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The “Forest Pride Festival” marches up Doi Suthep Mountain

Poy Sang Long - A colorful Buddhist celebration

Adventures on the cheap - Walking to Doi Suthep from Chiang Mai

The “Forest Pride Festival” marches up Doi Suthep Mountain

Saksit Meesubkwang

“We live in the forests and benefit from the forests, as well as city people do. If men turned their backs on the forests, there would be none left and no benefit could be made either. There are people who understand less than those who do not. Thus, we would soon find means to communicate with them.” These were the prophetic words from Anan Duangkaewroen, chairman of the Community Forest Network.

Villagers participate in a grand procession to the top of Doi Suthep Mountain.

That was the sentiment on the morning of May 16, when more than 5,000 forest villagers gathered at Chiang Mai University’s Art Museum to walk up to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, to pay respect and worship the statue of the Lanna saint, Khru Bah Sriwichai - as the northern people have done for generations - with offerings, and to carry out the brotherhood ceremony called “Fei Yeng”.

This float was designed as a tree, showing the love villagers have for the forest.

This event followed the “Forest Pride” festival which was held on the preceding two days at the Chiang Mai University (CMU), presided over by Tuanjai Deethes, a senator for Chiang Rai.

During the opening ceremony on May 15, a video on the path of the Community Forest Bill and the history of Thai forest resources was shown. Prior to the government granting concessions of forest land, 70 percent of the kingdom was forested - now the figure is only 20 percent.

Parading around the Great Pagoda at the Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep temple.

As a result, the government has had to cancel forest concessions since 1989 due to the increase of misuse of forest resources. However, because of droughts, many forest dwellers are using their fundamental knowledge and local knowledge to manage their forest resources. They have also taken it upon themselves to punish those who are destroying the forests. That punishment is often as severe as the country’s judiciary processes.

Villagers show their support for the Community Forest law.

Residents from other provinces who attended also shared their ideas and experiences on sustainable usage of natural resources and the way to live with the forest without causing environmental damage.

Paying respect at the Khru Bah Sriwichai statue to bring good luck and good fortune.

Tuanjai told participants that relevant bodies such as the Forestry Department and National Park Department which managed the resources in the communities’ areas should let the residents and land owners have a say in the management. If the departments tried to manage the resources unilaterally or intimidate residents by resorting to rigid definitions of the law, conflicts between officials and the locals would arise. This would be a hard problem to solve.

Climbing the hundreds of stairs to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep temple.

The last day of the festival was devoted to expressions of faith and sacredness by people from various groups united in their concern for forest natural resources and their proper management. The grassroots group affirmed their commitment and declared their intention to manage their natural resources.

Por Luang (grandfather) Triphop said that the “Forest Pride” festival was organized to welcome the period of new productivity and the season of an abundance of food. The forests would become fruitful and yield edible products. He said that the lifestyles of people at grassroots level, who formed the majority of the country’s population, were related to the forests and they benefited from forest productivity.

Anan Duangkaewroen, chairman of the Community Forest Network, said that the festival was also organized to raise the confidence of people who live with the forests, to believe in what they do and continue to conserve the forest and natural resources.

Professor Anan Kanchanapan from Chiang Mai University said that community forests were not only about the forest but also the combination of soil, water and forest. “The separate management that we practiced in the past is impractical to deal with this combination,” said the professor.

The drafted bill stated that the Department of Forestry is responsible for controlling the national forests, but ordinary people should also be part of managing them. A committee should be appointed to supervise the rights and duties of the people in forest management so that not everyone who lived in the forests simply was empowered.

Chiang Mai professor emeritus and well-known author Nithi Aiew-sriwong, said he believes that the law on community forests is directly related to the Constitution. It is also the advancement of the politics on the part of people, as it is they who presented the draft bill. The professor added that the only way to permanently protect the forests in Thailand was to enact the Community Forest Bill.

The “Forest Pride” festival was a new step in the collaboration between city and forest dwellers. Academics, artists and the media also recognized its importance. The world of understanding and acceptance were opened and the ways to protect and manage the forests and natural resources seriously proposed, based on faith and belief.

Poy Sang Long - A colorful Buddhist celebration

Autsadaporn Kamthai

There is nothing more precious to Buddhist parents than to see their sons being ordained as monks during the summertime. It provides their offspring the chance to live close to religion and study the precious Buddhist teachings.

The long procession of ‘Sang Longs’ reflects the harmony and strong devotion to Buddhism of the Thai Yai people.

Poy Sang Long is one of the popular, unique ordinations, rich in Thai cultural heritage. This ceremony takes place every year in late March or early April in Mae Hong Son and some parts of Chiang Mai province. The name itself comes from Shan or the Thai Yai dialect. “Poy” means festival or celebration and “Sang Long” conveys the meaning of “Jewel princess” in the Central Thai dialect.

The ‘Sang Longs’, dressed in colorful jewel encrusted finery and their faces made up, gather for photos with their families to remember this special occasion.

Poy Sang Long is originally a Thai Yai festival of the people who primarily inhabit the Mae Hong Son province. It is also observed in some parts of Chiang Mai, like Wat Papao, the temple which is the spiritual center of Thai Yai descendents in Chiang Mai.

Having his head shaved by a monk before ordination.

Poy Sang Long is quite unique and rarely seen elsewhere in the North. The Thai Yai show their strong devotion to Buddhism by sending their sons to be ordained as novices to learn the Buddhist teachings. According to Thai belief, when they enter the priesthood, the boys make merit for their parents.

The colourful Poy Sang Long procession delights the participating Thai Yai people.

It is believed that the tradition is probably performed to follow the example of Prince Rahula, the Buddha’s son, the first Buddhist novice in the world. Historically, the prince was very heroic in giving up his layman’s life to follow in his father’s footsteps.

The men holding ‘Mai Khao Tok’ are part of the procession. Khao Tok is believed to be auspicious according to their beliefs.

Boys aged 7-14 are accepted for ordination but must be literate and mature enough so that they can read sacred Buddhist prayer scripts and live apart from their parents.

The Poy Sang Long ceremony usually takes place over three days. However, at Mae Hong Son, extra days may be added on to the ceremony so that the “Sang Long” can visit the houses of all the villagers and their relatives will have more time to celebrate and appreciate their boys’ ordination.

‘Sang Longs’ are carried three times around the temple and sheltered from the sun by tall golden umbrellas.

On the day before the ceremony takes place, the boys will perform a ceremony to apologize to their parents in accordance with the Buddhist tradition that requires all people wanting to become monks to purify their minds and eliminate their mental burdens beforehand. Later the boys will have their hair shaved by a monk.

On the first day of the ceremony, the boys will bathe themselves with Thai Yai’s holy water and dress in white. Afterwards, they will bid farewell to their parents. The monk will perform the ceremony for the boys to wear “Sang Long” clothes exquisitely decorated with jewels.

The procession of the “Sang Longs” is usually performed in the middle of the three or five day ceremony. This colorful procession that reflects Thai Yai culture will move around the village and finally end at the temple.

The procession is enchanting for tourists and has been a magnet to draw many to experience and visit Mae Hong Son during the ceremony each year.

In the procession, the “Sang Longs” dressed in colorful jewel encrusted finery with their faces made up, are carried by strong men from the villages. Golden umbrellas shelter them from the sun during the procession.

The Thai Yai people dress in traditional costumes and carry their offerings and join the parade to the temple.

During the days of the ceremony before the “Sang Longs” are ordained, they are taken to visit the houses of the villagers because the Thai Yai believe that a “Sang Long” will bring good luck to the houses he visits. During this time, the “Sang Longs” themselves are not allowed to touch the ground because they are considered to be sacred.

Other villagers will visit the homes of the “Sang Longs” to give money to assist their parents who have had to spend much money on the ceremony. For that reason, the festival leads us to see the spirit of benevolence on the part of the villagers towards the parents of the “Sang Longs”.

On the last day, a procession of “Sang Longs” will again be held to take them to the temple and take part in the ordination ceremony. At the temple, after asking the senior monk for permission to be ordained, the “Sang Longs” will exchange their fine clothes for the Buddhist yellow robes and become full novices.

The festival is rich in cultural heritage and precious in the hearts of all Thai Yai people. It builds a strong bond between them and their religion. The festival is also the spiritual center for all residents, not only Thai Yai, but also Lanna, to assemble and create harmony among themselves.

Most importantly, it draws relatives who live afar to come to meet and spend time together with their relatives to strengthen their family bonds.

Adventures on the cheap - Walking to Doi Suthep from Chiang Mai

Antonio Graceffo

As Rod Serling used to say at the beginning of every “Twilight Zone” episode: “Picture if you will,” a jaded traveler, fed up with the usual fair of package tours and elephant rides. He wants a new experience, something different, something distinctly Thai. And, oh yeah, he has no money.

Luckily, there are countless adventures one can have for little or no money. One of the best parts about traveling without money is that you will be forced to avoid the chauffer driven tour buses, loaded with foreigners. You will also have to seek out those restaurants and accommodations which cater to local people.

It was purely a cultural exchange, and a chance to practice speaking Thai. In these types of relaxed environments people are always more willing to listen to you butcher their language.

The simplest way to do an “Adventure on the Cheap,” is open up your guidebook, find some attraction that you have a remote interest in seeing, and then go there. But the trick is to go there under your own power. This means walking, riding a bicycle, rowing a boat, or ridding a horse. The last two may prove problematic. But the first two are available to anyone with two strong legs. Even a trip to the mall can be exciting if you choose to get there by walking in the irrigation ditches which run through Chiang Mai. But that is another story.

“It must reach a waterfall at some point.” Walking along the river was an adventure in itself.

I chose to walk to Wat Phra Doi Suthep, a temple outside of Chiang Mai. The first three kilometers out of the hotel were a little surreal. I was dressed like a trekker, heading for the top of a distant mountain. But I was marching through the familiar, urban hustle of Chiang Mai. I was having an adventure. Everyone else was just having a normal, Friday morning.

Just past the university, there was a sign for a waterfall. Since I don’t enjoy paying admission, and look at rules as mere suggestions, I climbed down the embankment, under the highway bridge, and began following the river up. I figured, “It must reach a waterfall at some point. Right?” Walking along the river was an adventure in itself. The boulder-strewn riverbed was excellent for scrambling. At almost every pool, people invited me to join them. Once you get away from places where foreigners are common, the Thais really open up. In the clearings college kids were sitting on bamboo mats, sharing a picnic lunch of sticky rice and roasted pork, eaten from plates made of leaves. When you sit together, and all eat from a single plate, there is an intimacy which we in the West could never have by eating from our own, individual plates.

The vegetation was a bit over grown, making photography impossible. “Note to self: Next time, bring a machete.”

At the top of a smooth formation of white stone, beside a babbling brook, I stopped to chat with a group of college girls. The fact that they were beautiful had nothing to do with my interest in them. It was purely a cultural exchange, and a chance to practice speaking Thai. In these types of relaxed environments people are always more willing to listen to you butcher their language. The girls told me that if I wanted to make it to the temple, I would have to leave the river, by a stone staircase, and rejoin the road.

The boulder-strewn river bed was excellent for scrambling.

The mountain road, which rises sharply, 1,500 meters in only 11 km, has become a Mecca for both western and Thai cyclists. They struggled, pedaling slowly, in their smallest gear. One huge advantage to walking, versus ridding a bicycle, is that you just look so much better when you are walking. Bicycle riders have their mouth open. They are panting and straining. Their faces look painful, but not epic. Walking, you can even keep your hair in place with a little jell, in case you want to get some photos made. The road has yet to become a trekking Mecca, however. As I seemed to be the only person with enough head injuries to do such a harebrained trek. Somehow, when you are walking to the top of the mountain everyone knows that you are walking to the top of the mountain. People in cars and motorcycle smiled and waved. They gave me the “thumbs up.”

Occasionally people stopped to offer me a ride. “They don’t quite get it.” I thought to myself. But it was all part of Thai good-cheer. Busses full of foreign tourists blew past me, missing everything. I chuckled. There were some incredible views of Chiang Mai, stretched out below. But the vegetation was a bit overgrown, making photography impossible. “Note to self: Next time, bring a machete.”

When I got to the sign, which read, “Wat Doi Suthep 3 km,” I was elated. But, as is often the way with travel, the last three kilometers were the hardest. The way suddenly shot vertical, going up like a spiral staircase. When I finally crested the mountain, my heart sunk, when I remembered the guidebook saying that the actual temple was at the top of three hundred stone steps. An air-conditioned tour bus stopped. The foreigners got out, stretched their legs, and got into a cable car, to take them to the top. I began walking up the impossibly long staircase.

A hill tribe girl was shouting. “Photo with hill tribe girl, only 40 baht.” Some tourists saw this as a nuisance. I saw it as a chance to make some money. I began touting people. “Photo with American journalist, 35 baht.” Wouldn’t you know it? The hill tribe girl immediately cut her price to 30 baht. I guess capitalism is alive and well in the mountains of Thailand. I went to twenty five. She went to twenty. When she hit ten, I knew that I had priced myself out of the market.

I continued on my upward journey. The casualties of the dreaded three hundred steps lay strewn along the wayside. As much as my heart went out to them, I wondered what they would say if I told them I had walked all the way from Chiang Mai.

I hate to say that someone lied, but I had been promised 300 stairs. I only counted 297, and two of those were broken. I hate it when they misadventure these attractions just to get you to come.

The way back is always easier than the way up. When I finally reached my hotel, I had walked a total distance of approximately 40 km. I had gotten some much needed exercise, practiced Thai, made some new friends, and best of all, the only money I had spent was on food. You can create your own, custom adventures in Thailand. And you can do it on the cheap.

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