Renowned for its numerous wats, north-eastern Thailand is off the usual tourist route, but worth the trip
When people think of Thailand, many think of beaches, temples, islands, hill-tribes, and Bangkok. Most visitors to Thailand often neglect the northeastern region of the country and the towns along the Mekong. Consequently, the area sees very little tourist traffic. This, coupled with some of the friendliest people in Southeast Asia, makes a visit to Isaan inviting, relaxing, and affordable.
The countryside is dotted with forest monasteries and cliff-top temples; life along the river is low-key and slow-paced; and some attest that the best Thai cuisine comes from this part of the country. Som tam (spicy green papaya salad), kai yang (grilled chicken) and laap pet (spicy duck salad) are local specialties. As they don’t get much exposure to "farang", the locals are particularly curious, and will take any opportunity to practise their English. Don’t be too surprised to be approached by a mob of children, not looking for school-pens but intent on asking questions (assigned by their teacher) about your country and your thoughts on Thailand.
Ubon Ratchathani is renowned for its numerous temples or wats. These beautiful monasteries are home to many Buddhist monks, where room, board and education are provided to those seeking "the path to enlightenment". 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, where the scriptures are safe from ants and termites.
As we admired the building, a young monk-in-training approached us and expressed a desire to practise his English. Niwat’s parents were farmers, who could not afford to send him to school. He had been at the monastery for two months, and as long as he lived according to the rules, he could stay and get an education.
Niwat offered to take us on a tour of the town’s wats and have a look at the preparations for something we had come there to see.
Khao Phansaa is the first day of the Buddhist Lent, which lasts from the full moon in July to October’s full moon. As the rains come, monks retreat to the monasteries for these three months. This is an auspicious time for monks to be ordained, as it is a period of renewed spiritual energy. To commemorate the event, Ubon celebrates with Ngaan Hae Thian, a candle festival.
Candle is probably not the most illustrative term for the rigs created by the monks at the wats throughout the region. They are more like parade floats, depicting a candle procession making offerings to Buddha. Every wat enters a candle into the parade. Great care is taken to produce these works of art, and every candle carries with it a great sense of pride. The prize for best candle is mostly an honorary one, as it doesn’t begin to cover the cost of construction.
Work starts two months before the festival, and employs 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 then formed using coconut husks, wire, and plaster. Following this moulding it becomes evident why it is called a "candle" festival. Thick slabs of gold beeswax are melted onto the statues and the whole thing starts to take shape.
Meanwhile, seated at tables are artists diligently carving the finer details of each sculpture. The candles are then decorated with tiny bits of moulded and cast wax to create ornate clothing on the figures and intricate designs on the carriages and chariots. The end result is a magnificent expression of each wat’s devotion to and celebration of its beliefs.
We thanked Niwat for the tour and parted ways. He refused any remuneration for his time. He just wanted to practise his English.
After an afternoon exploring the peaceful surroundings at the forest monastery of Wat Pa Nanachat, we returned to Ubon for the beginning of the festival. The candles were on display around the main square – a very noisy affair.
The parade itself was somewhat anti-climactic after our tour of all the candle factories, but, it was impressive to see all the candles together. The official royal candle, flanked by officers and soldiers, was a big crowd-pleaser. Bands, playing traditional music from the backs of pickup trucks, were followed by legions of Thai dancers.
Each year, when the parade and festival are over, the candles are returned to their respective wats. The wax is stripped from the statues, melted down and stored for making next year’s candles, reincarnated in an endless cycle of relighting and flickering.