Tag Archives: monks

That Luang Festival 2012

First the lead-up to ASEM, then the boat-racing festival, then the ASEM meeting, then it seemed like the city would just be getting back to normal, when the cacophonous speakers, Beerlao tents, and balloon-popping carnival games simply relocated to the That Luang stupa area.
that luang
Vientiane’s frenzied fall continued with the yearly religious festival, which has, as all good religious festivals around the world now do, a more modern commercial manifestation as well.  In this case, it’s a week long carnival on the stupa grounds, preceding the religious ceremonies.  After the hubbub of boat racing, I steered clear, but the roads all around the That Luang area were in gridlock each night, so it was hard to avoid.

Unlike many other religious festivals around the world, That Luang Festival still actually culminates in a solemn ceremony.  Last year, I went to give alms for the first time, and this year I took my gold alms giving bowl off the shelf to return.
The city is charming in the early morning, even when dodging an endless line of Toyota Vigoes looking for parking.  My alarm went off in the dark early hours, and when I finally emerged, sinh-clad and sleepy, to make my way to That Luang, the dawn had cast a silvery light on the city.  As I drew closer to the temple, stands popped up on the side of the road, selling alms-giving essentials for those who were unprepared, like myself.  Some chocolate-covered wafers, sticky rice, mandarin oranges, candles, and incense completed my alms bowl, and then I joined the throngs making their way toward the stupa.

For That Luang festival, monks young and old from all over the city, who normally collect alms around their own temple on a small scale each morning, gather on the temple grounds to receive alms from the thousands of devotees who come to respect the tradition.  The gray early morning light around the temple is punctuated by hundreds of brilliant orange robes, and of a colorful spectrum of sinhs.
monks alms
Last year, the alms giving ceremony was changed, but this year it was reverted back to its original manifestation.  While last year, the monks processed to gather alms from us, sitting on the ground, this year the monks sat at tables with baskets and name cards, and visitors filed by placing offerings in their baskets.  Although there was something nice about last year’s set up, this year, the temple boys didn’t have to follow all of the monks lugging their bags heavy with sticky rice and sugary snacks.

After my alms bowl was empty, I excused myself from the line.  After giving alms, the carnival was starting up already, with food and drink (mostly khao poun, a noodle soup filled with interesting meaty bits, my least favorite of traditional Lao foods), and, as the full morning heat set in, it was time for a short nap before work.

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Boun That Luang

Once a year during the November full moon, Pha That Luang (Vientiane’s most important stupa, which is just uphill from Vientiane College), becomes the center of everyone’s attention for the Boun That Luang festival.  People from around the country come to visit the monument and make merit for one of the country’s largest Buddhist holidays.  These events culminate on the final day with a mass early morning alms-giving, and a late-night vien tian (similar to the name of the city, though not actually related), or candlelit walk, around the stupa.

Like most holidays around the world, the solemn religious origins have been compromised in the modern day by rampant commercialism.  Some of my students bemoaned the fact that this was “ruining” the event in their eyes, but it seemed to be entertaining for all regardless.  For days the stupa grounds are overrun with a carnival not dissimilar to that set up on the Mekong before boat racing.  The air fills with the aromas of grilled meat and sticky rice desserts, along with the sounds of hawkers selling their home improvement products.  Competing music clashes in the air between the Beerlao and Namkhong entertainment tents.  Balloon-popping carnival games, and other diversions, like the ever-present “Here there Be Strange Animals” circus tent sprout up on the temple grounds.  And each night a phalanx of cars, motorbikes, pedestrians, and tuk-tuks brings the traffic in the immediate area to a grinding halt.  I weaved my motorbike slowly through the waiting vehicles with renewed thankfulness every day after hearing of coworkers who spent 3-5 hours in their cumbersome cars trying to wade through the mess.

Alms are given every morning around the city, on a very small scale.  Small clusters of monks from the village temples process along the sidewalks at dawn, and early risers will wait outside their houses to offer some snacks or sticky rice before beginning their day.  I’ve observed this ritual a handful of times (entirely due to my tendency to go to bed far too late rather than to wake up early), and have been fascinated by the coexistence of these small religious ceremonies with the prosaic routines of day-to-day life–street dogs sniffing each other, shopowners sweeping the stoop before opening, trash collectors making the rounds, kids getting ready for school, and small handfuls of people praying on the sidewalks before opening their own shops.

At Boun That Luang, this ritual is amplified by the thousands.  Between the hours of 5 and 9 in the morning, people gather around the stupa, dressed in their finest, with offerings at hand awaiting the monks.  This is a chance for people to pray and to make merit for themselves and their families, and also to give back to the monks and the communities that they represent through these acts of charity.  I find it overall a poetic concept, save the fact that most of the “snacks” that are given to the monks are like Thai versions of Twinkies.  I guess health food hasn’t made it into the donation circuit yet.

And so, last Thursday my alarm rang at 5:30 am, and in the peach-tinged hours of dusk, my housemate Mike and I sleepily donned scarves and sinhs (well, I wore the sinh), and rode toward the stupa, early enough to get a parking space and to pick up some essentials–sticky rice, tiny boxes of soy milk, and packaged snacks–to put in our gold alms-giving bowls, purchased the day before.  As we looked for a place to kneel, and lamented our lack of foresight in bringing a mat, we were lucky enough to hear a familiar call, and find an acquaintance, who invited us to join her and her friends.  The women quickly went to work on our baskets, helping us fold 500 and 1000 kip notes (worth approximately 6 and 12 cents, respectively) into neat little fans, to be more presentable.  They showed us when to touch our baskets and when to press our hands together, as prayers echoed from the tinny loudspeakers, and the bottom half of my legs nearly lost all feeling and circulation from the pain of kneeling for so long (a skill among devotees that I truly admire!).  Finally, the procession of monks began and the alms-giving began–we rushed to pull sticky rice and treats out fast enough to keep up with the stream of saffron robes, putting a bit of sticky rice along with money and a snack in each basket.  In the past, the monks have sat still and people have processed by, but this year the arrangement was reversed.  Mostly this seemed more appropriate, so that the monks were standing above us, rather than vice versa, but it also resulted in their baskets getting overloaded very quickly.  Many were trailed by assistants carrying burlap sacks, into which they dumped their baskets every few minutes, which reminded me amusingly of carrying around a pillowcase on Halloween in order to deposit the maximum amount of candy.

Our baskets were empty after only about 10 minutes, so we took our leave from the procession.  The sun had risen and was beginning to get hot, a (presumably five-legged) rooster was crowing in the circus tent behind us, and our respects had been paid, in the form of individually-wrapped vanilla wafers and soy milk cartons.  Time to go home and nap before class.

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Return to Yangon and the Shwedagon Paya

I returned to Yangon from Inle Lake to meet Nanny, Eliza, Alex, and Maggie, some of the other Lao PiA-ers who had just arrived, and who I’d be traveling with for the rest of the week.  We had a full day in Yangon before moving on to our next destination, and most of the day was spent on a wild hunt for airline tickets at travel agencies around town.  With the New Year Festival approaching, remaining seats were few, and of course nothing was as simple as it seemed like it should be.  Luckily, the discomfort of fitting five of us into an old taxi cab with no air conditioning in the 90+ degree Yangon heat was relieved by the hilarious and entertaining exchanges with our cab drivers.  In keeping with the extreme friendliness of almost everyone we met in the country, all of our drivers were excited to speak English with five American girls and to attempt to teach us some Burmese as well.  Somehow we found ourselves singing along in a cab to “Smack That,” by Akon with a driver who shared stories about his other job as a singer and his love for American rap, especially Akon and T.I.  American pop culture just seems to seep to all corners of the world, in sometimes the most random ways (another example from Burma being the dubbed versions of “Baby” by Justin Bieber and “Waka Waka” by Shakira playing at the market).

After finally getting our travel plans settled, we stopped by the central market to peruse and agonize over art purchases for a bit.  This is one of the few places in the country where people were a bit more aggressive about trying to beg or sell things to tourists, but in general, even here, people were very polite.  Food of all kinds–from vegetables to skinned pig faces to  samosas–spilled out onto the streets, and art, jewelry and textile shops lined the interior of the buzzing marketplace.

Just as dusk began to set in, we headed for the Shwedagon Pagoda, at the top of Yangon’s must-see list, and Burma’s most famous symbol.  The gold-plated stupa is an important Buddhist site in the country (a country in which there are half a million monks, which is one for every ten people) and a landmark of its capital city.

We enlisted the services of Win, who turned out to be an incredible tour guide, and spent hours patiently leading us around the base of the stupa.  The pagoda is not just a stand-alone temple, but a whole complex of shrines, and smaller temples, all with different significance and purpose, surrounding the main stupa.  Entrance is free for locals, and so it doesn’t feel like a huge tourist attraction.  There were many tourists, but they were far outnumbered by locals–monks, families, Burmese visitors from other parts of the country–praying, walking, and enjoying the splendor of the pagoda at nightfall.  As the sun set, the base of the pagoda felt like one of the most spiritual places I’ve ever visited, with the stupa’s golden glow, and the calm and peaceful buzz of so many people with their families, barefoot, going about their rituals in such a beautiful place.  All men are supposed to be monks at least twice in their life–usually once when they’re younger as a “novice” and once as an adult–so many monks, and even some pink-robed nuns, were in the evening temple crowd.

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Around the stupa were many sub-temples and points of interest, all with specific rituals attached, from giant bells to ring to pulleys that would power fans to fan a massive Buddha image.  In one place a large star on the floor is a special place to stop and pray for wishes that you have.   Around the circular base are shrines for each day of the week (knowing the day of the week you were born on is essential in Myanmar), which are also associated with animals, and many people come on their day each week to pour water on the statues.  This can be done on any day for luck and prosperity, so Win taught us the proper techniques, and we each visited our day’s shrine as we circled the base.

At the top of the Paya, almost too small to be seen by the naked eye (but visible through provided binoculars) is a diamond, encrusted with other precious stones.  When the sun is at the perfect height as it goes down, you walk in a line in one part of the base and see a perfect spectrum changing before your eyes.

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Chiang Mai

January 11-12: Chiang Mai

The final leg of my journey back to Vientiane was spent in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city.  I stayed in the tourist center of town and explored the plethora of temples and shops on foot.  The usual night market was combined with the final remnants of a holiday market downtown, which offered a dizzying array of handicrafts.  The city seemed to me like a more modern version of Vientiane–like the Lao capital it has lots of trendy Western restaurants, but these are supplemented by chain restaurants and a larger ex-pat community, and more tourist attractions.

One of my favorite Chiang Mai moments was when I walked by a local school soccer match being held on the blacktop next to a major temple.  The stands were filled with monks, watching and cheering intently for their teams.  Although I am used to seeing orange-robed monks in Laos all the time, I still find it charming whenever I see them doing “everyday” things, like texting, or going to 7-11 to get a snack.

Most of my visit to Chiang Mai was spent wandering on my own, soaking in images of the city.

See a gallery of all of the Thailand photos here.


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