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!)
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!
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.
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.
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.
As with any Thai event you can expect heaps of food places, stalls selling a range of products and loud music!
Excuse the following photos but as it was nighttime and raining it wasn’t the ideal environment.
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.
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:
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.
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.
The main attraction, if you could call it that, was inside the large public building where these cabinets were on display.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
This one was a little different as each month had a famous Thai temple represented including the one we were standing in!
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.
I have added the remaining images into a photo gallery rather than take up more space in this long post.
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.
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.
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.