Early mornings in Chiang Mai have a feeling all their own. The warm air and the glimmer of sunlight bouncing off golden spires, the hum of slow-moving early morning traffic, and the chants from temple grounds all make an early holiday morning worthwhile. As the gateway to the cultural mosaic that is Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is graced with being the cultural capital, and arguably boasts some of the most charming temples and hidden treasures within its walled city. Today, was no different.
Walking on to the grounds of the impressive, yet quaint, Temple of Wat Chedi Luang, off of a quiet morning street on my last day in Chiang Mai, I’m greeted by rows of empty table stalls with descriptive signs in Thai posted above. Many stalls remain empty with some laden by unopened cases of Pepsi, Sprite and bottles of water. The humble grounds are centered by the large Chedi (Stupa) with trees, chapels, and other modest buildings and a prayer hall around the perimeter. My guide, Thanu, informs me that the curious stalls are sponsored by families and organizations offering food and drink at no cost for today’s ceremony.
This is a regular practice during ordination ceremonies, I learn, and the signs above describe what food is available along with who has generously sponsored the meals. Today is an important day beginning a new chapter for many families.
This temple held great importance to Thanu as it was the location where his abbot was a senior monk and where his Father was once a novice monk. He is animated and forthcoming, showing me photographs of him as a monk and sharing stories of his monastic experience and temple life.
As I slowly make my way around the Chedi I learn of the city in 1411 when construction of the Chedi began, and then of its subsequent damage from an earthquake in 1545, or by cannon fire during the recapturing of the city from the Burmese in the 18th century. Restoration efforts have taken place; some very apparent, Thanu points out with a laugh.
From the voice over the loudspeaker my guide is very aware of the day’s events and casually asks a boy running past if he was participating. Without a loss in stride, the boy responds with an enthusiastic ‘krup’ (yes) with that childlike expression closer to ‘what do you think?’ Today was an ordination ceremony for 185 boys who will soon become novice monks. He was clearly joyous, although reserved, to be showing me the other side of the Chedi.
As I head toward the crowds of mothers, fathers, siblings, grandparents and other relatives holding cameras, I see young boys, as young as 10 and up to 19, seated and holding their hands together in prayer with large lotus leaves resting on their laps. Some look thrilled and are joking with family and friends and some are simply quiet and unsure of their big day. As they sit, they wait for their hair to be ceremonially cut, and their head then to be shaved, as part of today’s ordination. This day makes the family proud. Their son, brother, grandson will bring great merit to the family. It’s a celebration.
“They are all our boys” I’m told by a well-dressed couple who have joined the festivities.
I’m informed that even for those without sons, a family may sponsor another boy in need or offer a food donation at one of the stalls.
This is not uncommon in Thailand, with more than 90% of the population practicing Buddhism, as all males are expected to become a monk for a period in their life. Some will be monastic monks for the rest of their lives, and some will renounce their worldly possessions for just a brief period. Most often, this is after finishing school and before they begin a career, but many boys under 20 will have a temporary ordination, just like today’s, as a novice monk. Most commonly they will stay in the monastery for three months, however some will stay as little as one week where they may still gain merit.
Preparing for their ordination as novice monks, I’m told that most boys would have started practicing chants at home, and that fathers & grandfathers are peppered with questions. "They will cry for two days and then they’ll be fine" says a father in great English as I stand welcomed among the cheerful families.
Times have changed I realize, young boys are concerned about not having television, computers and their favorite snacks, when I’m told by one mother “they want to play & eat whenever they want”. It’s clear, however, by the famed Thai smile, that most grow to appreciate the discipline they learn and the new friends they meet.
The boys sit in their regular everyday clothing as the mother cuts a small piece of hair that falls into the lotus leaf, other family members queue patiently eager to participate before an ordained monk attends to the shaving of head and eyebrows with a razor. Making my way through the crowds I see some boys cleanly shaven and now in their white robes. As the day continues, the celebration does as well, with food, drink and conversation. In the Temple, the novice monks will soon be presented with their saffron robe while their parents glowingly watch with a proud eye.
Story by Steve Hope.
Steve Hope is a contributor to 'Stories from the Road, and a Tour Expert and Trip Designer for Tour East Holidays.