One boy’s journey at Thailand’s vibrant Poy Sang Long festival

By: Vincenzo Floramo - Posted on: June 7, 2016 | Culture & Life

Each year, the vivid Poy Sang Long festival sees ethnic Shan boys in Chiang Mai ordained into the monkhood. Southeast Asia Globe followed the three-day journey of one young novice

As clumps of hair fall onto Pau Son Kula’s shoulders, the nine-year-old instinctively strains away from the razor blade tracking across his head. Kept from squirming by the steady hand of a monk, the novice is completely bald before long and ready to take part in the elaborate rituals of Poy Sang Long.

Poy Sang Long
Ritual beginnings: a monk shaves Pau Son Kula’s head as the Poy Sang Long festival gets underway in Chiang Mai. Photo: Vincenzo Floramo

This colourful festival, held at Wat Pa Pao temple in Chiang Mai, is an annual celebration as young ethnic Shan boys become ordained as monks to learn the Buddhist teachings. An important rite of passage among the Shan, or Tai Yai, this act of devotion earns merit for their families, who brought the three-day ceremony with them to Thailand from their native Myanmar.

Poy Sang Long
Waiting game: prior to the ceremony, Pau is dressed in typical style for a young boy in modern Thailand. Photo: Vincenzo Floramo

Pau must swap his Angry Birds T-shirt and blue shorts for a traditional, bright costume – over the course of three days the hues include pink, blue, yellow and purple – adorned with tassels and sequins. With pencilled-in eyebrows, heavy eyeliner and pink lips, Pau and the other boys, who are all aged between seven and 14, also wear decorative flower crowns to top off the ensemble, which is styled to represent the prince who later became Buddha.

Poy Sang Long
New look: Pau’s transformation begins as a relative helps him into his ceremonial dress. Photo: Vincenzo Floramo

Under the shade of a tent in the temple’s courtyard, Pau and his relatives spend three days receiving their 700 guests, preparing and serving them meals, and readying the young novice for the daily celebrations.

Poy Sang Long
Princelings: each of the 11 novice monks is transported in their own car, accompanied by family members. Photo: Vincenzo Floramo

After Pau’s head is shaved, he cannot walk freely until the final ceremony. Regardless of where the novice goes – whether to the bathroom or to join a parade – he must be carried at all times on a family member’s shoulders or sitting on a chair. The only places he may stand are on his bedding area and inside the monastery building.

Poy Sang Long
Rite of passage: the colourful festival at Wat Pa Pao temple marks the ordination of ethnic Shan boys as monks. Photo: Vincenzo Floramo

On the third and last day, under the direction of older monks, Pau pays respect to his mother and father by embracing them and washing their feet. He later receives a set of distinctive orange robes from his parents, marking the start of his time in the monkhood, which usually lasts between three days and one week.

Poy Sang Long
Pay it forward: novices receive donations from family and friends, a key part of the ceremony. Photo: Vincenzo Floramo
Poy Sang Long
Off duty: when night falls, Pau’s relative carries him on his shoulders to buy a drink. Photo: Vincenzo Floramo
Poy Sang Long
Long days: prohibited from walking during the festival, Pau gets his legs massaged to help boost circulation. Photo: Vincenzo Floramo
Poy Sang Long
Worlds collide: taking a break from ancient traditions, Pau plays with an electric toy car. Photo: Vincenzo Floramo
Poy Sang Long
Trading places: as the extravaganza comes
to an end, Pau is helped into his monks’ robes. Photo: Vincenzo Floramo
Poy Sang Long
After the party: the novices are led around town by senior monks to collect alms. Photo: Vincenzo Floramo