Witness the wildly colorful ‘Poy Sang Long,’ a novice monk ordination festival in Mae Hong Son.
Most visitors to Thailand never make it to Mae Hong Son, which is a pity because the province remains one of the most unchanged and welcoming areas of the country in terms of tourism. But perhaps the best reason to visit Mae Hong Son at this time is to witness the wildly colorful “Poy Sang Long,” the novice monk ordination festival, which occurs each year between March 20 and April 15.
“Poy Sang Long (Festival of the Crystal Sons)” is a traditional ceremony hailing from the Shan State in Myanmar. The Shan, known in Thailand as 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 as spectacular as Mae Hong Son’s version, where for three days young boys become ordained as monks in a gaudy pageant.
During 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, known as “Rup Sang Long,” the boys enter the temple and have their hair and eyebrows shaved. On the second day the boys, freshly shorn of their locks, are given ornate and vibrant costumes to wear, emulating Prince Rahula, the son of Buddha, who sought to give up a worldly existence and follow his father’s teachings. 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 procession begins at the gates of Wat Hua Wing, with the boys being carried throughout the town amid great fanfare, with drums beating and cymbals crashing. Ponies, adorned in colorful ribbons, join the musicians, followed by the crowd of costumed boys and their caretakers. 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 hot season.
As the afternoon shadows settle in, the parade winds down and the procession slowly breaks up. The boys are 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 (“Wan Kham Sang”), townfolks gather at the temple, where the head abbot gives a sermon about 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.
Bright orange robes are handed out to the novices and once dressed, the boys ask the abbot for permission to become monks. Thus granted, they pass into a new realm. Wat Hua Wing becomes an ocean of orange, with the families making 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 is a huge, sumptuous feast that has been prepared all weekend, and now laid out for the new monks. The boys, surrounded by their families, dig in with exuberance; famished and exhausted from all that they have experienced in the last three days.