The end of the traditional Buddhist rains retreat, known in Thai as Awk Phansa, is marked by ceremonies and religious activities throughout Thailand. There are some regions of the country which have their own unique events for Awk Phansa influenced by the local culture of that region. Mae Hong Son province in north-west Thailand is home to a large population of Tai-Yai people (originally from Shan state in Burma) who celebrate the Lord Buddha’s return from heaven with the colourful Chong Para ceremony.
Wooden castles or towers are built to welcome the Buddha on his descent from heaven at the end of the rains retreat. The towers are decorated with coloured paper and pennants with fruits and lamps also hung from them before being placed in front of homes and in temple grounds in the lead up to Awk Phansa. These towers are known as ‘chong’ in the Thai Yai dialect with ‘para’ meaning Buddha image. On the evening of the full moon for Awk Phansa, communities often come together to eat and dance before forming the chong para procession which carries the wooden towers to the local temple.
Chong Para ceremonies and processions take place in communities and villages throughout Mae Hong Son province including Mae Sariang and Pai, but the main Chong Para Festival is in Mae Hong Son town. Villages from all over the province join in with cultural shows and the street procession which winds its way through the town carrying the illuminated towers.
The exact date of the annual Chong Para Festival in Mae Hong Son varies each year depending on the date of the full moon for Awk Phansa, but usually falls in October.