Friday, January 15, 2010

200th Post - Elementary School Program


This is the 200th post of Allen's World - I guess some sort of a milestone.

Last night we had a late night returning home from Tahsang Village after midnight.

I am not sure what we did but we enjoyed ourselves immensely. It is not that I drank too much and can not remember the night. It was the event that we attended and participated in was unlike anything I have attended before. I will try to describe it as best as I can and give my interpretation of the events.

My wife had told me that a teacher at the Tahsang Village was leaving to teach at another village school. There was going to be a party to wish him good luck. It all sounded simple enough and not anything all that special.

As the day wore on she gave me a better idea of what the evening's activities would be. There was going to be another parade where the students would walk from Tahsang Village to the Elementary School. People were going to eat dinner at the school. Last year we had attended a fund raiser at the school so I thought that I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. Later in the afternoon, Duang's son stopped by to take Duang to the Chinese wholesale store to buy 3 cases 1.25 liter bottles of soda for the school children. He bought two huge (2 foot diameter by 5 foot long) bags of snack food for the children.

I was involved in a long conversation to Korea over the phone, so we were unable to head out to Tahsang until 6:00 PM thereby missing out on the "parade". We arrived at the school and it was very apparent that the evening would be different for sure.

The front of the school was filled with all types of tents of various construction. Some tents were typical nylon camping tents that you buy at sporting goods stores. Some tents were made out of tarps placed over sticks that had been driven into the ground to form loops. Some tents were very similar to tepees.

About 300 children were running around playing tag, muay thai boxing, and in general having a great time. In the center of the field was a large pyramid of wood awaiting to be lit to create a bonfire. There were several of the pavilions that are used to provide shelter at celebrations. Amongst the encampment, at least 8 village dogs were running about.

We parked the truck to offload the supplies and were greeted by one of the teachers. She arranged for help to offload the truck and wanted our names. She needed our names so that the man at the PA system could announce our donation and give us proper credit. It seems that in Isaan there is no such thing as an anonymous donation.

After offloading the truck we went to a covered area where people were being served food that was being prepared and cooked by mothers of some of the students. As I looked around I started getting a better idea of what was going on. Some of the adults were wearing portions of Boy Scout uniforms. Because the people are not wealthy, there was only one man who had a complete uniform. Two women wore US Marine Corps Drill Instructor style hats and several had only a Boy Scout bandanna around their neck to indicate their affiliation.

This appeared to be a sort of Boy Scout Jamboree except that the number of girls far exceeded the number of boys. Again, because the children are poor, for those that had a uniform, their uniform consisted solely of a bandanna around their neck. I questioned Duang about what was going on and she indicated that this was like a party for the end of the year and beginning of a new year. Nine village schools were participating in the camp out. On Saturday the students were going to pack up and hike to a different village school to camp out. Friday night, Tahsang Village was hosting the group and was responsible for feeding the masses and running the program.

Before we even took our seats to eat, I was given a glass of whiskey and soda. I shared it with Duang and she was eventually given her own glass. It seems that all social functions here, there is drinking. Duang introduced me to many of the men at the table. No women other than Duang were seated at the table. The women had apparently eaten earlier and were occupied serving the men. Duang and I sort of bridge typical Isaan customs at these events. Men and women typically sit apart from each other including merit making rituals at the Wat. However since I am clueless most of the time as to what is going on, I sit with Duang so that she can explain to me. Our seemingly breaches of etiquette are tolerated and apparently accepted. However I don't think that we will be influencing Isaan Lao Loum customs any time soon.

After finishing our meal, we were directed to the area in front of the pavilion where the announcer and PA equipment were located. A row of stuffed sofas and chairs along with a cocktail table were situated at the edge of the field. Behind the stuffed furniture was a row of plastic chairs where we were directed to sit. This arrangement is typical at Isaan events. Monks, dignitaries and government officials sit in the front rows on stuffed furniture. No Monks attended the festivities. The front row was comprised of each village's "Headman" and some dignitaries from the District. When the dignitaries were seated, a woman brought them glasses of beer and whiskey. Seated behind them, Duang and I were given glasses of cola.

The Master of Ceremonies commenced his address when there was huge commotion to the side of the public address system. The lights flicked and went out . The sound system went dead. The air was filled with cries, growls and flying dirt. One of the 8 village dogs had tried to get up very close and extremely personal with one of the dogs, she vehemently objected as well as a couple of the other male dogs. During their battle, the extension cord supplying electricity to the pavilion was dislodged. Order and electricity were eventually restored although the dogs continued to have their "differences" the rest of the night - a little bit of unplanned and unexpected entertainment.

The planned entertainment commenced with a fire lighting ceremony. Some girls came out in costumes along with headdresses and danced around the wood pyre in a skipping type dance in accompaniment to conga drum beats as well as chanting my the "Boy Scout" adults. Their outfits were brown sacks that had been decorated with day glow paint. Four black lights had been mounted on bamboo poles around the pyre. Their headdress was a day glow head band with a cardboard day glow feather over each ear. I was not certain if the girls represented some Lao Loum deity, Animist spirits, or Thai mythological figures. When they and the adults gave out war whoops a la 1950's television and movies that I realized that they were "Indian" maidens. After the maidens had taken their position, a "warrior" arrived. He appeared to be more of an Inca or Mayan warrior and unfortunately he was very overweight. He skipped danced around the maidens three times. On one of the passes in front of us, a man called out to him in Lao "You are too fat. You eat too much pig!"- talk about a tough crowd! Undeterred the boy trooped on. He came before the District Leader, a man with respect and deference that I am sure that President Obama wished that he had,an received a lit torch. The warrior chief then danced to bring a torch to each of the 4 maidens located at the cardinal compass points of the pyre. Once all the torches were delivered the wood pyre was ignited with the torches. As the pyre leaped into flames, fireworks were shot into sky. A total of 7 fireworks were shot into the sky exploding into colorful bursts with powerful booms. While the fireworks were shooting into the sky, some of the maidens had long tubes that were shooting roman candles over the fire.

The students, assembled around the field, watched in amazement and excitement along with their parents as well as younger siblings. This was a family as well as community event. Everyone was in good spirits - some adults in more "spirits" than others.


One of the leaders moved his chair and ended up inadvertently placing it upon my empty glass. I spoke to him in Thai to wait a minute and removed the glass from underneath his chair. The next thing that I knew was that he wanted me to sit in the stuffed chair next to his. I sat down, and a woman brought me a glass of beer - Yes rank has it's privileges. But there is no such thing as a free lunch or glass of beer. Some young girls came out and danced around the fire bearing offerings for the dignitaries. One girl presented a trophy that would be awarded to the school that was judged to have had the best spirit. Another girl presented a watermelon that had some bamboo sticks with papers stuck on them. Other girls had fresh leis made out of banana blossoms. The dignitaries placed the floral arrangements around their necks. I was given two of the leis to wear. But as Duang so often tells me "This is Thailand, not same as America" - I could not fit the leis over my large head! After consultation with Duang and the dignitaries, it was determined that I should wear one lei on my head like a crown and one wrapped around my left wrist.


I mentioned that there is no such thing as a free lunch or glass of beer. After receiving the leis, the dignitaries and I had to dance with the girls around the fire. Fortunately I am familiar and comfortable with dancing Lao style. The crowd was also kinder to me than the previous warrior chief. It was great fun and upon returning to our seats, the District Leader poured and sent me a shot of whiskey. Rank has it's privileges - especially in Isaan. I was offered more liquor but since I was driving I did not accept the kind invitations.

There was a full night of entertainment and activities. The children enthusiastically participated in round singing, cheering competitions, and exercises. Each school presented a skit. As best as I can determine the skits were reinforcing social behaviors such as not smoking, patriotism, not let your dogs attack people's ducks, etc. Two of the schools had their girls perform Go-Go or MTV video type dance routines. It appears the the Isaan pipeline of dancers to Bangkok and Pattaya will be kept functioning well in the future. Prior to and after presenting their skit, the groups lined up in front of the dignitaries and gave them a three fingered salute which was returned by the District Leader. It appeared to me that the entire event is designed to reinforce and encourage community values as well as expectations with the students.

Tahsang Village school was the most comical to watch last night. They were "naughty boys". A couple of the younger brothers who do not attend school, sat with their older siblings. They were not bashful at all - dancing any and every time there was a beat in the air. Many times their dancing disintegrated into "kick boxing". It was very entertaining especially knowing that they were not your children or going home with you.

The program ended around 11:30 PM with the students going to their tents to sleep. Some teachers and two security guards remained to watch over the children. Naturally the dogs remained trying to do what they had been trying to do all night long. No seemed to mind.

We were invited to stay longer while a pig was roasted over the fire that had been used in the festivities. The Tahsang Village Headman set up his computer with a small amplifier for karaoke. A couple of the teachers sang Isaan songs. They were excellent singers and pleasant to listen to.

It was getting late so after eating some fresh grilled pig intestines, we left for the one hour drive back to Udonthani.

I am not certain what it was all about. I am not sure that I understood what was going on. I know that we had enjoyed another unique Isaan experience.

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