Feeding Hungry Ghosts in Cambodia

Yesterday morning at 3:00 a.m. monks began chanting over a loudspeaker near where I’m sleeping in Battambang. Today again, they began at 3:00 a.m.

Happy Pchum Ben Day! This holiday, translated sometimes as the Festival of Ancestors or the Hungry Ghost Festival, is the second biggest holiday in Cambodia after the New Year festivities. It’s officially celebrated for three days, but families who can afford it will often begin visiting the pagoda weeks in advance.

Photo courtesy of Erik W. Davis via Flickr and Creative Commons.

The holiday is similar to the Mexican holiday Dia de la Muertos in that it is a festival dedicated to honoring and feeding deceased ancestors. But in Pchum Ben, families don’t go to a gravesite; instead they often return to their rural homes and visit the pagoda a few times throughout the holiday.

The basic idea is that at this time of year, and this time only, ghosts can slip out of hell and wander back on earth. Because they’ve been in hell (less than ideal conditions) many are hungry. Thus it is customary to throws grains of rice or balls of sticky rice for these ancestors to eat and enjoy. When the festival is over, a few may gain pardons, while most will return to hell. The ancestors who go to heaven (assuming there are any) don’t get much mention as far as I can tell during this holiday.

Photo courtesy of Erik W. Davis via Flickr and Creative Commons.

Of course, like most holidays, Pchum Ben is a time for family to be together and to prepare and eat special food. One food commonly made (at least here, in Battambang) is Nom Ansom Jaek, or sticky-rice-wrapped bananas steamed in banana leaves.

Our neighbors here at the Kinyei office gave us some Nom Ansom Jaek which I enjoyed for my dinner last night.


Thai Cowboys, the Appeal of Country Music, and the Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok

The Chatuchak (pronounced jaht-uh-jahk) weekend market (more familiarly known as JJ reflecting the pronunciation) is popular with tourists and locals. It is outdoor and sprawling, but more organized than what you might imagine when you think of a Southeast Asian market. There are stalls, some covered, and aisles and signs and sections. There’s a lot of shit to see and everything to buy.

Not being a big shopper myself (why yes sir, that carved teak chair is beautiful, but I just don’t think it would fit in my backpack…) I was mainly at JJ for the food and the sightseeing.

I found myself uninspired until I wandered into the second-hand section where I was met with seas of Converse shoes in every color, pattern, and material. All for around $3-10 US per pair.

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There seemed enough to outfit all the youth of the world. If the youth are still wearing Converse. Are they? I’m out of touch in this regard.

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Maybe they’re no longer cool and that’s why they’ve all ended up here.

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No matter. If Converse isn’t your thing, there were also stacks of Vans, Pumas and, for the socially responsible shopper, there were even a few piles of TOMS, which I didn’t think lasted long enough to get to the second hand stage.

But my shoes haven’t fallen apart yet, so I wandered even deeper into the second-hand section. And that’s where I found it: a little slice of Wyoming here in Bangkok.

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Now, cowboy culture is pretty popular worldwide and American country music has a way of popping up in the strangest of places (I remember a tuk tuk driver in Phnom Penh who blasted old-timey country from his vehicle’s tinny speakers and talked to his barang customers with his best twangy John Wayne accent.), but I’ve never been in a country so widely drawn to Western Americana as Thailand.

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Cowboy boots, cowboy hats, faded Levi’s jeans, and silver belt buckles are common sights here, even in the city of Bangkok, but especially in more rural areas.

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I recently listened to a great episode of the Radiolab podcast which examined the phenomenal popularity of American country music around the world, in countries as disparate as Zimbabwe (where Don Williams filled a 40,000 seat football stadium twice), Western Australia, and South Africa. You can listen to the segment here (starting at minute 13:22). It’s a fascinating piece which will probably act as a gateway to more Radiolab episodes, as it should.

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The basic idea as to why American country music is so popular worldwide is not the melody but the stories and not even the specifics of the stories (it’s a pretty narrow demographic who can relate to sitting on a rocking chair on a front porch in the Smoky Mountains) but this general feeling of migration, of moving from the friendly countryside into the cold, hectic city. Country music celebrates home as it eulogizes it. It longs for something simpler, something left behind.

So maybe that’s a part of why Western American styles are adopted here. Or maybe it’s shallower than that. Maybe it’s all the Marlboro man’s fault. Cowboys equal freedom, independence, a gruff Steve McQueen-esque cool.

Whatever it is, I see almost as many faded, terrifically unstylish Levi’s here as I did growing up in Iowa.


Picture Proof. Temples in Ayutthaya

After a joyful visit to the Folk Art Center in Bang Sai, I was less than enthused to visit temples, even though I knew well that Ayutthaya is famous for its magnificent and evocative temples. But it was silly to go all that way (though the trip was a gifted vacation from my school) without at least sampling the goods, so to speak.

It was a gray, drizzly day. Not the type of weather normally associated with Thailand, but quite conducive for creating the right ambience while wandering through the grounds of a temple complex.

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I visited Wat Mahathat, wat of the famous overgrown Buddha head. It was certainly picturesque and there was a polite sign reminding tourists not to stand so they are above the Buddha—standing above the Buddha’s head is a show of disrespect. This led to lots of people posing while crouched over awkwardly in front of this tree.

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I tried to wake the slumbering Super Tourist inside me by learning some facts.

Did you know: The temple here was built during the 14th century, the early Ayutthaya period.


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All the headless Buddhas reminded me of Angkor Wat, where the Buddha statues had been purposefully decapitated by the Khmer Rouge regime. Here in Ayutthaya, it was the invading Burmese who defaced the Buddhas.

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Did you know: What I’d been referring to as stupas are called chedis. Was this retained bit of information a sign that Super Tourist was awaking from slumber? Nope, false alarm. After a thirty-minute ramble, I said, “Enough temples!” and returned to Bangkok.


Handicrafts. Ayutthaya. No Super Tourist, I.

I’ve given up pretending to be Super Tourist.

This is my explanation for why I only saw one temple in Ayutthaya, former capital of the Siam empire, city famous for its ruins and temples. (And in a related Sanskrit note, the city was named after King Rama’s golden capital city of Ayodhya from the Ramayana.)

This is my explanation for why I spent more time at a handicraft center than at said temple. I know the temples are beautiful and the history is fascinating, but I also know where my interests lie. Show me how to weld a giant robot out of scrap metal or create a traditional batik design and I’m captivated.

Bang Sai Royal Folk Art & Craft Center

This center was founded by the beloved Queen Sirikit to house and train for her SUPPORT (the Foundation for the Promotion of Supplementary Occupations and Techniques) program. You can read more about the program here and here, but I’ll summarize briefly. Her Majesty saw that many rural people in Thailand depend financially upon agriculture, an unstable base, leaving them with time during the “offseason”. She also saw in her travels around the country that the knowledge about beautiful traditional arts and crafts was rapidly disappearing. In an inspired move, she began to offer training in these traditional handicrafts as well guaranteeing a fair price for the finished products, often buying them herself. Thus, with the SUPPORT program, she is able to give rural people additional income and dignified work, all while preserving traditional culture and knowledge.

It is easy to see why Queen Sirikit is so admired and beloved all over Thailand. She is a maternal figure to the whole country, almost in a literal sense. Her birthday is a national holiday—also known as Mothers Day.

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This craft center is near the city of Ayutthaya. It offers many displays and gift shops containing traditional Thai handicrafts, but the highlight for me was touring through the workshops where students are learning and mastering various handicraft forms. After you enter the facility (buying a ticket for 100 baht) you are free to wander around, ducking your head into any workshop you please, observing everything from glassblowing to dressmaking.

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The handicraft village. Beautiful surroundings and traditional-style houses. You can see a few demonstrations as you walk through, but the main attractions (the workshops) were adjacent to this village.


True to form, I was most fascinated by the textile handicrafts.

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I started with silk brocade weaving. This is highly skilled and meticulous work.

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One of the women I spoke with said it would take her six months of work to complete a two-meter-long piece.

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This is the design sheet for one brocade pattern. A lot of the weavers seem to know their designs by heart, but I saw one woman refer to this sheet once or twice. Amazingly complex.

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Some silk threads ready to be woven.

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Traditional weaving. This is ikat or mat mii, in which the design has already been dyed into the spools of thread themselves.

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A beautiful mat mii design in Thai silk.

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Next I visited the batik workshop. Batik is a southern Thai handicraft, more closely associated with Malaysia and Indonesia.

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On the left, the stenciled outline. On the right, a little pot of wax and a special tool for applying the wax to the fabric.

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After the wax outlines have been applied, an artist carefully shades in the floral design.

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A close up of a silk embroidery piece in progress. Notice the shading on the grass.

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This is the most meticulous work I saw all day. A 1x2 meter piece will take seven women two years to complete. Two years.

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Here’s a picture of what the final product will look like.

Other Handicrafts.

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This is a type of basketry called yan lipao. The objects are woven using a strong indigenous vine. The work is meticulous and the strands of the vine about as thin as dental floss.

They use a tool similar in design to a wire stripper to whittle down the strands of the vine until they are small and pliable enough to work with.

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A large and intricate dragon in the welding workshop.

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Outside the welding and metalwork workshop.

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On the left, an artist works with resin to create a sculpture. On the right, a MacGuyver-like contraption of metal wire and an old hairdryer keeps the resin warm and malleable.

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The outside of the stained glass and batik workshop.

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Stained glass in progress.

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Completed stained glass pieces.


I had originally planned to post temple pictures here too, but this post is long enough already. The Folk Art Center was fascinating. It’s a little out of the way from Ayutthaya, but definitely worth the trip if you’re interested in traditional handicrafts.

Vegan Milks in Thailand. Plus, the Magical Jae Symbol

As with many other Asian countries, in Thailand, tofu is not seen as a meat substitute and soya milk is not just a milk replacement. This is why a tofu dish is not necessarily vegetarian and soya milk is not necessarily vegan.

It’s not hard to find vegan soya or cereal milk, but the biggest sellers often contain some whey or milk powder in the mix. Once you know what to look for, though, these are easy to avoid.

I’ve mentioned the handy phrase “Gin Jae” (gin is pronounced somewhere between a hard g and a soft k and jae rhymes with the month of May. The phrase refers to Chinese vegetarianism which is vegan without garlic, onions, and other strongly flavored foods). Now let me introduce you to the Jae symbol.

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The Jae symbol is that little yellow flag with the red writing. It looks a bit different depending on the script used.

Want to know if that soya milk is vegan, but can’t read Thai? Just look for the Jae symbol. Looking for a vegetarian restaurant? If you see the Jae sign, you know you’re in luck.

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The top symbol (which looks a bit like L7) is Thai. Beneath it is the Chinese. They are usually written in red script on a yellow background and if you see one or both, you can relax, confident that there will be no fish sauce, shrimp paste, whey, or butter.







The following are a few of my favorite vegan milks, most of which are pretty widely available.

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Let’s start with chocolate soymilk. This is a bit sweet for my taste, but you can find it at any 7-Eleven, making it a convenient choice. Costs 14 baht (less than $0.50 US).

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The plain version of Vitamilk is not vegan, but their tastiest variety, Vitamilk Black, is. It’s also available at any 7-Eleven and costs only 10 baht (about $0.34 US), making it just about the cheapest option out there. I don’t get it often because I prefer the sugar-free stuff, but the taste is great. The hint of black sesame is wonderful.

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Another option at 7-Eleven, this one with less sugar. Less bang for your buck (about 12 baht for a smaller carton than the Vitamilk), but the yummy black sesame and the lower sugar count make this my go-to-option.

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Sugar-free milks. A mix of soy, rice, and corn on the left. Germinated brown rice on the right.

Tipco has a wide range of non-dairy milks, a few of which are sugar free. They’re a bit harder to track down (you’ll need to buy a pack of three from a grocery store) and just a bit more expensive (around 35 baht for three while other varieties are less than 30 baht) but if sugar free is important to you, then these are good options.

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My current favorite non-dairy milk option. Made from job’s tears (what?) or barley (oh…) with no sugar added. The milk is light yet creamy and has a nice natural sweetness.

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Another fun option is corn milk. It’s pretty easy to find, though don’t expect to see this particular brand. Sugar is often added which I think is redundant as the corn milk by itself is delightfully sweet.





There are many, many more vegan milk options in Thailand, encompassing the whole range from health conscious to dessert sweet. Lately I’ve seen an intriguing brand called Mew which makes vegan milks with flavors like rum raisin. I may have to do a taste test soon!