This past weekend, Abby and I finally made it to Thailand. “Now, wait,” you might say, “aren’t you already in Thailand?” In the sense that we live in Bangkok, we also are in Thailand, but in another sense, we’re not.

Bangkok. Thailand.

We went to Kanchanaburi, in the western part of the country. Kanchanaburi is the home of the bridge over the River Kwai, which I’ll get to later; for now, we’ll look at other things to see in Kanchanaburi.

The area has many temples that are tourist attractions as well as religious sites. First we visited Wat Ban Tham. Entrance is made via the mouth of an enormous dragon, which I found – close up – to be a little reminiscent of a Rankin/Bass character.

Once you get through the dragon’s mouth and then climb a little further, you come to the temple, inside a cave. There is a beautiful Buddha statue inside, as well as a monk who will bless you if you ask, although he seemed a little disengaged when we were there. Then at the top there is another stupa which is undergoing some renovation work.

Anyone who wants to say that this is “stupendous” can stop reading right now.

The next temple is Wat Tham Sua, which is intriguingly visible from the road:

There was another climb, which opened onto an 18-meter high statue of the Buddha.

An idea of the scale.

The temple has other beautiful buildings as well, with fascinating sculptural details (and bells).

On a quieter note, Sino-Thai graves and Buddhist stupas:

Let’s learn Thai! – part 6, in which it gets worse

Thai has three types of consonants: “middle” consonants, which are simply regular consonants; “high” consonants, which follow certain rules; and “low” consonants, which follow certain other rules. Within the low consonant class, there are “single” low consonants and “paired” low consonants. Paired low consonants match the high consonants, so we start with these. For simplicity’s sake, I am including in the below table only the primary consonant, rather than (for example) all the different ways one can make the “s” sound. “kh,” “th” and “ph” are aspirated k, t and p, respectively.

/kh/ /ch/ /th/ /ph/ /f/ /s/ /h/

To make it more confusing, high consonants can only have low, falling, and rising tones, while low consonants can only have no, falling, or high tones, and the tone markers for the low consonants are effectively “one off” from the tone markers used for high and middle consonants – i.e., a falling-tone high or middle consonant and a high-tone low consonant get the same tone marker. In some respects, this makes things easy: if you hear a word beginning with “kh” that has a high tone, you know that you have to spell it with the and not the – but it would be easier still just to have one set of letters and one set of rules.

no tone low tone falling tone high tone rising tone
high ข่ ข้
middle ก่ ก้ ก๊ ก๋
low ค่ ค้

My teacher tells me that grammar school students learn this over the course of four years.

Loy Krathong

A girl carries her krathong to the lake; a boy with his edible krathong; a variety of styles for sale.

Last weekend, Thailand celebrated Loy Krathong. Loi krathong (ลอย กระทว) literally means “to float a basket,” and during the Loy Krathong festival, people make or purchase elaborate little baskets that they put into the river or lake while saying a prayer. Symbolically, when a person releases a krattong into the water, one also releases one’s problems and sins. The baskets are made from banana leaves and flowers or, for the more environmentally-conscious, fish food.

Many Bangkok residents head down to the bars, docks and hotels of the Chao Phraya river for Loy Krathong, but I wanted to avoid the massive crowds, so I went to Lumpini Park, where the crowd was only huge.

Everyone was taking selfies or photographing their friends as they released their krathongs into the water. I understand that people want to memorialize their experience, but that meant that everyone’s photos also included the glowing bluish screens of the people around them.

After spending some time here, we went to Benjakritti Park, where the crowd was more dense.

Spirit houses 2

Spirit houses in their natural habitat.

In my quest to find out where spirit houses come from, I started with a visit to the website of K.T. Spirit House (http://www.kt-spirithouse.com). Unfortunately, the store is located far outside Bangkok, and the proprietors didn’t answer my email. I considered heading out and taking my chances, but then I found a store in town that sells spirit houses, and the woman running it spoke English so I didn’t have to struggle with Thai to explain my interest. In response to my first question, she told me that hers are made from molded poured concrete, but when I asked whether I could see the factory where the houses are made, she grew cagey and said no, not unless I was buying one.

Fortunately, I remembered seeing a plot of land filled with spirit houses on my first weekend in Bangkok, so I returned there. This is Chokenumsin, a factory that makes spirit houses, Buddhist shrines, and other stone outdoor furnishings. The second-generation owner of Chokenumsin, K. Siriwong Chuwonganant, showed me around the factory, all the while probably wondering why this crazy American with bad Thai language skills wanted to see how spirit houses were made.

Chokenumsin makes the majority of its spirit houses from poured concrete, using fiberglass molds to form the individual pieces, and then putting the pieces together. The shop works in other materials as well, including glass and wood, but the concrete ones are by far the most popular.

Lots of small san pra phum ready to come off the shelf; then you have to buy the people and animals to put in them.

There will be more on this topic later.