The Big Candle Festival in Isaan

Since my very first visit to my local temple near Nang Rong Town in Isaan, there has always been this rickety, wooden float abandoned beneath a shelter next to the front temple hall. And it has always been a bit of an eye-sore, to be honest, where the craftsmanship looks to be no better than rubbish. Or at least this is how it was until recently, when I realised the real purpose of this float, as it was transformed for a parade to celebrate Wan Khao Phansa, also known as the beginning of Buddhist Lent in Thailand. So this celebration takes place on the day of the full moon of the eighth lunar month, which is normally in July. And in celebration of Wan Khao Phansa, many of the larger towns and cities of rural Isaan (Ubon Ratchathani being the famous example) will host a parade of giant candles through the centre of town.

The Giant Candles

From the beginning of the rainy season, the float has become a pet project at the temple, where, day-in, and day-out, the temple monks have been layering the wooden frame with thick coats of candle wax. In what seems like a never-ending project, and even at 04:00AM during the 100-day ceremony of Yai’s passing, the monks were working under bright spotlights. And I guess it gives them something to do at the temple, as so little happens otherwise on temple grounds for most of the year.

And so, day-in and day-out, the monks, along with temple helpers, have been melting big vats of old candles stumps, collected from within the temple, or donated by the surrounding villagers, before layering it to set on the frame of the giant candle. They then use simple hairdryers to make the wax soft again, allowing them to mould and create the shapes and characteristics for the final image of the float. Before sculptors are brought in to create the more intricate carvings and details of the exterior.

The Shades of Saffron

So I have been calling in at intervals through the later weeks of this project, and the hardest job actually looks like the colouring, where next to the float is a table set with mixing trays with light and dark waxes. And these will be used to create the perfect tone of saffron, a colour representative of purity and prosperity in Buddhist culture, which is important to have consistency in colouring throughout the float. So, if one tray looks to be the slightest bit off, a Gordon Ramsay-like monk will just lob it back into the VAT to start again.

So, by the end of the project, and in time for the beginning of Buddhist Lent, this ramshackle old float has been transformed into just a rather majestic giant candle. And it is now ready to be put against rivalling candles, also built at various local village temples, where it will be paraded through the town centre streets of Nang Rong. And similar candle festivals will take place throughout Isaan on the same day, to celebrate Wan Khao Phansa and the beginning of Buddhist Lent. And, given the crazy amount of time and effort put into creating these floats, the Candle Festival is seen as one of the biggest celebrations of the year.

Buddhist Lent (3 Months)

This year (2015) the big candle festival coincides with Asanha Bucha Day, another full moon celebration and significant Buddhist Day, although it’s more by coincidence when going by Lunar Calenders (I’ll share this in a later post). Otherwise we are celebrating Wan Khao Phansa, and the start of Buddhist Lent, where, for the coming 3-months, the monks will not be allowed to leave temple grounds. But many local lay Buddhists will follow suit in abstinence, as many will give up meat, or alcohol, for the same 3-month period. And Fanfan joins along by giving up alcohol, and, in return, she should get lots of good karma.

I too was invited to do join in their abstinence, but politely declined, as I have no doubt accumulated bags-full of good karma since first arriving in Broken Road. And it just felt greedy to go after more. So I left this good karma for those less fortunate folk to have (I think this is how it works). But I do make up for my lack of involvement by purchasing a couple of 3-kilogram candles, and we donate these to a far-flung Buriram temple (Wat Khao Angkhan), given donations are common during this Buddhist Lent Festival. So my karma is at least topped up for the time being.

The Temple Ceremony

The ceremonies for Buddhist Lent start the day before Wan Khao Phansa, when I wake at 05:00AM, with a killer hangover. This is because Fanfan tasked me to empty the house of alcohol the night before, and to rid of all temptations, before starting her 3-months of sobriety. And I am the perfect man for the job, to be fair, where I managed to empty the entire drinks cabinet, yet manage to wake early to support the family at the temple. As Meh and Ta would join the temple for the coming 3 months, first by spending 2 nights at the temple for Wan Khao Phansa, and then again for the regular Holy Days throughout the coming 3-months of Buddhist Lent.

So in the morning we find them at the front of the temple congregation, wearing white robes, as they take part in the usual ceremony of prayers and almsgiving. Although the ceremony does take longer than usual today, including an added hour for community representatives to drum up support for the candle parade which takes place the following day.

Wian Tian

With both Asanha Bucha Day and Wan Khao Phansa, traditionally there would have been a candle ceremony at the temple, similar to what I shared on “Big Buddha Day”. But this year it was cancelled, with the focus more on the candle parade, and the congregation has already left to follow the float, as it’s towed into town on the back of a tractor.

However, I have joined similar “Wian Tian” ceremonies before, when a candlelight procession circles the ordination hall, led by the monks of the temple. So the monks lead with candles in their hands, while the congregation follows behind with flowers, incense and candles held between their palms in prayer. The procession then circles the hall three times clockwise, in respect of Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Where Dharma is the teachings of Buddha, and the path to enlightenment. While Sangha is the community of practising Buddhists (image from Big Buddha Day below).

Wan Khao Phansa

The Big Candle Parade takes place on the official day (wan) of Khao Phansa and the first day of Buddhist Lent. Meaning the monks are no longer allowed to leave the boundaries of the temple, and they don’t actually get to see their hard work on display. Cruel, I know, but this may be for the better, as the event turns a bit “catty” with rival temples trash talking each other over loudspeakers. “Our Buddha is bigger than yours”, “Our candles were hand-carved. They used moulds”. Brutal stuff. But it is more competitive than I had expected, which is something I wouldn’t have realized were it not for Fanfan’s translations.

So each year there are three prizes up for grabs; one for the best candle, one for the best parade, and one for the most beautiful girl leading the procession. And we are there to support our own temple, which I find today is called “Wat Mai Re Rai Thong”, as I otherwise just called it “The Big Temple” until now. At least it’s the biggest in our village. So the parade starts at around 10:00AM, and it’s all over in roughly 2 hours, after following one full circle of the town centre. Which does seem rather short-lived, given the months of hard work and the preparation involved.

The Candle Parade

The big candle parade turned out to be the biggest ever event to take place in Nang Rong this year, as it really just gets bigger and bigger, year on year. So in total 10 temples take part, each with their own candle floats, and a following of local community groups and supporters. Much of our own family have roles in the parade as well, where niece Mai leads at the front wearing traditional dress, shortly followed by Meh and Ta who are seated on a stage float wearing their traditional white robes from before. Then Yai Thip struts along behind, with her granny brigade, and I do feel a bit left out of it all.

But apparently I could have been involved, and Fanfan had turned me down as a drummer for the parade, knowing she would then have to watch the parade all on her own. So I could have been the first foreigner to take part in this candle parade, at the same time, I am thankful for not being a deer in headlights as the only foreigner there. I will forever prefer watching these events from behind the sidelines. Anyway, we won, or at least our temple won, the awards for “Best Candle” and “Best Parade” for the second year running. Whoop.

A Potato in a Rice Field: These are edited excerpts from our book A Potato in a Rice Field (Chapter 87): In 2015 I spent a year living in a close-knit rural community in Northeastern Thailand (Isaan). I was based in the small village of Broken Road and ‘A Potato in a Rice Field’ chronicles my time there as I bumble through life, culture and etiquette within a strict family of tradition and Buddhist belief. Find it on Amazon here.

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