Life is tough for us folks who live in Chiang Mai, former capital of the Kingdom of a Million Rice Fields (Lan Na). The problem is that there are so many festivals and ceremonies to celebrate that we never get time to rest, and it seems we’re out dancing in the streets almost every day.
Take this week for instance. Traffic was brought to a standstill by the Poy Sang Long parade, which snaked its way around the perimeter of the old city moat. Poy Sang Long is a Shan ordination ceremony, which is accompanied by plenty of singing and dancing.
The day before the festival, which lasts three days, young boys aged 7 to 14 have their heads shaved and are dressed in lavish costumes. Make-up is applied to their faces and arrangements of artificial flowers are propped on their heads so they look just like dolls. They are then carried everywhere on the shoulders of attendants, and their feet don’t touch the ground until the festival is over.
The reason for this elaborate preparation is that they are emulating Siddharta Gautama, the Buddha, who threw off his princely gowns and donned simple robes to symbolize his rejection of materialism and self-importance. Likewise, on the third day of Poy Sang Long, the young boys wipe off their lipstick and rouge, put on saffron robes and vow to follow Buddhist precepts. Most of the boys only stay in the temple a few days or weeks, but the act of ordaining is a source of great pride for their parents.
No sooner have we recovered from celebrating Poy Sang Long than it’s time for everyone to dress up in gaudy shirts and shorts ready for Songkran, the traditional Thai New Year, from 13-15 April. It’s often dubbed the ‘water-throwing festival’, and the rules for this one are quite simple: soak as many people as you can in as short a time as possible and be prepared to get soaked in return.
Needless to say, there’s a Songkran parade that brings traffic to a standstill again, while the city’s revered Buddha images are paraded through the streets and symbolically washed.
There are all kinds of other strange activities, such as placing support sticks under the bo tree in temple compounds, which supposedly reinforces people’s beliefs in Buddhist principles.
People also build sandcastles topped with colourful flags in temple compounds, which is a way of returning all the grains of sand that stick to the soles of their shoes after temple visits throughout the year.
A less religious aspect of this fun-loving festival is that unattached revellers use it as a chance to find a partner. Since everyone has licence to splash each other, it’s an easy way to grab the attention of a sexy chick or a handsome hunk. So when someone sneaks up behind you and dumps a bucket of ice-cold water over your head, be prepared for a life-changing experience, and then give as good as you get.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.