Mahasarakham (มหาสารคาม) is one of Thailand’s 75 provinces (changwat – จังหวัด), located in the heart of the northeastern part of the country known locally as Isaan (อีสาน). Mahasarakham is also the heart of the book, The Naga Prince, because it is here that Kermit Krueger went to work with the Peace Corps in the early 1960’s.
Despite its seemingly remote location, the Isan region is rich in history, with legends and structures stretching back to the great Khmer Empire that controlled most of Southeast Asia from the 7th to the 13th centuries. Just a few miles from Mahasarakham stands Ku Mahathat (กู่มหาธาตุ), a 13th century hospital built by King Jayavarman VII, the Khmer ruler who reigned from his capital city of Angkor Thom less than 200 miles to the south.
In 1963, Mahasarakham province was one of the poorest in Thailand, with rice farming as the primary occupation. To provide more opportunities, the government established a small teacher’s college. Today, Mahasarakham University is the largest university in Northeastern Thailand, with nearly 40,000 students.
The Teachers Training College of Mahasarakham was closed in March 1968. On March 27, 1968 it re-opened as the Mahasarakham College of Education. This change transformed what (in American terms) would have been a junior or community college (2 year institution) into a 4 year college.
In March 1974 the College of Education became the Mahasarakham regional campus of the Srinakharinwirot University. Finally, on December 22, 1994 it became an independent institution, the present Masarakham University.
Folktales of The Naga Prince
Kermit taught English to the students and his brilliant idea formed the basis for The Naga Prince and preserved some precious Thai culture that otherwise may have been lost.
His students came from throughout Isan, so he invited each of them to record in English a legend about their hometown. It could be about a landmark, or temple, or hill, or simply be a folktale that they had heard growing up.
Kermit was impressed by the quality of the student essays and they worked together to refine them. Upon his return to the US he compiled the entire collection giving the world a record of folktales told in Northeastern Thailand more than half a century ago. In 1969, about a third of them were published in a children’s book titled The Serpent Prince. The new 2010 edition, The Naga Prince, will include the entire collection of tales, once again accompanied by the lyrical artwork of Yoko Mitsuhashi.
The following photos from Kermit Krueger’s personal collection give us a nostalgic glimpse of Mahasarakham in 1963: