg procession, the area in front of the stage was transformed into a dragon-dance floor (someone brought a bunch of decorative poles for the dragons to dance through and around). Someone also set up three large outdoor movie screens next to the stage, which played Thai action movies for small pockets of the crowd that had strayed from the dragon-dancing area.

We spent most of the night standing around wondering what was going on, and taking pictures with our students and the Thai teachers from our school. But there aren’t many places you can find thousands of people standing around a stage in the same yellow polo shirt, so I’d say it was worth seeing.

At some point in the evening, I realized that I have no idea what the president’s birthday might be, much less which day of the week he was born (Thais wear yellow shirts every Monday, the day the king was born). My British friends did not know the Queen’s birthday, either. I’m not sure what that says about Thais, but it’s definitely interesting to watch.

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The annual Loi Krathong festival was held last week all over Thailand, and the celebration here in Chaiyaphum was quite impressive. It was a lot bigger than anything I would have expected in a town like this.

The traditional element of the festival centers on small, handmade boats (called krathongs) that are made with banana leaves. The boats are filled with flowers, incense and a candle, and some people add a bit of their hair or a fingernail along with a few baht. The krathongs are cast into the water on the day of the festival so that one’s sins will float away down the river.

I was told the entire town would gather at the lake on the night of the festival, so I expected to see a few thousand people cast a few thousand krathongs into the lake and turn the night into one of those classic postcard scenes of an Asian lake filled with tiny floating lights.

This happened, of course, though the wind blew out most of the candles before the postcard scene fully came together. What I did not expect was what came next, which I can only describe as a bizarre blend of all-night music festival, night market, and state fair.

There were four stages of entertainment going all night, with simultaneous performances that included traditional dance, student performances, the Miss Chaiyaphum beauty pageant, and a fairly substantial rock/pop concert complete with lights, a fog machine, and a crowd of screaming Thais.

Between the various stages was a night market of sorts that sold many of the same items you would find at any market (it seemed a bit odd to see things like underwear and socks for sale in the middle of a festival, but that seems to be how they do it over here).

Surrounding the night market were a bunch of large, carnival-style lights, two inflatable slides and various other things that made the place feel a bit like the Iowa state fair. And before the night was out, we had seen at least three different rounds of fireworks.

We left for Momma’s around midnight, and the party was still in full swing.

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Festival pics

There’s the postcard. There are actually a few thousand krathongs in the water, but most of the candles blew out about four seconds after the shivering 10-year-old put them into the lake. It was quite sad to watch, actually. Everyone brought their krathongs to the edge of the lake and handed them down to one of about a dozen shivering children, who stood in the water all night collecting 10 baht per krathong to cast the city’s sins into the apparently very cold water.

This is one of four stages that hosted simultaneous performances from about 8 pm until god knows when. The entertainment ranged from traditional dancing (above) to a surprisingly lively rock/pop show (below).

I’m not sure who the singer is, but a few Thais told me she is a “superstar.” They seem to toss that word around a lot here, but I get the impression she is at least semi-famous over here. There was a huge crowd at the show, and they got a bit rowdy when she sang ‘Zombie.’


This is the Miss Chaiyaphum pageant. There were 20-30 girls competing, all dressed in gorgeous silk dresses like these. They mostly just stood on the stage while somebody rattled on in Thai, but at one point they all walked one by one to the end of the stage and did a bit of a turn before walking back to their places. We didn’t stick around for the whole thing, but I don’t think there was a swimsuit round.

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Before the festival, we all went down to Momma’s to make our krathongs. They had a huge spread of banana leaves and flowers for us, and Un was kind enough to give me a quick lesson in krathong-making.

There were banana leaves and flowers spread across two tables and nine farang furiously crafting our krathongs before the festival.

There’s Olwynn and Jade hard at work.

The finished product. After about a half hour of work, my krathong was complete.

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