As an amateur anthropologist, my dreams of throwing myself into an unfamiliar culture are often dashed by financial shortcomings and not enough PTO from my job. Fortunately, I live in Tampa, FL, home to the Wat Mongkolratanaram temple.
Wat Mongkolratanaram was built on 26 July 2005 and dedicated on 20 May 2007 in honor of the 80th birthday anniversary of Bhumibol Adulyadej, the king of Thailand. The temple hosts a lunch every Sunday but the Sunday I visited was a special day: Songkran, the Thai New Year.
The schedule on Wat Mongkolratanaram website said the ceremony began at 10:30 but when I and my friend, travel blogger Maria Laborde, arrived at 9:45 the parking lot was already packed and as we approached the main building I noticed there was quite a mix of Thai and non-Thai visitors and quite a few were taking pictures. I had brought two cameras, one for photographs and one for video and seeing the number of cameras that were already flashing about was very reassuring.
The first thing I registered as I walked around to the entrance was the smell of incense. Next, I heard the sound of a band playing traditional Thai music. They were playing on a stage in front of a giant banner declaring the start of the New Year in Thai and English. Beneath the music I heard a voice speaking a completely foreign language; it was a monk on a loudspeaker.
Wat Mongkolratanaram is beautiful, inside and out. The architecture and altars were things I had only ever seen in movies. Maria and I spent a while taking pictures outside and we asked permission to take some photos inside the temple as well. We had looked up some quick tips about temple etiquette on the internet and were careful not to point fingers or toes at the Buddha. When we had gotten all shots we needed we exited the temple, making sure not to turn our backs on the Buddha. Maria noticed that other visitors, Thai and non-Thai did not seem to be showing the respect we had as they did turn their backs when leaving.
Maria and I wandered around the temple grounds until the ceremony began. When we went back inside the temple, Monks had lined up on a raised platform by the wall and began chanting. There were mats close to the Buddha statue and rows of chairs near the exit for those who did not wish to knee. It was crowded so we knelt in the back with hands folded in front of us in a prayer gesture. Congregation bowed on command and there was responsive chanting between the monks and the congregation. I couldn’t help but draw a correlation to the responsive chanting that I grew up with at Temple Beth-El.
And then there was lunch. There were several food tables lined up against the outside wall of a community hall. There were several options before me so I picked two I’d never tried: pumpkin curry chicken and red curry chicken with a side of fried rice and lady fingers for dessert ($9:50). Maria got her food as well and we walked down the length of the building to get our drinks and that is when we realized our mistake. Around the corner of the building there were even more food tables lined up! If only we had shown a little patience.
Throughout the day, there were opportunities to give alms, sprinkle perfumed water and flower petals on Buddha statues, and have water sprinkled on us by the monks. The end of the ceremonial process was marked by congregants (mostly children) using super soakers to spray even more water on any person who dared cross their path. This ritual is actually a means of encouraging good luck, good health, and a prosperous new year. It is also a refreshing way to cool down on a very hot day.
As I saw the Buddhists and non-Buddhists mingle and take pictures of each other around the temple grounds, it became obvious that this was as much a social event as a religious ceremony. It is also a great method of outreach for the Thai and Tampa community. I even witnessed a moment of cross-cultural communication in the very long line to the restroom as a Puerto Rican woman explained where her island was to an elderly Thai woman. All in all, this was a fascinating experience and I am looking forward to exploring Tampa’s international communities.
For more about our festival experience, check out Maria’s post http://www.latinabroad.com/2014/04/14/history-songkran-festival-tampa-photos/