It was a holiday so I was allowed to sleep in a little longer. I loved cold air coming from the windows in the morning. It made me realize how lucky I was to be home. I could hear traditional Isaan music trembling in the air. The village community building had been playing the songs since dawn. I could hear the commotion in the kitchen downstairs, and the aroma of Krachai (Thai ginger root) was so aromatic, purling throughout the house. I knew right away that my mom’s Red Chicken Curry with Eggplants and Blood Custard was ready. My parents probably got fresh Khow Poon (Fermented Rice Noodle) from the market while I was still in bed. I knew this because I heard my dad’s truck hissing in our driveway before the roosters crowed.
There was also a convolution of delicious fragrances of coconut, warm rice, and roasted meat. I got out of the bed eagerly. As I hopped downstairs with my messy, bird nest hair, I saw the clutters of heavenly things. Festivals always filled my home with love and cozy vibe. My dad sat on the floor in the middle of the kitchen, chopping fresh meat for Larb (Raw Meat Salad). See, my dad thought most old rituals were superstitions, but he just loved the celebrations. There was a chaos of fresh ingredients around him. My mom checked the flavor of her chicken curry one more time to confirm that it was nothing less than perfection.
As I made my way through the maze of edible things in my kitchen, I saw a big pot of fat pandan leaf noodle with Thai Cantaloupe in Coconut Cream Syrup and other desserts. The colors of the delicate sweets were so gorgeous. The envelopes of banana leaves filled with glutinous rice and banana which I helped my mom made last night were cooked and hot. This grand spread took 2 days to prepare. Just yesterday, my dad and I went to our farm to collect banana leaves. I remembered sitting on a fallen branch of a tree eating bananas while he loaded the gigantic leaves on to the back of his truck. And now everything came together so well.
My grandmother yelled at the door as she arrived. She came to fix the important parcels for the festival. I sat down to watch her wrap the mixture of tiny pieces of food, fruits, vegetables and other produce in the crisp green banana leaves. My dad placed a plate of roasted meat next to me and told me to enjoy my breakfast. I also went back to the kitchen to get a really big bowl noodle with chicken curry when my dad warned me to reserve a space in my stomach for Larb, ox tail stew, grilled fish and bamboo shoot curry.
Traditions are what bring us together as community. They are blood and bone of our neighborhood, and these things are what make us humble and grounded as human being. Boon Khow Saag or Boon Khow Pra Dup Din is a festival and an old ritual of sending merit to the people who have passed away and to the tormented spirits around the village. The festival falls on the full moon of the 10th month of Buddhist calendar. This ritual can be traced far back to the era of Buddha.
I came back from the kitchen with some noodle and sat next to my grandmother. I watched her decorate the offerings with items, currency notes and flowers as she began to tell me an old tale.
Once upon the time, there was a fine young man living with his mother. When he grew up to a mature age, his mother found him a wife. But after many years, the couple remained childless, forcing the mother to make the man take a second wife. The first wife was jealous, and she was afraid that she would lose her husband completely when the second wife had a child. The first wife told the second wife to inform her immediately when she suspected that she’s pregnant.
When the second wife knew that she was pregnant, she told the first wife. But secretly, the first wife poisoned the second wife, forging the miscarriage. And when the second wife was expecting a child for the second time, the wicked first wife managed to ruin the pregnancy again. Now the second wife started to doubt the first wife for her miscarriages so she fled to stay with her family when she was pregnant again. Sadly the first wife followed the second wife to her home and poisoned her again. However, the pregnancy was as far due this time so this cruel act killed both the baby and the mother. Before the second wife took her last breathe, she vowed to take revenge in the next life.
In the next life, the second wife reincarnated in a cat form, and the first wife was a hen. When the hen laid her eggs, the cat sneaked in and ate them all. Her offspring were killed each time she tried to start a family, and one day, the cat attacked the hen as well. And as the hen was about to die, she vowed to take vengeance and justice in another life.
In the following life, the chicken was a tiger, and a cat was a cow. Each time cow gave birth; the tiger snatched her babies and devoured them. In the pity cow’s dying breathe, she vowed for retaliation and retribution.
In the next life, the cow became a vengeful ogress, and the tiger was reborn as a beautiful maiden. When the maiden got married and had a baby. The ogress kidnapped her infant and ate it. Another year passed, when the maiden had another baby, the ogress took it away from her again. In her third pregnancy, as the time of the birth approaching, the maiden and her husband ran away as they were chased by the ogress. The couple sought refuge in a temple where Buddha was preaching at time, while the ogress couldn’t enter the threshold of the holy place. Buddha listened to their grievance before he asked a monk to call the ogress to his presence. He revealed the past lives of the two parties. In his teaching, vengeance was the loop of torment, and they should forgive each other in order to break from the cycle. Buddha told the maiden to take care of the ogress, supplying her food and treating her with kindness. The ogress then lived in the maiden’s land where she utilized her power of premonition to forecast weather and helped the maiden with her farm produce. Years passed, the villagers heard of the ogress’s ability so they came with the offerings with hopes for bountiful crops and farm goods.
This tradition has lived on, and every year, the villagers come to offer food and donate stuff to the temple with an intention to share good karma with the dead who might have been your karmic fellows. Another important agenda of the ritual is to share merits with Pret (poor tormented spirits) in hopes of helping them crossover to a better place.
It doesn’t matter if the story is real or just a sweet scheme to make people do good things. What’s important is how every tradition is meant to make the community come together to spread kindness and cherish old heritage.
Early morning last Friday, on September 16, 2016, my mom steamed the parcels of rice and banana the same way she has done every year. She also made many traditional treats and cooked the extravagant spread. She picked the best produce from her farm and placed them in the adorned baskets and trays. The villagers carried the offerings to the temple where the monks preached them the importance of grace, kindness, and good karma. The old tale of the Ogress and the Maiden was being told to all generations in the village. The children learned the meaning of old traditions, and the community was forever whole.