Large tents sprawl along the roadside, offering shade to the rows of empty plastic chairs waiting to be filled beneath. A network of simple white strings hang down from the metal pipes above, their purpose and meaning unknown to the casual visitor. Platters piled high with vibrantly coloured fruits lay neatly on a nearby table where next to them sit large bowls of noodle dishes and other enticing foods. People slowly begin to saunter in underneath the simple canopy which seems to be failing miserably at combatting the heat.
I silently observe the festivities from the shade, occasionally sipping my large Thai iced tea. An elderly lady suddenly beckons me over. I respectfully make my way down a row of plastic chairs. I sit down next to her, and she motions to the string in front of me. The lady grabs a string between her hands. I do the same, clasping a string. She smiles, nodding her head. The monks in the very front gradually begin to chant. For long periods of time they take turns repeating particular phrases. Younger girls occasionally walk by, carrying trays of sweet oolong tea and coffee. When the chanting finishes, everybody tears off the string above them. A monk comes around slowly, sprinkling the congregation with holy water. Eventually the ceremony ends. Everybody then eats together underneath the large canopy.
The City Life Prolonging Ceremony is truly a special event, and is celebrated at numerous locations throughout Chiang Mai. “We have the ceremony once a year, always on the second or third week of June. The City Life Prolonging Ceremony is celebrated at 10 sites. The largest site is very close to the city pillar,” explains Naphaphorn Chenchai, a teacher of Dokngern Municipal School. Naphaphorn and her students have the day off from school to help out. The Kilimanjaro Municipal School also has canceled the day for this important event.
The majority of the City Life Prolonging Ceremony is spent praying. The monks lead the prayer during this significant occasion. At around 9:40am, all over Chiang Mai, the prayer begins. The monks at every citywide gathering begin their chant. People sit silently next to one another, occasionally bowing their heads. No one speaks a word. The prayer continues for quite awhile. “We pray for good luck. The prayer is to bring good things into our lives,” explains Naphaphorn. The strings play a crucial role in the prayer. They are used during the duration of the event. “Everyone who comes to the City Life Prolonging Ceremony puts a thread on their head. During the prayer, they put a positive aspect of themselves into the thread. When the prayer finishes, people pull off their string and bring them home,” Naphaphorn tells me. In the very front of the tent is a large jug of holy water. After the prayer, the water is sprinkled over the whole congregation.
At the end of the City Life Prolonging Ceremony everyone except for the monks is served fried noodles and fruit. The monks are served a separate meal. “In Buddhist culture whatever is given to the monks must be the best quality. So they are served a separate meal at the ceremony,” says Naphaphorn.
As guest, monks, students, dignitaries and bystanders wandered off, I saw that the tables, chairs and ceremonial regalia were being cleared away. Soon I was standing at the city corner watching life bustling by with no trace of the important ceremony that has just taken place. Chiang Mai went about its daily business as usual. But as I walked away I couldn’t help hoping that it now had an arsenal of good luck to carry it through until the tents are reerected next year.
I spent the rest of the day pondering over the amazing cultural experience I have just had.