Waxing Spiritual – Ubon Ratchathani Candle Festival
“Just as a candle cannot burn without fire,
men cannot live without a spiritual life.”
– The Buddha
Rebirth and Suffering
Life sucks. This is an underlying principle of Buddhism. We are reincarnated in an endless cycle of death and rebirth (samsara) in which we suffer (dukkha) until we become enlightened (nirvana). For anyone interested in Eastern religions, few countries offer greater access to exploring Buddhism than Thailand, where 95% of the population practices Theravada Buddhism.
Often, when most people think of , they think of beaches and Bangkok. Some might imagine elephant-trekking and hill-tribes near the Golden Triangle, but only a few venture into the northeastern region of the country. Consequently, the towns along the Mekong River see very little tourist traffic. With some of the friendliest people in Southeast Asia, visiting Isaan is inviting, relaxing, and affordable.
Forest monasteries and hilltop temples dot the countryside, and life along the river is low-key. It’s a great place for , and offers several overland access points to and . Some of the best Thai cuisine comes from this part of the country, with Som tam (spicy green papaya salad), kai yang (grilled chicken) and laap pet (spicy duck salad) as local specialties.
Ubon Ratchathani is known for its numerous temples or wats. Buddhist monks seeking “the path to enlightenment” can find room, board and education in these beautiful and peaceful monasteries. Built by King Rama III, Wat Thung Simuang houses a 200 year-old library containing ancient scriptures. The library sits on stilts in a pond, keeping the scriptures safe from ants and termites.
A young monk approaches us while we admire the building and strikes up a conversation. Niwat’s parents cannot afford to send him to school, so they have sent him to the monastery for two months instead. He can stay here and get an education as long as he lives by the rules. Niwat offers to take us on a tour of the town’s wats and have a look at the preparation for something we had come there to see – the Ubon Ratchathani Candle Festival.
Ubon Ratchathani Candle Festival
Wan Khao Phansaa is the first day of (Buddhist Lent) which lasts from July’s to October’s full moon. When the rains come, monks retreat to the monasteries for these three months. It is believed to be a period of renewed spiritual energy, so it is an auspicious time for new monks to be ordained. July’s full moon also marks a two-day celebration to commemorate Asanha Bucha – the Buddha’s first sermon. Ubon Ratchathani celebrates with Hae Thian, a candle festival.
“Candle” is not the most illustrative term for the rigs created by the monks throughout the town’s wats. They are more like parade floats that depict a candle procession making offerings to the Buddha. Every wat enters a candle into the parade. The prize for best candle is mostly an honorary one, as it doesn’t begin to cover the cost of its construction. However, it includes leading the following year’s parade. Therefore, these works of art are produced with great care and a great sense of pride.
Diligently Detailed Decorations
Work starts two months before the festival and involves most of a wat’s residents. The frame for each candle is made with plywood and secured to a trailer. The characters (and their sundry conveyances) depicted on each float are formed using coconut husks, wire, and plaster. Then, it becomes evident why it is called a “candle” when thick slabs of gold beeswax are melted onto the statues and the whole thing starts to take shape.
Meanwhile, artists diligently carve the finer details of their sculpture. Each candle is decorated with tiny bits of molded and cast wax to create ornate clothing on the figures and intricate designs on the carriages and chariots. The result is a magnificent expression of the wat’s devotion to and celebration of their beliefs. We thank Niwat for the tour, and part ways. He refuses any remuneration for his time – he just wants to practice his English.
It is impressive to see all the candles together, but the parade itself is somewhat anti-climactic after our tour of all the candle factories. Legions of Thai dancers follow the bands, blaring traditional music from the backs of pick up trucks. The official royal candle, flanked by officers and soldiers, is a big crowd-pleaser.
When the parade and festival are over, the candles return to their respective wats. The wax is stripped from the statues, melted down and stored for making next year’s candles, to be reincarnated in an endless cycle of relighting and flickering.