A lady boy beauty contest, missionaries on the Burmese border, and a tap on the shoulder from old father time.
A guest post from Peter Coats whose own blog will hopefully take shape soon here:
I had a few days away from Khoen Kaen and decided to visit Nongkai, one of my favourite places in NE Thailand, on the Mekong River. It’ s an eclectic town with a significant Vietnamese population, a good few Chinese Thai, and of course, many Lao folk as they are only a short hop in a boat or a B52 fuel tank cum canoe away on the other side of the river. It’ s also a holiday town with an amazing market –a friend of mine once commented to me that I only seemed happy in holiday towns. The remark was made over 30 years ago and I felt rather insulted at the time – with old age comes a degree of self revelation and nowadays I can see the truth in this.I am not sure why, I was never a particular fan of Blackpool but there you go. I digress.
I landed at the busiest time of year and ended up having to pay a small fortune for a room (Woe, woe). It was the annual fireball festival and a synchronous Chinese festival that had something to do with dragons. The fireball festival is worth a mention, as it remains a spectacular enigma. Every year on the eighth Buddhist moon, what we might describe as the full moon in Scorpio, the Mekong River starts ejecting balls of fire. Moreover, it actually does! The traditional explanation has to do with the Naga snake Being that lives in the river, (whose several headed I mage is found all over Nongkai and is often seen as a corona, representing wisdom, around the head of a Buddha image), making his presence felt to his people. Nowadays, of course, we all insist on having some sort of supposedly more ‘ rational’ reason for these natural phenomena but so far, no one has yet come up with a suitable scientific working hypothesis for the Naga Being’ s annual show.
Not many people know this; but we still don’ t really know how water transpires its way up a tree above something like 22 metres either, (that’ s how far capillary action will take it), it’ s a less spectacular mystery but a mystery just the same. The Mekong fire balls, though sometimes something of a damp squid, can be very spectacular and are predictable and watched nowadays by thousands of visitors filling up all the hotel accommodation in Nongkai and surrounds. There was a Thai TV documentary that speculated that it might be a sort of hoax to attract Thai tourists, or a Lao plot of some kind; it was not only shown to be rubbish but also caused a major storm among the local people who have honoured the phenomena and attendant Naga for centuries. The nearest thing to a scientific theory has something to do with methane released from the mud under the river –it’ s the constancy of the timing that presents the problem. (There are some theories relating to the water temperature and the season). Who knows? I know I enjoy the mystery and we disrespect these stories at our peril.
As part of the Fireball festival and the Chinese dragon festival there were shows every night along the river promenade as well lots of fabulous food stalls and markets. It was here that I caught the lady boy, or more properly katoye, beauty contest! My friend Ian, a Scottish teacher and his Thai partner, On, told me about it so we went along seeking entertainment. Idiotically I omitted to take a camera, otherwise I could have embellished this
tedious written account with actual images. Ian took photos and promised toshare them when next we met so you may get an image in the New Year.The Chinese community are usually very wealthy in Thailand and they are very good at getting sponsors so the prizes were really quite substantial– in the order of thousands of pounds.As an aside, on another occasion in Nongkai, I met a (presumably gay) Dutchman with a stunning katoye girl/boy friend – I remember finding her disconcertingly attractive for a red blooded fellow like me ho ho – and she, according to Ian’ s gossip, kept the Dutchman on the proceeds of her winnings from a couple of beauty contests a month!
The show was a huge family affair with about 50 contestants who got gradually whittled down as the evening went on and the whole thing was interspersed with cabaret and comedy turns while the judges conferred at each stage. As the contestants, got fewer they were questioned more thoroughly and we got a running commentary from On. Nowhere else in the world could I imagine whole families watching cross dressers and pre-op transvestites talking about how they are saving up for their operations, what hormones they take for breast enlargement etc. It’ s all quite mad and it’ s no wonder I have such a fond interest in the culture of SE Asia. As I have observed a hundred times, it’ s the Buddhism and a culture devoid of a God who is both interested in and constantly offended by matters pertaining to our sexuality. That’ s the only pontification you will get in this round robin! (So far anyway!)Ian, On and I had a wee bet on who would win but she came second.
I am miles away now in a mission school cum community on the border with Burma/Myanmar, the border is a small river and you can swim over if you feel like a poke at the borders of this world. Apparently, during the Burmese elections last year the Karen independence army took over a nearby town on the Burmese side as a protest and the Burmese army shelled the school as a sort of vindictive nothingness. It’ s all peaceful now and hard to imagine any other way. The folk here just cross backwards and forwards, and why not I suppose.
My fears about working with missionaries, grounded in some horrific experiences as a young man in Africa, proved groundless. There are five white teachers, four of them in their 20s, here beside me and we all live, in community, at more or less the same level as the Karen folk we celebrate and teach. The central function of the place is to take care of folk’ s needs and education rather than saving anyone form whatever it is we need saving from. They are, of course religious and inclined to refer to the Great immortal and invisible First Cause and Mystery as “The Lord”, in much the same way as 12th century serfs might refer to their local kind and benevolent (if potentially angry and jealous) landlord.
I will never understand magical religious thinking in the modern world!However, in their lives they demonstrate a commitment and love of people than I have ever mustered in a lifetime of being called to struggle with doubt and faith. Actually, that is not true – I think I was the same in my 20s, and I had the same love and passion for the Jamaican people as they have for the Karen. Mine was more surprising religious experience that came to me without beliefs and blew me off my centre. As well as the love of God and illusions of God, I was filled with grandiosity and narcissism and, since then, have been called to follow a lonelier and much foggier road in my lifelong quest for meaning. It’ s a thin line between mystical wonder and cynical realism and I have often got lost on one side or the other while wandering off the line.Looking back along that road I find myself back where I started before religion became a vocation; I am still tottering between the truth of emptiness and neurotic attachments to my meaningless, illusory and personal world. “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?”
I have nearly a month here replacing a young man who is going back to the states for his friends wedding and I am looking forward to the experience. I only have about 15 hours teaching (science and history!) a week so that’ s a relief. It’ s a bit spartan mind with hardly any fans let alone aircon, and only two meals a day of rice and dhal or vegetables with a bit of fish paste.
It was on my way here that I bumped into Old Father Time waving his hourglass and scaring me with his sickle. I knew I was coming to a ‘ bush’ place so I rather overpacked my rucksack with heavy creature comforts, as well as DVD’ s and teabags etc, and set off for the journey via Khoen Kaen. I had been having a bit of niggling trouble with my right ankle since leaving home. It was a puzzle because I had sprained my left ankle walking on Dow Crags in May so I could not fathom why the right one was bothering me. I remember buying an ankle bandage in Bangkok and being irritated with myself because I had chosen not to pack one form home; so I must have been aware of it by then.
Anyway, I left Kalasin for Khoen Kaen and did a fair amount of hoiking myself about KK looking for a hotel and walking to the railway station to buy a sleeper ticket for December etc. By the end of the day, I had a badly swollen ankle as if I had a bad sprain but there had been no injury there since 1989. The next day I decided not to soldier on to Maesot (a two day journey) before getting it seen to. I met an old English KK hand and recommended a large and expensive private hospital so off I went. I took a tuktuk there and was quickly processed through to orthopaedics – unfortunately the doctor had very little English. In bloken Inglis he ascertained that I had not injured it, poked about the pain for a bit, said something in Thai to a nurse who reappeared moments later with a HUGE syringe. With no more ado and certainly no questions or explanations he proceeded to plunge it in between the bones of my ankle and empty what seemed like half a cup of what I assume was steroids of some sort into me. He prescribed me some drugs that I later found out, from a drugstore owner, were muscle relaxants and anti- inflammatory pills, and sent me on my way with no further advice or explanation. I seem to remember the words arthritis and maybe tendonitis – I do know I got a bill for £60!
Despite the lack of explanation he seemed to know what he was doing because within a couple of hours I could walk. Nevertheless, the incident sent me into great despair and my black dog was out of his kennel with a
vengeance. I decided I should not go teaching (all that standing up) and the anxiety was enough to make me consider coming home. In the great gloom of the black dog I envisioned my future to be unspeakably limited, perhaps driving one of those scooters.Within 48 hours the pain had become a constant but vague background thing and I could walk about for a bit without it hurting though a stick is needed to take the stress off the foot. I decided that, if I am going to have an arthritic ankle for the rest of my life (I don’ t think they do new ankles on the NHS like they do knees and hips) then I might as well get used to it so I rang the school and told them I was coming after all. I cut a fine sight now with my miniature walking stick; it’ s Thai so even on its full extension it’ s still too a little too small.
Fido, my black dog, has returned to his kennel, though he barks from time to time to remind me that my carefree days of backpacking a la Peter Pan are probably over. Walking, rambling and tramping about have always been one of my great loves, so you can probably imagine how it feels like a visit from Saturn himself.And I have already realised it will be a struggle to learn how to teach sat down when I am used to giving entertaining lectures to adults. I am not sure I will be able to stop myself but I plan to try – otherwise it’ s the anti-inflammatory pills, I suppose.
I will write more about my time here in a couple of weeks when I get a handle of the Karen community and my work here.
I hope you are well and enjoyed the read. If any of my readers with experience in these things (ankles, feet, tendonitis, arthritis etc!) have any advice I would much appreciate it!