Sunrise with 12,999 Monks

Imagine a river of 12,999 red and orange monk robes.

Surrounding them is a canyon of Buddhist devotees and smiling onlookers; all bathing in the golden aura of pure faith, love and joy.

Such is the scene every December in Chiang Mai; when Thailand’s monks come from near and far to bless the world and accept donations of alms for the coming year.

 

A monk bows his head in prayer as the sun rises above him
A monk bows his head in prayer as the sun rises above him

 


Motorbiking with 12,999 Monks

As my motorbike zipped across town, I smiled at the shadowy monk faces in the dark red songthaw in front of me.

A few smiled back from their communal taxi; but, most were asleep… or, trying to keep their heads from bobbing onto an adjacent shoulder.

Occasionally, an orange blur would zip by; as a monk (or 3) held on to the back of another motorbike.

Meanwhile, I shivered in the cold air; despite wearing every piece of clothing I owned.

 

A mere hour after I arrived, there was nowhere left to walk
A mere hour after I arrived, there was nowhere left to walk

 


The International Alms Offering Ceremony

A monk’s life is full of tradition, ritual and a strict daily routine.

For instance, every day at dawn, monks walk the streets with alms bowls in their hands.

In Buddhist cities like Chiang Mai, Thailand, those monks are met by local devotees; each offering a donation.

Me in front of 12,999 monksNow, imagine that ritual and multiply it by 12,999 monks.

. . .

2012 was the 2,600th anniversary of Lord Buddha’s Enlightenment

Every December, monks from all around Thailand converge on Chiang Mai to celebrate the Buddha’s enlightenment and receive alms from tens of thousands of devotees.

From 2010 – 2012, the number of monks was chosen by taking the last two numbers of the year and putting it before 999.

As such, there were 10,999 monks in 2010, 11,999 monks in 2011 and 12,999 in 2012.

Fun fact: the number 999 is considered lucky in Thai tradition!

 

This photograph was selected for the Spiritual Life of Asia exhibition a few months later
This photograph was selected for the Spiritual Life of Asia exhibition a few months later

 


My Offering For the Monks

Although my backpack contained plenty of cameras, lenses, clothes and water, I didn’t actually bring an alms offering for the monks.

Fortunately, the roadside was filled with local vendors selling alms-worthy items such as:

  • bags of chips
  • My offerings for the monkssticky rice wrapped in banana leaves
  • water
  • lotus bulbs, reefs and plants
  • sticky pork buns
  • ceremonial flower bunches
  • cup-of-noodles
  • candy and pastries
  • incense
  • pre-wrapped alms baskets

100 baht ($3) later, I had a bag full of sticky rice, coconut bread and a packaged fruit cake.

 

Street vendors like this one were plentiful on the walk to the 12,999 monk alms procession

It might have been 6:05am, but these people were all doing swift business


The Scene at 6am

On either side of the wide avenue, bare-bulbed streetlights and buzzing neon signs cast dim shadows on the passing devotees.

Every hand was wrapped around plastic bags, 7-Eleven logos, boxes, backpacks, offerings, blankets, chairs and assorted alms.

As I joined the sea of humanity and shuffled along the sidewalk, monks boarded large open-air buses.

Covered in pictures of giraffes, zebras and leopard spots, these “people movers” reminded me of a tour bus at Disneyland or Universal Studios.

 

I'm not sure, but I imagine these shuttle buses were borrowed from the zoo or night safari
I’m not sure, but I imagine these shuttle buses were borrowed from the zoo or night safari

 

If I took this photo at 6:06am, I can only imagine what time these people arrived to get such primo spots.
By 6:06am, the streets were lined with devotees

 

Distinguished monks assembled on stage before dawn
Distinguished monks assembled on stage before dawn

 


Onward to the Ocean of Orange Robes

While most locals stopped at the first open spot they found, I kept walking past the ceremonial stage and towards the ocean of robes sitting and waiting on red and blue plastic chairs.

Some monks were fast asleep.

Others were busy checking their cell phones, taking photos, talking or sitting in silence.

 

This way to the monks!

Thousands of plastic chairs were set up to seat the thousands of monks

I always find it strange when monks have better technology than I do

12,999 monks means 25,998 feet
12,999 monks means 25,998 feet

 


Sneaking into the VIP Section

After pushing the limits of my camera’s ISO, I returned to the ever-growing crowd.

On the main stage, several senior monks were sitting in the lotus pose: waiting for a sunrise prayer and ceremony.

Directly in front of them was a roped off area reserved for VIPs, Chiang Mai dignitaries and press.

Although I had no credentials, I spotted several friends in the VIP area; so, I took a chance and walked past the rope to join them.

. . .

Being right up front was an out-of-this-world experience

Behind me, a wall of local devotees sat in bated anticipation for the ceremony to begin.

In front, the still-growing mass of robes undulated like an orange wave in dawn’s early light.

 

An early morning prayer in the VIP section
An early morning prayer in the VIP section

 

The view from the VIP section
The view from the VIP section

 

Monks in a row
Monks in a row

 


The Calmness of a Modern Monk

On one hand, Chiang Mai is an ancient city steeped in history and tradition. On the other, it is a modern, bustling, commercially-driven metropolis.

This contrast was especially poignant when looking at the stage of monks.

Among their clasped hands. shaved heads and meditating minds was a skyline of power cables, gas stations, billboards and signs for Western products.

Yet, the monks’ calmness transcended the urban jungle; and projected an aura of tranquility to all those in attendance.

 

This monk makes me think of Morpheus from the Matrix
This monk makes me think of Morpheus from the Matrix

 

Unleaded Buddha
Unleaded Buddha

 

A 7:00am prayer session
A 7:00am prayer session

 


Award Ceremonies and Chanting in Unison

Thai language, Thai language, Thai language… clap clap clap.

That’s all I understood from the opening ceremony; where dozens of Chiang Mai residents were honored with awards.

However, no translation was necessary for the ceremonial chanting that followed.

(Well, I technically didn’t understand any of it… but, the feeling it evoked was universal)

. . .

A Sunrise Prayer

As all 12,999 monks began to chant in unison, the sun finally emerged above the tree line: showering us all with golden rays of soft light.

Meanwhile, a palpable buzz of sound and energy swirled through the air: touching every being in attendance.

Regardless of your religious beliefs, there’s something truly magical about 20,000+ souls connecting over a single thought and purpose.

. . .

…Here’s a quick video of the sunrise chanting prayer session…

 

 


A Photographer’s Eternal Dilemma

It’s a question I always struggle with as a photographer:

Do I take photos or sit back and experience the moment to the fullest?

On the morning of December 30, 2012, I allowed myself to stand there and take it all in… for a few minutes at least.

 

I was trying to photograph the monk walking when the devotee in white decided to kneel down and complete the photograph for me
I was trying to photograph the walking monk; when the devotee in white decided to complete the photograph for me

 

Look closely at bowl's reflection and you can see the world around it
Look closely at bowl’s reflection and you can see the world around it

 

You can imagine the sheer quantity of food the monks received
You can imagine the sheer quantity of food the monks received

 

A monk's alms basket
A monk’s alms basket

 

Alms to the world
Alms to the world

 


Buddhist Trick or Treat

It was like an epic Halloween parade; with 12,999 monks forming lines between walls of devotees.

In their hands were alms bowl or baskets: each designed to accept a small number of donations.

As you can imagine, these receptacles filled up quickly.

. . .

Monk Assistants

To alleviate this problem, a line of men in green uniforms stood behind the monks: each holding a clear plastic bag.

Every time a monk’s bowl filled up, he passed it to a helper who put the contents into a bag and passed the bowl back.

By the time the 12,999 Monk Alms Procession was over, the streets and sidewalks were lined with stuffed plastic bags.

 

Green Uniformed Alms Collectors
Green Uniformed Alms Collectors

 

Sometimes the monks received money as an offering

Plastic bags full of alms

Those are some full alms bowls!

Devotees of all ages lined up to give alms to the monks
Devotees of all ages lined up to give alms to the monks

 


The Most Beautiful Moment

At one point, a group of impoverished children stood on the sidelines with empty burlap sacks.

While most of the crowd ignored these kids, numerous monks stopped, smiled and emptied their bowls into the children’s sacks.

Nearly two year later, the memory of this scene still brings tears of joy to my eyes.

 

Alms for the poor
Alms for the poor

 


A few final photographs

I took nearly 600 photographs that morning in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

While I won’t post them all, here are a few more favorites…

 

Sad or contemplative?
Sad or contemplative?

 

Peeking Through
Peeking Through

 

Sunshine on a Sunny Shrine
Sunshine on a Sunny Shrine

 

A monk gets the energy of a camera at sunrise
A monk gets the energy of a camera at sunrise

 


Curious about the above photo?
If you ask me, it captured the monk’s energy field.
Click here to learn more

  • What a superb post about the event. I feel like you have got it all covered what with the video and all the photos, including boy receiving clothes. Great stuff.

    • Thanks Michael. The boys being given alms by the monks is still the most incredible part of an unforgettable morning.

  • Great stuff Greg. Orange overload. Love the 25,998 feet pic.

    • Thanks David! Love the comment… “Orange Overload” would also have been a good post title :)

  • Laura Mcloughlin

    Incredible photos Greg, thank you for sharing!

  • Shannon

    This is an amazing post – looks like it should be in National Geographic! I like your point about the contrast between their calm silence and the urban environment. Seeing them holding phones seems particularly strange! Thanks for a great read :)

    • Thanks so much Shannon. I agree too about the phones. Even after living in Thailand for 2 years, it still caught me off guard every time I saw it. I do, however, have a large collection of photos of monks with phones and other technology :)

  • Amazing pictures.. And great article…