I am based across three schools, the Mae La Suksa Secondary and Primary Schools in Mae La Luang and Hoi Ku Pah Primary School, 5km further into the mountains. I first met the Headmaster of Hoi Ku Pah when I went, along with the other teachers from Hoi Ku Pah School, to help him prepare for a housewarming party, last Friday afternoon.
Everything is different here. The party was so important the he took the day off school to prepare for it, and what’s more, so did most of the teachers. We taught in the morning, and then after lunch we went to his new house which was a hive of activity in preparation for the upcoming party. Although I cannot say I did an awful lot to help, instead I sat and drank delicious fresh coffee and admired their new house. It seemed that this was in fact the real reason we were there.
In Thai, I think the word party has negative connotations, because when I showed someone the direct translation they were horrified, instead insisting that this was not a party but a “tradition”. I can only suppose what the translation of “party” means.
But it was definitely a party.
I turned up on the back of Nuan’s scooter at midday and it was already in full swing. There was a marquee out front and another one out the back. There was limitless food and limitless alcohol. Most people were drunk, or well on the way to being so when I arrived. My hosts, the Headmaster and his wife were definitely drunk, barely able to focus on me, but having a great time. It was not long before I had been seated, given a huge selection of food (although everybody here worries that I cannot eat spicy food, so they tell me which ones “You can eat”) and a choice of beer or whisky.
The whisky here is less like whisky as you or I might know it, and more like another word for spirit. So far I have come across two main types, a brownish coloured drink that tastes a little like Spiced Rum and is quite nice, and another, cheaper, harsher type that is clear in colour and potent in flavour. They were serving the nicer, spiced rum type, but nevertheless I opted to stick to Beer Chang, it was after all, only midday, and I had no intentions of getting drunk (more fool me…).
There was a big stage out the front where there was a young group of singers and dancers performing. The dancers, if you can call them that, consisted of scantily clad girls in high heels, which they could barely walk in and let alone dance in, swaying in time with the music and occasionally throwing a sexy move into the mix. Having seen mostly conservatively dressed people so far, I was somewhat surprised to find these young girls, probably in their early twenties, wearing little more than underwear. It was not long before I was being dragged up to the dancefloor in front of the stage, a scrubby patch of burnt grass that was frequently hosed down whilst we danced to keep it cool. Dancing involved dodging the hosepipe as much as anything, but I love dancing, so it was a lot of fun.
There were three main singers, two of the scantily clad girls and a boy. They took it in turns to sing a few songs each, which meant that there was no pause between songs and music played continuously all afternoon. It seemed customary for guests to give gifts to the performers and at first this was mostly in the form of flowers, pinched from the excessive flower displays dotted around, but became progressively more distasteful as men came up to the stage with handfuls of 20 Baht notes that they stuffed into the girls’ bras, or sometimes worse, their knickers.
Dancing in front of the stage, it was impossible not to notice and I was fairly horrified by this feeling like somehow I was not dancing at a mid-afternoon garden party but in a seedy nightclub. However, I seemed to be the only one to be shocked. I was somewhat relieved when talking to Nuan the next day that she too had been horrified by this behaviour, thinking it “mei dee, mei dee” (very bad, very bad). I am yet to understand the Thai culture’s relationship with sex. There seem to be a lot of anomalies, and whilst many people at the party seemed to think it funny to see the girls’ bras stuffed with notes, I wondered what their own families and communities would think. The male singer received attention too, and tips from older women, but in the form of 20 Baht notes wrapped around roses not shoved down his pants.
By late afternoon I was still relatively sober, having had little time to drink between dancing, but that was all to change when I was seated next to the Ex-Headmaster of Mae La Suksa Schools. He is now in a wheelchair, having had a motorbike accident a few years ago (unfortunately this did not stop me later riding home with no helmet on the back of a drunk Nuan’s scooter, laughing the whole way…). However, he is clearly still a highly respected member of the community and everybody wanted to come and say Hello. He cannot use his hands, but can move his arms, so was at various moments I was given the privilege and responsibility of helping him drink his beer and orange juice (one at a time, not mixed!). He was a very kind man who spoke excellent English and it was a pleasure to spend the rest of the party in his presence. Unfortunately this meant that my glass was continuously refilled by his friends and I was frequently “Chong Kiouw”-ed (Cheers) and then encouraged to drink. Suffice to say I left the party considerably more “mow” (drunk) than intended. It did not go unnoticed, but luckily I was not the only one, and I had a great time reliving the memories with fellow party-goers the next day at school.
The party finished as it got dark, around 6pm, but the party was not over for us. Nuan runs a kind of small pub on an evening in her garden. Locals come and buy whisky (and sometimes beer) for a small fee and sit outside on the bench enjoying the evening. Usually everybody heads home as it gets dark but Nuan had returned from the house warming party armed with good whisky free for everyone. Lipo lit a fire and the party continued.
I had expected a dry few months living in the mountains…How wrong I was! The Karen can certainly drink, and they even have a special word for it in Karen, “O-see”.