High-Country Hanukah and a Very Buddha New Year

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Wat Prathat pokes majestically through the forest on a hill high above Chiang Mai. According to legend, it was built over 700 years ago on the spot where a white elephant bearing relics of the Lord Buddha laid down to die. The relics are housed in a giant gold pagoda, and Thais from all over the country come to acknowledge this, offering incense and lotus buds, bowing, and lighting candles. The candles take on special significance on this Friday afternoon, as the sun is about to set: not only is it Shabbat, when Jews around the world light candles to begin their day of rest, but it is Hanukah also, the annual festival of lights, and yellow candles flicker and melt all around us.

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We make our way through the sparkling ornaments of the wat: the bells, gongs, and statues, and then we enter the shady chambers of an orange-robed monk. He sits elevated above the floor, under several gold Buddha figures. He could be 40 or 80 years old, it is difficult to tell because of his gleaming smile. We imitate the Thais around us, dropping to the ground with palms together at our chins, inching forward on our knees until it is our turn to receive sai sin around our wrists. After smacking the tops of our heads with wet bamboo sticks while reciting some long incantation, the monk affixes the white strings that signify safety and good health around my right wrist, then hands me two lengths to tie around Tay and Bermom’s left wrists on his behalf, since he is forbidden from touching women. All this happens with the aid of our guide and translator, Joy, who helps us understand all that is happening and encourages us to participate.

Twenty-four hours and a short plane ride later, we are back in bustling Bangkok, roaming the streets on New Year’s Eve, from the tourist-choked alley of Soi Rambutri (where we crash the staff party of our hotel), to a back-alley, mostly-Thai block party near the Rama VII Bridge, to the entrance of Khao San Road, whose throbbing melee of sloppy farang drunkards — and advertisements for “Very Strong Cocktails” — do not entice us.

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It is 11:30 p.m. and, feeling lost in the noise and grime, we walk through the gates of Wat Chana Songkhram, our neighborhood temple which we have neglected in all the weeks we’ve stayed in Banglampoo.

Not only is it open (we weren’t sure if it would be), but the main bot is packed with a thousand souls, kneeling in silence and candle-light, hands pressed together at their chests as they listen to two long rows of chanting monks. I recognize the melody from chants I heard under the Bodhi Tree in Bodhgaya, India. Since there is no room in the temple, we walk around the edge and find three seats on the side of the building, where the monks’ voices ring through.

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I can’t say we are meditating, as distractions are many; but things are not as confusing as they are out in the streets and, joining, the quiet of the people around us, this is how we usher in the new year: The voices of monks, their gong, and fireworks from somewhere up above and far away. There is the smell of incense and lotus flowers, there are short-tailed cats running beneath the benches, and there are the three of us — my mother, my wife, and I — celebrating New Year’s Eve in a way which we never will again.

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