Ubon Rachathani, Thailand

Isaan Life – New Year

New Year in Issan
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New Year in Issan
New Year in Issan
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There are places along Isaan’s Korat Plateau, framed by the wandering Mae Khong, dotted with centuries-old rice paddies, lumbering, long-horned water buffalo and forgotten villages influenced by the Lao culture to the north that are so stunning, so awe-inspiring that words are inadequate to describe them. Phachnadai Cliff, 45 kilometers from Khon Chiem and a six-klick hike straight up from Ban San Som, a sleepy 200-member farm community of wooden huts built on long poles, is an unusual place to greet the New Year. But then Isaan is an unusual place, a special place and teetering and shivering through the night toward dawn in a brisk, cold wind on the edge of a 15 meter black cliff with a dozen friends and 200 strangers was the perfect way to greet the New Year, a year sure to be filled with beauty, adventure and opportunity.

Our journey began 175 kilometers away at my home in Ubon Rachathani in southeast Isaan on the north bank of the Mun River, a tributary of the Mae Khong. We traveled north by motorcycle toward Ban San Som, a village that does not appear on any western map buts sits less than an hour from Laos. Neither Ban San Som nor Phachanadai Cliff produce even one hit on a Google search. It is not a destination resort. It is however a very special place to welcome the New Year.
 
Ban San Som in January is surrounded by freshly harvested rice fields and wandering water buffalo, eyeing the newly harvested rice strewn through the fields. In theory, there are two ways up the mountain. It’s a six kilometer hike straight up or a 13 kilometer overland trek by motorcycle. In reality, the hike is probably the way to go. A combination of laziness and rapidly disappearing sunlight produced a quick decision; the motorcycle seemed a quicker, less strenuous option. Unfortunately we were not ready for the unbeaten, unmarked track that lay in before us.
 
There is no visible road up the mountain. There are ruts and rocks and roots that slowed our progress to a crawl. Deep sands as shifty and slick as sheer ice blocked our path in places reminding me it’s the heart of winter back home in Vermont, USA. And at times murky brown water covered the track making it impossible to know how deep and passable it was at any given point. Nittaya Saebut, a fourth year student at Ubon Ratchathani University, described the journey charitably as “unpredictable.” Surasak Witton, a third year at Ubon Rachathani University, carried Sukie, a second year student from Rachabhat University who knew the area quite well. He said his rider made it hard to focus on the path. Surasak explained, “It was hard for me having Sukie on the bike because she would tell me about different areas of the mountain and if I took my eyes off the road for one second conditions would change and a different type of terrain would jump up in front of me.”
 
We made it to the top in darkness; the view would have to wait until morning: the New Year. A sheer black rock covered the peak, a lava-like geological formation though there is no volcano near Phachanadai Cliff. The difficult path to the summit didn’t keep some 200 others from making the journey to greet the New Year. Camp fires fueled with wood scavenged from nearby forest sprinkled across the black rock lit the landscape like lights on a Christmas tree. There was even New Year’s entertainment on the top of that mountain. A stage set up in the midst of the waving fires offered an assortment of colorful dancers and songs through the evening. There was even a “Cow Gee” eating contest which I entered immediately as the journey produced a severe hunger deep in the pit of my stomach. Cow Gee is sticky rice grilled with egg. I stuffed my face full of the deliciousness
and finished second among 16 other contestants. My stomach full I realized I’d won 200 baht! Being paid to overeat; Isaan is a wonderful place!
 
Sleeping was impossible! The wind howled constantly sending a chill deep into my spine. At 5:30 a.m. everyone that wasn’t knocked out from the New Year celebration, clustered on the 15 meter cliff to watch the sunrise. The cliff drops straight down to the ancient Mae Khong. The rising sun slowly revealed the misty mountains of Laos covered in early morning fog and produced an immense cheer from the crowd. It brought a tear to my eye, and I wished everyone “Sa Wa Dee Bee Mai.” Happy New Year 2008/2551.
 
About the author:
Eli Sherman is a graduate of Montpelier High School in Montpelier, the capital of the state of Vermont, USA, and a “young blood writer” living in Ubon Ratchathani, Isaan – Northeastern Thailand. He’s been to Isaan four times in his short life. Once on a cross cultural exchange with Montpelier to Thailand Project; once coming for five months as an exchange student at Benchama Maharat school in Ubon; and again coming as a guide for Montpelier to Thailand Project. He now works as a volunteer at the Institute of Nutrition Research Field Station, Mahidol University in Ubon Ratchathani and is writing to present Isaan Life to the world, and especially KhaoSanRoad.com visitors.

Isaan Life – Graduation

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Isaan Life Graduation
Isaan Life Graduation
Isaan Life Graduation
Isaan Life Graduation
Isaan Life Graduation
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Isaan Life Graduation

Graduation is a time when family and friends come together collectively to celebrate individual achievement and the passage from one phase of life to the next. Graduations are a time to reflect on the past, to smile, relax, enjoy the moment and feel optimistic about the future. A week ago a dear friend Jaruwan Supolrai received her diploma from Ubon Ratchathani University, a college with about 5,000 students some 15 kilometers south of the city. It was indeed a celebration but hardly a spontaneous or stress-free one!

This graduation was an explosion of color. Reds bled to crimson, baby blue and shimmering golden hues! Nervous, smiling students dressed in their most fancy uniforms, shirts and skirts for the young women and tight white suits for the boys. Each graduate wore a lacy, baby-blue gown. The graduates carried multi-colored flowers carefully cradled in the arms of teddy bears.

This colorful scene was hardly serene. The crowd was noisy and boisterous. Thai people love to take pictures and there was a constant whirring and clicking coming from every direction. Proud parents, happy students, smiling brothers and sisters, confused babies masked the underlying tension the graduates felt. Jaruwan explained that the preparation that went into the event was “exhausting and formal.” Rehearsals were rigorous, lasting for hours for two days before the actual ceremony. Also Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn was there to hand out the diplomas. This was nerve wracking; there is no room for error in the face of royalty. Jaruwan explained, everything had to be perfect. The princess is a scholar having earned a doctorate in Development Education from Srinakharinwirot University in Bangkok in 1987.

Next there was time pressure. Some 1,140 students had to collect their diplomas in around 1 minute meaning that 35 students had to march to the front and receive their diplomas each and every minute. The graduates worked on their timing in practice, even counting the number of steps they had to take every second!

The day of the ceremony was so stressful that Jaruwan said there was “no time for sleep.” Wake-up time on graduation day was promptly at 3 a.m. for a pre-dawn hair and make up call. The scene was hysterical. Imagine a queue of half-awake girls standing in the glow of a dimly lit convenience store dressed only in their nightgowns waiting to get into a nearby salon just outside the University gates. Soon there was a second line, the same girls parading out of the salon, still in their nightgowns, but with made-up faces aglow and freshly coifed hair carefully arranged into swirls atop their heads.

Jaruwan dressed for the day at 4 a.m., a quick and simple task; first slip into the neatly ironed shirt and dress, then the gown. Next a quick breakfast; there would be no time for more food until much later that afternoon. Exhausted and not yet dawn, Jaruwan headed out to meet her classmates. Soon she would parade formally into the gymnasium where the Princess waited.

The gymnasium was graduates and students only. The processional and the ceremony were worth the frenetic middle-of-the-night effort. The graduates, identified by their flowing blue gowns, marched in first. First and second year students stood on either side solemnly singing the school song. Jaruwan said she was, “nervous because everything was so formal.” Later she said that when the 52-year-old Princess entered the gymnasium and the Royal Song played she “got goose bumps all down” her arms.

An hour later the ceremony complete the students emerged clearly relieved the formalities were over. “I did it!” was a common exclamation. Now, the celebration, the graduation party could begin! First year students honored graduates from different faculties surrounding them singing or dancing to show respect. There were flowers everywhere. Thousands, every color of the rainbow, purchased from street vendors that morning were showered upon the graduates. I felt like a beast of burden carrying more bouquets than I could handle; so many had been given to Jaruwan.

The formal party began to wind down. Families that have traveled far distances get back in their cars or vans and headed go home. The graduates headed out for food and a moment of relaxation. Everyone was exhausted but there was one more celebration, one final party. The graduates headed out to the bars for a last college bash before taking that next step into the “real world.”

About the author:
Eli Sherman is a graduate of Montpelier High School in Montpelier, the capital of the state of Vermont, USA, and a “young blood writer” living in Ubon Ratchathani, Isaan – Northeastern Thailand. He’s been to Isaan four times in his short life. Once on a cross cultural exchange with Montpelier to Thailand Project; once coming for five months as an exchange student at Benchama Maharat school in Ubon; and again coming as a guide for Montpelier to Thailand Project. He now works as a volunteer at the Institute of Nutrition Research Field Station, Mahidol University in Ubon Ratchathani and is writing to present Isaan Life to the world, and especially KhaoSanRoad.com visitors.

Isaan Life – Harvesting Rice

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Isaan Life, Ban Ku Muang, Ubon Ratchathani, North East Thailand
Isaan Life, Ban Ku Muang, Ubon Ratchathani, North East Thailand
Isaan Life, Ban Ku Muang, Ubon Ratchathani, North East Thailand
Isaan Life, Ban Ku Muang, Ubon Ratchathani, North East Thailand
Isaan Life, Ban Ku Muang, Ubon Ratchathani, North East Thailand
Isaan Life, Ban Ku Muang, Ubon Ratchathani, North East Thailand

BAN KU MUANG, UBON RATCHATHANI: Last week I found myself hip-deep in the sun-drenched rice paddies of northeast Thailand, 13,000 kilometers from the snow-covered fields of my home in Vermont in the northeastern United States. Overcome with curiosity about the labor-intensive, harvesting process that produces one of the world’s most plentiful crops, I decided to see how it’s done first hand. Well let me tell you, it’s back breaking work! I have a new found respect for everyone that works in those rice paddies. It was two of the more uncomfortable, difficult, backbreaking days of work I have every experienced in my life.

Aidan Curley an English teacher here in Isaan, contacted a family and asked if I could work for a couple of days in Ban Ku Muang, a small farming village encapsulated by rice fields. They were more than happy to have an extra pair of hands, even if they were unskilled. I had no idea what I was getting into. Waking up before seven a.m. for school back home had always been a struggle, but waking up at five a.m. to harvest rice seemed like a suicide wish. Bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, I trudged off to work at dawn and soon found myself surrounded and submerged in a sea of tan rice plants sticking up from the soggy earth. I wore a pair of mud boots, unfortunately too small for my feet, a hat to shelter my pale face from being burnt to a crisp, wool gloves to provide small protection from the razor sharp sickle used to cut the crop and a jacket to keep the sun off my arms.
 
My co-workers, all dressed the same, were part of an extended family including the mother, Youanji; father, Naiton; son, Naicheng and a daughter, Nangdam. They had twice the energy and resolve that I had that morning even though they had been working the fields for almost four months straight, every single day!
 
For the first hour of ‘Gee Ow Cow’, as the rice harvest is known, Naicheng guided me through the painstaking cutting ritual that is repeated a thousand times each workday. He spoke no English, but my Thai is good as I spent a high school semester in Ubon Ratchathani and studied the language intensively back home as well. As a first-time harvester my job was simply to cut the stalks and leave them on the ground for others to process. Using my sickle I would gather the rice plants into my hand and then slash the stalks just centimeters away from my fingers. I would repeat the process until my hands were full. Twice in the first hour I cut clean through my glove taking skin off of my hand. My co-workers were amused but encouraged me in my effort.
 
By the eight a.m. breakfast break I was fully awake and beginning to work into a rhythm. I was also exhausted. Breakfast was enjoyable, it included a dish called ‘Sok Lek’ which is raw meat soaked in blood, and ‘Lao Cow’ a white whiskey. Naiton explained: “The Sok Lek will make you strong, and the whiskey will make you forget about how hot it’s going to get.” This sent the other three into a fit of laughter causing me to feel nervous.
 
Sure enough the blistering heat came and so did a killing back pain. Bending down for hours each day for months, I wondered why my co-workers weren’t all hunchbacks. After only half a day I was beginning to feel ancient myself. Naicheng and his family had beautiful spirits; he turned to me after a while and asked, “Does your back hurt?” I returned his question with a smile: “A little bit.” He smiled back and asked: “Are you hot from the sun?” I laughed through the sweat pouring down my face: “A little bit.” Naicheng looked at me knowingly and said: “That’s why we must talk to each other because talking will make you forget about the pain in your back and the heat from the sun.” It was a very sweet thing to say and he was a right. After talking about my country and his, his life and mine, I began to forget the pain and heat. I was into the rhythm of the harvest. The back pain was unbearable however when we quit for the day at five p.m. I dragged myself onto Aidan’s motorcycle and collapsed exhausted in my bed. I was fast asleep by eight thirty.
 
The following day was much like the first however I moved a little faster. I was confident but still a novice. I was also foolish. I wore a short-sleeved shirt and by mid morning I had a horrid, painful sunburn. The conversation turned to food. Youanji was very interested in the foods I had eaten in Thailand. I love Thai food and back home am considered an expert by my friends. Even my brother, a professional chef asks me questions about Thai spices and cuisine. Youanji asked me: “Have you ever eaten field mouse before?” Thinking that she was joking I replied, “No, but I’d love to try it.” She seemed excited and invited me to dinner the next night. I was skeptical thinking perhaps she was teasing me.
 
To be polite I accepted but sure enough as soon as I arrived to her home a glass of whiskey and a big platter of roasted meat was placed in front of me. I could see it was a mouse or at least a rodent; it had a long tail that Naiton snatched and crunched into his mouth. My image of a field mouse was the tiny creature that hides in the lush green grass back home. This mouse was more like an oversized rat; it was the size of my forearm. Not knowing what to expect I picked up a meaty looking piece and slowly put it into my mouth. Bam! Steak, chicken, beef all thrown together into one delicious bite! I couldn’t believe I was eating mouse. I was converted from a doubter to an addict in one bite.
 
Harvesting rice is something I will not choose as my life’s work. I probably wouldn’t ever want to do it again; the long hours are too much for too little. However, the people that do this everyday, some seven days a week, are generous, hard working and fun loving and I respect them deeply.

Eli Sherman is a graduate of Montpelier High School in Montpelier, the capital of the state of Vermont, USA, and a “young blood writer” living in Ubon Ratchathani, Isaan – Northeastern Thailand. He’s been to Isaan four times in his short life. Once on a cross cultural exchange with Montpelier to Thailand Project; once coming for five months as an exchange student at Benchama Maharat school in Ubon; and again coming as a guide for Montpelier to Thailand Project. He now works as a volunteer at the Institute of Nutrition Research Field Station, Mahidol University in Ubon Ratchathani and is writing to present Isaan Life to the world, and especially KhaoSanRoad.com visitors.