Cross dressing, spiritual transcendence, and fist fights are all possible components of mo lam. But on a particular night in April 2019, it was all about paying respect to the spirit of a women who passed five years ago.

Guest contribution by Olivia Torbert

Mo lam, the traditional music and performance of Isaan, is used to celebrate transitions. Becoming a monk, getting married, and honoring one as their spirit moves from this world to the next are all reasons to sponsor a mo lam performance, making it familiar occurrences all across the region.

Patiwat Saraiyaem, “Bank,” a former political prisoner, finds his appearances as a mo lam singer are a form of healing:  “I can still go up on stage, I can still perform, I can still present myself. And those are the things that help heal me.”

The performers are what defines the success of a mo lam event. But few ever see what it takes to transform into a sequin-clad star. These pictures follow Patiwat, a young mo lam performer from Sakon Nakhon province, who goes by the stage name bak nuat ngoen lan, which translates to ‘The Million-Baht Mustache Man.”

In the practice room of Patiwat’s mo lam troupe, a khaen sits precariously out of place. It is a mouth organ invented during the bronze age, made of a set of six to eighteen long bamboo pipes each with a tiny metal free reed, sounding most similarly to a harmonica.

The khaen is the most important instrument in mo lam. It will carry the melody as the player performs on stage into the night.

A mile away, Patiwat is leaving his Khon Kaen University dorm to meet his troupe. Their leader, known as mae mo lam (Mother Mo Lam), is a professor at the university’s Faculty of Fine Arts.

Of the seven-person troupe, five are her past students. They were handpicked for their exceptional talent, including Patiwat.

After Patiwat arrives, his crew crams suitcases and bodies into a van, preparing for the 40-minute drive to Ban Don That, a small village in Khon Kaen province where their next mo lam is to be held. It will be a particularly special event.

Five years ago, a woman named Lamai passed away. Her family has been raising money ever since to be able to afford this mo lam performance. They believe that until this celebration is held, her spirit cannot be at peace.

When they arrive, a stage is beginning to take shape on the cracked dirt floor of an empty field. The troupe rolls out mats behind the stage, creating a makeshift dressing room with a backdrop of nearby rice fields.

It takes more than just performers to prepare for a mo lam, however. The troupe consists of handymen and musicians who will spend the coming hours creating a setting to transport the audience into the world of mo lam.

As night envelopes the stage, Patiwat and the others open up their suitcases to reveal sequins and a potpourri of cosmetics. They unfold travelers mirrors and set to work. Patiwat will not move from this position for the next couple hours as he transform himself.

The transformation entails several storage containers worth of supplies. Sequin clad garments overflow from these next to tubs of foundation to cover not just faces but arms and legs too. Next comes concealer to even out what foundation could not. There is a different brush for every step in the process.

On the other side of the stage, a gathering of villagers begins to form and the anticipation growing.

The troupe gathers around the troupe’s leader, who goes by the stage name mo lam Udomsin. While the others have been preparing, she has been lighting incense and repeating incantations to honor the mo lam teachers of the past.  

Now, she’s blesses her team before they take the stage.

On stage, the khaen that looked so seemingly out of place earlier is suddenly, unquestionably the centerpiece of the show as its player spills its sound into the night for the opening solo set.

Mae mo lam, trailed by the khaen musician and dancers holding incense, approaches the crowd.

She is singing a heart wrenching tribute to Lamai, holding her portrait as a reminder that this night is for her.

But this night is also of celebration. And while mo lam is dramatic, it is in the most entertaining of ways.

After the tribute finishes, Patiwat takes the stage. Starting off slow, suddenly the music grows.

Patiwat is performing now. He’s singing. He’s dancing. He’s jumping.  The mo lam has begun.

Olivia Torbert is a student of International Politics at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. This semester, she has been studying human rights issues and development in Khon Kaen.