“Sanuk” is the Thai word for fun, and Day 16 of our journey was certainly sanuk! We got up early to catch a plane to Nakhon Si Thammarat in the southern part of the country, arriving around 9:30 a.m. The most humongous double- decker bus you’ve ever seen in your life (really silly since there are only 16 of us!) took us to the temple known as Wat Mahathat where we were lucky enough to witness a teenager being ordained into the monkhood with his proud family looking on. Most Thai boys are expected to become monks, even though the practice is becoming less common. They become monks for a period of a few days, several months, or for life and it is encouraged because the family believes they will get to “heaven” (nirvana) more quickly if their sons become monks, if only for a short time. Another ceremony was taking place at the Wat (temple) as lengths and lengths of bright saffron fabric was being wound around the steeple at the top. This was being done by the Buddhist faithful at the temple but they didn’t mind if we joined in as long as we did so respectfully (I’m not sure these photos I took would be counted as respectful but no one seemed to mind). On the other hand, when I posed for a photo with one of the hundreds of Buddha statues at the wat I was chastised in pantomime by a Thai woman who let me know that you don’t pose all cutesy with the Buddha, but should fold your hands in front of your chest in reverence to his image. Ooops. I apologized in pantomime and "wai'd" her. Thai's use the "wai" to show respect, greeting and apology.
A "wai" is performed by folding one's hands in front and bowing. The higher the hands or held and the lower the bow expresses the degree of respect or apology. So I "wai'd" the lady and I think she forgave me.
He performed all the voices of the puppets while his son provided a musical score to help tell the story. It was in Thai, but Professor Tam translated the gist of it for us. The show was based on a traditional Thai folktale, but he’d added some modern touches… the princess in the story at one point donned short-shorts and had a cell phone! After the show, which everyone loved, we looked at his “museum” (an upstairs loft in his bamboo home) where he kept examples of old puppets made from different animal hides and from different countries. It was fascinating. We all got a chance to see a demonstration of how he carves the puppets out of thin leather and had the opportunity to give it a try ourselves.Next we went to the city outskirts to the lovely home of one of Thailand’s last puppet-masters, Suchart Subsin. The traditional Thai form of puppetry is shadow puppets. The old gentleman who performed for us carves these wonderfully intricate puppets out of buffalo hide. They have moving parts and he controls them with sticks from below presents to show by moving the puppets in front of a silk screen with a bright light shining behind, creating beautiful lace-like shadows. Our puppet-master is trying to preserve this art form and has performed for the king himself and is an expert who is consulted by artisans throughout Asia. As is written on the paper I received with the purchase of some of his artwork, Khru Suchart always performs to bring knowledge as well as joy to his audiences without them realizing it."
In the afternoon we took the giant mega-bus up into the hills to visit Kiriwong Village, a community that has been ravaged by flooding. Zig-zagging our way up the hills I couldn’t help but feel that this giant bus was a poor choice to be taking up a steep and narrow road with no shoulders. I was sure of it when we started hitting the low-hanging electric wires strung across the road at intervals. Seriously. I’m guess-timating here, but let’s say the bus was 20 feet tall. These wires were about 15 feet off the ground and our crazy Thai bus driver would just slowly inch his way forward and (unbelievably) the wire would slide up the windshield and scrape over the roof of the bus without electrocuting us and without cutting the power supply of all the hill villages. Finally the road got so narrow we could go no further, so we walked the rest of the way to Kiriwong, where the inhabitants have been encouraged to revive the craft of traditional tie-dye. The village, which has always depended on farming for its livelihood, had been nearly wiped out by a devastating flood. The government decided that diversification was in order to help the villagers remain self-sufficient, so they began a fishing-farming industry and the tie-dye business.
We were shown how women use bamboo sticks to augment the ties as they created designs on fabric and demonstrated which natural vegetation is boiled to create different colors. Different leaves and fruit peels create beautiful earth tones such as terra-cotta, taupe, and moss green. We were able to experiment with our own designs on handkerchiefs and went to drop our tie-dye into a huge cauldron of boiling mangosteen, which would give us the terra-cotta color. Before we left we were given samples of mangosteen jelly and bought some of the villagers’ tie-dye and batik wares.
Our sanuk day still wasn’t over! We had to wind our way down the mountain (and back under the electric wires) to arrive at Nakhon Si Thammarat Rajabhat University. This is a rural college of about 500 students, most training to become teachers. The gracious faculty of the university first ushered us to the “American Room” – which was outfitted with computers donated by the U.S. Ambassador’s office. We were invited to use the computers to check our email, etc., courtesy of the U.S. embassy. Then we were led to the school banquet hall for a ceremonial dinner. We were pretty scruffy, having gotten up at 5 a.m. to catch the plane, hiked, sweated in the humid heat, and loaded on and off the bus several times up to this point so we certainly weren’t prepared for to be treated as honored guests at a lovely banquet – but that’s what happened. As we approached the building a dozen students dressed in uniform threw flowers at our feet. There was a giant banner welcoming the 2011 Fulbright Scholars. As we entered the banquet room we went through a receiving line, meeting several distinguished faculty members and the university president. A few Americans who are on faculty at the school were also present. Then we sat down to speeches and ceremonial gift-giving, followed by a feast served to us by the students and treated to a show presented by them. It was wonderful and we certainly felt like VIPs! I don’t remember if I’ve mentioned yet that there is a camera crew that is following us wherever we go as they are doing a story for ASEAN Television. It’s quite annoying, actually. Not only are they constantly jumping in front of us to snap our photos, but they are always standing in the way between us and what WE want to photograph. But the Fulbright people are all excited about this television exposure so we’re just going to have to get used to them.
Sixteen hours after we had risen to catch our early flight we finally checked into the Ligor City Hotel – only to check out early the next morning as we set off for another adventure!