My experience of cremation ceremonies in the past has been limited to loved ones dying, and the resulting ceremony tends to be an understated affair, characterised by dark colours and sombreness.
Not so in Thai culture.
Monks are treated with incredible reverence here. They rely on offerings of food each day from local people (Alms) in order to eat and although they own no vehicles of their own, can often be seen riding in the back of other people’s instead of walking. The monk whose life we were celebrating was of particular importance and thus deserved a send off of epic proportions to which the entire community was invited, regardless of religion.
Today was the closing day of a four day long affair, honouring the life of the monk through prayer and for want of a better word, party.
He actually died five years ago and the body has been preserved in a sealed coffin for the duration (complete with air conditioning to freeze it). It took the remaining monks the full five years to find the resources with which to fund the celebration, but it was paramount that he be honoured as he should.
Thais love decadence, and today I have seen more than normal.
Everything was decorated heavily with brightly coloured fabric. Any other plain surfaces covered in shiny gold or silver paper.
Beside the temple, which is ornately designed in itself, there was an enormous platform on which stood a giant, fluorescent coloured bird. I have seen the monks armed with PVA and paper for a few weeks now and suddenly it clear why. The bird was bigger than a double decker bus in size, built from a bamboo frame and covered in tiny squares of coloured paper, top look like feathers. It was impressive to behold and the perfect flammable design. On the bird was the coffin, and above it, more elaborate decorations. Almost everything glittered and sparkled in the bright sunshine.
The ceremony began with only the most dedicated for prayers early in the morning. By mid-morning, however, most of Mae La Luang and the surrounding community had arrived to sample all the free food that was on offer.
School was cancelled. Most of the students had a role to play in the day so we all walked down together after morning assembly and of course, joined everybody else in the sampling of such abundant free food.
There were many tents and hundreds of people serving all different types of food and drink, from ice cream and coffees to noodle and rice dishes.
By 11am I had eaten two noodle dishes, sticky rice and soup, two different ice creams, a strange and very sweet drink and about 3 instant coffees. It wasn’t so much that I was hungry, or that I wanted to eat any of it, but each time I bumped into someone else I knew they would insist I try something else with them. Food is incredibly important culturally here and you are never allowed to go hungry.
At half eleven, all of the students and I made our way down to the main road. There was a marching band, students and women carrying offerings of orange robes, and more carrying flowers. Behind us there were more students, carrying umbrellas, and then more carrying other decorative items on sticks. We already comfortably took up about twenty car lengths and one half of the road. The police guided traffic past us with a lot of frantic arm waving and whistling.
Three hours and two (very slow) kilometres later we arrive in procession at the Cremation site. The procession has grown even further, and I would hazard a guess that it is over half a kilometre long when we arrive. The elaborate decorated bird and coffin was pulled along the road on its wooden platform turned sled by hundreds and hundreds of hands. Everyone tugging at two huge cords of rope tied to each corner. It was a humbling sight to witness everybody in community working together to haul this revered man along the road.
More people lined the edges of the road giving out free drinks (gratefully received) and more ice cream and as the procession moved past, they joined on the end.
The result was a giant moving bird and a growing train of people.
We arrived at the cremation site about 2pm. It took over an hour to manoeuvre the giant bird up the hill on a dirt track, under the electric cables that were hanging too low and around a corner. Eventually, after a lot of effort, it was in position.
After more prayers, some final offerings were made. Each monk present (and they had come from as far as Mae Hong Son and Mae Sariang) received a new robe. And every person present, including myself gave at least one flower to the monk who had died. After all of this, around half past 4, the cremation began.
In true Thai style, hundreds of fireworks were lit and, it still being bright sunshine, only plumes of smoke could be seen and loud bangs heard. The result was never the less impressive, giving the impression the bird was not so much smoking as breathing fire and smoke.
After the last few fireworks went off from the bird itself, it didn’t take long to catch and soon everything was smoking. The flames licked slowly at first and then suddenly the whole thing was on fire, like a single giant flame. The heat was immense despite being far away.
The strangest part for me was seeing how quickly everybody disappeared after the flames had started to destroy the the bird. Nobody cared to watch the skeletal bamboo structure as it supported the coffin amongst the flames but there was something hauntingly beautiful about this too and I stayed for some time, mesmerised by the fire.
By five in the afternoon everything was over and whilst the bamboo still burned those of us who remained, largely students and teachers packed everything away. I am be intrigued to find out what happened to the ashes as in the UK these are usually spread somewhere special but no one I have asked seems to know.