10/29/2015, 00.00
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Thais celebrating the end of "Buddhist Lent"

by Weena Kowitwanij
During Vassa, a three-month period of meditation during the wet season, monks cannot leave their temple. When this period of retreat ends, celebrations follow, including sports competitions. "Naga fireballs" are part of the show. Monks can engage in spiritual activities after coming out of seclusion.

Bangkok (AsiaNews) – Thailand is celebrating the end of Vassa, a three-month annual retreat observed by Buddhist monastics across the country.

Often glossed as Rains Retreat or Buddhist Lent in English, Vassa takes place during the wet season. For the duration, monks cannot travel nor spend the night outside their temple. Typically, they remain in one place, a monastery or temple grounds, for intensive medication.

When the three lunar months end, the monastics and lay people, including non-Buddhists, join in spiritual and festive pursuits.

Monks can travel to other temples and teach what they learnt during Vassa. Buddhist families visit temples and bring different gifts to the monks, especially food. Others celebrated by planting new trees, sprucing up public areas or donating blood at hospitals in a spirit of communion.

The festivities include various sports competitions. For example, Thai monks challenge their Laotian neighbors in a rowboat race on the river.

In Chonburi province (just east of Bangkok), local farmers hold a beauty contest for water buffaloes, which are extravagantly decorated.

Another long-established tradition is to walk along the banks of the Mekong to watch the so-called "Naga fireballs."

Many people claim that that they see balls of fire rise from the river’s waters in the middle of the night, shot up into the sky and then disappear.

Hotly discussed, the matter is a joke for some. Others believe the balls of fire to be caused by flammable gas generated by the marshy environment.

Muslim communities in the southern provinces, especially fishermen, also join in the post-Vassa festivities. Instead of working, they organise boat races involving local fishing vessels called ‘koh lae’, which are typically hand-painted and decorated with the image of animals taken from local lore.

Buddhist monks also take to the Mekong, stopping at shorelines where faithful give them food.

"Buddhist Lent" and the activities that follow remind monastics and believers alike of the passage of time and the approaching death, as well as encourage them to lead a life on unity and for the good of society.

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