Sunday, May 10, 2009

Go-Go Girls At The Door to The Water Underworld

It has been over a week since my last blog, but it is not because we have not been doing anything. To the contrary we have been very busy. I have completed reviewing approximately 2,000 35mm slides from the past 32 years. I ended up with 57 packets of 35 slides with identification labels attached. After boxing them up, we were off to the Post Office to ship them to the USA where they will be sent to India for digital scanning.

Saturday we set aside everything and went to a show put on by Duang's brother.

Her youngest brother continues the family tradition of performing. Duang's father is a former mahlam morlam (Lao traditional music). His youngest child puts on and performs in the modern versions of the shows. The shows are popular throughout Isaan. Performances are presented for religious holidays, weddings, festivals, anniversaries of a death, Monk ordination celebrations celebrations, and sometimes - to just have a party. Often as you travel the roads of Isaan you will pass trucks loaded with staging, sound equipment, musicians, and dancers traveling to or from a performance. Often in the middle of no where, you will stumble upon a show venue. The shows are put on in the morning, afternoon, and nights - sometimes all night long.

The shows are typically comprised of a live band. For big shows such as Siriporn Amphaipong the band has 16 musicians. Duang's brother's band runs 6 to 8 members. In addition to the lead performer there are other singers. Duang's brother typically has 3 to 4 other singers whereas big shows can have up to 8 other singers. The shows always have dancers. At one Siriporn Amphaipong concert that we attended, I counted 56 dancers - male and female. Duang's brother has 3 to 4 female Go-Go dancers. His show's complement depends on how much money that he gets paid for the show. More money gets more performers and more musicians. Typically a show will last 6 to 8 hours. Most of the time the shows are free. When we attend the big Siriporn Amphaipong productions, it costs around $3.00 USD for the 6 hour show.

In downtown Udonthani, there is a street alongside Wat Matchimiwat there is a street where many Mahlam Morlam performers live. They live in very narrow and small tin roofed buildings with large advertising banners for their shows over the doorways or utilized to provide additional weatherproofing to the structure. The entire front of their home opens up to the sidewalk when the sliding doors are opened. The residents can always be found sitting at concrete tables and chairs that are set on the sidewalk. There is a very strong sense of community amongst the residents of this street.

Saturday's show was scheduled to start at 10:00 A. M. at Wat Kham Chanot about 2-1/2 hours from Udonthani, so we arrived at the performer's street at 6:15 A. M. As we sat outside on one of the concrete benches, people were just getting up and starting the day. In addition to Duang's brother's show that morning there was another show to prepare for. Young girls, the Go-Go dancers came out of their houses and either set off to the local market to buy breakfast or to sit on the concrete benches to commence doing their hair.

Go-Go dancers in Thailand wear elaborate hairdos. The hairstyle, like their dance moves, are very reminiscent of the late 1960's. Typically hair pieces are worn that provide long tresses down the dancer's back and a large bun of curls on the top of their hair. A tiara is often used to accentuate the hair style.

Upon arrival at the show sight, the girls set their shopping bags of cosmetics and plastic boxes of costumes in the sheltered area behind the stage that the roadies had set up earlier. After placing sahts, the ubiquitous woven reed mats, on the ground the dancers commenced the laborious task of applying their make-up. Like the singers in the luuk thung shows, the dancers wear heavy makeup. The eyes get very special treatment - many different layers of powders, liners, and outrageously long eyelashes.

I sat down and just photographed the girls as they prepared for their performance. It was not long before we were joined by some young children. Two young girls stood by intently observing the go-go girls applying their make-up. Their attentive demeanor was much like any young girl watching a bride to be applying her make-up on her big day. These young girls were perhaps dreaming of the day when they will be watched as they apply their make-up before a show. This is a reality of Isaan. To escape the grips of poverty and limited opportunities in the region, many young women enter into the entertainment field. The villages of Isaan are continuously supplying fresh young dancers and entertainers to local shows as well as to the tourist centric establishments in the bigger cities.

In a previous blog I noted that people working in the garlic fields make 100 baht a day ($2.85 USD). The 18 and 19 year old dancers that work for Duang's brother are paid 500 baht for a 6 to 8 hour show. In addition the dancers are often given tips from people watching the show. Spectators often walk up to the edge of the stage to hand a singer or dancer a gift in appreciation of their performance. Gifts are often 20 or 100 baht bank notes but sometimes are fresh flowers or paper chain necklaces like we used to make in elementary school to decorate Christmas trees. The exchange and acknowledgement of the gifts is a significant as well as important component of the performance. Tips from a show can run from an additional 200 to 1,000 baht for a dancer depending upon the venue.

Saturday's show was at a Wat Kham Chanot out in the middle of no where. This Wat is an important place for the local people. It is located in an area known as "Wang Nakhin" - (Naga Place). Nagas are water serpent creatures that have mystical powers. In ancient times the worship of naga spirits was practised in China, India, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. The belief if not worship of these spirits remains today in many areas - in particular Laos and Isaan. There is a shrine located on an island out in the middle of the rice paddies that is reached by walking along an elevated zig zag concrete elevated bridge. At the head of the bridge leading out to the island are two naga heads. Their bodies lie atop the railings of the bridge out to the island. The shrine is built on an island where the local vegetation has remained untouched. Huge palm trees and all kinds of tropical plants flourish at the site. The name of the site "Kham Chanot" is derived from the tall chanot palm trees that grow unencumbered on the island. There is a large elevated pool of water at one side of the site. People walk up to the side of the pool to collect its waters in plastic bottles or to sprinkle the water over their head while reciting some prayers. I was told that this was very special water because it was very old and came out of the center of the Earth. This mystical and spiritual site is considered to be the door way to the water underworld of the naga. Outside of the shrine there were three gongs varying in diameter from 6 feet to 2.5 feet. The gongs were made out of thin metal and had a round protrusion pressed out in the center and smaller bumps pressed out of the disk closer to the edge. I have seen these before and I have actually rung them using a mallet placed near them. However Saturday was different. After kneeling before the gongs, saying a prayer or two, the worshipper placed their hands inside the hollowed out protrusion and vigorously rub their hands back and forth. For most of the people, and for some unexplained reason - all the children, the gong would start to vibrate and give off a loud as well as an un-earthly hum. Apparently this facilitates the prayers being heard by those who can do something about the requests.

On the land side of the Wat complex, a festival was being held. These festivals are very similar to the church bazaars held by the Catholic Church back east in America to raise money to support the Parrish. There were booths with local foods for sale. Other booths sold small fireworks. There were stalls where typical festival games such as breaking balloons with darts, shooting targets with air rifles, and throwing rings over bottles. There was a small merry go round for very small children as well as a large inflated slide. There were even two trampolines for children to jump on. I knew that I was not in America when I noticed not "Release of Liability" documents to signed by the parents, anyone spotting at the side of the trampolines, 3 to 5 children jumping on each trampoline, and no lawyers hovering around in eager anticipation of a negligence suit. The children had a great time just being children on a hot sunny day jumping and falling on a trampoline under the shade of a blue plastic tarp. Part of the joy I have in Thailand is due to the innocence of the children as well as the adults here. It is much like the America of my parent's childhoods that they told me about so many times. A place where people are free to be themselves and not preoccupied with the fears of not being politically correct or intimidated by the specter of capricious litigation. A place where you can stop and talk to babies without aggravating the parents. A place where taking photographs of strangers is accepted as an honor or compliment rather than as a perceived threat.

The festival at the Wat was several days long. As part of the celebration rockets were being launched. Saturday there were several rockets launched with a great roar and swoosh. Little boys perhaps in dreaming of or contemplating the future fired smaller bottle rocket type fireworks into the sky at the edge of the rice paddies.

The previous night a stage had been erected and a makeshift movie screen had been set up. A movie was shown for the enjoyment of the villagers and others. Others? The movie was apparently a comedy that the villagers enjoyed very much as well as the phii (ghosts) that showed up to watch. Apparently several ghosts had been observed watching and laughing along with the people. This area is well known amongst local people for having friendly and good phii.

Anyhow - back to the Go-Go girls.

The show started at roughly 10:00 A. M. The girls danced with a great deal of energy as well as enthusiasm - song after song after song. The music has a rapid driving beat and the dancers synchronize their movements to the music. Often strong drum beats are accentuated with large pelvic thrusts by the dancers. Other popular dance moves are leg kicks, flailing arm movements, and even squats. The routines are very similar to what American teenagers and Go-Go dancers were doing in the late 1960s. Can it really be 42 years ago? Despite the provocative dance movements, the dancers are actually rather modest. They wear a tight opaque short tee shirt over their bra and underneath the "brassiere" portion of their dance costume. Underneath their dancing skirt they wear pantyhose covered by black very short-shorts. More skin is seen at any beach in the USA than is seen on these Go-Go dancers. Of course more can be seen inside the clubs and bars of the bigger cities but that is an entirely different culture and venue. The modesty of the dancers includes their costume changes. There are no dressing rooms at the concert venues so the girls change costumes behind the stage. They put on a typical Isaan or Lao long skirt and pull it up to their arm pits and change inside the skirt.

The Go-Go girls danced outside the doorway to the naga waterworld from 10:00 A. M. until approximately 1:00 P. M. when the show took a 45 minute break to eat. The show and their dancing resumed from 1:45 P. M. until 4:00 P. M. in the glaring sun. The temperature was at least 90 degrees F or 95 degrees F all afternoon. The afternoon set was more energetic than the morning set. The catalyst was the audience. The audience was very energetic and animated in the afternoon. The performers fed off the crowd's energy. The catalyst for the audience was beer, and whiskey. By the afternoon after several hours of drinking, everyone was in a party mood. I was busy filming the show at my brother-in-law's request so my involvement in both the drinking and dancing was limited. Even so, by 3:30 P. M. I was sick - sick from the heat and sun.

The go-go dancers had danced approximately 4.5 hours during the 5-1/4 hour show but their day was far from over. They and the rest of the company had to drive 4 hours to the south in order put on another show starting at 9:00 P. M.. The night show would continue through the night and end around 7:00 A. M. The dancers would earn another 500 baht plus tips for the second show. We were invited to join them for the second show but I wasn't too proud to admit that I couldn't handle it. I needed to get home and recuperate from another memorable experience in Isaan.

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