Monday, January 4, 2010

Elementary School Field Day - 30 December 2009


Last Wednesday we had planned on spending the entire day at the Elementary School Field Day, a sort of Olympics, just outside of Tahsang Village. We ended up watching and enjoying the first 4 hours of the 8 hour festival due to attending a funeral in the afternoon.

In Isaan as well as the rest of Thailand, student athletic competitions are held at the end of December to close out the old year. The competition is between the schools of the various villages with village pride as well as honor up for grabs.

In our travels back and forth between our home in Udonthani and the family back in Tahsang Village, we had seen many competitions being held at both elementary schools and high schools from December 25th to 30th December. We attended only the competitions involving the young children from Tahsang Village.

In Isaan, children as young as 3 and 4 years old can attend elementary school. They can attend a sort of nursery school run by the government at the public school if they pay 200 baht ($6.00 USD) each month. Older children do not have to pay to attend elementary school. The issue with them is their parents being able to afford to not having the children working in the fields to help support the family. Many children do not attend school beyond the 4th year or after they are 11 years old. The good news is even after only 4 years of school, they are able to read, write, and do simple mathematics. But I often think about the lost opportunities for so many of the children in not being able to get at least a high school education.

The inclusion of 3 and 4 year olds into the events with all their energy as well enthusiasm, despite distinct lack of skills, made the Field day very enjoyable. Two of my favorite events were the 3 and 4 year old boys and girls relay races. It was not so much the races themselves but the efforts and struggles to get the children set up for the races let alone getting them to understand that they could not start to run until their teammate had given them the baton. After a couple of false starts, both races were eventually completed much to the excitement of the participants. All the spectators enjoyed the events and had huge smiles on their face.

As best that I can figure out, the competitions that were held prior to Wednesday were for practice and making a statement leading up to the big event on December 30th.

We left Udonthani early and arrived at the school in Nongmakha Village. Nongmahka Village is about 4 KM from Tahsang Village. Their school is on the main farm road out of Kumphawapi and has a very large athletic field. Nine villages including Tahsang Village competed against each other. At about 8:00 A. M. there was a short parade where the competitors and many of their family members marched along the farm road to the school and onto the sports field.


Each village team in the parade was preceded by children carrying a banner or sign with the village’s name. Along with the sign bearers there was a majorette leading the school’s drum corps or band. Some schools had only drums and some schools had drums along with students playing keyboards that they powered with their breadth through a plastic tube. Typically the majorette was a no older than 14 year old girl who was dressed up and made up to look much older. The emphasis on beauty is very strong here in Isaan due to the belief as well as perception that a way out of the economic hardships for a young woman and her family is through her beauty. Her beauty and her ability to exploit her physical talents are considered keys to her opportunities to find work in the larger tourist-centric cities and perhaps to find a foreign husband. Typically the majorettes were girls, but this is Thailand, so there were a couple of majorettes that were actually Khatoeys (Ladyboys). There were no visible stigmas associated with a 14 year old boy dressed up and made-up as a girl or rather young woman. The Ladyboys seemed to be accepted well by their fellow classmates as well as the spectators.




Each village had some very young students dressed up in fancy outfits reflective of Siam royalty – little Princesses and Princes. They carried trophies that the village had won in previous year’s competitions or sports equipment to be used in this festival. They were very cute and you could not help but smile as they marched by. They were then followed by the village school team.


Each village team had their own distinctive outfit – essentially a soccer (football) uniform. The children marched in unison as if part of the opening ceremony of the Olympics. Along the parade route one of the little boys received a call of Nature, he broke out of formation, went to the side of the road and while oblivious to the other people around him, watered the weeds as his team marched on. Sufficiently relieved he ran, caught up with his team and fell back into formation. It was no big deal. Quite often, we see men alongside of the road, alongside their car or truck answering the call. Women are more discrete and hide in the bushes, cassava plants or sugar cane.


There were also a small contingent of well dressed beautiful young women that I originally thought were associated with the government but later found out that they were high school girls. They were the attendants that carried the gold, silver and bronze medals to be awarded for the various events. These young women were dressed in typical Lao Loum style clothing albeit the fabrics were much higher quality and cost than normally worn by the Lao Loum women of Isaan. The cut of the fitted jacket and lines of their sarong mirrored those often worn in the villages.

There is a unity across the classes, a sort of cultural Lao Loum identity, in Isaan for women with this commonality in clothing style. It is the quality of the fabrics and the number of outfits that provides the distinction between the "haves" and the "have nots".


The teams circled the competition field three times – once again the magic number of the Buddhist faith permeating everyday life and activities in Isaan. After circling the field, the participants formed up on the athletic field. Government officials reviewed the groups and evaluated them. Trophies were then awarded for the groups followed by a formal flag raising ceremony. Tahsang Village was awarded a trophy, much to the delight of the villagers, for the small children marching.

After the Thai flag and local flags were raised, a boy ran around the field with an Olympic style torch. He ran to the side of the field where a large monument had been erected out of scaffolding with an urn at the top. The monument had a large sign on it with 9 interlocking rings depicted on it representing each of the competing villages. As the boy ignited the “Olympic” flame, actually a large urn of charcoal, fireworks were fired into the sky. The little girls from Tahsang Village in their matching yellow dresses and white stockings were not thrilled with the fireworks! I have several pictures of them astonished, frightened, and covering their ears with their white lace gloves.


At one side of the field, each village had their separate decorated bleacher set up for their sport team. Dispersed among the bleachers were sahts on the ground where family member rested, ate and drank. This was definitely a family event complete with grandparents, aunts, uncles and young siblings. It was very festive with each village having their own portable sound system blaring away with Mahlam Lao, and Mahlam Sing music. The students danced and waved pom poms while seated.


At one end of the field, pushcarts and tables were stationed selling soft drinks and food. At some of the concrete tables used by students for lunches, men were drinking beer and Lao Kao brand of moonshine type whiskey.

Throughout the area toddlers, other than Mai’s 2 year old brother, were busy wandering around and playing. They played with balls, balloons, or chasing their older brothers and sisters. Mai’s brother is too young to go to school with her, but today he was thrilled to join the students in the bleachers. He was smiling and acting as if he belonged on the team. I could almost hear him saying, as Jon Fogerty sang “Put me in coach, I’m ready to play…” He never got to while we were there.

On the other side of the field pavilions were erected where dignitaries were seated on leather couches for the highest ranking officials and plastic chairs for lesser ranked bureaucrats. After completion of each event, a dignitary would go up to the awards podium on the field and award the medals with the assistance of the lovely high school young women. Homemade gold, silver and bronze medallions were awarded the successful athletes. Often the local and government officials posed with the winners to have their photograph taken. It was all very relaxed and beautiful in its simplicity and innocence. I believe that the adults enjoyed the day as much as the athletes did - I know for certain that Duang and I did. I did notice that most of the athletes had more makeup on than the adults. Many of the competitors were still wearing makeup and vestiges of their fancy hairdos from the parade and procession to the competition field.

The competition was fierce and entertaining as well. The races were run barefoot. The schools and students are too poor to afford specialized footwear. The spectators were all supportive of the athletes. Each race was set up by an official with a portable megaphone hung over his shoulder. Officials at each end of the course with red and green flags signalled when the race was ready to start. The man with the megaphone then gave the Lao equivalent of "On your mark, Get ready Get set Go" at which point a small brass bell was struck - as opposed to firing a gun or air horn.

Our time at the athletic competition with our friends, young and older, was a pleasant way to close out the year and to prepare for the new year with all the hopes as well as hoped for opportunities that it is expected to bring.


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