Back in olden times, only men could sing this song. There had never been a woman who had assumed this role before, and the tradition had strictly been kept…
Until a few years ago when something new happened.
In 2016, Wat Phrathat Hariphunchai—the province’s primary temple—resonated with the powerful females’ voices singing a kalong through the microphones. A group of four 40-to-50-year-old women competed at the kalong competition. When asked why they, as ladies, could participate in the singing of kalong now, they replied, “Why can’t we? The reason that there was no female singer back then was because women were illiterate. Only men who wanted to become a monk could go to school while women were expected to take care of their home. Today’s world has changed. Women also go to school. We can read now, that means we can sing the kalong, too. Men and women are not different.” Hence this was their reason for joining the competition. The local men fully supported the female kalong singers for the same reason, and even helped train them.
In this case, the change was accepted and even welcomed. The change was based on the community’s recognition and respect for women as empowered members who can decide their own role in this important tradition.
However, there are still many other aspects and elements of the local community that are still strictly maintained. For example, the restriction of females entering certain parts of the Buddhist temples or in specific parts of Buddhist ceremonies where only monks and males are allowed. Based on the author’s observation, changes in gendered roles in the ICH that are not directly related to the religious customs receive more room for flexibility.
Another change related to the normative gender roles in this festival was that, in olden times, only individual females could be the donors of the Salak Yom tree. There is no evidence of a male donor. However, nowadays, socioeconomic changes have influenced women’s values and financial ability to make such time-consuming and expensive offerings like the Salak Yom trees, which cost, on average, about THB50,000-100,000 each. Many women now go to school and work outside of their home instead of fulfilling old jobs like farming and home making. It is nearly impossible to find individual women to make and donate a Salak Yom tree in the traditional way. Therefore, the trees are prepared and donated by a community instead.
This means that men can now take a part in this collective donor role. The men shared that the removal of gender restriction has empowered and allowed them to pour their hearts out in these annual Buddhist merit-making events which they identify as an important part of their cultural identity. Other genders can also proudly and openly participate, because the modern meaning of this ICH focuses on the community’s solidarity and spirituality. The Salak Yom Festival members have been supportive of all genders’ participation.
We can see from this case study that expected gendered roles in traditions can change. ICH, by definition, embraces these changes. The festival’s original function has partially changed from primarily as a young women’s rite of passage and empowerment to an annual religious, cultural, and social event though tourism has become a large part of the force behind the funding and management of the festival. Many changes have been observed, including those in gendered roles. Some past roles have weakened; at the same time, new ones have emerged. In their own way, the communities are also observing and evolving with all of these sociology-economic changes, but they seem to remain resolute in their respect for all genders. This respect has, in turn, provided them many benefits such as the widened scope of their practitioners, bearers, and secondary participants which has led to an even stronger foundation in the continuity for the Salak Yom Festival.