So, the invitation to the funeral of a distant relation of Mrs Pobaan’s comes as a bit of a surprise. In hot countries funerals tend to follow deaths quite quickly so we drop everything and set off for Mrs Pobaan’s ancestral home, which is in Khampaeng Phet province in central Thailand, a seven-hour drive from Khao Talo Towers.
‘What should I take to wear at the funeral?’ I enquire, having no experience of such occasions in Thailand.
‘White,’ she tells me.
‘How long will we be gone?’
I pack white shorts and three white shirts.
Around half-way, we stop for sustaining noodle soup at a service station somewhere north of Bangkok. At the next table are five women who I notice are all dressed in black.
‘Those ladies are coming back from a funeral,’ explains my clever wife, who is always keen to educate me in the finer aspects of Thai culture.
‘But you said I should wear white; that’s all I packed,’ I respond nervously, imagining myself cast by our fellow-mourners as the idiot guest who ignored the dress code.
‘That’s a different sort of funeral,’ explains the fount of all local knowledge mysteriously.
When we get to the family homestead it is buzzing with activity. Perhaps a hundred people, sorted by gender, are making arrangements for the funeral celebrations. The women, at the back of the house, are generally chopping things. The men, at the front, are making pretend money by banging impressions of coins into strips of paper. I have a go at this harmless forgery and am declared a good beginner, though I am fairly swiftly moved on to lighter duties, probably for fear that I will make some hideous mistake in what is clearly a strictly-defined ceremonial process.
The thing that strikes me about all the guests is that none of them, except Khun Pobaan, is wearing black or white. Indeed, sartorially, the place is a riot of colour—checks, flowers, Union Jacks, marijuana leaves, football-team logos, every pattern and hue except those I was told to expect.
Lest faithful students of Thai culture should find the following notes on the ceremony itself somewhat foreign and conclude that the Pobaans must have taken a wrong turning somewhere en route, it’s worth noting that Mrs Pobaan’s family are ethnically from some obscure Chinese tribe which has maintained its ancestral traditions instead of adopting more local customs.
The proceedings are controlled, for example, by a pair of priests rather than the saffron-robed monks that you might expect. These fellows wear flower-patterned tabards over their sports shirts and jeans, rather in the style of school dinner-ladies. On their heads they wear fluffy red hats, fringed with an encircling pelmet of tassels which makes them look like members of a Beatles tribute band. ‘George’ and ‘Ringo’, as it were, may look comical to me but they certainly give great value for their priestly fee. They bang energetically on gongs, chant tirelessly from Chinese texts, throw rice around, challenge family members to blow on a cow’s horn with squeaky and red-faced results, wave branches festooned with paper streamers, let off fire-crackers and dash magic sticks on the ground before reading the fortunes written within. In general, these efforts are to bring good luck, I am told.
After quite a lot of this sort of thing, we are asked to queue up with wads of the pretend money we have taken so much trouble making and, in turns, burn it on a bit of corrugated iron while one of the priests encourages the flames with dashes of Thai whisky. This is the money that will finance the deceased’s activities in the hereafter, I am told. The whisky won’t do any harm either.
At lunch, guests are gender-segregated at two long tables. Mrs Pobaan takes a look at the carousing menfolk and decides that I should sit at the women’s table. I worry that the chaps will think me standoffish or, worse, a trainee ladyboy, but no-one seems to mind. That’s the thing about Thailand—nobody ever minds.
The next morning we rise at 5am for the cremation. The coffin is loaded on to a pickup and a goodly throng processes behind this to the temple, chucking more bundles of money in the air as we walk. The coffin is lifted up the stairs, slid into the oven and liberally doused with petrol. It’s what he would have wanted, we’re all thinking.
The next stage of proceedings is surely what the previous days have been leading up to. Wires are strung overhead across the open space around the crematorium. To the accompanying din of loud firework bangs set off among the trees, the head priest fixes a rocket to one of these wires and lights the fuse. The rocket whooshes off and crashes high up in a tree, among the branches of which it creates a small but alarming fireball. This in turn does two things. First, it ignites a second rocket which screams along another wire, straight through a hatch in the crematorium door where it lights the petrol with a whoosh and sends the departed on his journey to heaven. Second, it causes a large scroll to unfurl this message: Thank You All for Coming.
Following these pyrotechnics we wander sadly home, the bangs of mortars still ringing in our ears.
I never did see anyone at the funeral, except myself, dressed in white or black. It’s not unique to Thailand of course that things are rarely black or white. The difference perhaps is more that, while in other places most things can be described as various shades of grey, here they’re a riot of colour.