I happened to arrive in Pattaya on the 28th of February this year and again had the opportunity to observe and participate in a large-scale religious event: Makha Bucha Day. It’s celebrated in Thailand on the full moon of the third lunar month, usually near the end of February, some years the beginning of March.
Makha is the name of the third lunar month in Pali, the liturgical language of Theravada Buddhism (practiced by about 95% of all Thai people, as I understand it) and Bucha means "to show feelings of respect and reverence." On this day many Thai gather in the evening at local temples to join in the traditional practice of Wian Tian (meaning to circle with candles) to show respect for the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.
In most of the rest of Asia it’s known as Sangha Day, a day when – as the story goes – 1,250 monks from many different locations and with no previous planning or organizing all happened to come pay homage to the Buddha, and the same day he predicted 45 years later he would rise to Nirvana.
Worshippers practice Wian Tian by walking three times clockwise around the temple, carrying incense, candles and flowers that they’ll offer to the Buddha afterwards to make merit.
Being a religious holiday alcohol is not allowed to be served in restaurants or clubs throughout the kingdom (although some still do, bringing it to customers in a coffee cup or other disguise) and many of the clubs don’t bother opening on such evenings, bowing to either respect, logic or both. The streets look very different without the usual blast of neon and flashing lights, but it was nice to see them somewhat more subdued for a change, too.
I’d had a later-than-usual dinner after a sunset walk along the beach so arrived later than I’d hoped for the celebration at Wat Chaimongkron, a half block East on South Pattaya Road off of Second Road. From the intersection I could hear voices from the loudspeakers inside the grounds, and as I approached the front gates the crowd slowed as it grew thicker and thicker. With my wallet moved to my front pocket for safety’s sake I took out my camera and allowed myself to be drawn into the human vortex and through the gates of the wat grounds.
Once inside, the knot unraveled itself somewhat and the crowd spread out. Being one of only a few farang there that evening I was one of the tallest in the crowd and could see over the heads of most of them, so although there was quite a turnout I had a good view. I moved to the side and observed for a while and then waded back into the main river of people, following them towards the inner temple where most were making their donation, picking up candles, incense and flowers and joining the group of worshippers making their three circles around the temple. I pocketed my camera, made my donation, collected my items and made my rounds.
Upon exiting the inner temple area I passed a raised platform where an older monk was giving blessings to all who wished to kneel and receive them. He sprinkled water liberally on those kneeling before him, and then they would rise and move away to allow for others to come forward. It was a beautiful experience, seeing the ebb and flow of worshippers as they moved through.
Nearby, the rest of the celebration was taking place; much of it having to do with food, but naturally most some having symbolism and meaning. There is so much I still have to learn about Thai traditions – cultural, social and religious – so I try to sponge as much of it up as my aging brain will hold when the opportunities arise. On evenings like this it seems I spend a lot of my time just trying to process new information.
A smaller nearby courtyard was encircled with medium sized temple bells, perhaps 20 to 25 inches tall and hanging less than two feet apart. There were somewhere over 100 of them around the courtyard, and people were walking around inside, striking each bell with a wooden stick as they passed by. Some did this methodically, with a reverent tone; some – many of the kids, for example – just seemed to enjoy the noise they created as they went around ringing the bells.
I wandered around until the heat and events of the long day reminded me that it was close to shut-down and sleep time, so I reluctantly headed back out through the front gates onto South Road and did the usual walking and weaving through the crowded sidewalks back to my room. After a cool shower I crawled into bed where I lay quietly for a few minutes before being pulled into slumber, thankful to have had the experience that evening.