I do feel familiar with Buddhism now, so going to every Holy Day, and temple celebration in the area, would be a bit like going to church every Sunday, along with the fetes and bake sales of every church in the area. And, back home, I would only ever turn up to church on Christmas. As I find that once I’ve experienced something, it is rare for me to go back, and do it again, and again. Which is probably reflected in how I live my life, as I do often find it hard to stay in one place, without getting bored. But this is one of the reasons for me not learning the language, as it keeps things weird and unfamiliar, and somewhat alien. Because I would likely lose interest in my surroundings if life were normal, and workaday. And I would inevitably feel the need to move on again. Which I really don’t want. So, instead of going to every event in the area, we will likely turn up to the major ceremonies and festivals which I haven’t yet experienced in Broken Road. Which there are a lot to come this the year, so this is no real worry for me. Anyway, today is Makabucha day, better known as Big Buddha Day, and we begin the morning at the temple for alms giving, where we go through the motions.
We start by donating our tiffin trays of cooked food to the monks on stage. We then place a money note into the branches of a money tree before scooping rice into the lines of alms bowls at the side of the temple hall. We place flowers, candles and incense at the base of the Buddha statue and I burn my finger. And there is just a lot of repetition from previous alms offerings. So the repitition is starting to remind me of church services, with a similar setup of congregation, a leader in prayer, the collection plates, antsy kids, screaming babies, the restlessness and yawns. Admittedly these ceremonies can be somewhat tedious for the new generations, and, because of this, there is a decline in more devout followers in modern day Thailand. It is still early in the morning where, in front of me, a young boy repetitively drops, and picks up, a ten Baht coin, just to keep himself entertained. As today’s service is longer than the norm. As with Church, there will always be special ceremonies to mix things up a bit, like baptisms, harvest and Hot Cross Bun Day. Anyway, today is Big Buddha Day, a national holiday, which marks the full moon of the eleventh month of the Buddhist calendar. Which is different to our own Gregorian calendar, and this day would normally fall between mid-February, and early-March. This year it falls in early March.
But very little happens during the day as we sit around, twiddling thumbs, while waiting for the night. Tonight there would be a ceremony called “Wian Tian” which involves a candlelight procession circling the ordination hall of the temple. The procession will be led by monks holding candles, while behind the congregation follows with flowers, incense and candles held between their palms in prayer. It’s similar to the final ceremony of the monk ordination, only at night, where the procession circles the hall three times, clockwise, in respect of Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Dharma being the teachings of Buddha, and the path to enlightenment, while Sangha is the community of practicing Buddhists. I have seen this ceremony before, coincidentally in Vientiane, Laos, which sounds almost identical to “Wian Tian”. I was poking around in backstreets at the time, in search of tasty French food, when I heard booming drums sounding from a not-so-far temple. I follow along to find the monks leading the congregation from the front doors of the temple’s ordination hall. I watched on from beneath the drum tower as other tourists arrive, to chase the back of the procession, without even noticing the monks at the front. But what was special about this experience was it was completely unexpected. I stumbled onto it by complete accident, and it would be these occasional surprises which make travel worthwhile.
Despite knowing exactly what was going to happen, I was still excited for tonight’s ceremony, although, to join along, I am told to wear all white, which isn’t easy as I don’t really own many white trousers. Yet, embarrassingly, I find a bright white pair of Adidas tracksuit bottoms, still unpacked in my cases, and a matching white top. I turn up looking like a right chav. It is just after sunset when we arrive to the temple and are met with a hypnotic percussion of xylophones, bells and a chorus of Buddhist chants from the monks inside the ordination hall. It is very rare for us to be out at the rice fields at this time of night, or outside of the compound to be exact, where we now find ourselves surrounded by a relentless noise of insects and reptiles. The squeal of lizards, the chirps of crickets, the high pitched siren of cicadas. A full moon is bright in the sky. The procession begins as the congregation of monks slowly flow out and around the ordination hall as candle’s bob and glow to light up the saffron robes and white of the congregations which follow. This, to me, feels like the very heart of Buddhism.
In 2015 I spent a year living in a close-knit rural community in Northeastern Thailand (Isaan). I was based in the small village of Broken Road and ‘A Potato in a Rice Field’ chronicles my time there as I bumble through life, culture and etiquette within a strict family of tradition and Buddhist belief.