Rajaburi, Thailand, 22 February through 3 March 2002

Though it started with dancing ponies, the driving force behind the Rajaburi Festival was the internal combustion engine. For one gloriously hot Saturday, men and boys, some no older than six, went rocketing around an abandoned lot in the central part of town. The week before huge tractors tore up the field, creating a dirt bike course with teeth-chattering moguls and ramps that launched riders twenty feet into the air. The races were typically Thai, with people crowding close to the track with nothing but a few old tires to protect them from errant riders and flying debris. When you witness life like this, you are convinced that something will go horribly awry at any moment. It can be addicting.

During the day the younger people competed and the professional riders practiced. That night, with friends Bryn and Verity in tow, we watched the final race. It is surprising how graceful a motorcycle can be, floating through the air. The crowd held its collective breath as the two riders contesting third place challenged each other on the tight, banked corners and launched skywards at the same time. It seemed impossible that they didn't collide twenty five feet over our heads and come crashing down upon us. They didn't, though on the last jump, one showboating rider landed off the edge of the ramp and seemed lost. He recovered his balance and roared away into the night waving. The crowd breathed again loudly.

The exact purpose of the festival was never made clear. It seemed less a celebration of Rajaburi itself and more just a thing to do. Thailand is full of events for the sake of having events, which makes it a very interesting place to live. The festival started with a parade of everything vaguely Thai. This is an extensive list and it was a long parade. Buddhist monks and totems rolled past in the back of pickup trucks. Women toting tanks of Siamese Fighting Fish sloshed past. There was even a token transvestite bedecked in a stars and stripes mini skirt and tank top. An incomplete list of parade participants also includes: forty people dressed as pineapples, the Prawn Queen and her entourage, women exercising on the roof of a truck (seen above), oxen, a paper mache pig the size of a small house, stilt-walkers, girls whose entire wardrobe was made of yogurt labels, women carrying representative items of Thai cuisine including baked goods, fried chickens and all manner of local fruits and vegetables and a group of young people in black tee-shirts who dangled plastic bats on strings to honor the nearby bat caves. There were marching bands and men bashing Chinese drums in the back of a truck to provide a demented sound track. It was spectacular and obscure all at once.

The stilt-walkers were quite good, but the suffered a bit of confusion when they were stalled at a stop light. The waited by hobbling from one stilt to the other in a vain attempt to stay balanced. Many of them had to step down until the light went green.

Amongst the most interesting things to pass by were the dancing ponies. They were festooned with pompoms and colorful ribbons. Their keepers walked alongside them, rhythmically tapping the horses' rumps with a sticks to make them jump and kick up their legs. While not entirely graceless, it seemed more like a nervous tic than an actual talent. The horses were skittish and timid and the men who trained them were severe. When I ventured amongst their tents taking pictures each man would force his horse to lay down or to dance or to show off in some way, trying to outdo the others. They were proud to be photographed with their animals and offered me beer. Dancing pony music is amongst the strangest and most beautiful noise I've ever heard. Played on the Thai version of the pan pipes accompanied with cymbals and bass drum, it sounds like a fantastic, lurching calliope.

The parade and the motorcycle races only lasted for the first weekend. The rest of the festival was concentrated in a fitness park and school yard near our house. Every night we went to bed to the raging soundtracks of Hollywood B movie dubbed with whining Thai dialogue blasted from huge speaker columns. Sinking submarines and kung fu movies were the most popular, though my personal favorite was a blaxploitation flick starring two men break dancing their way across the American southwest, trying to outrun the FBI and a busty blonde's jealous boyfriend. The dialogue was badly dubbed Thai, but it didn't matter; I could watch movies like this for hours.

The idea of outdoor movies fascinated me and every time I ventured to the park I would watch the movies for a while and try to photograph the big rattling projectors. They are temperamental beasts attended to by nervous young men. Once a noisy machine overheated and snapped the film in mid high-flying kung-fu kick. The projectionist frantically started another reel, somewhere further along in the plot. No one, least of all me, minded.

As with any Thai event, there was karaoke, though this was of a more professional bent than usual. It appeared to be a touring karaoke show that did all the popular hits of the day with a handful of very bored looking dancers in tiny outfits. The blazing light and smoke show made up for the apparent lack of talent and interest displayed by the performers. As is often the case in America, the only people bold enough to dance were either blind drunk or had significant mental challenges.

On the midway there were bumper cars and fifty different places where you could throw darts at balloons and win stuffed animals. Oddest of all was a freakshow. We paid a woman ten baht and she rang a buzzer, letting the freaks know they had company. We stepped up onto a platform and looked across to a woman in a box. She wore a Seattle Super Sonics basketball jersey and a pleasant smile. Both arms and her neck were pierced by mean looking blades that dripped blood. Actually it looked a bit like ketchup and the blades were obviously tin foil. It was still unsettling. The next woman lay listlessly in a cage. She was alleged to be a Siamese twin, two torsos attached at the hip. Actually it was a listless woman in a cage with a mirror, but ten baht does not purchase a lot of special effects. The last lady appeared for one fleeting moment to be a head growing out of a lily pad. She smiled, we waved and went further afield looking for true madness. In Thailand it's never far off.

We climbed a steep and rickety staircase made of rusting steel. From a platform some fifty feet in the air we towered over the Ferris wheel and merry-go-round. The people wandering by down below looked far away and safe. A thin cable strung from uneven posts kept us from plummeting off to join them or falling into the vat. We were standing on the outer edge of a vast barrel made of wooden slats, many of which had chunks broken free or were obviously cracked and splintering. As more spectators climbed the staircase the structure swayed uncomfortably. Considering that someone intended to drive a car around inside the big, crumbling barrel, things did not seem to be going well.

I have seen the 'NO FEAR' sticker so many places it did not belong, that it was actually nice to see it plastered on the hood of the small Nissan parked at the bottom of the barrel. The car sat next to a pair of ramshackle motorcycles and a pile of scrap metal. If indeed someone were foolish enough to drive the car on the vertical wall, they were free to declare themselves fearless as far as I was concerned. The men who eventually wandered in to defy death were so nonchalant I decided they weren't fearless as much as numb.

It was motorcycles first, roaring along in endless loops, sliding tires up to the cable where we warily peeked in. The motorcycle wall riders that used to take my breath away at the North Carolina State Fair suddenly seemed like momma's boys compared to these casual daredevils. They rode with no hands or spun sideways on the seat, facing downwards into the abyss, palms facing up, like monks of doom. I never felt safe, trapped on the precarious catwalk. I would lunge forward to take my pictures and then step back quickly in case the young riders misjudged their arc and flung themselves out of the barrel and into the night beyond.

Somehow a motorcycle hanging from a vertical wall seems vaguely possible. A car on the other hand, and a slow moving one at that, defies logic, though the laws of physics obviously support it. Most frightening was not the car's impossible course, but the way the great barrel rocked under its wheels. The hanging lights strung across the top of the platform swung wildly as if caught in a hurricane. I was only able to take pictures by bracing my legs wide against the barrel wall and propping my elbows against the cable. I felt like I was on the deck of a wildly pitching boat, caught in heavy seas. The driver waved to us as he passed, a ribbon and flower blessing hanging from his otherwise useless rear view mirror. I waved back, grateful someone thought to bring flowers.

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