Going to the Fair (Wednesday, November 16)

The next morning, after Tan Punnyo had escorted us to the meal-offering and back, we hung around Khun D's house, not eager to be out under the sun. Jayanto surprised us by dropping in around midday. He told us that he had arranged for a car and driver to take us into Ubon that evening for the Loi Kratong festival (pronounced just the way it looks, with the major accent on the last syllable). This event is celebrated all over Thailand at the November full moon. People make a little boat (kratong) out of intricately folded banana leaves, put in flowers, incense, and a candle, and float the kratong on their local river (or other body of water, as we were to see). The custom is to make a wish and set it afloat with the kratong. Besides this traditional custom, the festival includes music, food, games, public entertainment, and a general carnival atmosphere  so it isn't considered an appropriate place for monks to show up. But the same supporter who had provided a van and driver on the day we arrived (an Ubon businessman who owns, among other things, all the 7-11 stores in the city) had offered their services again so that we could attend.

Jayanto had to return to Wat Pa Pong, but an English monk, who arrived with him, stayed for a while to chat.

At 6:30 Jimmy, the driver, arrived on schedule to take us into town. In spite of his American-sounding name, Jimmy had no English, and of course we had no Thai  a situation that all three of us found frustrating at times, although we managed well enough. He took us to two sites where the festival was being celebrated. In the city of Ubon, it was next to the local university, where the kratongs were floated not on a river, but on a closed-in (though quite sizeable) artificial lake. It took a while to find a parking place, and to get from the van to the lake we passed through a carnival scene. On a large and brightly lit stage, a singer in elaborate costume was performing while a line of young women, also in costume, went through classic Thai dance moves in back of her. A live orchestra played from the side of the stage. Nearby were parked several carts and pickup trucks, probably at some time in the near past or future part of a parade, loaded with large and complicated flower arrangements that looked like, and perhaps were, huge kratongs  lots of banana leaves seemed to have gone into their making. People were admiring these and taking each others' pictures in front of them. A high chain-link fence enclosed a lighted athletic field, where some uniformed youngsters were playing a game of soccer. A moderate-sized crowd sat quietly in the grandstand, not seeming especially excited by the game; perhaps they were waiting for a main event that was still to come.

The crowd grew thicker as we neared the lake, and we came to booths where people were selling kratongs. We stopped at one operated by a student organization, where Dorothea bought a kratong, and then went on to where some wide stone steps led down to the lake. The steps were crowded with people lighting candles and incense sticks and launching their kratongs. Dorothea did likewise, borrowing a light from someone  a transaction easily accomplished with no greater linguistic resources than the Thai words for "thank you," which she knew. Internationally recognizable smiles and gestures took care of the rest. I stood at the top of the steps and snapped a couple of blurry pictures as these things were accomplished. Even though the lake seemed to lack a current, the breeze carried the little candle-lit boats out toward the middle.

Somewhere near the lake but not very near us, loud fireworks began to go off. Fireworks are customary at Loi Kratong, though it was hard to tell if this was part of an organized display. The loud reports seemed to come at random intervals. To our surprise, however, hundreds of big fish leaped out of the lake at every boom. Darkness had fallen, but the lake's surface was brightly visible in reflected light from the other side, not to mention the rockets' red or white glare overhead, and all the jumping fish looked black against this background, though they may really have been white or orange.

Jimmy, who had wanted to tell us something, found two members of Thailand's  Tourist Police to translate for him, and in this way we learned that he was now going to take us to another festival site in the smaller city of Warin, on the other side of the Mun River (pronounced "Moon River"), which separates it from Ubon Ratchatani.

We had planned to buy food at the festival as an evening meal. On the way back to the van, we got some tasty chicken satay, then stopped at a booth where a man was making crepes on a round metal grill. He spread the batter outwards from the center, spiraling it until the crepe was large, round, and thin. We had a choice of several different colored syrups to go inside, but nobody present had enough English to tell us what they were, so we chose on the basis of color. The result was fun to eat, but very sweet; for all we could tell, there might have been nothing in the various syrups but sugar and food coloring.

We got back into the van and set out through the city. Jimmy had been busy on his cell phone and now had a solution to the language problem. Stopping across the street from a spa, he went in and soon came out with two high-school boys, one of whom, Net, was the son of our benefactor (whose wife owns the spa). Net had very good English, and his friend Knight (he carefully spelled it for us) was only a little less proficient. They told us they were high-school seniors who would be going to university next year. They seemed younger to us  naive and giggly compared to American high-school kids, who would generally rather die than appear so unsophisticated, whether or not they were. (I speak from my own experience as a high-school kid, not just as a parent.) The boys were still wearing their school uniforms: navy shorts and white polo shirts. Both were friendly and cheerful and made good guides, and we were grateful to Jimmy for thinking of them.

When we came to the river, parking was even tighter than it had been at the university, but Jimmy pulled into a lot on the Ubon side where he or his employer apparently had connections, and we all walked across a long bridge toward the celebration on the opposite side of the river. The bridge sidewalk was lined with people making and selling kratongs  evidently the festival turns many Thais into entrepreneurs. Big events often do that in our own country, too, though I think it's more common in Asia.

We could see a big carnival going on ahead of us on the opposite bank, and some boats decorated with lights were moored near that shore. We could also see the lights of kratongs taking a rather short voyage from the launching place to a boom a hundred yards or so downstream where water was tumbling over a dam into a canal or channel a few feet lower than the river. Kratongs, still alight, were crowded 10 or 12 deep against the boom.

My western mind immediately began to wonder why they didn't float the kratongs from a different place, where the river current could take them on a really long journey. For that matter, why did the people over in Ubon float theirs on a tame little pond where they couldn't go anywhere? I mean, what was the point? But of course the point was to make a wish and float the kratong in the water. It didn't matter where the water happened to take it; a wish doesn't need a long voyage or a specific compass heading to get to its destination, which is Infinity.

Dorothea bought another kratong, this one beautifully made with blue flowers, from a young woman on the bridge. Besides kratongs, vendors were selling goldfish in plastic bags full of water, several fish in each bag. People bought the fish in order to release them in the lake or river  a pious act from the Buddhist point of view, and in Asia pious acts are generally considered lucky.

The carnival was in full swing on the Warin side. There was an even bigger, brighter stage, with the usual orchestra, singer, and lineup of costumed dancers. The singer we heard was an older woman, and her voice had a raw, sharp-edged quality that I've often heard in Appalachian singing (nor would the tune have been very far out of place in West Virginia). I'd almost be willing to say that she had the famous "high lonesome" sound. Jayanto had told me that Isaan music, of a kind called "maw lam" sounded to him like the kind I play at home. It seems, however, that there are many varieties of maw lam (which is usually transliterated "mor lam" or "mo lam"), and without more study I couldn't say if that was what I heard. We also ran across one or two people  neither of them by any means youngsters  singing by themselves, with accompaniment on a simple stringed instrument. Although I found it hard to hear them well amid the surrounding noise, it seemed to me that their music had an Appalachian ring also.

We never reached the place where the kratongs were being launched. Instead, Dorothea gave hers to Jimmy's mother, whom we met on the way. His little boy was with her, and a girl who may have been his daughter, his niece, or just a family friend. (In the picture, Jimmy is holding the kratong.)

Some people were celebrating by sending small hot-air balloons up in the air. Each balloon is rigged with a firepot that lights it up inside as well as keeping it aloft. They're home-made and flimsy, and generally don't stay up very long, though one or two passed high overhead, pushed by a stiff breeze over the river, before winking out. We watched some men near us trying repeatedly to launch one, but it never got up more than about five feet.

We checked out the food booths, but without great success. I tried one sausage that turned out to resemble an ordinary frankfurter more than anything else, and another that tasted more interesting, but was rare enough to make me nervous. There were also grilled meatballs on a stick, which Net and his friend told us were good, but only with the sauce  which they knew we'd be unable to eat. (Isaan food, as I've mentioned, is known for its hotness, which in Thailand is saying quite a lot.) The poverty of the region has led to the adoption of some foods that are pretty bizarre to our tastes. I don't mean the squid. We did pass on that  I like calamari, but we were nowhere near the ocean, and besides, they too required sauce. But when I say bizarre, I'm referring to the fried insects. We weren't in the least tempted.

The carnival also had games. One could throw a ball at a target and try to dump a pretty young woman into a tank of water. (She may have stayed high and dry all evening; I saw at least one direct hit bounce off the target without effect.) One interesting game involved the participation of a rat. A circular enclosure three or four feet high and about ten feet in diameter had little semicircular "ratholes" around the bottom, with a number painted over each one. The operator sold slips with numbers on them to the spectators, and Jimmy, who obviously loves gambling as much as any other Thai, was astonished that I didn't want to play. He got caught up in the excitement, however, and bought a few slips. When the selling was finished, the owner (perhaps uttering the Thai equivalent of "les jeux sont faits") yanked up an inverted basket from the center of the circle and a frightened rat leapt out and scurried around the perimeter four or five times. The spectators, leaning over the wall, yelled and drummed with the palms of their hands to keep it moving, but eventually it dived into one of the holes, and the many losers (Jimmy among them) tore up their tickets. This rat, I should mention, was much cuter than any American or European rat I've seen. He had black and white spots and big ears like Mickey Mouse, and seemed to me to lack the villainous expression that generations of cartoonists have taught us to expect on Western rats. The Thai rat did appear to be in a panic, but this could have been the result of training; rats are said to be intelligent. It was so easy to think of ways that the owner might have controlled the outcome that I couldn't imagine wanting to place a bet. I still don't know whether he was an honest man abusing a small animal or whether the two were cozy collaborators in a scam.

Jimmy gave our student guides a ride back to the spa, and we turned and headed back to Wat Pa Nanachat. Driving down a long, dark, empty street in Ubon, we passed a man leading an elephant. I assumed at the time that this was a working elephant heading home after a long day on the job, but I've since read that elephants don't do regular work in Thailand any more, so perhaps the man had been offering rides at some festival site that we didn't see. (Which, of course, was work, from the elephant's point of view.)

Climbing to Cambodia (Thursday, November 17)

For the following day, our last full day in the Isaan, we had planned an all-day excursion to a ruined Khmer temple on the border between Thailand and Cambodia. Dorothea and I paid for the van and driver, which hauled quite a load of passengers: besides ourselves, six monks including Jayanto and Punnyo, and one former monk who was still staying at Wat Pan Nanchat. This gentleman proved to be a valuable resource, because he was able to provide climbing assistance for Dorothea when necessary. Any of the monks could help me, but rules and custom forbade them to extend a hand  even a helping hand  to a woman for any reason.

The temple is called Khao Phra Wihan by the Thais and Preah Vihear by the Cambodians, whose ancestors built it in the early 11th century. At that time the Khmer empire included most of modern Thailand and Laos as well as Cambodia itself. We were a little surprised to learn that Preah Vihear is a Hindu, not a Buddhist temple, as are most of the temples around Angkor. India, with which the Khmers traded, was rich and powerful, and its religion was highly advanced. The Khmers must have observed that Hinduism had done pretty well by the Indians, so perhaps it isn't surprising that they signed on. Much later, after the Khmer empire declined, the Cambodians were converted to Theravada Buddhism and converted their temples to wats. They installed a complement of monks in each temple, removed the many phallic lingam stones, and replaced them with Buddha images, which now sat on female yoni stones. (Fortunately, perhaps, the latter were so stylized that only dedicated Freudians were likely to pay much attention to the symbolism.)

Preah Vihear is so close to the Thai-Cambodian border that both countries claimed it until a decision of the World Court gave the temple to Cambodia in 1962. Not many tourists got there before the Vietnam War, the Cambodian revolution by the Khmer Rouge, and the subsequent Vietnamese invasion and long war against the Khmer Rouge put a crimp in tourism. The Khmer Rouge made the area of Preah Vihear one of its strongholds, and when they were gone the area had to be cleared of landmines before the temple could be opened to the public. This was finally accomplished only in 1998.

If history justified the World Court's decision, geography gave some support to Thailand's claim. The temple site is a sharp mountain spur, and the only direct approaches from within Cambodia are high, steep cliffs. Almost the only practicable way to get there is up the easier slope on the Thai side. In 2003 Cambodia did complete an unpaved access road, but (according to the website of the Peace of Angkor guest house, where we later stayed in Siem Reap), it is difficult even for 4-wheel-drive vehicles. There is also a pilgrims' footpath up the cliff, but one website I saw indicated that it isn't always easy to distinguish this from side paths that might lead to places that are still mined. The writer complained that, although signs warning about land mines had been posted in dangerous areas, some international visitors were carrying them off as souvenirs. (This report may be out of date. The Peace of Angkor site reports that a great many mines were cleared from the area during 2004 and that by 2005 the area around the temple, at least, was safe.)

Thailand has taken advantage of its more convenient geography by making the approach a national park. Before you get to the border, you must leave your transport (conveniently near a strip of Thai restaurants and souvenir stores) and continue on foot for half a mile, during which you cross into Cambodia. You have to pay fees to both Thai and Cambodian authorities before your reach the temple, though the fees are not extravagant.

The mountain spur tilts sharply upward until it comes to a point where the cliff drops off on each side. The temple's builders used the upward slope for a symbolic purpose. Temple buildings are located at four levels, connected by ascending flights of stairs, each level more sacred and reserved for more solemn rituals  limited to higher-status devotees  than the last. Near the entrances to each level are stone-lined bathing pools for ritual purification before entering the sanctuary. (It was so hot that I almost wished they were full. Some had, in fact, collected rain water, but it was shallow and did not look inviting.) Angkor Wat, which we visted near the end of our trip, has a similarly hierarchical arrangement, but since it is built on flat ground its levels are successive floors in a high building rather than successive buildings on an ascending path.

At the highest level we came to a courtyard between the temple buildings, where a small Cambodian folk orchestra (all but one of them men) sat playing under a tree. Some of the men had wooden legs, which they had detached and laid in front of them. These musicians are land-mine victims who have been trained by a charitable organization to play traditional Khmer instruments and music as a way to make a living. Perhaps this is a form of begging, but it's a relatively high form, and even able-bodied Cambodians have far less of the world's goods than they need. We were followed, here and on our later visit to Angkor, by children trying to sell us anything from soft drinks to postcards to guide books. This was not only a Cambodian phenomenon  we would also be pursued by child vendors when we visted Ayutthaya in Thailand a week later  but Cambodia is much poorer than Thailand, and we naturally saw more of it there.

The temple was a spectacular sight to see, although Dorothea and I found the climb quite taxing, and after we climbed down, there was still the mile-long walk back to our van. By the time we got there, we were glad to see it. So were the monks, who had gotten rained on during the walk, though Dorothea and I both had the umbrellas we had brought for the sun.

Before returning to Ubon and the monasteries, we took a short detour to another monastery nearby, Wat Phu Din Daeng, where we were dropping one of the monks off to stay for a while. The late abbot, Ajahn Mahasapong, had been a friend and colleague of Ajahn Sumedho (the head of Jayanto's community) when the latter lived in Thailand. Now the monks of Ajahn Chah's lineage are building a memorial to him in the form of a round building that will eventually have a tall standing Buddha image on top. Since it will take some time for the image to be made, however, they have crowned the building temporarily with a pointed plastic dome which we saw them painting to resemble a lotus bud. Ajahn Liem of Wat Pa Pong has designed the memorial and is overseeing its construction. Jayanto put in some time on the project, and found it inspiring to work together with about seventy monks, doing construction work almost without modern machinery. Working in relays, they mixed cement, hauled it to the building in wheelbarrows, lifted it in buckets on pulleys, dumped it from the buckets, and passed the buckets back down to be filled again.

It was late when we got back to our quarters at WPN. We heated up some of the ramen noodles we had brought from Ubon, and found them much spicier than the ones sold in the US. This no doubt helps sales in pepper-loving Thailand.

The next morning, having made the house a bit tidier than we'd found it, we passed the time pleasantly talking with Tan S, who came to visit. In the afternoon we headed for the airport, where the manager and his wife (devoted supporters of the WPN monks) ushered us all into the VIP lounge to wait for the plane that would take us to Bangkok, where we would get on another plane and fly south to Phuket.

This section last updated 3-5-2007