Jump into the history and evolution – and fun – of Isaan’s biggest candle festival!by Asisha Sachatheva
Ubon Ratchathani, located in Northeast Thailand (Isaan), hosts one of the country’s most celebrated festivals. As the stereotype preaches, “Isaan” people listen to Luk Thung, watch endless bouts of Muay Thai, and eat tremendously spicy food! The dominant and persistent culture transcends beyond the boundaries of the little towns of Isaan, and culminates in the now eagerly awaited Ubon Ratchathani Candle Festival, to be held on July 31.
This event – now officially called “International Wax Sculpture and Candle Procession Festival” is celebrated each year at the start of the rainy season known as “Wan Khao Phansa.” Part of the three-month Buddhist Lent, “Khao Phansa” translates to “Rain Retreat,” during which monks are expected to stop their pilgrimages for three months and stay at only one temple where they meditate, study, and pray. The Lord Buddha started this ritual of fear that monks might mistakenly stepped on crops during their daily walks.
Previously, bundles of mini candles, along with other offerings, would be given to monks. In return, monks would give blessings. Nowadays, however, candles presented to the temples are large, beautiful, and with intricate, striking carvings inspired by Hindu mythology, the Ramayana legend, or other Buddhist themes. Before they are brought to dock at various temples, a competition takes place to judge which candle is the most beautiful or unique.
Visitors to Thailand can get a glimpse of this festival on July 30-31, which includes a parade, candle contest, meditation activities, yummy foods, art shows, and a royal candle sent by His Majesty the King himself.
Although a Buddhist celebration, the event encourages the consumption of beer, spirits, and wine to kick-start the parade. Transcendent local smiles inevitably persuade tourists to join in the singing, dancing, eating, and drinking – it’s revelry for everyone on this day!
This modern version of “Wan Khao Phansa” began a little after King Rama V was crowned. His son Prince Sappasittiprasong began encouraging cooperative production of candles by villagers in each community. These candles were then decorated with detail and transported by cart to join the parade. Eventually, all the candles would be gathered in front of the town hall where the prince would give prizes to the most beautiful candles.
This annual festival brings a conglomerated experience of both the traditional and modernized side of the Buddhist culture, hence, attracting individuals from different parts of the world. Don’t miss it!
Last year, an estimated 250,000 plus visitors journeyed up to Ubon Ratchathani to witness the auspicious occasion, and all the 3,100 available hotel rooms in the city were fully booked. So, if you are planning to visit this year, book your rooms in advance!