Corey has known Gene longer than he’s known me. We all have been adventuring together for about 15 years. Gene is from Portland, OR. A few years ago, Corey introduced Gene to Fon on one of his trips to Thailand. They have grown their relationship over time and distance, and this past year they have been building a house together in Fon’s home town, Nong Khai.
Thailand is stretches for many kilometers north to south. The top third of the country is more rounded and even in length and breadth. The southern two-thirds resembles a very skinny tail. To the north of Thailand is Laos, to the East, Cambodia, to the West, Myanmar and to the South, Malaysia. Thailand’s shape predisposes it to many kilometers of coastline. The interior is involved in agriculture and many of the coastal areas do a brisk tourism business focused on beach activities. In addition, Thailand is blessed with many islands. The word for island is Koh. Some famous islands are Koh Samui, Koh Lanta, and of course Koh Phuket, which is so large it doesn’t really feel like an island. Phuket is where Corey and I have been living and is near the southern tail of the country.
Nong Khai is near Udon Thani, in the Isan (often spelled Isaan) region of Thailand; so far north that it is borders Laos, only separated by the mighty Mekong River. The North is known for agriculture and spicy food! Since I had not been further North than Bangkok I was very excited to attend the “New House Blessing Party” otherwise known as "KEUN BAAN MAI.”
Fon and Gene had invited both Corey and I to attend the party. Corey had already scheduled customers so he missed one of the most amazing cultural experiences I have had in Asia to date. The significance of the celebration became apparent after I arrived and I was very thankful to have been able to attend. I will be attaching some pictures in slide show format with titles so please ensure you open this in a browser so you can see all of the pictures.
The closest airport to Nong Khai is Udon Thani International. It is not a big place, especially as I usually fly through some of the biggest, most impressive International airports in the region, but it is one of the primary airports for Northern Thailand. From the airport it was about an hour journey by car to Nong Khai. The first thing that I noticed in the region was the lack of English signage. In Phuket, many businesses will post at least some English on their signs (although often with dismal translation and spelling) to lure in tourists. As Nong Khai is not a tourist destination, this is not the case. There were also less people available that spoke English, including Fon’s family. Definitely the perfect opportunity for a true cross cultural adventure.
I arrived Friday, late afternoon. The first day’s festivities were already in full swing. The House Blessing Party brings family and friends together to celebrate the new house and attend a Buddhist rite that consecrates the house and those who will dwell within it. As we entered the gate to the family property, I got my first view of the new home, a pretty pale blue Thai style, one level home with a darker blue tile roof. There were two large Ghost Houses out front in typical Thai custom. These were constructed of carved thick palm like material and were temporary, part of the blessing party. Colorful foil was exposed under the carving which highlighted the lovely patterns. Permanent Ghost Houses in Thailand are seen in front of most residences and businesses. They are meant to attract the ghosts living on the property and keep them out of the primary residence. They are usually made of wood or even concrete and the family places items next to the ghost house that the family ghosts preferred. Favorite foods, drinks, flowers and more to keep the smaller house attractive to the ghosts. The two carved houses in front of Fon and Gene’s were each about 1 meter tall and were placed on a table to the right of the front door. After all of the blessing ceremonies, the houses were loaded onto the back of a pick up and taken to the cemetery. These houses were made for Fon’s grandparents, one for each, and were to be left at the cemetery with items that each grandparent loved. Any food, clothing, and other items left with the Ghost Houses were distributed to monks and needy people in the community.
Friday night the first ceremony took place. Nine monks in saffron robes were sitting outside the front of the house when we returned from the airport. They soon filed inside and prayed for about and hour. The monks departed and then we all dug in to some really tasty Thai food.
I was told that the monks would be back by 0700 so we had to be dressed in our “party clothes” by then. Fon and I crossed the street to an Auntie’s house with a wedding-event shopfront. We tried on clothes and I was fitted in a fine traditional Thai silk outfit for the next day’s party. There so many beautiful skirts and shirts in every color. Very difficult to choose. I settled on a sky blue silk blouse with 3/4 sleeves and a straight silk skirt that touched to below my knees. It had a lovely blue mixed pattern and was almost as nice to touch as to look at. We chatted a bit longer and then off to my hotel I went. My clock was set for a 0530 wake up!
The next morning I was up and walking down the road for my 5 minute commute to the wedding shop by 0610. Fon was already there getting her hair done. We dressed in our silk, had our hair and make up done, and then walked across the street. All the older women called out and gave us big smiles and thumbs up. I guess we looked pretty good!
Saturday morning was a whirlwind. Monks chanting prayers and a variety of props to go along with the blessings. One interesting custom is to wrap the house in a thick white thread, called sai sin, more like twine. The monks blessed the twine and prayers are chanted. This blessing is meant to keep the occupants safe and consecrate the house.
During the first morning prayers, while the monks were in the house, there were big pots set up and everyone there took turns placing food in each pot. These were for each monk and they were then blessed by the monks before they took their portion. The rest was then split among the attendees.
Before the monks left, the senior monk painted above each doorway what looked like a small temple icon in simple white paste and all the attendees were sprinkled with holy water. All of the activities with the monks, including lunch were complete by noon, which is the tradition.
The afternoon was the PHITI BAI SRI SU KWAN,” or Thai thread ceremony. This included a small tower make of flowers, of which the same type of twine that the house was wrapped in came cascading off the top. Fon’s extended family, myself, and of course Gene held the string while prayers were said by a celebrant. The celebrant was an older man with a wonderful smile. He kept all the happenings running smoothly both days and did speak some broken English to Gene and I to tell us what was going on. After this ceremony the family took segments of the same string and tied them around our wrists. They did this in a particular fashion that was explained to me by one of the older ladies in her reasonable English. First, they take the string and gently stroke your wrist with it from the elbow side towards the hand, for about 4 inches. Then do the reverse and then tie it on your wrist. Each direction gets multiple strokes. The Auntie explained the first strokes were to pull away any bad luck from the person receiving the bracelet, the next strokes back are to give good luck and blessings and then the string tied is meant to keep them with you. It really was a lovely tradition.
Since most of the action ended Saturday by noon, the majority of the family went to a local temple. It is a very interesting place, all the statues crafted by one man. I have attached some photos as it was a wonderful photo opportunity. We also went to the primary temple in Nong Khai. It is a traditional temple with many young monks there and local visitors praying and seeking blessings.
That evening we of course had some more tasty food. I don’t think more than 2 hours ever went by over the weekend without eating something. As I mentioned, Isaan food can be quite spicy and Fon’s Uncle made some papaya salad that was scorching! I was able to eat some which impressed the family. I tried a little bit of everything and was happy to hear that I missed the snack on Friday before I arrived, fried bugs! Fried bugs such as crickets and even grub worms are very popular in Thailand. Can’t say I’ve gone that far into the local food culture, Corey has.
Sunday I was able to sleep in, hung out with Gene and Fon until it was time to head for my flight. Fon’s lovely cousin, Bun chauffeured us all each direction which I was thankful for. Fon’s family was so welcoming. I truly enjoyed my weekend and I told Fon this the following week. Fon’s comments in return were heartwarming. She said, “my family thought you might be too hi-so (high society) but they thought you were sooo nice, you always smiling and soooo friendly, they really like you!!!”
The greatest compliments, ever.
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