Sep 272019

Today is Pchum Ben ( បុណ្យភ្ជុំបិណ្ឌ) in Cambodia, a major religious festival and public holiday, culminating in celebrations on the 15th day of the tenth month in the Khmer calendar, at the end of the Buddhist lent, Vassa.

The day is a time when many Cambodians pay their respects to deceased relatives of up to 7 generations. Monks chant the suttas in Pali language overnight (continuously, without sleeping) in prelude to the gates of hell opening, an event that is presumed to occur once a year, and is linked to the cosmology of King Yama originating in the Pali Canon. During this period, the gates of hell are opened and ghosts of the dead (preta) are presumed to be especially active. In order to combat this, food-offerings are made to benefit them, some of these ghosts having the opportunity to end their period of purgation, whereas others are imagined to leave hell temporarily, to then return to endure more suffering; without much explanation, relatives who are not in hell (who are in heaven or otherwise reincarnated) are also generally imagined to benefit from the ceremonies.

In temples adhering to canonical protocol, the offering of food itself is made from the laypeople to the (living) Buddhist monks, thus generating “merit” that indirectly benefits the dead; however, in many temples, this is either accompanied by or superseded by food offerings that are imagined to directly transfer from the living to the dead, such as rice-balls thrown through the air, or rice thrown into an empty field. Anthropologist Satoru Kobayashi observed that these two models of merit-offering to the dead are in competition in rural Cambodia, with some temples preferring the greater canonicity of the former model, and others embracing the popular (if unorthodox) assumption that mortals can “feed” ghosts with physical food.

Pchum Ben is considered unique to Cambodia, however, there are merit-transference ceremonies that can be closely compared to it in Sri Lanka (i.e., offering food to the ghosts of the dead) and in its broad outlines, it even resembles the Taiwanese Ghost Festival (especially in its links to the notion of a calendrical opening of the gates of hell, King Yama, and so on).

Num ansom – sticky rice cooked in bamboo leaves is a common dish served at this time in Cambodia. The following video is in Khmer but you may get the basic idea.  Also, I have included a link to a step-by-step recipe in English. Between the two, you should be able to figure it out.

Jun 092016


Today is the annual Dragon Boat Festival, also known as the Tuen Ng or Duanwu Festival, which is a traditional and statutory holiday in China, but is also celebrated throughout the Asian world. The festival now occurs on the 5th day of the 5th month of the traditional lunar calendar, and so is sometimes called the Double Fifth Festival. The date varies from year to year in the Gregorian calendar. The celebration generally involves eating zongzi (sticky rice wrapped in bamboo leaves), drinking realgar wine (雄黃酒, xiónghuángjiǔ), and racing dragon boats. When I lived in Kunming there were no dragon boats, supposedly because there is not enough water there – even though a big river runs through the city and there are lakes all around. The fact is that in Kunming public holidays never feature public displays, which disappointed me. There were plenty of zongzi available, though.

The official Chinese name of the festival is 端午节 on the mainland and 端午節 in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Macao. This is pronounced variously in different Chinese dialects. In Mandarin, it is Romanized as Duānwǔjié on the mainland and Taiwan. In Cantonese, it is romanized as Tuen1 Ng5 Jit3 in Hong Kong and Tung1 Ng5 Jit3 in Macao. All of these names translate as “Opening the Seventh” and refer to its original position as the seventh-day (午日, Wǔrì) in the fifth month (五月, Wǔyuè) of the traditional Chinese calendar, which was also known as 午 (Wǔ). Both the People’s Republic and the Republic of China use “Dragon Boat Festival” as the official English translation of the holiday, while Hong Kong calls it the “Tuen Ng Festival” and Macao calls it “Dragon Boat Festival” in English and Festividade do Barco-Dragão in Portuguese.


The story best known in modern China holds that the festival commemorates the death of the poet and minister Qu Yuan (c. 340–278 BC) of the ancient state of Chu during the Warring States period of the Zhou Dynasty. Qu was a cadet member of the Chu royal house and served in several high offices. However, when the king decided to ally with the increasingly powerful state of Qin, Qu was banished for opposing the alliance and even accused of treason. During his exile, Qu Yuan wrote a great deal of poetry. Twenty-eight years later, Qin captured Ying, the Chu capital. In despair, Qu Yuan committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River.


It is said that the local people, who admired him, raced out in their boats to save him or at least retrieve his body, hence the modern dragon boat races. When his body could not be found, they dropped balls of sticky rice into the river so that the fish would eat them instead of Qu Yuan’s body, so now we have zongzi.

In the former territory of the state of Wu, the festival commemorates Wu Zixu (died 484 BC). Wu Zixu was a loyal advisor whose advice was ignored by the king to the detriment of the kingdom. Wu Zixu was forced to commit suicide by the king Fuchai, with his body thrown into the river on the fifth day of the fifth month.


In southeast Jiangsu and much of Northeastern Zhejiang including the cities of Shaoxing, Ningbo and Zhoushan Dragon Boat Festival celebrates the memory of the young girl Cao E (曹娥,130–143 CE). Cao E’s father Cao Xu (曹盱) was a shaman who presided over local ceremonies at Shangyu. In 143, while presiding over a ceremony commemorating Wu Zixu during the Duanwu Festival, Cao Xu accidentally fell into the Shun River. Cao E, in an act of filial piety, decided to find her father in the river, searching for 3 days trying to find him. After five days, she and her father were both found dead in the river from drowning. Eight years later, in 151, a temple was built in Shangyu dedicated to the memory of Cao E and her sacrifice for filial piety. The Shun River was renamed Cao’e River in her honor.

Modern research suggests that the stories of Qu Yuan or Wu Zixu were superimposed on to a pre-existing summer dragon holiday tradition perhaps associated with the winter rice harvest. The promotion of these stories might have been encouraged by Confucian scholars, seeking to legitimize and strengthen their influence in China. No one really knows. It just goes to show that the Chinese are as prone to bogus theories about the origins of their festivals as Europeans are about theirs. Everyone knows the stories, but no one really cares. People like to have a day off and eat sticky rice. Boat races are a bonus.

The festival was long marked as a cultural festival in China. The People’s Republic of China government established in 1949, however, did not officially recognize Duanwu as a public holiday. Beginning in 2005 the government began to recognize certain traditional holidays, including Duanwu, loosening the tight anti-traditional restrictions of the Maoist era. Since 2008, Duanwu has been celebrated not only as a festival but also as a public holiday in the People’s Republic of China. It is unofficially observed by the Chinese communities of southeast Asia, including in Singapore and Malaysia, and equivalent and related official festivals can be found in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.


Three of the most widespread activities conducted during the Duanwu Festival are eating (and preparing) zongzi, drinking realgar wine, and racing dragon boats. Other common activities include hanging up icons of Zhong Kui (a mythic guardian figure), hanging mugwort and calamus, taking long walks, and wearing perfumed medicine bags. Other traditional activities include a game of trying to making an egg stand on end exactly at noon (to receive luck for the coming year), and writing spells.



I gave a recipe for sticky rice here. From the images presented here you can get an idea of zongzi, although there are many variations.  If you are ambitious you can make them yourself and here is an excellent video.

I used to buy them, wrapped but not cooked, from markets in Kunming where they are plentiful around Dragon Boat Festival. I then boiled them at home. Zongzi vary all the way from plain cooked sticky rice, to rice stuffed with bean paste, or meat, or complex combinations.

祝你端午节快乐 !!!

Jun 242015


On this date in 1932 the Siamese coup d’état of 1932, a nearly bloodless coup, proved to be a crucial turning point in 20th century Thai/Siamese history (the country’s name was changed from Siam to Thailand). The revolution, changed the system of government in Siam from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. The revolution was brought about by a comparatively small group of military and civilians, who formed Siam’s first political party, the Khana Ratsadon (Peoples’ Party). It ended 150 years of absolutism under the Chakri Dynasty and almost 700 years of absolute rule of kings over Siam. It was a product of global historical change as well as domestic social and political changes. It also resulted in the people of Siam being granted their first constitution.

The events leading up to the revolution are too complex to go into here, and continue to be debated by scholars in the East and West. Thailand is unique in SE Asia in that it was never colonized by Western powers, maintained an absolute monarchy until 1932, considerably modernized internally under kings such as Rama V (of King and I fame) who were acutely aware of Western politics, and was ethnically homogenous to a great degree.

Since 1782 the Kingdom of Siam had been ruled by the House of Chakri, founded by King Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke (or Rama I). The capital city, Bangkok (built on Rattanakosin Island), was also founded by King Rama I. For over a century, the kings of Siam were able to protect the nation from neighbors (such as Burma) and other foreign nations, escaping colonialism from European powers such as Britain and France. In 1932 Siam, together with China and Japan, were the only independent countries remaining in East Asia.


King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) came to the throne in 1868, eager to modernize and reform his medieval kingdom, and he introduced many new reforms and inventions to his country. He openly embraced Europeans as well as European thought on many matters, chiefly law, politics, philosophy, commercialism, education, and medicine. He reformed the administration as well as the military system. At the same time he successfully maintained the country’s fragile independence, located as it was between aggressive colonialists: the British Raj (Burma) and French Indochina (Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia). The king, who understood the importance of foreign education, not only sent his many sons to European schools and academies, but also sent thousands of commoners and scholarship students, anticipating that the kingdom’s survival rested on modernization.

He was succeeded on the throne by his son, King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) (1910–25), a Sandhurst and Oxford graduate. Vajiravudh continued most of his father’s efforts in modernizing the infrastructure and other institutions of the country, including appointing able commoners to the government. The foundation of Vajiravudh College (a school founded on the model of an English public school) and Chulalongkorn University, (Siam’s first), were part of his educational reforms. He also encouraged European practices in fashion and the adoption by all of surnames. His reforms resulted in much anger in many quarters, especially from older, reactionary members of the aristocracy and nobility, whose influence was slowly being eroded. The speed of his constitutional reforms also resulted in dissatisfaction from an entirely different faction: progressives and radicals.

In 1912, a Palace revolt, plotted by young military officers, tried unsuccessfully to overthrow and replace the king. Their goals were to change the system of government, overthrowing the ancien régime and replacing it with a modern, Westernized constitutional system, and perhaps to replace Rama VI with a prince more sympathetic to their beliefs. The revolt failed and the participants were imprisoned. In reaction, Vajiravudh largely abandoned his attempts at constitutional reform and continued with his absolutist rule, with the minor exception of appointing some able commoners to his privy council and government. King Vajiravudh died in 1925, and was succeeded by his younger brother King Prajadhipok (Rama VII).


Prince Prajadhipok Sakdidej, the Prince of Sukhothai, was the youngest son of King Chulalongkorn (the 33rd son and the 76th child of 77), an Eton and Woolwich Academy educated Prince. King Prajadhipok inherited a country in crisis, His brother Vajiravudh had left the state on the verge of bankruptcy, often using the treasury to cover up the many deficits of the privy purse, and the fact that the state and the people were forced to subsidize the many princes and their lavish lifestyles.

After his coronation, the new king quickly created the Supreme Council of State (which became the main organ of state), to try to solve the many problems facing the nation. The council was composed of experienced senior princes who had held ministerial positions in previous administrations. Unfortunately, they were quick to replace the commoners appointed by Vajiravudh in the civil service and military with many of their own. The council was dominated by the Minister of the Interior, German-educated Prince Paribatra Sukhumbhand, Prince of Nakhon Sawan, who was Prajadhipok’s older half brother. Due to the complicated succession law of the Chakri Dynasty, he was also heir to the throne. Prajadhipok turned out to be a very sympathetic monarch. He immediately ordered a cut in palace expenditure and travelled extensively around the country to learn of his subjects’ lives. He made himself more accessible and visible to the ever-growing Bangkok elite and middle class by carrying out many civic duties. By this time, students sent to study abroad decades earlier had started to return. Faced with the lack of opportunity, and the entrenchment of the princes, most became disillusioned with the status quo.


By 1930, the events of the world were too much for the kingdom to bear, as the Wall Street Crash and the economic meltdown that came with it finally reached Siam. The king proposed the levying of general income taxes and property taxes to help alleviate the sufferings of the poor. These were roundly rejected by the council, who feared their fortunes would be reduced. Instead, they cut civil service payrolls and reduced the military budget, angering most of the country’s educated elite. The officer corps was especially disgruntled, and in 1931 Phra Ong Chao (lower class of prince) Boworadet, a minor member of the royal family and Minister of Defence, resigned. Prince Boworadet was not a member of the supreme council, and it was suspected that disagreement with the council over budget cuts led to his resignation. The king, who openly confessed his own lack of financial knowledge, stating he was just a simple soldier, tried with little success to battle the senior princes over this issue.

Meanwhile, the king put his efforts into the drafting of a constitution (which for the first time was to introduce democracy to Siam), with the help of two princes and an American foreign policy advisor, Raymond Bartlett Stevens. Despite being advised that his people were not yet ready for democracy, the king was undeterred and was determined to implement a constitution before his dynasty’s 150th anniversary in 1932. However, the document was completely rejected by the princes in the supreme council.

On 6 April 1932, when the Chakri Dynasty celebrated its 150th anniversary of rule over Siam, the king opened a bridge across the Chao Phraya River. The celebration was somewhat muted due to fears stemming from an alleged prophecy dating back to the days of King Rama I, which predicted the end of the dynasty on its 150th anniversary. By the end of April, Prajadhipok had left Bangkok for his summer holidays, leaving Prince Paribatra in charge as regent. The king went to the beach resort town of Hua Hin in Prachuap Khiri Khan Province to his summer villa, “Klai Kangwon” (วังไกลกังวล: translated as “far from worries”).

Meanwhile a small group of soldiers and civil servants began secretly plotting to bring constitutional government to the kingdom – deeply ironic given that the king was fully in favor of being a constitutional monarch. Their efforts culminated in the almost bloodless “revolution” on the morning of 24 June 1932 by the self-proclaimed People’s Party (Khana Ratsadorn – คณะราษฎร). The plotters took control of the Ananda Samakhom Throne Hall in Bangkok and arrested key officials (mainly the princes). The People’s Party demanded Prajadhipok become a constitutional monarch and grant the Thai people a constitution. He immediately accepted and the first “permanent” constitution was promulgated on 10 December.


Prajadhipok’s return to Bangkok on 26 June dispelled any thoughts the plotters may have had of proclaiming a republic. One of his first acts was to receive the leading coup plotters in a royal audience. As they entered the room, Prajadhipok greeted them, saying “I rise in honour of the Khana Ratsadorn.” It was a very significant gesture. By Siamese tradition, monarchs remained seated while their subjects made obeisance. Prajadhipok fully acknowledged the changed circumstances, and, I suspect, was grateful to the conspirators for achieving what he could not by himself. However, in the years that followed relations between the Khana Ratsadorn and the king deteriorated, in no small part because the king was not happy with the undemocratic nature of the new regime. He abdicated in 1935. What followed in Thailand up to the present day is a story for another day.


Thai cuisine is very popular where I live in Kunming because several well established ethnic minorities in Yunnan, notably the branches of the Dai people, are closely related to the Thai. Originally, the Tai, or Dai, lived closely together in modern Yunnan Province until political chaos and wars in the north at the end of the Tang and Song Dynasties prompted some to move further south into modern Laos then Thailand. I routinely frequent Dai restaurants (there’s one next to my apartment building) because the food tends to be less fatty than Yunnan counterparts with a strong emphasis on steaming over frying.

I am very fond of Thai sticky rice mixed with meat, vegetables, and spices, and steamed in banana leaves – featured favorite in the recent Dragon Boat Festival in China, and very common at weddings. The flavors of such dishes are complex, blending sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and spicy/hot, in ways that may seem like a jumble to Westerners but are very carefully crafted. As with my past little rants on traditional Chinese recipes, and would say that you are very limited in the West cooking Thai dishes without the right ingredients. Nonetheless, in New York and Buenos Aires I did a fair job using, for example, prepared green or red curry pastes, tom yum mix, and the like. You can get them in Asian markets.


Cooking sticky (glutinous) rice is a bit of an art, but can be mastered. Take the quantity you need and rinse it in cold running water in a sieve until the water runs clear. Then soak it in cold water overnight. Next day place it in the top of a steamer, covered, over simmering water for 10 minutes. Turn the rice over with a wooden spoon and repeat the steaming. It may take about 30 minutes for the rice to be fully cooked. Use it as an accompaniment to a curry or wrap it around some savory morsel and eat with your fingers. Otherwise use a spoon. Thai and Yunnan people usually eat rice with a spoon rather than chopsticks.