Those who attended the National Festival of Story in Sydney in 1997 may remember two guests from Thailand, Dr Wajuppa Tossa and Prasong Saihong.
On a recent trip to England I decided to make a stop over in Thailand and thought it would be good to meet up with other storytellers there. I managed to get an email address for Wajuppa Tossa from Margaret Read Macdonald and sent an email to Wajuppa to say that I would be visiting Thailand. An email came back very quickly inviting me to visit Mahasarakham.
When I looked up Mahasarakham in my atlas I discovered it was a long way from Bangkok. Wajuppa explained that to visit Mahasarakham I would have to take an internal flight to Khon Kaen where they could pick me up. My original idea was to spend a few days in Bangkok. I knew nothing of the geography of Thailand and thought they might simply be a short drive away.
When my other enquiries in relation to storytelling in Bangkok bore no fruit I decided to accept the invitation. I am glad I did.
I arrived in Bangkok in the middle of the night. The next morning I had to go back to the airport to collect my ticket to Khon Kaen. My hotel was fairly close to the airport and my view of that part of Bangkok from the shuttle bus did not impress me. After I bought my ticket and booked in my luggage I had just two hours before I needed to board. Fortunately just about everyone I needed to speak to in Thailand could speak English. A bus conductor told me that if I got on a bus I could take it right into the city and by staying on the bus for a round trip I would return to the airport in time. As the bus came closer to the city my impression of Bangkok changed. It is an exciting, vibrant, busy city. I wanted to get off the bus and immerse myself in it. But I had to get back for my plane. Next time!
The north east of Thailand is not on the tourist trail. In Mahasarakham I did not see another western face. This is a bustling Thai city and in the surrounding countryside there are rice fields and villages. I did get to see quite a lot of this countryside as Mahasarakham is about a one hour drive from Khon Kaen.
We stopped at a village market on the way to pick up some fresh food for dinner. I fell in love with those markets so the next morning took the opportunity to go with Wajuppa to the Mahasarakham market. One street was completely blocked off and was festooned with colourful umbrellas under which could be found all kinds of fruits, meats and fish. Vendors lined the footpaths of surrounding streets selling fruit. And in the under cover area we found a young couple who made soy milk and tofu at their stall. I tried ginger soy milk ... yum.
That afternoon I met the Mahasarakham storytelling troupe. We told each other stories with Wajuppa translating both ways. My audience enjoyed chanting the rhymes from Australian story books.
The next day we went to a Nong Khuen Chaang, a village famous for its beautiful cloths. Spinning and weaving take place either in the open on on looms covered only by a thatched roof. The children turned up at the village shop to hear the Australian storyteller. These children are used to hearing stories. They get visits from the storytelling troupe and also any visiting storytellers. Once again Wajuppa translated my stories.
I found working with Wajuppa in this way quite rewarding. Being a storyteller herself her translations were just as lively as my original versions. We seemed to connect well so that intuitively I knew how much was appropriate to say and Wajuppa told it in Thai with much enthusiasm. We were having fun and I am sure the audiences were too. During my stay Wajuppa talked of many little projects that involved her storytelling troupe. Before I left I sat down with her to get an overview of these projects.
Wajuppa talked of the ’Mother Project’. She saw storytelling as a way to revitalise dying language and culture in north eastern Thailand. She explained that for political reasons central Thai has been imposed as the dominant language and local dialects were being lost. I asked how she became aware of this need and she told me of an earlier project that I suggested must be the ’Grandmother Project’. The Isan region of north eastern Thailand has many great myths. But in recent years Wajuppa became aware that many young Thai people did not know these stories. She set out to translate some of the epic stories into English. She explained that by translating the myths into English the stories gained importance. English is perceived to be an important language.
During the translation Wajuppa found there were terms used in the Lao versions of the stories that she did not understand. This highlighted for her the need to ensure that local languages and dialects did not die out.
The ’children’ of these projects are many. Every February since 1996 storytelling workshops have been held for educators and others. These have been supported by Margaret Read Macdonald and other American storytellers.
In April each year a storytelling and English camp is held for children and parents. This is organised by the Mahasarakham storytelling troupe with tutoring by academics, graduates and older children. This project started in 1997 and some of the children who started then have gone through a training program and become tutors.
The Mahasarakham storytelling troupe (mostly university students) makes visits to 19 provincial schools to tell and to hear stories from the children. Stories are told in local dialects, in Thai and in English. This service is offered free and workshops are given to teachers if they are interested.
Village children are often more inhibited than city children but will tell stories to the tellers that they have heard from their grandparents. Stories are collected from community tellers known to students. They are recorded and reworked to make them more tellable. It is hoped that funding may be found to publish some of these stories. Stories are usually told in the dialect of the teller. They can be retold in Thai if needed. This helps tellers and readers retain dialects and demonstrates that the dialect is fun and it is acceptable to use it in public. An annual storytelling festival is held on a weekend in November. This coincides with the world wide Tellabration.
I loved Thailand. The Thai people were very friendly and hospitable towards me. I enjoyed hearing their stories and have been telling two of them since returning to Australia. Since this initial visit I have returned once to Thailand for a five week visit. I am planning to return to Mahasarakham again shortly for a longer stay in which I will become more involved in the Mahasarakham Storytelling Project.