HOLIDAYS, FESTIVALS AND LIFE-CYCLE EVENTS IN THAILAND: SONGKRAN , LOY KRATHONG AND WRIST TYING

HOLIDAYS AND FESTIVALS IN THAILAND

Thailand abounds in traditions and festivals, either as Thailand’s own festivals or international festivals marked around the world. The event that may reflect “Thainess” the most is Songkran or the traditional Thai New Year, which falls on April 13 each year. Thais uphold their tradition of sprinkling water as felicitations for their elders, merit-making, and alms-giving, and the water-splashing has made the festival famous around the world. Northerners release hot-air lanterns into the sky in their Yi Peng Festival. In Bangkok Children’s Day celebrations have included allowing children to climb around Thai military hardware such as tanks and machine guns.

Some holidays are marked on the lunar calendar. Some are marked on the Western solar calendar. Thailand sometimes uses the Buddhist calendar: the year 2013 on the Western calendar was the year 2556 on the Buddhist calendar.

Thais have three chances to ring in the New Year: 1) New Years Eve on December 31st, which is celebrated with parties, concerts and fireworks; 2) Chinese New Year, which is celebrated a few week later usually in February. 3) In mid April, Thais celebrate the traditional beginning of the Thai calendar with Songkran.

The annual cycle of holidays and festivals has traditionally been tied to the agricultural cycle. Songkran (Thai New Year) is held at the end of the dry season in April. The day marking the birth, death and enlightenment of Buddha marks the beginning of the rainy season. A number of festivals are held in the harvest season in the fall. Other festivals and rituals are connected with ways of earning merit and honoring monks.

National Public Holidays in Thailand: New Year’s Day (January 1), Makha Bucha Day (Buddhist All Saints Day, movable date in late January to early March), Chakri Day (celebration of the current dynasty, April 6), Songkran Day (New Year’s according to Thai lunar calendar, movable date in April), National Labor Day (May 1), Coronation Day (May 5), Visakha Bucha Day (Triple Anniversary Day—commemorates the birth, death, and enlightenment of Buddha, movable date in May), Asanha Bucha Day (Buddhist Monkhood Day, movable date in July), Khao Phansa (beginning of Buddhist Lent, movable date in July),Queen’s Birthday (August 12), Chulalongkorn Day (birthday of King Rama V, October 23), King’s Birthday—Thailand’s National Day (December 5), Constitution Day (December 10), and New Year’s Eve (December 31). The Thai calendar has been adapted to the Western calendar of days, weeks, and months. Years are numbered according to the Buddhist era, which commenced 543 years before the Christian era. Therefore, 2005 is the year 2548 in the Buddhist era.

Public holidays in Thailand in 2013: New Year's Day (Tuesday, January 1, 2013); Makha Bucha Day (Monday, February 25, 20130; Chakri Day (Monday, April 8, 2013); Songkran (Saturday, April 13, 2013 to Wednesday, April 17, 2013); Labor Day (Wednesday, May 1, 2013, not a public holiday for the government sector); Coronation Day (Monday, May 6, 2013); Visakha Bucha Day (Friday, May 24, 2013); Asanha Bucha Day (Monday, July 22, 2013); The Queen's Birthday (Monday,August 12, 2013); Chulalongkorn Day (Wednesday, October 23, 2013); The King's Birthday (Thursday, December 5, 2013); Constitution Day (Tuesday, December 10, 2013); New Year's Eve (Tuesday, December 31, 2013)

Major Festivals and Events: New Year’s Day (January 1); Flower Festival in Chiang Mai (February); Songkran (Thai New Year, April 13-15); Underwater Wedding Ceremony in Trang (February 13-15); Bun Bang Fai Rocket Festival in Yasothon (May); Royal Ploughing Ceremony (May); Phi Ta Khon Festival in Loei (June-July); Candle Festival in Ubon Ratchathani (July); Bang Fai Phaya Nak in Nong Khai (October); Wax Castle Festival in Sakon Nakhon (October); Illuminated Boat Procession in Nakhon Phanom (October); Vegetarian Festival in Phuket (October) Loy Krathong (November); Yi Peng Festival in Chiang Mai (November); Elephant Roundup in Surin (November); Phu Rua Flower Festival in Loei (December)

Songkran

Songkran (Thai New Year) is the most important holiday of the year. Lasting for three days, it marks the beginning of the solar new year and has traditionally been held before the rainy season when there isn’t that much work to be done in the fields. Today it is known mostly as a time when people throw water all over each other. Songkran literally means “the passing of” and marks the beginning of the Thai solar calendar. In the old days it was a time to pay respects to one’s elders, make merit and enjoy traditional dancing.

Songkran is held during the hottest time of the year, the weeks before the start of the rainy season, when being doused with water can be refreshing and enjoyable. One Thai student told a Japanese newspaper, “Thailand is a very hot country, so when the New Year comes, we want to start new things, happy things, so we want to throw water on each other to cool off. Even the king ran around throwing water when he was younger.”

The student said: “The traditional New Year is a time to make merit, participate in religious ceremonies and gather with friends and family. Water is a way to cool down people, not only physically, but also emotionally and spiritually—and a way to spread merit from ancestors. It symbolized generosity and a sense of community with people in this world and the next.”

Water fights were originally not part of the traditional Songkran festivities. In the old days, instead, people sprinkled small amounts of water on one another as a symbolic gesture to ensure that there would be plentiful rain for the rice panting season. Other traditional activities, many associated with earning Buddhist merit, included releasing fish, turtles and water birds into waterways so they would multiple in the inundated rice fields; offering food to monks; pouring water on the hands of monks and respected elders; washing images of Buddha; and cleaning one’s house.

Some celebrations feature money trees, meter-high structures made from cardboard and hung with banknotes, offerings to priest that are pass along to those in the afterlife. Usually the monks take some of the donations for their basic needs and give the rest to poor. Towels, blankets and pillows are brought to the temple to bring comfort to the dead. Candles are lit to light up Heaven. Pens are brought so the dead an write to one another. Bleach is brought to clean their places in the afterlife.

Songkran Water Fights and Fun

During Songkran there are parades and feasts. Children and adults use pump-action water guns, giant syringes and buckets to thrown and squirt water at one another. Sometimes people with buckets of water position themselves in second story windows, waiting to douse unsuspecting passers by below. Not surprisingly the streets and sidewalks are often empty as people try to escape from being doused. For the most part the water battles are done in the name of fun and everyone has a good times. But occasionally they get out of hand and people get hurt.

Describing some Songkaran action on Kho Phangan, Paul Baylis wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “A cascade of water arched from a group of revelers on the street corer toward a passing pickup truck, loaded to bursting like some ‘Mad Max’ war vehicle, with children and adults toting water guns and cannons of every descriptions—bulbous, purple, green and yellow pump-oriented contraptions...Grinding guitar riffs from the soundtrack of Pulp Fiction erupted from a speaker on the sidewalk in front of a shop, and the dripping, semi-naked crowd—foreigners and locals alike—erupted into crazed, spasmodic dance.

Describing a pick up truck ride, Baylis wrote, “Roadblocks had been set up on every little village along the way back to Thong Sala. And the villagers who manned them were determined, organized and well-armed, stepped right out into the road to stop passing vehicles...’Happy New Year! Good luck to you! Chirped one excited young man as he poured a pitcher of water happily down the back of my shirt.”

Richard Barrow wrote in his blog: “The water fights are continuing in Thailand for the second day in a row. At least three more days to go of this mayhem on the streets...Traditionally you are supposed to sprinkle water on your elders as a mark of respect. But things are getting out of hand these days with the water fights being the main feature. However, you still do get some people coming up to you to ask permission first before pouring water on you or putting some white powder on your face. I had one guy come up to me, who was clearly drunk despite the early hour, who then poured some icy cold water down my neck and then shouted, “Welcome to Thailand!” Thanks. Happy Songkran to you too! If you cannot beat them then join them. The alternative is to sulk and hide out in your apartment for the next five days. Next weekend, the Mon people in Thailand celebrate their own Songkran so everything starts again. In Samut Prakan, our Mon community is mainly in Phra Pradaeng. [Source: Richard Barrow, April 14, 2007]

Describing a mild dousing Barrow wrote: “A girl out riding on her bicycle is stopped by the guy wearing the red shirt. You can see by her dry hair that this is the first time today for her. She smiles because she knows resistance is futile. Seconds later she is drenched. Personally I think she got off lightly. It could have been a lot worse. This same scene is being repeated all over the country at the moment.”

Songkran Feasts

Some temples hold Songkran feasts. Because monks fast from noon until dawn the feasting takes place in the morning. Describing such a feast, Adrienne Cook wrote in the Washington Post, “Shorn, saffron-garbed monks and their white-robed female associates, also with their heads shaved, conduct the morning worship..attended by hundreds of the faithful, barefoot and kneeling on the rug-covered floor. Shortly after 11 a.m., as the chanting liturgies reach a sort of climax, great trays ladern with dozens of bowls of various foods prepared by parishioners are carried to the altar. There, beneath the huge mural of Buddha, the trays, numbering perhaps 100 or more, are set on the thick rugs that cover the dais; the clerics begin to eat...After the temple keepers have eaten, the trays are passed among the parishioners, who sit in groups on the temple floor... The eating goes on and on, as do he continuing offering to the priests.”

One you Lao woman told the Washington Post, “The food is offered to the dead, and it is also for you when you go to Heaven. So you make the favorite food of the dead person, and also its good to make your own favorite food too, so it will be waiting for you when you get there. That is why it’s good to make the best food you can.”

Loy Krathong Festival

Another uniquely Thai celebration is the Loy Krathong Festival, on the full moon night of the 12th lunar month. It is a time to seek forgiveness from the Goddess of Water so that she will take away the troubles in one’s life. In their special version of Loy Krathong, Northerners release hot-air lanterns into the sky in the Yi Peng Festival. Loy Krathong is held every year when the rainy season comes to an end. Thais say it is a “chance to let our misery float away." Thais believe the candlelit boats ( krathongs ) launched during the Loy Krathong holiday can carry misfortune away with them, allowing life to begin anew.

Describing Loy Krathong festivities in Bangkok, Todd Pitman of Associated Press wrote: “Hoards of smiling Thais came out to celebrate, packing parks across Bangkok where festive vendors sold boiling noodles, balloons and krathongs made of ice cream cones. Sahattaya Vitayakaseat placed a tiny crown-shaped boat made from curled banana leaves and marigold flowers into the murky brown water and let it drift toward a park bench submerged by Bangkok's surging Chao Phraya river. [Source: Todd Pitman, Associated Press, November 10, 2011]

“At the riverside Santi Chai Prakan Park, teenagers set off firecrackers. A dozen candlelit paper lanterns floated into the night sky above a floodlit fort. Revelers set loose hundreds of krathongs on the water, in a spot where the overflowing river had submerged a set of park steps. The krathongs were kept from the river, contained in a barricaded zone beside it. "She's cruel," Vilasini Rienpracha said with a lighthearted laugh, referring to the Thai water deity called Phra Mae Khongkha. "She wanted to come into our streets and to see what the city is like. But we've had enough, it's time for her to go." [Ibid]

“Loy Krathong has its roots in an era when most Thais lived in stilt houses made of wood, dependent on rivers and rain-fed agricultural land for their sustenance and survival. That life is being erased by modern development... Over the last few decades, canals that once allowed annual floodwaters to pass through the capital unimpeded have been paved over to make room for roads, highways, shopping malls and housing estates.

Every year during a ploughing ceremony in May the royal oxen predict rainful amounts and the success of the harvest after plowing a symbolic furrow around the parade ground in front of Bangkok’s golden-spired Grand Palace. The oxen are offered a variety of foods. In 2007 they chose banana-leaf bowls of rice, corn and grass, signifying good rains and plentiful crops. They shunned a bowl of alcohol, symbolizing trade and transport, seen as a sign for exports.

Royal Ploughing Ceremony

The Royal Plowing Ceremony is an ancient royal rite held in Cambodia and Thailand to mark the traditional beginning of the rice-growing season. It was also practiced in pre-colonial Burma until 1885 when the monarchy was abolished. The traditional date of the Burmese royal ploughing ceremony was the beginning of the Buddhist Lent in the Burmese month of Waso (June to July). In 2009, the ceremony was held on May 11 in Thailand and on May 12 in Cambodia. The date is usually in May, but varies as it is determined by Hora (astrology). [Source: Wikipedia]

The Royal Plowing Ceremony two sacred oxen are hitched to a wooden plough and they plough a furrow in some ceremonial ground, while rice seed is sown by court Brahmins. After the ploughing, the oxen are offered plates of food, including rice, corn, green beans, sesame, fresh-cut grass, water and rice whisky. Depending on what the oxen eat, court astrologers and Brahmins make a prediction on whether the coming growing season will be bountiful or not. The ceremony is rooted in Brahman belief, and is held to ensure a good harvest. In the case of the Burmese royal ploughing ceremony, it may also have Buddhist associations. In traditional accounts of the Buddha's life, Prince Siddhartha, as an infant, performed his first miracle during a royal ploughing ceremony, by meditating underneath a rose apple tree , thus exemplifying his precocious nature. [Ibid]

Describing the royal plowing ceremony in 2006, Alan Sipress wrote in the Washington Post: “ With the king's son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn, presiding, holy men led sacred white oxen along a field across from the Grand Palace in the centuries-old ritual. The beasts were then offered plates of rice, maize, sesame seeds and other food but chose an offering of grass, a sure sign, the soothsayers reported, of plentiful crops. This favorable omen received widespread press coverage, even beyond the normal 8 p.m. royal news. [Source: Alan Sipress, Washington Post, May 28, 2006]

In both Cambodia and Thailand, the ceremony is typically presided over by the monarch, or an appointee. Sometimes the monarch himself takes part in the ceremony and actually guides the plough behind the oxen. In recent years in Thailand, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn has presided over the ceremony, which is held at Sanam Luang near The Royal Palace in Bangkok. Rice grown on the Chitralada Palace grounds, home of King Bhumibol Adulyadej is sown in the ceremony, and afterward, onlookers swarm the field to gather the seed, which is believed to be auspicious.

History of the Royal Plowing Ceremony

Burmese chronicles traditionally attribute the start of this rite to the late A.D. 500s during the Pagan dynasty, when it was performed by the kings Htuntaik, Htunpyit and Htunchit, all of whom bear the name 'htun' or 'plow.' At that time it was a costly ritual did not occur annually nor was it performed by every monarch. During this ritual, the king plowed a specifically designated field outside the royal palace called the ledawgyi with white oxen that were adorned with golden and silver, followed by princes and ministers, who took turns to ceremonially plow the fields. While the plowing was undertaken, Brahmin priests offered prayers and offerings to the 15 Hindu deities, while a group of nat votaries and votaresses invoked the 37 chief nats (indigenous spirits). The ploughing ceremony was a ritual to propitiate the rain god, Moe Khaung Kyawzwa in order to ensure a good harvest for the kingdom, and also a way for the king to present himself as a peasant king to the commoners. [Ibid]

In Thailand, the rite dates back to the Sukhothai Kingdom (1238–1438). In 1822 (near the end of the reign of Rama II)John Crawfurd noted, during his Siam mission: “This was a day of some celebrity in the Siamese calendar, being that on which the kings of Siam, in former times, were wont to hold the plough, like the Emperors of China,[note 1] wither as a religious ceremony, or as an example of agricultural industry to their subjects. This rite has long fallen into disuse, and given place to one which, to say the least of it, is of less dignity…. A Siamese … who had often witnessed it, gave me the following description:—A person is chosen for this occasion to represent the King. This monarch of a day is known by the name of Piya-Pun-li-teb, or King of the Husbandmen. He stands in the midst of a rice-field, on one foot only, it being incumbent on him to continue in this uneasy attitude during the time that a common peasant takes in ploughing once around him in a circle. Dropping the other foot, until the circle is completed, is looked upon as a most unlucky omen; and the penalty to the " King of the Husbandmen" is said to be not only the loss of his ephemeral dignity, but also of his permanent rank, what ever that may be, with what is more serious—the confiscation of his property. The nominal authority of this person lasts from morning to night. [Source: John Crawfurd’s Siam mission, April 27, 1822]

During the whole of this day the shops are shut; nothing is allowed to be bought or sold; and whatever is disposed of, in contravention of the interdict, is forfeited, and becomes the perquisite of the King of the Husbandmen following the ploughing. Specimens of all the principal fruits of the earth are collected together in a field, and an ox is turned loose amongst them, and the particular product which he selects to feed upon, is, on the authority of this experiment, to be considered as the scarcest fruit of the ensuing season, and therefore entitled to the especial care of the husbandman. [Ibid]

Series 2 banknotes first issued in 1925 during the reign of Rama VI and continuing into the reign of Rama VII depicted the Royal Ploughing Ceremony on the backs of all 6 denominations. Rama VII discontinued the practice in the 1920s. Rama IX, King Bhumibol Adulyadej revived it in 1960.

Family Rites and Life Cycle Events

In addition to rites dedicated to an assortment of spirits either regularly or as the occasion demands, other rites intended to maximize merit for the participants are practiced. The Buddha prescribed no ceremonies for birth, death, and marriage, but the Hindu rites, which were adopted by the Thai people, entail the participation of Buddhist monks. The ceremonies, which are held at home rather than in the wat, have no scriptural sanction. The monks limit their participation to chanting the appropriate Buddhist scriptural texts or to providing holy water. [Source: Library of Congress]

The propitiation of an individual's khwan (body spirit or life soul) remains a basic feature of Thai family rites. Any ceremony undertaken to benefit a person, animal, or plant is referred to as the making of khwan. On important occasions, such as birth, ordination into the priesthood, marriage, a return from a long journey, or the reception of an honored guest, a khwan ceremony is performed.

The Thai life is calculated in 12-year-cycles. The later birthdays (60, 72, 84) are big occasions. The 72nd birthday is particularly important because it marks the complection of the six cycles according to the East and Southeast Asian calendar.

Important royal occasions are marked with royal barge processions on the Chao Phraya River. A major one was held on the king's 72nd birthday in 1999. His 84th birthday was also a big occasion. Around 200,000 Thais came out to witness a rare public appearance in the historic district of Bangkok. The king called for unity in his speech. Many of those in the crowd wore Yellow Shirts, symbols of loyalty to the king but also signifying their opposition to the Thaksin government in power at the time.

Before scheduling an important event Thais often consult with fortunetellers to make sure it is not held on an inauspicious day and ideally is held on an auspicious one. The 15th day of the waxing moon is considered auspicious.

Regional Festivals in Thailand

Major festivals in the central region evolve around rice farming and waterways, such as the Blessing of Rice Fields, to show gratitude to the environment and the weather, as well as the Goddess of Rice, in the hope to bring in good harvests. Another is the making of a Magic Rice Meal, involving grains of young rice, cooked in milk with other cereals, contributed by villagers as tributes to the Lord Buddha, and consumed as auspices for the new harvest. After the rice planting season, rivers and canals overflow, and people enjoy long-boat races and singing boat songs while waiting for the ripening of the rice in the fields. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]

The finest and most famous festival of the North is the Yi Peng Festival, a celebration of Loy Krathong in Lan Na style, during which large lanterns, like hot-air balloons, are sent tranquilly soaring into the clear full-moon sky, with the belief that the released lanterns take away all troubles in life. The lanterns themselves also display the artistic skills of the residents.

People in Northeastern Thailand uphold their monthly merit-making event, known as Hit Sipsong, or the Twelve Rites, when people in communities come together to make merit, representing their deep faith in Buddhism, with the chance for a communion which contributes to a strong community. A famous festival of the region is Phi Ta Khon, or the Ghost Festival, based on a belief that originated in the Great Final Life of the Lord Buddha. When Prince Vessantara (the Buddha in his previous incarnation),who later became king, and his wife Matsi were returning to their city after a long exile, wild animals and ghosts from the forest formed a procession to follow them; they were known as phi tam khon, the ghosts following people, and phi ta khon at present. Festival-goers joining the procession wear headdresses made of woven rice steamers, decorated with carved coconut peels. Phi Ta Khon is held during Bun Luang, the Great Merit-making Festival, to pay homage to the guardian of the city, and as the biggest merit-making event of the year. The masks and headdresses worn in the festival represent the local wisdom of the Isan people. The festival is also fun-filled, in line with the character of the Northeasterners.

Among Muslims in southern Thailand, Muslim holidays are practiced. A major tradition of the South is the Buddha Procession Festival, in which people in communities come together to make merit; they carry a prominent Buddha image from a local temple in a procession, on land and water, through the community. It is believed to bring plentiful seasonal rains and is a way to for people to make great merit. The festival strengthens unity and amity between community members and the neighborhood, as they all come out to help the procession advance toward its destination.

Birthdays in Thailand

On how Thai people celebrate their birthdays, Richard Barrow wrote on thai-blogs.com; “They don’t often celebrate in the way that we do in the West. This often means no cake, no presents and no party for your friends if you are a child. Birthdays are not usually marked in the same way here as we did with birthday parties when we were younger. When I first came to Thailand I noted that many of my students didn’t receive any presents from their parents. They didn’t even get a cake. If they did get something, it would be a book or something equally unimaginative. But, it is not always like that. Thai people like adopting traditions from other cultures. Christmas is a good example of this. Thai children have seen Western movies and have seen what happens during our birthdays. So, they want the same too. Now more of my students receive presents from their parents than before. Some of them also have cakes. Though, they usually only get one candle. Or, if they have just turned say ten, they will then get eleven candles. [Source: Richard Barrow, thai-blogs.com , July 14, 2008]

“Thai adults might have a party for their friends. Though I know quite a few Thai people who never celebrate their birthday. They don’t do anything special. Either they don’t have enough money or they are just not motivated. One interesting difference with these parties is that the “birthday boy” is expected to pay for all the drinks. I have even been to parties in Thailand where all the guests received presents! On Nong Grace’s birthday last week, she came to school with candy for all her friends! [Ibid]

“For older people, they are more likely to celebrate the 12 year cycles. For example, on their 60th and 72nd birthdays. If you have a Thai friend who is going to celebrate a birthday then it won’t hurt for you to buy them a gift. They will certainly appreciate it. But, it is not really expected. So, how do Thai people traditionally celebrate their birthdays? What they do is make merit by going to the temple early in the morning and offer food to the monks. This morning was the 53rd birthday of my school. We celebrated by inviting several dozen monks and everyone came early to school to offer them food and other basic essentials. [Ibid]

Colors of the Day in Thailand

In Khmer and Thai traditions, there is an astrological rule (which has influence from Hindu mythology) that assigns color for each day of the week. The color is assigned based on the color of the God who protects the day or Navagraha. For example, the God of Sunday is Surya which has red color. These colors of the day are the traditional Thai birthday colors. For example, King Bhumibol was born on Monday, so on his birthday throughout Thailand will be decorated with yellow color. [Source: Wikipedia]

Day, Color of the day, Celestial Body, God of the day and meaning of a haircut on that day: 1) Sunday, red, sun, Surya , long life. 2) Monday, yellow, noon Chandra, happiness and health. 3) Tuesday, pink, Mars, Mangala, power. 4) Wednesday, green, Mercury, Budha, great misfortune. 5) Thursday, orange, Jupiter, Brihaspati, protection from angels. 6) Friday, light blue Venus, Shukra, lots of luck. 7) Saturday, purple, Saturn, Shani, success in business and other endeavors.

Baci (Wrist Tying)

Baci (pronounce Buy-see) is an important ceremony practiced in Lao culture and Northern and Isan Thai culture. Known as su kwan in Thai language (meaning “calling of the soul” and pronounced “su KWA-ang), it is an animist ritual used to celebrate important events and occasions, like births and marriages and also entering the monkhood, departing, returning, beginning a new year, and welcoming or bidding. The ritual of the baci involves tying strings around a person’s wrist to preserve good luck, and has become a national custom. [Source: Wikipedia]

The observance of Baci as a spiritual ceremonial event was prevalent in Laos even before Buddhism made inroads in to the country. It is also practices by many ethnic minorities in Southeast Asian countries, particularly in Thailand and Laos. Linked to the ancient belief that 32 organs of human body most work in harmony with their corresponding kwan ( spirits or “components of the soul”), baci is observed to establish social and family bonds to maintain “balance and harmony to the individual and community” and to “substantiate human existence.”

Baci ceremonies can be held on any day throughout the year as it is meant to commemorate specific events in an individual's life. It is usually held before noon. The crux of the ceremony is to invoke kwan. According to ancient belief in Laos and northern Thailand “the human being is a union of 32 organs and that the kwan watch over and protect each one of them. It is of the utmost consequence that as many kwan as possible are kept together in the body at any one time. Since all kwan is often the attributed cause of an illness, the baci ceremony calls the kwan or souls from wherever they may be roaming, back to the body, secures them in place, and thus re-establishes equilibrium.

Baci (Wrist Tying) Ceremony

The baci ceremony is performed by a senior person of the community who has been a Buddhist monk at some stage. Before the ceremony pah kwan (“flower trays”) are prepared and placed in a central location for people to gather around it and pray. The pa kwan is normally prepared by the elderly ladies of the household or the community on a silver tray on which a cone or horn made of banana leaves is placed at the center. The tray is decorated with flowers and white cotton and silk threads tied to bamboo stalks as flags. Different flower symbolize different things: 1) dok huck symbolizes love; 2) dok sampi symbolizes longevity; 3) dok daohuang symbolizes cheerfulness and brilliance. [Source: Wikipedia]

At the beginning of the baci ceremony young people pay their respects to the elders present in the ceremony. After that, everyone touches the trays of pah kwan reverentially as a mark of respect while Buddhist mantras (chants) are recited a mix of Laotian and Pali languages by the mor phon (the person conducting the ceremony, usually a senior person who has been a Buddhist monk). Buddhist deities, animist deities and spirits are invoked amidst the chants for the return of kwans (souls) from wherever they are back to the body to ensure equilibrium—a belief said to be rooted in Hindu and Buddhist religious practices. At the conclusion of the ceremony, a feast of food is offered to all guests, with bowls of rice and wine. This is followed dancing and music.

The key event of the Baci ceremony is they tying of a white silk or cotton thread (the baci) on the right hand wrist of the individual who is the focus of the ceremony to bring good luck. After this white threads are tied on the wrists of all the guests. Before the thread is tied it is knotted and blessed and by other guests and the hand is held chest high as a mark of respect. The white thread symbolizes “peace, harmony, good fortune, good health and human warmth and community.” White symbolizes purity. The thread is worn by an individual normally for a minimum of three days and afterwards untied (it is not cut) or, ideally, worn until it becomes old and falls off on its own. In recent years it has become popular to yellow, red or black threads at particular occasions, with red symbolizing bravery, yellow representing faith and black expressing a person’s loss or grief.

Many Lao and Thai believe that baci signifiy a successful and happy married life. In Laos, thread tying is often the central event of the wedding ceremony (the equivalent of placing the ring on the finger of the bride in a Western wedding). According to legend, marriages are predetermined in heaven by what is termed as nene ("love karma"). In the heavenly garden, each individual has a tree with branches that embraces and cuddles the soul of his or her life partner. Eventually such pre-destined intertwined trees move to earth as human beings with their wrists tied together by a cotton thread. In the process of their coming to the earth, the cotton thread binding them is severed by “wind of scissors” and they are born on earth as separate individuals. Once born on the earth, they search for their soul mates and when they find them they marry. The tying the symbolic cotton thread during the Baci ceremony rejoined them. If the cotton threads remains intact for three days or more then the marriage is considered fortunate and lucky for the couple.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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