Does your dream vacation to Thailand include learning about local people and cultural traditions? Are you interested in going beyond Bangkok to see what the Thai countryside has to offer? If so, you should spend your summer vacation in Ubon Ratchathani and experience the extraordinary Candle Festival.
Ubon Ratchathani, or “Ubon” for short, is one of the four major cities of the Northeastern Region of Thailand called Isan. The city of Ubon is the capital of the province with the same name. It lies on the bank of the Mun River, which begins in Khao Yai and stretches east over 600 kilometers until it meets the Mekong River at the border between Thailand and the country of Laos.
Every summer, Ubon Ratchathani holds the Candle Festival. This event is the city’s largest event of the year and is held on Asalha Puja Day and Khao Phansa Day. Residents and visitors of Ubon spend two days enjoying dance, music, and other cultural Thai events such as Muay Thai boxing matches and theater shows. Food lovers will rejoice over the Festival’s vast array of street food and Thai snacks that can be enjoyed during each of the festival events. This year, the Candle Festival falls on the 16th and 17th of July 2019.
History of the Candle Festival
The Candle Festival is significant to Theravada Buddhism, the main religion of the country, because both Asalha Puja and Khao Phansa days revolve around the local wat or Buddhist temple.
The first day of the Candle Festival commemorates Buddha’s first sermon to five disciples in which he explained the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. The second day of Khao Phansa is the beginning of what Westerners refer to as “Buddhist Lent” or vassavasa. In actuality, this is a three-month period in which monks retreat into the temple’s living quarters and spend every day in meditation without contacting the outside world. They focus on fasting, praying, reflecting, and studying scripture. Due to Buddhist monks typically living off of donations of food and gifts gathered each morning, preparing for this retreat involves stocking up enough resources to survive the full three months without running out of supplies or stepping outside the temple gates.
Monks’ quarters are simple and many don’t have electricity. Khao Phansa offerings always include a large number of candles for nighttime in the temple. Monks can read by candlelight as well as use candles to light pathways and sanctuaries in the dark. This is how candles originally became associated with the holiday.
How Travelers Can Celebrate the Candle Festival
Travelers visiting Ubon Ratchathani during the Candle Festival are in for a burst of sound and color.
As most Thai men get ordained as a monk for a short term during their lifetime, Khao Phansa is a popular day for young monks to enter the temple. During this time, you may hear the harmonious chanting of monks throughout the town. Those who are not being ordained spend the day providing offerings and listening to sermons. Temples will be open to visitors who are free to politely observe ceremonies and activities. Remember to dress appropriately by covering your shoulders and wearing shorts or a skirt that falls below the knee.
The two-day festival marks the beginning of the Green Season in Thailand. During this time, there are city-wide events held outside of the temples where the public is invited to watch large, colorful processions before the rain begins. The parade floats are actually large figurines carved out of candle wax. The “candle” sculptures are created by skilled artists to depict Buddhist stories, and many have a garuda eagle at the bow with an intricate naga snake surrounding the float. Exhibits can be viewed at Thung Si Muang Park. Visitors can also expect plenty of traditional Thai dancing and music. As is typical on religious holidays in Southeast Asia, alcohol sales will be restricted.
Explore Ubon Ratchathani
On the Eastern Border of the country, you will arrive in Ubon by overnight train, or by flying comfortably on national carrier Thai Airways. For those on a budget, Nok Air is a great option. Once in town, you can get around by tuk-tuk, songthaew passenger pick-up trucks, bus, taxi, and even motorbike. For active travelers there are bicycle rental shops where you can rent a bike for the duration of your visit.
If you like spicy food, you’re in for a treat. Isan food, perhaps the most famous cuisine in all of Thailand, is especially delicious in Ubon. Visitors are invited to have a typical Isan meal of som tam papaya salad, grilled chicken, and sticky rice.
Are you ready to have a taste of Thailand and admire the intricate wax carvings of the Candle Festival in Ubon?
Read more on the Ubon Ratchathani Candle Festival and the extraordinary time spent there by journalist, Lavanya Sunkara, here.