Our Isaan folk tale series is ending with two stories featuring important cultural aspects of the Northeast: the rocket festival and the string-tying ceremony.
Story 21: When There Is No Rain
FARMERS NEED LOTS OF RAIN TO GROW THEIR RICE. BUT SOMETIMES THE RAIN DOES come. Then the farmers have a drought. If they cannot get rain, their crops will die. In the Northeast there are many different traditions for making the rain come. Here are four of them.
The Bong Fai Festival is held every year in most parts of the Northeast. It is a Cambodian festival and the people have celebrated it ever since they were ruled by the Cambodian kings. People in central Thailand do not have this festival.
When the rainy season has begun, on a certain day people from several villages will come to one wat for their festival. This festival is held in honor of the rain god, Tan. Everyone wears bright costumes. The women put on traditional Thai and Northeastern dances. The men are busy with their bong fai, or bamboo rockets.
Every village will have at least one rocket. And the rocket will be built by the people in the village. You cannot go to a store to buy a rocket, you must make it. First, some men go out into the forest to find a big bamboo tree. After it is cut they will dry it in the sun. The bamboo must be very strong, and it must have a thick stalk. Second, while the bamboo is drying, the men will make the rocket powder. This powder is like the powder used in guns. It gives the energy to the rocket which pushes it up into the sky. Third, when the bamboo is dry, the men will decorate it with bright, colored paper. Sometimes their rockets look like dragons or even like jet planes. Fourth, the powder is put carefully into the rocket, and the men carry the rocket to the wat. It takes many men to carry one rocket because the rockets are often over four meters long.
At the wat the people meet to look at the rockets. They try to guess which rocket will be the best. Before the rockets are shot into the sky, there is a ceremony at the wat. The rockets are carried around the wat three times. Some people carry the priests, some people beat on drums, others dance, and others carry the rockets.
Then the rockets are shot into the air. If they go very high, the rain god, Tan, will be pleased; but if they do not go very, high, Tan will be angry, and there will be no rain that year.
A second tradition concerns what people do when there is no rain. Some people believe that droughts are caused by the King Cobra. This snake only hutches its eggs in dry weather. When it does not rain, people believe that the Cobra has made the rains stop so that its eggs will hatch. The snake must be killed before the rains will begin.
To kill the snake, many men must work together. One man gets a fast horse and he rides through the fields looking for the snake and its eggs. When he finds the eggs, he takes one of them from the snake’s nest. At the same time other men are building a big fire. In the middle of their fire is a big pot of boiling water. When the man on the horse has stolen the egg, he rides his horse to the fire. The Cobra follows him because it wants to get its egg back. This man rides his horse by the fire and throws the snake’s egg into the pot. When the snake sees this, it jumps into the fire to get its egg, and it is killed. Then the rains will begin again.
The third tradition comes from the province of Kalasin, but other people in other provinces have similar traditions.
In Kalasin there is a very holy statue of the Buddha. It is in Wat Klang Muang. This Buddha is named Ong Dam, because it is black. Once, many years ago, there was no rain. The people did not know what to do. They went to a priest and he told them, “If you will carry Ong Dam around the streets of the city, the rain will come.”
So today, when there is no rain, many people come to Wat Klang Muang. They talk with the priests, and they ask them for advice. Then they carry Ong Dam around the city of Kalasin. The people believe that when Ong Dam is carried around the city the rains will begin.
The fourth tradition comes from the province of Chaiyaphum. Many years ago in a small village there lived a young man named Siang Bua. He was very sad because there was no rain, and he knew that the rice would soon die. But Siang Bua was clever, he asked himself, “What must we do to make the rain begin?”
He could not answer this question, so he asked many people in his village. But they did not know the answer either, because they were poor and they were not clever. So Siang Bua said, “I must find the answer myself.” One day he went to the village headman’s house. Siang Bua said, “We need rain, but none has come. We must pray to the god. We must ask him for rain.”
The village headman believed Siang Bua. He called all of the people together, and he told them, “We must pray to the god for rain. Siang Bua believes if we do not pray, all of our crops will die, and our families will starve.” The men tried to see Siang Bua in the crowd, but he was not there. So they began to pray.
Suddenly, Siang Bua appeared. He was carrying a big basket. In his basket he had a fat cat. The people were amazed, they looked at Siang Bua, “What are you doing?” they asked, “we are praying because you told us to, but you are playing with a cat?”
Siang Bua was not worried, he said, “If you want rain, some of you must follow me, and the rest of you must return to your homes. We will come to each house, when we come bring a cup of water out of the house and pour it on the cat.” Siang Bua and some of the men walked around to each house. One person from each house poured a cup of water on the cat. Soon the rains began.
Now when there is no rain during the rainy season, people in many villages repeat this tradition. They call it the Cat Parade (or in Thai: Hae Nang Mew).
You can see that all of these traditions use magic. When the drought comes, and there is no rain, the people believe that they have to use magic to make the rains begin again. If they are successful, the rains will come, their crops will grow, and they will have enough food to eat for another year. … And if they are not successful …
Story 22: The Bai See Ceremony
THE BAI SEE CEREMONY COMES FROM LAOS. PEOPLE IN BANGKOK DO NOT KNOW ABOUT IT. In Thailand people in the Northeast practice it because at one time the Northeast was part of the kingdom of Laos.
The Bai See brings good luck and merit. It is a religious celebration, but it is not performed by priests. When someone is about to go on a trip, or to get married, he feels this is a very important event in his life. He wants it to turn out well. One way of making things turn out well is to have a Bai See ceremony.
First, he will ask one of the old men in his village to say the prayers in the ceremony. Then he will invite all of his friends and relatives to come to his house, where the ceremony is usually held. His friends and relatives all want to come because they know this is an important time.
For the ceremony you must have a vase of beautiful flowers, some joss sticks and a candle. You also need lots of string. And then you must have some sticky rice, an egg, and a bottle of whiskey.
The joss sticks and the candle are put into the vase with the flowers. The incense is lit at the beginning of the ceremony. The person who is having the ceremony and his closest friends and relatives sit in a circle around the flowers. Everyone in the circle holds on to one string which shows they are working together. They all listen while the old man prays.
While the people in the circle are praying, many other friends and relatives are calling the soul of the person who is having the ceremony. They want his soul to come and bring the good luck with him. So they will call until they believe the soul has come. The rice and the egg are for the soul. This part of the tradition goes back many centuries. Whenever a guest came, it was polite to give him food so, even today, the rice and eggs are food for the soul. The whiskey is also for the soul, but after the ceremony it will be given to the man who led the prayers as a gift.
After the prayers have ended, each friend will take a piece of string and tie it around the person’s wrist. While they are tying the string he holds the rice and the egg showing his hospitality. As they tie the strings around his wrists, they say some words of good luck. When all of his friends have done this, the ceremony is over. The strings tied around his wrist remind him of everyone’s wishes for good luck in the future.