Monday, 11 October 2010

Mae Cheam -- A (wake up) Call to Alms

They came from miles around, piled into trucks, buses, and spilling out the back of pick-up trucks. They were a veritable army of saffron. 1000 monks in all, converging on the small farming and weaving town of Mae Cheam in the foothills of Thailand's highest peak, Doi Inthanon.

They were here for an annual alms collection ceremony in which rice and dry food of all types is given to them by local townsfolk in a massive merit-making ceremony.

With a wake-up call at the decidedly un-Godly hour of 5am, my mood was improved by the fact that it was a chance for a ton of redemption and merit-making, plus the early blue tinge of dawn breaking through over the breathtaking misty valleys of the area was enough to lift anyone's spirits. Well, that and a good cup of coffee ... if we could find one.

Mae Cheam is basically one main street, a big market, wooden houses, lots of small (and good) restaurants -- we'd gone to one the night before which had an Aussie flag as a backdrop to their band stage but insisted on playing the best of John Denver! -- and a few little guesthouses where you can get a big room for about 300 baht a night.

Monks and novices teemed out of adjacent school and government buildings with military precision, ambling along the rutted road with hope in their eyes and silver bowls under their arms. One thousand plastic seats awaited them as they were marshalled behind the plynth where the senior monks and a statue of Buddha sat prone. Facing the stage and running the length of the town's street were schoolkids and other officials with their boxes of goodies and Buddhist icons.

If the monks presented a vibrant sea of orange, these participants were a placid pool of white and mauve.

Locals thronged the sidelines, many in their traditional multi-coloured hill-tribe tunics, scrambling for whatever best vantage points they could. Then the chanting started up. Then pit pat ... pit pat ... pit pat ... uh oh -- rain! Just a passing tropical shower? No, this was here for keeps. The rainy season was not going away without a last-gasp struggle. Suddenly space under the covered forecourt of the petrol station became prime real estate.

With beautiful Buddhist sentiment, the announcer said: 'The sky is aware of our event today. It is responding.' This was all in Thai of course ... I counted a grand total of just two other farangs in the thronging crowd.

The monks looked up with wry smiles. But sat there unflinching. The rain pelted down. The speeches and chanting continued. They were soaked. Saturated. It only served to highlight their steely resolve, their sacrifices, their abstinence. (I privately thought that if you've given a vow of celibacy, sitting in the rain is probably no big deal in comparison.)

Then the skies really responded ...

Soon, with the PA system sparking and gurgling in the downpour, someone pushed the fast-forward button on proceedings. At a signal, the monks rose as one, and filed forward. We were the first to donate our alms to them. They humbly lifted the lid of their large silver steel bowls, and we placed nuts, rice crackers, and kanom (cakes) into nine of their vessels. In return we received a few words of thanks and blessing.

The contrast of the saffron robes and the hill-tribes' vivid purples, reds, and greens was doubly impactful against the gloomy grey sky.

The monks then filed up the main street, doing a u-turn at the top and then returning to receive goodies from all the townsfolk. This was done at about double-time to avoid the rain. Soon, all the bowls were filled, with any surplus hurriedly packed into large plastic bags. Then the pick-up trucks backed into the street, plastic chairs were stacked and gathered by a platoon of what looked like school cadets, and the monks headed back off to the temple compounds, schools and whatever billets they had.

Some of them were sneezing and snuffling already. Which made me feel that this week the hospitals of northern Thailand will be full of pneumonic monks. Jing jing!

With the ceremony prematurely completed, the upside was that we could now break our own fast ourselves. Breakfast and a large mug of steaming coffee had occupied my mind the past few hours. But the one recommended place in town for breakfast, Sawasdee Mae Cheam, was shut due to the ceremony. A scribbled sign said it would only open at 6pm that day.

I thought of the monks' life of sacrifice and denial. I could, and would, overcome this obstacle with mental tenacity.

Then I spotted a 7-11. I knew we could get a coffee and pork bun there ...

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