Shades of saffron, mustard and tangerine stretched as far as our eyes could see – the robes of some 12,600 Buddhist monks from southern Thailand who travelled by bus to Bangkok to attend the mass alms giving to commemorate Visakha Bucha Day*.
The sun may still have been low in the sky when we got off the 6am Skytrain from Asok to Chitlom, yet it was already heating up. Dark clouds threatened rain. It was going to be another sultry day.
We were the only farang on the train, and the only two people not wearing white. White does not travel well, but I was wishing I had a slightly more respectful colour than black. Black may absorb travel grime well, but what meaning did it have for Buddhists I wondered?
One of the most important days in the Buddhist calendar, Visakha Bucha Day occurs on the full moon of the sixth lunar month – the day of the birth, enlightenment and death of the Lord Buddha. This year the occasion was extra special because it also happened to be the 2,600th anniversary of Buddha’s Enlightenment.
Buddhists visit temples on Visakha Bucha Day to make merit by offering food to monks and listening to sermons, but this year in Bangkok tens of thousands of Buddhists arrived at the crack of dawn and waited patiently on folded knees on white cloths on Ratchadamri Road in front of Central World to present offerings to monks from Thailand’s southernmost provinces.
Thais, many dressed in white, brought offerings of packaged foods – anything from bags of rice and sugar to packets of potato crisps and 3-minute noodles. The poorer donors came laden with plastic shopping bags of snack foods, while more affluent merit-makers in their linens, coiffed hair and gold jewellery came with enormous plastic storage boxes packed to the brim with all kinds of goodies.
The monks sat in rows of plastic seats on the other side of a central stage listening to the sermons. Some ate curry and rice from plastic containers, distributed by volunteers. Others, mostly young novice monks, slouched in their chairs and snoozed, no doubt exhausted by their long journey.
At the end of the sermons, the monks stood and formed lines and in single file walked between the rows of merit-makers to collect the offerings. Every now and again they emptied the contents of their shoulder bags into large plastic bags held by volunteers, and every now and again I spotted a novice monk tucking a chocolate bar into the pocket sewn into his robe – the one that often held a mobile phone.
Some of the monks bore scars, on their arms, across their scalps, and occasionally on their faces – reminders of the brutal violence they often face in Thailand’s troubled south, and that the event was as much about providing moral support as it was about making merit.
* the event above was actually held on 8 May 2011 although the holiday for Visakha Bucha Day was held on 17 May.