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.
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.
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.
. . .
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!
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
- sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves
- lotus bulbs, reefs and plants
- sticky pork buns
- ceremonial flower bunches
- candy and pastries
- pre-wrapped alms baskets
100 baht ($3) later, I had a bag full of sticky rice, coconut bread and a packaged fruit cake.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
. . .
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.
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.
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…