Hello everybody and welcome once again to my blog. Today I’ll be talking with you about a subject very dear to my heart and that is probably the best experience I had in my time in Thailand: Being part of the Chula Isan Club and participating along at their annual Palang.
But before I get to the details of the Club and the Palang, I’ll explain a little bit about the context of it all. To start off, Thailand is divided into 5 regions and Isan is one of them:
Isan, Thailand 🌺🇹🇭
Isan is Thailand’s largest region, located on the Khorat Plateau, bordered by the Mekong River (along the border with Laos) to the north and east, by Cambodia to the southeast and the Sankamphaeng Range south of Nakhon Ratchasima. To the west it is separated from northern and central Thailand by the Phetchabun Mountains.
Isan (Thai: อีสาน; from Pali īsāna or Sanskrit ईशान īśāna “northeast”) consists of 20 provinces in the northeastern region of Thailand.
Northeastern Thai people are an ethno-regional group native to “Isan”. T(h)ai Isan, Thai-Lao, Lao Isan, or Isan Lao.
Isan’s culture is predominantly Lao, and has much in common with that of the neighbouring country of Laos. This affinity is shown in the region’s cuisine, dress, temple architecture, festivals, and arts. Isan food has elements most in common with Laos and is somewhat distinct from central Thai cuisine. The most obvious difference is the consumption of sticky rice that accompanies almost every meal rather than non-sticky long-grain rice.
More about Isan Culture
Chulalongkorn University (Chula) 🎓
Chulalongkorn University, จุฬาลงกรณ์มหาวิทยาลัย (nicknamed Chula, จุฬาฯ) is one of the best and the oldest institute of higher education in Thailand.
It is a public and autonomous research university in Bangkok, Thailand. The university was originally founded during King Chulalongkorn’s reign as a school for training royal pages and civil servants in 1899 (B.E. 2442) at the Grand Palace of Thailand. It was later established as a national university in 1917, making it the oldest institute of higher education in Thailand.
Chulalongkorn University is a comprehensive and research-intensive university. It is ranked as the best university in Thailand in many surveys, quality of students, quality of research, quality in particular subjects, university reputation, environmental management systems.
According to QS world university ranking 2017, CU is placed 245th in the world, 45th in Asia, 1st in Thailand, and 201–250 in the world graduate employability ranking. It is also ranked as Thailand’s No. 1 university from various organizers such as Center for World University Rankings, Round university ranking, Academic Ranking of World Universities.
* Add info about the art programs *
How I found out about Chula and the Isan Club
For those who don’t know, I went to Thailand to fulfill an Internship Program I signed up for at the end of my B.A. in Tourism Business Management.
Therefore, I sadly didn’t actually attended to Chulalongkorn University as a student. I was an intern working at a nearby hotel as a hostess. How did I ended up at a University Club then? you’d ask.
Well, contrary to what most people usually do in Bangkok, I liked and got used to walk everywhere whenever it was less than 30 min walk and I didn’t had anything happening (whenever I had a free day or afternoon).
So I used to go walking very often to the Samyan Market for groceries and the MBK Shopping Mall for general shopping and entertainment, being these two places the nearest and most accessible places for everyday needs.
The first or second time I went to MBK, I was coming back at night, already dark and I was a little bit tired. I saw there was a way through the middle of the block I had to walk around to go back home and I decided to walk through as a shortcut, to get to know the place, surroundings and also to find out what it was.
So I walked through and I realized it really was a great shortcut from my place to MBK, way quieter, no traffic, sheltered from the outside, straight forward, open doors in and out (before 11 pm) and I kept (unapologetic) using it as my recurrent rout to the mall.
The day I found out about the club I was walking towards the MBK Shopping Mall with my room mate, Michaela, and we found out there was a big group of people doing zumba.
I tried talking to the people to see who could speak English and explain to us what was it all about. Both of us were interested in knowing how often this was happening and if it was a free activity or a paid class. It turned out it was free and we joined the next week!
Not sure if it was that same day or the next time we attended but when the zumba practice was done, we were walking back to our place and I saw on the corner of the building a group of people bringing some interesting instruments out of a tiny room.
I was amazed and decided to approach and ask what was that about. They explained it was a traditional music and dance club. Even more amazed, I ask if there was a chance I could join. Probably a little bit surprised and confused, they said I could!
They maybe though I wouldn’t actually show up but I did and it was one of the best decisions (and experiences) I made while in Bangkok.
The Chula Isan Club
After this, I joined the Club! The practices were in the afternoon – night. And every time I would have a free day or afternoon I’d go to practice.
The practice would usually start around 5 to 7 pm. To no surprise, Thai people (just as Mexican) are not very caring with time so the practice would often start quite late compared to the original meet up time.
For me it didn’t matter that much because my own culture is not that punctual so I’d just go around the meeting time and sit down with whoever was around and chat. Also try to help as much as possible when the girls started cooking (yes, cooking!).
Always before practice, the girls would arrive earlier and cook every night for the whole group! I think the university gave them an amount of money to use for the club and they put extra for other needs.
Anyways, this cooking and dining practice was no other thing than a beautiful gathering every time which made the ambiance and experience of being part of the group much more special.
While some of us started the dance and music practice, there would be some girls that would stay cooking until dinner was ready and somewhere around 8 and 9, everybody would stop the practice and gather around the floor (over a plastic cover) to dine together.
Sharing the food prepared and whatever else anybody brought to the group. Snacks, omelets (a common side dish in Asian cuisine), Thai dishes, soups, rice, noodles, you name it!
And if you were wondering, yes I can eat spicy food so I munched on every single dish! (except, of course, for papaya salad: In my opinion the spiciest common Thai dish).
The practice would usually end around 9 or 10, sometimes later and I would usually stay until the end (even though they ended with meetings, where I couldn’t understand much due my lack of Thai speaking) because I just really loved being there, learning lots of different things every day and interacting with everyone.
Everybody in the group was so nice, friendly and welcoming. Its also true though, that Thai people are pretty shy sometimes. Specially true when their English is not so good and they feel shy to even approach you.
Fortunately enough, for a lot of them it wasn’t an impediment. Some of the sweetest people I met in the group didn’t speak English that well but they were so loving and welcoming. A few of the girls would always get so excited and happy to see me arrive and I obviously felt so happy to see them too! It felt so nice, so loving, caring and accepting even though we couldn’t understand each other some times.
There were also a few people specially in the music band and a girl or two in the dance group that spoke very good English and were John (an exchange student in Chula) and my saviors when we needed to be communicated important details about the event and the practices.
The practices were usually done from and for the students. The people teaching were also students that had participated in previous events or have experience with thai music and dance from little (such as some the girls in the dance group).
We would obviously practice traditional songs and dances from the region. They were for the most part very easy dances mainly because they are slow. Though, mastering the perfect posture, flow and figures is a thing of grace, practice and much concentration.
I would say at least 90% of the whole time I practiced with the club, I practiced with the dance group. The other 9% I had the chance to be instructed a little bit on singing and not even 1% but I also had the chance to play the Pong Lang one day.
I only really sang and practiced one song, called Lamduan Sisaket, from Sisaket province (naturally). I sang with a Thai friend from the club and we actually didn’t have much time to prepare as we were not sure throughout the practices if we were going to sing or not. I would always be humming and trying to sing the songs while dancing though.
The Isan Chula Palang
The Isan Chula Palang is an annual event at the university made by the students of the Isan Chula Club. There’s actually also other clubs for the other 4 regions of thailand that also organize and prepare for their own events.
They gather to practice as we did and put together by themselves (and the help of some counselors and past Isan Chula members) the dances, songs, decor, food for the event, outfits and everything related to the event.
I personally had participated in and organized cultural events at uni such as the Touristic & Gastronomic Shows made annually as well, in my university in Monterrey, Mexico. So I know what goes into putting together and manually construct lots of different elements used in a cultural (or any type) event.
If I even try to compare the events that I’ve been in before it wouldn’t really be measurable. The Chula Palang is way bigger than anything that I’ve been part of as a student. Big part of it, of course, because my university and Chula are way different in size and history.
While mine has just turned 50+ years and counts with 3 or 4 buildings, Chula has been around (officially) for 100+ and it is composed of nineteen faculties, a School of Agriculture, three colleges, ten institutes and two other schools. Its campus occupies a vast area in downtown Bangkok.
And I’m so grateful of experiencing just a little part of what this Club and this University is.
The costumes where provided by the Club. We did our own makeup if we could, the hair was styled by the costume team and we were helped throughout the event to change into the different outfits needed for each performance.
I changed into 4 different outfits. One for the first presentation, one for the singing performance, one for the interview and one for the closing performance.
I participated in three dances. Two of them where the entrance and ending and the third one I was holding an offering to the gods along with the bigger offering in the dance called Bai Sri (a huge floral craft ornament made by some of Chula’s student and artists).
The Bai Sri is a blessing ceremony performed to bestow happiness and prosperity to a person or place. The ceremony features a beautifully-shaped ornament made of elaborately-folded banana leaves. A container is beautifully decorated with fresh flowers and banana leaves, It is often used during auspicious ceremonies. (Source)
If you like, I invite you to watch this and other performances from the Isan Club in their channel and this 2019 Palang playlist:
Singing & Dancing Traditional Isan Thai Songs
Being able to be part of this amazing group of people is something that I’ll be always grateful for just for the fact of gathering around and becoming part of the pack. To that, add on all of the cultural richness and lots of little learning experiences I had.
The biggest one for me was being able to sing and perform a song in the Palang with them and in front of lots of other students of Chula that attended the event.
As I mentioned before, we didn’t have much time to prepare as we were not sure throughout the practices if I was going to end up singing or not. The friend who was teaching me thought me a few times but then stopped attending to the practice due to personal university duties. Only one or two days before the event I asked if I was to sing and/or what was going to happen. I stayed for these last days aside fixing my alphabetic Thai lyrics going around asking everybody if they were right to get them as close as possible to the Thai pronunciation and just repeating it along the song on YouTube.
My performance of Lamduan Sisaket:
For the Closing of the Show we came back to the stage and did a little closing performance. After that, Show’s finished and the party is started!
* The Party after the Show *
I think this is not just a university thing but also how happens culturally in traditional Thai gatherings. After the purely traditional performance, a few of the girls went up the stage with super upbeat tunes and ballerina skirts and the party started! (Even with the rain)
Everybody in the crowd joined in and celebrated (party) around.
* Conclusion *
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