Isaan in the 1960s – A day at the races (first part)

The Isaan Record is proud to publish an illustrated essay by Kermit Krueger, a United States Peace Corps Volunteer working at Maha Sarakham Teachers’ Training College from 1963 to 1965.

We will post Kermit’s personal account of life as a foreign teacher in Maha Sarakham in the 1960s in a series of three. Here is the first part and some words of introduction about this essay by Kermit.

“A Peace Corps Volunteer in Maha Sarakham 50+ years ago – let me say that basically being assigned there was like going home.  I grew up in tiny Midwestern USA farming villages first in southern Minnesota and then in southeastern Michigan.  For me Maha Sarakham was akin to Albert Lea, Minnesota and/or Howell, Michigan, the “county seat” towns for the villages in which we lived and to which, once or twice a month on a Saturday, we visited to go shopping, etc..

50 years ago is a long time in this modern age (though to my memory it is almost yesterday) and while I’ve not been able to travel back to Thailand in those decades, I do know that the world in which I worked essentially is not the world today. But four or five years ago some friends discovered that I’d been a Peace Corps Volunteer and they asked about that experience.  I put together this piece about that time and place.”

WELCOME TO MAHASARAKHAM (circa 1963)

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Teachers Training College of Mahasarakham in circa 1963. An English class, note the students in bare feet and socks…only teachers wore shoes in the classrooms, a sign of their social position (left photo). Students are getting ready for a party at the student union. Photo credit: Kermit Krueger

Despite classes to teach, papers to grade, lesson plans to write, and wondrous students, life at the Teachers Training College of Mahasarakham, Thailand long ago was not all work. A few steps from my classroom was the college’s coffee shop where coffee was served in 6 ounce glasses (which one might hope were Pyrex, but which were not). Thai coffee is one – half Turkish coffee, thick enough to make ordinary espresso seem like “decaf” and what Starbucks and its ilk offer to be little more than old dishwater. The other half is sweet, ‘Eagle” brand, condensed milk. The economics of student impoverishment years earlier forced me to swear off anything but coffee in my coffee. I asked the student “baristas” (as today’s dispensers of coffee would have us call them) in place of the milk to add plain, old, hot water to the coffee, making the resulting brew nigh unto perfect. I, a “farang” (Thai for “foreigner”), was considered baffling, and thus to be politely misunderstood. As a teacher, however, I was deemed wise beyond measure. This was reason enough for the student-baristas cheerfully to accommodate my coffee mania.

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The fresh market in Maha Sarakham. I could never figure out if there was any organization in the market, but then I do not understand how the Jewel – a food store here in Chicagoland – organizes it shelves either. Photo credit: Kermit Krueger

Of course, downtown there were almost around the clock diversions. From before dawn to well into the night the market teemed with people. Most came to shop, of course, but some to meet friends, others to get a bite to eat at any of the market cafes, or just to enjoy teeming humanity. Beyond the market were streets of small shops eager to sell or feed you anything you desired, well, almost anything.

And at night…

– the movies featured the latest Thai films (Indian and American films on many weekends). All foreign films were dubbed into Thai, of course. And to hear John Wayne say, “Howdy partner,” in a soft, high voice … Oh my, unforgettable! …

– cock fights, and Thai boxing (both with lots of wagering, of course) …

– and… on weekends only, … HORSE RACES!

The track was near the Teachers Training College, so we teachers, perhaps too often, set work aside to enjoy the races at the MAHASARAKHAM DOWNS!

I know, every culture-centric, western snob will sniff, “Well, it’s certainly not Churchill Downs!” True, and it was not Arlington Park, Pimlico, Santa Anita, or … either. Still, Mahasarakham Downs had parimutuel windows with long lines of eager bettors, each of whom was absolutely certain which horse was that “sure bet.” In short, say or think what you will, the race track had everything a racing fan could need, and it was the place to be, and to be seen, on weekend afternoons! The track had two grandstands: the main one and a smaller, more elite one.

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The horse race track in Maha Sarakham. Photo credit: Kermit Krueger

The Thai flag over the main grandstand (it may look to you like a large bird – sigh! – but it’s really the Thai flag) indicates to those passing by – especially those hard of hearing – that today is a racing day. The grandstands were filled with persons of importance: race judges, provincial officials, high school and college teachers, their friends and guests, … or just anyone willing to pay a Baht or two (approximately 5¢ or 10¢ back then) to be admitted.

We college teachers preferred the northern grandstand. Even so, I should tell you that grandstands were often extremely hot. Thin metal roofs may block the sun but they do little to block the heat. Also, I admit that apart from the judges, most of us in the grandstands were more interested in witty conversation, the latest political intrigue, or other social scandals, than we were in the races themselves.

Between the grandstands was a semi-covered section for food concessions and the parimutuel windows. I called that part, the “bleachers.” Of course, serious bettors and true racing fans (of any class) risked sun-stroke as they thronged to the open, chair-free space by a haphazard railing (photo mid-foreground). They were willing to stand there to get a close-up view of action. Additionally, gaps in the railing enabled thoughtful bettors to enter the track the better to advise the jockeys riding the horses on which they’d bet. Try to do that at any track here in the snooty US of A! And one final feature existed which no other race track in all of creation has ever had, but for more about this you will just have to wait. Remember, patience is a virtue. Details will appear as convenient.

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