The villages of Maha Sarakham have no problem charming visitors
WITH ARCHAIC moats and stone boundary markers indicating where the settlement of Champa Sri was located 1,000 years ago, the small Maha Sarakham town of Na Dun is sitting on a rich vein of history.
Culture and religion flourished here atop Thailand’s vast northeastern plateau during the Dvaravati Period. Nowadays, they seem to be enjoying a revival.
Downtown Maha Sarakham is 45 minutes away by car. Na Dun welcomes visitors – many of them pilgrims – with the Phra That Na Dun, a shrine built in 1985 to house revered relics of the Lord Buddha. They were moved here from the original bronze stupa that was unearthed in 1979.
Thousands of residents of Na Dun don costumes to pay homage at Phra That Na Dun.
On the morning we arrived, a nine-day temple fair was just beginning. About 5,000 residents were performing traditional Isaan dances of homage at the shrine. There was a colourful procession along the one-kilometre main road lined with food stalls and little shops selling handcrafts and other merchandise.
After participating in a heart-cleansing ritual, we headed to a nearby hamlet, Ban Nong No Tai, where a troupe of dek thevada was a treating folks to a striking mor lam hun performance at a communal theatre.
Artist Preecha Karoon got the dancing going in 2008 with the support of the Thai Health Promotion Foundation. They bring in skilled mor lam and shadow-play enthusiasts to teach the youngsters how it’s done. They’re having fun as they help preserve traditions unique to the Northeast.
Young artists in Ban Nong No Tai present mor lam hun retellings of the story of Angulimala.
“I worked at the Patravadi Theatre for two years, and for this some young talented people and I created our own puppets – they’re adapted from second-hand kratib,” says Preecha, referring to bamboo containers containing sticky rice.
“The performers’ costumes are made from old wrap-skirts and the theatre itself was built with money we made performing in other locales. We also had the help of university lecturers in setting up home-stays and making souvenir hun kratib to sell. Most of all we’re all very grateful to Grandma Somsri Phadeechan, who donated the land.”
The story the troupe depicts draws on local legends and Buddhist lore. In anywhere from 10 minute to an hour, depending on the telling, they illustrate the lives of Sang Sin Chai and Angulimala, with three artists controlling each puppet figure.
“We have 32 members who can be split up into three groups based on age,” Preecha says. “We spent three months rehearsing. It’s a new approach, with mor lam artists singing and playing the khene [mouth organ] as they recount the story.”
A rice paddy becomes an outdoor gallery for an eyecatching display of huge straw figures.
In the area next to the theatre, tourists are marvelling at giant straw statues. There’s a lion in full “king of the jungle” mode, a unicorn making chums with a naga, a buffalo flying a kite and a camel wondering where the desert went.
Next, there’s more shopping to do in the village of Ban Phaeng in Kosum Phisai, where women artisans fashion reeds into mats, handbags, cushions and other home accessories. The 90-member group was formed in 1988. In 2002 the government helped them build an Otop centre (Thaksin Shinawatra’s One Tambon, One Product idea) and organised skill-building workshops.
“Reed grows very fast and withstands both fire and floods,” says Chaweewan Wandee, one of the weavers. “Our families have been making reed mats for more than two centuries, and we still use the same techniques, handed down from generation to generation.
Ban Phaeng folks show how to harvest and dye reed to be woven into mats and other items.
“Craftsmen in Chantaburi showed us how to modernise our designs so they appeal more to tourists, and our products are now sold at Chatuchak Weekend Market in Bangkok.”
Tractors have been turned into shuttle buses for sightseeing tours. It’s a lot of fun spending 30 minutes or an hour riding around the big plantations and seeing the dried reed before it’s transformed into woven mats.
“The reed takes two or three months to grow,” Chaweewan says. “Once harvested, it’s dried for a few weeks until it becomes golden in colour, which ensures there’s no mould. And the mats are soft but very durable.”
A mat can cost anywhere from Bt75 to Bt2,000, depending on how intricate the decorative design is – it can be floral, a plaited pattern or a mudmee motif. They’re invariably in earth tones, but easy to mix and match with other, more colourful items.
DO SOME DANCING
There’s a full programme for the mor lam hun shows on the “MorLamHun.DekThevada” page on Facebook.
The Otop centre in Ban Phaeng will organise sightseeing tours with a guide for Bt500.
Call (086) 855 1911.