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

Here is the final part of the essay “A day at the races” by Kermit Krueger, who was a United States Peace Corps Volunteer working at Maha Sarakham Teachers’ Training College from 1963 to 1965. Read the first part here and the second part here.

THE BONG FAI EXPLAINED

The Bong Fai festival is held in early June and are found only in Isaan villages where the growing of rice is the primary crop. This celebration is originally Khmer (ancient Cambodian) and thus Hindu in origin. While not Buddhist, the blessing of the rockets by local Buddhist monks represents a later Lao addition. Whatever its roots, Isaan farmers deem the Bong Fai necessary for a successful harvest. And besides, it’s fun.

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Children at the rocket festival in Maha Sarakham province, in circa 1964. Photo credit: Kermit Krueger

A month or so before the festival, some younger men hunt for a broad stalked bamboo, which, once found is cut down, stripped of branches and leaves. The remaining bamboo trunk is then left in the sun to dry. Meanwhile they make rocket powder which is very similar to gun powder. The dried bamboo trunk is then decorated with colorful paper. Traditionally the rockets will be given the likeness of a dragon, but as the picture indicates, American jet fighters were becoming a new bong fai form by the early 1960’s, no doubt because such craft could be seen flying overhead nearly every day.

On the day of the festival, several villages may participate, each with its own rocket or rockets. Villages large enough to produce many rockets hold their own Bong Fais. Early on the morning of the festival the rockets are brought to the designated temple. About noon a procession will be organized to circle the temple three times (a traditional Buddhist practice). The procession includes the rockets and their carriers, others playing drums, women, especially, dancing, and chanting priests. Children and the elderly will comprise the bystanders.

After the procession prayers are offered and the rockets are fired into the sky. While one purpose is just to celebrate the rainy season and the year’s rice crops, Isaan farmers believe if the rockets go high enough the Hindu god of the rains, Tan, will be pleased and will insure sufficient rains for a bountiful harvest. Of course, those same people believe if the rockets do not soar high enough to please Tan …

Once the rockets are launched, the celebration featuring home brewed rice whiskey in abundance ensues, if it has not begun long before the procession began, and it surely continues long past dusk. No further interruptions of this meandering tale are anticipated. You are, therefore, invited to turn to the next page wherein you might safely expect you will be closer to a resolution of all this, or, should you be perversely cynical or skeptical about such promises, you might not so expect.

4. NEVER MIND THE PLANE, YOU SAY YOU NEED A HAIRCUT ?

Ah, … the dispute over that plane’s fate. While generals debated what to do with the fallen craft, the USAF stationed military police (two, with a jeep) at the plane for its protection. The MP’s took rooms and some meals at the Ritz – Carlton / Mahasarakham. OK, it wasn’t the Ritz – Carlton / Anywhere, but it was a fine new building and it offered a restaurant that boasted international fusion cuisine. I was never able to identify which nations’ cuisines it presented, though I often suspected ist cuisine was out of this world. And, yes, the hotel’s fine building – that curved front edifice in the background – might bring a Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to tears, but never mind!

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Students from the Teachers Training College of Maha Sarakham hold a cultural Isaan parade through the city. Photo credit: Kermit Krueger

By the way, those musicians and dancers in the foreground are students from the Teachers Training College of Mahasarakham where I taught English as a Second Language (actually as a third language, Thai was the second language for most of our students). The college chancellor, Mr. Wisan Siwarat, developed Isaan musical and dance troupes to keep the region’s culture alive. His legacy survives in the current the successor institution to the Teachers Training College, Mahasarakham University and its renown Research Institute for Isaan Arts and Culture.

Since this tale is about horse racing in an erstwhile airport, not parades in downtown Mahasarakham, we must return to those MP’s in the Ritz – Carlton / Mahasarakham. There they slept, entertained guests of the night, enjoyed haute cuisine and / or U.S. government-fast-food (a.k.a. C-rations), drank considerable Singha brand beer, and pined for anything American. At first we three Peace Corps Volunteers then stationed in Mahasarakham identified local amusements but they were uninterested. We got the hint. (It was and is not the purpose of Peace Corps Volunteers then or now to entertain American troops, that’s what the USO does.) The sole exception to what the MP’s deemed an otherwise deadly assignment, was the horse races around their airplane on weekends.

Indeed, the MPs’ presence made those races a regional tourist wonder, and, as they left, an economic stimulus package. In the photo one MP is having his hair cut in the mobile, racetrack, barber shop. The line includes waiting customers and gawking tourists. After all, pale faced foreigners were quite a wonder that far up-country back then.

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A barber sets up shop under the wing of an abandoned US Air Force plane on the horse race track out of Maha Sarakham. Photo credit: Kermit Krueger

Shortly after this picture was taken the USAF and the RTAF reached an agreement. Secret and otherwise usable things were removed from the plane, the aero-carcass of which was then detonated. Immediately, a mob rushed to seize every metallic shard. Within days across Isaan, one could buy metal ash trays. No two were alike! For this one-time, short-lived offer prices were very reasonable!

As a rule airplanes try not to land in mud puddles, even in Mahasarakham. Since by international resolve that plane was vaporized – or recycled, if you prefer, with a little help from the local population – the Mahasarakham Downs suddenly lacked wing-shade, alien presence, and so the barbers returned to their shops in the market just behind the Ritz – Carlton / Mahasarakham. The Mahasarakham Downs since then has been content to offer horse racing only, no special views.

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Provincial Board of Health employees pick up dog carcasses in the fresh market in Maha Sarakham City. Photo credit: Kermit Krueger

I confess, fearing track excitement might supercede tonsorial duties under the plane-wing shade, I had chosen to have my hair trimmed at any of the fine barber shops in the market. This choice, however, brought its own risk, especially for those of – shall we say? – a queasy stomach. You see, at random times, if you visited the barbers in the market for a trim you had to ignore how the ever vigilant, provincial board of health charged with eradicating vermin and other pests, had, during the preceding night removed most of the feral, market-centered dogs with thoughtfully-placed,strychnine-laced, cuts of meat. Long before dawn, when the market opened, they used the open space in front of the barber shops to pile those canine carcasses. “By afternoon at the latest,” they said, “the dog-carcasses surely will be gone.” Indeed it was mid morning when this photo was taken, and you can see the provincial officials were more than keeping their word. Hooray for bureaucrats!

And so, in conclusion I admit that whenever possible I delayed my next tonsorial trim until the term break and a trip to remote, but civilized, Bangkok was possible. I trusted that was a forgivable snobbery. After all, we farang are a baffling lot!