Fire in the sky

A young Shan girl performs the King Kala Bird dance.

A young Shan girl performs the King Kala Bird dance.

PHOOWADON DUANGMEE
THE NATION October 15, 2014 1:00 am

Shan-speaking communities in Mae Sariang celebrate the end of the Buddhist Retreat in a colourful way

Like many ceremonies across Thailand, Ohk Wah is all about the Lord Buddha. According to the scriptures, he visited his mother in heaven for three months over the Buddhist Lent or Vassa and when he returned to earth, both men and creatures rejoiced at the news of his arrival.

“The King Kala bird, a half-bird, half-woman, was the first to see the Lord Buddha returning,” begins Praphan Wiriyaphab – a Shan “wise man” from the small town of Mae Sariang in Mae Hong Son province.

“A bird of joy, she performed a beautiful dance for the Lord Buddha in order to show her respect.

These days the Shan people do more than just dance to demonstrate their respect and display their beliefs. They mark the “arrival” of the Lord Buddha, which coincides with the end of Buddhist Lent, with a three-day festival that brings light and colour to this remote backwater close to the border with Myanmar.

“Ohk Wah” as it is known in the Shan language or Ohk Phansa in Thai, was held last week and drew visitors, both local and foreign, to admire this annual showcase of Shan culture.

“The celebration was far more humble 100 or so years back,” Praphan adds. “Back then, the locals put up altars made of bamboo in front of their house. They would craft lanterns and hang them along the altars.

“They kept the firewood burning all during the night as they waited for the arrival of a respected Buddhist monk to whom they would present alms.”

We arrive in Mae Sariang on the second day of the festival, the one devoted to acts of virtue and merit-making. Shan – young and old – gather at the community temples where they craft flowers from candle wax and cut up colourful paper for the lanterns and decorative sets. As the night falls, the temple ground evolves into a stage.

The timeworn pagodas are illuminated by the moonlight and the colourful lanterns. Shan food is served and dances are performed to demonstrate the pride of Shan culture. A whiff of sweet nostalgia wafts in the air to the sound of muted applause as the “King Kala Bird” dancer moves to the stage.

Despite the late night, everyone is up at 3 the next morning for the nightly ritual of almsgiving. More than 400 Buddhist monks roam the streets of Ma Sariang to receive alms from the people.

“It has to be at night,” says one man in his 50s, glancing with amusement at my drooping eyelids. “We Northerners are faithful believers in Phra Oppa Khud – the legendary monk.”

The monk in question, it’s said, is wise and powerful. He lives in his own place for most of the year, and only visits the people on one occasion in the year to receive alms.

“Oppa Khud arrives in the middle of the night as a novice in disguise,” the man continues. If you give him alms, you would gain much good karma.”

I come across more than 100 monks during the three-hour vigil but have no idea which of them is Oppa Khud.

The ceremony comes to an end on the evening of the third day with a colourful parade that makes its way to the town centre. Mae Sariang, in this moment, is illuminated, its glow in the dark night a clear sign of its act of virtue.

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