Poy Sang Long – “Ordaining the Beloved Sons“
Despite the overarching strength and unity of Thai culture, all regions have their own unique practices which are also influenced by the roots of ethnic minorities living along the border with neighboring Myanmar, Lao and Cambodia. This photo reportage features an extraordinary cultural heritage – „The celebration of jeweled princes“.
The majority of Shan (known as Tai Yai in Thailand) are Theravada Buddhists, and most of them are neatly integrated into the Thai society since several generations. Though, when it comes to glorifying Buddhist traditions, there is something that makes the Shan version stand out. Poy Sang Long is an extravagant ceremony celebrated by the Shan ethnicity as well as certain Thai families with Shan ancestry. Between March 20 and mid-April, the clans exalt the ordination of their boys by sending them gloriously into the monkhood with a large spiritual party.
In Chiang Mai, the annual ceremony lasts three days, whereas in Mae Hong Son province the schedule is made up for 5 days. After being ordained, the young novices will be entering the monastery for at least a week up to many months or even more, to learn about the philosophy of Buddhism by wandering the first steps on the path of spiritual development. Locked away from the outside world, they will be taught about the true nature of reality, which will help them to identify their different negative mental states known as ‘delusions’, but also how to develop peaceful and positive mental states or ‘virtuous minds’.
Enjoy the following photo essays based on topics or jump directly to the story
Head shaving (Kon Phom)
Parade – Temple hopping
Ordination Day – From Prince to Novice
First day in the monastery – Alms collecting
How the 10 years old Nawin and his family experienced Poy Sang Long
General Info about Mae Hong Son
Tucked away from large Chiang Mai and the infamous Backpacker-Haven Pai, Thailand’s secluded province Mae Hong Son hides gently in the mountainous northwestern corner of the country that borders on the Shan State of Myanmar. Sandwiched between two parallel hill ranges, Mae Hong Son allows the mist of all seasons to rest here throughout the year, crowning the sight with the nickname “the city of three mists”. Being well aware of the milder climate, Chiang Mai’s former King established Mae Hong Son town as an elephant training camp in the early 19th century. Still, the fabled region is camouflaged with roughly 90% of forest and national reserves, hosting the lowest population density in Thailand with approx. 250,000 inhabitants. In which 63% of the residents belong to ethnic groups such as the; Karen, Lawa, Lisu, Hmong and the Shan (alias Tai Yai). It’s been said that three of Bangkok’s main Shopping Malls (MBK, Siam Paragon, and Central World) suck up more electricity than the entire province of Mae Hong Son. Thus, it comes as a little surprise that back in the days, Mae Hong Son was feared by futile government officials and convicts as the ‘Siberia of Thailand’ due to its isolation from the outside world and wild environment. Thanks to the „Mae Hong Son loop“, a popular 600km long circuit with an absurd number of 1,864 curves to master, the remote province gains more and more popularity amongst young travelers.
The recent history of the Shan ethnicity (Tai Yai)
The Shan ethnicity, as with all other Tai sub-groups, originated in today’s Southeast China. Roughly thousand years of relative isolation on Myanmar’s Shan plateau has led to their cultural individuality. Either have the Shan been migrating westwards over the last millennium, or they were roaming straight southwards along the Salween Valley from what is now Yunnan province. Whereas in Thailand it’s very likely that the Shan have inhabited the mountains of Mae Hong Son province for a good period of time the Thai are comparably recent migrants to northern outposts. By now, Shan are inhabiting Mae Hong Son and other northern provinces such as Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Trying to escape both, the Tatmadaw (Armed Forces of Myanmar) and a forcible conscription into the Shan State Army, many Shan refugees have crossed borders to Thailand during the era of dictatorship and civil war. Back in the 1980s, two major rebel allies controlled most of Myanmar’s periphery for long, among them, several Shan opposition groups. (In Myanmar, Long-running conflicts endure in the borderlands, and vast patches remain off-limits to foreigners.) Beside immense efforts from the human right organization and international media outlets, a broad audience got to know about the tragedy through „Twilight Over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess“ – the only film to date about the 1962 Burmese coup d’etat that brought everything down. The film supposed to be screened in Thailand and Myanmar in the year 2016, but state censorship in both countries banned it shortly after. For neighboring Myanmar, it makes perfect sense to avoid a political nightmare, as the government worries that unnecessary problems could arise because of this film while they’re trying to achieve national reconciliation. Since Myanmar’s current President Thein Sein backed by Aung San Suu Kyi, the nominal head of state and internationally-feted democracy icon, signed a nationwide ceasefire draft on 31 March 2015 along with many ethnic leaders and government officials, the civil unrest along the Myanmar-Thai border has only calmed a little.
There are currently six camps along the Shan-Thai border, housing about 6,200 refugees (many of whom are categorized as “internally displaced persons” or IDPs, because they stay just inside the Shan border), 70% of these refugees are women and children. These camps have existed for up to 18 years. Most of the refugees fled the Burma Army’s massive scorched-earth campaign in central Shan State during 1996-1998, in which over 300,000 villagers were forced at gunpoint from their homes, and hundreds of villagers were tortured, raped and killed. Denied the same recognition and access to aid as refugees from Karen, Karenni and Mon States, the refugees in camps on the Shan border have struggled for survival. Situated on remote mountaintop locations, with the little cultivable land, and surrounded by Burma Army and United Wa State Army (UWSA) camps, the refugees have managed against all odds to rebuild their communities, setting up schools, health centers, and temples or churches. This was possible due to the support of international donors, who have provided basic food supplies to the refugees for the past 18 years. Unfortunately, this aid is about to end. As a result of the peace process in Burma, donors have moved their funds away from the border, and have announced they will cut off food aid for all six camps on the Shan-Thai border in October 2017. In fact, the refugees in camps along the Thai-Shan border are still unable to return home. The Burma Army has not adhered to its ceasefire agreements and has continued its military expansion and operations throughout Shan State. Civilians continue to face systematic abuse. * Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF) via burmalink.org
Poy Sang Long – The path to enlightenment begins with a large party
April 2561 – Buddhist Calendar
1.4. / Preparing day: Family affair
Cherry blossoms twist through the back alleys of Mae Hong Son in Northern Thailand, as I’m heading to my appointment. By happy chance, I’m having the honor to meet up with a family living in Thailand’s second largest city Chiang Mai that will participate in this year’s ordination. Within the next days, they will guide their boy Nawin Nanit through the spiritual custom of Poy Sang Long. Nawin’s Father Rung Nanit is a proud Thai but has Shan (Tai Yai) ancestors. Even though his 10 years old son grew up in bustling Chiang Mai, Rung aims to inspire Nawin by passing on the precious traditions of his forefathers. Rung says, he talked to Nawin in advance, and his son agreed cheerfully to follow his father’s roots. Today, they’ve all arrived in Mae Hong Son where Nawin’s grandparents live, to arrange everything for the upcoming event.
2.4. / 1st Day: Kon Phom – Wat Klang Thung
At the first official day of Poy Sang Long, the boys will face a relaxing start into the day lingering at their homes but also be preparing themselves mentally to get their heads shaved as a sign of spiritual devotion. The earliest tales of the Buddha’s renunciation indicate that he cut his long hair short when he left the king’s palace to wander the path to self-discovery. Buddhist believe that by shaving the head one gets rid of confusion, hostility, and attachment. Besides hygienic reasons, being bold also removes the risk of vanity and therefore allows to focus on more important things than fixing the hair every day. It’s later the afternoon as families from all directions arrive at Wat Klang Thung. Some close relatives came over from neighboring Shan State in Myanmar, others took a flight from Bangkok, but mostly, they’re residents of Mae Hong Son province. Nawin isn’t anxious to lose his hair, he says cool, as the excitement of becoming a novice overwhelms him. What really troubles, is the fact that during the time of being a novice, he will be missing this year’s Songkran (New Year’s) Festival in Chiang Mai.
Traditionally the monks have the privilege to cut some hair at first, the families follow up and take another tuft of hair just before the monks return to shave the whole scalp of the boys. Thus, forbidden due to Buddhist principals no electrical razors are used for the shaving, only the old-fashioned ones. Many boys I’m asking are just fine with going bald the fast way, as they are keen to pursue the Buddhist folklore. As soon as the hairless kids are ritually cleansed with sacred water and anointed with turmeric, they will be escorted to the temple hall for their first session of prayers and chanting.
3.4. / 2nd Day: Rup Sang Long 1/2 – Wat Klang Thung
At an hour of the day when usually only stray dogs and few joggers hang out, the emerging princes are awakened. Today is showtime, as the boys are being dressed up to the nines in imitation of Gautama Buddha’s son Rāhula. Historical tales indicate that Gautama Siddhartha (who became later Buddha) was a prince when he set off for self-discovery. Nevertheless, referring to the Tripitaka (the Buddhist almanac) Buddha himself has never been ordinated, thus the Sang Long follow the path of Buddha’s son Rāhula. The Shan strongly believe in this legend and follow its roots. As I reach the temple grounds, Nawin’s mother Thong is already busy applying some burgundy gloss on her son’s innocent lips. A seemingly wealthier family next to us even hired a professional gay make-up artist to spice up their kid’s face to perfection. The ongoing metamorphosis doesn’t seem to bother Nawin, who is currently monitoring mom’s work with his little mirror, smiling by heart. A good moment, to ask Nawin’s older sister Rinrada if she feels a bit left out as a girl because she’s not allowed to be ordinated the same way as the boys are. „It doesn’t really affect me,“ the teenager reacts firm, knowing she won’t change the society’s credo – Still, certain affairs are men’s territory, in Thailand and in other Asian countries alike. No doubts, gender equality will take some more time.
One step closer to the prince-looking appearance, the kids are now getting wrapped in festive dresses, and adorned with traditional jewelry such as rings, necklaces, bracelets, and last but not least; the crown decorated with colorful flowers. Sadly, the ministry of culture in Mae Hong Son city has abolished the Shan tradition of painting goldish designs made of Tanaka powder on the kid’s faces, justifying that the ceremony should remain substantial, and not escalate into a kitsch exhibition.
At the staircase of Wat Klang Thung, forceful looking „Tapae“ are patiently waiting for the boys to come, as they will be responsible to carry the jeweled princes (Sang Long) on their shoulders from temple to temple. The short-lived royals, just like real princes and kings, are not allowed to touch the ground – at least not until they will enter the monastery life as novices on the final day of Poy Sang Long. „These carriers, called Tapae, are like horses“ – I learn from Rung. „Most of all, they are responsible to prevent accidents which might occur to the boys. That’s why we carry them on our shoulders, to make sure they are well protected and will safely attend the ordination,“ he adds.
While Nawin and his fellow prince friends are getting shouldered, other attendants shade them with a richly decorated umbrella. Some wealthier families decided to drive their junior, ergo to celebrate the procession in a pseud-traditional if not snobby way. Led by a monotone sound of drums plus clashing cymbals the parade inches forward, from temple to shrines, from monuments to government offices. Moms and Grandmas are either dancing along or they enjoy throwing 10 Bhat coins wrapped in cloth towards the kids, which shall bring good luck to a catcher. I’m addressing Nawin, how is he doing up there? And with his typical shy voice, he announces grinningly; „Yes I like it very much, being carried on the shoulders of a Tapae is definitely my most favorite part of Poy Sang Long“. Let’s hope he forgets about Songkran for a while.
How astonishing to observe the stamina of these humanized horses, the Tapae, as the sun is merciless beating down on us all and they keep on marching and wobbling with roughly 30-50 royal kilograms on their back since hours. Fortunately, a siesta is awaiting them every 30 minutes when the parade has reached another temple. Once again, an important monk is telling the boys a tale, before they will receive some monetary blessing hidden finely hidden in an envelope. Meantime, Tum Metanantavasin, a 32 years old photographer from Mae Hong Son, tells what he had gone through when he became a novice. Tum is flashing a smile, as he explains that he was a “naughty boy” back then. Every devotee in Thailand needs to attend a monastery of their choice twice a lifetime. Once before 20 years of age, and the second time somewhen after. Most Thais start wandering on the path to enlightenment at the exact age of 20, whereas for the Shan (Tai Yai) and their descendants the average moment of ordination spans from 7 to 14 years of age. When Tum entered the monastery after Poy Sang Long, the monks taught him the history of Buddhism and its philosophical ideas. Moreover, he also learned the craft of meditation, which was by far the most important part in his opinion. Meditation helped him to be more tranquil and balanced.
With greater sympathy I glance at Nawin whose eyelids apparently become as heavy as the legendary tales he must currently listen to – Although this initiative has noble intentions, it’s pretty difficult to imagine that these kids will soon have to stay away from earthly fun and instead crouching in a cross-legged position to identify their delusions and virtuous minds.
Later the afternoon of Rup Sang Long (after visiting roughly 15 holy places), the youngsters return home to celebrate with their parents and relatives.
4.4. / 3rd day: Rup Sang Long 2/2 – family affairs
On the second day of Rup Sang Long, Nawin’s family is receiving a fair amount of guests. Rung told me, that an average clan will spend easily more than 100’000 Baht (3’200 USD) for the Poy Sang Long festivities, so does he. This will cover most expenses such as; costs for the private Shan orchestra of 3 which follows the family throughout all 5 days, plus the costs of their whiskey and cigarettes. It also includes the modest salary of the helpers (in the case of family Nanit; the Burmese shemale whom I had mistaken with Nawin’s auntie the other day), and of course the human horse. Some money will be coming back in form of monetary blessing from close relatives, who normally bless around 100 Baht or more. As this is the day of family affairs, I decide to keep myself off from the Nanits and instead venture to another village (Hue Pong Kae). Most boys in town are just about to get costumed, and some others observe the colorful hustle and bustle while eating some ice cream or play computer games. The very intimate parade with about a dozen shouldered Sang Long marches joyfully through the village ticking the homes of elderly relatives, and of course, they won’t leave without a blessing. By good luck, I get the chance to talk with Grandpa Kanta, who spared no efforts to come over from Mok Mai in Shan State, Myanmar, in order to witness the ordination of his two grandsons. The 68-years old is native to Shan State and had gone through all the harsh years of governmental mischief. There is no official border in the North yet. Even though the rumor spread years back that the authorities will be opening an official border between Kayah State and Thailand by 2016, but this is still in the works as the numerous parties have not agreed among each other by now. Being born as a Shan there is no way to claim citizenship in Thailand, only the children of a Shan family born in Thailand will receive a Thai residence card. Those which belong to the Shan ethnicity and came to Mae Hong Son province decades ago are only allowed to leave the province with a permit from the Thai authorities. Meantime, the illegal border crossing between Thailand and Myanmar is a daily routine for many Shan, as they come over to work or to visit relatives. Most avoid public transport because of the Thai police that controls frequently on routes like Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son. Grandpa Kata came here by minivan, it took him about 7 hours from Mok Mai. For the ride, he would have to pay 120’000 Kyat (90 USD), of which a good part goes as an unofficial toll to the Shan State Army that controls the area. At the Myanmar-Thai border, he had to pay another 200 Bhat (6 USD) to finally enter Thailand and to receive a permit to stay for 6 days. I still wonder why the kids during a traditional Poy Sang Long in Shan State get to ride on real horses to the monastery. Kata knows the answer; „Because our boys are too fat to be carried”
5.4. / 4th Day: Hae Kabon – Wat Klang Thung to Wat Chong Kham (big parade and ceremony)
Twilight. I decided to drop by at the family’s home to see how Nawin is doing after being in the center of attention for a good while now. With the early crows of the roosters, I reach there, just to witness this adorable father-son love – The two are sleeping next to each other outside in a temporary built up room as traditionally taught. Right next to them, lies the private band, the helpers and of course the Tapae, in case Nawin needs to go the toilet at night time. Once more Nawin and his fellow jeweled princes will be carried through town, from Wat Klang Thung to Mae Hong Son’s main Buddhist temple Wat Chong Kham and back again. As usual, a trio of percussionists tows the whole lot of family clans, Sang Longs, helpers and bystanders through the alleys. At 9ish The procession has reached its peak, making it an unforgettable spectacle for all participants. Many visitors and extended relatives came along to glorify the boys, warming the party up with their frenetic dance moves. However, soon after, the festivities shift back to Wat Klang Thung where the boys are now getting roped to one another with Sai Sin. The white cotton thread is present at formal buddhist ceremonies all over Thailand, weddings and funerals alike, but also when people move into a new home. At larger gatherings like Poy Sang Long there is often one big ball of thread which is tied first around a Buddha image before being passed along through the folded hands (Wai) of the participants. Sai Sin is supposed to evoke protective powers, boosting protection and health to those holding or wearing it. The chanting of the monkhood and associated merit is then symbolically flowing through the thread reaching all those being connected to the thread. Being fairly blessed, everyone gets ready for the feast. The boys are still treated like royals, so their parents are feeding them obsequiously as an act of devotion.
Before the families return home, one of the head monks addresses the children, narrating a story about a mother’s life so that they understand better what giving birth and motherhood is all about. A very emotional moment for some of the boys.
6.4. / 5th Day: Wan Kham Sang (Ordination Day) – Wat Klang Thung – Entering the monastery
Day of ordination at Wat Klang Thung. Rung and his wife Thong are in a great mood, proudly awaiting the ordination of their beloved son. Soon, the blissful but also tough era of being a prince comes to an end. There won’t be any paparazzi following Nawin anymore, no longer will he be spoilt with helpers, cheering folks nor fancy outfits. Even worse, as a novice, he must endure quite a modest time. However, Nawin seems not to care much about being divested of royal dignity, and thus to be locked away in a monastery. The very moment when he receives the orange novice robe, his eyes begin to sparkle denoting an excitement that goes beyond anything I’ve seen from this boy before.
Just after Nawin is properly wrapped up in orange fabrics, he asks his sisters Rinrada if she’d come for a walk by grabbing her hand. Suddenly, Father Rung jumps in between. From now on, the boy isn’t allowed to touch females anymore! He’s a novice.
With noble intentions the fresh novice Nawin enters the monastery for a period 15 days, as suggested by his father Rung. Many won’t stay for that long, and return home after a week. Entering monkhood is a rite of passage for devoted Buddhists, although most of them spend a few days to a few months on the temple grounds as novices rather than making a lifetime commitment. After Poy Sang Long, the fathers are invited to sleep over at the monastery to be with the kids during night time.
Monastery life & Alms collecting
Today, Nawin and the other early risers will now learn how to collect alms from the nearby villagers. In Theravada Buddhism, alms is the respect given by a devoted Buddhist to the novice, a monk or a nun. On a daily basis, the monkhood sets off for an alms round, mostly to collect food. This is often perceived as giving the laypeople the opportunity to make merit These donations are likely mistaken for charity, even though they are rather a symbolic connection to spirituality. The paradox in Buddhism is that the more a person contributes without seeking something in return – the wealthier and luckier one will become. Thus, many make use of the monkhood to outsource their own dilemmas by getting blessed for their generosity. By giving alms one destroys those acquisitive impulses that ultimately lead to further suffering.
Nawin is in good spirits, although he seems a little sleepy after all the action during the previous days. How he feels, I’m asking him on the way downtown. The novice sighs: „Well, I’m doing fine, but my feet hurt, as I’m not used to walking anymore.“
Food for thought
Our mind is like a cloudy sky, in essence clear and pure but overcast by the clouds of delusions.Just as the thickest clouds eventually disperse, so too even the heaviest delusions can be removed from our mind. Delusions such as hatred, greed, and ignorance are not an intrinsic part of the mind. If we apply the appropriate methods they can be completely eliminated, and we shall experience the supreme happiness of full enlightenment. * Geshe Kelsang Gyatso Rinpoche – Meditation master and internationally renowned teacher of Buddhism who has pioneered the introduction of modern Buddhism into contemporary society.