Experiencing a New Cultural Ceremony in Thailand

Experiencing a New Cultural Ceremony in Thailand

On Saturday, April 5th during a trip to Monkey Mountain, I, along with Erika and Kathryn, happened to stumble upon a ceremony where four 20 year old Thai men were becoming monks.  The ceremony was incredible to witness.  We had passed the ceremony and then doubled back to check out what was going on.  Four men were seated in chairs next to each other, each holding a large goblet with large green leaves sticking out of it.  They were shirtless and wearing similar-looking pants.  There was a procession of people going along behind them, each person snipping a chunk of hair off of their heads using scissors and moving on.  As they cut their hair, they placed it in the goblet with the leaves.  We took these people to be the families of the men who we, at this point, assumed were preparing for monkhood.  The men in the chairs were out in the open in a very public place, and in front of them was a tent set up for the rest of the families to watch.  A total of 4 monks were present as well, and seemed to be in charge of the flow of the ceremony.  There was also a band consisting mainly of brass and percussion instruments under the tent.

Two women from a family who were seated in the chairs undIMG_1698_resizeer the tent kept turning around and smiling at us while we watched from the side, and once there was a pause in the music we decided to go over and ask what was going on.  There were 5 women, an older man, and a few children.  Two of the women spoke English, one of them better than the other.  We practiced our Thai with the women by saying hello and asking how they were in Thai, and they seemed to enjoy our efforts.  We inquired about the ceremony, which is how our assumptions about monkhood were met. One of the women was older, I assumed she was the matriarch of the family, and we were told by one of the English speakers that someone from her family was up in the ceremony.   They were really friendly and kept encouraging us to take pictures.  After about the third time they motioned for us to take some, we got closer – right up in front of the future-monks – and documented our experience through film.  By this point, the families were finished cutting hair with scissors and the monks began to wash the heads of the young neophytes.  They then proceeded to shave their heads with a straight razor, and took off all of the hair from their scalp and face – including their eyebrows.  It was at this point that the 20 year old men began to look like monks.

We went back and forth between standing with the family we had befriended and taking pictures up near the monks.  We bonded with one of the young boys who was there.  They encouraged him to say hello to us in English, and he really enjoyed wearing a pair of large sunglasses.  This family was very friendly and open to us and all of our questions.  They did not always understand what we were asking, but they attempted to answer everything to the best of their ability and always with a smile.  While they did not invite us over for dinner, they invited us into a special ceremony for their loved one and by encouraging us over and over again to take pictures it was also encouraging for me to see how much they were really accepting of our curiosity.

After the new monks had their heads shaved, they were rinsed off and a type of yellow-ish powder was rubbed on their head.  From there they were moved up onto a platform behind them – I am not sure if this area is used as a temple or was only decorated for this occasion.  The men were then dressed in white garments with a beautiful white robe.  It was at this point we decided to leave, but the men paraded around the island to a different temple area.  We found this out because we almost met up with the men again in a different area of the island on our walk back, but we had taken different routes so we hadn’t followed the procession.

One of the things we noticed about this ceremony is how open it was.  Any comparable ritual from home, whether it be social or religious, wouldn’t have been so open to the public and even less so to strangers.  If someone was the host their wedding outside or a first communion strangers would not have be encouraged by the families attending to intrude and take pictures of people they don’t know and a ceremony they don’t understand.  The Thais were so welcoming and after learning so much about the openness and friendliness of Thai society it was exciting to see it in person.  Neither the families of the other participants nor the participants themselves seemed irked or uncomfortable that we were present and capturing the experience through photos.  Even the children seemed to take kindly to us and were smiling as well as staring instead of running away or looking suspiciously at us.

I really enjoyed the chance to experience something that I would have considered intimate at home.  Witnessing this side of a culture I am less familiar with and being welcomed into it with such ease was a very humbling experience.  It has already awoken a sense in me that Thailand isn’t here to make my life hard or uncomfortable; the Thais are just as curious as me and even more accepting.


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