Today’s Awk Phansa holiday marks the end of the Buddhist Rains Retreat period or ‘Phansa.’ In Buddhist beliefs, Awk Phansa commemorates Buddha returning to earth from heaven after a 3 month retreat visiting his mother. Upon his return to Earth, his followers give gifts of food to him and visit temples to make merit. The occasion is also celebrated by holding festivals across Thailand.
Awk Phansa also marks the start of the 1 month period in which a Robes Offering Ceremony takes place. Known as Thod Kathin, families and friends join together to form processions that carry new robes for the monks and other offerings to their local temples. The processions are characterised by music and dancing. In Bangkok, the Royal Thod Kathin Ceremony is usually held at Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) and is presided over by the King of Thailand.
What is the Buddhist Rains Retreat?
The Phansa rains retreat starts in July and lasts until October. It is a time when Buddhist monks stay in their temples for meditation and study. Also known as Buddhist Lent, the 3 month period commences on Wan Khao Phansa, which comes the day after Asahna Bucha Day in July. The start of the Phansa period is a popular time for young Thai men to be temporarily ordained as Buddhist monks as a way as passing merit to the family. Some will complete the full 3 months of the period, while others only serve a few weeks.
Different regions celebrate Awk Phansa with cultural-specific festivals
Mae Hong Son- Chong Para Festival
The northern province of Mae Hong Son features the Shan or Tai Yai community celebrating Awk Phansa with the Chong Para Festival. The colourful festival celebrates the return from heaven of the Lord Buddha. Wooden towers, known as ‘chong,’ welcome the Buddha on his descent from heaven. On the night of Awk Phansa’s full moon, local communities join together to eat, dance, and socialise. The towers are then paraded through the streets towards the local temple and placed in front of the Buddha statue (known as ‘para’ in the local dialect).
Samut Prakan- Rub Bua, Lotus Throwing Festival
In Bangkok’s eastern bordering province, Samut Prakan celebrates Awk Phansa with a unique Lotus Throwing Festival, known as Rob Bua. The act of throwing lotus flowers at Bang Phli is an old, local tradition which has been passed down the generations. Locals gather along the banks of the Samrong Canal as they wait to greet a boat carrying a revered Buddha image. As the image makes it way along the canal, locals throw lotus flowers into the canal as an act of making merit. In Buddhism, a white lotus represents purity and is usually the colour of choice by Thais when making merit. If a person throws a lotus flower and it lands in the boat that contains the Buddha image, it is thought to be particularly auspicious.
Nakhon Phanom- Lai Reua Fai, Illuminated Boat Festival
This northeastern province features a festival that is located by the Mekong River. For centuries, Isaan people celebrated Awk Phansa by floating small boats made of bamboo or banana tree trunks along the Mekong River. The boats are illuminated with candles and offerings as a way of paying respect to Buddha and to the Nagas and water spirits. As the years went by, the festival evolved into a more elaborate event, with huge, illuminated boats being used.
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