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Published: February 19th 2012
The parade begins
These beautiful Thai ladies carried the banner signifying the beginning of the parade.
On January 23rd we witnessed far and away the most extravagent New Years celebration of our lives - and not just because the point of this New Year is not all out inebriation. Never had I imagined that so much time and effort (not to mention sweat) could be poured into an event culminating in 24 hours of celebration. For months now Tara and I had heard the fast, driving rhythm of Chinese drums in the distance, had seen groups of men in colorful uniforms parading Chinese dragons and tigers through parking lots, seen old ladies delicately hand painting hundreds of paper lanters outside of their shops and had read and heard that Nakhon Sawan was the best place to be in Thailand for Chinese New Year. Finally, we witnessed what all of the fuss was about.
I will begin with just a brief and rough history of the ties between Thai and Chinese people, as well as the strong Chinese presence in the region. As my friend Tom (you may have read about him in my article explaining how we were able to escape the flooding in Bangkok) told me, the Thai and Chinese people have very very close
ties. He himself was not even sure what percentage Chinese and what percentage Thai he was. Fifty-percent, seventy-five percent, maybe? The numbers did not seem to matter to him. What mattered was that he was back in the place where he had grown up, celebrating the festival that had meant so much to him as a child. Here in Nakhon Sawan, Thai and Chinese cultures blend into a seamless whole, in a sense, reuniting the once intertwining roots of the people.
The Thai people were originally a minority group in Southern China. Eventually, encroachment from ethnic Han Chinese people into traditionally ethnic Thai farming land lead to conflict and competition for land and resources. By as early as the 8th century AD, ethnic Thai's began migrating south into what is today known as Thailand, Laos and North Vietnam. As they moved South they stuck close to what they knew, the fertile lowlands which were perfect for the cultivation of rice, a food that transcends the label of 'staple crop' here in Thailand. In the process, the Thai left many highland groups relativly untouched by their advance, as witnessed by visiting the many culturally distinctive hill tribes in the mountainous
Trying to catch a glimse
This man watches the parade from high up on the fence of Satri Nakhon Sawan School.
Northern and Western regions today. Although the Thai now had a new homeland, many of the unique facets of their culture would continue to remain intertwined with those of their original homeland. Over the years then, as many ethnic Chinese migrated to Thailand, they would find it easy to adapt and assimilate within Thai culture.
Nakhon Sawan is a beautiful image of the harmony that can exist as two cultures grow and develop alongside one another, the unique tapestry of each complementing the other. The city has very distinct Chinese neighborhoods, but Thai temples, vendors and foods are everpresent. And while other neighborhoods are clearly more Thai, Chinese lanterns, dragons and writing are still a mainstay. The cohesion between the two people is on full display during Chinese New Year, as the Thai have also adopted this holiday as if it were their own. I guess in that sense, it is as much theirs as anyones. This fact should not be overlooked as it speaks to one of the beautiful and very unique aspects of Thai culture. It is so well rooted, so confident in it's traditions, that the Thai people seem to have no problem welcoming and assimilating
Preparing for the festivities
Parents prepare their children for the parade.
all things foreign. Not only do Thai people fail to exhibit hostility to outside ideas, they are welcoming of them, expressing a sincere affinity toward, and curiosity about, many aspects of foreign culture. It is no doubt for this reason that foreigners find themselves so welcome here, and why the people are so willing to welcome you as one of them. It is perhaps also this cultural adaptivity that allowed them to fend off European colonialism, while nevertheless benefitting from the exchange of goods and ideas. I believe there is a real lesson to be had from this uniquely Thai balance in conducting affairs with relation to the outside world.
In the week preceding the parade the normally formidable river market swells in every direction, absorbing the grounds of a local temple and several nearby streets. When we met Tom at the entrance to his hotel, he had already mapped out his plans for his farang
friends. For Tom, it was a remarkable opportunity. Here he was with the two foreigners who he had single handedly guided out of flood ridden Bangkok and safely to the refuge of his former hometown, one of whom to teach at his former
Feeding the dragon
The dragon waits as the crowd feed red envelopes into his mouth, with hopes of blessings for the upcoming year.
school. Now, Tom was back in the hometown he so clearly adored, and with the friends who he had helped to guide there. For a man who spends his free time moving around Bangkok, giving directions and free tours for tourists of whom he asks only some friendly conversation in English and perhaps a photograph, giving a tour of his hometown to a group of his friends on his favorite holiday was surely a time of great bliss. He could hardly contain his excitement as he navigated us through the Chinese market, to one of Nakhon Sawan's most famous restaurants (where he insisted on picking up the bill for our 7 or 8 dishes) and finally to the point where he thought it would be perfect to watch the parade.
When we think of a parade at home, there is no doubt a sensation of festivity that inhabits our minds, but here in Nakhon Sawan on Chinese New Year, the atmosphere was indescribable. There were hundreds of young men, dressed as traditional and mythical Chinese warriors, beating their war drums at a frantic pace. There were beautiful women in traditional Chinese and Thai outfits, moving and dancing with an
Death-defying stunts 13
Although the man's poise and skills are truly remarkable, perhaps equally noteworthy are the men who stood at the bottom of this pole, using every ounce of their strength to keep it from tipping.
elegance and grace indescribable through written expression. There were men in different Chinese tiger costume, and I am told that each unique set of tigers represents a distinct Chinese ethnic group. There was also the woman voted the most beautiful in Nakhon Sawan, a title that can not be held by anyone who is not also a virgin and vegetarian, embodying inner beauty and virtues perhaps remeniscent of a more bygone era. Then, finally, there was the dragon, aglow with thousands of lights, which roared out of the stadium and into the street, snaking its way down toward the crowd. It paused in front of local businesses where the merchant would press red envelopes filled with cash into the dragons mouth, bringing good fortune to the family and their establishment for the year to come.
It was a dizzying display, and by the time the parade had roared past all of us were experiencing a bit of sensory overload. This was compounded by the fact that Tara and I were still quite injured from our motorbike accident, and Tara by this point was barely able to walk. When the street finally cleared we were able to get our motorbike
The mighty dragon parades through the streets.
back on the road. We said goodbye to Tom and promised to meet him the next afternoon, and he took off excitedly to follow the action wherever it might take him next.
The next morning Tara and I were quite confused. Chinese New Year was clearly the greatest celebration of the year in Nakhon Sawan, and Thai people are not at all shy about finding holidays or other reasons to take a day off from school. Why then, were we heading to work on parade day? Surely there would be no students, and certainly the teachers would want to watch the daytime parade. None of it made sense until I arrived to the school and took the lift to the fifth floor of building two where I work. All of the doors were locked, the lights were off...where was everyone? Through the open air vents I could hear drumming in the distance, and so I headed out to the street where the parade would be passing. This is when I realized, we were there for an official school celebration of the parade. Everyone from the director and his deputies to the Thai teachers and foreign teachers were gathered at
Keeping a watchful eye
As this man rode by, pulling one of the floats, one couldn't help but wonder how much this place has changed since the days of his youth.
the front gates, dressed in bright red Chinese costume, awaiting the approaching parade. We sat back, took out our cameras, and enjoyed the parade as it came through, at times eclipsing the grandeur of the previous night's. After several hours we made it back to the school where we did have work - but no students.
I took lunch around noon and went to meet Tom, Tara, and our friend Jenn at Tom's aunt's restaurant for lunch. On the way, I stopped and saw Tom, Tara, Jenn and several of our friends gathered at the side of the road, with a tall bamboo pole shooting up into the sky, supported at the base by a couple dozen men. The scene I was about to witness was easily the single most impressive thing I have seen human beings do in my life. The makeshift bamboo pole, easily two-stories high and supported at the base only by a group of men, was the stage for some death-defying acrobatics. The pictures tell the story of what took place that afternoon, but they look nowhere near as impressive as they did in person. At one point, a man climbed to the top along
Taking a break
One can only imagine the heat of spending hours under a tiger costume on an exceedingly hot day.
with a boy of about eight years. Without being seen, a small cloth was tied around the boy's ankle. Then, as if something had gone terribly wrong, the boy began to tip and then free-fall from the top of the pole. You can imagine the relief as the crowd (many of whom were farang
that had never witnessed the ruse) realized that the boy had only fallen a few feet. After the amazing display we had a delicious lunch at Tom's aunt's restaurant, and though she had not seen him for many years, you could tell how delighted she was for the reunion and to have Tom bring such a crowd to the restaurant. We insisted on paying for Tom's meal, only to have his aunt insist that no one would be paying for anything. We said our goodbyes, promied to return, and it was back to work for me.
That evening we walked the market one final time before meeting Tom for dinner. Chinese New Year had been a bit of a welcoming party for us. When you first come to a new place, there is a very strong feeling of being a visitor - a very welcome
All dressed up for the New Years celebration.
and honored guest, but a visitor nonetheless. Moving through the city with Tom - learning about the history, the traditions and the culture, and spending the morning celebrating with the Thai teachers - brimming with pride at the opportunity to share their culture with their new friends, we felt the sense that maybe we were becoming more than just guests in this land. Thai people love foreign cultures, and their curiosity to learn from and adopt these cultures is simply remarkable - but one thing above all surpasses this love. For the people of Thailand, their openness is interwoven with an intense pride for their heritage, culture and traditions, and getting to know them, I have no doubt as to why this is the case. It appears to me that for the people here, there can be no better means to capture their hearts than to demonstrate your love and respect for their cultural heritage. A quick story to help illustrate my point. Last weekend Tara travelled to a large floating market outside of Bangkok, followed by a the largest market in Bangkok proper. At one small stall sat a a Thai woman of at least ninety-years, hunched over a
small table. Before her sat a small collection of prints of old black and white photographs. One of them caught Tara's attention - the King of Thailand as a young man water skiing, reminiscent perhaps of an advertisement you might see on a Hollister website. Tara held up the remarkable photo and said to the woman "un nee suay mak ka, tou rai ka?" (this is beautiful, how much). The woman lifted her eyes to the travellers, a look of immense delight in her eyes as she grinned from ear to ear. "You know my
king?!" she replied with an air of joyous pride. There is perhaps no greater feeling one can capture here than knowing the people are begining to welcome you as more than just an honored guest.
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