Tag Archives: monks

Thailand Tribute #9: Sounds

A Thai cow "mawing" for the camera

As a volunteer elementary school teacher, one thing I quickly learned from my students was that animals in Thailand have their own language, too! Cows maw, chickens ek ee ek ek, ducks gaap, pigs oot, frogs aep, cats mee-o and dogs hong. There were many days when both my students and I would fall silent to each others’ attempts to imitate animals. They would curiously look on as I moo-ed and ribbet-ed to no avail and I would become utterly confused as they started to jiak when I told them to act like a monkey. Since then our communication via animal sounds has improved greatly and now a moo seems out of place. Something I haven’t gotten quite used to, though, is hearing the actual mawing of cows coming from the fields at school. Cows (and herds of buffaloes!) are led to graze on the schools’ football fields and sometimes they even stray closer. Just last week as I was sitting at my desk I heard the tinkling of a cowbell and looked up to see a cow and her calf roaming past my window, not five feet from me!

In addition to animal sounds, here are some others I’ve come to love, or at least find amusing, as there really is no escape from them in Thailand:

  • The resonating sound of the temple gong in the morning, calling monks to prayer or breakfast, and the rhythmic sound of the monks chanting prayers
  • The inescapable sounds of chatter, shouting, and laughter between neighbors floating through my windows in the early mornings, often rousing me well before my alarm clock has its chance
  • The entertaining yet sometimes painful daily rendition of the Thai national anthem by my harmonically-challenged elementary school students
  • The scraping sound of Steph’s uneven door that drags across the floor every time she goes in or out of her room
  • The deafening sound of motorcycles zooming past, sorely in need of a working muffler; anyone who’s Skyped with me this past year knows how amplified this sound is in my bedroom!
  • The cacophony of insects each night coming from the fields surrounding our house
  • The pounding downpours or light sprinkling of rain on our metal rooftop when I’m relaxing at home
  • The Isaan language; still a largely mysterious language I have nonetheless grown to absolutely love, filling my days with its short, punctuated phrasing and clever vocabulary (the word for “fork” in Isaan translates to mueh ling or “monkey hand”)

Silk threads in Surin

This past Tuesday Thailand celebrated Wan Khao Phansa (Buddhist Lent Day), which marks the beginning of lent, a three-month period in which monks return to the temples for spiritual renewal. According to the Tourist Authority of Thailand, this aligns with the beginning of the monsoon season in a time-old tradition to keep monks from trampling the rice fields when collecting daily offerings from villagers during the growing season. It is also an opportune time for young Buddhists to enter monkhood, if even for a day, and I can testify to this tradition with the number of shaved-heads I counted among my male students this week!

For the long holiday weekend, I took the opportunity to travel with my neighbors, a family of three (a mom, a dad, and their one and a half year old daughter), to Surin. We stayed with their extended family in a small farming village about thirty-five kilometers outside of Surin, which is a town in Isaan near the Cambodian border. I first visited this town last November for the renowned annual Elephant Round-Up, which you can read about here.

This trip was quite different. For the first time since moving to Thailand I felt completely immersed in Thai culture. I had no access to internet, I had little to no reception on my cell phone, and there were no native English speakers with whom to converse. I was completely on my own, though never alone because the extended family graciously took me and my stumbling efforts at Thai conversation all in stride. To make language matters even more confusing, I found out upon arrival that Pasa Suay (an oral dialect) is spoken in this province, of which I had no knowledge of beforehand. The name for this dialect is very similar to the Thai word for “beautiful” so for the first ten minutes as the family tried to explain this fact to me I was nodding vigorously in agreement, saying in Thai: “Yes, you do speak a beautiful language.” Oops.

Much of the weekend was spent at the village temple, one day for the 96th birthday celebration of my neighbor’s grandfather, and another for Asarnha Bucha Day, which pays homage to Lord Buddha’s first sermon. On that day I participated in a procession through the village and rice fields called nang tien (literally translating to “sit candle”) in which large yellow candles were beautifully displayed in the beds of pick-up trucks, along with village kids elaborately dressed in traditional Thai garb. The procession ended at the village temple, where the candles were prominently displayed and a prayer service was held.

My favorite part of the weekend, however, was discovering that the women of the village grew, spun, and wove silk with traditional methods. I had read that Surin province was known for its silk handicrafts but I did not expect to stumble upon the practice in an alley between rice granaries. Below is a picture of my neighbor’s mother Yaa (right) boiling silkworm cocoons over a wood fire and spinning the fibers into thread, while another woman collects the worms to eat ( if you’re wondering, they are crunchy on the outside and squishy on the inside). Behind them is a tray of silkworm cocoons; the color is tham achaat, completely natural.

From cocoon to thread, making silk in Surin

On the last morning of our visit I expressed an interest in purchasing silk fabric from my neighbor’s mother. Yaa and another relative retreated to their homes only to quickly return, presenting me with two different pieces: one olive green and burgundy fabric with a traditional Khmer pattern and the other, a striped Suay pattern of green, red and gold. The women offered them to me as gifts but I refused to accept them without payment. I asked how much the Khmer print cost and the mother said 500 THB. The women agreed to accept a payment only if I accepted the other fabric as a gift. I agreed as thankfully as possible, while one of the women flamboyantly modeled the Suay fabric as a sarong in the middle of small circle that had quickly formed throughout this encounter. I went to retrieve my wallet and to my dismay realized I only had 400 THB and some change on me. A bit embarrassed, I began to explain my situation to Yaa’s son, but he quickly waved away any concern and handed his mother the money I had to offer. “Mai pen rai,” he says. The money was accepted and I warmly thanked her for the silks.

Earlier that day, Yaa had looked at me and exclaimed “Yim yai” (smile big), which was an accurate description of me for most of the weekend, as it is my default when I am lost in Thai conversation. My cheeks were actually sore by the end of the visit from smiling so much! After we said our final goodbyes and were passing through the family rice fields towards home, I sat in the backseat of the truck holding my priceless silk gifts, again smiling. This time I wasn’t lost in conversation, just for words.


Moments in travel

Over the past 27 days I’ve spent more than 12 traveling around Northern/Northeastern Thailand with Alyssa and Amber. Rather than writing about the trips, I’ve posted a few pictures from each destination that capture some of my favorite places/moments. Thanks again to my friends for making the incredible journey to visit me in Thailand! Best of luck braving the rest of Michigan’s winter.

Monks' robes - Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai

Lighting incense at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai

Sunrise - Mekong River, Mukdahan

Coiled naga

Coiled naga - Sculpture Park, Nong Khai


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