Close Encounters of the Cultural Kind

I have returned from my trip to Thailand, which I make every 2 years, whether I am ready or not.  Sometimes it is really tough to break away from work. I am married to a charming Thai woman (she charmed me anyway), and we have long ago agreed that I would go with her to Thailand every 2 years or so. She goes every 6 months, if we can afford it. We have built a house in her hometown, and she loves staying in it and working on it. Every trip, she has some project that she does, to repair or improve the house. When I go, I am impressed by what she has done, for she has good taste and is very practical, for the most part. We now have a house that is the talk of the town (or our part of town anyway). When the Thai folks talk about it, they call it the American house (bahn falang), and they ask each other, “have you been INSIDE?”, meaning inside the compound walls to see what we have done lately.

(NOTE–  click on each picture to see an enlarged version)

 Once I have seen what my wife has done to the house, given it my approval, and rested from the long flight, we venture out into Thai society, visiting friends, conducting business, going to the store, and going on little trips to other places in Thailand. Two years ago, we went to Phuket, the exotic tropical island, and stayed in a hotel that had 3 meters of water in the lobby during the tsunami of 2004. Upon learning this, I got a room on the top floor. This year, we went to Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, with mountains. This is my favorite part of Thailand. Mountains excite me, they thrill me, they inspire me. Also, they provide some relief from the heat and humidity of Thailand. Also, they are safe from tsunamis.

 Every time I go to Thailand, I have to relearn the language and the culture. I know that everyone is watching me, and I don’t want to be thought of as “the dumb American”. I try to act according to Thai customs, and give them some insight into American customs, at the same time. I have many encounters with Thais and Thai culture, which are fascinating and charming. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” was a popular sci-fi movie which took you through alien encounters of the first, second, and third categories, climaxing with a personal encounter with alien beings face-to-face. Traveling to Thailand reminds me of that. Thailand is so different in environment, language, customs, religion, and values, that it seems like an alien encounter.

  Let me describe one of these encounters for you:

In beautiful Chiang Mai, in the mountains, we have been staying at our hotel, the Riverside Diamond, for 2 days. In the parking lot of our hotel, we are approached by a charming girl / woman (in Thailand it is hard to tell between girls and women… they all look young and pretty). She is carrying a large dish or platter, on which are arranged some cute little hand-made bamboo containers. You might assume the containers contain food for sale, but as the woman gets closer, you hear the chatter of birds, and you realize the bamboo containers are cages, laying on a bed of bird seed. They are of slightly different sizes, but about the size of two fists put together. If you look closely through the bamboo lattice, you might see that the tiny birds are common sparrows, just like the ones flitting about in the trees nearby. The ones in the cages are also flitting about, or trying to, probably beating themselves senseless against the cage and each other.

 You might try to tell the woman “we don’t want to buy any birds”, but if you do, you are just exposing yourself as a dumb American (or falang as they call us). Hopefully you have a Thai friend present who will explain that the woman is not selling the birds exactly, she just wants money so that you can have the privilege of letting the birds go free. “Oh” you may ask, “and then she goes and catches them again, or catches other birds like them? What is the point of that?” Your Thai friend will explain that letting the birds go free is like a good deed, which the Thai people call boon or in English, “merit”. More than that, as I have read, it is a religious obligation to Buddhists, which is deeply woven into Thai culture. Their saying is tam boon, dai boon, which means “do merit, receive merit”. This is popularized in English as “make merit.” Good Buddhists are constantly trying to “make merit” (which erases bad karma or builds up good karma) by doing good deeds to people or in this case, to birds. It seems that the spending of money for a good purpose gets you some moral credit or merit (just as it does in any culture). So this woman is offering you the chance to “make merit” for the good of your soul, or actually getting you closer to losing your soul in Nirvana. From my wide readings, I know that in Buddhism, Nirvana = putting out the flame = final enlightenment = dissolution of self.  Buddha was all about erasing himself and us, as individuals, from the universe (an idea I find to be disturbing and illogical). But I doubt that this woman really understands that. She is just trying to make some easy money from tourists, to make a living in a tough world.

 Now that you are duly enlightened about these pitiful birds and their plight, you might feel like going along and making some merit. So next you ask the price. Your Thai friend translates that one cage with 4 or 5 sparrows is 100 baht, or 3 dollars. There are some slightly larger cages with 8 or 9 sparrows, and those go for 200 baht, or 6 dollars. Now, that is pretty steep, if you know that the average Thai construction worker makes all of 10 dollars per day, or less. But most falang don’t know that, and their pockets are full of money itching to be spent.

 Getting back to the parking lot, my Thai friend, who in this case is my wife, informs me that she wants both of us to release a cage of 9 birds, so I should pay the lady 400 baht, or 12 dollars!! That is more than most Thais make in a whole day!! I attempt a protest, but it does no good, as I am informed that we can certainly afford 12 dollars worth of merit. This puzzles me at first, because usually my wife will haggle the price of anything, anywhere.  But not for this, the purchase of merit. OK, I get it.  Next, the lady says she doesn’t have 2 cages with 9 birds each, so we wait while she carefully cracks open a small cage and a large cage, puts the openings together, and tries to blow some birds from the small cage to the large cage. This whips the birds into a greater frenzy, and feathers fly. I can imagine eyes being pecked out by wayward beaks, as the birds careen into each other, but no birds move into the larger cage.  So the lady crams her hand into the small cage, grabs a frantic bird, crams it into the large cage, and repeats this process until she has 9 birds in the large cage. How she can count them is beyond me, for they are a whirring blur of poor panicked sparrows.

 This process disturbs me, but I could justify it by considering that my merit is increasing, the more tormented the poor sparrows, who are about to be released from their pretty but cruel tormentor. All my Thai companions seem undisturbed, so they must be thinking the same thing, right?

 I give my camera to Yong, a Thai friend / employee, and he prepares to snap a picture of us releasing the birds. We have to pry the cages open, and I am taking too long, so my wife released her birds, grabs my cage and releases mine, and somehow Yong is slow on the trigger, and snaps the picture one second after all the birds have flown the coop. So I got plenty of merit from releasing tormented birds, but no good picture. Oh well.

 I handed the lady the merit / ransom money, and I had my wife ask her “will the birds come back to you?”, for at least she did have lots of seeds under the cages for the birds to eat, if they could take a break from their frenzy. The lady exclaimed “Oh no, I have to go to the forest and catch more.” Good for the released birds….. Hopefully these particular birds have learned their lesson, and will not enter the same bird trap twice. But that is not what I have read. Many of these merit-selling bird catchers feed the birds marijuana seeds, so that the birds will get hooked on it and return to them, to be easily caught. Addicted birds are just as foolish as addicted humans. Also, I have been told that some kidnappers clip feathers from the wings, so the birds can hardly fly. Then they can catch the same birds over and over again, which probably become accustomed to their peculiar fate. Well, at least the birds are being fed, I guess.

 One wonders if the kidnappers themselves are making any merit, by kidnapping and mistreating small animals for a living. I would think their merit account is being depleted, wouldn’t you? But somehow, they justify what they are doing as acceptable. It is a good thing for them that there is no PETA chapter in Thailand. But on the other hand, perhaps the small animals are lucky that they are just being kidnapped, and not eaten. The Thais eat just about everything, including some disgusting insects. But it is interesting….. I don’t see any insects being kidnapped for ransom. They might be easier to catch, but I guess it would be less appealing to release a plastic bag full of scorpions, or large stinging ants, or cockroaches, or mosquitoes. Don’t mosquitoes deserve their freedom, too? Or how about blood-sucking leeches? Somehow, I cannot imagine my wife saying, “ooooohhhhh, look at the poor leeches, let’s pay money to let them go!” When my wife worked in the flooded rice fields of Thailand as a young girl, she was often attacked by blood-sucking leeches, big ugly squishy ones, which she had to pull off of her skin. When she got them off, she smashed them with a stick.  I don’t think she would pay money to release a bag full of  leeches. But she might pay money to buy a bag full of leeches, and smash them one by one, with a brick.

 This enterprising, charming young lady, kidnapper of birds, approached us at our hotel. But usually, these merit-selling kidnappers of birds operate around popular temples, where the making of merit is more on the minds of the visitors. At the temples, there are also kidnappers of turtles and fish and eels and snails, which are displayed in buckets or plastic bags half-full of water. The plastic bags are tied up, with no food visible, and no visible means of charging the bags with oxygen. The animals in buckets are crowded–  just look at the bucket of eels below. The release of each different animal brings a different karmic reward.  For example, releasing a turtle back into the river will bring you long life. Releasing a catfish means you won’t have competition in business. Eels bring money, work and prosperity (things will go smoothly and slippery).  Releasing tiny fresh water snails brings happiness in love.

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These hapless creatures near the temples are caught over and over again, to be sold to the next sucker, er, I mean, pilgrim seeking to “make merit.” Kidnapping small animals and charging ransom money to let them go, is big business at temples all over Thailand. I wonder what the monks think of this kidnapping business that they allow at their temples. I would ask them, but I would need my wife to translate, and she would say it is rude, and refuse to ask them – – –  NOTE TO SELF: If I die and am reincarnated in Thailand, put in request NOT to be reincarnated as a small animal near a Thai temple!!! – – –  I am partial to the birds, because they not as messy, and they are easier to let go. I have ransomed many pitiful kidnapped birds in my trips to Thailand, so I guess I have a little merit built up by now, if anyone is counting.

 I may need it, because I may have angered some spirits on this trip. My wife built a “spirit house” when we built our house. This is a small doll-house-like, religious-looking structure that Thais buy and put next any house that they build. It is supposed to provide a symbolic dwelling place for the spirits of the land and the air, who are disturbed or displaced by the construction of a new house. This is not from Buddhism, it is a much more ancient tradition from animism, the belief of spirits in nature. In Thailand, animism has merged with Buddhism, or Buddhism has embraced animism. Thailand’s popular religion is called Buddhism, but I think if Buddha was alive today, he might disagree. For example, he would have no part of kidnapping small animals for ransom at temples. He might react to that in the same way that Jesus reacted to the sale of animals at the temple in Jerusalem. And I don’t think he would sanction spirit houses, either.

But today, Thailand’s popular religion is an interesting mix of animism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, with a hierarchy of Buddhist monks presiding over the mix. It is more like popular culture, than pure religion. Building spirit houses is the custom, and people feel cultural peer pressure to follow the practice. Everyone else does it, so my wife did it too. Years ago, only one spirit house was required, but then the head monks somewhere decided that you needed a low spirit house and a high spirit house… good news for the spirit-house merchants… it doubled their business!

So when my wife heard about this, and saw other people doing it,  she added a second spirit house, and expanded the concrete platform that they stand on. The platform is in a bad place where she put it, blocking part of the driveway. I almost hit the corner of the platform, while backing the car out of the garage. My wife and I had a fight about this. She didn’t want to change it, and I said the platform was way too big, we could cut it in half, and that I would cut it in half myself if I had to. She said that if I did, I could go back to Texas by myself (this is a punishment?), and that the spirits might cut me in half!  Wow, talk about touching a nerve….. but soon she relented and agreed to cut the corner of the platform off. Which her brother-in-law Dang proceeded to do the next day. Dang claimed that the spirits pulled his necklace off and dropped it on the ground, and that it has never come off like that before. He also claimed that something pulled on his legs while he was asleep that night, and then he couldn’t get his breath. I told him don’t worry, if the spirits are good spirits, then they should be happy that we can use our driveway safer now, without running into their little house with a car.

 I paid Dang well, about twice the normal rate of Thai workers, same as we paid the other 5 people working for us. We also gave them gifts from the US (shirts, perfume, pocketknives, flashlights). We also threw a party and gave away 10 bags with gifts and money in them. We also fed them for free while we were there. These people are dirt-poor, so they were very grateful for our generosity. In recent years, we built a new house for a neighbor whose old wood house was falling down. We spent about $7G to help this woman and her family. Hopefully this makes more merit than releasing kidnapped birds…..

We also had our house blessed, which was a side benefit of the memorial ceremony my wife has done for her departed mother, every time I go to Thailand. This ceremony is quite an event, with much preparation and much ritual. Nine monks and a layman “deacon” from the local temple come to the house. A room must be prepared for them, with enough space for the monks to sit cross-legged side-by-side on floor mats. The wall behind them is draped with a large colored sheet. Electric fans are brought in. A microphone is provided. Food is prepared to feed the monks after their ritual….. this is the only food they will eat that day. The monks file in and take their places. The deacon, also sitting on the floor, takes the microphone and talks or chants for about 10 minutes, with some of the observers repeating his chants. The observers, including me, are also sitting on the hard tile floor, with legs folded under us. This becomes uncomfortable for me in about 5 minutes, painful in 6 minutes, and the Thais are probably amused watching the American squirm and shift about. The deacon finishes his part, and then the monks start their chant, with the head monk leading them.

 This long chant, composed of several different chants, which I can hear stop and start, lasts about 30 minutes. My wife has mercy on me and says I can get up and leave during the chanting. So I excuse myself to the other house and observe the folks (including friends and neighbors who have come for the ceremony) getting the food ready for the monks. They start taking the food in to the house where the monks are.

 The chanting stops, and I am summoned back to the ceremony. There is a little more chanting, in which I hear the names of departed family members, including my wife’s mother, father, and sister. This is a memorial ceremony for them. Then,  I participate in formally presenting the food to the monks. I can directly hand the food dishes to the monks, but women are not allowed to do that. The monk places his ceremonial cloth on the floor in front of him, and the woman places the food dish on the cloth. The monk cannot touch the dish until the woman’s hands are off of it. I guess they think dishes conduct sexual energy or something.

 The head monk with this group is a new one, and he is careful to perform all his duties. After the food is presented, he grabs his bundle of tied bamboo sticks, dips it into his bowl of holy water, and sprinkles all of us. I seem to get wetter than the others. I don’t know if this is because I paid for the whole thing, or if he thought the falang was a bigger sinner. No matter, I will take all the blessings I can get!! Finally, I get to retire to the other house. But soon, I see that the head monk followed behind me, with a young monk carrying the holy water bowl, and he is drenching everyone and everything in sight with holy water. UH OH, I think, and I rush ahead to my desk in the back room, which has many papers and books on it, that don’t really need to get wet. I worry about the finish on the desk, but there is nothing I can do about that. I sweep the papers and books into the chair, and push the chair under the desk just in time, and the head monk sweeps into the room, dousing everything with holy water, including me again. Like I said, I will take all the blessings I can get!! At least I kept my papers from getting wet, which was a small blessing in itself. After the monk left the room, I retrieved some toilet paper from the bathroom and wiped the water off the desk.

 On this trip, we were able to attend a Sunday service at the Chachaengsao Baptist Church in the next town. I am intrigued by these people, who embrace a foreign religion in their own country. They are very friendly, and want to get to know us, but my wife is reluctant. I know of a few Christian missionary groups in Thailand, and I see some Christian offices fleetingly, as we pass by in our car. Crosses are rare in Thailand, and they catch my attention. I have not established a relationship with the Baptist Church yet, but I plan to in future years. Or perhaps with the Catholic Church in my wife’s hometown. Or perhaps both.

 My trips to Thailand are full of cultural encounters like this. I have gotten used to most of them, but it is a chore to remember what to do, and what not to do, when I only go every 2 years or so. I spend much of my trip relearning the language, and remembering the do’s and don’t’s of this charming, exotic culture. But I try to introduce the Thais to some American culture at the same time. This trip, I spent some money introducing the dirt-poor Thai folks to some car racing in two forms, and they loved it, but that is another story. Maybe for the next article.  Sawa-dee-kop until then…..

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About goldenmeantx
Truth seeker, fact finder, amateur philosopher, amateur historian, ex-soldier, ex-motorcycle racer, world traveler, rancher, hunter, gun owner, dirt bike rider, mountain bicycle rider, husband, father, grandfather, hard worker, good friend to all who put up with me, and even some who don't.

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