Two in Thailand

After raising three children and watching them graduate from college, Bob and Carol decided to leave the educational field and pursue a dream that had been put on hold for 35 years (since graduationg from the University of Northern Iowa). "Two in Thailand" is the journal dedicated to that dream - to serve in the Peace Corps. This is a personal blog. The opinions expressed within do not necessarily represent the views of the Peace Corps or the United States Government.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Dan Sai, Loei Province (Near Laos)

We traveled to Dan Sai (an eleven hour bus ride) to witness one of Thailand's most colorful festivals --- the Peetaa Kon Festival (also spelled Pii Ta Khon) --- which is internationally known. It is in a hilly and mountainous area (much different from the flat area where we live). Instead of growing rice, fruit trees dot the landscape and coffee is grown here. Ther bottom picture shows a young hornbill who has taken residence at a local resort about 10 km outside the village.

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PeeTaa (Phi Ta) Khon Festival

This celebration begins with a gathering at Jao Por Guan's house (a medium for the ceremony to offer food to the spirits of the ancestors). The people dance around his house to entice him to come out and lead the ceremony. A procession will lead him and the woman spirit (Jao mae Nangtiam) to the temple where they will wind around the temple three times.

The villagers celebrate in a fashion similar to Halloween (minus the candy). People dress up as spirits for two days, but at the end of the festival Jao Por Guan and Jao Mae Nangtiam protect the people and the spirits disappear. To signify this the masks were thrown into the river. However, as the masks have become more detailed and intricate, they are now simply returned to a safe place for next year!

Friday, June 29, 2007

Waiting to Start the Parade

This group is waiting for the signal that the Peetaa Kon Festival Parade will begin. The masks are lined up on the street. It was over 90 degrees with 100% humidity and they were about ready to wear the masks for the next 6 hours!

The Big Moment!

1...2...3.....Action!! "I love a parade!"

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Beautifully Carved Masks

These masks are ornately carved and take many hours to make. Many years ago, the masks were thrown into the river to get rid of the bad spirits. But now they are so elaborate that they are kept for the following year or sold to people after the festival.

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Parade Time!

The groups proudly march in the parade and periodically stop to pose for pictures. There were photographers from China, Japan, Korea, Germany, Israel, as well as many other countries who converged on the little town of Dan Sai for these photo "ops". We enjoyed meeting people from all over the world. One couple we met stopped many of the mask wearers and made deals to buy the masks. They have a website called "Tribal Trappings" where they offer many Asian works of art. The masks ranged from 1,000 baht to more than 4000 baht ($120) for the elaborately carved masks!

A Touch of Halloween

Some of the masks have evolved to resemble masks you would see in the U.S. These masks are not of the traditional type. The picture at the bottom shows the leg of a baby in the mouth!

Craftsman: Mask Maker

Many of the masks for the Peetaa Kon Festival are very elaborate and are designed by craftsmen. The top of the mask is a "huad" made from a traditional woven bamboo container normally used for steaming rice. The face is from a coconut leave sheath, while the nose is carved from soft wood.

Beautiful Colors

Each group has its own style of mask and colors! Originally, only certain colors were used. Now there are many different combinations of colors!

Got mud? Earth Spirits

People fire rockets into the air to help initiate the onset of rain. The rich soil combined with water will help produce the crops to insure food and prosperity. These men are either symbolizing the rich earth or just came back from a mud spa!

School Competition

Many schools from the area converge on Dan Sai to participate in the talent contest. The competition features elaborate costumes and choreography! They work for months on their dance and theatrical presentations.

Walk Softly and Carry a Big Stick

The Peetaa Kon Festival also celebrates fertility. Many of the participants carry small swords in the shape of a penis with the tip painted bright red. In an agricultural society, the penis symbolizes abundance of crops. Obviously, these two men believe size does matter!

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Carol Meets Elvis

After the parade, the masked participants wander through the crowds for hours. They tease people, wave their phallic symbols at young girls, or just enjoy having their pictures taken! This participant elected to carry a guitar (which has been known to signify other things at rock concerts).

Bring on the Dancing Girls!

Every festival has either a beauty contest or dancing girls. We have even seen scantily dressed "go-go" style dancers at the monk initiation parties. They love their dancing girls and they love their music LOUD!!!

Everyone Loves to Get Their Picture Taken!

Everyone in Thailand seems to have a digital camera (except the poor rice workers), but we never see any photos! They take 100's of photos but apparently never develop them! They love to have their picture taken --- from the young to the old!!! As you can see with the older woman, they are also very uninhibited!!!

Friday, June 08, 2007

Centipedes Bite!

We think our house is the local breeding ground for centipedes. We spray our kitchen every night and ususally wake up to the sight of several semi-conscious centipedes (4-6 inches long) suffering from the effects of the spray. Bob is always walking barefoot in the house (which is the custom in Thailand). He has stepped on a few dead centipedes and scorpions, but yesterday a very "live" centipede got him on the top of his big toe as he opened the refrigerator early in the morning. Oi!!!! (as they say in Thailand for "ouch"). His foot was on fire for three hours. Luckily, he reacted quickly and the swelling was minimal. Today, Bob is wearing flip-flops in the house!!!!

Baan Kaao Chakan

We traveled with our principal about two hours from our village to look at furniture. We wrote a proposal for funding a Community Education Resource Center and many of our family members and friends donated enough money to actually make it happen. The center will provide information about HIV/AIDS, job opportunities, and resources to learn English (books and computers). On the way, we stopped at a village (Baan Kaao Chakan) that is located next to a mountain that serves as a reserve for monkeys. Before Thailand became the world's leading exporter of rice, the countryside use to have a lot of wildlife until deforestation removed their habitats. Some of these reserves remain home for monkeys, tigers, and elephants. An interesting observation: you have to be careful when walking under the trees because the monkeys will fight and cause the loser to fall to the ground with a loud thump.

Carol Feeds the Monkeys

The monkeys were quite shy and held their distance, but when we showed them food, all reservations were tossed aside. Our principal bought some snacks and fed the monkeys. However, on her second attempt, the monkeys took the entire bag out of her hand. After watching their lightning fast reactions and noticing that their teeth resembled long, sharp knives, Bob said, "No way!" However, Carol was a lot braver. She held the other bag high above their heads and reached down with the other hand to feed them. Bob was happy just to stand back and take pictures!

Friday, June 01, 2007

English Camp -- "A First"

One of our secondary schools (grades 7-12) has never had an English Camp, despite the popularity of the concept. It took many hours of preparation and organization, but we managed to implement it with the help of 4 other Peace Corps Volunteers. The event was a "kick-off" to a program that Carol's principal initiated ... "Speak English Everyday". One hundred-twenty 7th and 8th graders attended the English Camp. There were 5 stations that the students rotated to and the Thai teachers assisted us at each station with any translation that we needed. The teachers also prepared the meals and snacks. The idea behind the English camp is to break down the "fear factor" of speaking English and the opportunity of speaking with "native speakers" who, incidentally, show the "good-side" of Americans! We think we succeeded on both counts!

English Camp Games

Two things that students (and Thai teachers) like the most at English Camps are songs and games. This game is an elimination game (if you can't find a group you must sit down). A "bridge" is formed by two students. A "traffic light" is formed by three students. A "traffic jam" is made with four people. A "flower" is four people forming a ring and one person standing in the middle and an "octopus" is a formation consisting of eight people. When a command (e.g. "traffic jam") is given, the students must abandoned the previous formation and make the new formation, unfortunately abandoning someone who cannot find a group. We eliminated 112 students leaving one group of 8 forming a giant octopus. The 8 students received a candy treat from the teachers. The real purpose of the game is to teach auditory discrimination skills. When Bob announced "traffic light" many students heared "bridge". The consonants and vowels are difficult to discern. For example, when we say "hot" they hear "hard". The Peace Corps volunteers that helped us commented that at the end of the two days, the students were picking up on auditory cues much faster. An activity that took 45 minutes was being reduced to 25 minutes, so they had to improvise. That is the purpose of the English camp ... to expose the students to English for 8 hours a day rather than the usual few minutes a day they get from Thai teachers who enunciate English entirely different.

Giant Soap Bubbles

One of the stations at the English Camp was "Soap Bubbles". Words like "big", "float", "soap", "bubble", "string", "straw", "put in", "take out" and of course "oooohhh, aaahhhh" were taught. The ingredients were distilled water, Dawn Soap sent to us by Carol's mom (because the soap in Thailand is too diluted), and glycerin. Bob went to 5 pharmacies in Bangkok before he finally obtained the glycerin. The question, "Mii glycerin chai mai, krup?" was met with a bottle of "Listerine" or rectal suppositories. The students were very adept at making the bubbles!

Taste Test

At the English Camp we taught "salty", "sour", "bitter", "sweet", "spicy", and "bland". Test solutions were made to teach the different tastes and then actual foods were sampled. Bob made the test solution for bitter using quinine which achieved some interesting reactions!!! The students were asked to describe the tastes of the foreign foods using English words. For many of the students, it was the first time they had ever sampled peanut butter, jelly, and jelly beans!