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Buddhist Lent candle parade

Hanging with the Hill Tribes

Buddhist Lent candle parade

Nopniwat Krailerg

Buddhist Lent is a period of three lunar months during the rainy season when monks are required to remain in one wat and when many laypersons adopt more ascetic practices. In Thailand, it has long been customary for men to be temporarily ordained as novices or monks for a Lenten period.

Chiang Mai municipality float taking the candle to the temple.

During the annual three-month Rains Retreat (Phansa in Thai; Vassa in Pali), Buddhist monks are committed to remaining in their monasteries. The tradition predates Buddhism. In ancient India, holy men spent the annual rainy season in permanent dwellings. They avoided unnecessary travel during the period when crops were still new for fear they might accidentally tread on young plants.

In deference to popular opinion, the Buddha decreed that his followers should also abide by this ancient tradition. This initiated a move away from an itinerant life to a more or less settled existence as the advantages of communal living became apparent. Similar monasteries were founded in other countries where Buddhism became established.

On Buddhist Lent Day this year, devout Buddhists paraded decorated candles from schools and communities to temples in the municipality area.

Phansa represents a time of renewed spiritual vigor. The monk meditates more, studies more and teaches more. Laymen, too, endeavor to be more conscientious, perhaps abstaining from liquor and cigarettes and giving extra financial and physical support to their local monasteries. Phansa is also customarily the season for temporary ordinations. Young men enter the monkhood for spiritual training, to gain merit for themselves and their parents, and to conform to the widespread feeling that until a man has been a monk, he cannot be considered a mature adult.

Several sectors presented Buddhist Lent candles to temples in Chiang Mai.

The Buddhist ordination is a mixture of religious solemnity, merit-making and boisterous celebration reflecting a Thai belief that the three most important events of a man’s life are this birth, his ordination and his marriage. The ordination ritual itself evolved over 2,500 years ago and has changed little to this day. Socially, the ordination is something in which the entire village participates. Village monks comprise the presiding chapter and preceptors. Villagers gain merit by accompanying the tonsured, white robed candidate for monkhood (known as the ‘nak’) in a colorful procession to the monastery. Small children join the procession which is often marked by joyous dancing and the heady throb of long drums.

A young girl on a float at the candle parade.

Presenting Lenten candles during Buddhist Lent is another ancient custom, starting when the Buddha fled to a forest to escape the arguments of monks in Gosumphi city after a conflict about discipline. When he was in the forest, monkeys and elephants served him with fruits and honeycombs, from which beeswax for making candles was obtained. Later, residents of the city entered the forest to invite him back after the conflict had been dealt with and they presented candles to temples to light them while monks were resting in the temple for three months of Lent.

Chiang Mai municipality this year organized a Buddhism encouragement week on the occasion of Asarnha Bucha and Buddhist Lent days at Buddhism Place in Chiang Mai on July 21, parading decorated candles from schools and communities to temples in the municipality area. On that day, the parade amidst interested people both Thai and foreigner began at Nawarat Bridge and went to Phra Singh Temple.

At night, Governor Suwat Tantipat and government officials led residents around the pagoda at Phra Singh Temple, holding flowers, candles and joss sticks. Many others did the same at Chedi Luang Temple and Chai Mongkol Temple.

On July 22, Buddhist Lent Day, residents presented breakfast for monks and some devout Thai citizens stopped drinking while the private sector was forbidden to sell alcohol.

Carved candle that will be presented to the temple.

A float decorated in Lanna style.

Cloths, flowers and joss sticks provided for the monks.

The Buddhist Lent Day candle parade began at Nawarat Bridge and finished at Phra Singh Temple.

Interested residents at the parade.

Hanging with the Hill Tribes

Terry Braverman

“Hello … hello…” The only English word most hill tribe people speak, it’s the initial greeting upon entering their villages, usually said to draw attention to the handcrafts for sale. The “I-sell-you-buy” association can be transcended in two ways. If you’re fluent in the universal languages of music, mime, and sound effects, it creates a connection beyond words.

A typical hill tribe basket weaver.

Smiles, laughter, curiosity and engagement abound when I played harmonica, made faces, or imitated animal sounds in the village. Ultimately, a guide who has established relationships in the villages and is conversant in their languages will give you a PIN to access their world and withdraw cultural understanding, yielding a richer return on your experience.

The New Year’s Party

If you’re a party animal, the best time to visit is January, when most tribes celebrate New Year. Rest assured no two parties are alike since each tribe has its own language, customs, costumes, cuisine, and spiritual beliefs. And you can never wear anything too outrageous at a hill tribe party. Their flamboyant attire makes rock stars look like bankers.

Hilltribe Dad is weaving bracelets and the little one is already trying his luck at selling…

The term hill tribe refers to ethnic minorities residing in the mountainous regions of northern Thailand. Most of them migrated to Thailand within the last two hundred years from China (Hmong, Yao), Tibet (Akha, Lahu, Lisu), and Burma (Karen). All the tribes cultivate rice and corn; some grow other vegetables, fruit, and opium, while the Karens and Lisus raise livestock. Many of the communities have limited electricity and no indoor plumbing; homes are made of bamboo and thatched roofs.

An old hill tribe woman, her headdress decorated with silver coins, carries her heavy basket. (Photo by Ananatara Resort)

The hill tribes face many challenges - poverty, drug abuse, prostitution and AIDS are common. Education is also problematic - there are few schools on tribal land. Despite their long-standing presence, the Thai government refuses to grant citizenship to hill tribes, fearing massive immigration from their brethren in bordering countries.

Hmong People

The Hmong people live high in the mountains near Chiang Mai, and it was astonishing to see so many pick-up trucks in the villages. But families are large and roads are virtually impassable, making pick-ups mandatory. Spiritual beliefs are animistic, and polygamy is common. Women tend to put their hair up in a large bun, since they’re said to do the lion’s share of the work, lugging large baskets with broad shoulder straps and working the fields.

A small long neck girl poses at her sales desk. (Photo by R. Hohler)

Hmongs have an unusual way of deciding where to construct a home. The household headman will burn money at the proposed site, and if nothing horrific happens for a week, they build.

The Hmong New Year festivity, known as “Noj Peb,” is drenched in colorful regalia and pageantry. An event that makes Chinese New Year look like a funeral, and it’s not well advertised to tourists. Over 2,000 Hmongs were in attendance, and I saw only three farangs, including myself. Activities ranged from wooden go-cart races to crossbow shooting, dance, and rituals. Some kids enrolled me in a variation of ball tossing that allowed me to showcase my sometimes slick, oftentimes clumsy moves which provoked laughter. Being among the Hmong was … well, a humongous pleasure.

Tha Ton

A three hour drive north of Chiang Mai is the picturesque town of Tha Ton, a gateway to more tribal territory. One morning I motorbiked with a local guide named Reinato to his Karen village in a lowland valley. Karens are renowned for their weaving skills, and dress in thickly woven v-necked tunics of various colors. The missionaries came and conquered about 50 years ago - one settlement converted to Catholicism, another became Baptist, yet another went Buddhist. There were no Jewish converts in the area.

This house was used as the hospital wing and the old generation took care of those who were feverish or could not accompany their mothers during daytime.

When Karens move, they carry ashes of their dead ancestors because they believe souls return to Earth. Marriage is mostly monogamous, and it’s easy to determine which women are available - single ladies wear white, married women either red or blue. Some enterprising Karen men have two wives - one red, the other blue.

We left Reinato’s home and plunged into a dense bamboo forest with some treacherous footing. The long steep trek and sheer beauty of the forest left us breathless, as we finally settled into a serene spot for lunch, Karen style. My guide brought only food, and created all the utensils from bamboo branches. The rice servings were put into a banana leaf, then folded and stuffed into a hollow bamboo log with water, thrown into the fire and steamed. The chicken was put onto bamboo skewers, and the veggies inserted into a halved bamboo log. In an hour the food was cooked, and astoundingly delicious!

The Akhas

After lunch we visited the Akhas, who favor the high country. Their villages have a special entrance gate (two large posts with an overhead connecting post) to deter evil spirits. They practice animism with emphasis on ancestor worship. The homes have no windows, and the eaves drop quite low.

The Akha fashion statement favors black with very colorful trim, and ladies wear tall head dresses adorned with silver coins, beads, and feathers covering braided hair. Sometimes their grins reveal red-stained teeth and gums, residue from chewing betel nut, a mild hallucinogen. The elderly Akha women are aggressive in their product sales approach - they attach their beaded bracelets to both your wrists, and hold out their hand for money. I should contract them to give sales training for U.S. department stores.

They were piling bracelets onto my wrists as I was attempting to play harmonica for their excited children, impeding my act in the process. Reinato just smiled and had that “everyone wants a piece of you” gleam in his eye.

(…to be continued)