Tuesday, November 9, 2010

No Dancing With the Stars - Just Dancing Under the Stars

You Can Take the Girl Out of the Go-Go, But You Can Not Take the Go-Go Out of the Woman.

It appears that our rainy season is over.  It has been a week of refreshing temperatures, lows around 73F and highs around 80F, humidity around 40%, brilliant sunshine, and no rain.  We no longer are using ceiling fans to keep the house comfortable.  Comfortable?  Comfort is all relative - sort of like beauty being in the eye of the beholder only in this case comfort is in the brain of the person.

Whereas I am in my "comfortable time" of the year here in Isaan, my wife and the other Lao Loum inhabitants are not as comfortable.  Our bed room at night is around 73F - very comfortable for me to sleep without any covers.  However my wife often has to wear a sweatpants outfit and always sleeps under a sheet along with a thick comforter to attain some comfort.

Many people are now wearing winter jackets and knit hats to be comfortable during our cold "weather".  I am enjoying going out in summer slacks and polyester tee shirts and not getting drenched in perspiration.

Duangchan Dressed For the "Chill" - 73F, 23C
 With the change in the weather but not a change in time - Thailand does not change clocks during the year, there are many changes in activities throughout Isaan.  The rice and sugar cane harvests have just started.  The rice harvest will reach a climax at the end of this month.  The sugar cane harvest will continue into the New Year.  Currently the rice paddies are filled with golden grain with drooping heads of rice kernels.  Fortunate farmers have paddies of upright stalks of rice.  Many unfortunate farmers, due to swirling winds, have large portions of their paddies filled with flattened or partially flattened rice stalks.  Harvesting flattened stalks is much more labor intensive and time consuming.  Harvesting is done by hand using sickles.

With the end of Buddhist Lent about 2 weeks ago, Monks are free to roam about the country - not on Southwest Airlines but  any way that they choose.  During Lent they had to remain at one Wat.  Now they can travel to other Wats and spend the night.  During the day more Monks can be seen traveling about the region.

With the improved weather, the Mahlam Lao shows have started up again.  Last night, my brother-in-law had a show in an outlying village.  He had let us know so that I could go and take photographs.  Duang was not all that enthusiastic mentioning something about too much fighting, guns, and that too many of the people had been Communists.  I welcomed the opportunity to see another one of his shows.  Duang agreed and suggested that we have her son or son-in-law drive us because she knew that I do not like the frequent confusion that results in transporting family to an area not on the map and relying on their "instructions".  That suggestion was fine with me.  There was also the added bonus that our 21 month old grandson would sit on my lap as we drove to and from the show.

I did not quite understand how far away the concert site was.  It was two hours from Tahsang Village.  I refer to the place, "Na Kom Noy" or "Na Kom Noi", or perhaps it was "Nakom Noi", as "Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere".  Of the two hour drive, at least 45 minutes was on dirt "roads".  Roads to me imply a maintained path with proper compaction and drainage.  We travelled on dirt paths, areas absent of vegetation and highly rutted in the middle of sugar cane fields and rice paddies.  There were very few signs to indicate where we were or where we might be headed.  We had 4 family members who "knew" the way to the village.  Even with them knowing how to get there, there were many times when my stepson had to slow down and lower a window to get instructions on exactly how to get there.  I am still confused as to why we were not able to take paved roads to the village  but that may be just me being a "falang".  One section of road actually had 50% of its surface deeply eroded and rutted by previous rains.  I was concerned that we would break an axle or break the oil pan on the road.  Duang had thought well - if I had been driving we would never had made it to the concert - I would have lost my cool and returned to Tahsang Village well before two hours were up.  Having Peelawat sleeping on my lap kept me from losing my cool as a passenger - just barely.

Lon Makes An Offering Prior to the Show Starting
 We eventually made it to the village.  We had been told that this was going to be a big show - 6 "sexy ladies" (dancers).  It turned out that there actually 8 dancers (I did not find their mullet hairpieces to be all that sexy though) plus a saxophone player in the band. Usually my brother-in-law has 4 dancers and no sax player so this was indeed a big show.  We initially sat behind stage and watched the dancers and other performers prepare for the show.

The Khene Player and Second Male Singer Prior to Going On Stage

I had witnessed performers make religious offerings before and last night was no exception to the need to appease the spirits.  Prior to the start of the show my brother-in-law made an offering.  Some of the other performers did a little meditating before the show. Peelawat was interested in everything and took it all in.

Peelawat Bundled Up for the Show and a Little Tired
The show started at 10:00 P.M.  There was a good sized crowd.  It was readily apparent that many of the people had been drinking - drinking for a while - quite a while.  Mahlam Lao shows are performed for many reasons such as Weddings, Funerals, Weddings, Death Anniversaries, Monk Ordinations, Religious Festivals, political celebrations, fund raisers for a temple, and sometimes - just for fun.  Last night's reason was related to a fund raising for the local Wat.

Na Kom Noi Resident Enjoys a Snack

The spectators sat on woven reed mats, sahts, placed on the prepared field for the show.  One side of the field had carts selling foods, beer, whiskey, and novelties for children.  The other side of the field abutted the wall surrounding the Wat.  People of all ages attended the concert as I have found at all similar events here in Isaan.  Our group represented four generations and was typical of other families at the show.

Everyone Enjoys A Mahlam Show
Once the band started playing there was no hesitation for people to get up and dance.  There are 5 distinct groups that dance at these affairs.  The first group is the "Young Bucks".  The "Young Bucks" are males ranging from 10 years old up to 30 years old.  They are extremely animated, and the ones from 14 to 30 years old are often very drunk.  The younger members of the group being under 14 years old are working on making a favorable impression on the older members - often their brothers or cousins.  The Young Bucks congregate at the front of the stage and strut their stuff by performing very energetic as well as exaggerated dance routines.  It is from the "Young Bucks" that most of the fights break out.  An unintentional bump in the "mosh pit", an intentioned slight,  physical contact to apologize misinterpreted as a gesture to assert dominance; all lead to fists flying and legs kicking.

"Young Bucks" Dancing to the Beat
Young Bucks Moving to Impress

A "Young Buck" Dancing the Night Away
The second group who also congregate at the front of the stage are the "Ladyboys" or "Kathoeys".  They manage to appear at all concerts no matter how isolated the location.  Last night there were only two or three but often there can be as many as 15 or more.  The "Ladyboys" often compete with the "Young Bucks" for "Best Dancers" and often they are the superior dancers perhaps because they tend to not be as drunk.  However the Ladyboys also tend to fight but typically only amongst themselves.

An "Old Buck" Busts Some Dance Moves

This is "Old Guy" Had More Moves than a Box of ExLax
The third group, which is not actually a group but more like a collection, are the "Old Guys".  The Old Guys are individual men who have worked hard all their life and if they have not drank hard all their life they at least have been drinking hard all that day.  They dance by themselves apparently oblivious to what is going on around them.  They are also great dancers and quite entertaining to watch.  They have a great time until a family member intervenes and removes them from the area.  The "Old Guys" are "Dancers" and "Entertainers" rather than "Brawlers" or "Fighters"

The next group that you will typically encounter at these shows are the "Matrons".  The "Matrons" are the wives and other mature women who will dance together off to the side.  They remind me a great deal of my Aunts who would dance together at family weddings.  I have yet to see the "Matrons" mix it up other than to intervene with "Young Bucks", "Old Guys", and even the "Ladyboys" in attempts to restore order or try to restore a certain degree of decorum.

The last group is everyone else - young girls dancing together sometimes while flirting with "Young Bucks", women dancing by themselves in a world of their own and a small number of men dancing with women.

The Show Goes On

"Sexy Lady" Dancer - The One Without A Mullet Hairpiece

Dancer Showing One of Her Many Moves
 The Mahlam Lao shows can be quite "bawdy" performances but not actually obscene.  The lead performer will often engage the audience in double entendres.  Even the lead female performer will make some rather 'off color" remarks such as what she would like to eat or a remark regarding what she thinks a male spectator has been "blessed" with.  The audience revels in the crude humor. The dancers have some very suggestive dance moves but they are strictly for show.  But this is Thailand and things are not always what they appear to be.  Often the dancers wear body stockings underneath their apparent skimpy outfits.  Last night's dancers were an exception in that 7 of them had bare midriffs.  Typically the dancers wear a pair of short shorts underneath their dance outfits.  Last night one of the dancers wore a pair of women's briefs.  All the dancers wore pantyhose.  So although their outfits appeared rather risque they were actually only dressed suggestively.  Having the ability and privilege to stay backstage I also can observe the wonders of make-up.  It is interesting to see a normal looking girl utilize makeup, hairpieces, sparkles, and false eyelashes to become transformed into a "Sexy Lady"  This transformation is also part of the performance.  The transformation is also part of the illusion for the benefit of people who have a hard life to escape for a few hours.  That's what is entertainment here in Isaan.

As part of the performances, members of the audience will approach the stage to give money or flowers to specific performers.  Sometimes the spectator only wants to or can only afford to shake a hand and give a kind remark.  This ritual is all part of the show with the audience becoming the performers and part of the performance.  It is all very entertaining.  The combination of hard driving music, suggestive dance moves, visual sexual cues, and double entendres along with alcohol consumption make a for a highly charged atmosphere.

In general everyone knows their role in the performance and there are no problems other than fights in the audience.  Last night however was the first time in three years that I saw a spectator cross the line with a performer.  A drunk man went up to the stage and reached his hand up to the lead dancer. She squatted down to touch his hand.  This is done modestly many times during a performance by both male and female performers to receive tributes from the audience.  However the drunk man wanted to touch more than her hand.  He took a swipe to touch her in an inappropriate manner and place.  She avoided his attempt, stood up, and just glared at him.  If I had not seen it before, I finally saw what is meant by the expression "If looks could kill".  I was 50 feet away, had nothing to do with the breach in etiquette,  and I had not been drinking but the look still scared me!

Five songs into last night's show the first fight broke out.  Duang had warned me before arriving at the village to not wander into the mosh pit area. I selected a nice area to place our sahts out in the audience area.   After awhile I wandered to the front of the stage to take some photos when I returned, Duang had decided to relocate to the area where the wall separated the concert from the Wat - also the area where the Police were located.  She said something to a Policeman and a chair was made available for me.  She also got a chair for herself to sit next to me.  I got the impression that I was in protective custody.  I remained there until the second fight of the night broke out - right in front of me.  Despite Duang's concerns I was able to protect myself and stay out of the fray.  She ran back from the refreshment booth across the way to tell me it was time to leave.  We gathered up the clan and left at 12:00 A.M. and we arrived back home at 2:00 A.M.  The concert ended at 4:00 A.M.  Yes, there were more fights but no guns involved.  Duang considered that to be a great improvement over previous years.

It was not the best show that we have attended.  It was nice to spend more time with family.  We arrived home safe.  It was definitely entertaining.  I ended up with photos that I am pleased with so all in all it was another good night here in Northeast Thailand (Isaan).

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