As clumps of hair fall onto Pau Son Kula’s shoulders, the nine-year-old instinctively strains away from the razor blade tracking across his head. Kept from squirming by the steady hand of a monk, the novice is completely bald before long and ready to take part in the elaborate rituals of Poy Sang Long.
This colourful festival, held at Wat Pa Pao temple in Chiang Mai, is an annual celebration as young ethnic Shan boys become ordained as monks to learn the Buddhist teachings. An important rite of passage among the Shan, or Tai Yai, this act of devotion earns merit for their families, who brought the three-day ceremony with them to Thailand from their native Myanmar.
Pau must swap his Angry Birds T-shirt and blue shorts for a traditional, bright costume – over the course of three days the hues include pink, blue, yellow and purple – adorned with tassels and sequins. With pencilled-in eyebrows, heavy eyeliner and pink lips, Pau and the other boys, who are all aged between seven and 14, also wear decorative flower crowns to top off the ensemble, which is styled to represent the prince who later became Buddha.
Under the shade of a tent in the temple’s courtyard, Pau and his relatives spend three days receiving their 700 guests, preparing and serving them meals, and readying the young novice for the daily celebrations.
After Pau’s head is shaved, he cannot walk freely until the final ceremony. Regardless of where the novice goes – whether to the bathroom or to join a parade – he must be carried at all times on a family member’s shoulders or sitting on a chair. The only places he may stand are on his bedding area and inside the monastery building.
On the third and last day, under the direction of older monks, Pau pays respect to his mother and father by embracing them and washing their feet. He later receives a set of distinctive orange robes from his parents, marking the start of his time in the monkhood, which usually lasts between three days and one week.