Author

Jackie Jeane

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Happy

Happy New Year! Again? Yup, that’s right. For those of us lucky enough to live in the Land of Smiles we get to celebrate the holiday not only once, not even twice but three times! I eagerly anticipate each celebration for very different but equally exciting reasons. We all know about the traditions of dropping the ball in Times Square, counting down, smooching a loved one and making resolutions. You may also know about our second New Year which falls sometime between January and March (depending on the year), Chinese New Year. That is where I pull out my awesome red dress that I only get to wear once a year, wait for the red envelope full of money from my boss and have a big dinner with family.

Phrae Province

Then there is the Thai New Year. If you live in Thailand you have most likely already seen and possibly participated in the massive water games that are played countrywide for nearly a week, depending upon your location. I too have had my fair share of foam parties and powder puffing from sexy half-dressed ladyboys. This year I am especially excited. I get to experience what I think of as my first true Thai New Year’s celebration. In a small rural town and I look forward to sharing with you the traditional ways the lovely Thai people of Den Chai, Phrae celebrate Songkran. Our preparation for the big holiday this year started in Pattaya, actually. We had taken a short break from the northern smog and were planning our return to the north. My family was discussing which day would be best to travel back and they all agreed that we had to be off the roads before the 10th of April.

celebrate Car

I thought they were possibly overreacting but we enjoyed the clear empty highway on the 9th and returned to our home. From the morning of the 10th on I saw just exactly why they were so adamant about our return date. The roads were just packed! The very same roads we freely cruised just the day before had turned into a slow, endless parade of cars. I also saw the photos of Bangkok becoming a ghost town which was the main reason for all the traffic. On a side note I really loved all the extra rest stops the government had set up. My husband said that anyone can stop, have a coffee or water, massage and rest and it is all free as one of the government’s ways to try to reduce the accidents over the holiday. The reason for this mass exodus is not because the foam parties are more raging in small towns it is because everyone is returning home to see their families. Many people in Thailand leave their children with their parents while they work in the cities.


Hawaiian style shirts

Often people only get one big holiday each year where they get to see their children and or parents. Bus stations and train stations are full of people with gifts to bring home to their family. The most significant gift is that of a new piece of clothing. Thai people traditionally wear a new piece of brightly coloured happy clothing or new outfit to celebrate a fresh start. This is the origin of the flowery Hawaiian style shirts everyone wears. The morning of the 13th of April marked the beginning of the official celebration. All the homes in our village made offerings of rice and water which they set up on tables in front of their houses the night before. On this very special night no one locks their gates because the spirit doctor for the village comes to each house at about 4 am to set the rice offerings into banana leaf bowls with lit incense and candles. He then connects with the ancestors of the household and asks them to watch over and protect the family for the next year.

Grandma Mai,(Yai Mai)

Each person in the village makes a donation to the spirit doctor for his services of approximately 50B. Our village then hosted a gathering to honour the eldest member of our community and mark the beginning of Songkran. People donated items to the temple and there was food for everyone to share. At 96 years old, Yai Mai (Grandma Mai), sat gracefully with impressive posture and a smile that shone from her eyes. The members of the community took turns pouring scented water over her hands to wish her good blessings for the next year and to receive her blessings in return. My family told me that the water over the hands is symbolic of bathing the other person. In the past the family members would actually bathe each other as a ceremonial way of removing all bad energies to begin the New Year fresh and clean. After a nice big meal together and many happy exchanges of good wishes for the next year we headed to the market.

Songkran

It was fun to drive around our town and see the children playing on the sidewalks. This year is exceptionally hot so there were not many people out but there were children playing in kiddie pools and splashing water on people in the market. Day one was ceremonial, sweet and mild. I only got wet one time when our pharmacist gently poured cold water on my shoulder in the market. Songkran’s second sunrise saluted us with a snake. Walking onto my patio I was surprisingly calm, must have been because I was still half asleep, when I walked right up to a metre and a half long snake. We exchanged stares for about five minutes before he got bored with me and slithered away. Upon sharing this news with the family everyone exploded in happy chatter about how lucky we were going to be this year. I will gratefully accept the luck and I now may need to buy a few chickens and pigs to keep the snakes away.

Spirits

Our morning included a nice trip to the crazy busy local market where we bought Mom new clothes for the New Year and all of the offerings we were going to need for the next few days. Our offerings included a pig’s head because the spirits that oversee one of our homes asked for it. Luckily pig heads are easy to come by here. Then we brought offerings for the local monk to the temple. This was quite nice for me to see because this was not a flashy, beautifully painted and adorned with gold temple. This was truly local style. We sat in a small meeting room on the floor together and made our offerings. Our family has been making the exact same offering to the same monk for nearly 30 years and to other monks at the same temple for generations. We offered water, flowers, incense, food and money. The monk serves as a medium between us and our deceased family members so by offering him the food we are offering it to our family members who have passed away.

Play Waters

We also brought along a beautiful flag and decorative banner which we put into sand on the temple grounds. This is because in the past Thais would bring sand and make little stupas on the temple grounds as an offering. Sand was very useful for many things around the temples in the past but they no longer need it as much so we offered this flag and banner as a symbol of what was done in the past. After receiving the traditional blessings from the monk including him sprinkling water on us and adorning our wrists with 9 strands of white thread we headed back home. Most family members had already returned home and were sharing dinner together. We did see more kids playing with water in the streets and they gently splashed a tiny bit on us offering a much appreciated escape from the heat. That evening was mostly spent drinking local moonshine and singing karaoke. Great fun at the time but not super great the next morning.

wishes for the New Year

On the third day we woke up bright and early to make our offerings at our spirit houses. Each home here has a spirit house where we make offerings once a year to our ancestors. Our village spirit doctor contacts the deceased to decipher what and when we are to offer. We went to each of our families homes and made our offerings then got ready for a family dinner with relatives who had returned from Bangkok. That day was very interesting for me to watch because I was fascinated by how everyone just seemed to know the rhythm of the day without saying anything. Food was prepared, eaten, moonshine was drunk and one by one everyone relaxed in a big line on the floor and slept or chatted. That evening we made offerings to the elders in our village. The 4 eldest neighbours received visitors all day from family and friends who brought along offerings of scented water and money. We received good wishes for the New Year from them and then adorned our heads with the scented water.

Nang Songkran

It was so incredible to look into their wise eyes and listen to their heart felt wishes for our lives. I wish that we treasured our elders in other countries like this because it really felt like we placed them in a position of honour and, in my opinion, they deserve that. We completed our day of “lod nahm dum hua” or the ceremony of adorning ones head with water by pouring water on the shoulder of our Buddha statues.
This is done to as a symbol of cleaning away the energies from our last year and starting fresh. All of this and we had not even started to play with water yet. Day five brought out the water hoses and the party got started. My husband and I got to walk in our cities parade to represent our village. Each of the villages in our city made a float of this year’s symbol for New Years. This year Songrkan began on a Sunday so our Nang Songkran, beautiful sister, is Tungsatevee and she will ride on the Garuda. The Garuda is a birdlike mythological beast with a lot symbolism and deep meaning for Thailand.

Parade

It is currently the symbol for the country as well. Each village has their contestant for the annual beauty pageant ride on the float. It was quite exciting for me to carry the sign for the mothers of our village.I believe that I was the luckiest person there because everyone wanted to pour water on the only farang, foreigner, walking in the parade. I was covered in powder and danced my way from one end of town to the other where the judges welcomed me to Thailand, a lovely sentiment. The community then gathered to watch the beauty pageant, play with water and dance the night away. Day six was the big parade in the centre of our province. We went to relax, watch the parade and play with water. The final day of official celebrations was the seventh day when we gathered one more time with our village members to “lod nahm dum hua” and pay respects to the elders in our community.  We also did a prize raffle and just relaxed together after the intense week of ceremony and party.

To sum up my slow life Songkran experience in our small town I would use three words; respect, ceremony and renewal. The party aspect was more like a side note at the end rather than the focus. The sweet serenade of Songkran has snuck into my heart forever. Best wishes of good health and lots of love to you all.

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Growing up in the United States I had the great fortune of a loving grandmother who took pride in the good old American Constitution and political system. She was active in local government and made sure that, even as a youngster, I knew what the political world was all about. I enjoyed going to press conferences and meetings with her because it made me feel important to be the cute young girl with an opinion on gun rights and such. A few politicians took note of me and even started to groom me for a political career as early as 11 years old. I worked in the capitol as a page for both the House of Representatives and the Senate and was even invited into backdoor caucus meetings. Eating a $2,000 per plate charity breakfast sitting next to, then presidential candidate, Bob Dole was an unforgettable experience.

Fortunately, I was young enough to spot the double speak and straight out lies that were all around me in that world. Before I could sell my soul, I walked away. My short political career was over by the time I turned 15 years old. That was when Fox news came out in the US and I gave up all hope in the media as well. I literally tuned out, gave my TV away and decided to live a life true to my own inner callings. I do believe that experience set the stage for me to eventually move to Canada and abroad which brings me to here and now (my favourite place to be).
I have moved around and felt at home in many different parts of the world. I do feel that I am settled, at least for the time being, in Thailand. It’s funny how feeling settled has brought out parts of me that I had long since left in the past. It’s easy to be aloof about politics and policies while travelling but once I feel at home, I start to become more aware of and involved in my community. My political roots are still deep down inside me and have crept up from time to time in Thailand. I love to keep things simple by focusing on my immediate family and village around me. Therefore, I have decided to get to know my poo yai baan or head of my village and share the experience with you. Many expats are aware of their village head but may not know exactly what they do. My past has left me inclined to find out. On a slightly chilly evening in Huai Kood, Den Chai, Thailand I sat down to learn about our poo yai baan, Khun Putiset Sootamsupajalern, and this is what he had to say.

Where are you from?
I was born in Lampang, but I have been living in Den Chai for about 40 years. As a young child I went back and forth a lot. I went to school in Lampang until 4th grade when I finally moved to school in Den Chai full time.

How many people live in Huai Kood village?
Now we have about 2,050 people.

How long have you been the head of Huai Kood?
Over 6 years. I began my term in 2012.

How long is your term?
I will serve until I am 60 years old. In the past the position was re-elected every 5 years but at this point I hold the position until I want to stop, or I am 60 years old. This is because there is no need to hold a big government election for this position. The government realised that it is very easy to change the village head and they can quickly and easily hold an election as needed.

How does one get to be Poo yai baan?
The people of the village vote.

Does your family work with you?
Yes, they help a lot. Everyone here helps a lot. We all must work together to do everything needed. One person simply cannot do it alone. Many people think it is easy money to be Poo yai baan. The truth is that I must work as well as being Poo yai baan because the salary is very little. I am lucky because I have other work on my farm as well. I plan to continue my farm and start another business that will provide jobs for the people of Huai Kood when I retire.

What does your family help with?
My daughter helps to do all the paperwork needed for official government business. My wife does everything from cooking for many people, when we have big meetings, to organising festivals. They both go with me to meetings, parades, funerals and many other events to help make sure everything runs smoothly.

Do you enjoy your work?
When everyone is working together, I feel very happy and enjoy the work. We also work with government offices and other agencies in the province. Sometimes we have different ideas on how to get things done. I would like to see these ideas brought to the people in the village to allow everyone to vote. I believe this will ensure that the people’s voices are heard and will help to get more things accomplished.

What do you do on a normal day?
The focus for myself and all the people of Huai Kood is to take care of the homes, schools and temples. Day to day that can mean doing many different things.

Every day I work on the farm where we raise chickens, cattle and fish as well as grow fruits and vegetables. After work I do whatever is needed that day in the village. Some days I attend events that are put on by the government to teach us skills which we then bring back to the village to share with the people. Skills such as how to compost or grow mushrooms etc. are shared with other Poo yai baans and we teach each other what is working well in our villages.
I also attend to any problems in our village that may have come up. I make myself available 24 hours a day. With normal jobs people go home at 5:00pm and they are finished for the day. I cannot do that because we never know when problems will arise. Water pipes break, power goes out, floods come and we cannot control when that will happen. I have even brought blankets and food to people in the middle of the night because of floods. Sometimes I get a message at 12am or 1am and I must go right away.

It’s very important to remember that the Poo yai baan is not the head of the people and does not control the people. Poo yai baan is the person at the bottom who helps all the people. It is also my job to listen to the people of Huai Kood. When we have meetings, everyone can feel safe to voice their opinions. I am responsible to bring those opinions to the government meetings and share them. Anyone that has any problems can call me for anything, so my days are different each day.

Am I the first foreigner to live here?

We have had two farang (foreign) men live here before. They have passed away already. They lived here about 25 years ago. One of them had a child here but he also moved away. You and your daughter are the first farang girls to live here.

What do you think about having a farang living in your village?
It is good! Because we have the opportunity to share ideas together and make some changes. Each country has its own style and it is nice when we can learn from each other. The ideas that are useful here we can share them with all the people in our village. For example, I have learned about a project from Japan. They built a water factory to provide clean drinking water and they allowed only the retired people in their community to buy shares of the business. That way each month they get some money back from their investment. This helps to take care of their needs as they can no longer work. The factory also provides work for the village. I plan to start the same here in the future.

How do you think it affects the town having farang living here?
Good, as well. If farang come, they help with the village and the people in the village. Farang that live here are part of the village and need to participate in the same ways as the rest of the people here. They do not think of the farang as a foreigner but rather as an older or younger sister or brother, as one of them.

What do you think I can do to be part of this community?
You already know how to help here. You look around and think about what can be done to help and you do it. For example, painting old signs and taking care of your street as well as walking in parades and participating in events. Remember, we have the Songkran Festival coming for you to be part of too. We would like you to walk in the parade with the rest of the mothers from the village.

What do you think expats can do to help small villages like this?
Thai people and farang are the same. Everyone would like to help in the small villages. The best way to start is to go make contacts in the village. Talk to the people in the hospital, government or local schools and see what they need then make a plan based on that.

Do you have paid people who help you with Poo yai baan responsibilities?
Really, everyone in the village helps but do we have three paid positions for helpers. Two people who check on everything in general and one person for safety issues.


Anything else you would like to say?

I am doing my best to help create jobs for people here. We are teaching people how to look after cattle, chickens and eggs, as well as fish. We will continue to work on the clean drinking water project when we have time. Now we focus on what we can do to make our beef and eggs the best possible. I will continue to build the farm and would like to open it as an official educational centre for the local people to learn about farming. We would also like to offer rooms for people to stay and learn about farming. We plan to keep it fun and Thai style with karaoke and big rooms for eating together. Everyone is welcome.
This experience not only opened my eyes to how welcomed I am but also touched my heart by the sheer selflessness of this position. I am a very practical person when it comes to community and life in general. I love that most of what our Poo yai baan does is the practical day to day stuff. If he sees something that needs to be done, he knows how to get it done. That is a great value to any community. I am not sure in other countries I have lived in what government official has the ability to be so hands on and in touch with the people they work for. The political games that I ran away from leave the representatives of the people either dismayed by their inability to make change or hardened by the whole system. I saw many bright-eyed young politicians who, in a few short years, sold out to the idea that if they wanted to stay, they had to play the game. My old school roots are watered by this concept of a Poo yai baan who knows my name and cares about what happens to me and my family. I am left inspired and ready to stand side by side with my neighbours as a member of this community.

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The ancient-architecture-art

I remember when I was a 27 year old woman living in Canada, so unaware of what my future had in store for me. I had come to know a very inspiring group of ecowarriors in my nifty open minded community. They really opened my eyes to many different aspects of life from spiritual health and healing to gardening and natural medicine options as well as much more. It was so easy to fall in love with their kind Canadian ways and their inherited strong wisdom. I valued my time with them and considered it like school, so I was very open minded to my “teachers”.

Until one day when everything changed… At a community meeting we were discussing sustainable communities and what that might look like. I remember my excitement until they mentioned things like sharing, communal living spaces and eating together to save resources. I honestly ran for the hills as quickly as possible. I had grown very used to my private lifestyle on a few beautiful rolling acres in British Columbia Canada. The thought that I would have to give up all of that privacy and possession simply did not register well with me. I also saw nothing but problems when it came to sharing resources.

What if someone breaks something? Who will pay to replace it? Will it be equal in who brings what to contribute? What if someone makes a mess in the kitchen and is lazier then everyone else so others have to clean up after them? No, no and no. I just could not see it working for me. Especially with a new baby on the way I did not want to be in that kind of a situation at all. As they were slowly working with the city to start up their project I made my exit and looked for other options in the world.

Their lines of thinking did however leave an impression on me and made me consider how I could live a more simple and less harmful life without having to give up my treasured privacy and independence. Ultimately, that is a very big part of what led me to move to Thailand. I researched warmer climates with low costs of living, access to clean food and the possibility of medical assistance. Friends of mine from Canada had already suggested to me that I would love Thailand; it kept popping up as a possibility and eventually became a reality. In the beginning I thought I would just come for a year to be a stay at home mommy to my new little girl and then move on or move back home. For sure I did not predict the massive impact my time in Thailand would have on me and the change of life course it would bring about.

Initially, Thailand was a mixture of shocking and difficult with spurts of excitement and wonder. I finally settled into a beautiful little house on stilts in the garden of a very sweet Thai family. The story of finding this home was actually quite special in itself and maybe fate was taking me by the hand to teach me some very big lessons. My dear friends from Canada had allowed my daughter and I to be house guests with them until I found a place of my own. I was a bit scared to be out on my own but one morning, after over a month of living with my friends I woke up knowing that I really needed to find my own place. I went for a motorbike ride with my daughter to a new little breakfast restaurant in our town. On the way we took a little side road where I saw this house that hit me like a bolt of lightning. I pulled over, stared at the house and said to my daughter, “I don’t know how but we are going to rent that house”.

After a few dumbfounded minutes of staring we continued on our way to eat. In the restaurant I explained in my very broken Thai that I was looking for a home to rent for my daughter and me. The sweet woman that worked there just looked at me and smiled but as I tried to explain what we would like she seemed to be genuinely interested and caring. As we parted ways she told me her name was Pi Newt and gave us one of those beautiful loving Thai smiles that left me feeling hopeful. I decided to drive past that house again on my way home to see if maybe there was someone there I could talk to. When we pulled up I was shocked to see a man hanging a sign in English that said House for rent. Of course we went inside immediately and I did my best to talk with him. It was in fact the house that I loved so much for rent and shortly after we arrived Pi Newt pulled into the drive way behind us. It was hers and her husbands, Pi Prasit’s, home and they were happy to rent it to us. We moved in the very next day and that was the beginning of my first Thai family.

Our little house did not have a kitchen and although it was beautifully set in a lush garden it was actually very tiny. One room with a bathroom and that was it. We ate outside under the house and often ate together with our Thai family or our neighbours. They shared everything with me so very openly and easily. They allowed us to use their bikes to go to the market; they would even drive us to the main city if we wanted to go shopping. Most days my daughter would wake up and wobble straight over to see Pi Newt because she grew to love her very much. Pi Newt would often make her a few eggs and some homemade kahnom and just enjoy her company. I did not realise how much I needed that support. As a new mother she was a lifesaver for me. All of the sudden I had a support system and I started to thrive again. In Canada I had friends and support groups that I could go to for “socialisation”, as well as a friend or two who would pop by from time to time but daily life was essentially solitary. I thought I valued that and even protected that but my experience in Thailand was starting to open me up to new possibilities.

Growing up in the United States was a very impactful experience for me. I was taught to work hard and always strive for more. Bigger, better, faster, stronger was deeply ingrained into me. Fortunately, I balanced out the need for more over my time in Canada and Thailand and have calmed down quite a bit.

Although I greatly appreciate my life lessons and the opportunities I had as a child in the USA I also feel a little bit sad for the people living there. I noticed there has been a large breakdown in the family unit.

Aside from getting together for holidays (if they are lucky) most people move out of home as early as 15 to 18 years old and find their own ways in life, often relocating to other parts of the country. The typical work structures do not condone a strong family unit and it is common not to keep a strong bond with parents.

The adult-asia-beach

Of course there are always exceptions but I am speaking from what I observed. The USA offers retirement homes everywhere and many people opt for this simple solution for dealing with ageing parents. I see the impact that this has had on me and now wonder if, in Canada, I was not running from all of the problems of community living but rather running from having to be in relationship with others and deal with people in a more family like way? I was simply not brought up with the tools to navigate that world.

There in the south of Thailand, in our little garden, I was shown such a beautiful example of family living that it changed me. I accepted that a loss of privacy would be replaced by support from those around me. I loved that I wanted to support them back and that there was not a concern for who was giving or taking more but rather a natural rhythm of caring. This country has been greatly shaped based on a father figure loving them and seeing to all of their needs and that is a treasure in our world. My heart has been touched right down to the core and changed by this unwavering feeling of being cared for and working together.

I have also accepted that my possessions that I loved so much in Canada were of no value at all when compared to the advantages of family. That made giving them up and moving on so much easier. Since then I have never really looked back. I have spent the past 9 years living in simple rooms or houses where we cook with the family around us, eat together, take each other to doctor’s appointments and just generally look out for each other. They iron my daughter’s school uniform (I loathe ironing) and I sew up their clothes for them. We all do what we are good at.

I really love how the labels for family can be applied to many people here as well. For example, any woman around my mother’s age could be called mom or auntie. That goes for men as well and it really helps to make me feel like I have family everywhere I go in the country. I still get privacy from time to time but I do not find I miss it as much as I thought I would.

I wish for everyone this holiday season to look around them and notice the family in their community. This might be the person who makes sure to smile to you each day on your way to work or the person who knows what coffee you want before you order. I hope we can all build on that and expand our family units.

Embracing the Thai sense of family has been a blessing I would have never realised I needed so much if I had not come to live in Thailand. If you are lucky enough to have built a family community around you I wish you and yours a loving and supportive holiday season.

The ancient-architecture-art
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