Monday, November 15, 2010

A Day At the Races

The Race Has Been Run, The White Boat Has Won!
Saturday, 13 November, was the first day of long boat racing in Kumphawapi.  It was a great day for the races - blue sky, bright sun, mild (for here) temperatures, and only a slight breeze.  Keeping our word to Peelawat, we drove out to Tahsang Village to bring our Grandson to the races.

We arrived at the races at 10:00 A.M.  It was upon arrival that the surprises of the day commenced.  The first surprise was that there was not any traffic jams in Kumphawapi.  The second surprise was that finding convenient parking was not difficult what's so ever.  We ended up parking at the Amphur (County) Offices a mere two blocks from the main viewing pavilion.  A greater surprise was that all parking was free.  There were no paid parking lots or people charging for parking in front of their home.  My wife could not believe that people in the USA are charged $5, $10, and sometimes $20 for parking to attend a public event.  I did not dare tell her about the parking fees associated with attending an NFL game.

The Kumphawapi races were a free event like so many other events here in Thailand.  We have attended many Mahlam Lao shows, two Phuket Vegetarian Festivals, Poi Sang Long Festival, Phi Ta Khon Festival, Ubon Candle Festival, New Years Festivals, Ban That Rocket Festival, Mango Fair, Naga Fireball Festival, School Field Day, and OTOP Expositions without being charged for admission.  It seems that getting together to celebrate and to enjoy a sense of community are higher priorities here than having an opportunity to make money.

We knew that the Princess was coming to the event so I wanted to avoid the confusion and security issues of the main viewing area.  As it turned out she attended at 7:00 P.M.  We walked north along the flood plain levee to find a suitable location to view the races.  The top of the levee is a single lane dirt road.  The water side of the road was lined with pavilions, some which had wood benches, offering spectators shelter from the sun.  The other side of the levee road was lined with food and beverage booths as well as carts.  Beverages ranged from Lao Kao whiskey, beer, soft drinks, lemon ice tea, to bottled water.  Food was the typical Isaan selections of BBQ chicken, chicken feet, warmed dried and very salty squid, papaya salad (Pauk-Pauk), Isaan sausages, and prepared ethnic dishes.  No one would go thirsty or hungry - for sure.  Another surprise, at least to me, was that the food and beverage prices were the same everyday prices that are charged.  The vendors had not taken advantage of the event or location to inflate their prices.

Cheerleaders, Isaan Style, Encouraging the Boats
Across the water there appeared to be a similar set up with one exception.  Across the way there was a large tiered stage set up just about even with the finish flag - the stage was for CHEERLEADERS.  For several of the races throughout the day the stage was filled with cheerleaders waving poms poms.  The cheerleaders were dressed in typical Lao Loum clothing reserved for special occasions rather than the skimpy outfits customary to US cheerleaders.  The Isaan cheerleaders also wore large straw hats that people wear while working in the fields.  This was another surprise of the day - cheerleaders in Isaan.  I do have to admit though that their efforts contributed to the festive nature of the event.

Spectators dancing, Singing, and Providing Non-Stop Banter Next to Large Speakers

Young Boy Singing or Perhaps Howling to the Music
 The water side of the levees had been cleared of brush to provide areas for people to sit or squat to watch the competition.  We selected an area underneath a large tree which provided us with shade for the entire day.  Duang had told me that there would be 30 boats starting the competition.  Surprisingly there were actually 60 boats on Saturday.  With that many boats competing, there was always something going on the water all day long. Boats were going up the water to prepare for their race. Boats were racing down the water. Boats were paddling up from the finish line to return to their club or organization's location. Some boats were off to the side practicing their starts. It became very apparent how important the start was for the boats. I would say that around 90 to 95% of the boats that led at the start ended up winning the race. Getting a long boat moving with approximately 40 people on board from a dead start requires some coordination, strength as well as technique. It was also obvious that the practice starts as well as full sprints in front of and full view of their competition was also sending some not so subtle messages.

Two Long Boats Headed To the Starting Line

Getting Started!
I did see one of the Kumphawapi paddlers point directly at the lead paddler of another boat as they passed by and made a cutting motion across his throat with his thumb and then emphasizing his point directly to the other paddler. With this being Isaan, this gesture may have had nothing to do with the paddling competition for the day. Sometimes there are village feuds between nearby villages. I am aware of feuds between Tahsang Village and nearby villages. Unlike the Hatfield and McCoy feud, feuds in Isaan tend to be dynamic. One village near Tahsang Village who were the "bad" guys are now the "good" guys. The "good" guys are now the "bad" guys. To add to the confusion, for and to me , the names of the villages sound just about the same. Being a foreigner keeps me above the fray so not knowing the "score" or "scoop" has not been a hindrance or liability.

With 60 boats there were approximately 20 clubs or organizations competing.  Each club or organization set up a compound on the levee where the crews rested and their supporters celebrated, practiced celebrating, and absolutely enjoyed themselves.  Each team had their own sound system and selection of Mahlam Lao music to blast out over the water.  Some spectators had driven their boom box pickup trucks up on top of the levee.  A boom box pickup truck is a small truck that has its pickup bed filled with high end speakers as well as amplifiers.  Young men like to have competitions amongst themselves for volume and looks of their machines.  They also tend to be "babe magnets".  The competing music added to the festive atmosphere.

Team Kumphawapi Awaiting Their Race - I am not sure that smoking constitutes proper preparation
Duang, Peelawat, a young cousin from Tahsang, and I found a good viewing location at the water's edge but still shaded by a large tree.  We were close to the Kumphawapi team members and below the massive speakers which helped to reduce their volume at our location.  After about an hour, Peelawat was calling for his Mom and definitely missing his morning nap.  Duang drove the gang back to Tahsang and I remained to enjoy the festival.  I am quite comfortable here and do not mind being left alone in the middle of a crowd and environment that I don't completely understand.

A Paddler Smoking While Awaiting His Race

Watching the Races From the Best Seat In the House

The competitors in the long boat races are not professionals and I suspect that they do not even formally train.  In all our trips to and through Kumphawapi, we have yet to see a long boat on the water other than during the regatta or seen  a group of adults running along the roads.  Each team had to have two distinct uniforms for the regatta.  The uniforms consisted of knock off professional professional soccer team jerseys.  There are many shops in the area which manufacture soccer uniform replicas and sell them cheaply. Competitors wore two jerseys of different colored jerseys.  The irony of the current political state here in Isaan was not lost to me.  The colors for Kumphawapi were red and yellow.  Red is the sellected colors for the Pro Thaksin group, the "Red Shirts" who are very popular here in Isaan.  The "Red Shirts" are opposed by the "Yellow Shirts" in Thailand.  For just one day, here in Kumphawapi the red shirts were also the yellow shirts depending upon the race they were in.  Depending upon the team's color for a particular race, they peeled off the second jersey and wrapped the second jersey around their waist, or tied it around their head if they decided not to wear it underneath the required color.  The paddlers wore a variety of pants to complete their uniforms - cotton shorts, soccer shorts, running pants - whatever they had and didn't mind getting wet.

Team Kumphawapi Member Relaxing - His face is powder for protection from the Sun and he wears a Buddhist Prayer Cloth for protection from everything else.

The boats were long as well as narrow.  They were actually rather flimsy and apparently leaky as well.  Each boat that I saw up close had a couple of plastic bailers recycled from plastic jugs and several large sponges.  Later in the competition. one of the Kumphawapi boats needed some adjustments if not necessary repairs.  I had been watching one of the older paddlers for awhile as he appeared to be playing with some of the water vines that he had pulled out of the water.  At first I thought he was just whiling away some time prior to the start of his next race - akin to whittling a stick.  After another man joined him I realized that there a purpose to his activity.  He was preparing the vines to lash the long boat together.  At regular intervals along both sides of the boat, just behind a seat, there was a metal loop attached to the hull.  Vines were strung between the metal loops and held the boat gunwales in tension.  The two men worked together to replace a couple of the vine tension lashings prior to their next race.  With about 6 loops of vine and several knots the lashing upon drying out was deemed "good to go".  This is indicative of the Lao Loum way of life - making do with what is readily available.

Lashing the Long Boat Together Using Water Vines
Upon first getting on board, the crew concentrated on bailing out their racing shell as well as getting the right people in the right location in the boat.  There was a very long bow on each of the boats.  The long bow was decorated with ribbon, bows, garlands and flowers as offerings to the spirits.  On top of of the bow just before the first paddler there was a small shrine with statues, small spirit houses, more offerings which now included burning joss (incense) sticks.

Spirituality plays a very large part in day to day life in Isaan and for the Lao Loum people.  I have witnessed offerings to the spirits behind stage prior to the start of Mahlam Lao shows.  Many Go-Go dancers will make an offering prior to starting to dance or at least make a "Wai" in deference to the spirits prior to going on stage to perform. Most bars have a shrine to the spirits. The practice of having a prominent shrine to the spirits is not limited to bars or entertainment establishments.  Auto dealers, restaurants, insurance companies, grocery stores, gas stations to name just a few of the types of business that have shrines.   Companies will perform a ceremony prior to starting a project.  Duang makes offerings to the spirits prior to us leaving on a trip.  When people are sick, Baii Sii ceremonies are held to assist them to get better.

Spirituality also pervades into long boat racing.  In addition to the bow offerings, each of the paddlers prior to stepping on board a boat, gave the "Wai" gesture of respect prior to putting their foot in the boat.  When the person had to step out of their boat and cross over two other boats prior to getting to the shore, they gave a Wai to each of the boats prior to entering and a Wai to the last boat that they exited.

Duang returned with the tuna fish grinder that I had prepared for my lunch.  She also had a bottle of cola for me to drink.  This was great but I was in no danger of going thirsty or hungry.  I was hesitant to leave my "good" vantage point close to the boats, close to the water, under a shade tree, with a relatively flat piece of ground to sit on.  I was also reticent to climb up and then back down the rough as well as steep levee bank with all my camera gear on my back.  I just sat there and waited for the food and drinks to come to me.  Just like at a baseball game back in the USA, peddlers were wandering along the levee selling cups of soft drinks and snacks.  I grabbed two cups of Thailand's answer to Kool Aid - 10 Baht each ($0.30 USD) - definitely not USA ball park prices.  A woman walked the levee selling small dried and very salty squid.  In my cynicism, I wonder if she was the soft drink vendor's wife - a great way to increase soft drink sales is to get people to eat very salty squid!  There was also another woman selling snacks out of two aluminum pots - but I was not buying anything that she was selling.  One pot was filled with deep fried or perhaps they were sauteed crickets.  They were small but still not appetizing to me.  The other pot was filled with larger bugs either deep fried or sauteed.  The fact that they resembled cockroaches made they only more unappealing to me.  They were unappealing to me but not to the people around me.  The young father behind me bought a small bag of the crickets and seemed to enjoy them along with his 3 and 5 year old children.  I sat there and enjoyed my grinder and soda.

A resident in Tahsang Village had died two days earlier, so there had been a heavy run on both the Lao Kao whiskey and beer at my mother-in-law's market.  She asked Duang to go into town and buy more stock for the market.  After giving me my lunch, Duang left to buy the items and return them to Tahsang Village.  However prior to leaving she lectured me much like I would expect her to lecture Peelawat about staying where he was and to not wander off.  I mentioned it to her and we both laughed.  This time I listened to her - this time and stayed put.

I enjoyed the next two hours watching the races and taking photographs.  I kept an eye out for Duang and finally saw her coming down towards me through the large crowd that was now settled on the levee bank.  She was in a slight panic.  She had been looking for me and could not find me.  I told her that I had not moved.  With the arrival of more people and more vendors on top of the levee, she had forgotten where she had left me - thankfully it was not Peelawat that she had left behind!  At 61 years old I can take care of myself much better than Peelawat can take care of himself at 21 months.  She started laughing and told me that she went up to one of the men singing and providing a stream of concious commentary on what ever came into his mind on one of the many sound systems along the levee.  He announced 3 times "Mister Allen.  Your wife can not find you. Go where she see you before"  One problem though - no it wasn't the other 15 to 20 competing sounds systems with blaring music and alcohol fueled commentaries.  The problem was that he did not speak English so the announcements were in Isaan (a dialect of Lao) which as Duang says "Me, no understand".  I do remember hearing what sounded like Peelawat saying "Tahlen!!" (Grandfather Allen!) a couple of times and looked but it didn't make sense to me. Fortunately there were not many falang, foreigners, in attendance so the people were able to give her a clue where I was.   Duang and I still laugh about the incident.  Situations like that happen often around here and keep us smiling if not laughing.

The Starting Line - Long Boats Get Into Position for the Start
We wandered up the levee towards the starting line for the races and I mentioned to Duang that her brother should be there since he sells soft drinks from his specialized motorcycle cart. He especially makes a killer glass of "Cha Menouw - (Lemon Ice Tea) from scratch - even brewing the tea fresh for drink. When we arrived at the point on the levee parallel with the starting line there was her brother or "Number 3" as he is referred to. "Number 4" is her youngest brother who is the Mahlam Lao performer. We each enjoyed a great glass of iced tea - 20 baht ($0.60 USD) a glass for friends, family, and everyone else!

At 4:00 P.M. we left - happy, satisfied, and done in by the heat, Sun, and excitement of it all.

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