Boon Samha Photo Essay

These photos are from the Boon Samha (บุญซำฮะ) ceremony in Ban Thung Mon, Amphoe Ban Phai, Khon Kaen province on June 5, 2019. Here, as in many places in Isan, locals use the name Boon Berk Bahn (บุญเบิกบ้าน – “Opening the Home”) instead of Boon Samha. Thanks to Catherine Stebeleski for the invitation and Lung Sura Laebong for answering all my questions. For more information, there’s an explanation of Boon Samha and an overview of heet sip-song, the twelve Isan merit-making traditions.

We came to the village early on the morning of Boon Samha, so I didn’t see people building the small sand stupa or the ceremony with the monks that took place the night before. Some day I’ll try to go back and photograph these.

sand stupa

Boon Samha

At Ban Thung Mon, the Boon Samha service is held at the sala glang bahn village meeting hall, not the temple. People began arriving at 6am with buckets of water; triangular kratong made from the bark of banana plants (called kratong na wua, “cow face kratong,” by many people because cow’s heads are sort of triangular), and baskets of food for the monks.

women carrying kratong, food baskets, and water buckets
woman carrying kratong, food basket, and water bucket
woman carrying kratong and water bucket

The buckets and kratong were respectively placed on the ground and hung (mostly on a bamboo pole specifically placed for this purpose) around a small Buddha shrine. They were going to be blessed later that morning.

women delivering kratong and water buckets
woman hanging kratong on bamboo pole

Just about every kratong had sticky rice, fish, dried chili, and a variety of sweets, but people put in whatever they wanted, including fruit, cucumbers, bla-tawng-go (a doughnut-like fried bread), salt, betel nut sets, and cigarettes. Besides food, the kratong contained snake jasmine leaves (chosen because the Thai name, bai thong pan chang, is auspicious – it means 600 kilograms of gold) and candles. The leaves and candles were also tied to the water buckets with white cotton string.

food in kratong
water buckets

As people arrived, the man organizing the day’s ceremony, a village elder, offered food, candles, snake jasmine leaves, bai sii, a small Buddha statue, and a set of monk robes to invite Phra Upakut (a legendary monk with strong supernatural powers) to come provide protection for the morning’s activities.

food, monk robe, bai sii, and Buddha statue
man holding candles and leaves in front of shrine

Many of the early arrivals were there to help prepare food for the monks. These included goy (raw beef mixed with herbs, lime, roasted rice powder, bile, and fresh blood), grilled catfish, gaeng naw mai som (fermented bamboo soup), gaeng om wun sen (herbal curry with glass noodles), and fruit.

people making beef goy
women preparing food trays

After Phra Upakut had been invited, people went into the woods behind the sala glang bahn to show their respect to the village’s guardian spirit by cleaning and decorating the shrine, lighting candles and incense, and offering food and snake jasmine leaves. In particular people gave sticky rice, khao tom mat (a steamed banana-leaf-wrapped snack made of sticky rice and banana), and kanom mok (sticky rice powder, coconut, sesame, sugar, and either peanut or yam also steamed inside a banana leaf). Some small homemade bang fai rockets were also launched in the spirit’s honor.

woman holding tray of fruit, rice, and snacks in banana leaves
women bringing food to shrine
women putting food on a shrine
candles burning on a shrine
man lighting bang fai rockets

And in order that the blessings (both sending good luck in and pulling bad luck out) from all the morning’s activities was fully shared with everyone, both of the shrines were connected to all the houses in the village by a white cotton string.

white string coming from wooden house
white string tied to a blue Buddha shrine

This string was also held by the monks during their suat mon chanting and prayers.

monks holding white string
people sitting in front of monks
women waiing
women waiting

On this day, giving alms to the monks was done at the sala glang bahn instead of the usual house to house. Their alms bowls were set on a table and people put in sticky rice, khao tom matkanom mok, and a few other snacks. All the other food was delivered to the monks on trays.

people putting food in monk alms bowls
people putting food in monk alms bowls
men giving food to monks

After the monks’ food was served (but not yet eaten) they chanted to make gruat nam holy water, which is used to pass merit on to people’s ancestors. Then one monk splashed water on the people in the sala glang bahn and on the kratong and water buckets that had been placed around the Buddha shrine earlier in the morning.

monks chanting with trays of food in front of them
mank splashing water
monk splashing water

With water splashing finished, the monks began to eat and the people went outside to pour their gruat nam water on the ground next to a plant.

women pouring water on plants

They then took their buckets of what was now holy water back home where it would be used to wash bad luck out of their houses – this being one of the core parts of samha, which means “washing” – by splashing it on anything and anyone they felt needed it.

women walking home with kratong and water buckets after ceremony
women walking home with kratong and water buckets after ceremony

The kratong were hung at various intersections around the village to feed the spirits living there.

woman hanging kratong in bamboo tree
kratong hanging on concrete wall

While this ended the classic Boon Samha celebrations for the village’s shrine and citizens, Ban Thung Mon always adds another activity to their version of the festival. This is rarely (or perhaps, never) done elsewhere, but it’s a practical choice.

Boon Haw Bu Jao Fa

For the second half of the village’s Boon Samha celebration, people go out to clean and pay respect to another important shrine, this one for a more powerful spirit – Bu Jao Fa (also called Bu Sok Jao Fa; sok signifying the land) – who not only looks after the village, but the land (including farm fields) around it, and also people’s transportation.

wooden shrine before cleaning

The Bu Jao Fa shrine is out among cassava fields 2.5km southeast of the village. This event is done together with a second village (Ban Nong Phak Waen) that is also under the spirit’s protection. People began arriving at 10am, about two hours after everything had finished up in the village.

pick up truck driving out to field
tractor driving out to field
truck driving out to field

People started cleaning the shrine; or rather shrines since a new metal structure sits alongside the old wooden one.

man with hoe clearing ground next to shrine
woman with hoe clearing ground next to shrine

Next to the shrine, people built a small stupa, crocodile, and turtle out of dirt.

women making dirt stupa
woman making dirt stupa
stupa, crocodile, and turtle made of dirt in front of shrine
crocodile and turtle made of dirt
small stupa made of dirt

Offerings for the Bu Jao Fa ceremony, led by village elders, not the monks, were set on and below the shrine: these included lao kao Thai “whiskey,” Fanta, M-150 energy drink, sticky rice, chickens, bai sii, candles, incense, snake jasmine leaves, and bang fai rockets. People also wrote their vehicle license plate numbers and the names of the family members who drive and ride in them on paper. While most of these offerings would be taken back by people after the ceremony, some whiskey and red Fanta were poured on the ground for the spirit.

putting drink offerings on ground under shrine
man giving incense at shrine
flower garlands with license plate numbers
women sitting in front of shrine
woman putting food in a shrine
men putting food on a shrine
men and women taking food to the shrine

The two chickens (one for the village and one for the farm fields) that were given to the spirit were used for siang tai kang gai (“chicken chin fortune-telling”). A small bone from the skull was pulled out and examined. It is shaped much like a wishbone, and if the two sides are similarly shaped and sized then it will be a good year. And, according to these two chickens, there is good fortune ahead for Ban Thung Mon and Ban Nong Phak Waen.

women pulling bone out of chiclen
women holding chicken bone up for people to see
women looking at a chicken bone

Many more bang fai rockets were launched during this part of the ceremony, and these were also prognostic. If the rocket flies well, the person’s wish comes true – if it explodes (as shown in the second picture) it won’t.

smoky rocket launch
rocket exploding just above the ground

People then turned ninety degrees from the shrine to face the monks and sat through another round of chants and prayers as well as a dharma lesson. Villagers vowed to follow the five Buddhist precepts: no killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and overindulgence in alcohol and other drugs.

people sitting in front of monks
people sitting in front of monks
monks holding white string

While a monk sprinkled water on people to bless them, the same thing that had been done back in the village, a man went with a bowl of water that had been on the spirit shrine and threw glassfuls over water over people to pass on even more good luck.

monk splashing water
man and monk throwing water over people
man and monk throwing water over people

Over a dozen women spent their whole time out in the field preparing food – notably gaeng sai bua sai gai (lotus-stem soup with chicken), som tam (spicy papaya salad) and pak som (fermented vegetable) – for the monks. And when the monks were done eating, everyone else ate the rest.

bowl of lotus stems
women preparing lunch
women slicing papaya
woman making som tam
woman making lotus stem soup
monks eating
people sitting on ground and eating

This year, eating was followed by dancing. Several villagers had recently won money in the lottery, and so they got together, with the help of smaller contributions from many of their neighbors, to hire a pair of mo lam singers.

people dancing in front of truck with large PA system
people dancing in front of truck with large PA system
woman and man singing in front of dancers
woman singing in front of truck with large PA system

Boon Khao Kam (Month 1)
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Boon Khun Lan (Month 2)
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Boon Khao Jee (Month 3)
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Boon Pha Wet (Month 4)
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Boon Songkran (Month 5)
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Boon Bang Fai (Month 6)
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Boon Samha (Month 7)
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Boon Khao Phansa (Month 8)
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Boon Khao Pradap Din (Month 9)
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Boon Khao Sak (Month 10)
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Boon Ok Phansa (Month 11)
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Boon Kathin (Month 12)
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