Chiang Mai - 11,250 monks gather alms at dawn

After a sleepless night courtesy of a two week-old daughter, the alarm screeched. The beginnings of yet another moan, its decibel count belying her size, provided a little more encouragement to crawl out from under the duvet. 5am. 'Tuk-tuk Beum' had been booked for 5.30am in a moment of folly several days before. Couldn't cancel at this late stage. Various trial excuses went through my head. None seemed good enough. So I threw on several layers of clothing, and looking like I was about to trek through the Himalayas, set off to Nimmanhaemin Road in Chiang Mai, scene of a mass alms-giving ceremony today.

(Click on any photo to see the full-sized image...)

A wise face - the senior monk, or ajahn, conducting the ceremony...

Some rather perplexed-looking young novitiates... all with name tags in case they got lost amongst the 11,250 monks present...

5.45 am, and the crowds are already beginning to gather...


11,250 monks gathered on Nimmanhaemin chanting before the alms-gathering proper begins... photo courtesy of 'Glen'



It was freezing. Well not literally, but all the same, early December the Chiang Mai province had declared the region a "cold-spell disaster zone".

"Prajon Pratsakul, chief of Chiang Mai Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Office, said the disaster zone was declared on Dec 1 after the districts were under 15 Celsius degree for three consecutive days. He said the provincial administration is seeking 2.5 million baht (about £60,000) from the government to provide urgent help to local people who need about 100,000 blankets. The chief disaster mitigation office added that the temperature at the mountain tops in the province remained between 5 to 9 degrees for several days." (source: The Nation)
Ok you may mock! Hardly blue nose temperatures at "under 15 deg. C", but combined with the high humidity the chill factor seems greater somehow. Felt positively Alpine at 5am.

It proved to be well worth the effort. After all the depressing political stuff in recent months, good to see a smile on Thai faces again. The army was out in force, but for the right reasons. Even with eleven thousand plus monks to accept alms, the crowd, estimated at a hundred thousand, had a very large quantity of foods and medicines that the monks couldn't possibly carry on their own.

A simple version of this 'ตักบาตร' ('Tak Bat') ceremony happens every day throughout the year, although not always during the rainy season. Because of the 'unearthly' hour many farangs - tourists or expats - never see it. Barefoot monks set out at first light carrying their alms bowl - the sole container the monk is allowed to own (traditionally he is allowed eight articles in all - upper robe, under-garment, double robe, girdle, alms-bowl, razor, needle, water strainer). Why first light? Because the monks have to allow the laywomen sufficient time to prepare the single meal of the day, and this has to be eaten before midday. They cannot set out earlier; going barefoot in a country with venomous snakes, scorpions and the like isn't recommended.

They walk in single file, in order of seniority. (In the daily practice, if there are several wats in close proximity the temples' 'ajahns' (abbots) agree on the routes to be followed in advance).


For the sake of less-informed farangs present, the announcer explained in English that onlookers should not touch either the monks, or their bowls, should they wish to give alms. Those giving alms also remove their shoes. The monks neither look at, nor speak to the alms-giver...


Not just food, medicines and other essentials are welcome...


Devout, but always ready with a smile ...


The army lends a hand ...


Looked as if a whole battalion had turned out ...

It was a moving experience - even when one does not share the same beliefs, the simplicity, mindfulness, patience and gentle demeanour of the monks from the most senior right down to the youngest novitiates always impresses me greatly. From Hot Shots (see last blog) to asceticism in 24 hours, from the ridiculous to the sublime. That's Thailand for you.
"One slow approaching with his head close shorn,
A yellow cloth over his shoulder cast,
Girt as the hermits are, and in his hand
An earthen bowl, shaped melonwise, the which
Meekly at each hut-door he held aspace,
Taking the granted dole with gentle thanks
And all as gently passing where none gave". (Edwin Arnold - Light of Asia)

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7 comments:

Hoo Don said...

You are a truly dedicated writer. Up at five and off to see this ceremony, most folk would have rolled over and promised to do it next time. Very interesting post with some great snap shots. Emergency aid at under 15 degrees C, if the singers the Three Degrees had ever gigged Chiang Mai it would have been interesting to see what the punters turned up dressed in. Smooching to "When Will I See You Again" wrapped in a blanket, scarf and gloves would have been worth the entrance money alone.

Thulemin said...

Hello,

My name's Gaelle and I discovered your blog quite recently. I wanted to thank you for your really informative articles about the pro-governments rallies here in Chiang Mai. It helped me having a more balanced view of the situation :)

I was at the alms offering too but I couldn't manage to get so beautiful shots. You are a great photographer...
Just wanted to know whether you knew that the temple organizing this alms offering was slightly different in its ideas than the traditional Thai Buddhism ? The former abbot has been charged and forced to disrobe for spreading false ideas and changing the teaching of the Buddha, as he advocates than the more money you give, the better you next life will be. Pretty unfair for poor people...
But, well, thanks to them for organizing this, whatever their beliefs may be :)

Gaelle

Thai FrogBlogger said...

Gaelle, thanks... no I didn't know that, but I'm not surprised. In Thailand it's hardly the pure ascetic Westernised version of Theravada that I've seen in the UK and France, here it seems affected by controversy and politics more often than not... I have heard rumours about the wealth of certain wats in town as well. Sad really, I had this idealised image of Buddhism before I came here.

Martyn, don't know about the Three Degrees, but yesterday morning I could have done with some Hot Chocolate.

Thai Girl said...

Great pics. The saffron positively glows.

When winter hits and the government hands out tons more blankets, I often wonder what the folks did with the ones they were given last year.

I have a horrible feeling they use them to light the fires they all huddle round in the open when the temperature falls.

Alice said...

Nice post - great read and beautiful photos! Did you post some of those on Thaivisa forum? : )

I was also there - great atmosphere, and you're right, nice break from all the politics!

Thai FrogBlogger said...

Thanks, and yes posted photos to Thai Visa... but no link-backs allowed of course!

vacation deals said...

Thailand is a beautiful country. It is nice to know that people from all over the world share their blessings to those who are in need.