Colorful Rite of Passage

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In early April, witness the wildly colorful ‘Poy Sang Long,’ a novice monk ordination festival in Mae Hong Son, Northern Thailand

Text and Photos by Dave Stamboulis

Most visitors to Thailand never make it to Mae Hong Son, which is a pity because the town and surrounding province remains one of the most unchanged and welcoming areas of the country in terms of tourism. There is a wealth of outdoor activity to engage in (excellent trekking and rafting), visits to ethnic minority groups, and of course plenty of gorgeous nature. But one of the best reasons to visit Mae Hong Son is to witness the wildly colorful “Poy Sang Long” — the novice monk ordination festival, which occurs throughout April.

“Poy Sang Long,” meaning “festival of the crystal sons,” is a traditional ceremony hailing from the Shan State over the border in Myanmar. The Shan, known in Thailand as the Thai Yai, brought this rite of passage across the border. While Chiang Mai and other towns in northern Thailand have similar celebrations, none is as colorful or spectacular as Mae Hong Son’s version where for three days young boys become ordained as monks in a gaudy pageant.

PoiSangLongBest3shaved2ADuring the festival, dozens of boys are brought by their families to the temple to make merit for themselves and learn Buddhist tenets and teachings. On the first day of the festival, known as “Rup Sang Long,” the boys enter the temple and have their hair and eyebrows shaved by the senior monks. For most of the boys, this is a traumatic event, as attachment to hairstyle is attachment to identity, not to mention that the razors often draw blood, leaving the youngsters looking slightly aghast.

On the second day the boys, freshly shorn of their locks, are given ornate and vibrant costumes to wear, emulating Prince Rahula, the Buddha’s son, who sought to give up a worldly existence and follow his father’s teachings, and from this point on the young men are not allowed to touch the ground anywhere outside of the temple. To comply with this, the boy’s male relatives are used as horses and have to carry the young monks-to-be on their shoulders.

A glamorous procession begins from the gates of Wat Hua Wing Temple, with the boys being carried throughout the town amidst great fanfare, with drums beating and cymbals crashing. Ponies, adorned in colorful ribbons join the musicians at the front of the parade, followed by the crowd of costumed boys and their caretakers. Old women put on their best clothing and dance traditional Thai dances, while the family relatives twirl and sway through the packed streets, each one trying to have their boy moved to the head of the parade.

At this point, the change in the boys’ demeanor is quite interesting. Far from the shy and traumatized youngsters of the day before, they have realized that they are now the stars of the show, and bask in the limelight of the photographers’ flashes and tourists’ admiration.

The procession weaves its way through the narrow streets of Mae Hong Son, everyone having a good time, oblivious to the 40-degree plus heat that bakes the town during the April hot season. Despite Poi Sang Long being a religious festival, there certainly is no shortage of alcohol consumption, much of it being cold beer to ward off the sizzling temperatures, with the main consumers being the relatives who are serving as personal horses!

PoiSangLongBest2dancingAAAs the afternoon shadows settle in on the town, the parade winds down and the procession slowly breaks up, with the boys being carried into their prospective neighborhoods, paraded around the neighbors’ homes, and then brought into their own houses for the night. Each neighborhood then throws a giant block party, celebrating the young men and their noble path, as well as a joyous occasion to share good times.

On the final morning of the festival known as “Wan Kham Sang,” most of the town gathers at the temple, where the head abbot gives a stern sermon on the seriousness of becoming a monk. At this point, the flashy celebrating grinds to a halt and everyone sits silently in the stilting heat getting the message about what this event really is about.

When the abbot finishes speaking, the last stage of the festivities is reached. Once again, the boys make a transformation, from their garish costumes into the bright orange robes of the novices, which are handed out by the senior monks. Once dressed, the boys ask the abbot for permission to become monks, and thus granted, they have passed into a new realm. Wat Hua Wing resembles an ocean of orange, and the families make their way through the sea of colors to congratulate the boys, as well as to offer alms, prayers, and words of thanks to the monks.

The final step in all the celebrating is a huge and sumptuous feast that has been prepared by the temple kitchen all weekend, and now laid out for the new monks. The boys are surrounded by their families and dig in with exuberance, famished and exhausted from all that they have experienced in the last three days. Different temples in Mae Hong Son hold the ceremony at diiferent times through April so make a call to check before your visit.

Contact the Provincial Tourist Office at 053-612-982/3 for the relevant information.

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