A New Year in Northern Thailand

Greetings to all and a belated happy New Year! Welcome to the year 2556. I’m not writing to you from the future, that’s the official date according to the Thai solar calendar. The great reformist King Chulalungkorn moved the Kingdom away from the lunar calendar in 1888, but instead of adopting the AD/BC split he decreed that year 0 was the date of the death of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha.

Despite the numbering system, my New Year passed with little mention of Buddha. I spent the holidays in the seed bank manager’s village, a Karen village populated almost entirely by Christians. The Karen were some of the most enthusiastic converts to Christianity in the region, with about 15% professing Christianity today. They are spread across Northern Thailand and Burma, where they–like many other minority groups–have faced intermittent conflict with the Burmese military regime.

DSC07406Here the villagers are crowded in the space beneath the church. They had a service lasting for five hours, from 7 until midnight. It was more like an open-mic night than a service though. There was far more singing and dancing than preaching.



The next day everyone came back for another service and a communal meal. Then people brought fruit, vegetables and bags of rice as offerings. Everyone gathered around and bid for the offered items, with the money going to the church. I bought a yam.

DSC07438Later Pi Wah taught me how to make a stew out of my purple yam (dioscorea alata for you plant nerds).

Note: In Thailand you usually precede someone’s name with a term of respect. I call Wah, the seed bank manager, “Pi Wah,” which means “older sister Wah.”

In addition to the new year, we celebrated the building of Pi Wah’s new house:



Everyone gathered in the main room for a dedication/prayer service. And of course there was more food afterword.



Pi Wah’s family made huge vats of noodles to put in a dish called Khanom Chin, or literally, “Chinese sweet.” It greatly resembles a Tajik dish called laghmon, and the reference to China makes me think they might be related. Noodles would have entered Tajikistan from China as well. It’s hard to say, but food has a way of connecting cultures just as often as it distinguishes them.

After all the celebrating it was time for the long ride back to Chiang Mai in the back of a pick-up, and then finally back to the seed bank. What a holiday! Now back to work.




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