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The ceremony of moving into a new house in Thai is called keun ban mai, and literally means "going up into a new house". The terminology refers to the fact that in the past one had to ‘go up into a house’ since most Thai houses were built on stilts to avoid the possible flooding during the summer rainy season.
My neighbor Justin came by on Friday in order to confirm our trip down to Doi Tao on Saturday afternoon for a ceremony to inaugurate the new house of his grandmother and her spinster daughter, “aunt Yah”, who lives with her. He also reminded me that I had already promised his grandmother that I would attend when I saw her at his ordination several weeks ago, so there would be no wiggling out of it! The ceremony, presided over by several Buddhist monks would not actually occur until Sunday, but the auspicious time chosen for the ritual was quite early and since it is a three hour drive, Justin felt that it would be easier to drive down on Saturday and spend the night. It was only after I told him that I had been looking forward to it, that he mentioned that he had not relished the thought of the long drive alone in case I had decided to not go. Alone? Thai don’t like to go to the corner grocery alone. The original ‘groupie’ society. Seems that most of the local Doi Tao contingent, his sister, aunt, uncle and Jeep, one of their daughters, would be driving down early Saturday morning, but since he had to work at the university that day until 4:00 pm, he faced the possibility of a solitary journey. And for Justin, a jabbery Sagittarius, a three hour journey by himself would have, no doubt, been more than he could possibly have survived.
Doi Tao (Turtle Mountain) lies about 150 miles south of Chiang Mai. The highway for the first 100 miles is excellent, divided and with two lanes on each side. Flat countryside passing through farmland and a number of small towns. Then a secondary highway for the last 50 miles is accessed. It too is a very good road, though only two lanes, and passes through hilly, forested country with numerous orchards of longan, lychee, citrus and surrounded by towering, craigy mountains to the west. Reminiscent of a Chinese painting of the Sung dynasty. The small town of Doi Tao is located but a short distance from an enormous lake nestled between two mountain ranges.
Justin and I arrived shortly after 7 o’clock and there was still sufficient light to tour the garden and inspect the new house. The construction of the new house was dictated by the fact the Justin’s grandmother, a vivacious lady of 92, and undisputed matriarch of the ‘clan’, slipped on the rather steep steps of the previous, very elevated, house and breaking her hip, has been confined to a wheel chair since the accident. The new house, though elevated in the front, takes advantage of the slightly sloping terrain and has a ground level, ramped entrance in the rear part of the house.
Endless food, snacks and abundant chatter filled the evening. As well as some excellently produced DVDs of classical Thai musical performances. Much of the singing is done by a solo male artist, or occasionally is a duet of male and female with the traditional instruments.
Justin, one of his uncles and I slept on the covered veranda in that the house which was filled with out of town guests and family. No mosquitoes, the nighttime air a comfortable 75 degrees, and the sky filled with brilliant stars no more than an arm’s reach away. I woke up at some time during the night and heard voices and activity. Couldn’t figure out what was occurring. Then realized that there was the faintest sliver of light to the east and dawn was fast approaching, and the night had already expired. And the cooking preparations for this special day had already begun.
When Justin woke up began recounting this wild tale about a truck that he had heard during the night. Loud truck. I had to confess to him that I had slept so soundly that I hadn’t heard a thing. Took a while, and a few more clues, for me to realize that the truck he was referring to my snoring.
Prior to the arrival of the five monks, who had consulted astrological charts to determine that the propitious time for the ceremony to begin should be at 7:30 am. In the middle of the living room, the four poles, lashed together to form a pyramid structure were adorned with various flowers, pieces of newly cut bamboo, and 5 candles – one at the base of each pole and one for the towering apex. Also before the formal ceremony, each member of the family came into the living room and took part of a ritual which consisted of a ‘wai’ [traditional closed palms gesture in front of the face] with three stemmed flowers which were then placed in a large silver bowl, sprinkling some dried herbs in the bowl, a pinch of soil was added, then a joss stick was lit and placed in a container on the side. I was invited to participate in an endless number of ceremonies that day, although I often never really knew what they were all about, and so just mimicked the actions of the person that preceded me, or was gently guided by one of the family members.
After the monks had been seated at the far end of the room, it soon filled with the family and invited guests. The ceremony lasted for a couple of hours, involved various rituals with candles, incense, and no doubt many subtle elements which I failed to notice. One of the most phenomenal parts of the ceremony, for me, was a long passage which was chanted, as is everything, in the ancient Pali language. It was begun by the head monk, and then after a few moments the next monk added his voice and in succession each monk began chanting. It was perhaps the most beautiful, and incredibly well-woven, polyphonic music I have ever had the pleasure of hearing. The final part of the ceremony was the sacred ‘sai’ string which was wrapped around the four pillars, then the wrists of each member of the family, including the adopted farang, were tied with the same string. It was a most impressive part of my continuing education into the traditions of this enchanting land.
Breakfast, served outside, was a veritable feast of northern Lanna specialties, including the ever present sticky rice. It was soon evident why the women were already up cooking when I woke up at 5:30.
A few of the guests returned to their homes, but the majority continued with that most prevalent of Thai customs, chatting and laughing.
Then in the early afternoon I noticed that Justin’s aunt, Yah, had changed her clothes from the traditional formal woven skirt and top to a loose fitting white skirt with a lavender top. She spent considerable time wandering about in the garden alone. Evidently in silent communion with the marvelous world of nature. When she entered the house, it was evident that yet another, for me, unknown event was about to occur in that a number of the guests immediately followed Yah inside and began lighting incense.
Tusi, Justin’s sister, asked if I would like to watch as her aunt spoke for the spirits. Then added that perhaps I didn’t believe in such things as spirit communication, and I assured her that I was open to all extraordinary phenomena. After going into a deep trance aunt Yah, who by the way is a strikingly beautiful lady in her early 50’s, began speaking for, as it was explained to me, an ancient, ancient spirit known as Master Leh. First he gave some specific advice for Jeep, then Jeep’s mother (Yah’s sister), and then surprisingly Jeep asked if I would like to consult with Master Leh. I wai-ed and explained that I had no specific questions, but would appreciate any comments from this veritable gentleman.
I should probably preface this account by saying that although I have met aunt Yeh several times, she really doesn’t know much about me, other than that I am a farang from California, who lived in Mexico, and then decided to make Chiang Mai my home.
Leh began his discourse (all was in rapid fire Thai, and translated for me by Jeep) by stating that this was not the first time that I had lived in Lanna (Northern Thailand) and in fact I had been here during the very early days of Chiang Mai, having arrived as a Buddhist monk from Sri Lanka. During that time I had helped to establish and in fact physically build the Temple of the Tunnels (Wat U-mong). He continued by adding that my current son was at that time a fellow monk whom I loved as a younger brother, also from Sri Lanka. And I had been greatly saddened by his early death, the result of a construction accident at the temple. Master Leh also suggested that I would find great pleasure in spending the rest of my life here in this area, which was an integral part of my ‘soul-stuff’ (Jeep had trouble with this word, and later told me she didn’t even understand it in Thai, let alone trying to translate it into English). Also mentioned that I would soon encounter yet another fragment of that past life.
Well needless to say I was much impressed by the information provided by Master Leh, especially in light of the fact that I have never mentioned my connection to the Wat U-mong to any of Justin’s family, nor did aunt Yah even know about my adopted son Tanachai. And according to Jeep, Master Leh speaks in very formal, almost archaic form of Thai, quite unlike the manifestation which was about to present itself.
After a short meditative rest, aunt Yah, seemed to readjust herself internally and suddenly began laughing (while in trance her eyes were always closed). It was time for the good Doctor Frog (Maak Kop). Evidently Dr. Kop’s sound medical advice, based on traditional as well as some rather unorthodox remedies, and ready supply of humor has helped many of the family and friends of aunt Yah with their health related problems. Now this was also somewhat curious in that aunt Yah is a registered nurse, works at the local hospital and more aligned to contemporary medicine.
The number of people with questions for the good Dr. Frog, who kept everyone in a state of laughter, far surpassed those seeking information from the more philosophical and learned Master Leh.
But soon it was time for Justin and the wandering falang to head north to Chiang Mai. It had certainly been an fascinating experience, as all of them in Doi Tao have been to date.