Bamboo: uses and myths

by Margaret Elizabeth Johnston
Bali Bamboo

Blessed bamboo! It is a staple of life in many ways here in SE Asia. As I have been travelling around Laos, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, I see everyone from locals to tourists using it in many ways everyday. Bamboo is regarded as sacred; it is full of grace and represents strength, endurance, flexibility and longevity. I have seen it in reds, purples, yellows, many shades of green and even deep purple. It is the fastest growing plant on our earth and can grow 2 inches in one hour! The amount of oxygen it releases is 35% more than the equivalent stand of trees and sequesters 12 tons of carbon dioxide from the air from one hectare. Bamboo is truly an amazing plant and I believe it has some kind of connective consciousness for when one grouping of bamboo of a certain species “decides” to flower, which it does every 65 to 200 years, then wherever the other species are on the planet it will all flower at the same time! Amazing!

In Thailand, bamboo is used in an incredible amount of ways from cooking the shoots and roots to eat to creating baskets and mats to use by weaving its strips. It is resistant to termites and is a hardwood to be used in construction materials for homes and furniture making, home utensils, musical instruments and even being able to cook over the fire with it. The pipe is the strongest design for building and with the joints of the bamboo combined with the lightweight flexibility, there is nothing one could want more for easily created fabulous constructions! Everyday items that we don’t even notice we are using here in Thailand are also being imported; incense sticks from Vietnam, chopsticks from Cambodia but in Thailand we have over several hundred thousand farms.

One of my favourite bamboos is the Lipstick Bamboo, I first came upon it in Laos up in Luang Prabang when I was helping out with some of the panels for the Pha Tad Ke Botanical Gardens there for education panels around the gardens. I had never seen red bamboo! The purple bamboo is usually a larger pipe and I’ve seen it cut in half to use in gardens to keep soil in beds. It can be such a beautiful decorative sight. Walking through tunnels of bamboo in various botanical gardens around the world is a magical experience. I am not surprised there are many myths in many countries including bamboo in their fables and esoteric beliefs and how man came to be.

BambooIn the Philippines the first man, Malakas (strong), and the first woman, Maganda (beautiful), emerged from a split bamboo stem on an island that was formed after there had been a battle between ocean and sky. There is a similar myth in Malaysia where there is a man that dreams of a beautiful woman while he was sleeping under a bamboo plant and decides to split open one of the bamboo stems when he wakes to discover a beautiful woman inside. A Vietnamese legendary hero, Thanh Giong, used a bamboo cane as his weapon to liberate his land from an invader and in another myth called “The hundred-knot Bamboo tree” we learn of a poor young farmer that fell in love with the daughter of his landlord. The landlord tried to foil the marriage by demanding a bamboo tree with 100 nodes. Gautama Buddha came to the farmer and told him that such a tree could be made from many different trees and gave him a magic spell to combine the many nodes of the bamboo. The happy farmer returned with his magical bamboo tree and demanded to have the daughter’s hand in marriage. The farmer was so excited to see this tree that when he touched it he became attached to it. The farmer would only allow the landlord to be released from the bamboo tree if he could sweep his daughter away for marriage. In Thailand, there is a very persistent belief in ghosts and malevolent spirits. Even recently, in 2017, in a case in Ban Na Bong, Nong Kung Si District, Kalasin province, there was 2 mysterious deaths involving two men and several animals. This prompted villagers to ascribe the deaths to malicious phi pop, a cannibalistic female spirit that likes to devour humans. The villagers from over 370 households paid 124 Thai Baht per house to hire an exorcist from the Chaing Yuen District and a well known monk to accompany him from Wat Chaiwan to eliminate these bad spirits. There was a “ghost busting” ceremony that took more than 2 hours. Both the exorcist and the monk were aided by 20 assistants to catch at least 30 phi pop. They then forced them into bamboo tubes which were then incinerated. (After the fact, professional medical specialists later identified the cause of death as leptospirosis combined with high blood pressure).

BambooIndonesia is one of the largest exporters of bamboo worldwide. I am living in Bali at the moment and the Balinese use bamboo in similar ways as the rest of SE Asia however one of the musical instruments here that is created from bamboo is the Suling/flute. It comes in a variety of sizes from very small to very large. The smaller Suling will have a higher pitch. There are normally 6 holes and a cyclic pattern can be made to generate a sustained breathing pattern for an uninterrupted tone. It is achieved through breathing in through the nose while breathing out the mouth using air stored in the cheeks. The holes are evenly spaced and different noted can be created by covering different holes, like a normal flute in Western society but with the added complication of the breathing pattern. I am reminded of a didgeridoo when I learned of this!

BambooThe painting shown here is called Bali Bamboo Supermoon. I painted it for an art expo I had here and there is a large community in Bali, both locals and new agers, that honour the full moon cycles as in many parts of SE Asia. The moon is a feminine symbol that universally represents the rhythm of time. The phases of the moon symbolise immortality, eternity, enlightenment and the darker side of Nature herself.  During a Supermoon, in scientific communities, a perigee moon, the moon is 50,000km closer to the earth and will look 20% larger and has a stronger affect on the tides and ourselves. This is a good time to meditate, recharge the human energy field and align the chakras as these traditions are time honoured tracing back to many ancient cultures, being used in many rituals and ceremonies. The Supermoon can light up corners of the subconscious giving one insights to their emotions and help to guide one along their soul path.

I cannot wrap up this eclectic mix of bamboo facts and myths without mentioning a wonderful dessert we use in Thailand called Khao lam. There are two main versions of this treat, one is made with normal white sticky rice and the other with sticky black rice. The rice is mixed with sugar, sweet red beans and coconut cream, then stuffed into cylinders of hollow bamboo. The tubes are slow roasted over coals as the ingredients mingle together. From many corners of SE Asia, including our own Thailand, bamboo is a wondrous gift for us to use and appreciate in so many different ways. Just make sure to always carry a tube of bamboo with you while walking through the Thai forests so that if any phi pop are around, you can stuff them into the bamboo tube!

The sound of breezes through bamboo leaves can touch the soul and calm the heart. Let us take care of our bamboo forests and regard them in awe.

Miss Magaret

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