Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Thailand and Laos Report. Episode 4: the Buddhist funeral

     The parade I came on one morning was odd: some men marching along were in uniform, some not, and all carried ornamental objects or seats on poles, like topless sedan chairs. 
    I followed them through the gates of a temple where the parade disbanded. Then, wandering around to behind the temple--a jaw-dropping moment, I tell you--I saw a massive, glittering edifice. Long story short, the 91-year-old head monk of the province had died and this was his ceremonial pyre. An enormous bird, magnificently decorated with thousands and thousands of pieces of metallic paper in green, red, silver, blue and gold. it glittered and shone in the sunshine like something out of an ancient myth. Nearby, men climbed bamboo scaffolding to paint and embellish a vast elephant's head.
   Of course, we came back the next day. By now the elephant's head was almost complete and gardeners were planting lemon yellow chrysanthemums, purple petunias and orange marigolds around the base of the bird. 
   It was getting near lunch time. Spotting some food stalls at the rear of the temple compound, we ambled over. A man stopped us. "Go and eat free food," he said, explaining that to gain "merit," Buddhists make and donate dishes for occasions like these. 
   That Friday, and over the weekend (the funeral was a four-day affair) we ate fried chicken with sticky rice (a Chiang Mai specialty), a little boat shaped from a banana leaf filled with a herby ground pork, pork meatballs in a sweetish sauce, omelettes with chili sauce, fried rice, pad Thai made in a wok the size of a satellite dish, and ice cream. We drank sweet, red-brown Thai tea, tamarind juice and strong coffee sweetened with condensed milk. 
   Sunday, the monk's golden coffin was brought to the temple and carried up the steep bamboo ramp to its final resting place. On Monday, untold numbers crowded into the temple grounds. Dignitaries made speeches. There was music, ornate and traditional dance, a stand-up comedian, an appearance by a princess, a slow shuffle forward as the immense crowd brought lotus blossoms, incense and other offerings to the base of the "bird."
   Darkness fell. A full moon climbed into the night sky. Fireworks blazed along the 15th century chedi (conical monument) and high over the pyre. And, finally, the peak of it burst into flames and blazed into the night sky.

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