Monday, October 5, 2009

Nagas With Attitude

This post should have been published on Oct 5th, but due to time constraints I didn't finish it until today:

I just returned today from an adventure to Tamui, a very small town in Northeastern Thailand on the mighty Mekong River. The reason for this venture was to partake in the annual festival that takes place to celebrate the end of Buddhist lent and also in hopes to see the legendary Naga spew fireballs from underneath the muddy waters of the Mekong. Every year at this festival the Naga, a five headed serpent that at one time protected the Buddha from being rained on, consumes the enemies of Buddhism and shoots these fireballs into the night sky. Thais flock from miles upon miles away to witness this event. They all drink Lau Kau (white rice whiskey), feast, set off fireworks, and light an assortment of things on fire to celebrate this illustrious occasion. The amount of things set on fire is truly a spectacle to behold; Thais love to set things ablaze and this desire is nurtured at a young age as supported by the many Thai children I witnessed running through the streets throwing firecrackers and shooting roman candles at eachother. I suppose these fireworks are meant to coax the Naga to perform his legendary fireshow.

When I found out what we were doing I was a little skeptical, only because I had not heard the stories. If there were fire breathing water serpents anywhere in the world I felt I would have heard about them by now, I adore such legends and still firmly believe that Bigfoot should be placed upon the endangered species list (its only a matter of time before somebody catches one and then before we know it every Joe Shit-head is gonna want a stuffed bigfoot above their mantle). But the plot thickened and I heard stories and read articles and watched bits of a documentary on the issue. There have been countless eyewitness accounts, photos and footage (just like Bigfoot, Nessie, and UFOs), nearly every town on the Mekong reports the same occurences of fireballs shooting from the water on or around the 5th of October. I thought that it was just some event at first, just some contraption under the water that was set off every year. But that would imply that the fireballs would happen every year and in the same spot, which is not the case. Sometimes it happens, sometimes not, sometimes in Tamui, sometimes in Nong Khai. The randomness of the event piqued my curiosity.

I was expecting Tamui to be a rather large town, the sort of town that might be able to afford to place a fire launching contraption under the waters of a swiftly moving river. However, it was quite small and extremely rustic. I saw Laos across the river: green, mountainous, quiet; the long winding drive down narrow dirt roads for several hours had me suspecting something, but this confirmed my suspicions: we were in the middle of nowhere. Who would bother to put a fire cannon out here?

We arrived late in the evening but the event was not until the followingnight. I woke the next morning aching to see the Naga, it was unbearable. But it was time to play the waiting game. The fine folks of Tamui and the couple thousand other people who suddenly showed up on their doorstep are quite adept at this. They have found that the best way to wait for a Naga is to promptly begin drinking.

The program arranged homestays for us at the village. My friends Morgan and Brodie and I were staying with an older couple and their family. Our Paw fed us Lau Kau with our breakfast as a pig was slaughtered and butchered next to the elevated platform we were eating on and now getting drunk on. Its really quite amazing what you can get used to, I had never witnessed a pig hacked to bits while forcing rice whiskey down my gullet and eating fried bamboo shoots before. It seems a little odd on paper but at the time I don't recall having any problem with it. Even when my Paw thrust another glass of Lau Kau into my hands with his own blood soaked mitt. I remember rationalizing that the high alcohol content would probably kill any bacteria or traces of trychinosis as I drained the blood smeared glass.

Im not a good drinker, I dont have the stamina. Usually I prefer to have a couple of drinks and avoid attention, hangovers are just not worth it to me. But when the situation calls for it who am I to go against the grain? Because I was in a new culture and waiting to see a Dragon I decided to make this one of those occasions - by noon I was wasted and passed out in the middle of some weird Thai drinking game. When I came to several hours later the sun was going down, I was in a strange house, covered in beer bottle caps and had an epic 5-star (when someone slaps your bare back very hard with an open hand, it leaves the outline of 5 fingers, thus "5 star") on my back that Im sure was not the work of Thai hands. I paid it no nevermind and began to wander about the small town. Every corner I turned more booze was offered but I was in no mood for strong drink. I went to the banks of the river, "where is this Naga?" I moaned quite roughly in english and began to bay a few english profanities. Something that is nice is that Thai people dont understand english, so you can swear and cuss and not worry about anything. Unless a few sensitive english speaking classmates happen to be close by and inform you that "even though they don't understand, it doesn't make it right". I didn't argue because they did have a point. Instead I mumbled "shit" one more time (just audibly) and padded dejectedly back to my house.

The smells of Isaan cooking greeted me as I entered the grass-thatch Chateau. My friends saw me and innocently inquired as to the state of my back. I smiled, they did get me good, and I would be lying if I said I didnt find 5-stars amusing. I tucked into the sticky rice and fried pork and veggie stir fry and didn't come up for air, Isaan food is too good.

With bloated bellies we made our way to the riverbanks and onto a large platform built in the trees overlooking the river. We had a phenomenal view of all the goings-on. Gigantic shimmering bamboo fireboats, smaller fireboats, fire propelled hot air balloons, professional strength fireworks displays, all sorts of creative things, all hand made, all painstakingly crafted and all soaked in oil and set ablaze. I settled in with my friends and host families, watched the show and waited patiently for the Naga. I was offered more beer "nah I dont wanna pass out again and miss the Naga"; I began getting bit by bugs and considered walking back to get my repellent but I didnt want to risk missing the Naga, "Hey Tommy lets go down to the river and set a boat on fire with this guy" ---"Cant, you have to walk away from the river to do that.....Naga". I was NOT going to miss this Naga. As it got later and passed the announced Naga time of 930 a few skeptics began to antagonize the true believers: "I told you guys, 'Nagas' dont exist". I shot them sour looks and explained that firebreathing watersnakes keep their own schedules.

An hour later and well past the announced Naga time I was pissed. "Where is this Naga?" I shouted to no one. People had begun to give up and my spirit was very nearly broken as well. I hung on because I could see P'Joy over my shoulder. P'Joy (our bus driver, native of Isaan, and master of all things badass - like making crossbows and knowing everything about the forest - he had witnessed the Naga on many occasions) he was holding strong, resolute in his posture and staring fixedly at the water, he knew it was just a matter of time. I sat and waited and from time to time would glance back to make sure he was still there. I turned back at one point and noticed he was gone, he didnt come back. No Naga this year, I knew it was time to call it quits. I sweared in english, wandered back to my house and fell to my bed like I had just been dumped. In a way my heart was broken.

For many this trip just affirmed what they already knew, that Nagas dont exist. I however am still hopeful - I guess deep down I think that I will somehow be able to tame these ferocious yet noble beasts and then perhaps...I dont know... hang out with it. I don't know if I will ever have the opportunity to hang out with a Naga or even be able to see it shoot fireballs. You might be interested to know that although the Naga did not show up in Tamui this year, fireballs were witnessed in Nong Khai. Just a little food for thought....

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