Chinese New Year and Monks Almsgiving Ritual in Chiang Mai
On February 8th, was the start of the Chinese New Year, the year of the monkey. I’m a little embarrassed to say that I never ventured to Chicago’s Chinatown in my 3 years of living there. Thailand has a huge population of Chinese people, as well as being a very popular tourist destination for Chinese travelers as well. Chiang Mai is known for having great festivities to celebrate, so I decided to check it out.
Around 6pm I left my hostel and made the 15 minute or so walk to Chiang Mai’s Chinatown. The streets were shut down for the occasion, and hundreds of vendors lined the streets, selling their various foodstuffs. Brightly colored lights and lanterns hung in the air and people packed the streets. If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought I’d somehow wandered my way to China!
After getting my bearings and walking around the area a bit, I was able to find a few familiar foods to eat, including some dumplings and sweet and sour chicken. I stumbled across a stage with a seating area in front of it, where people were already filling the seats. I decided to stick around to see what the show would be about.
After about a half hour, the show began with 2 female emcees, first speaking in Mandarin before switching to Thai (as best as I could tell). Then one by one, girls around the ages of 10-12 years old came out on stage, dressed in traditional Chinese clothing. Each of them approached the microphone and said their name and the school they went to. After all 20 or so were finished, they exited the stage.
It was now time for individual performances. One girl at a time reentered the stage and gave a little performance-usually some sort of dance. One girl did her dance to a song from Mulan. I recognized the melody, but the words were in Mandarin. I came to realize that this was some sort of child beauty pageant. While I found it a bit strange, it certainly was entertaining. To add to the spontaneity, every so often there would be different acts between the girls’ dances, including a marrionette show, and some dramatic dancing.
The pageant then came to a sudden halt and I heard the banging of drums. The traditional Chinese dragon came parading through the streets, manned by a half a dozen teenaged boys. After the dragon left the main area, a little boy, not more than 5 years old came on. He then donned a small blue dragon costume and pranced around the stage. When he hit the gong, the crowd cheered. While I’m not positive on what that signified, I think that it marked the start of the new year.
When the pageant resumed, I decided I had my fill and headed home. It was definitely an interesting event and provided a great way to learn about the Chinese culture.
Monks Almsgiving Ritual
After learning a bit about Buddhism and the lifestyle of a monk on my Meditation Retreat the week prior, I was very interested in seeing the almsgiving ritual firsthand.
I knew that it occurred early in the morning before sunrise, and after doing a bit of research, I determined the best place to witness this was at the foot of Doi Suthep mountain. 12 km up a winding road leads to Wat Doi Suthep, which overlooks the city of Chiang Mai. There are many more monks at this temple versus a few of the other ones in town.
I arose at 5:00am and got on my rented motorbike to drive out of the city towards Doi Suthep. I wasn’t able to get a straight answer for when the monks would appear, but was told around 6-7am. I decided to err on the side of caution, and arrived there a little before 6. I wasn’t sure if I was even in the right place, as I had arrived even before the local people who would be making the offerings! A few of the early risers had tables where they would place their offerings to the monks. I helped a few of them get everything set up, and soon the monks began to arrive.
It was mostly the novice monks, who were still teenagers. They slowly arrived in groups of 3 or 4, with their silver bowls in tow to hold all of the offerings. They would stop at each group of people, and recited a blessing as the people kneeled in front of them with their gifts of food. As the sky began to lighten, a few other tourists arrived, usually trailing a guide, as some places offer “guided tours” to witness this.
All in all, close to 100 monks ended up making their rounds. It was a very ethereal experience. I do appreciate how seriously the Buddhist laypeople take the responsibility of ensuring that all of the monks are fed on a daily basis. It is a very humbling ordeal while being a symbiotic relationship at the same time, as the monks provide the people with spiritual guidance in return.
I then rode my motorbike up the winding roads of the mountain until I reached the temple at the top. The temple itself is nothing special, other than the 300+ stairs that one needs to ascend to reach it. If the morning wasn’t so foggy, I imagine that it would also provide a great view of Chiang Mai and the surrounding area.
I would definitely recommend witnessing this almsgiving ritual, if ever the opportunity arises, it certainly is unique!