Thai wives' tales and other magic

(Snake story later!..)

It's a rapidly modernising, bustling, Thai new world. Or so it might seem in the urban areas where most tourist visitors base themselves, when not on trips to floating markets, elephant camps, wats and tiger temples. Easy to be left with the impression that the Thais are eager converts to the Western way of life. Little room for superstition in the twenty-first century order of things? Think again...

Being around during 9 months of a Thai pregnancy was an eye-opener in this respect. I gradually became aware of some pretty odd behaviour and comments from both my girlfriend and mother-in-law-to-be...

Early on I began to get the vaguely uncomfortable feeling that I was being stared at. I would be dozing off at night, wake with a start, and she was at it again. It was a touch disconcerting. In the morning over breakfast, the same sensation. Asked a couple of times... "Just look" came the answer. Had I forgotten to zip up? Been too lazy to shave? Some other unpardonable sin perhaps? I needn't have worried. Ploy finally let on that Thai women believe that by looking at you for lengthy periods, their babies will end up as the spitting image of their fathers.

Fortunately for us blokes and our self-esteem, Thai girls don't seem to be able to tell when farang blokes are really quite ugly critters. As a result it wasn't so easy to explain to mum-to-be that the last thing one would wish on one's baby is that he/she should look even remotely like her father. Good job we don't believe in the truth of such old wives' tales, eh?


So what else have I heard over the past nine months? If mum-to-be prefers to eat light-coloured foods, apparently this is because the baby will have whiter skin as a result (I did think of asking what effect her occasional craving for Mister Donut buns would have in terms of our daughter's future figure, but relented. Especially as mother-in-law-2b insisted we were having a boy, based of the shape of my girlfriend's pregnant belly. Despite the graphic evidence provided by the scans)...

An ice-cream while browsing through the Sunday market? Of course not! walking and eating at the same time results in a painful birth! Stupid of me.

A passing baby elephant, while sat at a bar in Chiang Mai's Loi Kroh, was studiously ignored. Why? I ventured to ask (I thought she liked elephants). The reply was immediate: "You want your baby look like elephant?" Not sure how this one fits with the superstition that while pregnant, walking (twice) under the stomach of a elephant ensures the future health of the baby. Perhaps Thai ladies manage to do this with their eyes closed. Sounds a bit dangerous to me, but what do I know. I'm only an ignorant farang...

A relative died a few months into the pregnancy. Fortunately not too close a relative, and the family lived far enough away to make our excuses. I learned that attending a funeral during a pregnancy is a bad move because a ghost will come and take the baby away. Can't it come and take mother-in-law-2b away instead, for a few months, I thought? (It had been a bad day). I managed to keep stum.

When the little one eventually popped out there was no birthmark to be found, much to Grandma's considerable disappointment. Apparently she believes that by touching the birthmark on a newly born, this will bring good luck...

There are thousands of superstitions, affecting all areas of everyday Thai life. I blogged a while back about the start of a building project next to our home. According to Thai astrology there are three days of the week when it is considered bad luck to commence the construction phase proper; Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday. So on Monday - after a frantic and noisy weekend during which they seemed to be making preparations night and day - there was an eerie calm first thing...

Align CenterClick on any of the photos in this blog, small or large, to see the full-size pics

The man in white is a Brahman priest. A quick religious history... at its inception in 600 B.C., Buddhism was a reaction against Brahmanism. In modern-day Thailand Buddhism and Brahmanism co-exist quite comfortably, with Buddhism intermingling with certain pre-Buddhist animist and Brahman practices. Today turned out to be a blessing ceremony for the laying of the first foundations of the six-storey condo building our new Thai neighbours were having constructed. Members of the growing wealthy and educated Thai upper middle classes they may be, but as I watched throughout the two hours of ritual, it was clear that they weren't just conforming to convention. They were taking proceedings very seriously indeed...

The similarities with the ceremony performed by Buddhist monks at the opening of a new bar to which I was invited were evident (see October blog "Hello MisTER Wel-coooOME!") - the same bowl, its contents blessed by the four sacred elements, earth, water, wind and fire (earth by the candle wax, water by that contained in the bowl, fire by the flame of the candle, and wind by the breath extinguishing the flame).


Above: 1) a text in Pali, with Thai translation 2) Initial prayer ceremonies over, the sacred contents of the bowl are sprinkled over the foundations 3) Precise instructions on how to arrange the flowers (marigold garlands), coconuts, bananas and other puja (Brahman worship) offerings are given. Below the puja materials are carefully attached to the two main struts
.



Most Thais believe in a rich supernatural world, whether or not they call themselves Buddhists. Especially when times are hard, or if they are sick, or undertaking a challenging new venture, supernatural help is called upon. In this case the Brahmin is the conduit through which the spirits are called upon to look favourably on a substantial new building project.

(Click to see full-size pic) The owner ceremonially places water lily leaves, bound together (see inset), containing money and gold, at the base of the foundations ready for the concrete to be poured.


1) Petals are removed from the flowers for the next part of the ceremony 2) The struts are lifted into place 3) The owner and his wife make the symbolic gesture of placing the first structural supports in place

Once secured, the owner's wife scatters the petals prior to the pouring of the concrete


Not a hard hat in sight ...

The blessing ritual continues, as the Brahmin splashes the 'lustral' water over the structural supports

More prayers before the final stage (concrete pouring). I'm not one for superstitions, and I was almost certain that courtesy of my zoom lens no one had seen me snapping away... but check out the full resolution version of the above photo - just look at the old lady's eyes! I'm sure the matriarch was placing a curse on the disrespectful farang. I might have to go and place a few garlands and glasses of Sang Som in their spirit house to ward off evil ghosts later... and have a few snifters myself by way of Dutch courage, of course...


The boss's wife gets her hands dirty, chucking a bucket or two of cement into the foundations... then the combined racket of diggers, cement mixers and drills resumed. The peace and quiet was too good to last...

Anyway, back to the snake...


Ok I admit it - it was small. I don't have giant feet. All the same, discovering this unknown species just as I was about to don flip-flops to put the rubbish out a short while back was a bit disconcerting to say the least. We don't see that many snakes in the centre of Chiang Mai. No idea what it was - probably harmless - but to stay on topic (ref superstition) Ploy immediately informed me that this would bring us good luck, and that I should put it outside carefully without injuring it. I did so. Hurriedly. Much as I need the luck, I would rather not find one sleeping in my flip-flops again...

Reminds me of a trip in a tuk tuk near Phnom Penh earlier this year - not one, but two snakes crossed the road in front of us. We braked hard to avoid them. The driver was delighted - double the luck, he said. I asked if the locals didn't eat snake. "Of course!" came the astonished reply... "Very good!" Not so lucky for the snakes then...

Stumble Upon Toolbar Add to Technorati Favorites

3 comments:

Hoo Don said...

A neighbour of mine who is very heavily fertilized with a child making substance read the article and wants you to ask your mother-in-law-to-be the following.
" Dear wise and blessed lady,I am heavy with child, yesterday an elephant was passing my garden when it slipped up on a discarded banana skin, the elephant fell onto a small tree which was flattened killing two birds which nest there and my black cat who was crossing the garden at the time. What does all this mean".......Checked out lots of snake photos on the internet and I'm fairly sure it's not a python.

FrogBlogger said...

MIL2B had to reflect a long time on that one. Killing two birds with one pink elephant is a serious case of mixed metaphor, so she urgently advises your neighbour to cut down on the Sang Som. On the positive side if the banana skin was one of a pair, then she'll have twins, and the death of the black cat is a real piece of good fortune as it will no longer be able to cross her path.

Camille Lemmens said...

Excellent observations on pregnancy, have been there twice!