The Mon community in Sangkhla Buri on Thailand's border with Myanmar
pay respect to their ancestors by sending off a boat laden with food
According to traditional beliefs, the seventh month in the lunar calendar is when restless spirits roam the earth. That seventh month usually falls around August or September and all over Asia, communities mark the festival of the hungry ghost in their own fashion.
Chinese-speaking communities celebrated the festival last week, burning paper money and papier-mache iPhones so that these will travel to the afterworld where they can be used by the spirits, as well as offering boiled chicken and sweets to appease the hungry ghosts. The Khmer, too, killed chickens, leaving small portions of food at crossroads to feed the dead.
The Mon people in the western district of Sangkhla Buri, however, organise a much more festive occasion in memory of departed souls. They build a boat and load it with food then celebrate for two nights before tossing it into the water. This Mon ceremony is very rare, and draws both the curious and the culture buff to Thailand’s western frontier for the rite.
Known as the Mon Floating Boat Festival, this year’s festival is being held over the weekend of September 26 to 28.
“The ritual is known to the Mon as Pohamord, which roughly translates as the Boat of Offerings,” says Arunya Chareonhongsa, a Mon resident of Kanchanburi’s Sangkhla Buri district, as she recounts the origins and purpose of the Mon Floating Boat Festival.
The annual event sees Mon communities towing a full-sized, hand-crafted boat laden with food to the river, The food is left out to sate the appetites of the departed. Once a private and deeply religious ritual, today the festival brings in much-needed tourist revenue to this quiet area.
Thousands of visitors turn out every year during the rite to witness the boat being built, decorated then towed to the water.
The Floating Boat Festival not only commemorates departed Mon pilgrims but also banishes evil and brings luck to those still living. It's a ritual that dates back to the Mon Hanthawaddy Kingdom (1369-1539) and marks the journey of a high-ranking monk and several Buddhist pilgrims across the Bay of Bengal to fetch a set of Buddhist scriptures in Sri Lanka. On their return trip, one boat capsized in rough seas and the pilgrims inside it drowned.
Every year since, the Mon have built a large boat and piled it high with offerings before sending it out to sail on the river to feed those departed pilgrims.
For the Mon who live outside the district, the festival is a home-coming and a chance to mix with friends and relatives in one of the largest and most rustic Mon communities in Thailand.
On the first day locals and visitors surround the Chedi Phutthakhaya at Wat Wang Wiwekaram to watch as the men shape long bamboo poles into a boat, a process that usually takes a full day.
While the men are building the bamboo boat, the women busy themselves cooking and preparing the offerings, which mostly consist of popcorn, ripe bananas and boiled rice in banana leaves, candles, honey, water and sticks of sugarcane.
When the boat is ready and decorated with colourful paper flags, it is moved to the front of the huge pagoda where it serves as the centrepiece for the celebrations that follow on the next two nights.
The highlight is the series of cultural shows that showcase the distinctive ways of the Mon. Whether old or young, they dress in beautiful traditional attire – red sarongs and white shirts – and move towards the boat holding trays. Young men, with mouthfuls of chewy betel nut and winning smiles, try to lure the girls who carrying baskets of food on their heads.
“In the olden days, we also made a lantern and would load it with yellow string and the necessities for entering the monkhood before releasing it into the sky,” Arunya explains. “Whoever got the monk set would be ordained.
“If a woman found it, she would make a great contribution to the Buddhist temple.”
The ceremony culminates in the boat being towed to the riverbank and pushed out to the water where it begins its slow journey to the spiritual world.
IF YOU GO
n Sitting on the large reservoir created by the Khao Laem Dam, Sangkhla Buri is a home to one of Thailand’s largest Mon communities as well as to Karenni and Bangladeshi populations that add to its ethnic diversity.
n It draws visitors for its Mon Wood Bridge and Mon temple with a bronze pyramid-shaped Chedi and is a good starting point a day trip to the Three Pagoda Check Point, where visitors, provided they bring a passport and photo, can get a day pass to Payathonsu inside Myanmar.
n Mini-buses depart from Kanchanaburi’s bus terminal at regular intervals.