In my last post HERE I wrote that my 200th post would be my latest ramblings about retirement in general and retiring in Thailand specifically. Plans have changed because we have just returned from three days in a town called Ubon Ratchathani, six hours drive South of us, to participate in their candle festival along with 100,000 other visitors. The trip is worth sharing quickly while still fresh in my mind so here it is – my 200th post.

The motivation for this trip happened almost two years ago. I was taking Gaun, my Thai wife, on her first ever plane trip, from Phuket to Bangkok to pick up my ex-stepdaughter Sarah who had flown over from Canberra to celebrate her 30th birthday with me. The Nok Air (Nok means “bird” in Thai if you’re interested) in-flight magazine had an article in Thai with this photo of these almost unbelievable wax carvings made for a festival held in an odd place called Isaan (now my home!)

Nok Air inspiration.

Nok Air inspiration.

I told Gaun at that time that we must try to get to see these sculptures for real sometime. This was that time!

I had a full car for this trip. The two days before the beginning of the three month Buddhist Vassa or The Rains Retreat when the candle festival happens are public holidays, which freed up Peng, my stepdaughter from school. I also invited Yuan, my sister-in-law to join us as she rarely gets a holiday from the day to day commitment to the farm. The importance given to this treat is best illustrated by the fact Yuan and Peng got their hair done and Yuan bought a complete new outfit for the occasion!

We live just below Nong Bua Lamphu. The trip to Ubon Rathathani bottom right is a six hour drive.

We live just below Nong Bua Lamphu top centre. The trip to Ubon Ratchathani bottom right is around 350 km.

The origin of this festival goes along the lines that during the three month rainy season, when travel would have been more difficult and unpleasant anyway, the monks remained in their temples and were supported to do so by local villagers who preferred them stationary rather than wandering around trampling down the newly sowed rice paddies!!!! These days monks are more likely to be seen being transported around in pick-up trucks and chatting on their mobile phones but the tradition still carries on. The candles were provided to encourage the monks to stay inside and study the scriptures.

Vassa is a three-month annual retreat observed by Theravada monks and nuns. It begins on the day after the full moon day of the eighth lunar month of the common Buddhist calendar, which usually falls in July. The retreat ends on the 15th day of the waxing moon of the eleventh lunar month, usually in October.

If you are ever thinking of going to this event make sure you book your accommodation early as everything is full closer to the time. I was organised for once and arranged a place only to have it unravel on confirmation a couple of days before we set out. I spent three hours on the internet trying to find an alternative and ended up with the last accommodation option available in Ubon through www.airbnb.com, although on the downside it was 30 km outside Ubon so not ideal.

We set off at 7.00 am driving to Khon Kaen and then following highway 23 to Ubon. Travelling with a car load of Thais is a social experience. There was a real holiday atmosphere and endless chat about all sorts of topics including a commentary on the crops being grown along the way as you’d expect with a couple of Isaan farmers onboard. It is also a time of almost non-stop eating! Little snacks were packed including the ever present sticky rice and a food top-up bought when I stopped for coffee. Food and chat are the basis of life here. Delightful.

We stopped off just outside Ubon on highway 23 at this huge Buddha statue. The quantity of Buddha related monuments in Thailand is slightly overwhelming. It must form a large part of the building industry here.

The family and Buddha.

The family and Buddha.

Paying respect.

Paying respect.

Peng recording our donation!

Peng recording our donation!

The big man himself.

The big man himself.

Gongs are often part of the temple scene as are bells. Bang or ring them three times for good luck.

Gongs are often part of the temple scene as are bells. Bang or ring them three times for good luck. Yuan here.

If you time it right you can get a very loud resonance happening using your hands. This kid could do it. We had no luck.

If you time it right you can get a very loud resonance happening using your hands. This kid could do it. We had no luck.

We arrived at our accommodation later than expected because of the GPS difficulty in finding just about anything, a constant headache. Search for Rural Road 4005 or just 4005 and you get nothing. Put in Ubon Ratchathani Rural Road 4005 and bingo! Garmin GPS is woefully stupid. I don’t know if the others are better. Our host Ian, an English guy married ten years to a Thai lady, ended up meeting us on the main road and guiding us in.

Plantation 21 - a two bedroom retreat on a working farm.

Plantation 21 – a two bedroom retreat on a working farm. This is the owner’s bit BTW. Ours was tucked away around the side.

This meant that we didn’t get to the candle exhibition until early evening and it had started to rain. By “exhibition” I need to explain that in true human tradition a simple concept of presenting temples with candles has been turned into a large and complex event. The simple “stick” candles, which you can purchase from many roadside stalls, have been turned into massive and ornate wax carvings of mythical stories based around Buddha. All the floats are available for viewing on the second day before Vassa. In Ubon this display is held in the streets surrounding the park shown below.

This is the main road from the North marked as 24 here or 23 on most maps!

This is the main road from the North marked as 24 here or 23 on most maps! The 23 is blocked off just before the park so you have to find parking wherever you can in the side streets.

As with any Thai event you can expect heaps of food places, stalls selling a range of products and loud music!

BBQ'ed squid A$0.20 each!

BBQ’ed squid A$0.20 each!

Buying a T-shirt for Lud, my brother-in-law who was looking after the farm while we partied.

Buying a T-shirt for Lud, my brother-in-law who was looking after the farm while we partied.

Excuse the following photos but as it was nighttime and raining it wasn’t the ideal environment.

Umbrellas are the essential equipment here.

Umbrellas were essential equipment. Yuan, Peng and Gaun.

This smaller float was made out of leaves not wax. Amazing work.

This smaller float was made out of hand woven leaves not wax. Amazing work.

The detail.

The detail.

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Dragons made from banana leaves I think.

A group of students wanted to have a photo taken with me. Must have thought I was someone else!

A group of students wanted to have a photo taken with me. Must have thought I was someone else!

The first of the wax sculptures. A small example.

The first of the wax sculptures. A small example of things to come. The rain did ease off later thank goodness. Warm though.

Now we're talking. Made from wax. What an incredible creation.

Now we’re talking. What an incredible creation.

I always love to capture these monkettes on "film" whenever I see them.

I always love to capture these monkettes on “film” whenever I see them.

I will share a few photos below to try and give you some idea of the skill involved in making these wax statues and the size of the displays.

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What detail.

What detail.

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All the floats were lit up at night – some internally and others by street floodlights installed for the event. Each of the major floats had their own music centre blasting out Isaan music.

You get an idea of the size of these floats by the umbrella.

You get an idea of the size of these floats by the lady with the umbrella.

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How do you make something with this detail in wax?

Rain is no deterrent to Thais getting out and having a good time.

Rain is no deterrent to Thais getting out and having a good time.

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Each of these floats had their own sponsor. Some were commercial but a number were entered by various wats. I believe there is a competition involved with a winner announced after the parade, which happens the next day.

The following day we had planned to watch the parade where the floats are pulled through the streets with supporting dancing groups similar to this:

Obviously not my photo. Richard has a very comprehensive Thai blog.

Obviously not my photo. Richard has a very comprehensive Thai blog – recommended.

However we felt that we had pretty well covered it and that it was a good time to look at some of the other things we had planned to see while everyone was occupied watching the procession. Next time we might focus on the procession rather than the exhibition the day before.

WARNING – Wats ahead.

Having said I was well over wats (temples) in my last post, I found myself with a couple on my list to visit in Ubon. The reality is that if you want to see anything architectural in Thailand 9 out of 10 times it will be wat related. Thailand doesn’t have much of any significance beyond temples on the building front. Sad but true.

Ian, our host at the farm, recommended a local wat to call into on the way back into Ubon. He said it was unique but wouldn’t tell me why.

Wat Paknam Bung Srapang

Wat Paknam Bung Srapang.

This wat was a good sized complex situated on Rural Road 4005 heading East out of Udon. Gaun loves these plants and we have stacks of them at our house in Si Bun Ruang, many brought with us from Chiang Mai when we lived there.

Candle and money making in progress. Make a donation and add hot wax to the container, which will eventually end up as a candle.

Candle and money making in progress. Make a donation and add hot wax to the container, which will eventually end up as a candle. A monkette in charge.

The main attraction, if you could call it that, was inside the large public building where these cabinets were on display.

The reason being?

The reason being?

Each one had these ornate containers with what looked like small pebbles in.

Each one had these ornate containers with what looked like small pebbles in.

What are they? Gallstones from monks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Polished up they turn out really nicely – would make lovely earrings for the wife 🙂 Now I’m not a Buddhist but I do wonder if the great man himself would have included this type of activity in his path for us to achieve an understanding of our true selves. However I am sure he would have had a good sense of humour and this would definitely get him going. It is a strange world.

Make a donation and this plastic monk gives you a little chant. The kids enjoyed it anyway.

Make a donation and this plastic monk gives you a little chant. The kids enjoyed it anyway.

More ways of raising money.

More ways of raising money.

Do you know your birth year animal?

Do you know your birth year animal?

A simple version of the nine globes I spoke about in my post HERE.

A simple version of the nine globes I spoke about in my post HERE. Go to the last entry.

I only raise this because having recently come to understand the significance of the Luk or Loog Nimit (these globes) in wat building I now see them everywhere. My next post will have a very impressive version situated in yes another wat but what a wat!

Straight across the road literally from Wat Paknam Bung Srapang is a small soi or road that will take you down to the large local river called the Mun. These eating places are set along the edge and would be a pleasant way to spend an afternoon with a beer or three.

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Salas on the Mun. The kitchen is on shore and everything would be brought to you once ordered. A decent sized river. Brown of course, They all are.

Our next stop was for something completely different. I had read about the Ubon zoo and it sounded OK. Yuan has never been to a zoo so it was more to expand her experience than for any other reason that the zoo ended up on my list. It’s located just off the 23 on the right as you head North out of Ubon. The signage is useless for us farangs but Google maps has it in the right place for once. The dual nationality signage for the turnoff isn’t on the highway, because that would be too easy, but happens later. Why? Who knows.

Entry to the zoo cost 350 THB for the four of us (more for a farang) plus car. I have to say that this is an experience that is fine if you have nothing else planned for a couple of hours but I wouldn’t go out of your way to visit the place.

A grand entrance.

A grand entrance. No real elephants inside so get your photos here!

Lots of money spent here but not an animal in sight.

Lots of money spent here but not a real animal in sight.

We didn’t get a map or any information on entry so it was all a bit of a mystery what next. All the signage is in Thai, which is understandable but a little out of step with many other major attractions. They have a website HERE but it is less than useful. I had read on the Ubon forums that you could either hire a drive yourself golf cart at 300 THB for the hour or join an organised tour on a bus/train. Walking isn’t an option as the zoo is set over a large area with different animal enclosures as you go along. The golf carts were booked out for ages so we took the bus option.

The bus trip for the four of us cast 110 THB.

The bus trip for the four of us cast 110 THB and takes about an hour to cover everything with a couple of stops along the way.

The deer enclosure.

The deer enclosure. At least they get some walking space.

Bogged.

Bogged.

Not the open plains but at least not a concrete box.

Not the open plains but at least not a concrete box.

Boring.

Boring.

In the following video this lion has a big think about whether he can be bothered to jump for the food being offered. You can almost hear him thinking “Oh God, where did I go wrong?” They are obviously well fed, which is a good thing. He does eventually work up the energy and it is worth the wait. My tip for that African safari gone wrong is don’t climb the trees with the robes wrapped around them.

One of my favourites.

One of my favourites.

Buy a bunch of small bananas for 20 THB. The girraffe wasn;t that interested, which is a good sign the animals are being well fed by the zoo.

Buy a bunch of small bananas for 20 THB. The giraffe wasn’t that interested, which is a good sign the animals are being well fed by the zoo.

There is a very limited range of animals on display on this part of the trip. Deer, two groups of lions, two tigers, emus, a zebra and a few others. At the beginning/end of the bus trip you will find a more intimate area with a few animals you can get closer to i.e. most of them won’t eat you. There are some handlers available who will get you more involved with the few animals they have here.

Ah. A sight for an ex-Aussie.

Ah. A sight for an ex-Aussie.

Maning up.

Manning up. No fear.

Peng not so much!

Peng not so much!

Cute.

Cute.

Another Aussie friend.

Another Aussie friend.

The zoo done we drove back into town and yes……another wat but a goodie. Wat Phrathat Nong Bua is correctly located in Google maps and also in my Garmin GPS, an unheard of double.

Wat Nong Bua

Highway 23 is the main highway in from the North of Isaan. Highway 231 is the ring road around Ubon. Highway 212 on the right is another road heading roughly North. It will take you to the Mekong River and the border with Laos.

If you are in Ubon this temple is worth a look. It has had a lot of money spent on it and is well maintained. Being a holiday weekend it was busy with plenty of people coming to pay their respects. This structure is called a chedi in temple terminology – a tall spire type structure usually with a small room underneath. It is a good illustration of why Thais don’t understand when we ask them for directions. We would pronounce chedi as “ch” as in church and “eddi”. In Isaan if not Thai, and the two are often different (Isaan is basically Lao), it is pronounced “j dee”. The “ch” almost becomes a “j” and the “eddi” turns into an “dee” sound.

Wat Nong Bua.

The chedi.

A larger hall to one side of the chedi.

A larger hall to one side of the chedi.

I was horrified at this guy sitting on one of the wax candle displays. It turns out these are permanent and made of concrete! Silly farang.

I was horrified at this guy sitting on one of the wax candle displays. It turns out these are permanent and made of concrete! Silly farang.

Waiting his turn for enlightenment.

Waiting his turn for enlightenment.

The structures in wat.

The structures in wat.

An impressive tower.

An impressive bell tower – the Ho Rakang according to the information above.

If you are coming to Thailand and a wat or three is on your agenda then the link HERE will tell you what (!) you are looking at.

The grand entrance to the main temple.

The grand entrance to the main temple.

Nicely done.

Nicely done.

An ornate ceiling.

An ornate ceiling.

The Buddhas up close.

The Buddhas up close.

This is the centre

This is the centre Luk or Loog Nimit (the suspended globe) with its resting place already dug out. Full description below.

The nine orbs you saw are called “loog nimit (ลูกนิมิต)”. They would be buried around the meeting hall (ubosod or โบสถ์) in 8 directions, east, west, north, south, north east, north west, southeast, southwest and the 9th one will be placed in the middle. In Buddha time, when he called for meeting of monks he would designate a place using land marks of eight items occurred in nature: a hill, a marble piece, woods, a tree, a termite hill, a path, a river and a standing water.

Over time, the meeting place have evolved into structural building and the orbs are to symbolized its boundary. They are orbs of something hard like stone or cement covered with gold leaves. When the meeting hall gets rebuilt or remodeled, the 9 orbs are also redone. It is then the opportunity for the people to make merit with donation of gold leaf and walking around the hall.

Across at the chedi the family made an offering of incense and candles out the front before walking three times clockwise around the tower.

Lighting the candles and incense.

Lighting the candles and incense.

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Circulating.

Circulating. Loved the hat.

Inside a sea of gold.

Inside a sea of gold.

A roofline that followed the chedi up.

A roofline that followed the chedi up.

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I have written about these money makers before. You select either the day, month or animal of your birth drop some coins in and an electronic Buddhist chant plays.

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This one was a little different as each month had a famous Thai temple represented including the one we were standing in!

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I had another temple on my list but the traffic and parking was awful as it was located close to the area where the candles were on display again after the day’s parade. We gave it a miss but did stop off to take some photos of the candles in both daylight and the dry.

Ubon has Bangkok style tuk tuks rather than the standard Isaan ones.

Just out of interest…or not, Ubon has Bangkok style tuk tuks rather than the standard Isaan ones, which are more openly motorbike based

Even more impressive in daylight.

Even more impressive in daylight.

I have added the remaining images into a photo gallery rather than take up more space in this long post.

Don't ask................

Don’t ask…………….

The little I saw of the countryside around Ubon seemed attractive. The fields of sugar plantings, which have taken over our part of Isaan are mostly absent here. Rice is the go from about 100 km South of Si Bun Ruang and nothing but rice. It was a landscape we normally associate with Thailand rural. The other aspect I enjoyed was that the rice paddies I saw East of Ubon where we were staying were more incorporated into the natural vegetation. Large trees had been left rather than cut down which is too often the case with the farms our way.

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The vivid green of new rice.

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Some good sized rivers here so plenty of water if no rain.

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A typical moo baan (village) set against their paddies.

A typical moo baan (village) set alongside their paddies.

More buffalo seen here too.

More buffalo seen here than back home too.

The locals thought it was hilarious when I stopped to take a photo of this interesting structure.

The locals thought it was hilarious when I stopped to take a photo of this interesting structure. Crazy farang.

We had a great time in Ubon. The festival is certainly one to see if you can. Other places such as Korat have similar events but I think the Ubon one is the biggest. We only had the two nights there and could have filled in another day.

We drove back home via the 212 towards a town on the Mekong called Mukadahan, described in Lonely Planet as “one of the region’s more humdrum towns” :-) However we turned off to the left (West) before then, through some pretty rural country before rejoining highway 23 at a place called Roi Et. On the way about 70 km out of Roi Et we spotted this chedi on a hill and decided to have a look.

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A glimpse of the chedi.

I know that I am yet again being wat obsessed but trust me this has the potential (it’s still being constructed) to become one of the most impressive temples you will see in Thailand. I will cover it with lots of photos in my next post.

Thanks for reading.