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`Gatecrashing Funerals in Thailand`

by Souldesire 

Posted: 16 September 2007
Word Count: 2051

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Please could someone leave feedback on this story. Its my first work posted here so go easy, please!

Gatecrashing Funerals in Thailand

In Bangkok, even some of the pavements were not safe from the occasional stray motorcyclist. The sound of a flat horn was a heart jumping signal to move out of their path. The roads in Thung Song, Southern Thailand were quieter and the extreme sport of driving was not so severe here. That was plenty enough reason for Fergus, my fellow English teaching mate, and I, to invest in a pair of mountain bikes.

Thung Song was an ideal place for riding. It was a small town veiled by mountains and mist. It had little for tourists; the nearest beach was two hours away and there were no KFC’s or MacDonald’s (thankfully). The only westerners ever spotted seemed to be passing through on the Eastern Oriental express or gap year students on their way to Koh Samui; an amazing difference in locomotive clientele. Panama hats and Miss Marple frocks followed by piercings and tie dyed sarongs! It was a Second World War occupation that funded numerous tales of caves of loot hidden by the quick retreating Imperial Army during the last months of the war. The booty was supposed to be well hidden as the Japanese believed, optimistically, they would return one day to retrieve the goods. With treasure in mind, and an urge to work off a (much deserved) Saturday night hangover, we took to the saddle.

We cycled for about ten kilometers along tracks of orange dust that instantly clung to the sweat and hair of our legs. The only noise pollution here was the sound of nature; of distant waterfalls and the chorus of the wildlife. There were also the surprised faces of the morning rubber tappers collecting the trees’ white blood. There were usually only one or two greetings that were received from locals: a Welsh sounding ‘Hello!’, ‘Hey you!’ (Hollywood ‘cop movies’ had certainly not enriched the spread of formal English), and ‘Farang!’ The latter being a term used to describe ‘foreigners’ of white western roots. We stumbled upon numerous caves but the graffiti and empty brown beer bottles were evidence to suggest we had not been the first. It was approaching mid afternoon so we cycled down in search of some sanctuary of shade and iced drinks before retreating to our accommodation on ‘Soi Honda’ (‘Honda Street’ due to the location of two Honda showrooms). As we made the descent a recognizable sound could be heard. It was the thud of distorted bass of the cheap dance music that was a big thing in Thailand; the higher the volume, supposedly the more the fun. The music’s source was two big speakers that just didn’t fit in with their banana leaf background. It reminded me of one of graffiti artist Banksys’ works where several CCTV cameras were placed in idyllic countryside scenes; something was wrong with this picture too.
‘Must be a party going on” Fergus noted, beer in mind.
‘Wedding…Or birthday’ his voice changed as he placed a white Marlboro light into the corner of his cracked lips.
As we perched awkwardly with our bikes’ crossbars under the joints of our knees, we noticed a partygoer below us relieving himself against a tree. His face automatically raised to look above; a strange practice that all men adhere to when urinating. It was hard to tell if he was smiling or screwing up his face from the sun as he noticed us.
‘Hello you!’ his bum jerked backward in his attempts to shake off the final droplets of piss. ‘Come! Come!’ His shiny brown head nodded toward the ‘party’.
The head nodding was something I was beginning to notice a lot in Thailand. The Thais had preferred to use the head more than their limbs, especially the feet. I had been pre-warned about the misuse of the foot and the best advice that I ever heard was that it should only be used for mobility and kicking! But in the comfort of my own home I gleefully turned off fans with my toes (so much easier than bending down) and placed my souls on the desk. It felt like I was committing a taboo crime which is maybe why it felt so good!
We rested the bikes up against a tree free of urine shadows and followed the man down a path of unevenly cut steps. As we walked down the inevitable mob of Thai kids emerged.
‘Farang, farang!’ voices of young boys and girls but all in equal unison. Like a choir of crows, they screeched.
Initially they would back off when we turned around or went to shake their hands- a greeting that Thai kids loved for its novelty factor- but then the odd brave heart would run in and slap the back of our legs. As we walked the crowd swelled. A flock of smiles appeared that produced laughter for no apparent reason and revealed teeth that belonged in Colgate commercials. Maybe we were the first white men (more off-pink than white after several months here) that many of them had seen. Thung Song had a population of around 30,000 that included only 9 whites that we knew of. We were now an ethnic minority group but the welcome was greater than that reserved for any ‘foreigner’ in Britain.
There were a few marquees of blue and green plastic in which the adults hid from the afternoon sun. As well as the dance music bellowing out there was also some traditional Thai music being played on an array of stringed and coconut shelled instruments that looked liked they belonged in art museums. We were greeted with more grins, and a plastic table of ice filled beer that arrived before our chairs. In front of us there was the grander of the marquees in which stood a blown up photograph of a pretty looking girl with white skin. As this was South East Asia we immediately concluded that maybe some airbrushing had taken place to reduce the appearance of sun spots and to lighten the skins colour by a few shades; a Thai obsession for whiteness that was on a par with Brits quest for a tan! Her smile dominated the picture. The Thai smile was contagious, like the yawn one performed after seeing another in action. They even smiled after near miss accidents! It was a quality that I took back with me to South Wales but my beams of apology when I was nearly involved in a collision at a junction were met with a fist of sausage fingers and blue veined temples from the other driver. Forgiveness was not forthcoming in Fairwater, Cardiff. Sure our roads were safer from accidents but not from the threat of physical violence.
There was something not quite right about the party. Although there was little showing of formal clothing, the colour of choice amongst the grown ups seemed to be black. Something, anything that was black. I counted two ‘Bin Laden v George Bush’ t-shirts (it had only been a matter of months but the traders had wasted no time in cashing in. There was also a ‘Diana, Queen of Hearts’ and, most bizarrely, ‘Dead Kennedys-Nazi Punks Fuck Off!’. The Thais choice of t-shirts was a constant amusement. They would buy any shirt regardless of the message or colour, I even saw a few Wimbledon FC jerseys and a ‘Wine me, dine me, 69 me’ message invitingly over the t-shirt of a toothless man selling lottery tickets. This mass of dark clothing indicated that death was nearby.
‘Nah. It’s a wedding’ Fergus said as he pointed to the girl’s picture.
‘Where’s the groom then?’ I asked.
‘He’s probably gone on their honeymoon by now’
‘No! Where’s his picture?’ Fergus shrugged his shoulders. He had no answer but carried on looking in vein.

Our silence was conveniently broken by the appearance of two ladies. The older of the two told us in broken English that the girl in the photograph, her granddaughter, had died in a motorbike accident. The mother’s smile and marbled eyes were a façade trying to dam the flow of even more tears.
‘Please come’ the grandmother’s hands of speckled egg appearance beckoned us to the marquee.
There in front of us about four feet off the ground was a deep white casket. The coffin was lavish and ornate but looked to have been made from the cheapest material. Its cherub like figures looked grand even though it was just gold spray on wood or even plastic.
‘Oh my god!’ Fergus managed to say without moving his lips but the sharp movement of his Adam’s apple confirmed his utterances.
‘Nang Te .Sit down please.’ She had already placed herself before the coffin.
I tried to kneel but six years of Sunday league football had left me with knackered leg joints; I opted for the ‘mermaid pose’.
‘Mai pen rai, (‘never mind’) she grinned.
Fergus was already embarrassing me with his text book posture but I smiled as I noticed the soles of his counterfeit ‘abibas’ trainers. At least I had had the decency to de-shoe!
Thankfully we didn’t have to carry out any chanting or prayers therefore preventing any hymn miming of Mr. Bean proportion. We just bowed when she did and looked sullen. I could feel the stares and grins in the back of our heads and reflections in the glass of the daughter’s other pictures confirmed that we had an audience. My mind was more focused on whether we had carried out correct protocol rather than the chants of the orange clad monks sat below the coffin. As this was Thailand, and a real Thailand at that, not some diluted westernized resort like Phuket or Pattaya, I knew that there were more likely to be smiles and grins rather than scowls and grunts.
After 30 minutes or so, we rose and the crowd politely departed behind us. There really was nothing for them to see. More ice was dropped into our beers.
The next occurrence was definitely a culture shock. Even though I had heard that the Thais were not as squeamish and somber about death as westerners, nothing could’ve prepared us for the forthcoming events. First we were invited to be part of a group photo shot in front of the coffin; a permanent reminder of the proceedings. This seemed like a good idea. My dad’s funeral had been a joyous occasion with the playing of ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ and a number of humorous eulogies by life long friends. I was constantly reminded about what a memorable funeral it was and now I have reached a time when I wouldn’t mind having a few beers and watching a DVD of that occasion. What happened next though is something I’m glad didn’t take place at any other funeral I attended.
We noticed that the coffin had been placed on the floor and a crowd had gathered around. The lid had been partly removed so the rest of the body was not visible and the deceased arm was rested outwards. Fergus’s face now resembled the colour of the hand that was now having water poured on it as some sort of blessing. Thankfully we were not invited to partake in this custom and it seemed that only family and close friends were performing the ritual.

Our departure at sunset was greeted with clumsy handshakes, and the more traditional ‘wai’ (where the hands were placed in a prayer formation). We also, along with many of the guests, left a few hundred baht in an envelope for the family of the victim. In my time in Thailand I would attend several more funerals which I preferred to the day long weddings of speech and pomp. I often look back and believe that our traditions of doom and gloom of a person’s passing are far more shocking and depressing than anything I saw in Thailand. Sure, fatal accidents are tragic but time does go on and as is stated in Buddhism: ‘Life is suffering’. I had worked for thirteen years for British Gas and been a lifelong Cardiff City football supporter; I could definitely vouch for that.

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Comments by other Members

Cornelia at 10:23 on 16 September 2007  Report this post
This is an interesting and very readable piece.

I'm concerned about the title,though. 'A Thai funeral' is intriguing enough to invite the reader, but 'gate-crashing' gives it a 'crass-western tourist' impression which isn't,in fact, borne out by the account. (I'm glad to say)

I spotted some spelling errors which would not be picked up by the spell-check :

= soles

cherub like
= cherub-like

= sombre (the first is American)

= wrested

I thought the humour at the end was a bit jarring and would rather have had a different ending - maybe you finding out later the meaning of the water-pouring ritual?

I look forward to hearing more of your work - you must have had some interesting experiences.


Richard Brown at 21:19 on 16 September 2007  Report this post
I agree with Sheila's comments - an entertaining read that could perhaps do with an editor's touch. In particular, one or two of the paragraphs could perhaps be broken up to make the text more visually friendly.

Oh, and I spotted another typo; 'vein' for 'vain'.

But overall well crafted, I think, and definitely leaving a healthy desire for more.


Souldesire at 02:02 on 17 September 2007  Report this post
Thanks for the feedback.

I know it needs a few changes here and there especially in the last paragraph.
Cheers again.

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