To Debone a Fish Without Capsizing
The day I turned twenty one, my mum gifted me a ring— set in Thai gold and centred by a Siamese ruby with three small diamonds seated on either side. It was her mum’s, melted down, fluid, morphed, repurposed, reawakened. On the days I wish to wear it— the days I feel able to wear it— it inhabits the index finger of my left hand. My left hand is my non-dominant hand, passive, the one I instinctively prefer less— but also the extension of the limb closest to my heart. On the days I do not wear it, which is most days, it is kept in a jewellery box that my mum no longer uses. Some days, I’ll touch it, hold it, trace my finger around the gems, or look through the inside of the ring and out the red of the ruby at the refracted light. Mostly, I’ll gaze into the red face on. The way it is cut deepens the red, seemingly endless.
With it, I feel balanced, grounded, and connected— an incorporeal connectedness that I embody, or maybe embodies me. It is vast and limitless, yet intensely intimate. It is non-linear and enmeshed, yet orderly and perceivable. It bleeds through my fingertips and toes into the earth as mycelium among organisms and critters, into the atmosphere as an ether of ongoingness, into the netherworlds of entities, spirits, gods, and creatures— and quietly, concurrently— it is ash, embers, the heart line of a palm, oranges, sun-dried gourami, a mortar, a pestle, the cumulative magic of my ancestors, both light and dark. When I wear it I feel equilibrium, my left hand heavier with the charge of metal and stone, sensing the deep time of creation that I cannot fathom myself. Simultaneously, I think of histories of colonialism, expropriation, extractive capitalism, labour, bodies.
The phenomena is not something I can explain nor prove. A rational explanation of this thing-power is most akin to political theorist Jane Bennett’s writing on “the capacity of things— edibles, commodities, storms, and metals— not only to impede or block the will and design of humans, but also to act as quasi agents or forces, with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own” (Bennett, 2010). My ancestors— a merge of Mons, Thais, animists, Buddhists, and, as ancient animistic religions in the locality of Thailand were absorbed into Buddhism as one colourful bloated conglomerate, a hybrid creation of hyphenated Buddhist-animists— would call it sing saksit.
The ruby was found by my Khun Ta when he was eighteen and gifted to my Khun Yai in an engagement ring. It was one of two things my mum inherited when Khun Yai and Khun Ta passed— the ruby happens to be my birthstone. Khun Ta found the ruby seventy years ago in Chantaburi, a region with a long tradition of gemstone cutting dating back centuries when rubies were first found in Thailand. Mines were open to the public, and if you were wealthy, noble, and networked, you could pay money to have a recreational dig. Mining for rubies intensified in Thailand from the 1960s, when Burma’s ruby mines in Mogok, renowned for their coveted pigeon-blood ruby, fell under control of the military government. Attention turned to Chantaburi to replace Mogok as the world’s ruby capital. Today, Chantaburi has been extracted to depletion. With such heavy reliance on the gemstone industry, rubies are now imported from places such as Mozambique and Madagascar and undergo processing in Thailand— until those deposits are exhausted.
Khun Yai rested on the wooden jetty by the river, pushing her thick curtain of dark, frizzy hair to relieve her neck. She dangled her legs over the water, swinging them back and forth, moving, and generating coolness on the back of her knees. This became habitual for Khun Yai, who would dangle her legs any time she sat down and they were too short to touch the ground— even when the wooden jetty by the river had become a memory of a bygone time. A woven basket of oranges sat beside her, she’d just picked them from her family orchard. The scent of sweet citrus pierced the heavy air. Her parents were peasant farmers, selling their oranges at the local markets. Her father was Mon, an indigenous people from the regions of lower Burma, and had migrated to Nonthaburi in west central Thailand— a route which many of the Mon diaspora had undertaken to flee the looming campaign of genocide. Across the river, slightly downstream, a man was swimming. He swam laps everyday. He was in the Thai Royal Navy, and trained and trained. Although it wasn’t a leisurely swim, he took pleasure in it. Khun Ta had noticed Khun Yai sitting there with her basket of oranges, and swam upstream to acquaint himself.
Khun Yai passed of a heart attack in Bangkok on 1 January 2006. The duration of the funeral was seven days. Her body was embalmed and neatly kept in a casket at the local temple, Wat Lad Pra Kao. Upon arrival, we knocked on the side of her casket and greeted her vocally to let her know who we were and that we were present. Days One to Five consisted of chanting with the monks as they prayed, and eating a communal potluck meal once the praying had ceased. On Day Two or Three, my cousin, P’Nook, saw Khun Yai sitting in her favourite spot at the front of her house, dangling her legs above a pond as they were too short to reach the ground. Day Six was the day of cremation. The casket was carried around the temple three times anti-clockwise and then taken up to the crematorium. The casket was open, and only family members and close friends were allowed to say goodbye to Khun Yai. Mum wouldn’t allow me or my younger brother, Dylan, to join the rest of the family in fear that this would tid ta. Day Seven, we went out on a traditional wooden boat near the locality of Pak Kret, a historical Mon settlement in Nonthaburi. Khun Yai’s ashes were scattered in the water near Wat Paramaiyikwat (Temple of Grandmother), at the leaning Mon pagoda. This point is the confluence of waterways Chao Praya and Lat-Kret with Om-Kret. Eight years later, Khun Ta’s ashes were also scattered here, in hopes that they would find each other. A medium had told my aunty that Khun Yai hadn’t yet moved on, and was waiting for him. On the night of Day Six, Khun Ta came to my cousin, P’Aon, in a dream and told her that he wanted his ashes to be scattered at sea. He had spent most of his life at sea. All eight of his children, including my mum, became divided over the decision. We should respect his wishes, that’s where he wants to be. But what about mum? She’s been waiting for him all these years.
I often think about Khun Yai and Khun Ta, submerged in the cool water, floating, twirling, gliding through the world’s interwoven waterways, traversing new places alongside aquatic organisms and critters of the deep, and once they are ready, once they want to rest, finding their way back to the wooden jetty by the river. Only they would never make it that far, never being able to see or find each other in the dark, murky, contaminated waters of the Chao Praya. Splashing, struggling, fumbling. Spluttering on industrial waste from 30,000 facilities that use the river’s canals as dumping grounds. Choking on fumes emitted from boat engines in areas of intense transportation— especially that of shipments of teak and rice. Getting caught in the growths of water hyacinth that prevent oxygen from penetrating the water. Khun Yai, Khun Ta, aquatic organisms and critters of the deep instead laced with organochlorine pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls and heavy metals (McLaren et al, 2004).
The annual nationwide celebration of Loy Krathong is held on the first full moon of the twelfth month of the Thai lunar calendar. It is to express gratitude to the Water Goddess, Phra Mae Khongkha for an abundant and fruitful harvest year. After dusk, people gather at bodies of water and release their krathong, setting them afloat. A krathong is made of banana stalk and leaves, ornamented with flowers, three sticks of incense, and a candle. Sometimes a small coin is included as an offering to the water spirits. In Bangkok, the krathong is offered to the Mae Nam (river— “mother” “water”) Chao Praya, believed to be one of the many bodies of water that Phra Mae Khongkha dwells. This is to thank her for letting humans inhabit her banks for almost a millennia, building their livelihoods around her as she acts as the bloodline of the region spanning 372 kilometres from Nakhon Sawan, exiting at the Gulf of Thailand. Today, it is also an apology for poisoning and defiling her, causing her symptoms of nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, disorientation and weakness, effecting her immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine systems, and increasing her risk of cancers in the liver, gall bladder, biliary tract, gastrointestinal tract, and brain.
Khun Ta often insisted on fish for dinner— sun-dried gourami, mackerel, catfish, or snapper; steamed with soy sauce, ginger, green shallots and chilli, or golden fried and served with chilli sauce. He had his own routine every time he ate fish, a fun ruse for his laan laan. The fish would be bought fresh and whole from the local market, if we were at a restaurant he would ensure it was not served already deboned. Once it was ready to eat, he would call upon one of his laan laan, one of 18, and insist that they undertake the pivotal task of deboning the fish for the entire family. He often requested this with a twinkle and grin that accentuated his crows feet and flashed his silver crowns. A spoon and fork would be used, as Thai people don’t use knives to eat or serve with. Khun Ta would watch over the deboner as they gingerly worked their way from head to tail, pushing aside the white flesh to reveal the skeleton. Next was the tricky part, the ultimate test on whether or not you are Khun Ta’s laan. The deboner now had to remove the skeleton from the head and the tail. Most people would simply flip the whole fish over and wriggle the flesh free from the skeleton— not Khun Ta. During his time in the navy, Khun Ta’s diet consisted of an abundance of fish, from many parts of Thailand. It was naval folklore that if you flipped a fish to debone it, the boat would capsize. Khun Ta always severed the skeleton from the head and tail, not once flipping it, in fear of being exposed to the water. I’m not sure what it was about the water that scared Khun Ta; he was a confident swimmer who spent most of his life in or on the water. Maybe it was the increasing pollution and toxicity of it, the amalgamation of unknown waste and materials mixing in the planet’s largest testing beaker, to the service and convenience of textile, mining, oil, and chemical industries— was he scared that he would ingest this? That it would seep through his pores and fill any orifices that were left unguarded and unprotected? I wonder if he would come to realise that he, himself, unknowingly lead his own hand to ingesting the very poisons that he was afraid of, skilfully deboned by his laan laan— that they entered through the mouth, danced with tongue, gum, and teeth, glided down the oesophagus and swam through the stomach and intestines— both fish and human.
How To Make A Krathong (Easy Guide For Farangs!)
• 1 x bunch banana leaf cut into 4cm x 10cm pieces
• 1 x banana tree stalk, cut horizontally into a circular shape
1 x bunch sticks or toothpicks
• 1 x bunch flowers
• 3 x incense sticks
• 1 x candle
• Scissors or knife
Note: Please ensure that if you are sourcing your banana stalk and leaves directly from a banana tree, you avoid doing so at night during a full moon— especially if you are male. If so, you run the risk of encountering Nang Tani, a spirit that inhabits wild banana trees. It is considered a bad omen to cut trees from a clump in which Nang Tani dwells. Keep an eye out for trees with tri-coloured satin cloth— red, yellow and green— tied around the trunk, as these have been demarcated by locals on behalf of her. If unsure, make her an offering in the form of sweets, incense, and flowers. In the case that you do encounter her, she appears as a beautiful young woman with long black hair wearing green traditional Thai dress. She is mostly known to be a gentle spirit, however, during a full moon she reveals her form and punishes men who have wronged women. Do not try to eat her fruits as they are inedible.
Step 1 Completely cover the banana tree stalk with one banana leaf and cut to shape. This will act as the base of your krathong. Covering the stalk will ensure that the krathong won’t become waterlogged once it is set afloat. This is important as the krathong carries your wrongdoings, negative feelings, and misfortune— it should float and drift away, down the river, into the canals and waterways, ridding you of any world-weariness, existential crisis, environmental guilt or eco-anxiety.
Step 2 Hold a piece of banana leaf horizontally and bring the two top corners into the centre, pulling down until a point of a triangle is formed. Once folded, the banana leaf should look like a triangle on top of a rectangle, similar to the shape of a conventional Western style house— the large, gated ones ones rapidly populating the banks of the Chao Praya, transforming the landscape into a patchy, misshapen clutter of affluence, poverty, globalisation, Westernisation, and gentrification. Bring the two flaps across one another, forming the base of the triangle, and secure both flaps by piercing it with a stick or toothpick so that the triangle is able to sit up on its own. Place the triangle on the edge of the krathong base that you prepared in Step 1. Repeat until the base is circled with leaf triangles or encroaching Western houses.
Step 3 Pierce your candle with a stick or toothpick, starting from the centre of its base, so that it runs lengthways through the centre of your candle. Keep pushing it through until about 1cm is left sticking out at the bottom of the candle, enough to pierce the base of your krathong. This will ensure that the candle remains secure and stands up right. This is important if you want your wish to come true! Your wish— maybe for happiness, health, good fortune, a halt on pending environmental destruction, decolonisation, an end to capitalism, will only come true if the candle remains lit once the krathong has drifted out of sight. The longer the candle remains lit, the better the coming year will be. Add your three incense sticks around the candle, ensuring to pierce the base.
Step 4 Add your brightly coloured flowers inside the krathong, covering the remaining area. Lotus, orchids, marigolds, canna lily, and amaranth globes are often used by locals and are native to Thailand. Roses and other non-native flowers are increasingly used in modern krathongs, along with store bought krathongs made from styrofoam— this is especially convenient for tourists. Thai people are reclaiming tradition, pushing to revert back to only natural and biodegradable materials being used in a krathong. In Bangkok in 2018, 5.3% of 796,444 krathongs collected from the Chao Praya were made of styrofoam, with 94.7% being made from natural and biodegradable materials. This is compared to that of 2017, where of the 811,945 krathongs collected, 93.6% were natural and biodegradable and 6.4% were made of styrofoam. Other alternatives implemented by locals include bread, ice cream cone or fish food krathongs, sharing one krathong per family or household, releasing a digital krathong online, or abstaining from the practice. To release a krathong digitally, follow the links below: https://map.longdo.com/loykrathong/ https://mthai.com/loykrathong/ https://www.ocean.co.th/loikrathong2020/ https://season.sanook.com/loykrathong/play/
Step 5 Add a fingernail clipping or a lock or strand of hair to shed negativity such as anger, hatred, and wrongdoings. This also personalises your krathong, ensuring that Phra Mae Khongkha may identify who is apologising to her and can forgive them accordingly. Add a coin as an offering to the spirits that inhabit the water. This is done with the intention that the spirits will collect these coins as merit, allowing them to pass on to a better place— even in death you cannot escape capitalist virtues of profit motive, capital accumulation, and competition. I hope Khun Yai and Khun Ta are able to collect a coin. That’s it. You are now ready for Loy Krathong!