Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Poi Sang Long Festival - Tuesday 02 April 2013

We arrived in Maehongson from Pai around 11:00 A.M.  After checking into our hotel we drove into town to have lunch at the Sunflower Cafe across Nong Jong Kham from Wat Jong Kham and Wat Jong Klang.  Four years ago when we attended the 2009 Poi Sang Long Festival , the festivities were either at or originated at these two Wats.

This year, unlike four years ago, there were no sounds of banging drums or clashing cymbals emanating from the Wat complex. After our lunch we walked over to the Wats to determine when the head shaving ritual would take place.

The Wat complex seemed deserted when we arrived.  I found one man, a workman, sleeping underneath one of the elevated buildings.  There were no people wandering around. anxiously waiting for the start of the ritual.  There were no decorations or floats that would be paraded through town.  In fact the Wat appeared to have fallen on harder times.  Fallen leaves littered the grounds.  A pavilion that displayed intricate religious carvings had been removed.  Many portions of the stucco walls were in need of painting.  Both Duang and I had the distinct impression that the senior Monk or Abbott from four years ago was no longer present at the complex and it had been taken over by a less caring or effective administration.

We walked behind the Wat and crossed the street to a school where I noticed that there were some people. From them Duang found out that festival was being held at Wat Hua Wiang this year.  Apparently the actual  location for the festival changes each year.  Wat Hua Wiang is located in the center of Maehongson -there is a pedestrian gate to the Wat from Th Khunlum Prapat (Highway 1095) however vehicle access is through the market (a narrow two lane street narrowed to 1-1/2 lanes by overreaching, overextended, and encroaching market stalls.  The remaining 1-1/2 lanes of the street are shared by one way vehicular traffic, four way or more motorbikes, parked trucks loading and offloading goods, and, soi dogs,  pedestrians, some wandering about oblivious to the danger surrounding them.

Wat Hua Wiang Bot
We eventually managed to get inside of the Wat complex and determined that the head shaving ritual would commence at 4:00 P.M.  Unlike the Wats at Nong Jong Kham, there was a great deal of activity at Wat Hua Wiang.  Inside an open sided building, several women were cooking food over two wood fires while several other women and young girls were busy preparing vegetables to go into the large pots that were set over the wood fires.  Outside a delivery truck of crushed ice was being off loaded into two large insulated covered plastic bins.

Several canopies had been set up with several tables and many chairs placed beneath them to shield guests from the glaring and intense sun as well as heat.  We set up ourselves at one of the tables to set up my photography gear and a restful spot for Duang to rest.  Eventually we were joined by a Frenchman and two Italian young women.  Unlike four years ago, there were not many foreign tourists attending the Poi Sang Long Festival.  I saw four other foreign tourists during the festival.  The first night at our hotel, there was a total of 16 guests.  Even in discussions with our friends in the refugee camp on the border, we were told that tourism is down significantly in the past four years. This really a shame for the local residents who count on tourism for their livelihoods   Apparently the combination of weak world economy, floods last year in Thailand, and political unrest in Thailand four years ago have contributed to the decline in tourism. Hopefully many more tourists will return to a fascinating area and visit the wonderful people of the Maehongson region.

Decorated Sala for Poi Sang Long Festival
Around 3:00 P.M. the musicians arrived and immediately commenced to play the pounding staccato beat that I have come to associate with this unique Shan cultural festival.

Dancing to the Music
I went into the Sala to prepare for the arrival of the young boys who would be taking their first step towards becoming Novice Monks.

Inside the Sala - Offerings For the Next Morning's Procession
The  26 young Shan boys who would be having their heads shaved that afternoon are following Buddha's son, Prince Rahula's path in becoming a Monk at an early age. In Prince Rahula's time long hair was symbolic of royalty.  Removal of hair then as well as today in the Buddhist culture symbolizes the renunciation of worldly possessions and goods.

One of Two Rows of Young Boys Bow One of Three Times Inside the Sala
Around 4:00 P.M., the 26 young boys and their families assembled inside of the Sala.  As part of the ritual, the boys bowed before a statue of Buddha three times - paying and showing respect to Buddha, the Teachings of Buddha, and the Sanga (Buddhist religious community).

After the boys had completed paying their respects, the senior Monk of the Wat inspected them and took a roll call to account for everyone who was supposed to participate in the upcoming ritual.

The senior Monk Taking Roll Call
As part of the ritual, a part that I found very touching, the two rows of boys turned and bowed to their families. Here in Thailand respect for elders and respect for your family are extremely powerful elements of society.  The government does not provide many social services.  The needs of people are provided directly by their family and neighbors.

At the conclusion of the preliminary preparations inside the Sala, everyone went outside where 26 plastic chairs had been lined up.  The boys sat in the chairs with their family positioned behind them.  As the musicians pounded on their drums and clanged the cymbals, families commenced to cut the young boy's hair with ordinary scissors. The boys were taking a very important step in their religious and their temporal life.  The stress on some of the boys was very apparent.  The boys were now the center of attention and the representatives of their family in this cultural and religious ritual.  Although they were between nine and fourteen years old, it was obvious that they were conscious of bringing honor to their family and people.

The boys sat with a lotus leaf covered pressed metal ceremonial bowl in their lap.  As their hair was cut, family members placed the hair onto the lotus leaf.  At the conclusion of the ritual, the lotus leaf was folded up into a small packet.  The hair filled packet was then taken to the family home and buried at the base of a tree.

Once the boy's hair had been cut closer to the head, the family brought out safety razors and commenced to shave the boy's head. This year we noticed several boys who were nicked in the process and had blood commingling in the rivulets of water that flowed down his face and head.  As the boy's head became smoother and smoother many of them became more uncomfortable.  The cut hair and shavings dropping on to the boy's body irritated the boys.  I also suspect that all the attention that they were receiving also irritated them but in a different way.

A Monk Shaves A Boy's Head
An important part of the ritual is to have a Monk shave each boy's head.  It was at this point that the stress of the event showed on some of the boys  Some were physically uncomfortable.  Some were squirming in their seats.  At least two were visibly upset to the point that they were crying.

Once the heads had been completely shaved, water was poured over the boy to wash away the many hairs that had fallen onto each boy's body and clothing.  The head was dried with cloths and a salve made of the ubiquitous Myanmar beauty application, Thanaka (Thanakha) paste. Thanaka, which is made from certain tree barks, provides cooling effect to the skin, sun burn protection, and is anti-fungal; just what you need for a newly shaved head.

After the ceremony ended there were family photos after which the families returned home most likely for an early bedtime for they had to be back at the Wat the next morning at 4:30 A.M.

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