In Phayao, we rose at 6.30am and rode down to the boathouse next to Wat Tilok Aram, a floating island shrine, which sits atop a sunken temple that was flooded 80 years ago when the lake was created. During the day you can put on a lifejacket and a straw hat, and a boat will take you across to the island. And with flowers, candles, and joss sticks in hand to put at the feet of the Buddha, blessings will almost certainly ensue. We took this little trip the following day, but now, at this early hour, we had come for an entirely different reason. The area was humming with the buying and selling of food, all of which was to give as alms to the local monks.
Even though we had no idea what to do, and Caroline only had a very basic command of the language, the process was rather straightforward. We bought a woven basket of sticky rice, as well as a sampler of juices and snacks. A table with three metal bowls sat on the street side and was half tended to by a friendly lady who let loose a stream of Thai at us, even though Caroline assured her that neither of us understood what she was talking about. Caroline spread the snacks and juices through the three bowls, and then took a seat on a long mat that had been placed along the footpath – one of several mats upon which 20 – 30 Thai people sat. There were little bowls with tiny bottles of water spread out at intervals, and so we chose one to sit behind, copying what the others were doing, still clutching our basket of sticky rice.
At around 7.30 a procession of monks ambled up the street, and proceeded to walk down the rows of people holding out their alms pots. Everybody put a fistful of sticky rice into each pot, and then the monks took a seat in the boathouse. One monk, older than the rest and wearing darker crimson robes, began to recite a blessing in Thai for about five minutes. Somewhere in the middle of this, all the Thai people took their little bottles of water and poured the contents slowly into their little bowls. Caroline followed suit.
The pouring of water is a ‘transfer of merits’ to your deceased relatives. ‘Merits’ are an accumulation of good deeds, and by transferring them you are tipping your dead family’s merit/demerit scales favourably. This is a necessary leg-up for people who were total bastards in life. Having more merits than demerits is the difference between a ‘state of happiness’ and a ‘realm of woe’. And we all know how freaky the ten courts of Buddhist hell is.
Giving alms to monks is considered a good deed, and therefore will bestow an accumulation of merit to the giver. Caroline, therefore, not only earned, but also passed on merit, and all before 8.00am!
And that was that. The people rose, having been blessed, and watered the nearby trees with their small bowls. The monks could now return for their pot luck lunch, as I described here.